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First pages

Prologue

Fire.

 

Flames of raw energy that fueled the very beginnings of all civilization across the Plane. With a life of its own, this beautiful yet dangerous light was as destructive as it was mystifying. Always safely controlled, the white-hot force gave rise to all power in known existence.

 

Now, for the very first time in recollected history, fire was uncontrolled – and falling from the sky in the form of flaming rocks. Cascading torrents of orange and yellow soared through the day and night skies to plummet to the surface on all faces of the Plane. Everywhere, on every isle and every city, chunks of fire slammed into the soil, rocks and water below.

 

Just now, the barrage of rock pieces and dust obscured the sun in the sky above.

 

The lead scientist had just given the final signal to retreat until further notice. With the violent shower now going on for eleven cycles, all survivors left on the Plane prepared to make the descent.

 

The scientist palmed the surface of the rise before her to make one final attempt at contact with the Star Unit.

 

Star Unit, come in. Do you copy?” she shouted aloud over the deafening commotion overhead.

 

No response via either voice communication or Field message. Why wouldn’t they answer?

 

Just then, another communication reverberated through the Field:

 

“Warning – final evacuation now in place. Repeat, this is the last call for evacuation. Storm phase has gone from critical to fatal.”

 

As if on cue, a deafening crash sounded outside the compound, nearly making the scientist cry out. If no one else from the Star Unit was attempting to contact her, the chaos outside must have become so cataclysmic as to interfere with signal between not only Plane and Void but across the Plane’s surface as well.

 

Several questions raced through her mind as she clambered to reach the entrance to the tunnels.

 

Had the Star Unit survived? Why hadn’t they warned the Plane?

 

Would the solar rises hold against the storm?

 

Would there be enough room for any survivors on the Star station?

 

What would a life in the Void be like?

 

More importantly, would the Field be destroyed?

 

For the first time in eons, death was becoming a reality once again…

 

The scientist’s thoughts were cut short soon after she had descended beneath the solar rise and sealed the entrance behind her with a frantic slam of her palm – just in time for the greatest crash of all, a horrifying commotion which rocked the very tunnels and utterly eradicated the compound above.

Chapter One

Date – 12,042 YAS (Years after Storm)

 

Nasin moved through the crowded streets, carefully weaving her way amidst the bustling shoulders pressing by. Even back when the rail tube had just entered the purportedly poorest district of Tabira, people seemed to be rushing to and fro from various lines of work. The older woman marveled at how many adults simply pushed by begging children.

 

High overhead, police aircraft surveyed the city, the sound of their engines having replaced the familiar sound of the temple song that still graced Nasin’s home nation of Lir. Somehow, Nasin suspected the only remotely musical aspect remaining in Tabir culture was its national anthem.

 

Nasin had departed the tube about half a kilometer from the Capital Center. Only several leagues ahead began the stairway leading up to the government building, a smooth silver structure, dwarfed only by the glinting black monolith that stood directly behind it. Both architectural pieces gazed out over the entire region from atop the only grassy knoll amidst the otherwise flat green plains of Tabira. As the twilight faded away to dusk, the strange dark material of the monolith began to give off the iridescent glow that always came with nightfall.

 

From her many years of visits to Tabira on various diplomatic expeditions, Nasin had come to appreciate the booming economy. Particularly now that she had recently established a land treaty between the Tabir and the Lirians, the government of Tabira was far more interested in conducting trade with her people. Indeed, Lirian cotton had become quite the commodity in inter-regional commerce with Tabira, perhaps the deciding factor to finally soften diplomatic relations following a fairly rough history. As cotton remained one of the very few crops that didn’t grow easily from the fertile soil anywhere in Tabir territory, Nasin had succeeded in persuading Tabira to open formal trade negotiations.

 

This journey, however, grated on her nerves more than usual. Though the mild weather of the Tabir plains provided a welcome relief from the arid desert heat of Lir, Nasin was not looking forward to the subject of today’s talks with enthusiasm. The trip over on the rails had been quite tedious, and the sun had already disappeared beyond the horizon.

 

The telecall had reached her one week prior – a message that the Tabir chancellor, Mak Eta, wished to discuss adding Lirian hydrotechnology to cotton on the products traded between their two regions.

