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“This is fantastic!” I yell, stumbling around as quickly as I can without an ounce of caution in my step.

Brogan laughs, too, which encourages me even more since this is the first time he’s been anything but serious.

“The point isn’t to move around like an elephant,” he says, calming me down a little. “It’s to be absolutely silent.”

“Okay,” I concede, lightening my steps to move more slowly.

Even tiptoeing, it is hard to completely adjust to this new way of seeing things. The visor sometimes freezes for a split second, and it throws me off enough that I slip occasionally. I imagine that the soldiers are used to this, but it’s not something that my eyes ever do so I have a hard time reacting. I take a few more moments to walk around in darkness while the other soldiers use their visors to make last-minute preparations. Brogan then turns the lights back on, and my visor goes blank.

“We don’t know what we’ll run into tonight,” he says to all of us. “You’ve seen how violent these creatures can be in the open, but we’ve never encountered them in their own territory. Do not engage unless you are attacked, and use silent rounds. Maintain radio silence. If you are separated from your unit, return to the surface and hold up in a safe house until dawn. You are my very best. I know you will do our people proud. This will be the first step toward a brighter future.”

He then looks at me.

“The princess is an asset for this mission, not a passenger. She will be carrying a weapon and can be issued orders as required. That being said, I believe she is as important for the future of our people as our objective. As such, you are to treat her life more precious than your own, or even mine. Is that clear?”

The soldiers cry out affirming their acknowledgment of the order. I don’t know if Brogan thinks this will make me feel better, but it only reinforces my fears about what could go wrong tonight. Even though I believe that I have a greater role to play in the increasingly uncertain future, I cringe at what sacrifices might be required of those who help me get there.

“We’ve trained countless hours for this day,” Brogan continues. “Let’s make them count.”

He presses a green button against the wall next to him, and a metal gate at the far side of the room begins rising up, revealing the foggy landscape of the hillside. I marvel at this simple act of opening the door and whatever power makes it possible. This place is wondrous, both in how it is built deep into the hill and the strange mechanisms it possesses. Just in this room there is light despite a lack of fire and a door that opens itself. Someday, I hope to understand how it all works.

The perimeter walls surrounding the hills are equally impressive as we walk out among them. The inner ones stand tall and firm, made of thick metal that is reinforced with buttressing anchors behind them. Between these walls are traps as well as large guns that can identify targets on their own. Their sights follow us as we walk, making me nervous.

“They won’t harm you,” Brogan says. “They’re programmed to attack only targets that match the movement of our subterranean enemies. But as a safety precaution, they’ll also recognize you as a friendly since you’ve been registered.”

The process of becoming registered, as the people in the hills put it, is quite odd. They don’t just want your name, but also your blood. Cassandra explained it as they were pricking me to get a sample of mine that each person’s blood is unique somehow, and the advanced technology these people possess allows them to identify individuals by their blood alone.

Being exposed to so many new and extraordinary things has been almost too much to take in. I’ve found it quite dizzying at times, though I suppose I might have found it less so had my arrival not been accompanied by so much anxiety. But on the other hand, it at least provided a brief distraction from my greater fears. Now as the twelve of us march in silence, I’m left alone with my thoughts wondering who among the men and women around me will and won’t make it through the night.

“Stop,” Brogan orders us just as we are working our way around the hill’s last defenses.

His eyes are turned uphill further along the final wall, where a large portion has been shredded and penetrated in several places. As we move in to get a better view, I stare in awe at the claw marks surrounding the different breaches, most of which start a couple feet from the base, stretching several feet tall and a just wide enough for a person to slip through. Bloody gashes also stain in gruesome red and penetrate deep into the metal.

“This looks just like what happened at the Seneca a couple weeks ago,” another officer, Ensign Kat, says to him.

Hearing her voice makes me feel more peaceful despite the morbid sight of the ruptured wall. She’s been the most welcoming person I’ve met so far, which surprises me since she is a soldier. The others seem so cut and dry, whereas there is a liveliness to her that makes me feel like this isn’t such a bad place to be despite the horrors looming all around.

We met when she was just arriving herself. She actually ran over to greet me. Her long, red hair lay so elegantly over her freckled skin that I would never have guessed her role here, and a high-ranking one at that. She oversees security at one of the other hills. She, like many others, believes my sister, and so she volunteered to help the momen

t she heard of my coming.

“At first we thought it might be some predators chasing game from the coast,” she continues, “but they’ve never been this aggressive before. Maybe we need to consider—”

“That’s an unfounded theory,” Brogan cuts her off.

“If this had only happened once I wouldn’t be so insistent,” Kat replies.

“What theory?” I ask curiously.

Brogan looks at her and then back toward me.

“Long ago when the transformation of our people began, many of those who would eventually turn started with specific symptoms of the undetectable illness: loss of appetite, weakness, compulsive tendencies, and sleeplessness. This eventually evolved into full-on delusionary and violent behavior. But there was nothing physiologically wrong with them, so people started believing in myths about mag—”

“Science shouldn’t discount what it doesn’t understand,” Kat interrupts, then calming herself before continuing. “Recently, we’ve started seeing the same sort of behavior in local wildlife. There was an attack last week on Seneca hill, and it began with a breach like this one that could not have been created by human hands. The creatures needed help. Many fear their influence is now spreading beyond the dark underground.”

I look at Brogan.

“You have to believe that there are powers beyond simply what you can see and touch.”

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