Book: 5-2: Combat Gambling

By: Vota of Abuido

Date: 21 AP

Context: The following is an excerpt from Vota of Abuido’s personal journal. Vota was a traveling cirathan merchant who would go on to become the richest, and most influential, man in the Pel League

Finally got out of that forest today.

I swear, I’m never leaving the road to chase after a rabbit again, I don’t care how hungry I get.

Walked an hour along the road, my backpack strap broke twice. The repairs are getting less effective.

I saw a city a few miles in the distance. Decent size, built on the far side of a river, no walls, a wide stone bridge, later learned it’s called Legurid.

There was some big commotion in the grassy field on my side of the river.

I quickly checked my wallet only to find I had just three coins to my name. I didn’t lose any when I went tumbling off that cliff, not that the loss of three coins would make a difference. The hunger pains shot from my gut up into my chest, but I had a backpack full of crap, a winning smile, and I knew I could sell enough to buy a meal.

I hurried into the commotion. It was a donut arrangement of stalls and vendors, with hundreds of cirathans bartering their goods around, coins clinking around in pouches. Everyone was a cirathan, and while a lot of them seemed to be travelers like me, it seemed like most were locals to the nearby city. As I looked around, I noticed that all the locals have at least one article of clothing that’s colored green, while the travelers have at least one which is blue. They never wear both, and the vendors are wearing neither. This makes me stand out since my tattered clothes are a hodge podge of whatever fabrics I’ve been able to scrounge together. Each stall has tarps set up to block out the sun, and there’s a crisscrossing network of triangular blue and green flags hanging overhead.

Heading deeper into the donut of stalls, I realized that they’ve all been set up around a large, empty field that’s been sectioned off with a hastily erected wood fence. The inside field must be at least 50 feet in diameter, with nothing but slightly overgrown grass, and a few natural bumps and divots in the landscape.

As I looked around the commotion, I eventually saw one of them on the other side of the field. Super tall, muscles like a horse, brown hair, small eyes, and his ears were long and pointed.

“Is that… what a peldak looks like?”

Then some guy came up to me, “first time seeing one, kid?” The cirathan who approached was a bit fat in the gut and face, but he looked kind enough. He wore a green sash around his left bicep.

“Yeah, I’ve only heard of them. Aliens, right?”

“That they are. I hear they came from some distant land beyond the stars. Weirdos, the lot of them, but they’re good people. So, green or blue?”

I looked up at him. His smiling face told me he knew that I had no idea what that meant. I made an obvious gesture of looking to his sash, “uhh,” then I turned back to look at his face, “green.”

“Haha! Smart kid. Now run along and enjoy the war.” Then he just left, as if that explained anything.

“The… what?”

I decided to just ignore it. My goal was to get something to eat.

Found a nice spot on the grass, dropped my backpack, unfurled my rug, then arranged all my garbage out for the people to enjoy. Through a combination of my age, disheveled appearance, natural charm, and wit, I ended up selling almost everything.

[In the original journal, Vota included an itemized list of 47 wares and how much he sold it for]

Made a small profit. Almost made it worth trekking through the forest for so long.

At one point in the middle of my borderline theft, one of those peldaks came up to me. I stood to greet her.

“Hey,” she said, leaning forward with her hands on her knees. Even when crouched down, she still towered over me, what a monster.


She smiled, then pointed to an item on my rug, “what that?” She had a heavy accent and wasn’t very fluent in Cirathan Standard.

“Uh, it’s a roll of fabric. I’ve no idea what kind, but it’s soft to the touch.” I picked it up and held it out for her. Usually I’d have made up some story about how she simply MUST buy it, but the height difference caught me off guard.

She ran her hand along the roll, “ooh! Very soft! I like, how much?”

I raised an eyebrow, “how much do you have?”

“Nothing yet!” She said proudly.

“Then… I can’t sell it to you.”

“How much?”

“That… you don’t have any money, so that’s irrelevant.”

She suddenly pouted, then pointed to the fenced-off field behind her. “I fight-,” she paused for a second, then started speaking slower. “I am going to fight. I will win. I will then have money to buy… soft… thing. Understand, gold?”

“You’ll be paid in gold?”

She looked annoyed, mumbled something in her alien language, then reached out and gripped a strand of my hair. “Gold! Goldy.” Her face crumbled as she realized I hadn’t washed my hair in some time. “Dirty, goldy hair.”

“Oh, so you were just making fun of me.”

She nodded fiercely, then wiped her fingers on her pants.

“Well, fine, I won’t sell it until you’re done with your fight. So, you’ll be in the war, I guess?”

She suddenly stood tall, placing a hand on her chest, “peldak mercenary! Peldak want military base in Pel League. Green want base in territory. Blue want base in territory. Who win war decide where base go.”

“Huh,” I grabbed my chin in thought. “A peldak military base would mean peldak travelers, and they’d obviously bring stuff with them. That’d make it easier to trade with these aliens. Yeah, I can see why both sides would want the base closer to their territory.” I looked up at the woman, and she had a blank look on her face, her ears up and alert, staring at me. I think I was talking too fast, so she was patiently waiting for me to finish.


I flash a nice smile, “I’ll save this fabric for you, good luck in the war.”

She bounced back, “thank you! My name Ilona, watch fight close.” She suddenly let off a toothy grin, “it be blood bath.”

Then she reached forward and ruffled my hair. Her right cheek twitched a little, a disgusted reaction from feeling the thick layer of grim on my hair. Still, after she ran off, she politely waited until she thought she was out of sight before rubbing her hand on the back of someone’s green shirt.

I continued to sell my worthless knick-knacks until it was just the roll of fabric left, then I packed up my spot and went to find a food vendor.

By my estimations, factoring in how much money I needed to save for buying more products in the city, and assuming I slept outside rather than getting a room at an inn, I had about 6 meals worth of money saved up. 12 days worth of food, if I don’t mind going a little hungry. Assuming I don’t get lost again, that’s more than enough time to buy some goods, find a new city, then offload all the crap I buy.

Around when I started eating, a voice boomed through the field, “the first battle is about to take place! The betting is now closed!”

I perked up a that, “betting? For money? What?”

“The peldak mercenaries are now entering the warzone!”

Grabbing my food, I followed the crowd and went to the fenced-off field. I pushed my way to the front, then sat down, leaning against the wooden stakes to continue my meal.

There were two peldak men out there, and a cirathan girl standing in front of a large wheel. The wheel had a lot of words on it, but nothing I knew how to read.

“First!” She said, “let’s find out what the rules of the battle will be.” She walked to one side, grabbed the spokes of the wheel, then spun it with all her might.

The crowd around me speculated on what it would land on, and who’d have the advantage in that case.

“It’s spinning that fast… it’s losing speed that quickly… It’ll land on whatever that section says.”

Sure enough, about 10 seconds later, it landed right where I knew it would. “And there it is!” The girl yells with a delightful smile. “The first battle will be a bare knuckle brawl!” With that, the girl backed up and let the two men stretch and set up for the fight.

One peldak wore green pants, the other wore blue. Both were shirtless, and their muscles were insane. The veins bulged under their pale skin, their backs rippled with so much hardened flesh that I couldn’t even see where their shoulder blades were. Their biceps were far thicker than my skull.

When I looked to their faces though, I knew green would win. Both looked confident, but green had this sort of fierceness in his grey eyes, while blue looked too relaxed. Maybe blue was overconfident, but as I took a closer look, I realized green was maybe an inch smaller, and had a bit less muscle. Hardly noticeable, but the difference was there. It didn’t change my opinion though, green would win.

The woman blew a whistle, then the battle started.

The pounding of flesh against flesh, the savagery of two men stepping forward and wildly throwing their fists around and hoping something would connect. No strategy, no finesse, just pure strength as two giants laid into each other. The crowd cheered for their chosen fighter, and I couldn’t believe that anyone alive could take such punishment. Each punch looked like it could break stone, let alone a man’s bones.

The chest, gut, face, colliding knuckles, their skin turned red under their opponent’s assault, then began to swell and bruise. Despite it, neither man retreated, or showed any sign of stopping.

Blue, who had the slight edge in height and muscle mass, began to push his opponent back. It was slow and subtle, I only noticed after glancing at green’s feet and seeing how dirt piled up at his heels: a result of sliding.

I thought for just a moment that maybe I picked the wrong fighter, that green would lose.

But then green brought his hind leg around and smashed the ball of his foot into the side of blue’s head. Blue’s head whipped around, the light from his eyes gone, and he fell limp to the ground.

As green, sweaty and bruised, raised his fists in victory, a bit more than half the crowd started booing. Maybe 70% of them booed, even though most of them were wearing that color.

“Bah!” A man in a green hat hissed, “I knew I shouldn’t have bet on blue. I could have sworn he would win though.”

I grabbed my chin, “so despite supporting one team or another, people just bet on who they think will win? But it was so obvious that green was the better choice! I wish I bet… Wait, when does betting for the next round end?”

Green shambled over to the left side of the fenced-off arena, embracing his fellow green-wearing peldaks. Five cirathans were needed to carry blue to the right side, where the rest of the blue-clad peldaks eagerly awaited revenge. Among their numbers, which were a few dozen, Ilona hopped the fence and walked out. Opposite her, from the green side, a man stepped out. He was shirtless, she wore blue pants and a tight blue shirt that only covered a strip across her chest.

“Pfft, poor girl’s gonna get herself killed,” a man said.

“Well I dunno, she looks feisty, she could probably put up a good fight.”

As the two approached, I analyzed every last detail. Their walks, their faces, how much their feet sunk into the dirt. While the man had nearly half a foot on Ilona and was clearly bulkier, their footsteps seemed comparable. It was as if they were the same weight, like she was just denser. Plus, her legs were noticeably thicker, and she had more faint scars around her body than him, so I think she’s been in more fights.

I reached into my backpack and pulled out the roll of fabric, then held it between the bars of the fence.

Ilona immediately glanced over, then flashed a hard smile. In her small eyes, I saw absolute confidence in her victory. She’d win, and it’d be a splendid show for everyone.

With that, I shoved the fabric roll into my backpack and took off. Sprinting through the market, I found the betting station, “can I still bet on the next match?!” I slammed all my coins down, “on blue girl! Ilona! All on her!”

The man behind the wood counter glanced down at me, “are you old enough to gamble?”

“I’m old enough to have a job as a traveling merchant, now accept my bet before it’s too late!”

He shrugged and did as he was told, handing me a ticket with my bet information.

Holding the small ticket tight between my fingers so it didn’t flutter away in the breeze, my skin went cold. As I stated at it, a tightness spread in my gut, far worse than even the most severe hunger pains.

What did I just do? In my hands sat a scrap of paper that represented all of my accumulated wealth. If Ilona lost the fight… that’d be it for me. I’d be starting over from square one, everything I worked for would be over, assuming I could even survive long enough to try again.

My body wouldn’t stop shaking, and I hurried back to the arena so I could at least watch my fate play out. The wheel landed on something in their alien language just as I returned. “The match is zemsta!” The girl yelled, and I’m still not entirely sure what that means.

The two fighters got into a deep stance, their left foot forward, then extended their right arms, grasping their hands tight.

Then, the cirathan girl blew her whistle.

Nothing happened on the surface.

But I, and most in attendance, were in absolute awe.

It looked like they were just standing there, but the was a subtle shifting of their weights, a flexing and relaxing of individual muscles, a visible tightness of their grips and brows. No part of their body moved more than a few centimeters, but it was a complex tug of war using each strand of muscle in their bodies.

All within the span of a second, she flexed her abs, which made him tighten his shoulders, then she flexed her bicep, his jaw shifted, her toes dug into the dirt, then his butt clenched. It just kept going and going, never losing this intensity for even a moment. A constant back and forth, a treat for the eyes. They seemed evenly matched. My large eyes told me that, in this game of subtlety, neither of them could afford grandiose moves like throwing a punch or a kick. They needed an advantage first.

Some cirathans thought the display was boring, or they wondered when the fight would start, but that minority must have been blind. Of all the matches I saw that day, this was the only one which displayed complete mastery over their muscles.

They even started sweating, and the weight of each bead of sweat actually impacted their reactions! That’s how finely-tuned each motion was.

I don’t know enough about zemsta to understand the fine techniques, but I know it was beautiful.

It ended in just half a minute.

Despair lined the man’s face, and victory belonged to Ilona. Less than a second after the man’s face soured, she seized the opportunity and yanked her arm back. He was sent face-first into the grass, too exhausted to get up. I was the first to clap, but everyone started cheering no matter what outcome they bet for, that’s how much of a visual treat it was.

Ilona fell to her butt not long after, sweating and panting like a dog. Both fighters needed a team of cirathans to help walk them out of the arena.

Though great as it was, I won a bet. I ran back to the betting counter, my plan being to collect that money, then continually re-bet everything to get higher and higher payouts. Sadly, I was denied. Apparently, every fight needs to happen first, then you can collect your gambling wins.

Sucks, but oh well. I watched the rest of the fights, and I’m surprisingly good at picking out victors. It was so easy to tell who was going to win that I genuinely don’t know how anyone could get it wrong. In fact, after Ilona, drenched with sweat and out of breath, came over to buy the roll of fabric, I immediately went back to the gambling counter and bet on the next fight. I won, of course, then spent the rest of the ‘war’ checking my pockets every few minutes to make sure I didn’t lose my tickets.

Ilona fought a few more times.

The rules of these peldak wars is that, if the peldak wins their match, they can fight again. If they lose, they’re disqualified for the rest of the war. The green and blue teams will continue their matches until one side is out of usable fighters. So if green has 10 fighters, and blue has 1, but blue wins 10 matches in a row, then blue wins. In the same scenario, if green loses 9 matches in a row, but then wins the last match, then green will win the overall war since blue’s only fighter is disqualified.

