Excerpt for Pangaea: Unsettled Land by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


PANGAEA: UNSETTLED LAND

By Jarrod D. King

Pangaea: Unsettled Land


Copyright © 2016 by Jarrod D. King


Cover design © 2016 by JHawk Graphics Inc


Photographs: Isolated Sword © Craig Wactor / Adobe Stock; Blue Sapphire Crystal © markham203 / Adobe Stock; Jungle of Seychelles Island © Iakov Kalinin / Adobe Stock


All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or used in any manner without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

for Aunt Valerie

Table of Contents


Part One

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Part Two

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Part Three

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Part Four

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Acknowledgments

About The Author

PART ONE












CHAPTER ONE





I

The little girl’s vision was blurred with tears and she could barely see anything but the white of snow as the man returned. The boy sitting next to her did as he was told and continued to watch her. She wiped her eyes on the man’s big coat wrapped around her freezing, wet clothes and looked up as he spoke.

“There are no cracks in the ice,” he said, dusting snow off his shoulders. “Nobody could have fallen in the lake.”

The girl didn’t respond. She knew what she had seen. What she’d heard had been an entirely different matter.

“Dad, are we gonna be able to skate today?” the boy asked.

“Don’t you see your neighbor practically freezing to death? No, son, we’re taking her back home.” He offered a hand to the girl. “Come on. Let’s take you back to your grandma.”

She grabbed his hand and was hoisted into his arms. Her wet sleeves clung around his neck as she looked back at the lake. That horrific episode replayed in her mind over and over.










II

Moments ago…


“Gisela,” a woman called to her young child with arms wrapped at her waist. “We’re here.” Dressed warmly in white parkas, they both sat atop a pale horse. Its hooves kicked up snow as it trotted out into the open. It was winter in the Northern Third, where the winters were always the harshest. As the woman gazed out at their destination, she saw light snow falling onto a frozen lake. The sun hid behind the clouds, but peeked through from time to time as if watching events unfold and anticipating a scene it did not wish to witness. Tall trees surrounded Lake Maesus with branches that trembled with the air’s light breeze before going still. The woman pulled the horse’s reins and it came to a stop as they approached the edge of the lake.

Two beautiful green eyes looked up at her. “Yay! Can we have fun now, Mama?”

She chuckled at her younger reflection. “Yes, we can have fun. First, let me make sure the coast is clear. Come on, hop down.”

Gisela slid off the side of the horse and stuck her landing like an acrobat. Her mother followed and secured the horse by tying its halter to a small metal snap in a nearby tree. They came here so much that she had decided to install it herself last summer. She looked into a small sack attached to the saddle and pulled out a pair of binoculars to peer through.

Gisela huffed, “The lusae don’t even come here, Mama.”

Her mother tuned her out and continued surveying the edges of the vast lake for any sign of movement. The fact that the lusae hardly ever approached the lake was a strange phenomenon, but this was what made it safe for travelers. Even so, Gisela’s mother wanted to be sure the dangerous creatures were nowhere to be found. In fact, this was why she had rode in on horseback. If there were the slightest chance a lusae were about, her wheeler’s loud engine would have stirred them, and she didn’t need the threat they posed. As she gazed through the binoculars, she pressed a button, making the electronic marks and measures on the lens disappear. Her eyes caught sight of an animal on the opposite side of the lake. “Ah! Gisela, come look!”

Gisela trotted over with a puzzled expression and accepted the binoculars from her mother. She turned wildly as she looked through trying to see what all the fuss was about. “Hold still,” her mother said. She put her arms around her daughter and steered her gaze in the right direction. “Look.”

Gisela gasped. On the opposite side of the lake was a ceffyl, or water horse, with its head hanging towards the frozen solid lake. Its coat was the purest of white. Its mane and tail dripped with water. The creature simply tapped its hoof on the frozen edge of water then lifted its gaze towards the sky as liquefied water spouted up into the air and down into its mouth. After a few gulps, its gaze rested straight ahead as if knowing it was being watched. Startled, Gisela pulled the binoculars away, feeling like quite the intruder. She peered through again and saw the ceffyl had fled and the spot on the lake was frozen once more. “It’s gone,” she said.

“It’s okay, we’re safe,” her mother replied. The creature they saw had been on the far side of the lake. The distance between them was enough for them not to worry. Plus, the ice was always thick enough for them to skate without concern. As a mother, she always took precautions, but nothing ever happened out here. She grabbed the binoculars and sat them back in her pouch and gave her daughter a wide smile. “Now, let’s have some fun.” She went around to the other side of the horse and untied the laces of two pairs of ice skates hanging together from the saddle. Gisela eagerly held out her hands for her pair and sat on the snowy ground to change. Her mother walked to the nearest picnic bench and dusted off the snow-topped seat before sitting down. When she looked up, she saw Gisela stomping off in her ice skates towards the lake. “Gisela, don’t go too far,” she called. She didn’t answer, but her mother knew she’d heard her. She was constantly amazed at her daughter’s lack of fear in a world where people feared so much. The lusae, Ethereans, the elements themselves, even the people of the other Great Nations. Gisela saw none of it as abnormal or scary and had, in a sense, embraced it. She supposed that was how a lot of kids these days saw things. Times certainly were changing.


***


For an eight-year-old, Gisela moved on the ice with the grace of royalty. She’d gotten much better since they had started skating together last year. Her mother saw she had a love for the water. She picked up swimming even faster than she had ice skating and loved to come to this very lake during the summer for a dip. Gisela swayed back and forth, up and down. The furry hood of her parka flew back and her long, dark brown hair went traveling in the wind as she made her turns. Suddenly, she skidded to a stop.

