The Stolen Guardian - Preview
"Attention crew," the onboard A.I. boomed over the intercom of the deep space X-Zero class plane. "Estimated time of arrival in Zyearth's atmosphere is thirty minutes, plus or minus three minutes. Please prepare for departure."
Izzy Gildspine paused on the stationary bike. With a heavy breath, she grabbed a towel, wiped the sweat from the golden brown fur on her face, and dried the thick quills on the back of her head. Ugh. Sometimes she wished she had been born a human instead of a zyfaunos. Dense fur often made exercising unbearable, and her subspecies, quilar, added to the problem with all those quills. She might as well be wearing a massive push broom on the back of her head.
The A.I.'s warning flashed in her mind. Thirty minutes. Just thirty minutes to talk to Matt before getting thrown back into their roles as Golden Guardians, third highest ranked individuals in the Defender army. Then they'd be thrust into the zero privacy that came with their rank. The moment they took their Guardian pledges, they practically became public property. Private moments were very precious.
And she had wasted two weeks of it. Why? She could have been doing something useful. Instead she had practiced lines and played through possible scenarios of her bringing up Matt's obsession with his Black Binding.
Well, she had also spent lots of time in the gym. Maybe she could just pop him one and hope it would knock some sense into him. The idiot. Why'd her partner have to be so stubborn? Though really, she should expect that. She'd known him their whole lives. One would think that'd make it easier to speak to him, but in reality, it actually made it harder. Damn him.
She dragged her leg over the stationary bike and hit the showers. She had to admit, she did look forward to getting home, despite the issues with Matt. She missed her boyfriend, Roscoe, and her regular routine. She missed the comfort of home, privacy issues or not. And she most definitely missed her oversized shower. These tiny in-flight showers just didn't cut it. She left the tiny shower box after only eight minutes and got dressed, glancing at the clock.
Twenty-two minutes. Just twenty-two minutes to talk to Matt. By Draso, she had her work cut out for her.
She kept her golden brown, catlike ears perked up, just like she rehearsed. Ears up. Fur and quills smooth. Snout relaxed. Tail perky. Black and white battle dress uniform clean and pressed. Boots neatly tied. Golden Defender pendant polished and around her neck. The perfect example of zyfaunos confidence. The perfect mask. No sense in letting the practice go to waste. She walked out into the hallway leading to the cockpit.
"Hey, there you are." Izzy turned and saw Matt walking up to her with the usual grin on his white, furry face.
Matthew Azure. Newly-inducted Golden Guardian of the Defenders of Zyearth, a title he shared with Izzy. The white, azure tipped quills running down the back of his head rustled as he walked and his black and teal battle dress uniform bore the telltale wrinkles of something slightly neglected. His cat-like ears pointed forward, perky and happy. "I wondered if you were going to join me on the bridge. You've been in the gym practically the whole trip home."
Izzy forced a smile. "I'm kind of surprised you noticed."
Matt raised an eyebrow. "Oh? Why is that?"
"Well, you've spent almost the whole trip back in the library," Izzy said, frowning. "I didn't realize you even knew what I was doing."
"Sorry," Matt said, but his lips parted in a wild grin and his eyes widened, like a child barely containing his excitement. They walked toward the bridge. "You won't believe the stuff I've found while researching. Did you know there's only a total of twelve known cases of Black Binding in Zyearth's entire written history? That's like, 13,000 years."
Izzy's left ear twitched down in irritation, but she forced it back up again. "Um, yeah, I did. You've told me probably six times on our flight home."
Matt swallowed and curled his eyebrows up. "Oh. Sorry."
"Did I tell you that out of those twelve, at least nine showed some increase in power?"
Izzy suppressed an eye roll. "Yes, you did, but--"
"Well, did I tell you that three of them actually lived longer than four hundred years?"
"Okay, did I tell you--"
Matt stopped in the hallway, both ears pasted back against his quills. He frowned.
Izzy's ears fell back too and she cursed internally. So much for the well-rehearsed start to this conversation. "Look, Matt, I know all this stuff about Black Binding is exciting, but it's getting out of hand." She lowered her gaze. "I'm worried about you."
Matt turned his head and frowned. "Sorry, Iz. I don't mean to worry you."
