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Chapter 1 | Promise

Painting

The boy grabbed onto an old cedar, and as he pulled onto a branch, shedding leaves whirled around him.

“You damn fish! We’re gonna bleed you!” His three pursuers were yards away. “And paint this forest with your blood!”

The branches of the tree stretched to the sky. The boy climbed, panting.

“Your kind ain’t worth the shit on our soles!” one of his pursuers shouted. “The higher you climb, the bigger the splatter.”

The boy climbed higher. His pursuers appeared below.

“There he is.” One of them pointed at the old cedar. He had a puffy-blister on his lip, courtesy the boy’s elbow. “Listen Kav, how about you spare us the drama and come down?”

Kav grinned. “You come up. Plenty of room for a party.”

“You wanna play it like that? We’re giving you the choice of walking away, and you’re choosing to have your ass beat up on some tree?” The one with the puffy lip approached.

So Kav broke off a branch as big as a sword. “Since it’s my party, I’ll dish out the beatings.”

“Hey, let’s talk this out,” said one of the wiser boys. He removed his glasses and put them in his pocket. “Listen Kav, here’s our offer. You purposely lose the next match, and we leave you well alone. Remember who owns this place and who owns your people. No use fighting us, so you best accept our generosity.”

While the boy ran his mouth, Kav climbed onto an even higher branch. He put his arm behind his head and sat against the bark like nothing mattered. “I got a question. Is your man Tusir really gonna feel satisfied winning without a fair fight against us islanders? What does that say about you Shirmians? Can’t beat an islander fair? Truth be told, winning the tournament don’t matter to me, but I have principles. The travesty of a fixed fight doesn’t sit right.”

“Travesty? Wanna know what’s a real travesty?” This guy, clearly the idiot of the trio, sounded like a fresh arrival from some hill village. “How the hell do I get assigned to infantry when a fish from some shit island gets to be a pilot? I’m gonna die in that infantry group while you’re flying high, that’s the damned travesty.”

“You die,” Kav said, “and I’ll say a little prayer for your soul while I’m in the sky.”

The boy with the puffy blister on his lip took out something from his sash. The shameless ass. He held a six-inch blade — standard close-quarters weapon. It goes against the rules to use one in a mock battle. “Yeah, you know what comes next. I’ll cut the log down easy with this. Then you’re gonna fall back to earth for your beating.”

The puffy-lipped boy charged the blade with heat. A blue flame immersed the blade.

“You little shit,” Kav said.

Then the puffy-lipped boy flung the flame from his blade onto the bark. The tree caught fire.

“Come on down,” he said, “or you gonna burn.”

Fuck.

Kav jumped and landed on his sore feet.

They seized him. The idiot grabbed Kav’s left arm, the wise one his right. The puffy-lipped one punched him in the jaw. A tooth tore out; blood surged from his gums. Kav wrestled his arms free, but not before the wise one kneed him in the gut.

The idiot picked up a rock. “Poor fishy. You gonna love this next part!” And he bashed Kav’s forehead.

 ***

Kav awoke in a pink cloud. Its cotton wrapped around his sore bones, relaxing him. He opened his mouth and ate some; it tasted like strawberry. The whole world around him was sky and pink clouds.

“Am I dreaming?” Kav said. “What time is it?”

There was sunlight inside him. He looked at his wrist, at the jewel nestled in his skin. Eyes closed, he wrote a request to the Time Service in his mind, constructing the words with his will. He felt the sunlight flow through his veins and into his wrist as the jewel transmitted the request out into the world.

At the speed of light, it hit its destination and returned with the time. The numbers flashed in his mind. 15:03.

The strawberry clouds were turning melon. “Am I dreaming? What time is it?” Once more, he closed his eyes and wrote a request to the Time Service in his mind. He sent it out, and at the speed of light it came back.

04:54 appeared in his mind’s eye.

“So…I am dreaming.” Kav licked some of the melon cloud. Then he willed the world to transform. The clouds flew into the heavens and trees fell upon the land. Printed onto the dream were flowers, shade, and streams — the most beautiful place he could create with his imagination. Some kind of garden, all around him.

And he willed into the world its main attraction: a tree so big, clouds eclipsed the tips of its branches. It shot up from the ground and grew until it hit the ceiling of heaven. Otherworldly, this tree had no leaves; instead, its branches created clouds. They streamed off in trickles, puffed into cotton, and rose to the sky.

“Are you here?” One more thing and this place would be perfect. Kav willed her into being. He wanted to see her blue hair below the otherworldly tree, her skin radiant against its dark bark.

“Dammit, appear!” He kept seeing shadows from the falling leaves and little trails of light.

But not her.

“Why? I’m doing everything the book said.”

Something rained from the sky — itty-bitty lights like stars falling. Kav knew what they were and how they burned. Fireflies. They swarmed down and whirled around the tree – counter clock-wise.

“Them again…”

They went round and round in an eternal circle. Millions, billions of them. Fireflies that made his insides quiver.

Everything became white. The clouds were replaced by a ceiling, and there were people here, and blankets covered him, and it felt like someone was hammering his forehead.

“Kav! Oh man, you hear me?”

“I hear…bells and fireflies,” Kav said.

“What? Listen man, you got saved. You got saved!” It was his roommate, Kyars.

The throbbing in Kav’s head left him dizzy. He lay still, too sore to move.

“Saved?” Kav tried to raise his head. It hurt too much. “Saved by you?”

“Nah, man. They’re saying it was one of those Masks that saved you.” Kyars stood over him, his wavy hair flopping down.

“Masks? Why would a Mask save me?”

“Dunno, but you’re gonna be okay. White coat here says nothing’s broken except a tooth.”

“Ah…someone’s gonna hurt for that.”

The doctor came and did a check-up. Kav answered a few questions as the pain died down. None about who did this to him. Not that he would tell. The doctor gave him a bottle of pills, told him to take two twice a day, and after two hours of rest, discharged him.

The sun will heal me good. It warmed Kav’s shoulders as he walked to his dorm. Time Service said Universal Hours of Rest would start in a few minutes, and he needed every second. The sun filled his twicrys; with his will, he felt the hues of its wavelengths. The blue light most attracted him, so he soothed his soreness by pouring blue through his veins.

