Nahata: The Tattered Coyote
Her eyes cracked open but they were so swollen and hot that she couldn’t see anything. The light was sheer white and intense enough to blind her. Her head was swimming and there was an unmistakable ache burrowed in her bones.
As she remembered the events of the revolt, a spark of fear jolted her upright. She sat up and briefly glimpsed white tile before bowing over in nausea. She hugged herself against the sharp chill in the room. Every inch of her was naked except for the bandages along her torso.
She remembered how deep her wounds had been back in the cave. And the magic that pulsed inside of her. It was almost alive, a writhing beast living inside flesh.
She curled her fingers around the white blanket, the fabric was soft and plush beneath her touch. She’d never felt anything quite so... malleable. Her whole life consisted of sand, stone, and metal. Even her clothes had been rough, threadbare burlap. Nothing quite like this.
The door to the room swung open, her head turning sharply to take in the guard’s appearance. Beside him was a robed figure, his smile thin but growing.
“You’re awake, I see.” He stepped forward but his attention was elsewhere. He looked at the pulsing lights along the wall. An array of information was posted there in neon lights but she couldn’t read the Devian symbols. “And healing rather quickly...”
Her throat tightened around the lump of fear that was choking her. She looked at the guard near the entrance and then to the doctor.
“Do you know why you’re here?”
She didn’t move. Even the breath in her lungs stilled and her expression remained stagnant. She couldn’t begin to fathom the reasoning behind the Dev’s actions.
He pressed his lips thin when she made no reply. He nodded his head then glanced back at the guard as he considered his words. “You are Devian. Whatever happened outside in the work camps our glorious emperor has pardoned you.”
“Pardoned,” she blurted, the word jumping from her tongue. “A boy... a boy was murdered and you think—”
The doctor raised his hand in dismissal. He then tucked them behind his back and moved towards the door. “A set of clothes are on the table. You’re healed enough for travel.” He stepped out of the room, even his own muscles flinching away from the guard’s presence.
She eyed the helmet. It was the same canine as the guard who had brought her there. She couldn’t be certain if they were the same but he eyed her for a long time before closing the door.
She finally swept her attention over to the clothes folded neatly on the small table. Devian... She peered down at the bandages, remembering the strange magic that had been moving beneath her own skin.
Her mouth began to sour and a cold sweat trailed down her spine. She scurried to kick the blankets aside as she leaned over the side of the bed towards a small trash can. Her next breath was sucked in through her teeth.
No, she couldn’t be a Dev. She had spent her whole life as a slave to them. As a child she had been nothing more than a street rat living in sewers.
But she has seen clearly with her own eyes the magic and the open wounds.
She took a few more breaths until the shaking subsided. She rose to her feet and shuffled towards the clothes. Hanging on the wall above them was a poster, the familiar insignia of The Hooded Crow plastered in the middle. It was the same symbol carved into the guard’s armor and along every building. It was almost religious the way the Dev worshipped their emperor.
Her fingertips cautiously slid across the pristine cloth. Her old attire had been rags, baked by the sun and weathered from sweat and sand.
It wasn’t until she unfolded the shirt that she realized what it was. They had given her a military uniform, attire fit for a guard. Her teeth clenched and her mouth twisted. She had no desire to don the same outfit as her oppressors but she certainly couldn’t go out there naked.
She shimmied into the shirt before grabbing her pants. The clothes were tighter fitting yet somehow lighter and softer. She looked down, fingers tugging at the hem of her shirt. This new outfit and the figure beneath seemed entirely unfamiliar to her.
Could she really take comfort in the new things given to her? While the rest of the slaves scurried for their lives outside the compound, she was being showered in gifts. It seemed almost cruel to enjoy herself and yet... she wanted to be safe. She wanted to be comfortable even if just for a moment.
She snatched the utility belt from the table and secured it around her waist. She slid her feet into the fine-fitting boots, noting how thick and rugged they were. She was just beginning to tie the laces when the door opened again.
Her eyes rolled up, her movements frozen as the guard stepped back into the room.
She raised a brow then returned her attention to tying her laces. Once she finished, she stood tall. Her gaze easily returned to his helmet and the snarling teeth molded from the metal. She knew very little about the Dev and their clans but she understood each Dev somehow identified with an animal.
He nudged his chin to the table where the last of her outfit waited. “Grab your jacket and follow me.” He turned sharply and marched out the door.
She grabbed the heavy cloak and cautiously sauntered forward. Outside the hallway was brightly lit with the same white light. But it was empty of all people. It was quiet. Almost eerie.
Her voice was too loud in the corridor even as she whispered, “Do you even regret killing that boy?”
He scoffed which tightened her hands into fists. “You become a Dev and suddenly you think you can talk so confidently to me. Keep in mind I’m armed, little girl.”
“That boy only lived a portion of the years you’ve been alive. And he lived all those years as a cowering slave.”
He stopped sharply and raised his head. He kept his back to her though. “Don’t blame me for his death. You should blame those rebels who thought starting a revolt was a good idea.”
