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from The Gods' Own by Alexis Cunningham

Copyright © 2019–2020 Alexis Cunningham

Chapter 5
Enter the Vanguard

Krystof arrived back in the city around lunch time. He flashed his credentials at the Raderi checkpoint and made his way to the Cave, otherwise known as Vanguard headquarters in the northern Rodniya suburb of the city.

             The Cave, so named because the headquarters was inside a defunct mining facility built into the side of the mountain, was an imposing place to Krystof even now, almost a year into his recruitment.

             It was remarkable to him to think that a little over thirteen months ago, Krystof had never heard of the Vanguard. He’d been a newly minted Adherent with no idea that his gift for magical healing was anything other than a perfectly normal quirk of magical talent. Yes, he’d known he had more natural aptitude than most Initiates, his soul recovered energy faster and he could give more of himself before exhaustion set in, but he’d seen no reason to wonder why. It was a good thing after all that he had a gift for healing, it simply proved he’d made the right choice dedicating himself to Dalleon.

             And yes, it was true that Krystof felt his connection to the Seraph as a visceral, tangible thing. It was true that on occasion he felt Dalleon’s touch upon him, an instinct that he must go somewhere at a particular time because some needed his help, but what difference did that make? He was a disciple of the seraph of salvation, surely all his brethren in the Dalleon seminary felt the same connection?

             It wasn’t until a call to administer aid to an elderly parishioner went very wrong that Krystof had the slightest inkling that his spiritual connection to Dalleon was of a less abstract and more absolute nature.

             Several of his Brethren had refused the call to travel to the Snacks –so named because it was a district in town often beset by phantom and feeder outbreaks. Acolyte Leminov had advised Krystof against going, warning him that often these calls were malicious attempts to lure adherents into traps where they would be set upon by those with soul sickness, or other maladies of the soul and spirit. Krystof, young and assured of Dalleon’s protection had insisted that even psychic vampires deserved Dalleon’s mercy. He would go and he would help, whomsoever needed him.

   It was a trap. He’d been set upon as soon as he left his car. His assailants had been little more than children. Krystof himself was barely twenty-two, but he’d been shocked into stupor when a thirteen year old girl had run at him, an energy whip in her hand and blood splattered over her face.

She’d been missing her left eye, the socket a swollen and reddened scabrous wound. Her skin had been grey and slick with stinking sweat. Her lips split and spattered with bloody froth. The two slightly older boys with her had been no better.

Krystof had thought they were feeders, the risen dead, until his innate sense of their souls told him they were still alive, just so thoroughly corrupted they were no better than ghouls.

They’d beat him with energy whips and every time the magic constructs had struck him he’d felt the deep bite of their soul hungry transmitted through their magic into his skin. They’d flayed his soul with every lash, intent on rendering him unconscious so they could devour his soul.

Krystof had thought he would die that day, but even above his fear for his own safety what he’d felt was a deep, agonising horror, a sympathy that had twisted like barbed wire in his heart for the kids attacking him. How, he’d wondered, how could this happen to children? Did the Voisera have no limits? Was street magic so vicious that it would corrupt children?

At the time Krystof wasn’t sure what saved him. He’d been on the ground, arms up over his head, curled into a ball as the three teenagers lashed and kicked him snarling like junkyard dogs the entire time, and then suddenly his body had been diffused with a warmth that burned his vision white. The pain and the sadness had galvanised into something hot and directed, bursting free of his soul like a concentrated beam of white light.

The next thing he knew the girl was screaming on the ground, writhing, engulfed in white light that lit up every tear and ravaged hole in her soul. Krystof had rolled to his hands and knees and gone to her. He’d reached for her hand, not thinking so much as acting on the imperative to ease her suffering.

The moment he’d touched her the white light had flowed into him, painlessly. That was when Krystof realised that somehow he’d done this. The power of his soul had engulfed his attackers like a flashfire, burning the corruption away and leaving only a shred of soul for the girl to survive and not even that for the boys.

Krystof wasn’t sure how long he’d sat there, holding the girl’s hand, willing her to keep breathing, the bodies of the two boys cooling on the ground beside his car. It was all a blur. He remembered Acolyte Leminov sitting with him in the hospital and then sometime later, back in his room at the seminary, two strangers coming to visit him. A man who had introduced himself as Dmitri –Dima --Aschenko and a foreign woman, a Kitviker, with burnished red hair and a penetrating blue-green gaze who had introduced herself as Reniah Delaney.

They had told him he was a scion, born with an innate connection to Dalleon, that his destiny was greater than he could know and that they were here to offer him a place in the Vanguard; a chance to help protect the world from the horrors that had turned three children into monsters.

It wasn’t a hard decision to make. All Krystof had ever wanted to do was help and he never wanted to lash out and hurt someone like he’d hurt those kids again.

Krystof paused in the doorway to the cafeteria, taking a breath to settle his nerves. He was out of sorts and feeling foolish, letting his mind wander. He’d been unsettled since leaving the prison. It was a relief to spot Dima and Ren sitting at one of the long tables.

Just barely remembering to load up a tray with today’...

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