She always listened to her mother and she never strayed far from the edge of the lake, but something caught her attention this time and she couldn’t shake her curiosity. What was that she heard? It couldn’t have been her mother, for she was still on the bench lacing up her skates. Again, a soft voice in a hushed tone: “Gisela.”

“Mama?” she asked. She looked further down the open lake, back towards her mother and back again. It sounded like her mother, but how could that be? She called to her mother at the bench a few yards away, “Mama. Did you call me?”

“No. Wait for me. I’ll be right there.”

Gisela turned away from the direction of her mother and began to skate further into the lake. “Come, Gisela. I’m here,” the voice said again.


***


Sitting by the table, her mother had nearly finished tying her second skate when she looked up and frowned. “Gisela,” she called. “Gisela, don’t go out any further without me.” She looked down at her unfinished laces and quickened her pace. Louder, she called again, “Gisela, wait for me!” As she finished with her skates, she looked up. She was alarmed by how her horse had begun neighing and jumping wildly. As the metal snap broke, she reached for the horse in vain as it kicked up snow and disappeared in the opposite direction. She looked back at the lake and completely lost her breath at the realization that Gisela was no longer there. “Gisela!” she yelled. She fought the onset of panic as she scanned her surroundings for any lusae. As expected, none were around. Perhaps Gisela was playing a trick on her – blending into the snowy ice with her parka as she had done many times before. She trudged her way on the ice skates to the lake and cried, “Gisela, that’s not funny. Get up–” but her words were cut short as she looked ahead. She lost her battle with panic as she saw an opening in the lake. Had her mind been clear, she would have noticed that the hole was not cracked and jagged, but oddly wide, smooth and deliberate. She only saw Gisela struggle to pop her head out of the water once for a quick breath, but then swiftly return below, unable to keep herself afloat. She had no time to think of anything but her daughter, so she skated forward.

She slowed herself as she neared the hole in the ice and began to remove her parka. After tying a knot in both sleeves she held on to one end and tossed the other into the water. The cold grew more intense against her body as she lie flat against the ice. She shivered in a mix of cold and fear with a silent prayer running through her mind. Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, Elao, please! Please!

Almost as if her pleading was answered, her daughter’s head popped up out of the water once again. “Grab on, Gisela! Grab it!”

She watched Gisela grab a hold of the knotted sleeve and wasted no time crawling backward and pulling her out. She got this far, but worried about cracks forming under their weight so close to the hole. How could this happen? she thought. She knew how thick the ice was and they came here to skate all the time. There had never been an incident. As she pulled Gisela to safety, she saw that the ice did not shift, nor did any more cracks form. The ice seemed just as thick at the edge of the hole as it was on the entire lake. It didn’t make any sense. It was unnatural. Something was definitely wrong here.

She grabbed Gisela and pulled her close as she sat upright. She held on to her so tight, unsure if she’d ever let go again. It took a moment, but she finally felt relief. “Gisela, can you walk?” Her daughter nodded. “Okay, get back to the bench.”


***


Gisela’s body shook fiercely, desperately trying to recover. She knew to listen to her mother and mustered enough strength to get to her knees and stand up. As her mother began to do the same, she started toward land and only made a few steps before hearing that voice again. Was it laughing?

“I’ll be waiting for you, Gisela…”

She thought she heard something, but it was more like a whisper. She couldn’t be sure. Then, she heard a splash. Frightened, Gisela turned around and saw that the hole in the ice had moved just inches away from her feet. She tried to catch her balance, but felt the thud of solid ice on her bottom. Her mother was gone and the hole gradually froze over. She looked back and forth trying to make sense of how the opening in the lake had inexplicably resealed itself. The only heat she felt rolled down her face in the form of tears as she screamed and begged for her mother to return.











CHAPTER TWO

Thirteen years later






The snow finally melted, marking the year’s beginning of spring in the Northern Third. Slade took a deep breath of the clear air while leaning on the rail of his thirty-fifth-floor balcony. He exhaled deeply. He was disappointed and still unhappy about what lie ahead. It only worked for actors in the movies he guessed. A day of classes at Burrow University loomed over him like a dark cloud. He hadn’t completed his assignments and hated to go unprepared. There was no choice but to go; however, he still hoped he could skate through what was sure to be a long day.

He saw the university not too far off in the distance. In the early spring scenery, even he couldn’t deny its beauty. Its main tower stretched high with stone, reaching to scrape the sky. The tower was flanked by an east and west wing that was just as intimidating as it was enthralling. Just ahead of it were yards of freshly sprung green grass protected in spots by full trees swaying with the wind. Slade looked at the other students below walking to and from class. Some had almost tumbled out of one of the surrounding dormitory buildings trying to get to class on time. Others just enjoyed the scenery, walking hand-in-hand. Slade felt a pang of envy as he saw this. They found love and were just fine with where life was taking them. How? He quickly turned his attention back to the scenery of the campus in an effort to free his mind of negativity. He especially loved the view of Lake Maesus to his far left.

The tinny chime of his communicator snapped him back to reality. He turned from the balcony and reentered his apartment. The glass sliding door closed behind him, giving the thin, white drapes on either side one last flap of air. His black, silk pajama bottoms were his only source of covering and he felt the snap of cool air against his brown, toned back. His shoulders sat back, perfectly straight, as he walked barefoot on the cool wood floor towards the side of his bed. The sensation on his feet found relief as they touched the thick carpet on which his king-sized bed sat. He glanced at the face of his comm. and smiled as he saw who was calling. He grabbed the device, put it to his ear and spoke in a smooth tenor, “Hi, Mom.”

“Good morning, Slade. Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, what do you mean?”

“Well, I just haven’t heard from you in a few days.”

“Mom, there’s no emergency if I don’t call you.”

