There was a time when humans ruled the Earth like kings.
Bloodthirsty wars, natural disasters and diseases killed and pulled our world apart. Humans became an endangered species. They were dying out. But two hundred years ago, one man discovered a solution.
Using a combination of hand picked genes, perfect for survival on our dying planet, he created the Paladin. Immortal. Youthful. Powerful. We were a super race, born in laboratories and given one mission in life: to protect the human race from extinction.
Each Paladin was given a human to protect, and they watched over them their whole lives, and when they died, their Paladin would too.
It was our duty to protect the humans.
But it was not enough in the end.
The war starts on Cassia's ninth birthday. I am standing beside her as her eyes are glued to the television but I can only focus on her. Paladins can do many things, but we can't read minds.
And so, I can't help her. I feel hopeless.
"The Council declared war against Scythia this morning," the brunette says, glancing down at her hands. She can't look at the camera, not because it's not allowed but because she feels the weight of her words on her shoulders and on all the shoulders of the viewers. She takes a breath.
"In this time of need, the Council has made the decision to place Boston in lockdown. The curfew will be changed to ten o'clock. Paladins are expected to be on red alert. Any Paladin that leaves their charge will be asked to exit the city."
Cassia turns around, her dark curls bouncing over her shoulder and her blue eyes rimmed with tears.
"You won't leave me, won't you Lauren?" she asks. I bend down and brush the hair out of her face.
"I will never leave you," I promise.
~eight years later~
"Do you want me to leave you there?" I ask Cassia as she puts on her dress in front of her mirror. It is cracked in several places but Cassia can still see her beautiful reflection.
"We're still on red alert." Cassia huffs, clearly annoyed that I have to go with her. She is meeting up with a group of friends to do God knows what.
"I just want to make sure that you will be okay," I protest, zipping up the back of Cassia's pink dress, "Scythia might make a night raid again." Cassia looks at me through the mirror.
"Ren," she sighs, "You have been my friend my entire life, and I love you, I really do, but I just want a bit of freedom just this once."
She says 'just this once' every time she goes out.
"Alright," I say, turning her around to face me, "Just promise me you'll be careful. If anything happens to you, you know I get in trouble too."
If Cassia gets caught again, she will get a mild scolding from her mother and father. I will get a severe yelling at from her parents' Paladins and the Council will relocate me and give Cassia another Paladin. I don't think I could live without Cassia.
"I know," Cassia sighs, and she pulls me into a hug, "I'll be careful, I promise."
I rest my head on her shoulder and hope she keeps her promise this time.
We climb out of our bedroom window, sit on the windowsill for a couple of minutes, looking out at Boston and trying to see through the smog.
"Do you really think Scythia will do another night raid?" Cassia asks. She was ten when the first one came, and I know she still has nightmares even though she denies it.
"Maybe," I answer, "I don't know. It has been seven years. Maybe they're just waiting for something."
Cassia squeezes my hand and I squeeze it back.
"It'll be okay. You'll be okay." I try to reassure her, "Now go out there and have fun."
Smiling, Cassia pushes me off the windowsill and I fall down past the first storey windows until I reach the ground, landing feet first. I hold my arms out for Cassia, and without hesitation she throws herself off the windowsill having complete faith that I'll catch her. Paladins have impossibly fast reflexes so I catch her and set her down.
She picks up my long, blonde plait and sets it across my shoulders.
"See you soon, Ren," she says, waving goodbye and walking into the smog. Even though she is all grown up, I still see my little girl walking away from me into the unknown.
It takes me all of five seconds to decide to follow Cassia.
I climb back up to the windowsill and then from there I manage to get into the roof. The view from here is incredible — the smog clears away if you get high enough and I can see tiny little lights dotted randomly across the city. Since the first air raid was seven years ago, people don't bother turning off their lights. Amidst the smog and lights I see a person a few hundred feet away.
Cassia, I think, Where are you going? Only one way to find out.
I creep along the rooftops and quicken my pace to match Cassia's. Her shadow is the only glimpse I can get of her. I am not expecting her to turn into an alleyway, and when she does I am surprised. She usually goes straight to her friend's house. Alleyways lead to the poor sector of Boston, and Cassia's family is anything but poor. She tells me that she will marry one of the Council members' sons when she reaches eighteen and that I will marry his Paladin and we will live on one big house with two children each and a dog. But Paladins are forbidden to marry, let alone have children.
