Fort Banner was holding its breath.
The unnatural quiet had descended over the entire complex like a blanket, coating everyone inside it alike. Officers, soldiers, non-combatants, and even the dozen or so dragon shifters who stood ready to defend it. Here and there hushed conversations would be occurring, but in the middle of the night the normal hustle and bustle of a twenty-four-seven military base was noticeably absent.
Footsteps echoed in the dark. Each bootfall on the concrete cracked out into the shadows, disturbing the silence like a whip. The owner paid no mind to the effects his passage had on the sentries and those unfortunate enough to still be up at this hour. His attention was focused solely on the summons he’d received.
Kase, please report to the command center immediately.
That was it. He’d been buzzed awake, and after answering the line, had been told those eight words. The operator on the other line had hung up without waiting for a response. That’s how he knew that whatever it was, it was big. There were few things that could warrant such a response.
One was that the portal had been activated and the Outsiders were pouring through it onto earth. Given the lack of alarms and soldiers rushing around to arm themselves, he’d ruled out that possibility.
Overhead lightning erupted across the sky. In the midst of it a large, dark shape descended toward the tunnel that marked the entrance to the portal. One of the cobalt dragons arriving back from patrol deep in the mountains then, showing off their powers.
The dragon landed and Kase’s preternatural eyesight picked him out as he shifted back into human form. Above, the sky lit up with a blanket of lightning again. Maybe it wasn’t the dragon showing off, then. An actual storm appeared to be rolling in. There was no rain, and even his ears had yet to pick up thunder, so it was a ways off yet. That was good. If it started to storm now, it could only be a bad sign.
The first raindrop spattered against his cheek. Growling angrily at the sky, Kase made a mental note not to jinx things any further if he could avoid it. The drops didn’t increase in frequency, but in the pools of light from the lampposts that he passed, he could see the ground slowly accumulating more marks of its coming. Slow for now, but that would change. It always did.
Just like their fight with the Outsiders—creatures from another realm that could rip the life straight from a person. Kase had learned the history of the silent warfare being conducted between the two races, and its ebbs and flows. Perhaps the tide was about to come back in.
One of the Outsider warriors, a six to seven-foot-tall beast that could rival a dragon shifter in raw physical strength, had escaped from the portal and the base some months earlier. Five, altogether, had made it through the portal and to the surface. Four were now dead. The fifth had proven the most elusive. The crimson dragons were in charge of hunting it down, but the wily creature had remained ahead of them for weeks now, moving mostly unseen until it was too late.
Kase suspected that things had changed on that front. Why else would they wake him in the middle of the night and force him to trek across the base? Unlike most of the other dragons, Kase was a new arrival, and still living in temporary visitor quarters at the opposite side of Fort Banner.
The lightning came with a more frequent intensity. Kase found his eyes growing tired from the flashes, forcing him to squint against it as he made his way through the hangars that housed the combat suits. Advanced technology allowed a human to pilot the metal beasts from within, giving them strength, speed, and weapons they could never normally possess, turning them into fearsome opponents.
Kase winced as the sky lit up as bright as day. Stars erupted in his eyes and he stumbled suddenly, searching for something to support himself. His hand encountered something metal. Sighing in relief, he looked at it. It was an arm belonging to one of the battlesuits. Kase opened his mouth to utter his thanks, when to his abject horror, the metal started to writhe and come alive, slithering its way up his arm, just like he’d seen the Outsiders’ armor do when it reshaped or healed itself.
Shouting in horror, he pulled his hand away. Something screeched and the living metal came with him as he stumbled back. Summoning his powers, Kase forced quicksilver down his arm and over his hand, the frozen metal forming a barrier between his skin and the armor, until it fell to the ground with a very metallic clang.
“What the hell was that all about?” someone asked.
Kase looked around. On the ground was a piece of armor, clearly ripped from the arm of the battlesuit in front of him.
“It was alive,” he gasped, suddenly short of breath. “Didn’t you see it? It came alive and moved up my arm.”