Back at the dorm, Kyars was already in bed. He put down the book he was reading as Kav entered.

“Did a cow give birth to a mountain gorilla?” Kav took his shirt off. “You’re actually reading for once!?”

“For someone who looks like he got raped by a mountain gorilla, you’re sure lively.”

“The price of winning these days. But really, you never read, so what is it?”

Kyars held up the book. “Erotic Tales of an Almarian Harem. You sure you’re good?”

Kav washed his face at the basin. While rinsing his mouth, he tongued the gap in his back set and thought about returning to the forest for his tooth.

“Lend it to me once you’re done. And yeah, I’m king.”

Silence as he changed his underwear.

“Listen man, they came after me too,” Kyars said. “There ain’t no shame…in cutting your costs, you know? Throwing that third round match made me sick. But they would have broken my bones if I didn’t, and they’ll break yours if you don’t listen.”

Upon sliding into his sheets, Kav rested on his pillow. “I’m not gonna throw the semifinal. Count it out.”

“Come on, what’s the point?”

“Point?”

“Of the competition. It’s got no bearing on anything. It’s a damned pride game for the Shirmas, that’s all. They wanna show they’re better than us islanders, just because we get better placements than them. Don’t get sent to the hospital over that. Pride doesn’t matter, you’re Necian, your mother must have taught you as much.”

Kav sighed. Kyars had a point, a real good point. But screw it.

“Look, it isn’t about pride for me. But I won’t throw the match. Really, why should I? Back on the islands, it’s the same. These Shirmas tell us what to do, and we obey like slaves. Time someone stopped toeing the line.”

“See, you can give that any name you want, but that’s pride right there. We know we’re better than them at heart, we don’t need to show it.”

Kav couldn’t look Kyars in the eye; the boy was right.

“I’m not gonna tell you what to do,” Kyars said. “You’re gonna make your choice come tomorrow morning. Hell, you don’t even have much chance to win, the shape you’re in.”

That reminded Kav — the Mask. “So you said a Mask saved me? Who told you that?”

“I heard it among the rabble. Said they saw one carrying you out of the forest. What do they call those Masks? Magi, was it?”

“Yeah, Magi. They’re some kind of elite order or something, though I heard there are only a few left.”

Kyars pushed into his pillow, muffling his voice. “I guess it’s true then, there are Magi here. But those guys are supposed to be up on the Haemian Front, fighting the war, no?”

“I don’t get it,” Kav said. “Why would a Magus go out of his way to save me?”

“Who knows?” Kyars hardly sounded awake. “But when one of those Masks takes interest in someone, it’s never a good thing. I heard they like to do experiments on people…weird things, like messing with people’s memories and confusing them about what’s real and what’s not.” He yawned. “Forget it…just stupid rumors.”

Kav burrowed in his pillow. A soothing lull crept up and snatched him from the world.

 ***

Again, Kav found himself in those clouds. Tangerine this time. Urgency compelled him not to sample the flavor. He skipped the Time Service test and willed the garden into being.

There he was, facing the otherworldly tree. The garden covered him in its rainbow hue, so unlike colors seen when awake. But this time, a sun lit the sky — made of a diamond on fire.

I’m getting better, way farther than I was months ago. Everything’s so concrete and real. I got this.

“Are you here?” Kav scanned the base of the tree, hope thudding his heart. “Layla — you here?”

An empty place. The ridiculously large tree blew out clouds that covered the burning diamond in the sky. Time evaporated with every empty moment.

“Layla?”

This is pointless. I don’t even remember what she looks like. How am I supposed to envision her here?

“Hey, Layla?” Nothing. No blue-haired girl.

Kav sat, plushing on the mud. Grass withered, trailed in the air, and turned to chaff. The tree collapsed. Branches hit the ground and quaked the world. A dark blanket put out the sun. A void sucked the clouds. And three dimensions of space dissolved into shapes and lines barely concrete — Kav sitting among it all.

He was too aware to let it devolve into a regular dream state, where random memories plastered together to make nonsensical stories. So he sat in silence among the building blocks of his lucid dream world. Lines, shapes, and colors floated without a purpose.

Something scared him: a little light, floating with the rest. Not of his own design. A single firefly. It swam in front of him, dancing to some tune.

He clasped out to it. The firefly buzzed in front of his eyes. The thing was almost on him. He swatted it away, but it wouldn’t leave.

And then it went inside him — into his soul — setting it on fire with words. They dropped into his mind and spread across his thoughts.

What is your Paradise? Will you grasp my rope and climb up to Paradise?

And the words wouldn’t leave his mind.

“Who are you?” Kav asked.

Everything became white. A familiar ceiling stared at him while footsteps pattered on the carpet. He was back in his room. Kyars stood half-naked, holding a pair of pants.

“Good morning Kav, you wet?”

“Wet?”

“I heard you last night, screaming her name. ‘Layla! Layla!'” Kyars grinned like a fool. “Must have been a fun time, eh?”

“You got it all wrong.” I gotta write that dream down, and the one from yesterday.

Kyars eyed Kav’s blanket. As if he’d done this many times, he pulled it off to check out Kav’s underwear.

“Nothing?” Kyars said. “That’s too bad. If you ain’t getting any in your dreams, you ain’t getting any.”

“You gonna stop gazing at my underwear?”

Kyars went back to changing. Kav took out his dream notebook and a pen from under his bed.

“So tell me more about Layla,” Kyars said. “We’ve been mates for six months and you barely said a word about her.”

There was too much to tell, really. “What do you want to know?”

“How fine is she? I mean, like the details.”

“Look, I’m not gonna paint you a picture of my wife. That pleasure’s mine and mine alone.”

“Aww, come on!” Kyars slipped on some pants, his cadet uniform untucked. “Man, I still don’t get it. How the hell is it that a young guy like you goes and gets married. That’s like having a whole garden of fruits in front of your face — grapes, bananas, apples, strawberries, oranges — and saying you’re only gonna eat grapes from now on. That kind of commitment’s for old folk, man.”

“When the grapes are just that good, you’re gonna keep eating ’em.”

“No grapes are that good!”