 

Naturally, Nasin’s initial reaction to such a proposal had been apprehension. After all, the Tabir Declaration had just been signed, officiating the Lirian people a place beside what had been internationally recognized as Garo territory for over four centuries. Maintaining trade of aircraft and tank artillery with Tabira would be essential, provided the heavy surveillance required to intercept Garo’s militants.

 

After years of fearing a common enemy in the Opal, Nasin still marveled at how Garo and Lir could remain at such odds with one another. Today, the Garo government argued that their people had lived as subjects under the Opal, in exchange for permission to remain on their native land. Meanwhile, the Lirians had stood their ground and, as a consequence, withstood decades of pillaging by the Opal until they finally relinquished their territory and fled west to Tabira. To that effect, the Garo viewed the Lirians as having willingly sacrificed their own land years earlier, never to return.

 

Only now, Lir had appeared as a nation once again.

 

Notwithstanding, the Lir were there to stay, as were the Garo. The last remaining armies of self-indentified pure Opal had fallen to the Tabir at last, and Tabira declared for Lir the five-hundred-league desert region surrounding the original Lirian monolith.

 

The conditions of the Declaration had been threefold: First – Provided Lirian adoption of certain forms of Tabir technology, Tabir officers would monitor the border between Lir and Garo to ensure that Lir avoided unnecessary brutality when responding to Garo terrorism. Second – Aircraft would begin transporting Lirians still living in Tabira back to their newly re-established homeland. Three – Lir would maintain its trade agreement with Tabira.

 

Nasin had strongly suspected that the third condition primarily applied to Lirian hydrotechnology. After all, Lirian intelligence had it on good authority that, in the area of technology, Tabira possessed more than enough in both supply and expertise. Not only had they invented both telecommunications and automobiles in the past two centuries, news traveled quickly via her diplomatic trips that Tabira had already expanded its territory westward across the Teal Sea.

 

Fitting, Nasin thought. Tabir was, of course, native for ‘victory’.

 

Very well. She felt ready to agree to virtually any measures, should they guarantee the continued presence of Tabir engineers working to power the turbines that ensured both electricity and water supply for the people of the Lirian desert and the Garo steppes. That had been a condition on which she and Garo Governor Par had actually agreed. The Tabir would not be strangers in the desert.

 

The older Lirian was torn from her thoughts by the Inquirer’s question.

 

“State national designation.”

 

Seems she had reached the Capital Center sooner than expected.

 

“Nation Lir, designation First Lasha Nasin.”

 

Nasin didn’t miss how her title finally evoked the man’s eye contact, as his gaze flitted surreptitiously over her form before returning to her face.

 

“Your purpose for council with the First of Tabira?”

 

“Trade negotiations,” replied Nasin smoothly.

 

“Very well,” returned the Inquirer following a brief pause, as he raised a communicator to his lips, “The First Lasha of Lir has arrived for trade negotiations.”

 

Nasin was grateful for the brief opportunity to observe as two security guards escorted her upstairs. They passed no fewer than five levels of administrative workers, all typing furiously on keypads or barking orders at their data cubes while on telecalls.

 

Inwardly, Nasin excitedly anticipated her first meeting with the new Mak. As a matriarchal society, Tabir news had swiftly reached the Lir and Garo regions. For the first time in half a century, a Mak’s rise to office had been challenged by a male adversary. Following her failed implementation of a socioeconomic system in which the government aimed to ensure every household was fed by equal distribution of resources in return for a clean criminal record of all inhabitants, a brief coup d’etat had many suspicious of this new Mak’s ability to govern.

 

No wonder security seemed to have hardened since her visit five months prior. Still, this Mak didn’t seem to harbor any intentions of genocide, as had her predecessor. For that alone, Nasin was willing to put her best foot forward.

 

As soon as Nasin approached the entrance to the Mak’s office, the guards stepped back about a meter.

 

Familiar with the drill, the Lirian pressed her palm against the panel beside the door. After a beat, two doors slid apart and Nasin stepped into the room.

 

There she stood. Eta. Tall enough to look Nasin in the eyes, the Tabir woman had a sharp hazel gaze and dark brown tresses pulled into a braided bun. That amber stare stood out against the soft bronze of her skin.

 

Nasin spoke first. “Mak Eta. Please excuse the late arrival. Our first meeting pleases me.”

 

“Does it?” Eta retorted, perhaps poking fun at the formal greeting.