“I know. I just know you weren’t doing so good a few days ago and I haven’t spoken to you since.”

Slade sat down on the edge of his bed. “I’m good,” he began. What was really on his mind and what had caused him to be unprepared for class was the end of a hard-to-define relationship he’d experienced a few weeks ago with his friend, Mason. They were drawn together by their commonalities. Both were from the same hometown, and before Mason transferred back home, they both attended Burrow University. Mason was very popular back home in Reor as well as in Burrow. What had started as a friendship began to evolve into something more intimate, or so Slade thought. Mason would touch Slade on the shoulder, obliterate his personal space and hold long eye-contact when talking. When discussing their aspirations, he’d even make promises like, “I’m taking you with me.” Once, he even asked Slade to comment on his looks. All of this from Mason with no steps to take it further confused Slade. He constantly began to wonder, Are we just friends, or something else? So, when Slade asked him and Mason withdrew his friendship, he got his answer: neither. Slade tried reaching out, but Mason never spoke to him again, and now he was back in Reor. Slade closed off his feelings a bit after being hurt like that. He figured Mason’s flirting was just a type of mind control to keep a loyal follower. And Slade did not appreciate being fooled. He had mentioned this situation to his mother once when it happened but tried to move on by not speaking about it.

“Okay,” his mother said. “When you find the right one, you bring him to me first.”

Slade saw he couldn’t fool his mother.

She continued, “You know I don’t like it when you get down on yourself. Get through this last year and come home.”

“Yeah. I will.”

“Speaking of coming home, we are going to see you during spring break, right?”

“Of course; I can’t wait.” This was only half-true. He treasured the time he spent with his family, but it was the only choice he had. It was his last year and he’d never experienced the fun of spending a vacation with friends. He settled on the fact that it would never happen. With the exception of Mason and one other friend, he never really got close to anyone. His status as a noble was a barrier between him and most of the other students for any connections beyond surface level.

“Your sister called me the other day. Even she’s going to come this time. Crazy girl. I think she’s bringing her mystery boyfriend along with her.”

“Good for her. How’s Dad?”

“He’s good. He just left for work. How’s school?”

He groaned. “Fine, I guess. I have to go to class in like twenty minutes.”

“Okay. Well, I’ll let you go and get ready.”

“I don’t wanna go,” he said feigning dread.

His mom laughed. “I’m letting you go, Slade. Get to class. You’ll never be able to work for the queen if you don’t pass. Bye, baby.”

“Bye, Mom.” He dropped his hand to his lap and stared at the comm. Working for the queen in any capacity was regarded as a great honor and was something the Maxwell family had done for generations as nobles. It was because of his mother’s work with the queen that he had all that he had: the big penthouse, the most expensive technology, and the nicest clothing. He was next in line to find a position as part of the government of the Middle Third, but he constantly questioned whether that was what he wanted. He wanted something new, some adventure, to experience different cultures all around the world. Working at a desk for the queen wasn’t going to do that.

He looked at the time on his comm. Class began in fifteen minutes. He sighed and found enough willpower to slowly push himself off of the bed and get ready to go to school.











CHAPTER THREE





I

Slade entered the auditorium-style classroom relieved to see his philosophy instructor had not yet appeared. Maybe class would be cancelled and he wouldn’t show. That would be one class Slade could scratch off the list today. He began to do some philosophizing of his own and wondered why exactly he was here. Slade could have decided to go to school in Reor, as the rest of his family once did, but the call of something new and extraordinary allured him here. He’d only been to the Northern Third once as a child, but he enjoyed the idea of staying in another country, long term. He could immerse himself in a culture completely different from his own and learn what life was like outside of the safe little bubble that was Reor. He thought being away from his family would give him the space to grow into who he wanted. He fought his mother for her blessing and she finally gave in, but what he once considered a new adventure as a student slowly turned into an act of tedium as the days and years went by. It was nice getting to know students from all walks of life, but neither they nor his studies satisfied his hunger for emprise. He knew there was more to the world than what he had been shown or taught, but for some reason he just couldn’t break through the surface. He wondered if it was a mistake ever coming here. Had the pulling inside of him steered him wrong?

Slade began to climb the stairs and look for a seat. The classroom, like every other classroom Slade visited, was brightly lit and clean. After only four years of the university being erected and populated by students, everything including the stationary cushioned seats was in perfect condition. He could see most of the students already arrived and were seated and talking amongst themselves. Except, of course, for one girl who usually sat in silence. His friend, Gisela, had been saving his seat. After spotting her, he continued his climb, but paused when he noticed the guy sitting in a front seat on the far side of the room. His massive arms were folded in front of him. He chatted with a couple of classmates, but Slade knew when class started, he would never speak up unless called on by the instructor. Slade thought he was kind of arrogant, actually. It seemed like he thought he was above things like school and learning. Who did he think he was? Slade’s eyes stayed on him too long – his classmate looked back with eyebrows lifted in a concerned expression. Slade blinked and forced his attention back to getting to his seat, currently covered by a textbook.

When he got to his row in the middle of the room, the girl he sat next to smiled and removed the textbook. “Hi, Slade.” Her straight brown hair was tied into a bun and she adjusted the placement of the oval glasses framing her green eyes.

“Hi, Gisela.” He sat down as she studied him, running her eyes up and down, up and down. Finally, he said, “What?”

“You’re in rare form today. Jeans and a hoodie? That’s not usual for the prince of BU.”

He chuckled at his new title. “I had a late start, okay? And I’m nobody’s prince. I wish!

“That’s not what everyone else says. I hear it every day: ‘Slade’s got a hover car, all the nicest clothes, everything’.” She mocked in a nasally voice, “‘He doesn’t even live in the dorms. He’s got his own tricked-out penthouse with the latest from the Middle Third’.”