“How would you know?” Kav said. “You’ve never had these grapes.”

“True…why don’t you describe what these grapes taste like then?”

Kav sighed, then got up from the bed to stretch. “They are sweet and a bit tangy.”

“That’s not what I mean! What an asshole. I’ll never understand you Kav, never.” Kyars walked out the room, shaking his head.

So Kav finished writing down the dreams, showered, got dressed, and went to morning lecture with his bunkmate.

 ***

Supposedly some general was coming to speak today. Kav and Kyars took the backseats in the lecture hall as usual, among fifty or so cadets. This was one of the new buildings; the marble floor still glittered, and the desks and chairs smelt of fresh oak. After a brief introduction, which Kav barely heard, the general rose from his chair and began speaking.

“It is said that long ago, our ancestors departed their blue planet on a ship of the stars, in search of paradise. They found only our world, and betaken by the beauty of our continent, named it Eden.

“Today, tens of thousands of years later, long after we have forgotten our ancestors and their miraculous journey, our world faces a crisis which will surely bring it to its end, unless all of you work together to save it.”

The general wore a black uniform with a red trim, and over it a red coat with golden bird patterns. His gold boots glimmered as he paced back and forth at the head of the hall.

Kav was too far away to get a good look at the man’s face; all he could see was a thick blond beard. It reminded him of a lion’s mane.

“I’ve been told that here at the academy there’s been fighting recently among the different peoples of our continent,” the General said. “I want you to understand that we, the people of Eden, no matter the country, are all children of Nur. Two-thousand years ago, the Saint Iskander united the people of Eden under his rule. And when he erected the Barrier around our land to protect us, he meant for it to keep us together, so that Nur’s light would never fade.”

The General took a deep breath. His gut poked out when he did. “Now everyone look at your right wrists.”

Kav stared at the tiny jewel nested in his right wrist: his twicrys. It glistened yellow. Was this what made him a “child of Nur?” Around the twicrys, his aperture slot shone silver. The twicrys and aperture made it possible for him to conduct sunshine through his body, like all the people of Eden. Of course, he had no memory of when the aperture slot was sewed into his wrist, but he’d changed his twicrys jewel a few times whenever the jewel dulled.

The General continued. “Nur is the Light of Heaven, and all of us who conduct that light are His children — no matter what country we hail from. And as children of the divine, as holy brothers, we must all put the conflicts of the past behind us. When we unite as a people, when we focus on our specialties, only then will we be able to defend Eden.”

Holy brothers? To Kav, that just sounded ridiculous. How could that explain the War of the Poets, and the Second Keldanese Uprising, and all the wars between the “children of Nur?”

“And just what are these specialties?” the General continued. “Well, we know that the island nations, Necia and Keldan, are the source of ninety-five percent of Eden’s twicrys shards. Now that’s saying something. It’s saying that the islanders can focus on collecting twicrys, refining twicrys, and turning them into usable product.”

Also, islanders are better sunlight conductors, and thus better fighters and military personnel. But no Shirmian would admit that.

“And Almarians, by far the most populous group of our great Continental Empire. And also, the best metal workers. Almarians have got the best silicon threading technology, they make the best aperture slots, gain-mediums, conduction wells, wires — all that good stuff we need to power our military machine.”

Kav felt a message emerge in his consciousness. It hit his mind’s eye, writing itself in his thoughts.

Man, Almarian chicks are so damn hot.

It was Kyars, messaging him again during a lecture. And it caused Kav to miss some of what the General was saying.

Kav closed his eyes, channeled himself to Kyars’s frequency, and wrote his reply. Shining through the ceiling panels, sunlight hit his aperture and flowed into his twicrys, where it was converted it into radio frequency ready to be sent to Kyars.

You really need to get laid.

Kyars replied quick.

This guy’s so boring, and you’re right, it’s been such a long time man, too long.

“Then we come to the Shirmians inhabiting the nation of Devshirme, who compose the majority of Eden’s Continental Army, and the ruling house of his Highness — the Shahanshah. Nur Himself has given the Selukal House the power to rule over the entire continent. But we must safeguard that this rule never turns to oppression, for surely Nur punishes the tyrants. Which is why our great Shah has mandated that all the children of Nur be treated as equals in the Continental Empire.”

Kav messaged Kyars.

Equals? Everyone knows the Shirmas just step on whomever they want.

Kyars rolled his eyes.

Like I told you before, control that pride, or it’s gonna mess you up in this place. I mean look around, how many Necians in this hall, five? How many Shirmas, fifty? Can’t win with numbers like that.

Indeed, the hall was a sea of Shirmian faces. A group of boys at some desks in the middle glared at Kav. More of Tusir’s herd?

“This is by far the most important message I am here to convey. The peoples of the Continental Empire must NEVER fight among each other. Divided, our people can never prosper — it is the simplest and clearest theme throughout the history of all peoples.”

At that moment, Kav noticed the General staring at him with his golden eyes — as if the man wanted to see into his core. A few seconds was all Kav could take before he flinched and looked away.

“Cadets! The Barrier of Iskander, which has stood for two-thousand years, is fading. Already, the hole in the north is miles wide, and the Haemian hordes are ever-ready to pour through. If we don’t stand together, then we will never win in our struggle against the Plane of Haem.”

Back to a much more interesting topic — Almarian chicks, you dig?

Layla’s half-Almarian, so yeah, I do.

Kyars, leaning back in his chair, almost fell over. The chair banged as he settled back into balance.

Man, what the hell? You didn’t tell me your girl was half-Necian, half-Almarian. Damn Kav, my respect for you just quadrupled.

Nah. Half-Almarian, half-Shirmian.

Kyars took some time to think on that. A whole minute later, he responded.

Go to hell. That’s a damned lie. What else you been lying to me about?

Ain’t a lie. You should know by now, I always got my eyes on the prize.

“Recall the destruction of the city of Razh sixty-four years ago, our first encounter with the Haemians. Why do the Haemians want to wipe us off the earth? We still don’t know the answer, even after sixty years of war. Haemians don’t negotiate, they only destroy. They don’t have a civilization, or a culture. They bring only death with them on the wings of their levships.

