Mantis, page 1
Thrown into the sea, his memory of the last few hours hazy but slowly returning, young Mantis decides he can’t die just yet – not before he has put up a fight and made the regime pay for killing the people he loved.
This is the story of how Mantis met Kalaes and how Mantis started his journey with the resistance, a moment which leads to certain events in Rex Equilibrium (Book Three of Elei’s Chronicles).
Author’s note: At the end of the story you can read the first scene of Rex Rising (the world where Mantis takes place).
Mantis © Copyright 2012 by Chrystalla Thoma
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, events, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Cover design by Chrystalla Thoma
Many thanks to Claire Bugler Hewitt, Arlene Webb and Jean Davis for critiquing and proofreading this story for me.
Stabs of pain in Mantis’ chest, in his arms. Cold stinging his skin. He was going down, sinking in the heaving waves.
He surfaced, gasping, then sank again. He kicked at the water, managed to take in another gulp of air, struggled to remain afloat. A wave washed over him, sucked him under. He fought it, kicking at the murky water, beat it with his hands, his lungs burning and his mouth full of salty water.
Jinsen had said you just hold your breath and you’ll float. He didn’t say anything about the impact, the sharp bite of the cold, the dark, the panic. Probably never imagined Mantis would one day be thrown off a Gultur patrol boat. Who would, back when they’d huddled around a fire in a back alley of Sikyon?
Mantis twisted in the water, fighting to rise. Dying suddenly seemed a possibility. Twelve years old, that was too young to die, wasn’t it? Fear made him struggle harder. Unless you looked death in the face, Jinsen said, you didn’t know what life looked like.
Jinsen was full of shit like that.
Brightness rolled somewhere above, and he arched toward it, flailing against the pull of the water, reaching toward the light.
He grasped the light, or thought he did, and then his head broke the surface. He opened his mouth, gasping for air, choked on the water in his lungs and started to sink once more.
Swimming’s easy, Jinsen had said. Piece of cake. He’d wring Jinsen’s scrawny little neck when he got out of the sea.
If he got out.
Sinking down into the dark, he fought with the pull of the water. The light was dwindling, and a current dragged him the gods knew where. What a way to go, in this dark, cold grave, so unlike the fires that had burned through his city — when? Flames and heat.
He thought he saw a face floating before him. Maybe he was already dead, but he felt sad, and the dead didn’t feel, did they?
His chest burned. His mouth opened in a scream and he inhaled water. His whole body spasmed, convulsing. The face faded, the current pulling him faster, reeling him like a fish on a hook, and he writhed, swallowing the sea, the salt scorching his airways.
Another convulsion and he burst to the surface. Trying to breathe and cough at the same time, kicking and waving his arms to keep afloat, he barely felt it when he bumped against something. He made a desperate grab for it, and found the pole, slippery and overgrown with seaweed. He clung to it, hacking, his lungs burning. He glanced up.
Above loomed a dark bulk that stretched into the gloom. It took him a few confused moments to realized what he was seeing. A pier! He’d reached the shore.
Heart pounding, he freed one hand and groped blindly overhead until he found the surface. He dug his fingers in a crack, threw the other hand over as well, and heaved his trembling body higher. With a groan, he pulled himself up.
He flopped onto the pier and coughed until he thought he’d spit his lungs out, and then just lay there, wrung out and empty. His body felt like one giant bruise. Sweet hells, had be made it out alive?
The sky was still dark when he sat up and glanced around. A glance around showed him no boats. Small wonder. The Gultur kept their boats mostly in enclosed marinas where nobody would steal them.
Shit, why did his arms hurt so much? And what should he do now?
He ought to go back, let his family know he was okay, let Jinsen know... He choked up again. Damn, he’d thought he’d coughed up all the water he’d swallowed. He drew a shaky breath. What he needed was a plan, a strategy, as Jinsen always said when they planned a prank, or just an escapade from their parents.
Where in the hells was he? What was this place?
Ah, yeah. Dakru. He’d heard the police say something of the sort as they dragged him, cursing and kicking, out of their aircar and into the patrol boat. Why had they dropped him in the sea? They’d caught him once before when he’d snuck into a military area and beaten the hell out of him, and they’d run after him and his buddies a few times, but they’d mostly cursed him to the lowest hell and left him alone.
He hadn’t done anything that bad to warrant such a violent reaction this time, had he?
Gathering his legs under him, wincing at the white-hot pain in his arms, he got on his feet and looked around. A town front, narrow storehouses and what looked like a police station. He cringed, freezing in the act of putting one foot in front of the other, even though, in the gray pre-dawn light, it looked closed and dark.
He hurried down the pier toward the unknown town and left the exposed sea-side road for the shadow of the alleys that twisted behind.
He moved as quickly as he could in the maze of narrow streets, wishing he had his father’s long legs — although that was all he ever wanted from the drunken bastard. He didn’t even look like him, thank the gods. Deep inside, he’d always hoped that man wasn’t his real father.