Sadly, Ilona didn’t get zemsta again, and the other zemsta matches weren’t as interesting. She won twice more, but then ended up losing her fourth match due to exhaustion. I like her, but on that match I would have bet against her if I could. She was so bruised and tired that it was obvious she couldn’t win.

In the end, the greens won the war. The peldak military base will be built in the territory of this city.

But more importantly, I got a lot of money.

A shockingly large amount of money.

I got more profit from just two bets than I did from my last three rounds of merchant sales combined.

It makes me wonder; do I have a knack for gambling? I’m not particularly attracted to the traveling merchant lifestyle, I just like money. If I could consistently earn more from gambling, then I see no reason not to lean into this talent.

I caught up with Ilona just as her group was about to leave for another city. The suns were setting and most of the blue team were limping, with those who couldn’t walk being carried away on wooden carts pulled by some strange, giant birds. “Hey!” I yelled.

She turned to me, the left side of her face bruised and swollen, “wha-? Oh! Gold boy!” She slurred her words a little.

“You said you’re a mercenary, right? Are you going to take part in another war?”

“Yes! Soon,” she said with an eager smile. Though the side of her face was all swollen, she wasn’t missing any teeth. “War common. Also guard caravan. Better no combat rules, kill bandits.”

“Where will the next war be?”

She stared at me blankly for a second, “Ciratha!”

“The… the planet we’re on..?”

She gave a nod full of undeserved pride, then reached down to ruffle my hair. Her knuckles were busted and the bandages wrapped around her hands were damp with blood. A lot of red was smeared on my golden hair, and I recoiled under her touch. “Watch again! Promise team win war next time.”

With that, she turned and followed her caravan into the horizon.

I might have to seriously consider following these peldaks around and betting on their wars. Forget the traveling merchant life, that sucks. This is where the real coin is at!  So long as I can get a good look at the fighters before the match starts, I can win.

But that’s a problem for later.

With all this extra money, I went into the city and bought a room at an inn. The inn came with a dedicated bath, which was obviously essential at this point.

But I haven’t slept in a bed for so long!

Book 5-1: Resolution on the Cessation of Brother Wars

By: Peldak Senate

Date: 19 AP

Peldaks are born and bred to fight. This simple reality was proven long before records began, and has been continually reinforced over our long history.

Most of us release our aggression through enlisting in the military, entering the arenas, or through contact sports. The occasional brawl, which have even been known to break out on the Senate floor during particularly heated debates, are yet another accepted, if not exactly desired, outlet for peldak violence.

But in the years following the sayran’s uplifting of our people, the Senate has observed a popular new trend among our kind: Mercenary work.

It comes as no surprise that the weaker races -the cirathans and monsoorai- would seek the aid of refined peldak muscle. It even makes a certain kind of sense for peldaks to sell their martial skill in the pursuit for adventure and profit. Should the peldak in question conduct himself with the honor and courage expected of one sharing our blood, mercenary work can even be a positive experience.

But the morality of mercenary work is different from that of a soldier. In past millennia, conflict was simple. If you fought for Pelda and the Army of Light, you were good. If you fought against us, you were bad. Cut and dry, easy for the layman to understand, no need for complicated thinking.

To these aliens, not all wars are black and white.

Say two groups of aliens wage war over shipping rights. Who’s the villain? Who’s in the right? It’s a conflict of interests, one that has no connection to the peldaks. Being employed by either side is valid, so long as they’re willing to abide by basic morality.

Which leaves a rather large question. If each side of a conflict is valid, and there’s so many peldaks looking for mercenary work, then what happens if two peldaks find themselves on opposing sides? The answer, as we’ve observed time and again these past two decades, is that they’ll inevitably start trying to kill each other. The added pressure of wanting to show off in front of aliens means they won’t stop fighting until one side is dead, though we’ve seen plenty of cases where everyone eventually expires from their wounds.

This is unacceptable; a complete waste of peldak life. Compared to the lifespan of aliens, our numbers aren’t so easily replaced. We can’t afford to waste lives in conflicts that don’t matter to us or our interests.

The Peldak Senate has therefore adopted this resolution: The Cessation of Brother Wars.


Provision 1: The Senate, supported by the Lord Protector, hereby recognizes the cirathan customs union known as the Pel League, and the monsoorai state of Asean, as allies. They are a natural extension of Pelda’s influence.

Provision 2: Any peldak hired as a mercenary working against the interests of Pelda, or her natural allies, will be declared an enemy of the state, and their rights under civil law will be forfeited.

Provision 3: Mercenary work under Pelda’s natural allies, and in conflicts where neither side are our allies (AKA: third party conflicts), carry no such restrictions and are to be encouraged. As foreign policy is the sole domain of the Lord Protector, the Senate endorses neither side of third party conflicts.

Provision 4: Should peldak mercenaries find themselves on opposing sides of a conflict, killing will be considered a crime no different than if it occurred on the streets of Pelda. Upon the murderer’s return to peldak territory, the appropriate fines and punishments will be leveled against the murderer. Conditions such as self-defense and accidents will be considered just as any normal murder trial would.

Provision 5: Killing will only be a crime if committed against a brother or sister peldak. Aliens do not apply to this resolution. Executing unarmed or defeated foes, and abusing civilians, are still punishable offenses under peldak civil law.

Provision 6: If two peldak mercenaries meet on opposite sides of a conflict, it is not the expectation of this Senate that the two should abandon their contracts and leave the battle, nor do we expect the peldaks to ignore each other and slaughter their alien opponents. Instead, the two will engage in an ordered, controlled, non-lethal duel. Any duel described in the peldak duel code is acceptable, and the defeated party is honor-bound to accept the results. There are over 40 authorized duel formats detailed in the peldak duel code, each with their own specific rules and conditions for victory. The linking commonality is that none of them will result in death or disfigurement of the participants.

Provision 7: Should the victor engage in behavior that violates civil or moral law (such as attacking non-combatants), the results of the duel become void. The defeated party would have an obligation to stop that behavior, even if he must kill the victor to do so.

Provision 8: Cirathans are cowards and lose heart quickly. After a duel, the victorious peldak must immediately offer the defeated party’s cirathan allies a chance to surrender. If any manage to find their spine long enough to refuse, they become combatants. Monsoorai are not subject to this provision as their culture forbids surrender, and are therefore unlikely to accept.

Provision 9: If, somehow, on the rare occasion, the stars align and a peldak mercenary is losing a fight against alien soldiers and is at risk of being killed, the peldak mercenary on the opposing side is not required to step in and help him. Should a peldak die by alien hands, the opposing peldak is not legally or morally responsible for his death.

Provision 10: The Senate will send copies of this resolution to alien states so they may understand the rules associated with hiring peldak mercenaries. They will never find a stronger warrior, but that strength becomes irrelevant if he happens to come across a rival peldak and loses a duel.  Should a peldak mercenary abide by this resolution, and then be killed or harmed by his employer in retaliation, the Lord Protector will consider that an act of war against Pelda.


Finding a loophole in the exact wording of this resolution will not be considered a valid defense in court. The sentiment behind this resolution is to save peldak lives while not putting too many restrictions on mercenary activities.

The spirit of the law matters more than the letter of the law. Do not listen to alien voices, especially cirathan ones, attempting to convince you of working against your common sense.

God bless.

Street To Street: Epilogue

For the next few weeks, our group is sent from military base, to city, to port, to island. It’s clear nobody has any idea what to do with us, or the tens of thousands of people who escaped Mae Hiarin. The Protectorate bungled every stage of this, from now, all the way back to when the gurant first landed on Monsoo.

The only positive I can say is that we’re given medical care, and just enough food to survive. I know all the worlds of the Protectorate are dealing with their own problems, but you’d think the planet responsible for building their warships would get special attention…

Regardless, in these weeks of being passed around, I and the other men who held off the empire become fast friends. We ask around for the names of those eight who died in the battle, and our refugee group holds a proper funeral service. With so much spare time on our hands, we even build a monument on a small, deserted island off the coast of Neapet’s naval base. A simple pillar made of stone, etched with all our names.

Sopa manages to make friends with some of the other kids in our group, and Tanawat is always dragged along with her. I have no proof of this, but I swear Sopa knows that his parents are dead, and she’s doing her best to keep his mind off things.

As for me, my body still hurts. Despite the medical attention, I’m not healing as fast as I used to, but I’m only 30! I shouldn’t be that old yet… Maybe I got more hurt than I thought. The ringing in my ears hasn’t fully left yet, I’m walking with a slight limp, and there’s a large bruise on my chest from where the bullet smashed into my vest.

After a month of being passed around, the Protectorate releases a proper response to the refugee crisis.

Step one is to reunite families. To do this, they set aside 26 locations, which are military bases, ports, stadiums, things like that. Each location was designated a letter from the Cirathan Standard alphabet. There are dozens of dialects and variations of the monsoorai language, so using Cirathan Standard puts everyone on the same level. Then, the Protectorate provided a detailed list of exactly how everyone should travel to these locations to reunite with their loved ones.

Children are sent to the location that shares the first letter of their first name, and they stay there. Sopa would go to the ‘S’ location, Chalerm to ‘C’. The father then travels and collects their children one by one in alphabetical order. The mother should find the child with the last alphabetical name, then wait for the husband to collect them both. That is unless she’s already with a child, in which case she is to reach the location corresponding with that child’s first name, then wait there.

Natcha is with Chalerm, so they’ll be heading to location C, then they’ll wait for me to arrive. If I don’t arrive in 15 days, she is to assume I’m dead, then head to location S to find Sopa. Given how close the locations are, and that travel is provided by the Protectorate, 15 days is more than enough time.

The Protectorate’s plan also explains what grandparents, siblings, cousins, tourists, and orphans should do. Natcha and I had no extended family in Mae Hiarin, so we’re ignoring those provisions.

Going along with this guide, Sopa, Tanawat and I say farewell to our new friends and travel to location C.

Following a simple ride along crystal clear waters, we arrive at a large luxury port which would normally house dozens of cruise ships. The air is clean, the wind is warm and pleasant, the sun is shining to make way for our reunion. There are a few multi-story administrative buildings and warehouses around the port, but their normal functions have been shut down for the time being. The ships which would normally be docked have left, and there’s a vast sea of tents providing food, medical attention, and shelter.

The refugee camp is so vast that it’d be a waste of time to try and find Natcha ourselves, so we wait in the large line heading into the main building. We need to register with the port authority so they can arrange our reunion with Natcha and Chalerm, assuming they’ve already arrived.

The port is bustling with barely controlled chaos. A roar of activity, only kept in line by the sheer number of peldak and monsoorai troops on patrol. Despite their repeated failures, I’m actually put at ease with their presence. I still keep Sopa and Tanawat close at all times, but if, God forbid, something were to happen, I feel like the soldiers could actually protect us this time.

A soldier even goes down the line with a crate of food and gives us all a snack.

When we finally reach one of the registration clerks, we have to speak over the roar of the crowd behind us. She asks for my child’s name, then looks through a large stack of files and paperwork. It’s all in alphabetical order, so it doesn’t take long to confirm that, at this port, there is a 31-year-old woman named Natcha, and a 10-year-old boy named Chalerm, who are waiting for a man named Gamon and a girl named Sopa. The relief washes over me, not much longer until we’re all together.

The clerk then looks down at Tanawat with an eyebrow raised. “Your wife didn’t mention waiting for a son.”

“Hm? O-oh, no, we’re not related.”

Sopa speaks up, “Tanny’s my husband! We’re taking care of him until we find his parents.”

The clerk narrows her brow, and I lean forward on the desk and correct that. I keep my voice low, so Tanawat doesn’t hear. “Actually, when I found my daughter, he was with her. His mom and dad are dead, and I haven’t figured out how to break it to him yet. It was either leave him in the city or take him, and I don’t know if he has any other family.”

“Hmm,” she nods. “I’m going to need you three to follow these Protectorate marshals. We know that things were crazy out there and situations like this happen, but understand that we can’t ignore the increased risk of abductions and trafficking. We need to make sure it’s as you say.”

That’s a bit annoying, but we have to deal with it. I’m taken to a room on the second floor of the port authority building. There’s a large window, and a great view of the harbor outside. Such a vast crowd, with so many tents. I think there’s an anti-Protectorate protest going on just outside one of the gates to the port. Based on what I’ve been hearing, a lot of people across the planet are outraged at how they let the city fall. But the protesters part long enough for a truck carrying blankets and baby formula to get through, so that warms my heart.

Soon enough, a marshal and a cirathan come to interview me. The marshal is a large peldak man who’s memorized every law of every planet in the Protectorate. The cirathan is a woman with large golden eyes who can see when I’m lying.

The interview takes about 30 minutes, and I answer dozens of their questions. Everything about my relationship with Tanawat, how I found him, what I was doing in the city, no detail spared. I’ve learned throughout my time in the shipbuilding sector that you can’t lie to a cirathan, so I’m as honest as possible.

“I had no idea who he was until that night,” I say as calmly as possible. I’m outwardly composed, but she can tell that I’m a little nervous.

“But you said your daughter has a crush on him. You don’t know the boy your daughter is in love with?” She says, eyes open wide and staring into my soul.

“I… believe I’ve mentioned that I haven’t been a great father. That’s changed since we left, I promise.”

She taps a pen on the desk, an action meant to annoy me so she can see how I’ll react. I think she realizes I know why she’s doing it, so she stops a moment later. She then smiles, so I think she knows that I know why she stopped. “Do you have any plans to find young Tanawat’s extended family?”