He shrunk back in his chair a little and asked, “Do they think I’m a snob?”

“Yes, but you are, so own it,” Gisela teased.

Slade rolled his eyes but secretly appreciated the banter. As clingy as she could be, Gisela was the only one who accepted him for him and not for the things he had. He relaxed and studied the map on the front wall of Pangaea – their home. One big mass of land surrounded by a never-ending sea. Despite having traveled to a few different cities, Slade knew there was so much more out there he hadn’t seen. The land was divided into three Great Nations: the Northern Third, where Slade was now; the Middle Third, where Slade was from; and the Southern Third, where he had yet to visit. He promised himself right then that he would get there someday. That feeling of hope was snuffed as the instructor entered the room. So much for a cancelled class.

The instructor stood straight at the front of the room and addressed his class, “All right, everyone, let’s get started.” In his crisp white shirt, colorful bowtie, and tweed blazer, he stared at his students, eyes leading his head from side to side, watching and waiting for the final murmurs of conversation to end. “Since the beginning of civilization there have been stories that help us explain who we are and how we got to this point in time. Some historically accurate and others…a bit more unbelievable. We’re going to explore some of these stories today. It was your assignment to come in prepared to talk about these things, so let’s start. Who would like to go first?”

The class fell into an awkward silence for a moment while everyone waited for a brave soul to step up and break the ice. Slade pulled his hood around his neck and tried to hide amongst the crowd of students. He tried his best not to look into his instructor’s eyes, but mistakenly made eye contact with his stare. The instructor began to open his mouth and Slade could feel the dark cloud of disappointment creeping over him as he prepared to say, “I don’t know.” Just as the shadow was almost completely cast, a glimmer of light broke through in the form of a raised hand in the front row. Thank Elao, he thought.

Surprised, the instructor said, “Yes! Douglassaire. What is it you would like us to discuss?” He was talking to the guy Slade had all but stared down as he came in. Slade was just as surprised as his instructor to see Douglassaire speak up.

He was leaning back in his chair with his long legs stretched out in front of him. His deep voice carried clearly to the back of the room, “I looked at Ether the other day…”

The instructor nodded in polite, but feigned understanding. Did he mean he researched the story of Ether? Did he actually see Ether? Knowing his students and knowing the fact that the fabled isle of Ether didn’t exist, he figured both were impossibilities and implored his student for more information. “Yes, Doug. What have you found? Tell us.”

He shrugged his broad shoulders. “Well, I just think it’s cool to think that our world was created from one place – a place we can’t see or get back to.”

The instructor addressed his class, “It’s been years for some of you who have heard that story I’m sure. Could anyone give us a refresher?”

Slade remembered hearing the story but had forgotten some details. In any case, now was a good time to speak up and participate. He felt all instructors kept a mental note of who took part in the class discussions. If he could answer an easy question like this, the instructor may not bother him for the rest of the class. Then Gisela raised her hand. Just great.

“Yes, Miss Benitez,” called the instructor.

“The story is that Ether is on the other side of world and protected by the ethereal spirits. It’s said to house the Djed Key at its center which, if removed, would grant its holder the power of God.”

“Very good, Gisela. Thank you. Now, does anyone actually believe this story?”

A bunch of students shook their head and some murmured, “No.” Slade watched as Douglassaire was now sitting up and leaning forward in his seat. He seemed to be getting into it. “Ether’s been disproven,” said Douglassaire. “I mean, we’ve had people search all over the globe, but there’s no island. If any place outside of Pangaea existed, we’d know about it by now.”

The instructor began to pace in front of the room. “True, Mr. Hart, but how do you explain the existence of the lusae, these creatures with the power to control the elements? They’ve been around forever and the danger they pose prevents us from venturing further out into our lands. Then there are the Ethereans – humans, like us, but with the power to control the elements in the same way. Centuries ago, many of us would have denied their existence as well.”

Douglassaire furrowed his eyebrows and thumbed his trimmed goatee, “You sayin’ that we should actually believe this story?”

Slade perked up in his seat. The discussion unexpectedly drew him in and he awaited his professor’s response.

“I’m simply proposing that you do not close your mind to the things which you cannot yet see. Perhaps in another decade we will have discovered this island just as we discovered the existence of Ethereans, however rare they are. And thanks to Queen Aeothesca displaying her ethereal talents years ago; however, mistakenly, perhaps the confidence she’s instilled in her kind will show us that there is an even bigger population of Ethereans among us than we know.”











II

The instructor dismissed everyone from class for the day and the normal everyday chatter commenced. Many already forgot what they had just talked about and moved on to more pressing issues like the next party they’d attend. Slade and Gisela rose from their seats and motioned toward the end of the aisle. Slade successfully dodged looking unprepared for class, but he was still intrigued by the conversation about Ether. He glanced ahead at Douglassaire wondering what made him bring it up. Slade left his row with Gisela following closely behind. As they descended the stairs, Slade said to Gisela, “That was interesting, huh? I didn’t know you knew so much about that stuff.”

She blushed and lowered her head. “My mother used to teach me all about Ether and its stories.”

“Oh,” Slade said as they turned and left through the classroom door. He knew that Gisela losing her mother in Lake Maesus must have been hard. She told him the story once – and about how a swimmer came upon the body the summer after the incident. He couldn’t imagine what it must be like to walk past the lake every day on the way to school and be reminded of it all. Out of respect and a desire to keep things light, he ended that trail of discussion.

Slade and Gisela paused, suddenly feeling a presence towering behind them. They turned around to face a tall, dark brown figure.

