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The yoke hung around Lyta's neck as she staggered along in the line. Her shoulders were raw and bloody from the weight of the steel collar and the attached chains, which kept her in the queue with the rest of the "tribute." The collar's edge sawed into her skin, and each shift of weight as she stepped was a brand-new spike of pain. She kept her composure, the tears having long since dried out, shed for her lost family.
Lyta was nineteen, and just a week ago she'd been tall and athletic, with long blond-frosted curls styled by a friend utilizing peroxide. Now, six days later, she had lost fifteen pounds through sweat, lack of food, even blood loss. Her scalp was covered with slowly healing scars, nicks made when her hair was shorn off by a soldier of the Panthers of Mashona. He'd scraped her from hairline to nape of neck with a sharpened knife, and years of growth and hours of coloring ended up in the dirt, along with slivers of her scalp.
Thankfully, Lyta had been in shock at the time. The Panthers had swooped down on her town, one of many located on the edge of Zambia, close to the dangers posed by various bandit groups. She'd watched as her father was shot through the face, and then the marauders, having slaughtered all the armed opposition, got to the task of preying on the survivors.
Lyta remembered her face jammed into the dirt, cheek abrading against rocks and pebbles in the soil, her eye so filled with grit she couldn't close it. Thus she was unable to look away as the militiamen grabbed her mother and threw her to the ground.
Lyta saw everything that happened, all the way to her mother's death, and after it. Even demise was no excuse for the cruel, bloodthirsty thugs to stop having their way with the woman's remains.
Lyta didn't think of her own fate. She couldn't remember anything, or maybe she just wouldn't remember. Her brain had shut down, and she focused on the agony around her neck, weighing on her shoulders, her collarbone. Maybe someday the memories would surface, but she hoped that they wouldn't. She only had the memories of being shorn, being stripped, being chained.
The Panthers of Mashona didn't say why they were herding humans, but Lyta doubted it was for slavery. After the miles they'd gone, the weight she'd lost, she'd be useless for physical labor.
The sun was half of a molten disc in the sky. Sunset had arrived and painted the African skies a rainbow of purple, orange, red and yellow, deep blue at the far end of that spectrum behind her back, Lyta surmised. This part of the countryside was miles and days distant from her home, but here, there seemed to be more pollution, even though they marched away from Zambia, deeper into Mashonan territory.
"All right! Stop!" the whip master shouted.
The queue stumbled to a halt, and bodies bumped against each other.
"Sit!" the whip master ordered.
And there, the group, having been at it for six days, plopped to the ground heavily. Better to get it done and over with in one fell swoop than stretch out the torture of shifting collars and bouncing chains as they gently tried to lower themselves. Links of steel bounced between Lyta's shoulder blades, and she wondered how much longer her backbone could take such abuse.
Water, filthy and tepid, but water nevertheless, was handed out in ladles. Lyta slurped at the muddy slurry, swallowing and feeling the grit of sand wash down her esophagus. She drank as much as she could in a single gulp; then, as her lips parted, the cup of life-giving moisture was gone.
Lyta's stomach churned, but she was glad for a lack of food and a minimum of water. That way she wouldn't have to worry, as days before, about having to relieve herself on the walk.
Above her was the vast expanse of the universe. They'd traveled so far from relative civilization that instead of a black night, they were beneath a swirl of stars. The spine of the Milky Way looked like a scattering of diamonds across black felt.
Lyta wanted to sleep, but as she stared into the infinite night above her, her mind drifted to the world she'd occupied only a week ago.
It had been a world where she'd read every night, even after being with her fiancé, Usain. It had been a place where she'd had a future in telecommunications. For decades, Zambia and Harare had shared a wealth of radios stored in the depths of some underground facilities along the Zambezi River. The two nation-states used the hydroelectric power of the dams to keep their cities modern. The urgency to keep the two entities in the technological manner that they'd become accustomed to had been the impetus to discard the last remnants of pre-twentieth-century prejudices about women's places in society and the broadening of the education system.