"I know you don't but," Izzy rubbed the fur between her eyes. "I don't understand. Why this sudden interest in Black Binding? We've always dismissed the legends about extra power and life as baseless conjecture. Why did that change?"
Matt frowned. He tilted his ears back and pulled his Gem from the metal holster at his waist. The overhead light danced rainbows through the jewel onto the plain metal walls of the hall. He ran a finger down the cut edges. The diamond-shaped, fist-sized, weighty Gem had blue trim along the edges matching the color of Matt's quills.
Izzy pressed her lips together and brushed her hand against her own brown topaz Gem resting in its holster on her belt. "I was Black Bound too, Matt," she said. "I know what you're going through."
Matt turned his head, furrowing his brow and glaring at the ceiling. "You don't know what I'm going through. You didn't bind yourself to your Gem like I did. You didn't feel that horrid black stuff from the bind ripping your lungs out and dripping down your fingers. You didn't get that excess energy draining your life away. You didn't have everyone expecting a miracle quilar at age six." He breathed sharply through his black nose. "You just went along for the ride."
Izzy winced and shut one eye. Matt was right in one sense. She didn't have the same physical experience. But she experienced the hatred and fear that average zyfaunos felt toward them. She knew the way Defenders held them up on a pedestal, expecting miracle workers before they ever left boot camp. She knew the difficulties of being Black Bound.
"That doesn't mean I'm exempt from the consequences," she said.
"It's not the same consequences."
Izzy bent her ears, furrowed her brow, and wrinkled her snout. "What do you mean it's not the same consequences? I faced the same expectations and the same disappointments during our training." She formed a fist. "After all the time we've spent together -- a lifetime, Matt -- you should know that."
Matt sighed. "I'm sorry, Iz. I don't mean to be short with you."
Izzy turned back down the hall. "Right." She perked her ears up. "I wish I knew why it bothered you so much. It never has before. What changed?"
"The last mission changed." Matt held his pendant near the scanner by the door to the bridge and it swung open. "I know we've always dismissed the rumors about Black Binding, but I'm telling you, I felt something. Something different. I have to know what it is."
Izzy took the copilot's seat. "What if it's nothing?"
Matt wrinkled his snout, but didn't respond.
"The mission really bothered you, didn't it?"
Matt's ears fell against his quills and he formed wrinkles on his forehead. "We were badly unprepared for that mission. No weapons. No real intel. No way to fight back when Fife got captured. We were lucky I'd been perfecting my wind manipulation or we might have left the planet in body bags." He turned his head. "We were lucky that the Black Binding finally gave me some extra strength."
Izzy bent both ears and frowned. Yeah. The extra power that Black Binding supposedly gave them. The rumors that both of them had always dismissed as nonsense. That's what had gotten them through it. "Right."
Matt sat in the pilot's chair and configured the plane for atmospheric flight. Various instruments lit up and tiny holograms spat information at the both of them. He inserted his Gem into the Gem slot in the central console and matched the jewel's power output with the Gem shards powering the plane.
She began her own preparations. This wasn't going as she planned. "Look, Matt--"
"Attention crew," the A.I. bellowed. "ETA to Zyearth atmosphere is sixteen minutes plus or minus two minutes. Please prepare for reentry."
Izzy gritted her teeth. Damn it all.
Matt looked up at the ceiling. "You know, Caesum, Izzy and I are the only crew on board right now. You could just say 'Guardians' or 'hey guys' or 'you over there' and we'd get the message."
The holograph projector lens overhead shifted and tiny motes of blue and purple light formed a tiny winged dragon. "It is proper military etiquette to use the term 'crew,' sir."
Matt rolled his eyes. "Stop calling me sir, Caesum. You know I hate that."
Caesum narrowed his tiny dragon eyes. "Sir, my subroutines require that I use the honorific."
"Yes, and last month I hacked your subroutines to remove that requirement," Matt said. "Admit it. You just like using it."
The holographic dragon huffed rainbow smoke from his nose. "Some of us respect proper military protocol, sir."
"Thankfully, I'm not one of them." Matt grinned.