It was a small town, relatively clean and boring, with a few stores, still shuttered, a tiny square with a plaque to the Gultur fallen in the Great War. Someone had written beneath it, “good riddance”.
He frowned. The feeling he was forgetting something nagged at his mind. He looked down at his hands, his forearms, red and bleeding from several scratches. No, not scratches. Burns.
A fire. He remembered flames, and heat, and pain. A cold flare of fear went through him and his breath caught. What had Jinsen dragged him into this time? His mom always said that boy was no good, and had told him not to visit.
But Jinsen understood Mantis, listened when he needed to talk to someone about his dad and the bruises, when he needed someone to tell him everything would be okay when his mom was away working at the factory all day. Jinsen was a faithful friend, no matter what his mom said, and he only lived two blocks down together with his younger sister. Close enough Mantis could sleep over when his dad was in one of his moods, and always ready to listen and comfort.
His eyes burned and he blinked rapidly, trying to clear them. Damn his dad anyway.
A plan. Okay. He needed a way back to Kukno, either by boat or by bridge. For that he had to move to a larger place, a city.
There was a bus station just around the corner, he could see the terminal. He didn’t have a single dil on him, but that had never stopped him before. He approached the old car sitting in the yard. The driver, the first person Mantis saw since he’d been thrown into the sea, was having a smoke outside the small station building, checking something on his beeper.
“Where is this bus going?” he asked an elderly woman who sat fiddling with her bag next to him.
“To Artemisia, of course.” She gave him a reprimanding look. “Didn’t you check the sign outside?”
He shook his head.
She leaned closer, and her eyebrows drew together. “You’re dripping. If you get me wet, I’ll call the driver, do you hear?”
“I won’t.” He licked his salty, cracked lips. “Artemisia. That’s the big city port, isn’t it?”
She clucked her tongue and didn’t answer. But he thought he knew that name. The biggest eastern port. He’d find passage there.
He had to.
A creaking noise and voices woke him up. He’d dozed off despite the worry and the cold, the pain in his burned arms and the fear — fear because he couldn’t remember why he’d been thrown off the boat, why he’d been on it in the first place, and in his dreams there had been jumping flames and screams.
“Artemisia,” said the elderly lady, getting up, her disapproving glare firmly in place. “You shouldn’t travel alone at your age. The city streets are a dangerous place.”
“I know that,” he grumbled, his mind fuzzy with sleep. When he got up, he fought to stifle a groan. He felt like an aircar had run him over. “Same everywhere.”
He knew how streets were. He’d spent a big part of his life there. After school, he’d join the neighborhood kids in their wanderings and sometimes fighting. His mom rarely came home before he fell asleep.
She’d sing to him sometimes, then, and stroke his hair.
The lump was back in his throat. Gods, he missed her already. He had to hurry and go back. He’d kill Jinsen for this, he’d...
“Did you get lost?” a younger woman asked, leaning over him. She had a baby in her arms, fast asleep, wrapped in a dirty blanket.
“No, I’m just going home,” he managed and walked blindly out.
He stopped and gaped.
Living in Sikyon, suburban town of Idalia, the capital of Kukno, he thought he’d seen it all. He’d been to Idalia too, on occasion, but he’d done it with school teachers and classmates. Educational trips, they’d called them.
Gods, but Artemisia was a confusing, terrifying place. The streets were wide and full of racing aircars, pedestrians and vendors hawked their wares, and there were endless shops and squares with tall statues. The stench from the sea front and the city urinals was unbearable. Bile rose in his throat and he fought to swallow it down.
He walked down the avenue toward what he thought was the east, the port and the bridge. People jostled him on the sidewalk and threw him against storefronts and graffiti-covered walls. He felt so small he couldn’t breathe.
The crowd thinned, and he heard a rhythmic sound he recognized. Gultur patrol. Shit.
The cold fist of fear in his chest sprouted wicked claws that dug into his heart and squeezed. He knew he’d better keep walking, pretending indifference, and hoping they wouldn’t notice him, but he found his feet moving faster until he was running, breath coming in harsh little pants, and he ducked into the first alley he saw to huddle behind a dumpster.
Something was burning. Thin smoke entered his nostrils, acrid, bitter. His whole body convulsed. Fire. Bodies burning, screams, a building wreathed in huge golden flames, blinding him.
Bending over, he retched. The bile burned his throat, brought tears to his eyes. He knew with sudden, terrifying certainty that he didn’t want to remember what had happened, didn’t want to know.
He just had to find the way back, that was all, and everything would be okay. Using the wall as support, he climbed back to his feet, checked the patrol had passed and staggered back out into the avenue. Aircars zipped by, inches from his face, and he lurched back. Beggars lined the sidewalk, giving him interested looks. Scowling, he shoved his hands in his sodden pockets and walked along the avenue, shivering in the wind.
He’d barely made it ten steps when a hand grabbed his arm and jerked him into another alley. The cold barrel of a gun pressed into his cheek.