She did blame them. But she blamed the Dev for the tight collar around their necks, forcing the revolt to happen eventually. “How easy it must be to forget murdering someone.”
He turned around, the metal of his armor ever so slightly creaking. He looked over her, a tall and menacing statue. “Do not assume that I don’t remember. I know clearly what that boy looked like when he died. I worked that same quarry long ago before I was given this post.”
Her eyes slightly narrowed. She kept her gaze steady on the glossy surface of his helmet’s eyes. When he finally turned around, she let the breath bottled in her lungs quietly slip free. He marched further down the hallway and she quietly followed behind him.
Had he truly been a slave? Did she want to believe him? Because if he were telling the truth then surely that meant she too was a Dev.
They walked through the building’s various hallways until reaching a guarded door. The guard posted outside opened the door before turning his attention to her. Even the guard who had been leading her, turned sharply towards her.
She raised her chin slightly in anticipation.
“You’ll be processed here before taking a training course at one of the nearby bases.” He nudged his head towards the dimly lit room. “Do you understand what will happen?”
“Of course not... What’s a base?”
“You’re a Dev.” The canine seemed to be smiling beneath his helmet. “Congratulations. All Dev who possess magic, by law, are required to enlist in the military.” He stepped around her and marched back the way they came.
She watched him one last time before turning her attention back to the empty room. She shuffled forward, vision sweeping up at the spiraled glass along the ceiling. The Dev were always proud of their technology, their intelligence. It was the envy of the world from what she understood. It was the reason behind every war ever fought.
She turned sharply around just as someone was stepping through the doorway. He wasn’t draped in armor like the guards were but he didn’t look like the doctor either. He gave her a short glance before walking over to the table and chairs. He sat down in the furthest chair then opened up the folder he had brought with him. He looked at the papers before looking up at her and then the chair across from him.
She raised a brow, her voice almost catching itself, “Should I... sit down?”
“Your choice.” He shifted through the papers, reading each one carefully, “You’ve been successfully processed into the system...”
She shuffled closer, listening to the familiar sound of his accent, the common droll of a fellow slave. The second former slave she had met in one day. At least, that she knew of. She sat down stiffly on the edge of the chair in anticipation.
“Do you recall your place of birth?” He turned another page and when she didn’t respond, he rolled his attention up at her. “Mother? Father?”
Her tone hardened, “Do you recall your place of birth?”
He leaned back in his chair and threw his weight to one side. “We’re on the same side. This’ll go quicker if you give me direct answers.”
“No,” she stated. “I don’t remember...”
He stared at her for a moment. She hadn’t lied. She didn’t remember where she was born, not a name at least. She remembered bits and pieces of a city sewer, the muck and grime that had clung to her skin and threadbare clothes. She remembered a group of other children with her trying to survive.
He bobbed his head then slid the folder shut. “That’s probably for the best.” He sat back in his chair and raised his chin. “You’re Dev. Half of you anyway... Your parents were probably killed during the purge. Can’t say what clan you belong to. Not yet, anyway. The blood test hasn’t come back yet. You healed quicker than expected.”
“So what happens now?” She leaned forward and pressed her elbows into the table. “You found out I’m a Dev and suddenly I’m not a slave anymore?”
“That’s the law...” He raised a shoulder half-heartedly. “You’re lucky. With the way your magic appears, you’ll likely be drafted into a specialized team. Otherwise, you’ll be posted to some desert outpost like me...” He flourished his hand at the room in mocking jest.
She leaned back and wrapped her fingers around the edge of her chair. She squeezed hold of it, trying to feel the reality as she processed what he was saying. The room felt cold. She tried her hardest not to tremble but her body wasn’t cooperating. The jacket was thick and warm but for some reason, her fingers were ice and her bones ached.
He leaned forward and lowered his voice, “Listen. The moment you leave this room, you’re not a slave anymore. You’re Devian. And it’s going to be hell out there. It’s martial law. Lords, generals, soldiers all have the upper hand. It’s almost a game and whoever is most clever wins.”
She stared into his eyes but it was hard to keep from looking down. “I don’t know anything about the Dev. How am I supposed to even start a life among them.”
“Get stronger. And smarter.”
Someone stepped into the room, boots clattering across the floor. He handed over another folder then whispered into his ear. His expression hardened before peering over at the man beside him. His voice was low and cold, “Have everything erased... Immediately.”
“Yes, commander.” He bowed lowly then hurried out of the room.
He waited for the door to slam shut before looking at her. She could see it in his attire and the expression he wore. He had definitely been in command of the compound for a while. Perhaps, he had even been a commander during one of the major wars along the border.
“Coyote clan.” He opened the new folder and slid it across the table.
“Coyote...” She couldn’t make out a single word that was written across the paper. She didn’t speak Devian and she wasn’t even sure if her own language had a written alphabet. “Should that mean something to me?”
“You’re probably one of the few remaining.” He slid a box across the table then opened it up to show her the carved stone and red wax inside. “This is your clan’s seal. All you need now is a name and to stamp the paper in front of you.”
Her eyes widened, heat burning behind them. “I don’t have a name... I don’t... even... know a name to give myself.”