 

Nasin was quick to catch on. “Agreed. Shall we dispense with the formalities, then? The rail ride here was stifling, and I’d like some refreshment. Water, if you have some?”

 

Eta seemed a bit taken aback by Nasin’s boldness, before breaking into a grin. “Water, it is.”

 

 

“So then, First Lasha,” Eta sipped her own drink as Nasin finished her water rather hastily with thirst, “How are the Network towers functioning?”

 

“Quite well, thank you,” Nasin smiled politely.

 

“That is good to hear,” Eta replied, “You’ve given some thought to my offer?”

 

“In truth,” began Nasin carefully, “I was surprised to learn that Tabira has chosen to resume using currency.”

 

“We’re giving it a try,” admitted Eta with a sigh, “It will be called der. Paper, rather than metals. The concept of gold currency would be unlikely to sit well with the Garo, given their use of the metal for their cultural face paint.”

 

Nasin nodded. “Still, generally speaking, currency does present a neutral option. Seems that the Code of Decency placed too much faith in individuals not being greedy scoundrels – which it turns out, most of us are by nature.”

 

Eta allowed the ghost of a smile. “Indeed. Perhaps turning from autocracy to oligarchy had some drawbacks – yet still surely such disadvantages are outweighed by the distribution of power among a few instead of one.”

 

“I have my wards,” Nasin returned politely, “And, as far as we know, the Garo have both a governor and treasurer. However, as both the Garo and Lirians allow for an all-inclusive vote once every five years, the resulting choices for politician are really more democratic than autocratic. In fact, the people vote upon option for leader as well as income tax percentage.”

 

“Fifteen percent.”

 

Nasin nodded.

 

“The same as Tabira. The women are still allowed a vote in Lir?” Eta asked.

 

“For the past year now,” Nasin replied, “Garo still seems to be working toward that particular goal.”

 

“Indeed,” the Mak nodded, “At least they have abandoned the practice of one man having multiple wives. For fifteen years now. Let us see what these next years bring. Tabira might recognize your nations as democracies yet. I take it you’ve received my message regarding setting aside the long-held international calendar for one of a less religious and more pragmatic nature? It seemed only fitting since the Illumination.”

 

“The discontinuity of the five-incremental system, you mean,” Nasin said, “If I understand correctly, years will now be thirteen months instead of five to reflect the solar cycles of the Plane?”

 

“That’s right,” Eta confirmed, “Additionally, while months will remain five weeks each and days moved to ten hours instead of five. The decree holds for all four existing nations, including the Ayam colony.”

 

“And both Lir and Garo are expected to adopt this system as well?”

 

“If you wish relations with Tabira to continue smoothly without interruptions due to time difference and the like,” Eta answered. “The Ayam colony has also implemented this new system.”

 

A pause as Nasin sipped at her water.

 

“It’s a shame the Code was so short-lived,” Nasin continued genuinely, “The purpose was one we should all strive to emulate. Goods and services in return for common courtesy. Perhaps the shortcoming was the difficulty with enforcement.”

 

“Surveillance as well,” the Mak bit the inside of her cheek thoughtfully, as if reigning in her emotions, “It seems even the Illumination hasn’t cleared up the mysticism of how to garner effective rule. Which brings us back to the inevitable matter of trade talks. With the Code no longer in practice, Tabira has reverted to a capital-based economy. As the Central Oligarchy no longer controls provisional distributions, we must ensure that goods resume inflow at a steady rate.”

 

“Only cotton, then? Or other goods as well?”

 

“Cotton, of course,” Eta replied, “But grains too. Our patties have grown quite saturated with the recent drought.”

 

Nasin pursed her lips. “I’m afraid that Lir imports most of our grain from Garo territory.”

 

“Not an issue,” Eta returned easily, “As you are aware, the oligarchy considers Garo and Lir as a single nation.”

 

“Despite our separate monoliths,” stated Nasin.

 

“The past is the past. Following your military victory, the Garo gave you back your monolith. They abided by your condition.”

 

“For symbolic purposes only, of course,” Nasin replied, “Out of respect for the faction of Lirians who still remain religious.”

 

“In any event,” Eta went on, “You conduct trade with the Garo, do you not?”

 

“It’s a strained relationship,” Nasin allowed, “But we have an agreement. Our water for their grain.”

 

“What of the grasswater?”

