"Dirt cleans off a lot easier than blood.”
~ Maximus, Gladiator 
Proxima shot up in bed. Sweat poured down her face, and she rubbed her eyes furiously – trying to erase the dream.
Blood. Smoke. Fire.
What was it all about? She didn’t have reason to fear anything. She hadn’t watched a horror movie in ages either. Proxima ran her fingers through her sweat-damp hair.
Was it a sign? she thought, A warning?
She stretched and yawned.
Cato would know what it was all about, she decided. And just as she was about to climb out of bed; she heard something.
Proxima stayed stock-still, and turned her head slowly.
Damn that stupid window! she cursed inwardly.
A young man was perched on her windowsill. He was pale – a series of black freckles running over his cheeks and nose – and he had bottle-green eyes and dark hair. He wore a black shirt, mismatched with checkered pajama bottoms and riding boots. His handsome face wrinkled as he smirked menacingly. Proxima’s mouth parted, confused and slightly unnerved. She could call Cato, but then – for all Proxima knew – the boy could have been playing some sick joke… Or maybe she was still in her dream?
“Hello?” she said, with uncertainty.
The boy cocked his head to a side, but didn’t reply. The smirk stayed.
Proxima narrowed her eyes and, with more irritation, said, “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
The boy stepped into the room, and glided along to the far end. Proxima’s forehead creased.
Vampire? she thought.
But she voted against it. He lacked red eyes, and fangs, and Dracula’s aquiline nose. The boy still said nothing.
Proxima cautiously stuck her hand under her pillow, and felt around for the hilt of her dagger. Cato’s No. 1 protection-whilst-sleeping tip: keep a sheathed dagger under one’s pillow at all times.
Maybe he isn’t such a psycho after all, thought Proxima.
She found the dagger, but didn’t draw it just yet.
“You’d better –” she began.
The boy snickered, “Leave the weapon, silly girl.”
How did he know? she thought.
“W-what are you?” she asked.
The boy’s snicker grew louder. Proxima’s hair pricked up on her skin. He began guffawing, until his laughter became an inhuman, unbearable cackle. A black substance spewed out of the pores in his skin, engulfing it then settling like hardened lava. Horns grew out of his skull, and curled around his face – the points deadly sharp. His teeth became pointed and jagged – like a serrated knife – whilst his hands… from his knuckles tentacles emerged, spilling onto the floor, each the length of a bullwhip and tipped by a venomous claw. His eyes glinted – no – gleamed in the dark, they crystallized and colored green – like two jades were encrusted in his face. No irises. No whites.
He laughed again.
Proxima watched without moving.
Dyonuxiot… she thought.
The boy finished his bout of laughter, and sniffed the air. He looked at Proxima curiously, frowning. There wasn’t something right about her. She didn’t smell right. She didn’t smell Human.
“What are you?” the Dyonuxiot’s voice was guttural, and deeper than masculinity could ever allow – resembling voice of a raging bull.
Proxima gagged on the horrible stench of the monster, but still managed to look confused, “What?” she said.
Shouldn’t he have killed me by now? she thought, quizzical.
The Dyonuxiot opened his mouth to speak, but just then – BANG – a diamond-edged axe smashed through Proxima’s bedroom door, and its lethal blade buried itself in the monster’s head.
The Dyonuxiot shrieked, his tendrils becoming tangled as he tried to plunge the weapon out of his head. White blood spurted from the head wound, and out of his nose and mouth. Boils grew over the monster’s face, and burst immediately [only worsening the horrible smell], until his face could no longer be recognized – it was as though the axe had caused the wound to go immediately septic. The Dyonuxiot fell on his back, writhing in fury and pain, and then: stillness.
Cato ran into the room. “Proxima!” he called, and then saw the open window. He looked at her accusingly but relented a scolding, “Clothes – on – now.”
Proxima nodded hurriedly, and quickly putting a coat on top of her nightgown and slipping on the first pair of shoes she could find; chased after Cato as he rushed out of the front door. Screams echoed through the street, and the buildings were up in flames. The reek of gore and smoke were dense in the air. People stumbled and fell under Dyonuxiot tendrils as they tried to evacuate.
