Her eyes were purple. It took Ule a moment to process the faint line encircling the strangely vibrant iris. Contacts. She wore contacts. Ule blinked, glancing sidelong at Djin who had hunched his broad shoulders as soon as the young girl had entered with Zanzibarr. The commander thumped a heavy hand on the violet-eyed child’s shoulder, effectively making her knobby knees knock together and her whole body jerk. Ule knew the feeling. Like the rest of them, Zanzibarr forgot his strength many times.
“Quiet down,” he bellowed to an already silent room.
Everyone was interested in the newcomer enough to shut their mouths, watching the young girl with wary eyes.
“This is Arja,” Zanzibarr nodded to the girl. “She’ll be staying here from now on.”
The commander didn’t offer any more than that without prompting, which he got instantly. A bull of a woman named Marsik leaned forwards, elbows propping on her knees, hands clasped loosely. “What of it?”
Accustom to her brash way of speaking, everyone nodded along, wondering much the same thing. Ule tilted her head slightly, watching the way Arja was shifting her weight. Her body language was practically screaming Stop looking at me. The child’s breathing was uneven and solely through her mouth, as quietly as possible, the way someone would if they were trying to hide the sound of their breath. Ule blinked, shaking her head slightly and sat back, crossing her arms over her chest and blowing out a sigh.
“Come off it, Marsik,” Ule said before Zanzibarr could answer the stocky built woman.
A soft rolling chuckle rippled through the room and Marsik shot Ule a cool blue-eyed glare. “Just wanted to know why she’d be sent here. This isn’t exactly the Home for Lost Children.”
“But it is, a Home of the Gifted, and Arja is gifted enough to be here, and I tested her myself, so the lot of you will be in charge of teaching her the way we do things here,” Zanzibarr said and flicked a finger at Ule. “Playing the hero, as always. You aren’t fooling anyone.”
Ule rolled her large eyes and crinkled her nose, running talon-like fingers through her black hair. Djin snorted, lips twisted at the corners in a knowing smirk. “Hey Zan, didn’t you say Ule had some points to earn back after the last mission?”
Catching on fast, Ule glared hard at him as Zanzibarr broke into a wicked grin and gave the poor young girl a slight nudge in Ule’s direction. “Arja, let me introduce you to your new teacher, Ule Eydul. She’s a bit of an acquired taste, but once you get to know her…”
Ule steeled him in her mesmerizing golden gaze, though he just smiled and finished, “Well, I guess you just figure out how to live with her.”
Djin chuckled and someone across the room let out a low whistle. Arja appeared to be on the brink of pissing herself, her heart fluttering like a hummingbird, so Ule let out a heavy sigh and got to her feet. She wasn’t stocky or overly tall, but there was an uncanny regality about the way she held herself. Black hair tumbled down to her lower back in silken waves of oil slick. Set in her heart shaped face were delicately arched dark brows over slightly too-big golden eyes framed by thick black lashes, a sharply pointed nose and pale pink lips. Arja got caught it the molten gaze a moment longer than she’d meant too and her face flushed bright red as soon as she caught herself staring.
Ule cleared her throat. “If you’re serious about this, then I don’t see why everyone needs to be gawking at us. I’m sure they’ve got things to be doing.”
Zanzibarr’s brow twitched. “Alright, alright. Everyone, back to your day, learn something, bake something, kill something, but don’t…”
Break something. Ule recited in her head.
A few people rolled their eyes, but most mouthed his motto as they collected themselves and went back to their days. There were quite a few skeptical glances at the newcomer, as well as a number of smug ones towards her new babysitter. Ule ignored them until the only people left in the conference room were herself, her new charge, Djin and Zanzibarr. Djin hadn’t even shifted a centimeter, still peering at the young girl with his light brown eyes, appearing to be analyzing her quietly.
Arja shifted her weight from her left foot to her right and slowly raised her chin to peer up at her new teacher who stood a good head taller than her. Compared to the woman, the little girl appeared like a small frightened rabbit before a cold-blooded hungry predator. In a way, that’s exactly how it was.
“So, why are you here?” Ule finally asked.
Arja blinked a few times, eyes flitting to Zanzibarr from the corner of her eye, then to Djin, and finally back to Ule. “Because I’m a Skin-Changer.”
Zanzibarr nodded, agreeing with her. “Just like the rest of us. HQ had her sent here.”
“What is she? A gerbil?” Ule quipped, raising a dark brow humorously.
Arja pulled her lips between her teeth, sucking a sharp breath through her nose.
“She’s a Hyena,” It was Djin that spoke from his lounging position. “I could smell her from outside. Sometimes sharp eyes and ears aren’t that great, are they, featherbrain?”
There was no hostility in his tone, just playful taunting and Ule huffed, taking a few steps back from her new charge and circling around her, cocking her head. “She reacts more like prey than a predator. I’m guessing since she’s a Hyena, you’re expecting her to become some sort of spy.”
“Spy isn’t the word I would use, hun. I was thinking more along the lines of Intelligence Gatherer.”
“I don’t think there’s much use in me being her teacher, I’m not a Shadower,” Ule used the nickname for an ‘Intelligence Gatherer’. “She’d be better off with Aiki or Sohm.”
“Aiki and Sohm are heading out on a mission, they won’t have time,” Zanzibarr had relaxed back against the wall. “Anyways, you’re good with kids.”
“Like hell I am,” Ule sputtered. “I’ve never even met a kid younger than Raimer.”
“He’s twenty-two,” Djin said.
“Exactly,” Ule rubbed her neck. “Any way I could talk you out of this, Zan?”
“As your commanding officer and your friend, I think this will be good for you. Both of you. Now, why don’t you three head out and get some fresh air? Get to know each other. Sunbathe.” Zanzibarr grinned and headed towards the door, clapping Ule on the back heartily and tousling Arja’s short sandy brown hair.