Trying to keep a relative island of paradise, or even just normalcy, in the middle of a region as tumultuous as theirs was a full-time job for the military forces of Zambia and Harare. Most of Lyta's electronics training came from a two-year stint in the army, learning her support role and apprenticing to more highly trained experts, all the while being taught the theories necessary to give her a basic grounding. With the actual science rolling around between her ears, as well as math and physics, she had the tools available to improve on the present technology.
That was something that Zambia needed desperately. Zambia and Harare weren't in a race against each other. Mashona, on the other hand, was a large region with little in the way of central government, defined now more by the Panthers militia than anything else, and even then, the bandit army was still in contention with smaller gangs and individual madmen who sought domination. Because Zambia and Harare cooperated but didn't try to become a whole nation, they were able to support each other while the forces of chaos were fragmented, pitted against their neighbors.
Maybe that's what we're here for. We're going to be the ingredients for the glue that makes the Panthers of Mashona into the only game in town.
Lyta looked to the stars, her mind turning that theory over and over.
So who would want nearly dead people? she asked herself. How could I, as I stand now, be of any worth to a force that would provide this militia with the undisputed position of power in this region?
She gave her lower lip a bite. Things moved around her, but the damned steel collar left her with only one position to look-straight up. Lyta had long since gotten used to the sound of boots crunching on the stalks of long grasses, the snap of twigs and the grinding of dirt as guards paced up and down the line, making certain that their cargo of the walking damned stayed in place.
Odd that the guards are not interested in taking a little ass while we're lined up like this.
The Mashonan soldiers didn't want to assert themselves over this queue of the doomed. They didn't need to feel the kind of cruel control that rape provided. They had control. They had the power. There wasn't a shred of weakness in the gunmen who lorded their might over this hungry, thirsty, battered mob. They didn't feel like they needed to be violent, to crush them.
Maybe it's the collars.
Lyta took a deep breath.
"We're human sacrifices." The man behind her spoke softly, a whisper that was so light, if it needed to travel another inch, it would have been swept away by the night breeze. "The old gods awaken. And they hunger."
Lyta peered at the speaker out of the corner of her eye. She couldn't make out any physical details. None of the people shared names with each other, as they hadn't been allowed to by their guards. The only details she could distinguish were the back of the man's head in front of her, the breadth of his shoulders and the signs of scars woven across his flesh.
No one else had a face.
The man before her could have been Usain. He was of the right height, but those knives had taken the hair off everyone, and whips and swagger sticks had left wounds on shoulders and backs, changing the familiar terrain so that even Lyta couldn't tell who he was.
And the yokes prevented speech easily even without the menace of the whip.
Lyta was alone. Everyone was alone in this line. There was no more sense of community. The chains and collars took away every chance of intimacy and communication.
And again, we return to the theme of communication. The guards discourage it, prevent it, grind it into the ground. They don't need it, and they want no one else to have it.
"The gods want us to remember that we humans are alone." The man's whispers returned.
It sounded as if he were reading from an ancient book, occasionally stopping to paraphrase to his listener for clarity. Lyta strained to get a look at him. His voice was old, raspy, weathered.
But no, she couldn't without turning her head.
Lyta ground her molars against her tongue and twisted her head just an inch. Just an inch, and she felt the collar cut into her neck like a hot knife, shredding the skin of her throat and upper chest as she forced herself to get a good look at the man she assumed was speaking.
It was a young boy, no older than fourteen. Too old to be taken to the rape camps for education as a child soldier, too young to have the experience and skills necessary to be put into forced labor.
And he was asleep. Beyond him, there was a woman, and another woman beyond that.
There was no one who matched the voice that had tickled her ear, threading legends from ancient times. Lyta straightened her gaze up to the sky.
The agony of just that slight movement, holding her head to see who was talking, had all been in vain. And it stole the last dregs of strength she had for the day.
She closed her eyes, wishing that her sleep would be eternal.