“I plan to find my wife and let her decide what’s best. I, uh, didn’t even tell him that his parents are dead, so…”

“Hmm…” She leans forward a little, eyeing me up and down. “When I talked to the children, separately, they told the same story. They were playing at young Tanawat’s house, things happened, then they had to hide in the closet. Your daughter was the one who made them wait. Your story matches with theirs, and I saw that they hold a great deal of love and respect for you.”

I can’t help but smile. They do?

“Aww, and how can I think a man who smiles so embarrassingly has any ill intent?”

“I-I was smiling?”

“Well, your heart was. Anyway, your story checks out.” She gestures to the marshal, who comes forward and hands me a bracelet. It has my name and Tanawat’s name written on the inside. “You’ll be provided matching bracelets to ease any future confusions, and when you’re done collecting your family, you’ll be sent to location T. You’ll wait there in case anyone comes for the young man.”

I put the bracelet on, “and if nobody does?”

She shrugs, “it’ll be out of our hands. Adopt him, arrange a marriage with your daughter, send him to an orphanage, do whatever you want so long as it’s legal. You’re his guardian until extended family picks him up. If he has no extended family, then you’ll stay as his guardian.”

The marshal speaks up, “we work for the Protectorate. Our authority on this matter only exists insofar as there’s an emergency. Child services fall under monsoorai jurisdiction, and your kind gets uppity when we try to step in.”

Then that’s all there is to it. If nobody shows up to location T, he’ll be my responsibility.

With that, I’m finally let out of the room, and I’m quickly reunited with Sopa and Tanawat. “Aww,” she pouts, “how come I don’t have a matching bracelet?” I don’t know how to tell her what it’s for.

After that, the staff sends us to the building on pier 11. We’ll wait there until they can collect Natcha and Chalerm and send them over to meet us.

The building is a luxury waiting room as cruise passengers wait until they can board. It’s a rotunda with beautiful white stone walls, and a domed glass ceiling that shows off the bright blue sky. The kids and I sit on one of the benches around the walls of the room, with three other families waiting as well. There’s soil beds placed around the floor, with plants left to grow and coil up the walls towards the sun. The vines feature beautiful pink flowers every few inches. There’s a large fountain in the center, with a statue of a mermaid holding a bucket over her head as water cascades down her body. She wears a plain, featureless mask. I recognize it from a bedtime story my mom used to tell me.

I tell the story to the kids as we wait for Natcha and Chalerm.

Basically, a fisherman caught a beautiful mermaid in his net, and she wore a mask. He invited her back home and the two lived peacefully, loving each other very much. But one day the fisherman got curious and wanted to see how she looked behind the mask, so he took it off as she slept. It turned out she was a horrible monster, then she ate him.

The lesson is supposed to be that you don’t pry into a lady’s secrets. When I was older and heading off to join the shipbuilding school, my dad told me that the real lesson was ‘don’t invite a strange woman into your home just because she has a great body.’

The two enjoy the story well enough, but their attention soon drifts to some other topic of comversation. Eventually, they run over to the fountain and start playing with the fountain.

“C’mon, Natcha…” I whisper as I grip the bench and bounce my leg. “Where are you?” I’m relieved she’s safe, but the wait is killing me.

There’s three other families waiting and, when the door opens, we all shoot our heads to the door. Sadly, it’s a fourth family that’s come to wait.

I sigh, then walk to one of the many televisions attached to the walls of the room. The TVs are set to a national news station, since the local one for this region was headquartered in Mae Hiarin. It’s been non-stop coverage of the war for months, detailing the movements of each gurant army as it blows over Monsoo. The big news for the last month has been the failure at Mae Hiarin, and the ongoing refugee crisis.

Related to that, this national news station is broadcasting a press briefing.

The peldak military is divided into many legions, each with hundreds of thousands of soldiers each. Because of our importance to the war effort, eight legions have been assigned to Monsoo. Leading all those legions is a High Marshal named Cyprian Aliszewski, an incompetent fool who I and every other refugee have come to hate.

He’s speaking about some joint initiative to improve the roads on some irrelevant island. The reporters keep heroically interrupting his boring spiel to ask various, hard-hitting questions about the Protectorate’s miserable defeat during the defense of Mae Hiarin. Inevitably, however, he ignores those questions, or says something noncommittal like ‘we did the best with the information we had.’ Such a smug piece of trash, it’s a disgrace that he hasn’t been recalled as High Marshall.

“What of the videos emerging of the gurant executing civilians?” A reporter asks.

Cyprian sighs as if answering this is some great burden on his part. “We have addressed this issue behind the scenes, it will not be a problem for long.”

“So how soon before the liberation of Mae Hiarin occurs?” Another reporter asks.

“We have no timetable at this moment.”

“Why did the peldaks let them take the city in the first place?”

He actually rolls his eyes. “As has been said repeatedly, I personally failed to understand the gravity of the situation as it was occurring. As you all well know, there are 12 such armies rampaging across Monsoo. I was convinced that the attack on My Hidrin,” the fact he dares get the name wrong makes my blood boil, “was a faint to distract from a bigger target, and I was convinced that the local garrison could handle it. I failed to understand the true motive of the gurant, and was therefore wrong on both counts.”

“There has been outcry from the people for you to resign. Will you?”

He scowls for a second, “I work at the personal discretion of the Lord Protector. Public outcry does not affect my decision making.”

Disgusting. This idiot messed up, we paid for it, but he still has a job. If I had an equivalent failure to this scale, I’d be fired and blacklisted from the entire ship making industry!

Whatever. I head back to my seat and wait for Natcha in an angry silence. The door opens again, and everyone looks. It’s a child being escorted by a caretaker, and one of the family rushes over to greet him. It’s heartwarming to see their reunion, at least. Once the tears and hugs stop, they leave the building. Silence returns to the waiting room, only broken by the televisions, and the fountain.

The door opens again, and it’s another family who’s here to wait.

This is unbearable. I almost hate the Protectorate more for making us wait than losing Mae Hiarin in the first place.

Time crawls by, and the door opens twice more. My hopes are dashed each time. On the third opening, I lazily look up, expecting more disappointment, but then I see her. Backlit against the midday sun, with Chalerm at her side, there’s Natcha.

Sopa pulls from the fountain, “mommy!” She screams as she runs into her mother’s arms.

I run forward as well, scooping Chalerm up.

“D-dad?” He asks.

“Haha! Oh, Chalerm! You have no idea how worried I was about you all.” I hold him tight in my arms, “it’s so good to finally see you again.” My chest hurts a little from carrying him, and he’s a little bigger than I remember, but I don’t care.

Chalerm hesitates for a second, but soon wraps his arms around my neck and shoulder in return. “I’m glad to see you too, dad.”

I pull back a little, smiling. “You have to tell me what you and mom have been through this last month! Must have been pretty crazy, right? I want every detail.”

His face lights up, and he begins nodding, “y-yeah, dad! Of course. And I wanna hear what happened with you!” I’m usually too tired to tell them stories from work, and most days were pretty boring anyway. But now that I think about it, he always listened so intently.

I set him down so he can greet his sister, then I turn to Natcha.

She’s so beautiful, even more than when I last saw her. Her bottom lip is trembling, and she has bags under her eyes. When was the last time she slept? She’s wearing used clothes that were donated to the refugees, but it might as well be a wedding dress for all I care.

Her voice cracks slightly, “I wasn’t sure you two had made it out.”

“A-a few times there,” I gulp, “I didn’t think we would. Uh, thanks for the note you left on the table, it was a godsend. It let me know you two were safe, and it even let me find Sopa.”

She brings a hand up to cover her mouth, her body trembling, tears quickly running down her cheeks. “I-I wasn’t going to write it. We were running late, and I knew you wouldn’t come home before me, but… but I kept thinking that I always leave you notes.” She sniffs, and walks into me, wrapping her arms around my waist and pressing her face against my chest. I, in turn, hold her close. “I’m happy you found it. That you found her and made it out. I figured they’d target your dock first, target you…”

Her face is pressing right into my gunshot bruise, I have to slightly. “A-as if the gurant could keep me from seeing you again!” I force a smile, then bring a finger up to wipe the tears from her eyes.

“Haaaa… haha,” her sigh turns into a chuckle, and the tension in her body slowly fades. “No, only work can do that, right?” With her face wet with tears, she gives me a messy, teasing smile, and I don’t have a response but to chuckle along. Natcha pulls away, grips the bridge of her nose, then composes herself with a single deep breath. “G-good. Now that we’ve… settled that, what’s Tanny doing here?”

I look back at the fountain to see Tanawat dejectedly sitting on the rim, kicking his feet back and forth. To be honest, I was so caught up with my family that I forgot about him. He must be burning with envy at our reunion.

“Right, him.” I rub the back of my neck and lower my voice. “When I went to get Sopa, I found his parents dead in the kitchen. I haven’t told him.”

She returns my whisper, “when did you plan on telling him?”

I give an awkward smile, “I was hoping you would, actually.”

She sighs, then nods and pats me on the shoulder. “Of course, of course.”

“As for what to do with him,” I hold up my arm to show off the bracelet, “I was told to head to location T. If he has any extended family, they’ll be there.”

Natcha shakes her head, “he doesn’t. His father was an only child, as was his mother, and both sets of grandparents passed from illness many years ago. They met in a state orphanage, and had many a story of the abuses that went on there.”

“O-oh, that’s… awful.”

“It is. His family has been through a lot. But hey! At least, thanks to you, he’s still alive.”

“Yeah, I guess. But in that case, what do we do? Adopt him? It wouldn’t feel right putting him through what his parents had to deal with.”

As we talk, I glance to the fountain. Sopa notices Tanawat sitting by himself, so she takes Chalerm by the hand and brings him over. I can tell that the boys are friends too, with Chalerm acting like an older brother. They three play in the fountain together, and Tanawat brightens up a little.

Natcha crosses her arms, “well, we can’t ‘adopt’ him. That would make him and Sopa siblings, which means they can’t get married.”

“That would be years from now though, will she still be interested?”


“Ah,” she’d be the one to know, after all.

Natcha suddenly puts a finger to my nose, “but what’s with this? We agree not to have any more kids due to your work, but one month with your daughter and her little boyfriend, and suddenly you want to grow our family?”

“Uh,” I lean back a little, “well, I almost died a few times and that put a lot of things into perspect-“

“What?!” Her eyes round at that small glimpse of the terrible time I had.

“I-I’ll tell you later, but the point is I realized I’ve been working too much. I need to spend more time with you and the kids. I didn’t even know Sopa had a crush until I read your note, and it was only by divine intervention that I saw his letter.”


“The one she had hanging in her room, from Tanawat.”

“…why didn’t you look in the address book?”

I raise an eyebrow, “the what?”

“Come on, really?” She slaps my shoulder, “by the fridge? I put down all the important dates and locations and people we know. I spent a lot of time-!” She takes a deep breath. “Nevermind, it’s not important. I’ll break the news to Tanny. We’ll arrange his marriage to Sopa, then we can care for him without issue.”

“It’s that easy? Haha, I was worried it’d be-“

She takes a step forward and looks up at me, a wry smile on her face. “But I want two more children before I’m 35.” She taps my sternum, making me wince. “And you’ll help me raise them this time. No more overtime, no more ‘I’m too tired from work’. Understood, Gamon?”

I guess she was more annoyed by this arrangement than I realized. “Y-yeah, deal. But, uh, is now a good time? Our entire lives were just-“

She crosses her arms and turns away, “I’ve been busy this last month, making arrangements. We’ll move in with my parents for the time being, far away from this region. Their city has some docks too, and my father will work his connections. You’re more than qualified to get any job you want at their guild, so consider it a transfer.” She turns back to me, her sharp brow narrowed, “you’ll be working reasonable hours.”

“Y-yes dear…”

I didn’t think much about what we would do after reuniting, and her plan works perfectly. It’s my calling in life to build ships, it’s what I’m but at. That’s fine, but I need to scale back a little and spend more time with my family. Keeping a normal schedule and not taking overtime should be more than enough.

Now that that’s settled, I wrap an arm around Natcha’s waist and pull her close.

“G-Gamon?” She hesitates for a second, then relaxes and rests her head against my shoulder.

“Come on kids, we’ve got places to be.”

Sopa, Chalerm, and new addition Tanawat, hop off the rim of the fountain and follow me out the door. We need to find a ship to take us out of here.

Street To Street: Chapter 26

We clear out the space around the eastern wall so the soldiers will have nothing to hide behind, then we open the bulkhead door. If we lock the door, they could probably just blow it open anyway, so we might as well force them down a long hallway with no cover. We’ve got men on the catwalks, I’m with a few guys further back with rifles. I gave my shotgun to that 60-year-old man, and he’s standing a few feet to the side of the door so he can ambush the soldiers as they try to enter. We’ve got every angle covered, and I’m happy with our chances.

In the hallway, we taped a few flashlights onto the walls and ceiling. No detail will be lost in shadow, we’ll see them coming.

By the time we finish setting up, everyone has escaped into the sewers. Our families should be piling on the boats right now, we’re all that’s standing in the empire’s way. There’s a soft rumbling from the few boilers, and water droplets occasionally plink onto hot metal and quickly sizzle into steam. The room still has plenty of hanging blankets and leftover boxes, but nothing breaks our line of sight.

“Just remember,” a man behind a box on the catwalks says, “we just need to stall them. Don’t do anything stupid, and don’t die.”

I yell out, “but if you do die, take one or two of them down with you!” It gets a few nervous laughs.