“And that’s your passion, that’s the reason you fight. To preserve our civilization from their nihilistic darkness, to keep your loved ones safe, to sacrifice for the good of all the people of Eden. That’s all you need in your heart to be a soldier of the Continental Army, and a true son of Nur. Remember your true enemy before you even think of turning on your brother.”

Nihilistic darkness? The hell does that mean? Man, I’m about ready to bust out of here. What do you wanna eat?

Before Kav could reply, the General dismissed the cadets. Everyone got up and funneled toward the exit. The two roommates met in the middle as cadets rushed around.

“Could go for some fish curry right about now.” Kav tasted it on his tongue. Smothered in ginger.

“Man, really, you’re the biggest stereotype I ever met. The biggest, Kav. The biggest.”

“Please, you know you want some too.”

Minutes later, Kyars and Kav were stuffing down fish curry in the cafeteria. They ate with bread, dipping it into the curry, clasping some fish, then devouring the morsel.

“So man,” Kyars said, “you decided whether you’re gonna throw the match this afternoon?”

“There ain’t nothing to decide. I’m ending that Shirma.”

Kyars looked around frantically. “Keep your damn voice down.”

“Nah, anyone who wants to step up, can step up. The last thing I am is afraid.”

“Kav, settle the hell down. You’re acting like one of the Keldanese. We ain’t savages like them. Us Necians know that we can beat the Shirmians at their own game if we just play along, instead of trying to overthrow the system like those fish across the pond.”

Kav glanced away, unable to look Kyars in the eye — not after what he said. “Don’t hate on the Keldanese. They’re just like us. No different.”

“They’re savages, Kav. Don’t give me that ‘reunification’ crap.”

“Savages? What makes them savages? They’ve got the same blood as us! If they are then we are too.”

“Yeah? How about when they killed all those kids they’d taken hostage at that school last year? Or the fact that their country is complete shit — hell, they don’t need to kill us, they’re killing themselves.”

“Remember your true enemy before you even think of turning on your brother’.” Kav got up and pushed in his chair. “Anyway, I’m gonna go, conduction drills in fifteen.” He walked away, unable to look Kyars in the eye.

 ***

“Now we begin the semifinal of the Ekrah Academy Annual Conduction Arts Tournament.”

This guy covered in regalia was some kind of referee. But it’s because people like him didn’t do their job that Kav got that beating yesterday. With his opponent, Kav lined up facing the referee and a crowd of cadet onlookers. Behind them, the forest breathed out leaves, painting the world with foliage.

“Remember the rules,” the referee said. “The blade you have in your hand is blunt, and the gain-mediums are toned down to allow only minimal levels of intensity. Not much more than a firebulb. You cannot injure or be injured by the conduction charge of the weapon.”

The mock blade was of admirable construction. Slightly curved, like any standard CA scimitar. As usual, Kav would have to calculate for that curve. The gain-medium in the sword worked like a second twicrys, channeling sunlight from Kav’s twicrys so it could be fired off his blade as destructive energy.

His opponent looked nervous. Like bugs crawled over his legs, he fidgeted so much.

This is the end of your tournament, Shirma.

“On your belt, there are four jewels colored blue. As you get hit by conduction, they will turn red. Once all four jewels on your belt are red, you have lost, and your opponent is the victor.”

Just beyond the field, the cityscape of Ekrah adorned the horizon. Kav stared at what looked like a glass sword cutting through heaven. Known as the HEX Research Center, it was supposedly the tallest manmade structure in the world.

Over one-thousand feet, more than a hundred stories, hell, we get Time Service from there. Stunning.

“Physical combat is permitted during battle, but only if it is not injurious,” the referee continued. “And no one else is allowed in the boundary area while the match is underway.”

Another one of the referees approached. Kav saluted and disciplined his stance.

The referee led him into the forest with its varied terrain: little trails for maneuvering, trees to climb for height advantage, boulders and broken logs for cover. The forest with all its life would be Kav’s personal warzone.

They stopped at the starting spot, somewhere at the eastern end of the boundary line. His opponent would be at the western end, three hundred or so yards away.

“Get to it.” The referee blew his whistle.

And it began. Kav filled his twicrys with sunlight and closed his eyes. Spectrum mapping was the first order of battle. Blade in hand, he channeled the sunlight through his aperture, keeping aware of the wavelengths. Low-frequency infrared compiled in his twicrys, and his blade now felt like another limb. He calculated a spectrum ping, his nerves surged, and he let it burst off his sword.

It emitted off the end of his blade, unseen, pinging out in a circle. The light traveled through the entire forest before losing order and scattering. In the instant of a second, Kav’s aperture captured the ping echo of the forest and everything within it. Imprinted on his mind’s eye, the spectrum map was vivid and teeming with colors, showing the distances of everything and their movements and makings. With spectrum, he could see much more than his eyes ever could.

Ugh…too much…

The colors scattered about his mind and fizzled, losing the order of their pattern. The blue-shifting pattern of a moving human being indicated his opponent was on the western end — something he already knew.

Ugh, can’t do spectrum properly right now. Eyes and ears will serve me better.

Kav went west to meet his enemy. Furious leaves whirled around him. The wind’s roar was background music as he hunted for his prey. He ducked beneath a vine-infested log — decent cover. Pausing, he closed his eyes to give spectrum mapping another try.

The infrared light burst out into the world and came back. Shaky lines in his mind’s eye showed the enemy to the northwest, less than fifty yards away. But Kav couldn’t get much more.

Some people can tell if you’re chewing gum from miles away, I can barely tell man from tree.

A twig snapped — northwest.

Kav rose over the log to look. Nothing. No one.

Leaves ruffled. Something ran at him — west. There was the Shirma — charging full force!

Sunlight filled Kav’s twicrys. It surged through him and into his blade as he sliced at his foe.

Direct hit. The light wave hit the boy. One of those jewels must’ve turned red.

Too easy. Kav jumped sideways behind another log. The boy crept behind a tree.

“Trees won’t save you, Shirma.” They didn’t do me any good…

The Shirmian showed his face, in perfect position for Kav to let off a quick one. It flew off his blade — direct hit on the head.

“This your best? I expect more from a semifinalist.” Kav untensed.