Now is not the time for any to sleep. Death will die, and the Queen awakens, stirring from her millennial slumber.
Lyta opened her eyes again.
And as she did, she looked up into a pair of catlike eyes, slitted in the middle, amber wreathing the narrow flames, and a flat face framed by a cobra-hood of muscle flexing in sheets from top of head to shoulders.
Before Lyta could open her mouth to scream, scaled fingers covered her lips, and a hiss issued from his.
* * *
As always when the Cerberus warriors said goodbye to those whom they'd assisted, the parting moments were filled with a quiet sadness and embraces that seemed to last a moment too long. Of course, Brigid Baptiste might have had a biased view of those hugs, especially since she realized that she was an attractive and desirable woman. She'd noticed that among the other women they'd traveled with, too: Domi and Sinclair were offered extended and enthusiastic embraces by the Zam-bian soldiers. Meanwhile, Kane and Grant kept their farewells to hearty handshakes.
"Ah, dear Brigid, your presence here in our little outpost has been an experience," Lomon said. "I wish it were all delightful "
"I understand," Brigid responded. "You and your men have been excellent hosts. We'll miss you."
Lomon nodded. His eyes glazed for a moment as he thought of the past couple of days and the losses incurred. They had come under the assault of a pair of groups; each had taken turns at controlling the strange clone hybrids called the Kongamato. The Kongamato, named after an African cryptid, were brutish, powerful winged creatures that were equal parts bat and gorilla. They had killed a great number of Zambian troops, first the outpost defenders at the power station attached to the redoubt, and then a company of soldiers who had been on their way to relieve the besieged trio of survivors.
"Don't worry," Brigid spoke up, breaking the elder Zambian soldier from his recollection of the horrors he'd endured. "We'll find the ones responsible."
Lomon rested a hand on her shoulder. "I wish I could send an army with you, girl."
Brigid smiled, looking toward her companions, former Cobaltville Magistrates Kane and Grant. "We've taken care of armies before. I doubt that Durga has that much of a force left. The Millennium Consortium members were wiped out, and Gamal and the Panthers of Mashona turned out to be using him as a distraction."
Brigid wanted to feel regret over the deaths of the members of the Millennium Consortium betrayed and murdered by Makoba, but there had been more than sufficient bad blood between the millennialists and Cerberus over the past couple of years that all she could manage was disappointment at the consortium's vetting process for new members. Even then, she wasn't too surprised at the millennialists picking the wrong person for the job. Austin Fargo and Erica van Sloan both boasted affiliations with the assembly of technocrats who sought to create their own new world order.
This time, the Millennium Consortium had thrown in their lot with Durga, the fallen prince of the Nagah, as both parties searched Africa for Annunaki wonders and ancient technology. In the process, the combined force had stumbled on a subterranean facility attached to the Victoria Falls redoubt that had a breed of mutants inside it to serve as their new shock troops.
Durga had maintained control of the monstrosities, but only for a brief period of time, until an African named Makoba had betrayed both the Nagah prince and the Millennium Consortium by stealing the control "crown." Makoba was the brother of a local warlord, Gamal, who himself had already discovered the technology to control the Kongamato and had usurped control of them. With a major contingent of Panthers of Mashona soldiers and the means of growing an entire army of winged horrors, Gamal had been poised to conquer the continent of Africa.
Unfortunately for the deadly warlord, Gamal had run straight into the heroes of Cerberus redoubt. Grant and Brigid had disarmed Gamal of his control system, and Kane had set off a self-destruct after the Kongamato horde was summoned back to their birthplace. The self-destruct brought down the cloning facility and the winged monsters with a blast nearly as powerful as a nuclear weapon.
The threat of an army of cloned winged horrors was ended, as well as the more conventional threat of Gamal's forces, thanks to planning, positioning and surprise on the part of the Cerberus operatives. With grenades and precision rifle fire, they'd scattered the bandit army, then watched as an ally wrested control of the creatures to send them to their doom in the self-destruction of the cloning facility.