I think about this as I drop to the street and follow her down the alleyway. It is dark here, but not so dark that I can't see Cassia. She is always a few feet ahead of me, and I like to keep it that way. She suddenly turns down another alleyway and I wait before continuing. But when I turn, I don't see her silhouette. It is like she has disappeared.
"Cassia," I whisper, "Where are —"
Someone suddenly slams into me and I am not quick enough to stop myself from falling. I land on my butt and glare up at the person in front of me.
Who is most definitely not Cassia.
"Kiri," I scold, "What are you doing out here?"
Kiri is the son of the Head Councillor, a friend of Cassia's family and the leader of Boston. When I first saw him he was three, the same age as Cassia. Now he's all grown up. His black curly hair has grown out past his ears but his blue eyes still twinkle mischievously and his skin is still the colour of olives despite being kept in by his Paladin all day.
"Are you trying to get caught?" I ask him. He leans against the wall.
"Yes. You know that I hate it here, Ren." Kiri says.
I do. His Paladin is extremely strict. I've never met him, but by what Kiri has told me he isn't like me or any other Paladin Kiri has encountered.
"So what are you doing out this late," he peers around me and notices that Cassia isn't here, "Without Cass?"
"She's out," I say, "I'm looking for her."
He bumps my shoulder and rolls his eyes.
"She'll be fine. Go home, get some sleep."
Kiri pushes me in the direction of home and disappears into the smog.
When I get home, Cassia is waiting at the door.
"Hi," I greet. Then I notice the tears on her cheeks.
"What happened?" I ask, running up and hugging her. Cassia rests her head on my shoulder.
"They found out," she whispers. I freeze, and let Cassia go.
"Council guardians stormed my friends house. They got a warning, but..."
She looks up at me and tears well in her eyes.
"I'm so sorry, Ren."
Cassia is pushed away from me as the door opens and a Council guardian marches out, his Paladin close behind. Cassia's parents and their Paladins are hovering in the doorway.
"Paladin 56120," the guardian says, calling me by my laboratory name, "This is your third and final warning,"
"No," Cassia pleads, "It isn't her fault. Just don't take her away from me."
The guardian ignores her cries.
"You will be asked to leave the city tomorrow. Guardians will escort you to the Council headquarters." With a nod to Cassia's parents, he and his Paladin walk down the grey steps and into the smog.
Cassia latches onto my arm and cries. I don't. I stare ahead and blink back tears.
I will not cry.
A few hours later, Cassia and I sit in her bed.
"What are we going to do?" she asks, sniffling. I wrap my arm around her.
"I'll have to leave the city," I say, "But I'll find a way back in."
Cassia hops off her bed and flings open her wardrobe, searching for something. She has nearly thrown out all of her clothes by the time she finds it — a small book with the Council symbol on the front, the silhouette of a small bird resting on a golden branch.
"Council rules and regulations," I read aloud. I look at Cassia in awe.
"We can find a loophole," Cassia explains, and she flips to a section titled 'Paladins and the Law'.
The sun has just risen when Cassia finds something.
"Lauren!" she says excitedly, shaking my arm and pointing at a section of writing. I take a deep breath and read it. After I finish, Cassia looks at me expectedly. I start nodding.
"This may work," I say. I grab a piece of paper and a pen from Cassia's bedside table and begin to plan my return to Boston.
They come for me in the morning. Two Council guardians and their Paladins knock on the front door and wait patiently outside. Both Cassia's parents give me a hug and her mother hands me a gold necklace.
"I hope you find your way back to us, Lauren," she whispers. Her Paladin also hugs me while Cassia's father's Paladin simply nods. Cassia is the last to see me, crying as she hugs me tight.
"You promised you would never leave me." she says. I bend down to whisper in her ear.
"All will go to plan. I'll find you again. I promise."
The guardians nod at me through the glass window. It is time to go. Cassia lets go of me, and tucks the sheet of paper with our plan on it in my pocket. My black jacket and her blue dress are stained with tears.
"See you soon," I mouth as I open the door and allow myself to be lead away my the guardians. And although I can't see her, I know Cassia will be watching from the window.
The guardians lead me to their car and shove me in. Not many people have cars, the smog is too thick, but guardians have their Paladins drive, and with our excellent vision we can navigate through anything.
It is a short car trip to the Council headquarters in the middle of the city. When we arrive, the guardians take me out of the car and their Paladins hold my hands behind my back and lead me up the stairs. The guardians push open the glass doors and escort me across the lobby. The extremely rich humans gather here to socialise, dressed in lavish gowns and fancy suits while the residents in the poor sector are wearing dirty rags. I know I can hardly complain — Cassia's family is certainly upper class, but at least they treat me with respect, unlike those who glare at me now. I am glad when we enter the elevator.