End it quick and I’ll have more time to sleep and dream.

He approached the boy’s tree.

Hold…what if it’s a trap? Just like yesterday, they could be waiting to jump me again.

The boy dashed out of cover, blade forward. A beam seared off. Kav ducked as the beam flew over his head. Sunshine danced in his veins. A wide-area burst would show some style. He changed the aperture command in his mind and let it out, a burst so wide it would’ve sliced the Shirmian in half — if these weren’t mock weapons.

This was the reason Kav made the semifinals: great control over aperture commands. Unlike others who couldn’t “feel” how the tiny slot in the wrist interacted with the mind, to Kav and most islanders it was natural. All he had to do was feel the command he wanted. And that’s why this was all too easy.

The boy, as if surrendering with three jewels in the red, dropped his blade.

“What’s this now?” Kav kicked the boy in the thigh, sending him to the ground. “A trap? I won’t fall for this shit again.”

“Stop!” the boy said. “Please!”

“Tooth for a tooth Shirma, but first…” Kav prepared to conduct the game-ending bolt. But more than that, he was ready to get physical on this boy should anyone show up.

“I’m not with Tusir’s guys.” The boy put his hands up. “I…please, listen to me, aright?”

A quick spectrum check showed no one else in the forest. Just trees and birds and rocks.

“Kav, right? Before you end the match, please listen to what I got to say.”

“Say it already.”

“If I lose 4-0 to an islander, I’ll never be able to live it down. So please, I’m willing to lose to you right now, just please, not 4-0.”

“So what, you want me to friendly fire myself?”

“Yeah?”

Kav chuckled. “Okay, and you’re giving me…”

“I’ll tell you something real important, that you ought to know about your next opponent. About Tusir.”

“Hmm…do tell.”

“What about the friendly fire? My 4-3?”

“We’ll see how I feel.”

The boy sat up and wiped dirt off his shoulders. As if he needed to look dignified to say what he had to. “You said you expected more from a semifinalist. Well, truth is, Tusir’s been intimidating or paying off all the best conductors to throw or drop out. And not just the islanders, even the Shirmians and the Almarians. He’s been rigging the jewels, the gain-mediums, even getting the refs to turn away. All to make sure he wins.”

So that’s why yesterday happened.

“So you’re just what remained,” Kav said. “Why is Tusir so intent on winning this meaningless competition? He really in it for the glory? Doesn’t seem like the type, to be honest.”

“Dunno. I mean, I heard something. Could be why he cares so much, but it’s just a rumor.”

“Yeah? Hurry it up, I’m intent to catch up on sleep.”

“I heard that the competition this year is being observed by those masked people, the Magi. Rumors say the winner’s gonna get training from them, you know, in the secrets of the art.”

“Masked people?” Kav said. “Could be true with all the sightings recently. Anyway, let’s do this business.”

“I get my three?”

“You do. One for the info on Tusir, one for the bit on the Magi, and a bonus because I feel sorry for your incapable Shirma ass.”

Kav felt like an idiot hitting himself three times. Then he got his fourth on the Shirmian and walked out of the forest with a day’s work done.

 ***

Back at the dorm, Kav took off his sweat-soaked uniform. Kyars wasn’t around; the guy had targeting exercises around this time or something.

Training from the Magi, eh? Too bad I already knew all about that.

While walking to bed, Kav caught his own reflection in their little mirror on the wall. It was half-way cracked, so it looked like his head was severed.

There was a crack on his body too: a cut on the flesh above his left breast. Kav fingered it. The skin was hard and grown over. A little bump could be felt in the center, that when pushed, was like stabbing yourself with a thorn.

“Admiring yourself, pretty boy?” Kyars stood at the doorway in a dark-blue cadet jacket. “Half-Shirmian, half-Almarian wife…you damned stud.”

“You’re looking classy too. The occasion?”

“Had my clearance run today, brother. The sergeant had a word with me after. And guess what?”

“You got it?”

Kyars did a fist-pump. “Hell yes! I’m gonna be air artillery with the thirty-first. Flying high in the sky with the birds and the sun and the clouds and all that celestial fun.”

“The thirty-first…that on CAL-409 by any chance?”

“Dunno, but I don’t think the sky can handle both us fish on the same damn levship. The sky’s gonna fall or something if that happens.”

Kyars came closer to stare at Kav’s chest. “Been meaning to ask, just what is that? Someone knife you in the chest?”

Kav was still fingering the little bump on the scar, not realizing he’d been doing it the whole time. “Nah, my bond’s in here.”

“Your bond? What?”

“When Layla and I got married, we had the jewels sewed into our skin. You know, the bond. Like we do on the islands.”

An astounded Kyars shook his head. “Kav, you from the jungles or something? Civilization passed you over? Man, the only person I know to have a damned bond inside them is my grandma. Seriously, that’s some real backwater shit right there.”

“It’s old school. Me and Layla, we keep it old school.”

“Shut the hell up. Old school my fish loving ass. It’s unclean if anything.”

“It’s a part of our culture. Everyone on the islands used to do it before the Shirmians came and threw our way of life and culture into the sea, replacing it with their own.”

Kyars snickered and tinkered with his shoe straps. “Man, if that was our culture, I’m glad it got its ass drowned.”

Hours passed. The pair settled, changed into slacks, and lay on their mattresses. So much for sleep; napping now wouldn’t help sleeping through all six hours of UHR anyway.

Kav stared at the ceiling while fingering the bond beneath his shirt. And he wished it was a different ceiling, and the room a different room, and this damned country a different damned country.

“So Kavy — weekend leave is coming, baby.” Kyars beamed. “That’s all that’s been on my mind. You down for north Almaria?”

“I’ll go anywhere, so long as I don’t have to breathe this weak Shirmian air. But Almaria does sound fun.”

“Fun? Like I been saying, Almarian chicks are where it’s at. You’re gonna have fun, and then some.”

Kav let silence drench the conversation.

“What, man? What’s with that look?” Kyars said. “She’s a thousand miles away!”

“Nah, just an eight hour lev flight.”

“A levship flight to Necia costs, what, five-hundred twinsen? You got five-hundred shards in the bank to see her? On the other hand, Almaria’s a fifty twinsen train ride away.”