It’s not much later that flashlights start to brighten the walls on the far end of the hallway. Out there is a T intersection, and the soldiers are coming from the left. Very similar to about an hour ago, but no earthquake will save me this time. Granted, I’m in a much better position, and I’m not alone. We can do this.

I see a soldier poke his head around the corner. According to Surat, the timer starts now.

We fire shots down range and the spread is insane. Some bullets land on the ground 30 feet before the soldier, some hit the wall behind him, one bullet doesn’t even make it through the door and instead lands right near that poor old man’s head. He nearly jumps out of his skin in shock, then glares back at us to see who did it. We stop firing, and the soldier moves back behind cover, no worse for wear.

“Sorry!” A man to my right calls out, “the sights were off a little! Won’t happen again.”

The old man who was nearly shot takes a deep breath and waves back.

…maybe victory isn’t as assured as I thought.

The soldier peeks around the corner again, but pulls back before we can fire, so our bullets rip through empty space and do nothing but kick up dust or clink off pipes. The next time he pokes out, he returns fire at hits a metal box somewhere behind me. I jump at the sound and fail to pull the trigger. Nobody else hits him either.

This is good, in a way. Low danger, the soldiers are stuck behind the corner, and only one of them can fire at a time. We can last five minutes like this, I’m sure of it.

A black shadow moves in from the left. We shoot at it, of course, and sparks go flying, but nothing else happens. It continues to move until it’s in the center of the distant intersection.

“What is that?”

A man by me calls out, “the gurant have access to some strange demon magics, you know. Does anyone know a hymn we can use to smite it?”

It’s probably not a demon… but I have no evidence to disprove him. After the day I’ve had, I’ll believe anything if it’s said with enough conviction.

“I left my prayer beads at home, do we keep shooting it?”

“It wasn’t getting hurt, maybe we shouldn’t waste ammo. Besides, it’s stopped now.”

The black shadow starts moving closer. We shoot at it again, hot lead blasting against it repeatedly, but once more, it’s ineffective. I can’t figure out what it is, but then light glimmers off it just right.

“It’s a shield!” I yell. “A bullet proof shield!” There’s a small glass window by the face, and two back-angled wings on the sides to give the user a wider range of protection. But what kind of material can deflect rifle shots and is light enough to carry? The technology of the gurant is terrifying. But the shield isn’t scraping along the floor. If he wants to get closer, the soldier has to raise it just enough to walk. “Aim for his feet, the bottom of the shield!”

We all start firing but, in spite of my advice, it doesn’t work. We keep missing, it’s not even close. The strip of empty space is just too narrow and none of us are good shots.

The shield stops just before the door and we halt our shots. That old man is pressed against the wall, waiting to ambush them with my shotgun. The soldiers aren’t walking in though. They might suspect he’s there, and if so he’s in a lot of danger. He’s a lot braver than I, volunteering to stay out there.

Actually, the shield looks too wide to even fit through the door, I can’t see around it. They might be stuck! If they drop that shield they’ll be met with a hail of gunfire!

A hand flashes by on the left side of the shield, and a small white tube with a black cap is tossed onto the wide-open ground in front of the door. Is that a grenade? What a weak toss, it’s not even close-

Pure white stains my vision, and there’s a blast that resonates in my ears like a million small bells. “-!” I think I scream as I fall to the ground, but there’s a high-pitched ring that dominates my hearing. My eyes water uncontrollably, my face burns.

The ringing passes quickly, probably thanks to that foam from back when I was in the hospital, and I hear gunshots. Rubbing my eyes barely brings my vision back, but I need to hurry and help! We need to flood that doorway with bullets.

I can’t see without squinting though the bright white blotch in the center of my vision. My cheeks are wet with tears, and every source of light hurts. Still, I peak my head over the metal box I’m hiding behind, and I bring my rifle up.

I see… the old man is dead. Shot against the wall and slid down to a seating position, with a bloodstain smeared down the brick behind him. The soldiers ran in instantly, making perfect use of how disoriented we were to get a foothold in the room. I see two more men dead on the catwalks, but at least one more is still alive.

What was that thing they threw? It caught us completely off guard and now they’re in here! My vision is almost normal again, and I find the first soldier I can shoot at. He’s far away, standing behind a stack of wooden boxes, but half his torso is hanging out of cover so he can shoot. I make sure a bullet is chambered, then I line up the shot with his armored vest. I pull the trigger and, while the recoil smashes against my shoulder, the bullet blasts him in the chest and knocks him to the floor.

This is a military rifle, it has more than enough power to shatter a ribcage even if it doesn’t go through his vest. I grab the bolt and slide it back, ejecting the smoking, spent case. When I push the handle forward, a new bullet is sent into the chamber and my rifle is ready to fire once more.

Good. So long as I can shoot a few of them here and there, we should be in good shape! I hear a few of my comrades return fire with pistols and shotguns and rifles. The empire may have swept into the room, and we may have lost that initial advantage, but they’ll have to fight and bleed for every inch from here on out. No way we’ll retreat when our families are behind us!

I scramble back to get a little more space between me and those soldiers. When I settle behind a blanket-tent, I see another soldier run through the doorway. I send a bullet his way, but I miss and hit the wall next to him. He ducks his head, but continues running undeterred. “Tch,” how frustrating. When I get out of here, I need to be more active in my kids’ lives, be more religious, and I can add learning how to shoot on that list.

In the gaps between the tents, I see a soldier pinned down by one of my comrades. He’s hiding behind a metal barrel, and while I technically have a clear shot at him, the gap I can see is so small that I know I’ll never hit him. Instead, I aim for the pipe above him. The military-grade bullet bursts open a large, gaping hole that showers the soldier in scalding hot steam! He’s forced to run back, but manages to find a new spot without getting shot.

What great thinking! Let’s do it again. The roof is covered with crisscrossing pipes, though I don’t know what any of them do. I shoot randomly at a few, and they burst open every time I manage to hit. Raw sewage spews forth, steam erupts in a high-pitched whistle, clean water showers their side of the room. If nothing else, the chaos and smell should distract them just a little.

The seventh time I eject the spent casing, there’s no more bullets in the magazine. I lower myself behind the tent. There’s gunshots, screaming, comrades barking insults at the other side, but I can hardly make any if it out. I press the button that ejects the magazine, then I dig through my pouch for a replacement. My hands are shaking, but the gun is solid and doesn’t rattle as I try to slot the thing into place.

“Come on, come on. How much longer we have to do here? We’ve got to nearly be done, right?” It’s hard to focus with everything going on. The magazine gets stuck and I try to force it through, but it won’t go. “Agh! What’s wrong with this stupid thing?!” I rip it out and quickly realize it was facing the wrong way.

With my gun reloaded, I retreat back further into the room, jumping over boxes and maneuvering around the tents until I’m nearly at the back wall. There a few pipes arranged perfectly for me to climb atop and use them as cover, like a staircase with barely any space between them. All the pipes are cool to the touch, so I climb up and lay my rifle on the top for stability.

I see most of the room from here, though the steam and tents block some line of sight. Everyone on the catwalks is dead, the only people still fighting are those hidden amongst the shelters. Since I’m so far back, I feel a bit safer than before, it’ll be harder for them to hit me, I think.

I fire whenever I see a soldier. Accuracy doesn’t matter, I have a lot of bullets and my only goal is to get shots down range and make them hesitant to move up. Every time I hit a soldier in the side, or graze their leg, my heart beats faster from the pure joy of it! After everything I’ve been through, sitting back and shooting is just the catharsis I need. I get faster at chambering the next bullet, it quickly becomes second nature to me.

Whenever I finish a magazine, I toss it to the side and forget about it. When I see a friend out there, I look over them and fire in the direction they’re shooting. These bullets will easily rip through a tarp or a blanket, so who knows? Maybe I end up hitting a few soldiers out there.

Something on the far wall grabs my attention. It’s a bright light, shining right in my eyes, but it’s too bright and too distant to get a clear view of what’s causing it. I rise slightly to get a better look, then an intense pain rips into my chest. Like my ribs were hit with a sledgehammer, I’m knocked off my stack of pipes and land hard against the ground. Thankfully, my head was forward so the back of my skull didn’t crack against the floor.

I can’t breathe, every rise of my chest is agony, and I can only swallow small gasps of air. I sit up as best I can, but even just using the muscles feels like hell. Managing to look down, I see a scorch mark just to the left of my torso, right below the collar bone. “I waa-…” I lose my voice partway through.

I was shot?

This is what it feels like to be shot? No, I have a vest on, I can’t imagine the real thing. It’s like my whole ribcage is busted, my lungs aren’t working right. My back hurts too, but that’s probably from the fall.

Idiot! Why’d I stay up there for so long? Of course, they took notice of me and shot. But that light was in my eyes. If I didn’t stand up, he probably would have taken my whole head off!

Chalk up another bit of divine intervention… I should have died hours ago…

I lay on the ground for a moment before sluggishly ripping the straps of my vest so I can peel it off. Breathing is a little easier, but still painful, can I continue like this?

It takes all my strength and concentration to get up and grab the rifle once more. I move to the side of the pipes, press the rubber stock into my shoulder, and line it up with a running soldier. My strength is gone, it takes a bit more effort than normal to squeeze the trigger. Not only do I miss, but the recoil bashes the stock into my shoulder so hard that I want to vomit. It completely knocks the wind out of me, I drop to my knees and the rifle falls at my feet.

The burning shockwaves of pain across my body is more than enough evidence. I’m done. If I stay here then not only will I be of no help, but I’ll have lied to Sopa about returning to her. I turn and hobble to the western door, hopefully the others can make it out. I don’t bother bringing the rifle.

I stay low on my exhausting trek to the door, making sure the imperials can’t get a clear shot at me. My chest hurts more when I use my left arm, perhaps due to the tearing of my pecs, so I’m forced into this awkward crawl, using only my knees and right arm. Eventually, the pain subsides enough that I can crawl at a decent pace. Maybe my bones weren’t broken, just bruised or rattled?

“Everyone! Heeeey!” Surat screams. I move around a hanging tarp and see him in the doorway. “It’s time! Come back, we’re good to leave, you did it!”

Good, it’s done. Even if I get shot now, Sopa’s still safe on a boat in the middle of the sea.

I rise to my feet, using a metal box for support, then trudge to the door as Surat beckons me to hurry. When I step through the large bulkhead door, he slaps my back, “aagh!” and I collapse on the safe side of the door.

 “O-oh, sorry! I left some lights on the floor, just follow them to the exit.

In spite of the pain in my spine, I force myself up. I don’t care how much it hurts, I bring myself to a sluggish run.

As I make it through the sewers, a few of my comrades run past me.

“You got it, man!” He says in support.

“I can’t believe we actually made it through that!” A huge smile plasters his face.

“We beat the gurant! We fought off the empire!” It’s hard not to share his enthusiasm.

“Let’s go, buddy! Those boats won’t stay forever!” He’s right, this is all pointless if we take too long.

“Are you the madman who covered that guy in shit? Dude, that was hilarious.” I can’t help but smile, I’m glad at least one if them saw a soldier get doused in raw sewage.

Spurred on by my comrades and their infectious energy, I grit through the pain and sprint to the exit with them. Surat catches up with us soon, picking up the lights as he passes. “Good news everyone,” he’s slightly winded and sucks down air after every few words, “the door is closed and locked, it’ll take them a minute to get through it.”

“Is this everyone?” One man asks. Of the 20 of us who stayed behind, only 12 are running through the sewers, not counting Surat.

“It’s… all who made it out, yes. I-I wanted to hold the door open longer, but they got close and they started sh-shooting!”

“It’s alright.” The guy whose dad was that 60-year-old man with my shotgun, says. “Everyone knew what could happen, and we all made peace with it.” His voice cracks slightly… I should send a letter to my dad the next opportunity I get. Haven’t spoken to him since the gurant landed.

“Is anyone hurt?” Surat asks as we round corner. He bends down to pick up another light as we run.

“Yeah,” I say, nearly out of breath, “it feels like… my chest… collapsed… vest… saved me!” I shouldn’t talk for the rest of the run.

The other men talk about how they were just grazed, or a bullet ricocheted and got embedded in their thigh, or how one guy got shot in the bicep and his arm is hanging limp at his side. A few men were lucky and got out of there without even a scratch.

We finally exit the hallways and are let out into a wide irrigation tunnel. The ceiling is domed and made of brick, the center floor is a large trough where a river of fresh water is flowing. Flanking the river are damp platforms where people can walk. When I look left, I see light. Not daylight, but light from the massive fires engulfing one of the other islands. It’s the outside. We’re finally getting out of these disgusting sewers!

We hurry out and the warm sea air blows against my face. It feels like home, even if, based on the horizon, most of my home is ablaze.

The tunnel leaves the island about 20 or so feet above the ocean, with a beautifully clean waterfall rolling out of the sewers. Those two walkways on either side of the trough extend into a grated platform that the fresh water passes through on its way out, and on that platform is a ladder that extends down.

I count 14 ships down there, each tightly packed with dozens of refugees. The last ship floats by the ladder, waiting for us, while the others wait a bit further out.

“Really puts into context how many we saved, doesn’t it?” One man says as he looks at the boats.

“Wait, how do I get down this ladder?” The man with the blown-out bicep asks. He’s surprisingly calm, the adrenaline must be dulling the pain.

I turn to Surat, “how deep’s… the water… here..?”

“Decently so, why?”

I back up to get a running start, then sprint forward and jump as far as I can off the platform! This might be dangerous, but I’m feeling great about my chances, and I’m sick of the sewers. My gut sinks as I fall, but I control my decent well enough, and my feet smash into the water with a great big splash. The water is cold thanks to the waterfall, but it’s refreshing, not salty at all.

