I started writing this AU (alternate universe) story many years ago. ALCHEMY was meant to be a scifi, cyberpunk retelling of the story that wound up being the first three books in the CATALYST MOON series (Incursion, Breach, and Storm.) I’m planning on revisiting the concept one day, but for now, please enjoy this short story. 😍
Kali couldn’t run any longer.
But she had to. Mage alarms screamed from every hidden corner of the city, and the sentinels were close behind, their booted feet slapping against the wet pavement in perfect cadence with her own racing heartbeat. It had rained earlier this evening, and the mage-moon’s stolen glow reflected off of the slick streets. As she plunged between a strolling couple, Kali’s boots splashed into a puddle, distorting the reflected image. Shouts followed her, alarmed and annoyed, but she paid them no heed as she continued her desperate flight through Whitewater City.
Her legs ached and her breath came in short, sharp gasps. She had to slow, stop, had to gather her wits. Even the simplest magic required concentration and energy; impossible with fear slamming into her burning lungs. Were Eris and her other friends okay? The sodding mage-hunting sentinels had broken up the mages’ illicit gathering, and everyone had scattered. Kali turned a corner and found herself in a small but shadowed alley. The walls dampened the mage alarm’s skree a blessed smidgeon, giving her brain a brief shot of relief. She’d take it.
Kali flung herself against the alley wall. Now bathed in darkness, she sucked in a huge breath. Seren’s light, she always thought she was used to running from the sentinels – until she was running once again. Just one week without being hunted like a rabbit, she thought as she leaned her weight against the solid wall. Is it so much to ask?
Electric-blue shots of plasma streaked across her field of vision, causing her to instinctively duck farther into the shadows. Shit, this was a dead-end. Her heart thrummed behind her ribs as panic threatened to take over but she schooled herself to be calm and think. Judging by the holo street displays, she was a few blocks away from…something like a safe harbor.
Depending on how his night has gone. Her stomach twisted with a different kind of anxiety.
More plasma shots screamed through the air, the sentinels’ robotic announcement following:
“Citizens of Whitewater City, a mage has been reported in the area. Please keep off the streets until the magic-user is contained and the all-clear sounds.”
Clunky-boot sounds of the sentinels heralded much worse fates than a surveillance droid’s monotone drone. It sounded like they were about a block away. They would comb every inch of this street – and all the other streets, until they dragged their mage prisoner to the bastion. To the sodding prison – or worse.
All her friends knew the stories were true. Survival shouldn’t have to be a right. Kali summoned her courage and darted away from the shadowed alley. Thank Seren, she met no one as she crossed the street. Once safely tucked in the next alley, she glanced back, searching. There! The gray armor of the sentinels—the mage-hunters—glinted in the streetlights a few blocks away, their helmeted faces blank and merciless as they searched for her.
Seren, please keep my friends safe, Kali thought as she hurried on. And, if you’re not too busy, please help me out, too.
Unrelenting, the sentinels trailed her through the Eye—the old commerce district, these days mostly a haven for the shadowmarket dealers—but she managed to keep just out of their reach. Each step roused the perpetual battle in her brain between panic and fury, and the old injury in her knee was starting to burn. The sentinels shot at her again – twice. But the stun rifles had a distinctive whine right before they fired, and she knew when to duck. Eventually they just ran faster, booted feet echoing behind her. At least four, but no doubt a hundred more within comm range.
She could run until her lungs burst and her body collapsed, and they would scoop her off of the pavement. The mage-hunters were inevitable, relentless. Ruthless.
Tears burned her eyes and blurred her vision and she paused to swipe them away. She couldn’t afford to cry, couldn’t–
A gloved, gauntleted hand grabbed her arm and roughly hauled her within the shadows of the next alley. Before she could react, another hand pressed against her mouth, and an armored form pushed her into the wall, effectively trapping her in the darkness. Heart hammering in her throat, she looked up into the sentinel’s helmet; only her own dark-brown eyes, wide and fearful, looked back.
Then the sentinel squeezed her arm once, gently, and dropped the hand from her mouth. The nearby streetlights offered some illumination, as did the glowing moons above, and as her eyes adjusted, her gaze caught on the sentinel’s ID marker at his shoulder. Her breath caught.