 

Nasin steeled herself. “Lir allows grasswater import in moderation. As always, we respect that both the beverage and the grass itself remain illegal in Tabira.”

 

The Mak nodded. “So long as Lir utilizes its border control resources to block Garo exports of the grass across the Strait, Tabira offers any means necessary toward the peacekeeping efforts on the behalf of your great nations. That said, all other Garo herbs should be allowed through. Now for the final product – water. In particular, hydrotechnology.”

 

Nasin released a steady breath. “You wish to partake.”

 

“Naturally,” Eta smiled, as if they were discussing the weather, “Tell me. What capabilities do these devices provide? Are they primarily oriented for irrigation?”

 

“Of course,” Nasin retained her smoothest of negotiating expressions. The face that Avithia often pointed out relayed to those who knew Nasin that she was hiding something. “While we’ve come a long way since our return, the Lir homeland remains very much a desert beyond the city walls.”

 

“And what about desalination?”

 

“Yes,” answered Nasin, “I take it Tabira could make use of such a capability, given your proximity to the sea.”

 

“In fact,” Eta began, “My sister Vata and her husband Hak have recently relocated with their two children to live on Ayam. They plan to build a life there. You see – the Ayam natives still hold the archaic belief that someone will take care of them from above. They accredit the monoliths to the Zaam and still worship. This prevents them from progressing as a society in areas of science, such as medicine for their sick.”

 

Nasin replied swiftly, “Perhaps the Ayam don’t need missionaries discouraging their faith. Their beliefs have no impact on the rest of us.”

 

Eta’s gaze grew frosty. “Our informants along the Lirian border report a similar consensus from the Garo.”

 

“We remain neutral regarding the Zaam and the monoliths,” Nasin countered benignly, “The Garo choose to worship earnestly, painting their faces daily. We do not oppose this practice.”

 

“They are bequeathing their gods for a gift similar to the Lasha, no doubt,” replied Eta evenly. “The Lirians worship water, unless I’m mistaken?”

 

“Our faithful choose water as our sacred symbol, yes,” Nasin said plainly.

 

“How many believers?”

 

“Roughly one quarter,” Nasin frowned slightly at the relevance of such a question.

 

“Then your nation retains religion, if only through the worship of an element,” Eta nodded. “You have more patience than me, I’ll give you that. The way I see it – in the face of all that science has given us in recent years, how can we attribute such discovery to anyone but the people of this Plane?”

 

“Mak Eta,” Nasin said, not unkindly, “I mean no disrespect when I give my stance that although inhabitants of newly discovered territory deserve knowledge such as advancing medicine, there comes a point at which a power should stop expanding at the expense of another’s freedom…there must be a limit to the power one empire can reach. Lest a mission turn quickly into an occupation.”

 

“Certainly,” there was that smile again. “I’d expect similar ambition from Lir. While we seek to salvage these people from their ignorance, yours continually develop technology that arguably creates a glaring advantage over those with whom you share a border. Not to mention the evolutionary benefit of the Lasha, few as you are. How many now?”

 

Nasin steeled her gaze. “Avithia and myself. Only one per generation, as it’s always been.”

 

In truth, there was another ward. Oria, the daughter of a respected Lirian priestess, whose parents had perished in the rarely discussed genocidal Cleansing of Lirians by Tabir authorities. Three years ago, Nasin had taken the three-year-old Oria under her wing as well.

 

On the subject of Oria, the elder Lasha had to admit her own selfishness. Despite the child having a living grandmother back in Lir, Nasin had insisted on raising Oria as a ward, so that the autocracy would have representation of both religious and non-Lasha Lirians. As a pious woman herself, Oria’s grandmother had agreed to her granddaughter living away on the condition that a course in religion be taught in every Lirian primary school.

 

Yet for the discussion at hand, Nasin somehow doubted that Eta would be interested in a non-Lasha child. Hardly any threat there.

 

“And perhaps it has truly aided Lir in your…struggles,” Eta seemed to concede, “One can never tread too carefully when facing adversaries both natural and political.”

 

This Mak was clever, Nasin had to give her that.

 

“What about the children…begging in the streets?” Nasin ventured.

 

“An unfortunate result of the Code’s failure. When the Center cannot ration each household and institution accordingly, many citizens are left wanting. Particularly youth and the stray hounds.”