My ankles sting, but what’s another injury? Glass in my skin, broken eardrums, shattered sternum, bruised ankles and knees, it’s been a rough day.

I breach the surface of the water and wipe my eyes just in time to see my fellows jump in after me. I’m doused in water and have to wipe my eyes again, but it’s fine.


My face brightens upon hearing Sopa’s beautiful voice. Beneath the ladder is a large wooden platform that bobs along with the waves. Sopa’s standing there, holding her blankie tight. Tanawat is standing between her and the waterfall, his back soaked.

“What are you doing… there?” Swimming hurts a lot more than I expected… “I thought you… were gonna… get on the ship.”

“I wanted to wait for you…”

The maintenance worker driving the boat calls out. “Stubborn girl, wouldn’t get on no matter what I did.”

The fact she waited for me makes me smile. “Well get on now!” I begin awkwardly paddling over, and one of the uninjured guys swims over to help me. “No telling how… long it’ll take… those bad men to get here.”

We all climb aboard the nearest boat, some of us needing a hand to do so. Once the last man is out of the water, the engine revs and we’re off. Sopa wraps her arms around me and won’t let go, even if she’s crushing my ribs. Tanawat is sitting with his back to me, leaning against my arm.

“It’s finally over…” I sigh. “Hey! Where’re we… headed?”

Surat yells over the engine, “an island not far from here, to the northeast. It’s a naval base, my brother said ‘alotta people went there when everything kicked off.”

We’re on the north-western side of the east island, so we head further into the water first before circling around and heading northeast. The city is still bright with flames, but I don’t hear gunfire anymore. I don’t hear parade music either. The gurant really did win, they own everything.

I rub Sopa’s head, only to realize she’s fast asleep. Glancing to Tanawat, he’s snoring too. They deserve to rest. We all do.

I look back to the eastern island, and I see the glimmer of flashlights in the sewer tunnel. The soldiers must have finally arrived. I’m not worried, we’re too far out and going way too fast for them to hit us. As such, the flashlight stops shining a moment later as they head back.

The danger, at last, is gone. Despite the chest injury, I can finally breathe easy for the first time in hours.

We get farther out and I start to nod off, but I turn and see the bridge connecting the southern island to the east island. The whole first section is broken, everything’s on fire, and the two tall support struts have fallen onto the city.

“Ahh, right. That peldak, Lieutenant Boros, said they’d blow it up. That must have been what caused the earthquake in the sewers.” I can’t help but smile and look to the sky and thank God for letting it happen at just the right time. I want to see the stars, but all I see is a haze of smoke, illuminated from below by the fires. I wonder if any of the ships I built are up there, hundreds of lightyears away.

The thought… doesn’t fill me with the same confidence and security that it used to.

Street To Street: Chapter 25

I talk with the kids a bit longer, but time catches up with the pair and they fall asleep on my lap. It makes sense, their bedtime was so long ago that I think we’re in the next day. I’m used to staying up late though, I’m basically in my element. Besides, if I feel myself nodding off, I just glance to Sopa. The sight of my daughter cuddling her pink, childhood blankie is like a burst of adrenaline.

It doesn’t help my nerves to think that I’m exactly the sort of person the gurant would want to hunt. The entire reason they attacked Monsoo was to destroy our ship making capabilities, and I’m a renowned shipbuilder. Does this mean the empire is keeping tabs on my whereabouts and have a ‘kill on sight’ order? Probably not, to be honest, but I can’t get the thought out of my head. I keep my shotgun ready regardless.

Eventually, Surat climbs onto the scaffolding above us. “Attention everyone! Attention!” He projects his voice well and waves his arms to grab our attention, I look straight up to see his boots in the gaps of the metal platform. “Just as promised, my brother has brought a few dozen boats we can all climb on, and we’re ready to go. Please proceed to the west side of the room and follow him through the sewers to the exit platform. There’s enough room for everyone, but please leave bulkier items here.”

Commotion erupts in the room as everyone starts coordinating with their little groups of family and friends. I hear a lot of cheer and relief in their voices.

“Sopa, Tanawat,” I gently shake their shoulders, “it’s time to go.”

“I-it is?” Sopa rubs her eyes, “to the boats?”

“Yes, to the boats. We’re getting out of here,” I can hardly contain my delight.

It takes the pair a minute to fully wake up, but there’s so many people evacuating that it’ll be a while until it’s our time to board. They stretch their backs, roll their jaws, yawn, I’ve never been with Sopa or Chalerm as they got ready for school, so her morning routine is alien to me.

When it’s all done, I grab them by the hands and lead them through the camp towards the western wall. I’m amazed how much luggage people have, when did they find time to pack? Maybe some of them are tourists, in which case they picked a great time to come to Mae Hiarin. Maybe some of them locked themselves in their homes and only came out when Surat went looking for people.

“E-everyone!” A man shouts. I sigh, then turn around. He’s on the scaffolding on the eastern wall, wearing a maintenance worker uniform. “If you’re an adult man with a gun, could you please come this way? It’s a bit serious so please hurry. B-but everyone else can continue in a normal, calm and orderly fashion!”

I grab the kids and move us off to the side of the room. Everyone starts rushing and pushing past each other, shoving to get through the bulkhead door heading west.

“The gurant found us?” I hear someone ask.

“They must have!”

“We gotta get out of here, no way I’m dying after all this.”

“Yeah, go… I did bring my rifle, and I guess I know what Surat’s buddy wants. I love you all.”

I can’t even get mad at this point. Of course the gurant won’t let us leave in peace.

Sopa clings to my arm, “Daddy, what’s going on?”

I rub her head and force my most reassuring smile. “A bit of trouble, but nothing your old man can’t handle.”

By walking along the walls of the room, I carry Sopa and Tanawat back to the eastern side. There’s about 20 men here, each with their guns. The oldest guy looks to be pushing 60, and, seeing as everyone can figure out what this is about, their families came with them.

Surat and the maintenance worker stand before us.

“I’m sure you’re all a bit worried, but it’s not that serious! There’re just a couple imperial soldiers coming this way, and they’ll be here before we can get everyone on the boats.”

One man folds his arms, “that sounds pretty serious.”

“I, well… so, what I’m asking for you guys is not to kill yourselves, or to kill all the soldiers, but just to buy everyone enough time to get out of here. We’ll have the last boat waiting for you, and I’ll even come back to yell when it’s time for you to leave. Make sense?”

“How long do you need?” Another man asks.

Surat thinks for a moment. “No longer than five minutes, I think. Five minutes from when the soldiers first arrive, it should be enough time.” Surat turns to one of the small doors on the eastern wall. “It’s a bit complicated how we figured this out, but basically, we know they’ll only be coming through this door here. You don’t need to watch any other entrance.”

We all look to each other. Just delay the empire for five minutes and then run away. Another man, a little younger than me, speaks up. “Is it just the soldiers or is there an actual gurant coming?”

Surat smiles, “a gurant can’t even fit in the sewers.”

That doorway is a big chokepoint so… it’s not impossible. Even if we can’t continually fire for five minutes straight, there’s only so much the empire will be able to do to get past us. Surat might be right, this isn’t necessarily a suicide mission.

I take a deep breath, “I’ll do it.” I look at Surat, then set Sopa and Tanawat down. “But you need to make sure they get on the boat, and that they find my wife, Natcha, if I don’t make it.”

“Of course!” Surat says, “anything you guys need. Now, they’ll be here in a few minutes, I’ll hurry everyone out of this room, so do whatever you need to.” He pauses, then clears his throat. “If you want to, just in case, you should have time to say goodbye.” We’re not stupid. Even if it’s not a suicide mission, any or all of us could still die.

Sopa grips my pant leg as everyone turns to their loved ones. “Daddy, what’s he saying? You’re leaving again?” Behind her, Tanawat looks mortified, his eyes on the verge of tears.

I sigh, then bend to one knee. “Just for a little while, yes. There’s a lot of bad people coming here and I need to make sure they don’t reach you.”

“But… but there so many other people here, can’t they deal with the bad guys and you stay with us?”

“What if they all think the same and nobody stays behind? Then the bad guys will get everyone.”

Tears well up in Sopa’s eyes, then she lunges forward to hug me. “I love you, daddy.”

I wrap my arm around her, “I love you too.”

“You’ll beat them up and get back to us, right?”

“Of course! Nobody can beat your old man.” I get the sense that she doesn’t believe me, but she nods anyway. I turn to Tanawat. “And you, son-in-law. I’m trusting you to keep her safe while I’m away. Can you do that?” I reach out a hand.

He grabs my hand and squeezes as hard as he can. “Yes sir.”

With that, Surat takes the kids out for me.

“I’ll be waiting for you!” Sopa cries out.

All I can do is keep a brave face, and smile.

I’m not going into this ready to die. I will keep the empire at bay, and I will get back to them.

Sopa, Tanawat, and Surat disappear behind the many blankets and boxes and pipes. Once again, I’m alone.

Looking around, there’s a father telling his teenage son that he needs to look after his sister and mother. There’s a woman kissing her man goodbye. The 60-year-old man is joking around with his son as they’ll be fighting together, and they’re saying goodbye to his grandson, who’s too young to fight alongside us. Slowly, the numbers of the crowd dwindle until it’s just around 20 of us. 20 men to cover a single door as our families escape.

We’re all in the same boat here. We all have people behind us that we need to protect.

Personally, I’m sick of the gurant getting their way.

They bomb our city, they hijack our radio, they butcher people in the streets, they captured the bridges, they landed their entire force on these islands and took them over. It’s been a nonstop string of victories for them, and I’m eager to give them at least one small loss.

They won’t get past us. I’ll make sure of it.

Street To Street: Chapter 24

I pull the heavy bulkhead door, holding it open for Sopa and Tanawat to slip into the pump room.

“Finally here…” I head inside and lock the door behind us. We’ve entered onto the second-floor scaffolding, and everyone’s still here. We’re finally safe.

“Hey!” Surat climbs up the metal stairs to our level, “you’re back! I knew you would be, haha.”

“Well, a lot of stuff happened,” I say, my voice strained. “How long until your brother gets here?”

He waves me off, “about an hour, don’t worry about it. Now come on, we’ve got plenty a’ space left. Find a spot and get comfortable.”

Sopa and Tanawat lean against the railing, eyes wide and mouths agape as they look out over the all the blankets which had been strewn about to form makeshift tents. There’s a lot of people out there, more than I remember. Surat must have been busy. “What is this place?” She asks.

“Well!” Surat gets on one knee so he can look the kids on their level. “This is a pump room for the sewers, this is what sends water to your toilets, baths and sinks,” the kids nod along. “For right now though, it’s a bit of a refugee camp. I got a brother who went out to get some boats, and he’ll be back soon to take us away from this dustbin of a city. Don’t worry about the bad men, this place is safe. Super safe!”

“Super safe?” Sopa asks.

“Super-duper safe,” he winks.

Tanawat’s face brightens with hope, “th-then, sir, excuse me. Do you know if my parents are here?”

“Your parents?” He raises an eyebrow, then looks up to me as I lean against the wall. “Isn’t your dad right there?”

Sopa steps in, “no! Tanny’s my husband, which makes him daddy’s stepson.”

“Son-in-law,” I correct.

“Yeah,” she nods.

“Ah,” Surat looks to me. All I can do is close my eyes and shake my head, he gets the idea. “Well, Tanny, was it? I haven’t seen your parents yet, but plenty of people made it off the island in different ways, maybe they left earlier?”

Tanawat slumps his shoulders and sighs, “okay, sir. Sorry to bother you.”

He’s such a polite kid! I hate how we’re just kicking the can down the road. It might be better to rip the bandaid off now…

Surat rises to his feet and claps his hands. “Now, head along. Your daddy’s earned himself a break after all he’s been through.”

I step forward to grab the kids’ hands, then we head off. “Thanks for everything, your map was great.”

Surat pats me on the back as I pass. “Don’t sweat it, you did the hard part. I’ll come ‘round to bring y’all some blankets and water soon.”

With a weak nod, I head to a quiet little corner of the room. It’s a spot next to a large boiler, perfectly warm and humid, just like a real monsoorai likes it.

“Haaa…” I let out as I sit down, my back against the wall. The guns hanging from my back are bothersome, so I take the straps off and let then fall to either side of me. “What a day… glad it’s finally over.”

Sopa sits down to my left and raises my arm so she can drape it behind her shoulders, using my bicep as a cushion against the hard stonewall. She then taps the ground next to her, prompting Tanawat to follow suit.

I’ve yet to form an opinion of that boy. Partly because I’ve had to focus on so many other things, and partly because any thought needs to be qualified with ‘his parents are gone, and he’s rightfully shaken up by the day’s events’. I have no idea what he’s like normally.

Surat comes around before long and delivers three blankets and three cups of water. Sopa promptly shoos my arm out of the way, wraps one blanket around herself and Tanawat, then rolls the other blanket into a tube, making a much better cushion then my arm. Is she smart, or is that normal for a nine-year-old? When I was nine, I sat on the coast and stared for hours as ships rose into the sky, completely ignoring all the bug bites and ants since I was so engrossed. Mom always got mad and kept telling me to pay attention, but I never listened.

Sopa must get it from her mother.

I lay the third blanket on my lap and finally give my body time to rest. My legs ache, my eyelids are heavy, my heartbeat pulses through my veins and muscles. I can’t believe how much I pushed myself today, I’ll certainly feel it tomorrow. Still, so long as we’re not in Mae Hiarin, I’ll hell soon enough.

I turn to the two on my left. “How’d you two meet, anyway?”

Tanawat opens his mouth, but Sopa jumps in with a bright smile, “Tanny was sad and alone and never participated in class, so I decided to help him stop being such a loser!”