The hold of his legs was becoming uncertain. His knees wobbled. “What do you want?” he whispered, the muzzle pressing harder, pushing his words out of shape. Or was it his thoughts?
Hands patted him down, dug into his pockets, felt along the belt of his trousers. “No gun, no knife.” It was a girl’s voice. She drew back the gun. “No money either.”
A boy stepped in front of him, his curly hair an unidentifiable dark color. “What’s your name?”
The boy snickered. “Is that a real name?”
“As real as I am.” Which was debatable right now. He felt like a sickly, fading ghost.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” The boy jabbed a finger at Mantis. He had a tattoo on his cheek — a crude ship. A gang symbol. “I think he’s a nutcase, Ina.”
“Or just trying to play us,” muttered the girl. “What are you doing here, Mantis?”
“Just trying to go home.” He tried to calm his breathing, but it was getting faster, and he was light-headed. “To Kukno.”
“You’re quite a long way from home, aren’t you?” The girl came around to face him. She bore the same tattoo. Her hair was long and disheveled, a mousey brown. “How did you get here?”
You wouldn’t believe me. “Stowed away in a bus.” Jinsen always said that the best lies were part-truth. The bastard.
“To see Dakru.” Something he’d never cared for. “I heard stories.”
They laughed. Then the girl raised her gun again, all mirth leaving her eyes. “Enough crap. Are you a spy from another gang? This is our territory.”
“He’s got no tattoos, Ina,” said the boy, looking doubtful for the first time.
“They wouldn’t tat a spy, dingbat.” Ina’s lip curled. “And I don’t buy his story. Sight-seeing? That’s for the rich, stupid kids. He doesn’t look the part.”
“I say he isn’t worth worrying over,” said the boy, now sullen. “Let’s move on.”
Mantis stared at him, wondering what they did to those worth worrying over, when he caught another whiff of smoke and sourness burned the back of his throat.
“Is there a fire?” he heard his own voice, faint and seemingly from far away.
“The whole southern quarter is burning, didn’t you hear?” snapped the girl. “Gultur prevention measures.”
The air thickened and he couldn’t draw a breath. He could barely feel his legs anymore, and he listed sideways.
“Hey.” The boy grabbed his shoulder, pushed him back until he leaned against a wall. “He’s going to pass out. Shit.”
“He’s a scrawny little kid. Doesn’t look older than eleven.”
“How old are you?” the boy asked, and Mantis fought with the fog in his head to understand the question.
“I’m fifteen,” he lied, and struggled feebly against the boy’s hold. “Let me go.”
“Look at the burns on his arms. Were you in a fire, kid?”
Fire. The flames licking his skin, the smoke choking him, stinging his eyes. The whole row of buildings burning. Their apartment in a crown of flames that billowed out of every window, lighting the night. He’d slipped out in the afternoon to meet with Jinsen. But it had been early, and he’d walked around. Seen the smoke, seen the Gultur police cars arrive armed with flamethrowers and grenades.
“Oh, no.” He slid down, the whole world lurching under his feet. Mom. A pain lanced through his chest, and he through he might retch again.
“Let’s go,” Ina said, her voice coming and going like a police siren
“Then he needs help,” the boy said. “We can’t just leave him here.”
“You’re an idiot, and that’s why you don’t lead this gang. We should—” She harrumphed. “Well, look who’s here. Damn. I told you we should’ve come together with Ray, you dinghead. Let’s go!”
The boy and girl ran away, leaving him there alone, on his knees in the dirt. Their steps echoed off the walls of the alley.
Mantis looked up, his vision hazed with tears.
Four silhouettes stood at the alley mouth, the outline of guns clear and dark against the brightness of the avenue behind them.
“I told ya they’re trying to take over our territory, Kalaes,” one of them said, a girl with pigtails and a gun almost as long as her arm. She rested the barrel on her shoulder and scowled. “Sneaky bastards. Been working our streets for weeks now.”
A broad-shouldered boy with wild black hair stood next to her, a gun in each hand. He looked older than the others, maybe fourteen or so. “Hey, why don’t you look at this,” he drawled. He leaned his head back, looking at Mantis under lowered lashes. “Seems they left something behind, eh, Fran?”
“Dropped it, most likely,” the girl muttered.
“Ya think?” The boy strode over to Mantis, stood over him and pointed a gun at Mantis’ head. “What have we here? Who are you, fe?”
Mantis didn’t have the energy to speak, let alone move. He was shivering uncontrollably in his wet clothes. He had a dim idea that he should be afraid of the gun pointing at him, the gang members closing in around him, but he felt nothing. The boy had a tattoo on his cheek too — this one was three parallel lines, like black scratches. Another gang?
“A drowned rat, that’s what he is.” The girl came to stand at the boy’s shoulder. “Leave him, Kalaes. Probably one of their own.”
“He’s got no tattoo,” Kalaes said, mouth twisting in a thoughtful pout. Two thin braids swung over his left cheek, caught with metal beads. “What’s your name, boy?”
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