 

“The hounds have all gone now though?” Nasin prompted.

 

“The catchers have supplied most for our fossil fuels, yes. Those remaining are trained to aid the Kano in their investigations.”

 

“I see,” Nasin returned. For all the Mak’s talk about spreading knowledge, the Lirian felt she ought to tend to domestic needs first. “Once again, the Code was a noble effort in ensuring equality. The balance between ensuring all are provided for and leaving an opportunity for meritocratic gain is not easily achieved.”

 

Another beat.

 

“What I aim to know, First Lasha…” Eta began again.

 

“Please,” Nasin held up a hand, “Nasin will do.”

 

“Nasin,” Eta’s stony smile was unwavering, “This technology of yours. Is it purely environmental or has it been weaponized?”

 

Think fast. Show no weakness.

 

“Unfortunately,” Nasin smiled herself now, “The recent years of harsh drought on our arid soil has left little time for developing water-based weaponry.”

 

The Mak’s smile faltered then, only just.

 

“Our drip irrigation facilitator now works flawlessly,” the Lirian followed up swiftly, “We’d be happy to trade a shipment of five units. No currency exchange necessary.”

 

“Very well. I appreciate this concession. We’ll take the products in exchange for a tariff. Any amount you ask. Thirty kilos of cotton, one-hundred of grain and five irrigation units…”

 

That was when the high-pitched drone of an alarm sounded throughout the building. Several moments later, the doors to the Mak’s office opened and the same two guards who had escorted Nasin reemerged.

 

“Mak, we beg your pardon, but it’s been caught – Hazard 14,” one of the men huffed, short of breath as though he’d run up the stairwell rather than taking the lift.

 

Though Eta’s eyes narrowed, Nasin detected a slight increase in her breathing. She was anxious.

 

“Where is it being contained? The lab?”

 

“Yes, Mak,” replied the other guard hastily, as his partner barked an order into his communicator, “It’s being held in a gamma containment field. So far, it’s made no move to escape.”

 

“Will you tell them to shut off that noise?” the Mak requested irritably.

 

“Escape?” Nasin finally spoke up above the siren, “From gamma confinement? What could possibly get past that type of field?”

 

Just as suddenly as it had begun, the alarm stopped.

 

Sparing a fleeting glance at the Lirian, Eta quipped, “You’ve been out of the loop since the revolt five months back.”

 

Nasin tilted her head. “The male opponent…he’s – it’s not mortal?”

 

“Is that a habit of the Lasha or the Lirians at large?” Eta tossed back. “Such cryptic terms. Everything is mortal, First Nasin. You simply have to know where and how to strike.”

 

Well, the atmosphere of this exchange had certainly gone from congenial to frozen sooner than Nasin had expected.

 

“This hazard you speak of?” prompted the Lirian coolly.

 

When it became apparent that Nasin wasn’t about to drop the other’s gaze, Eta continued, “It took the Kano police force nearly two months to quell the first uprising under the rogue officer Joleh. In its wake, twelve others attempted to take on the goal of usurping my command, each put down in under a day.”

 

“What made the first attempted overthrow different?” Nasin wanted to know. “Superior numbers?”

 

“You might have heard the news of another rebel having walked at the side of Joleh, the first adversary,” Eta went on,” A powerful…creature, though it looked like one of us and barely older than a child. Once the creature fled, Joleh couldn’t fend off the Kano on his own. His followers didn’t take the initiative to step up until after his death. Likely emboldened by how easily Joleh’s aide had intimidated even our police. In any case, our forces have swept the streets each night for the months since the uprising, searching for this accomplice. We’ve caught him, but he usually escapes not long after.”

 

Then this entity must truly pose a challenge. According to recorded history, the Kano was the most brutal law enforcement and military unit to ever grace the Plane. And why only at night?

 

“Well then,” Eta suddenly seemed eager to change topics, “I’ll show you to your quarter for the night.”

 

While settling her mind for rest, Nasin thought of her ward, Avithia – the soon-to-be second Lasha.

 

Avithia had even suggested that, with internal affairs now flourishing, the Tabir had likely already sent missionaries or possibly even troops across the sea to Ayam. Her protégé had further remarked on the Tabir hesitation to move eastward and re-conquer Lir, to which Nasin had reminded Avithia that the Tabir had never, in fact, conquered Lir.