“Hey,” I point at her. “That’s not nice, don’t call people losers, especially not in front of them.”

Tanawat speaks up, “n-no, sir. It’s okay, she’s right. I didn’t really have any friends or anything until she came along. I’m… really glad we met.”

Sopa turns to him, “oooh, Tanny!” She wraps her arms around him in a big hug.

She’s her mother’s daughter alright. Natcha basically did the same to me. Find a quiet boy, insert yourself into his life, subtly groom him to fit your ideal. Sopa probably isn’t doing it intentionally though.

I would have loved to meet Natcha when we were their age, rather than when I was almost an adult. I hope it goes well for them. They’ll have plenty of time to fall in love after we get out of here.

Just another hour, and our nightmare is over.

Something’s not right here.

My stomach hurt.

Past the boxes, pipes, and hanging blankets, I look into the crowd. From what I see, a lot of people are smiling, or relieved that we’ll be escaping, but some look devastated. Everyone’s situation is different, so the variety of emotions makes sense, but I can’t help but feel like our worries aren’t over. I look to Sopa, and she’s holding Tanawat tight, beads of sweat lining her brow. Is she feeling the same unease I am?

I toss the blanket off my lap, “I’ll be right back,” and I grab the shotgun as I go. Sopa’s safe, the rest of my family has left already, what’s wrong?

I climb up the stairs to reach the scaffolding on the second floor. There’s hundreds of people out there and nothing is popping out at me. What am I looking for, exactly? I’m feeling déjà vu.

Sopa hops up the steps, still wrapped in a blanket. “What’s wrong?” Her face is twisted in worry, and she’s holding her stomach

I’m certain she had the same feeling I did. I had the unmistakable urge to head home, which led me to rescuing her. She refused to leave the closet, which resulted in me finding her. Now, the unease is plain on her face. “When you look down at the crowd, what do you think?”

She raises an eyebrow, then looks out. For just a moment, her lips crinkle in disgust. “It looks cool, I guess.”

I gently reach down and put a hand on her back. “Something’s wrong, isn’t it? You feel it too.”

“…my stomach hurts,” she nearly cries

Tanawat climbs up the steps and glances between us. “What do you mean?” His eyebrow is raised, but otherwise, he looks fine.

I shake my head, “I don’t know yet.”

Sopa grips my shirt, “Daddy, I wanna go home.”

I kneel down, then brush the hair out of her face so I can kiss her forehead, “it’ll be fine, I’ll make sure of it.”

Many times today, I’ve seen imperial agents wearing plain clothes to hide amongst the populace. Why wouldn’t they be here, with us? This place is hardly a secret, Surat brought back everyone he came across. What if he accidentally approached an imperial soldier?

I don’t know what I should do with this idea. I’m not a spy or an investigator, there’s nothing I can do to figure out if there’s a spy. If Hizan’s god doesn’t spell it out for me, I’m not gonna know what to do.

I see a lot of guys who are armed to the teeth, though that means nothing since I guess I’m one of them. Most of them also have wives or kids, same as me. If there are one or two imperial soldiers here, there’s not much they could do before getting killed.

Maybe they’ll call a gurant to come down here instead. What a terrifying thought. A nine foot tall, armored behemoth with a gatling gun, stomping his way through the sewers. Though, I doubt one could fit through a manhole, so maybe they’d send a patrol of soldiers instead.

I scoop Sopa into my arms to keep her from shaking, then head down to find Surat as he’s delivering warm, freshly purified water. I tell him my thoughts about the possibility of gurant troubles in the future, and he agrees to send some guys out to keep watch in the sewers.

It’s really all I can do until the boats arrive.

I return to our spot, then keep hold of Sopa and Tanawat as we wait. I’ve come this far, I won’t lose either of them, and I’m not throwing my life away either.

We’re all making it out of this city.

Street To Street: Chapter 23

Sopa is held in my right arm, holding the flashlight and lighting our way. Tanawat is on my left, holding the map I’m using to navigate. My rifle and shotgun are kept to my bag with straps, and keep clanking against each other.

The sewers are cold, damp, and smell like crap. Poor Sopa and Tanawat’s faces are scrunched up, and they’re trying not to breathe. The footsteps of what sounds like a hundred men bounce against the sewer walls, interrupted only by foreign screams. They sound mad, hopefully that means I did shoot one!

But they can stew in their anger, they won’t catch us. The sewers are a mess of turns, intersections, side rooms, they don’t even follow the main roads. There are signs and labels everywhere, like ‘Pump 37-B’, but the imperials will have no idea what that means. Surat was a godsend, giving such a detailed map with precise instructions on where to turn.

My lungs may be on fire, my leg may ache, and my biceps may burn, but the sweet taste of victory is so close it’s overpowering the sewer’s stench! I don’t care if I destroy my muscles in the process, I won’t stop running until we’re back.

However, it doesn’t seem to end.

We get about halfway to the safe room. I’m sucking down air and my shoes are soaked from stepping in the occasional puddle. It’s been so long, but I still hear our pursuers. They’re distant, to be sure, but they’re still down here. They’ve neither gotten lost nor given up.

What’s wrong with them? Leave us alone already! I won! I saved my daughter and her friend, now back off already.

But they don’t.

How do I get out of this? Will I end up leading them right to the safe house? Am I going to put the other refugees in danger?

I take a wrong turn intentionally. The map has enough details that I’ll be able to find my way back on track. I need to lose these guys first.

As I continue, my pace begins to slog. It’s harder to pick up my legs, my head is pounding, and I keep needing to readjust my hold on Sopa and Tanawat. The soldiers are catching up.

“Daddy, are you okay?” She looks up at me, her eyes full of strain and worry.

“Never… better,” I say while gasping for breath. “Just you lighting our way is more than enough!”

Tanawat speaks, “you can set us down and we can walk, if you want.”

“Nonsense, haaaa,” I try to laugh but it doesn’t come out right, “I’m not that old… yet! Having you two close is what keeps me going!”

Despite my words, I’m on the verge of collapse. It’s like my shoes are made of lead, my arms and chest have long since gone numb, I’m drenched in sweat.

I turn a corner and continue my glorified power walk. My vision has gone blurry, I should have eaten more than just a snack from Surat, or ate something at Tanawat’s house.

“-addy? Daddy!” Sopa grabs my shirt and shakes me.

“Huh? What?” I look down at her as she accidentally points the light in my face. I close my eyes tight as a prominent green sun flare stains my vision.

She points ahead, “this is a dead end.”

I look forward and give my eyes a second to focus.

In the middle of the sewer is a large, rusted metal gate. There’s no door or lock, just bars running vertically and horizontally. On the other side is a faint orange light, casting a long shadow the way we came. This is what I was hoping would happen to the soldiers chasing us, since they didn’t have Surat’s map.

“Ah. Sorry…” I turn around, but I hear it loud and clear. The footsteps of the approaching soldiers overpower everything else. What’s more, I see the beams of their helmet’s flashlights streaking across the T intersection we just came from.

I messed up.

I’ve killed us.

I can’t get through this grate, I can’t double back, I can’t fight them off.

…There’s a divot in the wall to the left. A small inlet where a power box hangs on the wall, the perfect size for children to snuggle inside of.

I set the two down against the divot, then step in front of them. My back is pressed against the wall in front of the divot to lessen my silhouette, with my head and arms turned so my shotgun is trained down the hallway. I’m far enough to the side that the orange light behind us doesn’t cast a noticeable shadow on the distant intersection. I suck down stale sewer air to try and steady my heart and aim.


“Shh,” I keep my voice low, “it’ll be okay, Sopa.”

The soldiers know I’m down here, but they don’t know I have children with me. I’ll… fight to my last breath, make the empire really work for it. I gulp and grit my teeth, my arms quaking. I don’t want to die, but I should have made better choices. I could have avoided this a lot of different ways. If I knew where Tanawat lived, for example, I could have made it to his house, found them, then retreated to the sewers long before the parade even started.

I’m going to die here, I think. But… since the T intersection is so far away, maybe they won’t notice Sopa and Tanawat. The two should mostly be hidden, it’s not far fetched to believe it’ll work.

As for what happens after… I’m sorry, Sopa. I really failed you. Can she read the map and find her way out? Maybe Surat will happen to come across them as he explores the sewers one last time. If nothing else, I can hope whatever’s been guiding me can help her next.

The imperial soldiers come ever closer. I guess it’s not so bad, to die like this… but one thing gnaws at my mind.

“Hey, Sopa.” I’m careful to keep my voice low.

“Yes?” Her voice is strained, and she’s whispering too. She knows that bad men are chasing us, and she knows something is wrong.

“You know I love you, right?”

She sniffs to stop her runny nose, and nods her head frantically, her hands gripping my hip. “Yeah! I know. Mama tells Chal and I all the time, ‘daddy would be here if he could, but he has to stay and work ‘cause he loves all of us’. So I know!” She wipes her arm with her sleeve.

“Ah, good. Thank you.” It’s hard not to cry. Of course Natcha covered for me and kept my kids from despising me or forgetting me. There are still so many things I should have done better, but maybe I was too hard on myself. When the chips were down, I’m going to die, and kill, for my daughter. I can be proud of that, at least. “Sopa, Tanawat. Close your eyes and cover your ears. Don’t open them no matter what.”

I hear nothing. When I look back, I see them diligently complying.

With a deep breath, I turn back around to face the hallway. They’re almost here. Not much longer until-

The sewers begin to rumble, great quakes that would knock me off my feet were I not leaning against the wall. The bricks clatter, the metal grate rattles, dust falls from the ceiling and droplets of water are shaken off pipes. The dim orange lightbulb behind us shatters, plinking shards of glass to the floor as darkness washes over the sewers, save for the flashlights the soldiers carry. The quaking subsides just as soon as it came.

The hell was that?

There’s screaming beyond the intersection, back and forth like an argument. There’s a pause… then the screaming starts back up. Their flashlights turn away from the intersection, and their footsteps slowly fade into the distance.

Before long, I can’t hear them over a nearby pipe that’s slowly leaking water into a small puddle.

…They’re gone? No, this has to be some kind of trick. I wait for what feels like a minute, but nothing happens.

They really did just walk away.

I slide down the wall and collapse to my butt. My heart won’t stop pounding, I can’t catch my breath. That probably shaved ten years off my life.

It must have been that sudden shaking. Something happened on the surface, and they were recalled to deal with it. But what could shake even the sewers enough to break a lightbulb?

“A-are you okay, daddy?” Sopa shifts in place, pawing around to grab my shoulder, “it’s dark…”

“Haaa,” I sigh with a smile before turning on our flashlight, “I’m great. We’re all great. Everything is great.” Sopa taps Tanawat, prompting him to open his eyes and lower his hands from his ears. “See kids? Just as I said.”

“What was that shaking?” Tanawat’s brow narrows. “Did you do that?”

I shake my hand to wave down his thought, “no way. That was solely the work of God. Divine intervention to help get us home safe!”

“Really?” His and Sopa’s eyes light up.

“Yeah! Well, probably. It’s at least thanks to God that everything shook exactly when we needed it to.” I put my hand on the ground and try to force myself up, but my legs wobble. My ankle and knee still hurt too. The kids rush over and try to help me up. “Thanks…” They don’t do much, but I appreciate the thought.

When I’m finally standing, Sopa wraps her tiny hands around mine. “You don’t need to carry us anymore,” her face is stern, her brow narrow. “Nobody is chasing us, so we can walk together.”

She looks exactly like a shrunken version of her mother. Was Natcha this adorable as a kid? “Haha, fine, fine. I don’t need to carry you.”

With a proud smile etched across her face, Sopa removes one hand and grabs Tanawat’s, forming the middle link of the chain. “Let us be off you two, don’t get lost.” I clench my jaw to suppress a smile, this is worse for my heart than running all day.

With Surat’s map, it shouldn’t be too hard to find our way back.

Street To Street: Chapter 22

With the kids in my arms, I head out. They’re 60 or 70 pounds each, but thankfully I’ve worked a physically intensive job for the past decade. It’s not that bad.

“Remember,” I saw calmly as we approach the main room of the apartment, “it’ll all be okay. Just stay calm, and keep your eyes and ears covered.”

The two subtly nod, their faces buried in my body armor.

I run past the kitchen and think a small prayer to Tanawat’s parents, about my promise to get their son out of this city. When we reach outside, the music and stomping of the nearby parade comes through even clearer. It’s so loud, I’m sure the other islands can hear what’s going on too. Or maybe there are similar parades there as well.

I don’t hear gunfire anymore, but I don’t know if that’s because the parade is drowning it out, or if the Protectorate is finally done. As I make my way down the stairs, stepping around corpses, Sopa mumbles a few things about how nice the music is. No point shushing her, her voice is too low for anyone else to hear.

Once we’re done with the stairs, I hurry across the communal space without issue. Tanawat probably knows a lot of the people here, but his eyes stay shut and he has no idea. It’s a bit awkward to open the outside gate, but now we’re out of the apartment complex, heading through the side streets.

“You can open your eyes again.” My voice is slightly strained from the running, but I can handle it. No way I’ll slow down now.

The pair open their eyes, Tanawat more hesitant than Sopa, and they look around the side streets. Around us are chest-high stone fences, lawns, and parked cars on the side. No fires in the neighborhood, but the glow of the infernos around the city are bouncing off the low-hanging clouds, allowing me see. The empire must be so occupied with the parade that they haven’t bothered sending any soldiers into these neighborhoods. I’m free to run to my hearts content, the warm wind blowing in my face.

“So, how do we get in the sewers?” Sopa asks.