The pilot pivoted his suit to face Kase square on. “You fell into me, then ripped it free when you freaked out. Nothing was alive, dragon.”
Kase shook his head, the images clear in his mind. “No, you’re wrong.”
Two more suits appeared, three-fifths of the normal sentry patrol.
One of them spoke, probably the patrol leader. “What’s going on here?”
Lightning flashed again, and Kase was surrounded by Outsider warriors. Silent, deadly, and closing around him in a circle. He shook his head again trying to clear it, but one of them raised an arm at him.
Kase shouted, and a gigantic battle-axe flashed into existence in his hands, conjured by his powers and formed from quicksilver, a weapon that could kill with its blade but also freeze its enemies to death with the chill of the metal itself. He swung mightily at the nearest creature, barely missing its arm.
All of the Outsiders reared back.
“Come on then!” Kase shouted in the midst of a mighty battle rage, as the bloodlust of all dragonkind flowed through his body. “I’ll take you all on!”
He whirled to find a combat suit standing in front of him, guns pointed directly at him.
“What’s going on?” Kase asked, looking around. “Where did they go? They were right here!” he shouted, swinging his axe wildly as he looked for the Outsiders. All he could find were battlesuits.
“What are you talking about? You just tried to cut my arm off,” one of the suits complained, standing a little farther back than the others.
“No!’ he shouted. “You’re lying. They were here—I saw them with my own eyes.”
The patrol leader’s entire upper torso shook as he moved the suit’s head back and forth. “No, you didn’t. It’s just been us this entire time.”
Kase slumped. What was going on? Why couldn’t he—
“Let’s get some light in here,” the patrol leader said. As one the battlesuits turned on their exterior spotlights, pinning Kase in their midst.
Without warning his vision flickered and then the creatures were back, circling in close. “You won’t take me alive!” he howled and leapt at the nearest one, swinging his axe.
The weapon crashed into the side of the Outsider, but it didn’t bite deep. Something clamped on to his leg and hauled him free, but instead of resisting, Kase pushed off. The added momentum unbalanced his attacker and they went down, his axe bouncing free from his hands and melting away as he lost control of the weapon.
Rolling to his feet, Kase roared as another creature came at him from behind and wrapped him in a reverse bear hug, trying to pin his arms down as it lifted him into the air.
“You. Cannot. Stand. Against. ME!” he shouted, breaking free and dropping to the ground. With a savage kick, he bent the knee in backward, and then leapt from the ground with a mighty uppercut that rocked the Outsider back, sending bits of its armor flying everywhere.
Something heavy slammed into his back in repeated succession, driving Kase forward until he could picture a wall of quicksilver behind him, like a turtle shell. Then he cupped his hand and in one smooth move whirled around and flung the baseball of quicksilver at the offender. The ball melted as it coated the under-arm mounted gun. The Outsider shrieked as the metal froze everything around it, boring in deep.
Kase turned as footsteps thundered in close, catching a glimpse of a black club at the end of an Outsider’s arm as it slammed into his head, sending him hurtling through the air. Only the metal wall of the hangar stopped him, the siding bending in around him.
The blow rocked him back, and he stopped. “I can save you!” he shouted, seeing the suits reeling from the attack. “Where did they go? I’ll stop them!” he cried, pushing free of the wall just as a suit came at him.
“Stop them? Stop yourself!” the suit snarled, and smashed its metal fist right into Kase’s face.
He flew back into the wall again, rebounding off it just in time to duck below the Outsiders’ next attack. Kase couldn’t figure out how they were coming and going so quickly, but he would need to be at the top of his game if he wanted to stop them from hurting the suits any more.
Lashing out, he struck with his backup weapon—a hammer. It crushed in the stomach of the nearest Outsider, sending it flying away in a silent arc.
Sheet lightning filled his vision and he stumbled, hearing someone screaming in pain. It was only when his throat started to hurt did he realize it was him. Falling to the ground, he slammed a fist into the concrete, trying to focus on the pain, latching onto it as the one sensation he could trust.