His tall lanky frame disappeared through the door and Ule snapped her head around towards Arja. “So, a Hyena, huh. Can’t say I’ve ever met one of those before. Well, large predator Skin-Changers are kind of rare, I guess.”
“Yeah,” Arja mumbled.
“Hey, kid, I’m not gonna bite. The name’s Ule, no need for honorifics or anything. I’m not your momma, your nanny, or your master. Okay?” Without waiting for Arja to respond, Ule continued, waving a hand for her to follow, which both she and Djin did after a moment’s hesitation. “I’m not really sure how much you know about this place. I guess I’m not totally up to date on our standing with the public.”
“It’s classified under the highest level of containment,” Djin offered.
“Ah, really? Oh, guess that makes sense,” Ule turned them down a long brightly lit corridor, windowless and empty. “Well, do I need to explain it?”
Arja nodded quickly. “Yes, please.”
Before she got into the heart of the issue, Ule used her shoulder to push open the large door at the very end of the hall. Warm, dry air and pale afternoon sunlight greeted them as Ule led Arja out from the compound. Surrounding it completely was a densely thicketed forest, filling the land as far as the horizon. It was a spectacular location for a covert operation, off-grid and hard to access by anything other than the air. They picked a comfortable pace and talked while they walked.
“I’m not too fluent on the history of this whole Skin-Changer thing, but, long-story-short, some crazy Russian scientist called Sergei Mikhailov discovered a way to splice genes. He sold the process to the military and they used it to make hybrid humanoids. Most of the original generation ended up being spliced with things like Grey Wolves, Brown Bears and they had a few Lynx too. Most of them died or were comatose, so it was ordered to be discontinued.
“Since we’re here,” Ule tapped her chest in emphasis. “Obviously, that wasn’t the case. They kept doing human trials in secret and discovered that it was failing because they were trying it with adults. Simply put, splice an Embryo and it’ll most likely work because as they grow, they’re growing with the genes, instead of having something swapped out after living for dozens of years. Basically, it was both their bodies being too weak and their mental capacity being too small. They solved that problem by splicing the animal genes in Embryo’s and raising them in a controlled environment.
“Boom, Hybrid-hummanoids that didn’t weaken and die.”
Ule had brought them to the top of a small incline, standing at the zenith and looking down on a large pond that sat to the North of the buildings, nestled between it and the forest. She could hear Arja’s heart pounding strongly, showing no signs of exhaustion or fear. The girl was listening to every word Ule had said and even asked, “So, that’s how we were made?”
“Nope,” Having been silent until then, Djin spoke as he squatted and sat on the soft green grass. “We were born like every normal human. The whole birds and the bees thing. Nah, the first generation of Embryo’s would be in their fifties and sixties now. Most of them were too weak to be used in any combat, even the ones spliced with wolves and big felines and stuff. They were pretty much relocated around the world and kept track of. They had families, kids, some probably even have a grandkid or two.”
Arja furrowed her brow, looking seriously confused. “If they’re weak and living in the public, then why are we here?”
“Uh, well,” Ule tried to word it plainly enough. “For some reason, the hybridization seemed to advance in the second generation, instead of getting weaker like it should have. There were originally about one-hundred Embryo’s created, then another one-hundred prey species were spliced soon after. So, the first generation consisted of around two-hundred hybrids. Some were paired off to see if their offspring would be stronger, and since a single-hybrid parent produced a stronger kid, then a pair of hybrids made something even—Well, even more.”
“Then are we the offspring of one, or two?” Arja asked, eyes innocent and wide as she looked between the two older Skin-Changers.
“Depends, it’s pretty hard to tell and not all of the Second generation are here. Just if they are found to be unstable. It’s hard to control the ability at first, especially if you’re a predator hybrid. HQ keeps watch on them all and if they are dangerous to the normal humans, or are not striving, then they pick them up, test them and send them here, or to another facility where they simply teach them control and take them home again.”
“This place isn’t like that?”
“No,” Djin have one shake of his head. “this is Valkyrie. We’re here to stay.”
Arja’s face paled and she went a bit green after sitting down with a thump. Ule pursed her lips and tucked her black hair behind her ears before following suit and taking a seat, crossing her legs and folding her hands in her lap. She looked to Djin to help. She had no idea what to do with a kid.
“Hey, it’s not all bad. They feed us, clothe us and give us stuff to do,” Ule finally said, shrugging her shoulders and rocking back and forth. “Most of us here didn’t have it good back home, but I guess that might not always be the case?”
The young girl was quiet a long moment. “I accidentally changed in the backyard when my neighbor’s lawn mower backfired. I didn’t know what was happening, but my Mom saw me and freaked out. She wouldn’t let me back in the house, I guess she probably didn’t even know it was me. I could hear her calling my Dad and screaming about a rabid dog in the yard. He came home and I guess, he knew what was happening, because he calmed my Mom and then he sat outside with me. Eventually I changed back but my Mom wouldn’t come near me, and my Dad and her talked in their room for a long time.”
She sniffed and Ule tilted her head, eying the glistening droplets wetting her cheeks. “My Dad came out and told me I’d have to go away for awhile. That there were people like me that could help me. I didn’t want to go, so I panicked and I changed again. My Mom came out and I kind of went hazy and I lunged at her. I only meant to hug her, but she thought I was going to attack her and she kicked me away.”
Arja’s should shook as she quietly cried and Djin reached for her, rubbing her small back with his large hand. He turned his eyes to Ule, holding her gaze for a long minute. There was no need for him to talk, Ule always knew what he was thinking. Let her grieve. His eyes said. Let her grieve.