“Ah, well…” I stop at a four-way intersection and look around. There’s a parked on the side of the street, a bit of trash here and there, and a fallen tree had landed on someone’s house. “We have to go in through a manhole, but those are only on the main streets, which isn’t safe. So…” my voice trails off as I think.

I spot a storm drain down the street, then rush over. It’s only blocked by a grate, which doesn’t look all that heavy. If I lift it, maybe we could get into the sewers? Setting the kids down, I kneel and grab the flashlight to see what’s down there. It’s a small drop, then a drainage tube on the west wall.

Grabbing Surat’s map from my pouch and unfurling it, Sopa looks over my shoulder. It’s a detailed map, but I don’t see any mention of storm drains. During my limited time in the sewers, there was no standing water, just pipes along the walls. I don’t know if storm drains even lead to the sewers, and if they do, I’m sure it would just lead to the pipes. There’s probably no point in trying to go down there.

It looks like the manholes will be our only way. I shove the map back under my armor, then scoop the kids up before running south.

The empire may be on the main street, but there’s only one parade, isn’t there? This collection of side streets is surrounded by main ones, so all I need to do is bring Sopa and Tanawat to a different main road than the one the empire is on. They came from the north, and are heading down the main street to the west of us. If we head to the southeast, we should be out of their line of sight.

I navigate my way through the neighborhood, huffing and puffing as I run, until we reach the street that connects to the main road. It’s south of the neighborhood, going east to west, while the parade is on the road on the west side, going from north to south. The sounds echo through the streets, like they’re coming from everywhere, but I don’t see anyone on the road yet. Slowly, I move forward until we’re on the sidewalk, then I peek around the right side of the building.

The front of the parade comes out from around the corner, but then they split up. Some keep straight, some turn to the right, and some start heading our way!

My eyes round and a shot of panic flies through my veins. I jump away from the main road and run back into the neighborhood, getting as far away as I can.

Crap! Why did they split up? Why’d they continue straight, or turn away? Are there more parades across the island? Will they start heading down side streets? If they want everyone to know they’ve won, splitting up the parade to cover more ground would be best… but how annoying!

I make my way east as fast as possible. My best, and only, idea is to reach that main road before the parade, and flee down a manhole as fast as possible. If they decide to move into the neighborhoods, it’ll be impossible to hide. We need to get out of here.

Following the side roads to the east, we make it to the new road, and I peek out. To the south, the parade hasn’t hit that intersection yet. To the north, I see a group of soldiers heading this way, but they’re still far in the distance. The soldiers are marching in a loose square, bending and shifting around abandoned cars and piles of rubble. They’re putting extra sway in their arms, and their rifles are slung behind their backs. Their helmet flashlights are brightening the road ahead.

But there, glistening like a miracle, right in front of us, I see a manhole cover. There’s a car sat between the cover and the parade, with just enough space underneath for their lights to bounce under it.

The group is still decently far down the road… I need to take this chance and go now!

I don’t know how long the parade will last, I don’t know how long Surat and his brothers will wait, I don’t know if they’ll swarm this neighborhood. This is our best chance, I’m going to take it.

“Keep quiet, don’t make a sound,” I whisper to both of them. I take a deep breath, then kiss Sopa on the forehead for luck.

Keeping low to the ground, I run out. There are no fires around here, and it’s hazy. Their helmets are bright, but they’re still far away. Maybe they’re too happy to be paying attention? It’s about all I can hope for.

Ducking behind the abandoned car, I set the kids down, then slide my fingers into the opening on the side of the manhole cover. It’s heavy, and my biceps are burning, but I slowly bring one side up-

A gunshot smashes through the parade music and hits the car next to us, shattering one of the windows and raining shards of broken glass onto the concrete. My body jolts and the kids cling to me, causing my hands to slip. The heavy disk falls and hits the ground with a reverberating clang.

I hear shouting from the other side of the car, like orders being barked out. My heart aches, my stomach churns, they saw us! But that’s fine! They’re still on the other side of the car, it’ll take some time before they circle around. All we need to do is get to the sewers, I have a map and they don’t.

With all the strength in my arms, I hoist the cover up and hold it, one side leaning on the edge. “Go!” I yell to the kids, “climb down, and be careful!”

I dig into my pocket and pull out the flashlight before giving it to Sopa. She nods, sits on the edge, and carefully puts her feet on the bars of the ladder. Then she grabs the top rung, and slowly makes her way down. The flashlight has a small cloth handle attached to it, and she’s biting down on that. As the flashlight hangs down, she can see where to put her feet.

It’s at least twelve feet down down to the sewers, and I know the group is getting closer. They’re not shooting, do they want us alive? Was the first shot a mistake? I glance south and see the parade far off in the intersection. If the soldiers miss us, they’ll hit their own men. Good.

“Go on, boy!”

The kid’s shaking, he’s looking down into the near pitch-black hole with tears in his eyes. Why’d I give the flashlight to Sopa!? I should have made sure he could see, what have I done? Can I throw him down? No, a twelve-foot drop would probably kill him. Do I try to carry him down?

Just as I reach out to grab him, Sopa shines the light up, illuminating each bar on the ladder, and the manhole cover. I panic for just a moment, before remembering the soldiers already know we’re here.

“C’mon, Tanny! Daddy said to hurry! Get down here!”

The young man grits his teeth, clenches his fists, and even if he looks scared, he moves forward and plants his feet on the first bar. The light helps draw his eyes, and he continues downwards. Great assist, Sopa! You’re certainly my wife’s daughter.

The second there’s enough room, I slip into the manhole as well. I hear stomping and look to the side of the car. There’s an imperial soldier. Black armor with a facemask, his hands gripped around his rifle, two lights on the sides of his helmet.

I see him raise his rifle, and in that split second of pure reflex, I drop lower and let the manhole cover slam shut. The clang is loud, it echoes through the small tube leading to the sewers. Just after the cover lands, the sound of gunfire comes in muffled. Dozens of bullets, one after another, firing faster than my Protectorate rifle can shoot. The bullets smash against the cover and harmlessly bounce off.

I breathe a sigh of relief, then lean away from the ladder until my back hits the curved wall. We’re safe.

Sopa calls up and flashes a light on me, “daddy? Tanny’s down here, you okay?”

“I’m fine, I’ll be down in a moment.”

The manhole cover creaks, a few fingers poke through the hole on the side. What am I getting relaxed for?! Of course they’ll just move the cover! I quickly smash my fist up into his fingers, crunching them against the thick metal. There’s shouting on the other side, then the hand is yanked back.

We’re in a stalemate. So long as I’m here, they can’t open the cover. But that means I’m stuck here, waiting for them to get explosives, or maybe a gurant who could punch it open. Time is on their side. I need to escape with Sopa and Tanawat, the soldiers have no such urgency.

With this in mind, I clench my teeth, bringing my family shotgun around and holding it tight. With one hand on the manhole cover, I push it open just enough to stick the barrel through the gap, then I pull the trigger! The recoil kicks the shotgun out of my hand, and the stock hits the other side of the wall before falling and being caught by the strap. The blast in this enclosed space would have hurt my ears if not for the ear foam I got at the hospital, but Sopa and Tanawat shriek.

I don’t know how the soldiers above reacted. Did I hit anyone? Blow a leg off? Hopefully, but I don’t know. I let the cover drop, then hurry down the ladder as fast as I can. With any luck, they’ll think I’m still there and they won’t try to open it again until we’re a comfortable distance into the sewers.

When I reach the bottom few steps on the ladder, I jump off and land with a bad crack on my right ankle and knee.

“G-God…! Bless it!” I shout through clenched teeth, careful not to swear.

“Daddy?!” Sopa runs forward and clings to my leg, “are you-“

From up above, I hear the manhole cover open, and there’s shouting. Already? They opened it already!? Give us a little more time at least!

I scoop up the kids and dash forward, “I-I’m fine, we’ll talk later!” My leg hurts from such a stupid mistake, but I won’t let that be the death of us. I can’t let it be the death of us. I bite hard on my bottom lip, and we head west.

The soldiers are climbing down the ladder, it seems they’re going to chase us. Fine. Once I lose them, we’ll be free to head back to Surat and leave this nightmare!

Street To Street: Chapter 21

My daughter’s stomach rumbles, and she pulls away from the group hug. “Daaaaaddyyyyyy, I’m hungry. And thirsty. Can you get us something to eat?” She sways back and forth with her hands clasped together.

…at least she’s not traumatized. “Fine, fine, you two stay here. I’ll head into the kitchen and fix you up a snack, alright? But you have to stay here, and we have to head out right after, okay?”

Sopa cocks her head, “we can’t come with you?”

“No!” I say with more urgency than I intend, causing Tanawat to jolt. “I mean, it’s my treat. Just wait here.” I look around the room and quickly pull some toys from a nearby shelf and hand them off to the pair, “just play until I get back.”

Tanawat finally speaks up. “Di-…did you see mom and dad? They told us to hide in the closet and that they’d be back to get us, but… they never got us. Are they okay?”

My heart breaks for the poor kid. “I’ve… seen a lot of people today. Maybe I saw them somewhere.” That’s technically not a lie. Even though his shoulders droop and his spirit fades, this is the best for now. I learned my lesson last time and won’t try to explain death to a nine-year-old again. This has to be handled delicately, and I’m not qualified to do it.

Sopa smiles, “Tanny kept wanting to go out and check, but I stopped him! I knew you’d come to save us and I was right. I knew it in my heart.” She stands there with her hands on her hips, beaming and clearly expecting praise. It sounds like she had the same feeling I did, and I’m glad we were both smart enough to follow our guts.

I pat Sopa on the head, ruffling her hair. “Good job. Now remember, don’t come into the kitchen.”

They nod, and I head out, silently closing the door behind me. The first order of business is to grab a few towels and respectfully lay them over Tanawat’s parents. They’re on the other side of the kitchen island so, with how dark it is, he shouldn’t notice them when we leave. Maybe he would prefer to say goodbye to them now, maybe he’ll grow up and regret that I denied him that, but I don’t know. I can’t have him crying when we’re heading back to the sewers.

Scavenging through the cupboards and fridge, I grab everything that can be eaten straight away and put them on a large plate. Fruits, crackers, fish bites, cheese, the power may have gone out hours ago, but nothing smells expired. As I arrange the platter, I need to make sure they don’t leave the bedroom, that nothing is rotten, and that no looter or gurant is hanging around outside. Plus, I left the flashlight with them, so I’m fumbling in the darkness. I just want to grab them and go, but there’s no telling how long it’ll be until our next meal. Hopefully Surat will have more snacks down in the sewers.

Twice I hear something outside and dive to the floor in a panic, shotgun at the ready. It ends up being nothing both times. But I finally have Sopa, I won’t take any chances.

When the plate’s ready, I hurry back to the room and carefully open the door as not to scare them. They’re sitting on the bed, kicking their feet and playing with toy warships. Or, rather, Sopa is playing with a toy warship while Tanawat is holding the flashlight like his life depends on it.

“See?” Sopa wrapped her arms around Tanawat for a quick hug, “I told you daddy’d be back soon.”

Tanawat’s forehead glistens with sweat, and he nods weakly. Of course he’s terrified they’ll be left alone again… I sigh, then sit and hold the plate out in front of them.

Sopa greedily starts tearing through the fish bites without a care in the world. I remember she loves fish, but I guess that isn’t unique for a monsoorai. Tanawat doesn’t eat, his face is crumpled in discomfort. He can’t rest his eyes anywhere, but he does keep the flashlight on the food so Sopa can see.

“Something wrong?” I ask.

“I’m not hungry.” He wraps both arms tight around his stomach.

“We have a long way to go and I don’t know when we’ll have a chance to eat after this.” I grab an apple and hold it out for him. “You’ve done a great job thus far, you really did. But you need to keep your strength up. Even if you don’t want to, you should force yourself to eat something.”

Sopa nods, her cheeks full of food, “uh-huh! Daddy’s smart, so you can trust him on this kinda stuff.”

Does she really have that much faith in me? That’s… really reassuring.

Tanawat thinks for a moment, then slowly grabs the apple before taking a few measured bites. He doesn’t seem to hate it, and continues eating. I notice he begins to take bigger bites before long.

“Oh, daddy,” Sopa takes a small pause from the food, “where are we going? Do you have a trip planned for us?”

They don’t know what’s going on out there. How much could a child possibly understand? “Yes, a trip. I’m not sure how long we’ll be gone, but we’ll be leaving the city for a while. There’s… a lot of bad people in the city now, so it’s very dangerous for us. Okay?”

“Oh no!” Sopa’s eyes go wide, “is Natcha and Chal coming with us?”

Why does call her mother..? Nevermind, I can find that out later. I smile and pat her head. “They went ahead first, we’ll be catching up with them.” I turn to Tanawat, then reach out to lift his chin. “Cheer up, we might see your parents there too.”

He brightens up slightly, but it does little to ease my conscience. Actually, I feel like a bigger piece of trash for lying straight to his face.

“The faster you eat, the faster we can be on our way.” Sopa returns to eating as she was, and Tanawat finishes the apple before taking a few fish bites as well. I’m finally given a moment to collect myself. It’s unbelievable I’ve actually gotten this far, or how much good fortune was required to get here. I hand the plate to Sopa and lean back against a desk, taking slow, deep breaths.

Then I hear something. It’s faint at first, distant. A repeated bumping noise, coming from the broken window to the side of Tanawat’s bed. Light begins to filter in, and my heart nearly stops. Something is wrong outside.

“Shh!” I yank the flashlight from Tanawat and turn it off. “Don’t talk, don’t breathe, don’t get up!” It’s percussion music, coming from the north. I crawl over and peek outside, only the top of my head peering over the windowsill.