Caesum snorted fire. "If your grandfather or father were here--"
"Well, they're not," Matt snapped, all signs of jest gone from his face. "They're dead. Dead because they chose to follow military protocol to the letter. Dead for following exact orders and not thinking outside the box."
Caesum's hologram shrank and he paused before answering. "Yes, sir."
"Don't bring them up again."
"Yes, sir." Caesum disappeared.
Matt rubbed the fur between his eyes and sighed. "Damn A.I." He turned to Izzy. "Did you say something, Iz?"
Izzy's quills bristled down the back of her head and she pasted her ears back. Her rehearsal meant nothing and she had gotten nowhere. Soon they'd hit Zyearth's atmosphere and she'd lose this private moment. But what else could she say? "No, it's nothing. Don't worry about it."
Matt shrugged. "If you say so. Let's get this bucket home."
Izzy activated the outer hull shields and two thick slabs of metal covered the glass windshield. She pressed her back to the seat just before the plane entered the atmosphere. The plane shook as Matt kept her steady, but after a few agonizing minutes, the outer shields pulled back and the two Guardians got a full view of Zyearth.
The lower atmosphere clouds parted in front of their plane, revealing their first sight of the Defender Academy and the towering buildings of the campus. A dozen tall glass and metal structures peppered the southwest corner of the Yelar peninsula, casting heavy, dark shadows over the beach cliffs lining the channel of water between the peninsula and the surrounding islands. A thick pine forest lined the east edge of campus, housing Solek's Clearing and the main road leading to Yelar's capital city, Corinth. Corinth lay north, a hundred miles or more out of sight.
Matt grinned. "Home, sweet, home."
Izzy smiled, surveying the Academy. Privacy or not, Black Bound or not, this was home, as it always had been since she arrived here at the tender age of four. Though she and Matt had only recently been inducted into the Guardianship, she grew up roaming the halls and watching the Defenders train, knowing she'd be one of them someday.
"Hey, Izzy, what's that?" Matt raised an eyebrow and pointed off shore.
Izzy followed his finger. A bright haze gathered over a small forested island, several miles to the east of the Academy, an island they would have to fly over to get to the hangar. Three burning beams of light flowed over a small part near the center of the island. It was like the northern lights of the poles, but they were too bright and the colors weren't right. One black, lined with white like a negative film strip, one blue, one white. They moved slowly, deliberately, weaving intricate patterns in the air, almost as if they were sentient.
Izzy tilted the corner of her mouth and frowned. What was that?
Matt tilted the controls and the plane drifted toward the island. "Home can wait. Let's take a look. See if you can rouse up Control. I'm surprised they haven't contacted us yet."
"Good point." Izzy danced her hand across the controls and activated communications. "Vormund to Control, do you read?"
Static. Matt frowned. "That can't be good."
Izzy knitted her eyebrows and increased the signal's range. "TRSV Vormund to Control, over? We're on our final approach and requesting permission to land."
"TR--mund, do not---island---traffic---"
"What the hell? What are they saying?"
"I don't know. I can't boost the signal anymore." Izzy pressed a button. "Cannot confirm, Control, you're breaking up."
"This is pointless," Izzy growled.
"Hey, Izzy, something's happening on the island."
Izzy looked up. The mist bulged on one side and started growing. Izzy narrowed her eyes, perplexed.
"Do---not---island---dangerous---" Control crackled over the speakers.
Izzy's ears perked and her fur stood on end. "Did they say dangerous?"
Then the bulging mist exploded and burst from the island. It slammed into the X-Zero and it shook violently. Izzy grabbed the edge of her seat. Alarms and sirens blared in her ears. The plane tilted toward the island as Matt wrestled with controls. Sparks shot from the control panel and smoke poured into the cockpit, burning Izzy's nose.
Izzy coughed. "What the hell was that?"
"I don't know, but it took out the left engine and more subsystems than I can count!" Matt pulled hard on the flight stick, but the plane refused to respond. "We're going down!"
Izzy hunkered down into her seat. The smoke made thinking hard. She made a mental check list. Fire extinguisher in the back, first aid kit under her seat, count passengers. Keep your seatbelt on, make yourself small, put your tray in the upright position, no, that was for commercial flights--
The island grew larger in their plane's windshield.
"Hold on!" Matt shouted.
Then everything went black.