“You know, Almarian chicks are indeed fine, but most of them are devout too. That country’s full of saints and scholars. Those women ain’t as loose as you fantasize.”

“Look, even so, you’re only gonna see your girl once a year when we get our two weeks. How the hell you gonna live on that diet?”

“No doubt it hurts, but I made a vow. I can’t just back out on my vows — a man’s got to be honorable. Besides, I’m still crazy about her.”

Kyars rolled over in his bed like an unfurling dog. “Tell me something then, just so I can understand. Why do you love her so damn much? What the hell has put that ‘bond’ into your heart, figuratively and literally?”

Kav stared at the ceiling. “Eh…”

“Okay fine, tell me this. What’s your favorite memory of her? Like, the thing you think about when you’re trying to fall asleep, that gives you that warmth and all. Tell me about that, so maybe I can get your whole infatuation.”

“Get your own favorite memory.”

“Dammit Kav, tell me, please. I’m so curious my head hurts.”

“Fine, fine. Lemme set the scene…”

And Kav recounted his favorite memory with Layla. Ironically, one that never put him to sleep, but rather kept him up through UHR on days when he needed sleep the most.

 ***

The scene was this: a garden where fruits hung so low, you could pick apples just by reaching out. Clusters of leaves on trees so thick, even the sun was blocked from entering. Towering palm trees spread their shade everywhere, leaving each blade of grass crisp and cool.

A bubbling spring ran through the garden, caressing your feet as you stepped. And there was Kav, with Layla, sitting beneath the shade of the tallest tree.

“Why’d you choose me?” Kav asked. “It’s been years, and I never understood.”

The locks of Layla’s hair, blue as deep ocean, waved over her eyes as a gust of wind blew. Kind of messy. “I guess I was drawn to you, that’s all.”

“Drawn to me? You gotta do better than that. I’m an islander, you’re a Shirmian. Your bathtub is bigger than my house. So why?”

She gazed into him, her sapphire eyes thudding his heart. “You know the verse from the recitals, about how all things are created in pairs? You’re my pair, Kav. Our souls were created together, so nothing of the outward matters. Not your race, or your memories, or where you live. We had to find each other, and we’ll be together for eternity. No matter what.”

 ***

“Kav, shut the hell up. Just shut your damn face.” Kyars cut Kav off, just when he was getting to the best part. Then Kyars jumped off his bed and started lecturing like the General. “I don’t wanna hear that crap. By Nur, you’re a man, don’t fall for that camel shit.”

“I’m telling you my favorite memory, like you asked, and you’re calling it camel shit?”

“Look, girls — that’s how they get you,” Kyars said. “I’m telling you man, don’t believe a word of it. It’s all talk, none of that is really in their hearts. They’re cold as hell. If hell wasn’t a burning sea of fire.”

“I know that, I’ve been on the whole tour, so sit down.” Kav turned away from Kyars. “But Layla…she’s different. She’s not like other girls, she has this…sadness to her and this mystery and…anyway, forget it.”

Kyars got back on his mattress. “Man, I’m sorry. I’d really like you to finish your story.”

“No.”

“Really…truly…please…”

“I said no.”

“I’ll treat you to some steamed salmon?”

Kav rolled his eyes. “Clamp that mouth this time until I’m finished.”

 ***

Under the tree in the garden, the gentlest breeze kissed them both. Layla gazed holes through Kav’s heart, her warmth pressed against his shoulder.

She took something out of her pocket. “Let’s get married.”

“Damn. You’re sure direct.”

She held a jewel between her fingers. Within that jewel, swirled the sun itself. It was that stunning.

“You’d rather I dance around the notion? Or send you a menu of mixed signals?”

Kav touched his nose to hers. “A castrated panda couldn’t say no to you. Let’s do it.”

Before he could kiss her, she reached out to him with the jewel.

“Whoah,” Kav said, “you wanna get married right here?”

“With Nur as our witness!” She grinned her mischievous grin.

“We can’t. I’ve got nothing to give you.”

“Go up in a tree and grab an apple. That will be your dowry to me, and this will be my offering to you.”

He reached up to grab an apple. They were the thickest red — blood red — as if biting one would be like chewing through flesh. Luminous apples drenched with garden mist.

He gave it to her, and the bond was sealed. With Nur as their witness.

 ***

“Wait a damned minute,” Kyars said. “I know I’m not supposed to interrupt, but that’s some camel shit right there. You can’t get married with ‘Nur as your witness’, you need at least three witnesses for a marriage to be legal. You know, real flesh and blood human beings.”

Kav focused on the white ceiling. “Obviously, it was a romantic gesture. Not something someone like you would understand. After that, we went back to town and got married with witnesses and whatnot. All legal, all straight, and I bought her something better than a damn apple and we had our jewels sewed into our chests. So that’s the whole story, my favorite damn moment of my damn life. Now I’m spent, I need sleep so I can mess up that Shirma Tusir tomorrow.”

“Oh yeah! I forgot to congratulate you for winning today. I was so worried about you, that they’d come after you again. Whatever, my boy’s a finalist! Damn, I hadn’t even realized. Here we are talking about girls when you could be declared the conductor of the year. Now if only there were girls around to witness it…”

“I got this,” Kav said. “Victory is already humming my name. I will win.”

Kyars stretched to shut the blinds; the room darkened. The sun gazed through a gap at the top, peaking in at Kav’s bedside. Dust swirled in the air where the sunray hit.

“See, I might be pig-headed, but you Kav, are proud and arrogant. Nur will forgive me, but not you. Humility, my brother.”

At that, Kav pretended he was asleep. Minutes passed, and Kyar’s snoring confirmed that he’d left the waking world. Kav wanted to do the same, but dancing thoughts trampled his drowsiness.

The Mask, could he be the same one from four years ago? If I win tomorrow, and I get to meet him, then what? The hell will I do then?

He longed for the thoughts to stop so he could rest up for the big match.

If it’s the same Magus…if there’s even a chance I can meet him, I have to take it. I have to win. And then I can finally kill him.

 ***

After lumbering through the halls without any sleep, Kav slept through his Advanced Energy Routing class. He sat down for lunch with Kyars at twelve.