Through the main street, from the north, marches an army of the Gurant Empire. I see tanks, transport vehicles, and thousands upon thousands of soldiers marching in lockstep. Unlike the soldiers I’ve been seeing in plain clothes all day, this army is dressed head to toe in professional body armor, all standardized, with flashlights attached to the helmets. Some soldiers carry rifles, a few are carrying large flags, and others have drums or trumpets as they blare their victory music onto the empty streets.

In the front of the parade, and spaced periodically throughout, are actual gurant. Massive, dangerous, equipped in their ornate power armor that cracks the asphalt with every stomp. Hizan of Mahidi only fought one and ended up losing, but I see at least 30 of the things out there, and the parade is nowhere near finished! Their unified steps and the rumbling of their war machines shake the apartment as they march along the nearby streets.

Cutting through the music are men screaming through megaphones.

“We’ve won! The Gurant Empire stands victorious, while the peldaks have turned tail and fled! Your broken Protectorate has left you to your fate! This city, its people, and all the resources left inside are now the sole property of the great gurant Magistrate, Hegogoblek the Magnificent!”

Just as the name is said, I spot a gurant sitting on a large throne. The throne is resting atop the chassis of a large tank, with his seat built where the turret should be. It’s so grand and spectacular, with a wide staircase reaching up to his platform, and a large, ritualistic bonfire at his feet so he remains perfectly illuminated. His armor is just as polished and decorative as everyone else’s, maybe more so. So he’s in charge of the army which had been bombarding the city for months, and he planned this invasion. How many people died because of him?

I gulp. It’s not a trick this time. They’re speaking the truth. It’s over, they won.

“Whoaaaa, is that a parade?” Sopa whispers as she pokes the side of her head around the corner of the window, “what are they celebrating?” Tanawat is at the foot of the bed, curled up into a ball, covering his ears and trembling.

“Those… are the bad people. They’re why we have to leave. If they catch us, then… it won’t go well, okay? We need to be silent.”

Sopa narrows her brow and we pull back from the window. My heart’s racing, my body’s shaking. They’re in the main streets right now, and the main streets are where the manhole covers are. How do we get back into the sewers?

Amid my thinking, I remember a small detail. “Ah,” I reach into my pouch and retrieve Sopa’s pink baby blanket. “Sorry, I forgot. Here.”

Her eyes light up for moment, but she quickly glances to Tanawat. “Pfft, really dad? I mean, come on. I’m not a kid anymore. I don’t need a blankie.” She’s glancing at it, clearly wanting me to hand it over, but also not wanting to embarrass herself in front of her little boyfriend.

Adorable as that is, “we don’t have time for this.” I toss it to her and it lands on her head. “Just hold it for now, it’s cold in the sewers.”

“Oh, well, heheh, if I gotta hold it then fine!” She wraps the blanket around her shoulders and smiles to Tanawat.

Tanawat ignores her and looks up to me. It takes him a moment to steady himself enough to speak, “w-we-we’re going to the sewers?”

I grab my rifle from the sling on my back, adjusting it to make room for my shotgun. “It’s the best way to avoid the monsters out there.” I kneel down and grab them both, holding them against my chest. “Just stay calm, cover your ears, and we’ll be out of here before you know it.”

Sopa diligently closes her eyes tight before moving her hands to her ears. Tanawat follows her lead. He’s shaking, but putting on a brave face, while Sopa doesn’t seem worried in the slightest.

I can’t use a gun like this, but it’s irrelevant anyway. If we’re discovered, we die.

Street To Street: Chapter 20

The fighting has really escalated out here. Before, it sounded like small skirmishes and firefights. Now, it sounds like a full blown siege from the north. What’s changed? Is this the Protectorate’s counter-attack? It might be the empire landing more troops, like that officer mentioned before. Regardless, I should hurry.

Tanawat’s address points to an apartment complex a few blocks north from my house, so I need to sneak through more main and side streets. I move as carefully as I can, but I need to hurry. I pass by a few patrols on the way, but they’ve relaxed a lot. No more busting into buildings or checking every corner.

After I enter the side street with Tanawat’s address, I hop from yard to yard on my way north. I think I can see the tops of Tanawat’s apartment from here.

On my way through the last stretch, I see a group of flashlights approaching from the north, coming down one of the streets. I quickly head into a yard, then hide behind the thick trunk of a tree. I’ll wait for them to pass, nice and easy.

I hear them before I see who’s waving the lights around. Alien speech, like normal, but they’re all saying the same thing, and there’s a melody to it. Are they singing?

They get closer and I peek out from around the tree trunk. I can see over the bushes and fence. The soldiers have their arms around each other, taking wide, exaggerated steps, stumbling and swinging large bottles of alcohol this way and that. One soldier is swinging his flashlight around by the strap. Looks like they’re celebrating their grand victory.

Part of me wants to yell that they haven’t won yet… but really, they basically have. Nothing can stop them.

I’m not stupid enough to try anything when victory is so close, so I’ll wait behind this tree and let them pass. They’re too drunk on victory (and beer, by the looks of it) to notice me.

They come closer, and closer, then their radio starts blasting something in that odd language of theirs. The soldiers drop their bottles, the glass breaking against the asphalt, and run off to the north in a hurry. They’re yelling at each other, and trip a few times on their way out.

That’s unnerving. I know there’s something big going on, I can hear it in the distance, but I don’t have any details.

I continue on and only have to deal with two patrols as they sprint north. I see their flashlights and hear them running long before they can see me, so I always have plenty of time to hide. They’re also so distracted by whatever it is they’re doing that all I have to do is jump into a back yard and stay in the shadows. I wonder what they’re doing, but I also really don’t want to find out. With all this gunfire, hopefully the Protectorate is keeping them busy, or counter attacking. That’d be a good start to making up for their total failure.

I reach Tanawat’s apartment complex before long. Each apartment building is four stories tall, and the hallways are exposed to the air, similar to motels. The front of the apartments face inward to a communal space shared by three more apartment buildings, while the backs face outwards towards the main street. Built on the side of each apartment building is a door which leads down into bomb shelters.

I climb over the chain link fence that separates the apartment complex from the rest of the neighborhood. The inner, communal space has a small park, a playground, and a large pool. I remember coming here a few times over the years, mostly for parties since I have a few friends at work who lived here. From my position on the ground, with the faint light from nearby fires, I can see the first floor of the apartments. It looks like all the doors have been bashed off their hinges.

…If I take a closer look at the playground, some of the equipment has been scorched. There’re bullet holes everywhere, there’s dead bodies floating in the pool, and I see blood stains on the concrete. I can only hope the gurant pay for what they’ve done here.

If I took out my flashlight, I wonder how many people I would recognize…

I can’t focus on this now, I have a daughter to rescue.

I start my search with the bomb shelter by Tanawat’s apartment. The door is heavy and made of iron, with a reinforced glass window. There’s no lock on these, I twist the handle and pull it open. I enter inside and am met with the stench of cold, stale, dry air. Closing the door behind me, I activate my flashlight. There’s a staircase heading down, and I keep my shotgun ready in my right hand.

“Hello?” My voice echos slightly, “anyone down there? I’m looking for a missing person.”

No response.

I steel my heart and head down. My boots tap loudly as they hit each concrete step. “If anyone’s down here, I’m a monsoorai, with the Protectorate.” I guess it’s possible there are imperials down here, but based on what I’ve been seeing, they should all be heading north. I’m more worried about there being some scared civilian with a shotgun who’ll blow a hole through my chest as soon as I get down there.

I enter the main bunker, it’s small and compact. Here in the city, there isn’t much room below ground. The sewers, basements, the in-ground pool, there’s too little space. Not like the bunkers under our assembly yard, where there was nothing beneath the concrete but dirt and rock.

I flick my flashlight around the small room and see nothing but a few blankets and chairs. No people, not even corpses or bloodstains.

I guess it was a long shot. No reason why anyone would stay down here all day. I look around to see if there’s some sort of ‘evacuation plan’ written down, but there’s nothing. I head back upstairs, into the smokey, warm air of the city.

I could check the other bunkers, but I feel like I should try Tanawat’s apartment first. I head to apartment two and run up to the third floor. I have to step over a few more bodies on the way, and I’m… I’m a little worried about how easy it’s getting to disregard them. When I reach the third floor, I can see over some of the main street buildings to the south. A lot of the surroundings are hazy from the smoke, but there’s enough fires illuminating the city to spot a few landmarks, like the bridge. Some fires are small, others are raging infernos, I guess the gurant haven’t taken over any fire stations yet.

I continue to Tanawat’s apartment, room 312, and my heart sinks as I look at the door. Knocked off its hinges, the wooden doorframe sheared off.

“Oh no…” I whisper. “Please, no, just give me some sort of hint she’s alive, or something..!”

I gulp, and force myself to step into the apartment.

The kitchen is on the left, the living room on the right, straight ahead is a hallway that leads to the bedrooms.

There’s a small lump in my throat, but I force myself to speak anyway. “Sopa? Are you here?” No response. My jaw clenches as I walk into the living room. “Sopa? Come on out, daddy’s here.” Nothing.

Despite the broken door, the living room isn’t a mess. Some pictures knocked off the walls, a clay potted plant fell and shattered against the floor, but my house was the same. Maybe it was just due to the bombardment? Maybe the soldiers kicked the door in, but nobody was home.

I turn on the flashlight and check the kitchen. There’s an island in the middle, with chairs standing upright around it. Why aren’t they tipped over? I circle around the island and my body jumps! My heart nearly bursts from my chest. There are two dead bodies, a man and a woman, laid atop each other. The woman was shot in the back, the man in his chest, and there’s a puddle of blood beneath them.

I can only imagine it’s Tanawat’s parents. Poor kid… But that means they, Sopa and Tanawat, were here when everything went wrong. Maybe when the bombardment started, everyone evacuated into the bunkers. When the bombings ended, they came out and went about their usual lives, but were soon after caught in the empire’s attack. They must have heard the shootings going on around the pool and playground, but couldn’t leave the apartment building since there’s only one staircase. What a terrible way to go, hearing all the rooms below you getting their doors kicked in, and the occupants murdered, knowing it’ll happen to you soon.

But if Tanawat’s parents were here when the empire burst in, where would he and Sopa be?

Memories of those two kids from earlier being dragged off by those soldiers come flooding back. If Sopa was taken away, then it’s over. If she’s in one of their outposts, then there’s nothing I can do to rescue her. Of course… maybe they didn’t bother taking her away, but it’s not good to think about that.

If it was me hearing everything going on outside, I’d try to hide Sopa and Chalerm. There’s still rooms to check, so there’s no reason to give up hope!

I head towards the back of the apartment. “Sopa? Are you in here? It’s alright, come on out.”

Entering the bedroom on the left, I hear a faint murmuring. Whimpers, like soft crying. There’s a closet built into the right wall, it’s coming from there.

“Sopa? Is that you?” My bottom lip quivers and my chest tightens. Please… please be her.

After a moment of pause, there’s shushing and slight rumblings. I hear some things inside rustle and get pushed aside

I get down to one knee and try to keep my voice strong and steady. “It’s me, come on out.”

Carefully, the closet door creaks open just a tad. I quickly turn the flashlight on myself, holding it above my head so the light shines down on me.

A small voice slices through the darkness. “D-daddy?”

I let out all the air in my lungs as a wave of relief washes over me. It really is her. Everything I’ve gone through was worth it. “Yep, it’s me.” I frantically nod, the corners of my mouth curling up as my lips tremble.

Sopa bursts from the closet door, tears streaming down her cheeks as she leaps into me for a hug. I wrap my arms around her small body, the flashlight falling to the ground. “Daddy! I knew it! I knew you’d come!” Her speech is broken up by sobs, sniffles and stutters. “I was so scared, it was awful!”

“That’s alright. I’m here, I got you, I’m here now.” I pat her back and focus on just trying to breathe, my heart’s beating like crazy. “Everything’ll be fine.” I’m so glad I didn’t try to escape the city. “Everything’s fine.”

There’s a slight rumbling, and I look up. Partially hiding behind the closet door is Tanawat. He’s illuminated by the fallen flashlight, shaking and on the verge of tears. If it really is his parents in the kitchen… does he know?

“Oh, daddy!” Sopa pulls away slightly and uses her sleeve to wipe the tears away. She steadies herself, quicker than I do, actually. And gestures to Tanawat. “This is my husband, Tanny. I don’t think you’ve met.” Sopa smiles brightly, as if she wasn’t hiding in a closet for hours.

What a strong little girl. She must take after her mother.

Actually, no. I’ll give myself some credit, I’ve adjusted to a lot of horrible things today.

Tanawat fidgets in place but doesn’t speak. Even though he’s stealing glances, he keeps looking away after only a second or two. He’s shivering, but silent. Even his sniffles don’t make a sound. He’s a child who’s been hiding in a closet for half a day while a war rages on outside, I assume this is the natural reaction.

I extend a hand and give him my best smile. “Married, eyy? Well then, step-son, c’mon over here!”

He’s hesitant at first, and looks to Sopa. She gives him a nod and extends a hand as well, so he finally shuffles over. I wrap an arm around him, and he cries softly into my chest. It must have been so hard for them, sitting for hours, silent, in the darkness. If they heard what happened to Tanawat’s parents, they must have been terrified the same would happen to them.

…Tanawat’s parents. I don’t know exactly what happened to you, but Sopa’s alive and not a hostage. You’ve done so much for me and my family, I’ll return the kindness as best I can. I’ll get your son out of here. No matter what else happens, I’ll make sure he escapes this city alongside Sopa, I promise!