“Interesting talk, huh?” Douglassaire asked. He smiled at Gisela. She didn’t smile back. He looked at Slade who felt his gaze a split-second longer than usual. Slade was a few shades lighter, a couple of inches shorter, and slender. Complete opposites. Douglassaire looked back at Gisela and his deep voice spoke up, “You seem to know about Ether.”

Slade responded, “She’s an expert of sorts–”

“I’m not an expert,” Gisela interrupted. “I just know the common stories. Nothing else.”

Slade smiled. “Don’t let her fool you. She knows more than most. You’re Douglassaire, right?” He smiled and stuck out his hand.

“Just Doug,” he replied, grabbing Slade’s hand for a firm shake.

“Slade.” He nodded his head to the side. “This is Gisela.”

Doug nodded at Gisela. Her response was to stand still with her arms crossed and not say a word.

Sometimes her awkwardness annoyed Slade. Whenever something or someone new entered Slade’s awareness, Gisela was always there as a shield. He could understand if it was just her way of being protective, but it was more like she wanted him all to herself. His patience ran thin as he waited for the chance to show Doug that there was always room for more friends.

Doug said, “I never knew much about Etherean lore, but what I looked up was interesting.”

“What have you found?” he asked.

“Well, a lot of it ties in with religious beliefs. Something about an ancient fight involving Elao… I didn’t really read all that much of it.”

“Elao and Calamity,” Gisela said. “The story’s about an ancient battle between good and evil that gave birth to the magic the lusae and Ethereans use.”

“Right,” said Slade. “But why are you so interested, Doug?”

“You know how Ethereans are really rare? I’ve got a feeling about someone. He goes here.”

“Wait, wait,” Slade said in disbelief. “You think there’s an Etherean here at Burrow? Who?”

Doug sucked air in through his teeth. “I don’t think I should say. Not just yet anyway.”

“Oh, come on, you gotta at least give me a hint, now.”

“Slade,” Gisela said nudging him with her elbow, “…that’s not his secret to tell. And from the sound of it, he doesn’t even know if it’s true.”

“Okay, okay, I get it, but I’m gonna keep an eye out. I think that’s really interesting.”

Doug smiled. “Yeah, me too. Well, I gotta go meet my group to train some more. I’ll see you guys later. It was nice meetin’ you.”

“Same here,” Slade said. As he watched Douglassaire turn and walk out of the building his impression from seeing him in class had changed. If he was being honest with himself, there was something about Doug that Slade really liked.











CHAPTER FOUR






The grassy field at Burrow University’s athletic facility was freshly cut. Five young men stood atop the lawn practicing their sword skills against one another. Douglassaire was among them. He had inhaled the calming scent of the grass when he arrived, but now as he swung, dodged, and blocked, his adrenaline rushed and his sense of smell was limited. Of course, they didn’t practice with real swords, which were outlawed on the campus. Instead, they used the school’s provided bamboo swords. The people of the North had an aversion to war that permeated all aspects of their culture. Hardly anyone carried a weapon even in their own homes. So, it was understandable, but still a disappointment to all of the warriors of the South who enjoyed the sword’s technological enhancements. While purely cosmetic, all swords were able to be customized from weight to color. The Middle Third had swords that were even collapsible. If a scholarship hadn’t been offered to these guys for their outstanding fighting skill, they probably wouldn’t be here at all.

The stretchy black material in which they were all outfitted felt light against Doug’s skin. It was form-fitting with sleeves that stopped just below his shoulders and the bottoms just above his ankles. While it was a similar fit to what warriors wore under their armor, the lack of protective gear allowed him to enjoy the freedom of movement it gave him. It would keep him cool despite the intensity of the exercise. Atop his shoulders sat rounded spaulders with layers like the wings of a ladybug, an adornment used specifically for this activity – training for the Power Battle. It’s a fight between the Southern Third’s forty best warriors and all any of these men cared about – especially Doug. This battle would decide the next leader of the Southern Third – the next Southern Commander. Some wanted to fight for the fame while others wanted the power. For Douglassaire, winning the Power Battle meant freedom. He left his orphanage as a teenager to join the military. With no money and no family, it was the only way he saw he could survive. He’d been training for the Power Battle ever since, anxiously awaiting the chance to fight and win. This was his way to leave behind his life of poverty and begin making his own life choices.

Douglassaire’s muscular frame was a favorite among two onlookers at the sideline who whistled their approval. He ignored the ladies, too focused on his training to bother, but his peer (who was busy taking the role of drill sergeant) did not.

Lesech paced back and forth with his hands folded behind him, scrutinizing each move the men made – a thrust here and a parry there. He shook his head and sucked his teeth in disappointment, none of it satisfactory. Douglassaire practiced with another, but kept notice of Lesech out of the corner of his eye. Lesech smirked and said, “You look horrible, Douglassaire. You’ll die minutes after the doors open if you don’t get it together.” He stood the same height as Doug, but was much thinner. His olive-skinned, angular face was framed by a bush of big white curls, and his piercing hazel eyes were enough to command the attention of anyone.

The two ladies on the sideline cheered for Douglassaire once again. Lesech glanced back at them and then stood behind their idol as he continued his exercise. He stuck out his foot at just the right time and sent Douglassaire falling face-first. Trying to stave off embarrassment, Doug quickly recovered and broke Lesech’s personal space with a glare just inches away from his face. His would-be fans had already laughed and walked away.

“Yes, that’s it,” Lesech said, “get mad.”

“You’re taking this too far, Lesech,” said Doug, trying to decide whether to drop the bamboo sword and use his fist.

“What are you going to do about it? Huh?” Lesech stepped back and spread his arms, yelling, “What are any of you going to do about it?”