He held still, keeping her in place, then lifted a hand from her arm and held up an index finger to the base of the helmet’s reflective visor: an urge for silence.
The sentinel’s droid buzzed down the street, the mechanical voice growing louder with each moment. At least they had stopped shooting. Someone shouted and she jumped in place, bracing for the sentinels to storm the alley and snatch her up. But of course, the sentinel holding her was unaffected by the chaos. If anything, he got off on it.
His voice reached her through an exterior mic in his gear – not over the comm within his helmet, which she wouldn’t be able to hear. “I’ve got eyes on the mage,” he said, his breath slightly huffed as though he’d been running. “She’s near the Eye, and I’m in pursuit.”
They were actually pretty far from the Eye, the market district. Maybe she wasn’t going to die tonight.
He’d set his external mic low enough to not echo down the street, but loud enough for her to hear his squad-mate’s response, “You’re sure, Captain? We lost sight of her right around there…”
“Positive, Sergeant.” The sentinel glanced down at her again, and added, “She’s got a jammer, though. It’s messing with my GPS and my comm’s probably about to go down.”
Oh, now, really. They’d never believe him.
Kali pantomimed patting her jacket pockets as if searching for such a sophisticated device, but the sentinel shrugged. The realization that she would probably survive the next hour and the way his body was pressing hers against the wall, reminded her of the strong, muscular form beneath the scary armor.
Sergeant Whomever replied, but the sentinel captain shut off his comm. He pulled off his helmet and clipped it to his utility belt with his usual efficiency as he regarded her, his light-brown eyes seeming to drink in the sight.
Without the helmet he was no sentinel, but her Stonewall, and Kali relaxed. Safe harbor, found. She gazed at the familiar planes of his face, searching for hints of how he’d been living since they’d last seen one another; there was more stubble on his cheeks and chin than normal, and his hair–
She reached up to run her fingers through the tightly curled, black strands, mussed from his helmet. “You’re letting it grow out?” she asked.
Stonewall touch her cheek with trembling fingers. “I haven’t thought to cut it,” he murmured, then kissed her.
It was a deep, bruising kiss; the desperate kind that swallowed her whole heart. She twined her fingers through his too-long hair and gripped his shoulder, only to pull him closer. In return, Stonewall curled his own hand around the curve of her cheek and wrapped his other around her waist, devouring her with the kiss. He’d told her once that he was a starving man and she was a feast; he would take everything she offered.
But for all its intensity, the kiss was brief. Too soon did he pull back, working to catch his breath as he ran his eyes over her again. “You’re really alright?” he whispered as he smoothed back a strand of her hair. “The stun bolts– ”
“I’m not hurt, Stone,” she replied, shivering under his touch. “Just tired. It’s been…well, a long night.”
“Too many long nights,” he agreed, then glanced over at the street, body tense. The sentinels had passed and there was no one in sight, but such quiet was surely temporary.
“They can track you, right?” she asked, tapping his armored chest.
No doubt he was using his fancy gear to scan the street for heat signatures, or Seren-knew what else. So he didn’t look at her as he nodded. “My squad will find me soon. Backup.”
“Well, you probably need it,” she couldn’t help but reply.
A beat later, Stonewall looked back at her. “The other mages at that meeting are friends of yours?” She nodded and he sighed heavily. “I’ll do what I can to keep them together.”
Every major city had a bastion now. Captured mages were always flung across Aredia like scattered chicken feed, separated from family and friends, imprisoned, tortured…
Now’s not the time for angst, Kali scolded herself. Besides, snark was her default setting. “Wow. Thanks so much.”
He tensed again. “I can’t change the system.”
Stars and moons, not this argument again. She knew better! Kali bit her tongue to fight back the tears threatening to fall. She had to keep her shit together – at least for the next few minutes. “Neither of us can, I suppose. But I’ll probably die trying. I just hope you’re not the one to shoot me–”
Heat flooded her cheeks. “It was a joke.”
He stared at her, pinning her in place with his honey-brown eyes. “It’s not funny.”