“Man, you shoulda woken me up if you couldn’t sleep,” Kyars said. “I would’ve knocked your ass out. How’re you gonna beat Tusir in this shape?”

Kav took a sip of his espresso shot. “Sleep is overrated. I’m giving him a much needed handicap.”

“You mean, you’re giving yourself a handicap.”

“Whatevs, same meaning.” Kav sipped. Quality espresso. These Shirmians could sure brew a cup.

A few minutes of silent eating passed. Kav ate his curry rice granule by granule, having little energy to fill his stomach.

“You know what I was thinking this morning?” Kyars said. “I was thinking about how I want to die. And I think I know…how I want to die.”

“How?” This is gonna be good…

“Imagine me, creeping around the palaces of Kostany. I sneak into the Shah’s harem, where I have my way with his Almarian quarter. No scratch that, I ain’t gonna limit myself to one race. Hell, if he’s got any Haemians in there, I’ll take ’em too. Anyway, the guards are alerted, they rush in with their scimitars, but before they kill me, I die Buktansir style!”

“Buktansir style? Should I even ask what that is?”

“Buktansir was the great conqueror who had over one-thousand children and three-hundred concubines. The man died while…you know.”

“Damn.”

Kyars nodded in rhythm. “I’ll give you some time to digest that. Then you tell me how you want to die.”

How I want to die? The question was like a shot of energy. Or maybe that was the espresso.

“Aright, aright. Here’s my version,” Kav said. “Imagine me, relaxing in a grassy field. No scratch that, relaxing on the roof of a tower. And I’m staring at the sky, just lying down, looking up. And then, all of a sudden, an immense meteor rips through the clouds. It flies downward at incredible speed, hits the city, and boom, buildings tear apart, and a massive cloud of death comes toward me and that’s the last thing I see before Nur takes my soul.”

“That’s just sick!” said a voice at Kav’s flank. “What messed you up in childhood?”

Kav spun to face him.

It was the blond-haired Tusir, glaring at him with his proud Shirmian nose.

And so Kav glared back.

A minute might have passed.

“Fine, I’ll crack the silence,” Kav said. “What in the blue hell do you want?”

“Just here to have a little conversation.”

Kyars piled his leftovers on his tray. “I’m out, have class anyway.” He darted out the cafeteria.

Tusir sat in his place. “You’re damn good.”

“Nah. I try, is all.”

“You do more than just ‘try’. I heard about your domination in the round phase. Not one red jewel — mighty stuff.”

“Which is why you tried to off me in the quarters, eh?”

Tusir smirked and leaned back in his chair. “You know, someone who fights as hard as you has got to have a good reason. Most of these guys around us are, for lack of a better word, clowns. Straight up clowns, who got to fill their compulsory service at the world’s best academy ’cause their parents got connections. They don’t want to be here, they don’t want to fight, it’s not in their blood. But you’re something else.”

“Yeah? Maybe so.”

“You know, someone who fights as hard as you, either they’re here because they got someone to protect, or they really want to mess someone up.”

Kav looked away and stared out the window. A flock of birds fluttered by outside.

“So which is it, Kav?”

“I just want the glory, man, there ain’t nothin’ deep to me. For myself, and my people.”

Back to glaring at each other.

“Your people?” Tusir said. “Where’re you from?”

“Riau island. In the south of Necia.”

“Really? I’ve been there. Love the local delicacy, what do you call it, those fish pancakes?”

Eyebrow was itching, so Kav scratched. “Oh yeah, good stuff, good stuff.”

And then Tusir closed his eyes. A message hit Kav’s consciousness.

You’re not from Necia. Damn liar.

It was obviously Tusir — his frequency unfamiliar.

Think what you want. Kav replied. I got nothing more to say to you, so why don’t you meet me in the field?

You’re Keldanese. Tusir messaged. For sure. I know, because I grew up in Keldan, in the Shirmian quarter of Hyseria. I can tell the difference between Necians and you Keldanese.

“Save it for the fight.” Kav pushed the table and got up. Time for class anyway.

Tusir messaged as he was leaving. I can spread your secret. All your Necian buddies will hate you. And there’ll probably be an investigation into your background. Just what’re you hiding? Damn, you a terrorist or something? You Sons of the Deep, or Keldan Alive, or some shit? They’ll deport you. Or worse, imprison you. But I’ll keep your secret, if you do one thing for me. Throw the match.

You know, even though I’m not one, I admire the Keldanese. Kav replied. They don’t take shit from anyone, and neither will I.

With sunlight in his veins, Kav wrote a block for Tusir’s frequency. The aperture fed a confirmation back to his mind. And then he went to class, the desire to win burning away tiredness.

 ***

The forest was furious. Leaves blew off trees in raging gusts, weaving a tapestry of foliage through the air. Kav stood still — eyes closed. He felt his wrist throb as his twicrys filled with sunshine.

Ping. He sent waves out through the forest, creating a spectrum map in his mind. Everything had its own pattern of colors, suspended in motion.

But his foe Tusir was nowhere on it.

Has he cloaked himself?

Kav stood as still as he could, like another tree beaten on by raging leaves. They pattered across his face, smelling of old life. Crunching into one another, whirling away.

That’s how I’ll hear him, footsteps on leaves.

He listened for the crunch. Patter patter — leaves hit his face. The wind whispered. Patter patter.

Patter patter.

Red light hit his eyes. It beamed onto him from a perch somewhere.

Shit.

Kav ducked behind a tree to cut off the angle of the light. He looked down to check the jewel belt.

One was red. Dammit.

Eyes closed, he released a spectrum ping. The area where the light came from seemed clean.

Has he moved?

There was something odd: an unusually large black hole in the spectrum map. Large enough to be the aura of a person. Up on a tree, twenty-five yards southwest. Unmoving, the black hole was still as he pinged again. He’s sniping…

Kav dashed for another tree, keeping cover between him and what he knew was Tusir. Leaves pummeled him as he pushed against the wind. He slid under a sprawling oak. It must have been a hundred years old; its branches reached to the sun over all others.

Once again, Kav pinged. This time, the black hole was gone.