The floor we come to is right at the top of the building, with a view over Boston and the lands beyond. To my left is a cable car, ready to send us down out over the high city walls, and to my right are five Paladins, sitting on a white couch, waiting. The guardians gesture for me to join them. There are two girls are three boys. They all wear the standard Paladin uniform — black jacket, black jeans and black shoes — except one, who hears a black hoodie instead, covering his face. When he looks up, I can only see blue eyes.
"Kiri?" I mouth.
"Ren?" He mouths back. I nod. He moves over so that I can sit next to him.
"What are you doing here?" he asks.
"My third time leaving Cassia," I whispered, "An accident."
He wraps an arm around me and sighs. He knows how much Cassia means to me.
"Well at least I have you," I whisper. Kiri smiles slightly.
After a while, another guardian comes through the elevator doors and clears his throat. We all turn to look at him.
"The Head Councillor is unavailable today, so I will pass on a message from him," he says. The Councillor wishes to advise you that you are no longer citizens of Boston. You can never come back to the city and you can never see your charges again."
He escorts us to the cable car and we sit patiently as he pulls a lever and we are sent down over Boston. I watch as we descend but I can't look as we go over the city walls and away from everything we've ever known.
The cable car reaches the ground and the doors open with an audible pop. The two girls get out first and then Kiri and I step onto the red soil.
"It really is different out here," one of the boys says. He's right. Only the grey sky stay the same. The soil is red and cracked and there is nothing to be seen, not for a hundred miles. But then one of the girls spots something.
"What's that?" she says. Something appears on the horizon and it flies towards us. It looks like a plane.
"Oh my God," Kiri cries, mouth open.
"What is it?" I ask. As it flies closer I see a flag painted on the wings. But not just any flag.
"Its a Scythian plane!" I cry, "Its going to bomb the city!"
With an unspoken agreement, we run towards the cable car, but as soon as I get a grip on the door handle, it starts lifting itself upward, and I lose my grip.
Kiri picks me up and then fishes something out of his shoe. A gun, which he holds up and then places in my hands.
"Ren," he says, "I want you to shoot me."
I stare at the gun and then at Kiri.
"Are you out of your freaking mind!" I yell, "You can't just give up now. The city is in danger!"
Kiri's face softens, and he walks towards me.
"I'm Scythian, Ren." he says softly.
"You're what?" I can't believe my ears.
"My family is Scythian. They smuggled themselves into Boston and my father killed his way up to become Head Councillor. He assigned his most trusted friend — the head of the Scythian army — to be my Paladin. He then ordered him to start a war against Boston." He covered my hands with his own.
"You thought it was a coincidence that Scythia started a war the first year my father was Head Councillor?" he asks. The plane flies overhead, and we stare at it as it enters Boston. I can hear bombs dropping.
Kiri suddenly lets go of my hands and steps backwards.
"You have to get back to Cassia. The Councillor book of rule and regulations states that an exiled Paladin may regain citizenship if they commit a heroic act for the sake of the city. I'm the enemy, Ren. Shoot."
The two other girls and boys stare at us. I stare at the gun.
"No," I say.
"Ren," Kiri says, "I'm human. If I die, my Paladin does too. He's controlling the plane and the bombs. Save our city," his voice breaks, "Please."
I shut my eyes and pull the trigger.
~one year later~
The war ends on Cassia's eighteenth birthday. I sit next to her on her bed as her eyes are glued to the piece of paper she holds in her hands.
"You're officially a citizen!" she says.
"Again," I add. The official document is signed by the new Head Councillor. Kiri's father was killed when the plane the Scythian General was in crashed into the Councillor headquarters. The new one was elected two days later. He sent the cable car back to us and greeted us at the steps of the demolished building, congratulating us on our bravery. I held Kiri's body in arms and I cried.
I can't think of Kiri now. My focus will always be on Cassia, and that must never change. She has changed in the past year. She doesn't go out much anymore, but she spends more time with me, so I am happy.
"I thought I would be married to a Council members' son by now," she says, sighing, "But it's okay. I have you."
She clutches my arm and I wonder how she can think of things like that after what we all have been through. But that is Cassia, and I wouldn't love her if she were anything but what she is.
I stare out the window as Cassia keeps talking and through the smog I see someone on the other side of the road.
A boy with olive skin and black curly hair and blue eyes. He nods at me, and I smile.
It is our duty to protect the humans.
But some humans don't need protecting.