The others in the group stopped their exercises with puzzled expressions, nervous laughter, and anticipated what was coming next. “Beat his ass, Doug,” one said. “Someone needs to be put in his place,” said another. These Southern men didn’t have the luxury of a real structured training like they would back home, so they mimicked the exercise on a much smaller scale to keep their skills sharp. With all of the fighting going on, it was commonplace for a duel to break out. And just like home, all training stopped to watch and take notes when two warriors got serious.

“What do you say, Lesech? Me and you. Right now.” Out of the three duels he and Lesech had, Douglassaire defeated him twice. He was itching to add another win to his record.

Lesech simply stuck out his hand and caught a bamboo sword thrown by one of the other men nearest him. He lowered his eyes and grinned. “You ready for this?”

Without warning, Doug leapt ahead for the first downward swing to his rival’s face. He anticipated the block and followed up with a surprise punch to the gut. Lesech’s eyes opened wide as he doubled over clutching his abdomen. Doug struck him on the right shoulder with his sword as he went down. He lifted his sword and went for the left, but Lesech blocked and shoved Doug away.

“That was a cheap shot!” he exclaimed, rising back to his feet.

Doug caught his balance and hopped back to his stance with a grace that almost seemed out of place for his stature. “No rules in the Power Battle.”

“Oh really? Says the man who’s going for the pauldrons instead of the kill.” It was true. Doug could have simulated Lesech’s death with a simple blow to the head, but instead hit his shoulder, more in line with the official rules of the Power Battle.

The rules were simple. The warriors would all be outfitted with armor including two big pauldrons on each shoulder. Once the fight commenced, if both pauldrons were removed, you were eliminated. Some saw this as the more honorable way to win, but in the Southern Third, a warrior’s death in the midst of battle was the more honorable way to lose. The kills are what kept the world watching, and Lesech always wanted to please the crowd. “Let me show you what the Power Battle will be when I’m involved.”

Lesech ran forward and began swinging. Doug successfully blocked a barrage of attacks and tried to counterattack by swinging at what would be Lesech’s one remaining pauldron. Lesech was already fast, but his speed seemed to increase with each dodge. The day was clear and the air still, but Doug suddenly felt stray gusts of wind blowing in front of him. The air resistance increased his difficulty in fighting. He couldn’t make sense of what was happening. How is Lesech not affected? He tried his best to counterattack, but Lesech parried Doug’s last swing and thrust his bamboo sword into Doug’s chest. Doug fell hard.

Lesech stood over Doug, straddled with one leg to each side. He brought the point of his weapon down hard onto Doug’s chest, just above his heart. “The record is 2 – 2. Now, we’re even, orphan! If you still plan on joining the Power Battle, I hope you enjoy these last few years, because that is where you will die.”

The rest of the group stood there in awkward silence. Doug always knew Lesech to be a bit on the eccentric side, but at that moment something had changed. He looked into Lesech’s eyes and believed the intent behind every word. What was once a petty rivalry had now evolved into something more. Doug was never easily rattled until now. He just remained on the green grass looking up at Lesech – staring into the face of insanity.











CHAPTER FIVE






I

The sun was setting in the distance. As Gisela came walking down the path to Lake Maesus, she took in the vivid imagery. It was as if the red sky was fighting with the blue of the lake for her attention. The scene was as beautiful as it had always been. Tall green trees outlined the lake in a horseshoe, much unlike it had been years before. A large brick path was carved in recent times leading to the school it now served. Away from the lake sat a fork in the road. The two directions led to Burrow University or Ankor Village, where she called home. She had just come from her final class for the day and sported a light-blue book bag on her right shoulder. She was glad she brought her black fleece jacket with her, which protected her from the cool air. The temperature always seemed to drop around the lake. The scenery escaped her mind as she neared the lake and she began looking ahead as if in a trance. She badly needed a friend and this was the closest she was going to get tonight. She was going to speak to her mother.

Since her mother died at this lake, Gisela lived in an old house with her grandmother who was downright mean. Her grandmother hadn’t always been that way, but her affections turned bitter after the incident. Home was not as comfortable as it used to be. After the tragedy, her grandmother kept her away from the lake, saying it was too dangerous. The younger Gisela agreed, but the older Gisela went against her wishes. Ever since a path had opened up, she ran out of excuses as to why she shouldn’t visit her mother’s final resting place. She visited the lake every night since starting school at Burrow University four years ago. The shock of what happened to her mother was too much for so little a child and Gisela found it hard to find camaraderie amongst her peers. Then she met Slade. Suddenly, her loneliness had been lifted and the mere thought of being in his presence excited her. He was so different, and so handsome. His friendship gave her the bond she sought at the lake. Little by little, she lessened her visits until they numbered once every month, but tonight was unusual. She had just been to the lake the night before, but something happened to make her revert back to old habits.

Her slow trot came to a halt as she approached the edge of the water. She smoothed her dark blue skirt against the back of her legs and sat at the slope. She rested her chin on top of her knees while hugging her shins. The whole time she stared out into the calm blue of the lake. She reminisced about how she once was so happy to arrive at the lake to swim or ice skate. Now, she wouldn’t even think about touching the water.

She spoke in a subdued, melancholy tone, “Hey.” She didn’t know where to start, but her pressing issue was with Slade. “You’ll probably think I’m being stupid. And I’m a little ashamed to say it, but I feel like I’m losing my friend. Nothing happened, but…I just have this feeling. I love him, but I guess it was crazy to think I ever had a chance.” She paused and searched for the words that would express her true feelings. “I’m just so lonely, Mama. Sometimes it’s so hard living without you. I wish you were here.”