 

The Lir had lived among the Tabir for centuries as second-class citizens before the majority were finally exiled over superstitions regarding their elusive nature and forced to wander the wilderness for three more centuries. Only scattered remnants of the Lirian people still resided in Tabira, the derogatory term Talirian – or Tali – for them having caught on among young Lirians raised in the resettled nation of Lir.

 

“I still don’t understand why we ever lived alongside such an arrogant people,” Avithia had insisted just last week, “Tabira destroyed the Opal nation that came from the north and drove us out years ago. Why didn’t we return sooner to Lir? Before the Garo came along and decided it was theirs?”

 

“The famine, child,” Nasin had replied time and again, “Years of famine took our land following our departure. You know this. We needed to first develop the necessary technology to irrigate the land before returning. Technology we had to model after what the Tabir built.”

 

“I still think Lir would have come up with all of the same technology. We did develop hydrotechnology on our own,” Avithia had pointed out.

 

Nasin sighed. The child was asking more questions lately, a development which made Nasin both proud and weary. Even Avithia’s father Gether’s interest in Lirian politics had notably increased following the death of his wife in a Garo terror attack.

 

Still, she’d much rather her student ask questions than trudge through on over-confidence – especially when Nasin planned for Avithia to embark on a first mission to Tabira in ten years time. The outcome of her pupil’s first solo reconnaissance assignment to Garo territory would prove a formidable test of preparedness on that front.

 

In truth, at eight years of age, Avithia was already maturing quickly against the tumultuous backdrop of the ongoing conflict with the Garo.

 

Nasin would not disappoint. She would not reveal to the Tabir government the martial aspect of Lirian hydrotechnology.

Chapter Two

Unlike the sweltering sands of Lir, which didn’t begin to cool until the sun approached its next ascent, temperatures in Tabira dropped about an hour after nightfall.

 

Grateful for the large window in her quarter, Nasin struggled to find sleep despite the gentle breeze flowing into the room.

 

Outside the Capital Center, the air grew cool and drier as lightning approached from out at sea.

 

Even the Lirian intelligence unit hadn’t learned anything significant regarding accomplices to Joleh in his attempt to seize control of the Capital Center. Who – or what was this entity they had confined down below?

 

After several more minutes of pondering the risk of insulting Mak Eta should she be found out, Nasin decided she would see for herself.

 

The lift ride to the lab below was smooth enough. The Center was dead quiet, the air still enough to hear anyone who might be approaching once she stepped out into the hallway.

 

Fortunately, the lab had been easily identifiable from the lift, with the button showing a beaker symbol. Down at ground level, the monotonous whir of large generators permeated the silence.

 

Following the dim lights overhead, Nasin came to a door marked for Central officials only.

 

Although she was fairly sure the intrusion detection panel to the right of the doorframe was the access key, Nasin decided to try the handle.

 

Locked.

 

Nasin sighed. If the beaker symbol on the door itself was any indication, that was the lab itself as well.

 

Then she felt it. A warm, prickly feeling on the surface of her skin. It was as if the air had grown thicker.

 

Unsure if this static feeling simply seemed keener due to her acute senses or if the atmosphere had actually changed, Nasin decided to explore further.

 

Turning from the secure door, the Lirian crept quietly toward the other end of the hall. The lights seemed actually to grow brighter as she approached, glancing around in curious confusion at the several large panels of glass or some other translucent material. These panels lined one side of the corridor and each section opened into a small space with three white walls. The static feeling was growing to the point of making her limbs ache.

 

As she came to the center panel, Nasin nearly took a step backward.

 

Before her, on the other side of the large lucid frame, a boy sat on the floor in the middle of the room.

 

Seemingly no older than seven, he had dark skin the color of palm bark after a rainfall. Under the bright lights, the splotches of dried dust stood out on his cheeks. A mess of black curls swept his forehead, which currently hung bowed over his crossed legs.

 

Nasin resisted the urge to rub her temples. As the boy slowly raised his head, the Lirian nearly started as brighter lights shot to life in the corridor where she stood.

 

Nasin’s mouth went dry.

 

The child before her had a face like death. His flesh looked almost dark grey with a strange glint to it beneath the lights – gaunt and almost metallic…

 

“Well, well,” Eta approached from the main entrance to what Nasin now realized was some sort of holding cell, “You never mentioned the Lasha also acted as intelligence agents.”