Kali pressed her palm against his cheek, over the stubble she knew he detested; how busy had he been, to let it grow out? Or had he simply not cared to shave it off? He was usually meticulous. How many rules had he broken for her in the last hour? He may have been her safe harbor, but she was a hurricane for him.
She wouldn’t apologize for her anger, but her chest ached like she was still running for her life. “Thank you, Stonewall.”
He ducked his head in acknowledgment. “You’re close to my place. Were you going to drop by?”
“If that’s alright with you,” she replied, offering the sort of teasing smile that drove him mad.
He didn’t smile back, but relief sang through his gaze. “The access code is the same. If you go now, I can buy you a few more minutes.”
Safe harbor with a mage-hunter. Hopefully at least Seren, the mages’ patron goddess, found Kali’s predicament amusing. “Sounds like a plan,” Kali said. “Will I see you later?”
Stonewall cupped her cheek and kissed her again, hard and swift: a promise. Then he stepped away and shoved on his helmet; the gleaming visor caught the moonlight as he cast her one last look before he hurried away, his steps echoing in the darkness, to merge with those of his fellow hunters.
Kali allowed herself a second to miss the comforting press of his body, then turned and made her own way through the shadows, to safety.
Hours later, Stonewall dragged himself into his apartment building’s lift, rubbing at his eyes to clear out his double-vision before pressing his thumb to the panel. It took a few tries, but the lift shuddered to life and shot up, groaning with the effort. Stonewall fought back a yawn and leaned against the lift’s peeling wall panels. In Tor’s name, it had been a long shift before his squad’s run-in with the renegade mages, and after he’d encountered Kali, his idiot brain had been too distracted to focus on much else other than ensuring she could make a clean getaway.
But he needn’t have worried; the renegades had all escaped. But while his squad-mates had cursed the magic-users’ canny treachery, he’d felt nothing for the magic-wielders.
How could he? There was only one mage he gave a shit about.
Which was, of course, his whole fucking problem.
How much longer could either of them keep up such a frenetic pace? He stared at without seeing the climbing numbers on the lift’s display until it paused at his floor with a tinny ding. He strode down the hall to his door and pressed his fingertip to the lock, and entered. The single room was dark, silent, and out of habit he stepped in without activating the lights, awaiting an ambush. A fastglass window stretched completely across the far wall—the apartment’s only amenity—and slivers of Seren’s moonlight spilled inside, revealing a few scattered clothes and towels on the usually pristine tiled floor. The latrine door was half open, allowing remnants of steam to dissipate into the air. Someone had just taken a shower.
Satisfied, he locked the door panel and soft-footed his way through the shadows, to the corner that he’d designated as his bedroom. The thick, polyfoam mattress was tucked in the far corner, a few paces from the single, wide window. Kali lay on her side of the wide mattress, dressed in one of his battered sleep shirts, intermittently snoring. She was here; she was safe.
Thank the One; he might be able to get a decent night’s sleep for the first time in…well, best not dwell on that. Stonewall shrugged out of his armor, set his pistols in their customary place at his side of the bed, and rushed through the sonic cycle in his shower. Real water would have felt better after such a long day, but the sonic knocked away most of the dirt and sweat. At last he slipped beneath the blankets beside her. He kept his movements gentle, not wishing to disturb her sleep, but when he slid his arm around her waist she let out a soft murmur of approval.
Gods above and beyond, he’d missed that sound.
Stonewall curled his body around hers, savoring their shared heat and the clean scent of his shampoo in her damp hair. Even after she left him again, the scent would linger; the only bit of him that she would allow to stay close. And wasn’t that a pathetic thought.
Enough brooding. Stonewall dropped a kiss against her forehead; Kali let out a murmur that may have been his name, and snuggled closer to his bare chest.
The steady pace of her breathing was better than any melody, and Stonewall allowed everything else to fall away from his mind. Tension ebbed out of his neck, back, shoulders; slipped down his arms to his fingertips; tricked down his legs and toes.
Tomorrow would be chaos, but right now, they were safe – together.
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Be kind, be careful, be curious,