“DON’T COME NEAR ME!” he all but shrieked as footsteps neared.
Quicksilver pooled underneath him as his powers started to pulse out of control. It coated the ground and ran up his arms, along his spine, and started to cover his face too. The air around him began to fog up as the unusual heat of the late fall night clashed with the sub-zero of the metal.
Thunder boomed, a tremendous crash overhead that acted like a physical slap. Kase’s head snapped around and he looked up. The Outsiders were regrouping. He couldn’t let that happen. Lunging to his feet, he charged at them, howling as the wind whipped at his clothes, picking up in intensity as the storm closed on them.
Kase launched himself into the air, arms raised above his head to bring his hammer down upon one of the Outsiders, crushing in the black chitinous armor that looked like its head. He never made it. Something flew through the air like a cannonball, tackling him to the ground. They bounced, rolled, and came to their feet, the newcomer firmly between Kase and the Outsiders.
No, the battlesuits.
Then they were Outsiders.
Roaring in confusion, he swung at the newcomer, a wild, uncoordinated strike. “I must protect them!” he howled. “They’re in danger. Outsiders on the base.”
“Kase, that is enough!” a familiar voice bellowed back at him.
He focused on the source of it, the newcomer. A familiar face. Not an Outsider. He knew this person. They were like him. A dragon shifter.
“Put the hammer down.”
Black armor flowed down the newcomer’s arm, shaping itself into a hammer worthy of a blacksmith. But it was black. And evil.
Kase roared, raising his own warhammer, and charged.
The enemy creature ducked down and to his left, came up, and with a graceful arc slammed the hammer into Kase’s temple.
“Ow.” Then he collapsed as his legs stopped working.
Everything spun, and he fell headfirst into a whirling pool of blackness. Kase fell, and fell, until he could fall no more. He hit the ground, bounced, and suddenly was back on the concrete at Fort Banner.
“What the hell?” he asked groggily, coming around.
“Yes, what do you want, Stoen?” he asked, looking up at the other quicksilver dragon.
“To know if you’re all right.”
Kase winced at the pain in his temple. “I…I think so. What happened to me?”
He looked around, noting the shattered and broken combat suits lying nearby. “Were we attacked?”
Stoen didn’t answer right away. “In a way,” he said softly.
Kase looked up at him, horror slowly overcoming him as he started piecing his memory back together. “Oh no. No, no, no. Stoen, what have I done?”
“Too much,” Stoen said sadly. “They’ll all live, but one of them will probably never fight again, and you wrecked four battlesuits. Two of them at least beyond repair, Kase.”
He shook his head, the lightning overhead no longer affecting him—for the time being, at least. “It was the lights. The sounds. It was too much,” he said, his breathing becoming ragged and uneven as he tried to process what he’d just done. “Too much.”
“You need to leave, Kase.” Stoen gave him a once-over, seemed to judge that everything was okay for now, and hauled him to his feet.
Kase wobbled slightly, recovered, and focused on taking deep breaths. “Leave? Where will I go?”
“To see her,” Stoen said forcefully. “She can help you.”
“No,” he snarled, holding up a hand as everyone tensed, indicating he was just angry, not about to attack again. “I can’t do that. Not after what just happened tonight, Stoen. You know this.”
“Kase, she’s your mate. She’s the only thing that can help prevent this from happening again.” Stoen shook his head. “Last time you just destroyed a hotel room. This time you almost killed people. What will happen next time?”
He hung his head, no counter-argument available to him. “I can do this on my own,” he said stubbornly.
“You’ve been using that argument since you met her, what, three years ago now? Four?”
“Four,” he muttered. “She’s safe now, Stoen. Happy. She doesn’t need me, and I don’t need her.”
“Kase, as soon as a Magistrate can arrive from home, you’re going back to the Enclave, and then to see her. End of story. You’re a liability here.”
What could he say against that? Stoen was right.
The evidence was all around him.