She felt eyes on her and suddenly looked to her right at a group of students who approached the lake. They stole quick glances as if they could fool her into believing they weren’t looking. She knew what they were thinking. She was quiet but not ignorant of the stories that were spun about her. They were whispering now, probably saying, “There she is. She just sits there and talks to herself.” They grew silent as Gisela turned her head to look and began to walk away from her further down the side of the lake. They don’t know anything, Gisela thought. She had grown used to the scrutiny. They don’t know what I know.

Another reason she kept coming back was that she felt something…a presence. She hoped beyond hope it was her mother watching over her from the lake. The voice that spoke out to her when she was little girl sounded like her mother, but her mother was still alive when it spoke. She always wondered what that voice was and questioned whether what had happened was just an accident. It was this mystery that formed the other half of why she always visited the lake. Aside from speaking to her mother, she hoped that someday the lake’s secrets would be revealed.

Gisela never stayed long. The sun was fading fast and there was no way she would stay here without daylight. Gisela grabbed her backpack and slung it over her shoulder as she got up. “Goodnight, Mama.” She turned and walked down the alternate path in the road back home to Ankor.











II

Gisela turned the brass knob on the wooden front door of her two-story house and quietly stepped inside. She hoped she wouldn’t be noticed. Sometimes her grandmother was asleep when she returned, halting any conversations that would take place and allowing Gisela to peacefully re-enter her home and go to her room. Those moments were few and far between, however, and tonight was not one of them.

Gisela felt deflated at the smell of chicken, roasted peppers, and other spices that greeted her as she entered. Her grandmother was awake…and cooking. Gisela slowly closed the door behind her and quietly removed her shoes. She managed to tiptoe up the first of fourteen creaky, wooden stairs without being noticed. Before her foot touched down on the second, her grandmother, grey mane wild and face flushed, swung out from behind the door leading to the kitchen. Her navy blue house dress printed with small red flowers wrinkled as she crossed her arms and her whole face became taut with disdain. “And where have you been?” she asked.

Gisela remained quiet and looked at her grandmother pleadingly. She really didn’t want to argue.

“Look at this place! Look at this place!”

“It’s clean.”

“Damn right it’s clean. I had to do it all myself because someone was out doing God knows what when she should have been here doing the cooking and cleaning,” she huffed, catching her breath. During her tirade, her hands found her way to her hips. “Honestly, sometimes I don’t even know why you’re here. You’re useless.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Sorry, my butt. Now, go upstairs and get ready for dinner.”

“I’m not hungry.” Gisela turned and quickly jogged up the stairs. She neglected to turn on the light as she entered her room. She slammed the door behind her and flopped face-first onto her bed. She could still hear her grandmother ranting downstairs.

“That’s fine, you little bitch, but whatever you don’t eat tonight’s going in the trash.”

Gisela was so used to these interactions that she didn’t even cry over them anymore. That didn’t make her grandmother’s words any less hurtful. Her mother’s death shattered their relationship. She was the glue that held their little unit together. Gisela remembered a comment her grandmother made to her soon after her mother died, when she was still very young: “If it wasn’t for you, she’d still be here.” It stuck with her for years. After much thought, Gisela concluded that that comment only hurt because it was true. All she could do was try to make up for it by stepping into her mother’s role and take care of her grandmother and the house. But none of it was ever enough. She couldn’t bring her mother back.

She closed her eyes, trying to forget she was even there. She thought about the joy in her life and how it was so fleeting. In fact, the only time she was truly happy was when she was with Slade. She thought about him now – wondered what he might be doing. Had his nights always ended on a note of sadness like hers, or was his life as perfect as she’d imagined?











CHAPTER SIX






Slade’s unpreparedness for his remaining classes hadn’t been an issue for the rest of the day. That night, Slade entered his suite with an excitement he hadn’t had for a while. As his fancy, automatic door slid open, the lights turned on eliminating the shadows of night from his room. His brown leather messenger bag was heavy with books for school and he threw it to the floor. He briskly walked to his desk where he sat, hunched, with his two forefingers supporting his head at his temples. Slade shifted his weight and swung in his chair back and forth just taking everything in. Thoughts about the content of his philosophy class’s discussion today were unshakeable. Furthermore, Douglassaire had mentioned that an Etherean may be hiding in plain sight at BU. That wasn’t too hard to believe. Ethereans are humans, so they would look like anyone else. Also, according to science, if it weren’t for some unknown genetic or neurological difference, they wouldn’t have any special powers. Nor were those powers passed through a bloodline. A student here could be hiding their ability to control one of the elements: earth, water, fire, or air. Slade found that fascinating.

Slade turned to the monitor on his desk as he brought the toe of one foot to the back of his opposite Achilles heel and dragged his foot free of his sneaker. He did the same for his other foot and began typing away while studying the screen. Slade’s curiosity knew no bounds as he searched for information. Sometimes his attention would shift and lead him to find radical theories from other people. For example, some believed in the existence of other dimensions, other gods, and whole worlds living right beside them that they had no knowledge of. There was even a name for one: Earth. Where they got that from Slade could not fathom, but his mind was charged and focused tonight. He wouldn’t veer off track.

His inquiry into Ethereans led him to the story of Elao and Calamity. Most of the people of the Middle Third were deeply religious, and as one of them, Slade had been taught this story as a child. He remembered the story as a creative way to explain the inexplicable existence of magical animals called the lusae and powerful humans called Ethereans. But as he re-read the parable, he saw it through a new lens wondering, What if this is true?


A small island in a sea of blue

Populated only by two.

Nothing else existed outside of their view

And they wanted to create a world brand new.


The man, Elao, of righteous blood

Struck down his sword into the mud

His blade of fire, water, earth, and air

Created land where none was there.


He then gave breath to beings more

With legs of two and some of four.

He favored those that looked like him

And gave them control of all the land.