He looked to the right — nothing. To the left — there! Kav slashed at the Shirmian boy and conducted a wide red wave. The boy jumped, slashed back in the air. Red flashed in Kav’s eyes.

Tusir dove into a bush. Kav was sure his charge hit the boy’s foot.

Back behind cover, Kav checked his belt. Two red.

2-1 — I got this. I can come back.

A quick look at spectrum revealed Tusir about fifteen yards west — blue-shifting. Kav peeked out from behind the trunk, saw no one. Tusir must have his own cover. By spectrum, Kav determined which tree the boy hid behind. I can flank him.

Kav dashed, keeping low, to a closer tree. He checked his angle, but still couldn’t see Tusir. Spectrum showed the boy in flight — red-shifting.

From tree to tree, Kav approached in a circle. There! Tusir sat huddled behind a fungus-infested log. Kav slashed twice, precise bursts at his torso. Direct hit. That’s two more! Kav slashed upwards for the third and final. Tusir sidestepped, released a wide-area burst. Light scathed Kav’s eyes. He backstepped behind a log.

Three red on the belt — 3-3. This one decides it.

I’m close. Damn close. To lose from here would be tragic. I won’t.

Spectrum revealed the boy near, about ten yards north.

“This’s been one hell of a fight!” Tusir said.

Kav kept silent, focused on ending it.

“I don’t think I can win,” Tusir continued. “You’re too fast. You release two in the time it takes me one.”

“You givin’ up, Shirma?”

“The Blessing of the Deep Blue — you definitely have it. It’s sad, my parents moved to a settlement on the Keldanese rim so that I could be born with it as well. All my life, I drank nothing but Deep Blue water, bathed in that water, ate only fish from that water. But I’m still not even close to as good as you.”

Nostalgic words, almost comforting. Words tinged with blue. Focus. If his words have any truth, I need to beat him NOW.

The tree which hid Tusir was thick, but another ten or so yards and Kav could see behind it.

“Lemme win,” Tusir said. “You don’t understand, I need to win. It matters more to me than you can know.”

Three yards. Two. One. There! Kav released a precision shot, reddening the world.

Direct hit! The match ender!

Tusir came out, blade sheathed in his belt. And next to it, were four blue jewels.

“The hell?” Kav gaped. “You cheating piece of gorilla shit!”

“I can’t lose to you. I won’t.” Tusir unsheathed his blade.

Kav charged at him, grabbed his neck, and threw him to the floor; then stopped himself from stomping the Shirmian in the gut; then stopped himself from smashing the boy’s proud nose.

Kav picked up Tusir’s blade and threw it next to him. “Get up and finish this farce.”

Tusir sat up, rubbing his neck.

“Finish it!” Kav said.

“I can’t.”

“Why not? You went to all this trouble to cheat yourself to a glorious victory. So finish the game so I can go sow a quilt or something.”

“Where in Keldan you from?”

“Fuck you.” Kav turned to walk away.

“You’re from Kerb, aren’t you?”

That stopped him cold.

“I can tell,” Tusir said. “The way you talk, your accent. It’s subtle, but having lived my life around you people, I can tell. But more than anything, I know because of how you fight. No people were more blessed with Nur’s light than the Kerbians.”

“Don’t talk like you’re Keldanese. You Shirmas lived in a walled-off little world.”

“You and I are the same. That’s why you want to win so badly. You want to be the strongest, don’t you? Whether or not winning matters, you can’t let yourself lose.”

Kav stared in silence at a mashed ant hill.

“Tell me,” Tusir said, “why is it you want to become stronger? Who are you trying to protect? Or…who are you trying to destroy? What happened to you, Kav?”

 ***

War happened, four years ago, after the Second Uprising began in Kerb. Kav awoke during Universal Hours of Rest, his sweat smelling of salt. His brother Mezzin wasn’t on his mattress, nor was auntie home.

Outside, the deafening whine of hovering levships drowned the roar of fires. Kav ran through the streets toward the Deep Blue shore. The people of the city stampeded the opposite direction, away from the levships toward the outskirts of town.

On the way to the shore, the Shrine of Saint Ad’deen stood radiant — a domed mausoleum for the dead saint. A throng of Keldanese clung to the tomb, their palms facing heaven, seeking his intercession with Nur.

And then fire rained from the sky. The dome exploded, spewing white marble. A piece hit Kav’s head and knocked him onto the dirt road. Blood gushed from his ear.

Clutching his dripping ear, Kav wanted to run away. His ear drum had burst, a piece of flesh dangled out the hole: a broken part of him. But it didn’t matter how many parts broke; all that mattered was the girl he sought.

So Kav got up and treaded to the shore. Something whirled above, free flying over the water — a levship, much bigger than any he’d seen. It seemed to be leading the armada. Most levships look like birds, but this one was flat and geometric, resembling an octagon. Like an eight-sided black hole, sucking the light of the sun. And it sang. It hummed a dead song that drove the world to its end. Kav ignored it and continued.

He pinged, and spectrum showed Layla, not too far from where he stood, a blue-glow upon the rainbow. Then he received a message.

Kav…run. Don’t let me be the cause of your demise. Our bond will outlast this world into the next. We’ll see each other again, in the Garden, so run.

And he replied.

I can’t. I can’t run from my own soul.

The gates of the Palace on the Shore were open. Kav ran into the courtyard, breathless. She was here, somewhere.

 ***

Tusir got back on his feet, blade in hand. “You joined the army that destroyed your home. Why?”

“I’ve got reasons.”

“It’s funny, your reasons may be too similar to mine.”

Tusir ripped something off his belt — a black piece of cloth. “This is a black absorber. It has a ninety percent chance of absorbing low intensity light hitting within its field.”

Into the wind he threw it. With the raging leaves it flew away. Then he pointed his blade at his chest and conducted a soft charge. A jewel turned red.

He did it again. “Let’s complete our flight.” And once more. Now it really was 3-3.

“You know,” Kav said, “I beat you already. It’s 4-3 to me.”

“Actually, remember when you hit my foot? Well, feet don’t count, they’re outside the belt’s range. Should’ve listened to the rules more carefully.”

“Whatever.” Kav pointed his blade at him. “Let’s finish this.”

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