“Help! Help, I can’t get up!”
“Mamma! Where’s my Mamma?!”
Gunfire and cannon-blasts pierced into the night, and the eerie cackle of the invaders resounded above the screams and explosions. Cato pulled Proxima along, ducking under debris and avoiding any combat that was taking place. They rushed into their jeep, finding the doors unlocked, and slammed the doors shut. Cato panicked as he looked for the spare keys – one of the twenty he insisted on keeping – and as soon as he found them, hit the gas; speeding messily along Empire roads.
Gunfire rained on the jeep, but they bounced harmlessly off it.
What? thought Proxima, That’s not right…
“Cato –” she began.
Cato snapped his head towards her, “Not now,” he said, “And why isn’t your seatbelt on?”
“Cato, I –”
“Damn it, Proxima! Seatbelt – now!”
“Okay, okay!” Proxima did as she was told, and didn’t question Cato further. The lines in his forehead were creased in concentration, and his movements were almost reflexive. Sweat poured down his face and the veins in his temples bulged. Proxima wondered whether he knew where he was going, as they tipped over dustbins and ran over fire hydrants. She tried to relax. If she was relaxed, Cato might calm down a little.
He didn’t handle stress very well.
* * * * *
It was hours later that Cato sat in the car, his head rested back. He was sweating profusely, and hoped that the parking lot they had found wouldn’t be a specific target place for the Dyonuxiots. The jeep was lifeless now, and the benefit of having tinted windows – all the windows – was that no one would see you.
Hopefully, thought Cato, No one would smell us either.
But the respite in the parking lot didn’t at all ease Cato. He wanted to get out of the city, out of the country, out of the planet if it were possible. The Dyonuxiots were not unfamiliar with him.
Cato shrugged off his jacket, and placed it on the sleeping Proxima’s bare legs.
I told her to put clothes on, he thought, shaking his head, Always so carefree.
He wore a vest and pajama bottoms; and he rubbed his arms to fend off the chill, and then looked at the tattoo on his right arm.
The black letters ‘SPQR’, a black eagle insignia, and eleven straight lines – like a barcode. Eleven years in the Legion. His head spun with the memories: The hideous invaders pillaging and massacring all in their wake; the stench of burning flesh; the horrible pools of blood on the battlefield that could fill whole lakes; the screaming, the fear of the people as they tried to save their own skins. It was a horrible world back then, and it was still horrible now… even though it had gotten a little better. Cato was trained from the age of twelve and put onto the field at fifteen – a pawn for his superiors. Useful, but expendable.
Cato hugged his knees, and tried to ignore the flashes of his past. It had been some twenty-four years since he was discharged, but the memories still haunted him. After the Pact of Ceasefire in 2486, a good deal of Legionaries did resign or were discharged.
But Cato’s case was different.
He looked at Proxima, and stroked her cheek gently. She snuffled, but continued snoozing. Her skin was paler than usual tonight – white like alabaster – faint freckles passed over her cheeks and nose, and her face was framed by auburn hair
Cato was given Proxima, left in his care, after she was found in a pile of rubble at the age of four. No parents. No home. Not even a proper name. Just a small kid in a big, scary world. He was discharged at the age of twenty-six because of Proxima and he was grateful for it – for it was hard resigning from the Legion [especially because Cato had the high rank of Spear Centurion]; even if there was a pact for peace.
Peace? Cato snorted.
He knew this would happen. If there was anything he had learnt from being in the Legion; it was that the Dyonuxiots would not grant peace so easily.
But Cato had to admit: he hadn’t expected the Pact to be broken so soon. Now it was the year 2500… that meant only fourteen years of relative peace.
That must broken some sort of record, he mused.