Flagitious fiend, Calamity,

Disliked the station of his race,

At once as Elao turned his face

Gave his power to kindred beasts.


The beasts began to war with man,

With powers they did not understand.

They fought until they gained terrain

And Elao vowed to stop their reign.


Against his will he gave away

Some power to the human race,

But much unlike his feral friend

Kept most of that power just for him.


He infused just a select few

With magic that they never knew.


Magic with a complex mind

Proved to be enough in time

For those few men across the world

To stop the beasts and live divine.


Calamity flew and soon proclaimed

I vow to end Pangaea’s days,”

But Elao wrapped his legs in chain,

And brought him back to ground again.


Elao and Calamity both enraged

Fought and fought for forty days.

And after each tenth day had passed

Ethereal spirits escaped their path.


Each spirit announced, nay, they swore

Three of four to open the door.”


Ether was lost from the world of men

And Elao grew tired of fighting then.

Without his full power he knew all too well

Calamity was one he could never fell.


He did what he could to put him to sleep

And banished Calamity, caged in the deep.


Elao, alone on the island now,

Sought more companions and soon found how.

He rose to a rest away in the sky

And watched his people from on high.


It was a nice story, but it couldn’t all be true, Slade decided. Growing up in the Middle Third meant everyone believed in the goodness of Elao and the potential damnation of Calamity, but most, including Slade, separated parables like this from the bulk of their belief. As far as he knew, this story was written only to make a point. While lusae and Ethereans did exist, there was no such thing as ethereal spirits, whatever that was, and there was no island. Certainly evidence to this would be available somewhere, too, but there was none.

Slade turned his attention to a video on the screen. It was old footage of a news profile on the Middle Third’s royal family. He pressed play and saw wooden double doors fly open to an inner-garden area in Lorelei Castle, enclosed by brick walls. With no ceiling, the sun shone down on Queen Aeothesca who was standing there in a small garden of flowers with her back turned. She lifted her arms as the bricks that constructed the walls began to crack. The ground shook with fury and spurts of dirt shot into the air – the work of a furious witch. Suddenly, Queen Aeothesca turned her head in a miserable frown to the voice behind the camera as it spoke up, “Behold–”

Slade paused the scene and answered his ringing comm. “Hello?”

“Hello, son.” It was his mother calling. Again.

Slade sighed, “Hi, Mom. I just spoke to you this morning.”

“I know. I’m just checking to see if you’re asleep by now. It’s late!”

Slade took a breath to speak, but stopped himself to think. He opened his mouth again and said, “Mom. I got this.”

“Okay, honey. Go to sleep. Have a good night.”

A thought came to Slade. “Mom, wait. What’s it like to work for the queen? I mean, what’s she really like?”

His mother exhaled heavily, something she always did when thinking of the best way to say something. “The queen is…complex. You know, sometimes I suspect she uses us advisors as a way to pretend like there’s a balance of power, but the truth is she’s the only one in charge. And nobody really trusts her because she’s an Etherean. She just has too much power that goes unchecked.”

“How can you work for someone and always look over your shoulder?”

“You’re not getting second thoughts about your future are you?”

Slade paused perhaps a second too long. He hoped his mother didn’t notice his hesitation. Working for the government of the Middle Third was expected of him, but what he really wanted was some excitement and adventure. How he would go about pursuing that he had no clue, but the mysteries surrounding Ethereans seemed like a good start. He decided his mother didn’t need to know this, so rather than disappointing her he settled for a simple, “No. Of course not. I’m just curious.”

“I compare Queen Aeothesca to a bee. If anyone were to ever go after her, they’d have to make their blow lethal, otherwise she’ll return with a heavy sting. You always know her potential, and that’s what keeps you alert.”











CHAPTER SEVEN






I

Today, Slade lunched alone. The day’s classes wore on his energy and the break was welcome. The glass walls of Burrow University’s cafeteria allowed for plenty of daylight, but none of it reflected harshly on the grey tables. Slade approached a free spot with a tray of food in hand and sat down hard. For a moment he panicked, hoping his food wouldn’t jump too far off the tray. He stayed up too late researching what was known about Ethereans. At that moment, all he wanted was to fulfill the promise of nourishment that lie before him. Then he showed up.

“Hey, Slade,” said Douglassaire, flashing his white grin.

Slade looked up, surprised. “Oh! Hey, Doug. What’s up?” Slade unknowingly sat up straight and began correcting the way his shirt sat on his shoulders. Every time Doug came around, Slade would feel his nerves set on edge and get the strangest urge to impress.

“Just in the neighborhood. Mind if I sit down?” Doug asked as he pulled the chair under himself.

It appeared to Slade that he didn’t have a choice in the matter, but he welcomed the company. And the energy he was lacking certainly returned with force. “Yeah, sure,” he said.

The table shook as Doug plopped down with his tray. Slade just watched as the man sat there staring back, hulking over his food with his elbows on the table. In the back of his mind he always knew one thing about Douglassaire that he refused to acknowledge. He’d rather leave that knowledge alone than open himself up to disappointment. For what could he, with his posh, high-class ways, possibly have in common with a warrior from the Southern Third? Now, as he studied Doug’s bright eyes, full lips, and square jaw, it felt like his brain completely stopped working except to breathe and accept his own impression. Douglassaire was gorgeous.

“You gonna eat?” Doug asked.

Slade shook himself from his stupor and looked down at his tray. “Yeah,” he said, laughing nervously. He grabbed his fork and took the first unsatisfying bite of his now lukewarm entrée. “So…”

“What you been up to?” Doug asked as he took the first big bite of his food.

“Oh, you know, classes and stuff. Boring. Lunch couldn’t come any sooner.”


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