He leaned forward and tapped his fingers onto the top of the paper in front of her. “Press the seal into the red wax and then onto the paper. I’ll handle the rest.”
“What happens if I don’t sign?”
The corner of his mouth twitched in irritation. But then he released a shocked laugh, head tilted back as he tried to speak calmly, “I have to kill you. Listen, kid, why wouldn’t you sign? You want to head back outside and dig rocks?”
Her lips parted as she picked up the small obelisk. “So, I’m still a slave then.”
“Everyone serves someone in this life. At least now, you can eat whatever the hell you want and sleep on a soft bed and wear decent clothes.”
She watched him nudge his head towards the wax, encouraging her to keep going. She tightened her grasp around the stone as it warmed in her hand. With awkward movements she pressed the stone into the red paste and then into the paper. Before she could even remove the stamp, he was sliding the paper back to his side of the table and taking a pen to it.
“Rashkah-Nahata,” he said with a grin. “The Tattered Coyote. Welcome to the Devian empire, Nahata.” He tossed the pen down then casually placed the paper back in front of her. “You’ve been officially inducted into the crusades. You’ll be leaving this compound to a training facility southeast of here. Take your credentials, your stone seal, and follow the guard outside. He’ll escort you.”
She stared at the paper and the countless symbols scattered across its surface. She rolled her eyes up at him, the words muttered under her breath, “You were a slave once... How can you serve them?”
The corner of his mouth curled and his eyes darkened as he lowered his head. “You served them as a slave. Now you get to choose where and when you serve them. Don’t overthink it. Not now. Focus on surviving. You can worry about the rest later.” He stood up and casually strolled over to the door.
She stood as well and grabbed her things from the desk. “I’m only half Devian...” She walked the short distance to the door and gave him a stern look. “I won’t be like them.”
He opened the door with a breathy laugh. “We all do things we aren’t proud of in the name of survival. Good luck... initiate.”
The guard outside looked her over then held out his hand. She raised the paper with uncertainty. She wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted. He snapped up the paper and read it. “Rashkah... A fitting name.” He held the paper out for her to take back. “Follow me.”
She glanced between the two of them before taking her paper. “Lead the way, I guess.” Before she could step further out the door, the commander placed a heavy hand onto her shoulder. She peered over at the hollow darkness in his eyes.
“If you don’t sharpen your claws... you’ll have nothing to defend yourself with. Remember that.” His hand fell away from her shoulder. He stepped past her then sauntered down the hall in the opposite direction.
A sickness wrapped itself around her stomach as she stuffed the paper and stone seal into her jacket pocket. She had spent her whole life knowing only how to survive as a slave. She couldn’t even fathom what survival as a Dev looked like.
She pulled her eyes from the commander and followed the guard as he marched down the narrow hallway. She followed him to the farthest side of the compound, through an unimaginable maze of hallways and corridors. Large transports sat idly waiting on the various landing platforms.
She had never seen so many cruisers before. They weren’t as large as the slave transports but they were armed to the teeth. Far more pristine as well.
“Nahata,” he shouted over the crowd, her attention sweeping back towards him. He wasn’t ordering her like she expected. The sternness in his voice was only meant to grab her attention. He nudged his chin towards the closest transport. “This way.”
Nahata, she considered while following timidly at his heels. Coyote. She glanced down at her attire, the fine Devian fabrics and the clean stitches. The cloth was dark even in the light of the sun, not an ounce of wear and tear. She’d never seen cloth like it before. Guards were always plastered in layers of metal and the other slaves practically mended their clothes from dust.
“Eyes up,” he reminded while taking a short glance at her. “Don’t need you running into something and causing a scene.”
She rolled her attention towards the large airship, its bay hatch open wide like the jaws of a beast. A few supplies were being hauled into one corner, all stamped with the oversized seal of The Hooded Crow. Imperial goods that were mined from the quarries, she expected.
“Where are we going?”
“South. We’re headed to one of the outlier training facilities. They’ve been given word of your arrival already.” He took the furthest seat from the door and eyed the spot beside him. “It’s a long trip. Mine as well get some rest.”
She stiffly sat down beside him and took in his slouched posture. “It’s that easy? From slave to soldier...”
He scoffed and slid his eyes shut. “You’ve not even made it to training yet. It ain’t easy. If you manage to survive, you’ll be sent to war.”
She pressed her spine into the cold metal behind her. “And you?”
His lips curled a little on their edges. “I wasn’t good enough for the war. Not even good enough for canon fodder.”
Her eyes swept downwards as boots resounded across the floor and filled the transporter’s bay. She barely glanced up at the people who marched by but she saw enough. Their helmets were carved into the monstrous beasts of the Devian clans, a show of power and respect. She supposed soon enough she too would find herself wearing similar sharpened fangs and pointed ears.
A loud groan from the massive door caused her to flinch. She stiffened her muscles and rolled her hardening gaze over to her escort. His eyes were shut and his arms were crossed. In his mind she wasn’t a threat. Which wasn’t entirely inaccurate. Against the Dev, she was nothing.