He was surprised, however, that the Humans had held up for so long. The Dyonuxiots had landed back in 2020 [when people were still making jokes about the world ending in 2012], and had gradually conquered most of the world. But there was still the Empire – the Human state… not that they had got any stronger since the Pact. The Senate had some false that the Dyonuxiots would keep peace because of a signed piece of paper.
That never happened.
Pacts never held.
They were just there so that one of the two warring bodies would grow stronger and destroy the other – and it didn’t look like the Empire was going to defeat the Dyonuxiots unless they came up with something really good. And the surprise attack on the Gateway wasn’t helping – if the Dyonuxiots hadn’t overrun the whole Empire already, they’d do it soon, unless all Legion’s forces had immediately been sent out to confront them.
Proxima stirred, then yawned.
“Cato?” she said softly, “Aren’t you cold?”
“People who are numb never feel cold,” he replied.
Proxima shook her head, “You never give me a straight answer.”
“Of course not,” he stroked Proxima’s cheek, “I’d still be boring ‘Uncle Cat’ if I gave you straight answers. You’re eighteen, figure stuff out for yourself.”
Proxima snorted, “It’s nice of you to acknowledge that I’m adult, Cato.”
“Maybe, but that doesn’t mean you’re responsible, and it doesn’t mean I’ll stop caring. Which reminds me,” Cato folded his arms, “Why was your window open?”
Proxima groaned, “It was so stuffy, Cato.”
“You really think that would be even a tiny inconvenience if that Dyonuxiot ripped off your head and stuck it on a pole?”
Proxima stared at Cato, like Cato’s saying such a thing was so normal for her, but decided to change the topic for the benefit of both, “The Dyonuxiots… they don’t look like that on the news.”
“That is a Dyonuxiot’s true form,” Cato paused, “I’ve told you plenty of stories.”
Proxima shrugged, “I never took them seriously. They didn’t sound… real.”
“Well, you seemed pretty scared of them.”
“I was. I think I still am. But hearing a story is one thing, seeing the real thing is another.”
Cato snorted, “You only saw one character.”
“I’ve lived with the hero all my life.”
“That was a nice thing to say.”
“Yes, too bad we left him behind. I liked Captain Fussyboots.”
Cato stared at her, “That wasn’t funny.”
“Cato… The jeep…”
“What about the jeep?”
Proxima paused, “Bulletproof…?”
“Yes, bulletproof windows, and a titanium casing. Impressive, eh?”
“And I thought you went crazy when you got all the windows tinted…”
“Well… we’re all a little crazy sometimes, aren’t we?”
“And where did the diamond axe come from?”
“Take a wild guess, Proxima.”
“You used those huge, heavy things in the Legion?”
Cato smacked his forehead, “Proxima, have I taught you nothing?”
“Sure, you taught me to rock-climb, and hunt, and cook, and spar, and pick-pocket, and –”
Cato interjected, “My point was: I told you we used ancient weapons with a diamond finish in the Legion. Were you really shocked that I used one to kill a monster?”
“Again, hearing and seeing aren’t the same.”
Cato considered this, “Hmm… yeah, I probably should have showed you the whole collection. I think I still have a Kevlar suit that I was given when I was fifteen… it’d probably fit you.”
“Do… Do you think I’d ever need it?”
“God knows, but it’s better to be safe than sorry, right?”
Proxima smirked, “You’re lifelong motto.”
Cato ignored the remark, “Well, if we ever get to go home again, then I’ll show you.”
“You reckon all of it would survive?”
Cato touched the cord around Proxima’s neck. It wasn’t anything special, just a thick piece of rope Cato had given her some time ago, “Dyonuxiots don’t touch diamond,” he murmured.
Proxima looked at the cord and pointed at it, “You told me this would take me out of sticky places…”
“It will. God knows, it’s taken me out of plenty.”
“You’ll know when the time comes.”
Proxima shook her head, “Same old Cato.”
“Better than Uncle Cat,” Cato snorted and turned on the ignition. The jeep purred with life.
“Where are we going?”
Cato steered the jeep out of the parking lot, “Where else, Proxima? The safest place in the world for us now.”