 

Slowly, Nasin pulled her gaze away from the child in the cell, just as her eyes met a dark brown stare. “Mak Eta. Please pardon the intrusion. I found myself unable to sleep and decided to explore.”

 

The Mak broke into one of her eerie smiles again. Nasin could now see she was flanked by two guards.

 

Where was security when she’d first entered this area? Had Eta wanted the Lirian to discover the cell?

 

“Naturally,” replied the Mak, “In fact, I was considering whether to show you myself. First Lasha, this is Hazard 14 or, as my late opponent Joleh referred to him - Rohem. Mind the panel though, the containment field is designed to keep life forms out as well as in.”

 

Rohem. The Tabir term for ‘tree dweller’.

 

“You found him in the trees?” Nasin asked inquisitively.

 

The Mak laughed dryly. Under this harsh light, her weariness was apparent in her haggard expression and the bags under eyes. “He favors anything close to the sky. To the sun. Treetops, buildings...”

 

Eta had stepped up to the cell panel now, beside Nasin, peering in at Rohem. Rohem dropped his gaze almost immediately.

 

“Look at me, boy,” Eta’s voice was sharp and yet, Rohem remained still as a statue, “I said look at me.”

 

Still no response.

 

The Mak palmed onto the pad beneath the panel and tapped a graphic on the resulting screen.

 

In the next moment, the entire area fell black as pitch.

 

Nasin’s senses were struck next by the shrill, horrified cry of a young boy. He sounded so similar to Avi that the Lirian nearly shouted at the Mak. And then she registered the words behind the sound.

 

“Please! Bring back the light! What do you want to know? I’ll tell you anything, just please let the light come back!”

 

“Do you promise to be a good boy and tell us whatever we ask?”

 

“Yes!” the young voice broke, and Nasin’s head was assaulted by a searing ache that shot down her spine, accompanied by a moment at which the very atmosphere seemed to blast with heat.

 

A second later, the lights returned full force. The boy was now standing so close to Eta and Nasin that he could have reached out to touch them.

 

“Good boy,” Eta tapped another graphic on the pad screen. “Security rays at full force.”

 

Rohem’s gaze flitted briefly to Nasin then, the Lirian’s breathing calming following the retreat of the violent spike in air temperature. “The rays are fine. Just please, no more darkness.”

 

“Mm. Our guest Nasin was quite impressed to learn of your resistance to gamma ray,” Eta stated simply, “One might wonder how you’d respond after some time in the shadows…” she trailed off briefly, her eyes never leaving those of her prisoner. “Now show good grace and tell me – have you aligned yourself with anyone else since we last saw each other?”

 

“No,” Rohem mumbled, looking like he’d rather do anything but hold Eta’s stare. A steely resolve, indeed. Especially for one so young. “Joleh was the only one. I have been on the streets. Please let me go. I don’t care about your Capital, and I will not hurt any other Kano officers.”

 

Eta turned to Nasin, her face beaded with perspiration from the effects of the heat surge. “We suspected he could have been Lasha at first – until he showed no need to consume water – or food. My opponent Joleh was originally employed with the Kano forces, along with his brother, Samed. Samed eventually discovered Joleh’s treachery in harboring a child – particularly one with…unique abilities. Despite claims to want to use the child’s power for Tabira, Joleh’s level of secrecy was suspect, and he went to prison for six years for having hidden the boy for so long.

 

“Meanwhile, Rohem spent time in orphanages, wherein he would protect children from being beaten and keep some warm on cold winter nights while on the streets. As the dark makes him weak, Rohem lived as an ordinary Tabir child and refused to leave those he protected. Until Joleh broke out again and enlisted Rohem for an actual revolt. The boy’s hardiness is what makes him the perfect accomplice. He can set traps in trees and on rooftops where no one else could go and risk the fall.”


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Sarah supplements the creativity of historical fiction and science fiction with the quirk of satire. Outside of writing, she works in cyber security and occasionally gets lost out in nature or on Wikipedia.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
The growing tendency toward atheism and increasingly advanced technology in global human society
Q. Which writers inspire you?
A.
Dan Brown, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Faye Kellerman, Yann Martel...among others
Q. What books have influenced your life the most?
A.
"Life of Pi", "The Kin" and "The Economic Naturalist"

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