Below is the (unfinished) text from the first two chapters of the untitled third book of the Ethereal Kingdom trilogy. I hope you enjoy!
Jacob tapped his bare foot on the tiled floor and wondered how long Ms. Kline could drone on about something so trivial. Was it possible that his physics teacher hadn’t heard the news? She didn’t spend her first waking minutes scrolling through notifications like her students, but the report dominated every radio station, television channel, and sidewalk conversation. Even if she skipped the morning paper, plugged her ears on the bus, and missed the principal’s morning announcement, one of her fellow teachers must have mentioned it. The faculty lounge buzzed with the same nervous energy that consumed Jacob and filled him with an anxiety that stretched his hourlong class into an endless prison sentence.
“Do you know the answer, Jake?” asked Ms. Kline, shortening Jacob’s name to elicit a reaction. All heads turned, and Jacob’s pale cheeks reddened.
“Answer?” Jacob hadn’t been paying the slightest attention.
“The car’s rate of acceleration. I assume you’ve been listening to my lesson?” A boy snorted to Jacob’s left, and Ms. Kline smirked like one of his classmates, a youthful expression struggling to find room between her wrinkled cheeks.
Jacob blinked. He’d never understood why some teachers hated him with limitless vigor, while others took to him like a captivating book. His behavior didn’t change between classes, so the fault couldn’t lie with him. He decided that the explanation hid within the inscrutable layers of his teachers’ disparate personalities. The answer might as well be locked in a vault, he thought. He had difficulty interpreting expressions, let alone rationalizing the opaque behaviors of other people.
“If you would please repeat the question,” Jacob said, careful to keep his voice even. Ms. Kline had suspended him last week for speaking out of turn, and he didn’t intend to give her any excuses.
“I wrote the question on the whiteboard.” Ms. Kline knew full well that Jacob’s poor vision prevented him from seeing the board from his seat. Still, Jacob could sense her triumphant smile, as if she’d defeated him in an age-old battle only she understood. As he approached the board, he wondered what Ms. Kline might do if he declined to participate in her war.
“The car’s acceleration is eight meters per second,” he said a moment after her sloppy handwriting came into focus. As a seventh-grader, Jacob’s participation in Ms. Kline’s twelfth-grade physics class upset the bitter woman, and her contempt multiplied with each perfect answer.
Ms. Kline sighed with disappointment, though she covered the inappropriate sound with a short, high-pitched cough. Then, once again smirking, she executed her next maneuver.
“Since Jake cheated by reading from the textbook, maybe someone else would like to join me at the board and explain the solution?” Another boy’s hand shot into the air, and Ms. Kline pointed to him, but not before she scolded Jacob. “And put your foot back in your shoe, Mr. Hunter. I know it’s summer, but that’s no excuse to disobey the dress code.”
Jacob Hunter wiggled his toes into his discarded loafer and resisted the urge to tap his foot, all while Ms. Kline scrutinized his every move. He hardly noticed her attention, though, since he’d already sunk back into the depths of his swirling imagination. When the bell forced Ms. Kline’s dull lesson to an anticlimactic end, Jacob darted from her classroom to fetch his phone from his locker. He needed more information, and he knew his teachers would be the last source of any useful data.
He found his friend Sasha leaning against a neighboring locker, the surface of which bore marks from years past: dents inflicted by unruly children roughhousing through the halls, lewd drawings of human anatomy still visible through a thin layer of green paint, and an encroaching patina of rust surrounding the crooked door’s hinges.
“So what do you think?” Sasha asked, moving aside to let Jacob dial in his code without looking up from her phone’s screen. Jacob paused, taking a moment to admire her, all while avoiding his own reflection in the moldy mirror glued to the door. While Jacob hadn’t yet begun his growth spurt, Sasha stretched towards six feet, all while maintaining her athletic physique built over the years leading the school’s soccer team. Jacob appeared even shorter and thinner next to Sasha, as skinny as his narrow ribcage allowed, and no matter how much he ate or exercised, his body refused to grow up or outwards.
“You’re staring again,” Sasha said, smirking, still without raising her eyes from her phone.
“Sorry.” Despite her position, Sasha hadn’t shed Jacob for the popular clique, not yet at least. It’s only a matter of time until she grows up and discovers she doesn’t need my friendship, he thought.
“It could have been a supernova,” Sasha said, prodding Jacob since he hadn’t answered her question. Sometimes it took two or three tries to get him to speak, so she lowered her phone and waved her hand in front of his eyes.
“I don’t think that Alpha Centauri’s stars has—or had—enough mass to become a supernova.” Jacob unlocked his phone to check the news. “Although... if it went nova, we’d find out in about four years, before we turn seventeen.”
“There wasn’t even a flash when it vanished, according to the Chinese. Only they had a telescope pointed at the star, so maybe they’re lying.”
“Could be. Or it’s a Dyson sphere.”
“So we’re back to your alien theory from this morning.” Sasha rolled her eyes so Jacob could recognize her sarcasm.
“Enclosing a whole star in a sphere a couple million miles wide would take a while, I bet. It’s not like clapping a jar around a firefly.”
“Not for us.”
“Oh, so your mysterious aliens have superpowers now?”
Jacob didn’t respond, for he grew distracted by the flow of students rushing past his locker like so many chattering mice running through a maze. He overheard snippets of their inane conversations. One girl wondered whether her crush would ask her to the upcoming spring dance. Another recounted her online shopping history to a group of sycophantic followers.
“How is everyone not talking about this?” Jacob asked, frustrated. “The closest stars to Earth, aside from our sun, vanish, and no one seems to care.”
“To be fair, we’re in middle school.”
“So?” Jacob didn’t understand how their status as students might affect such a significant event.
“Let me put it this way. My older brother volunteered at the Natural History Museum last summer to give tours. He said most kids didn’t know that our sun is farther away than the moon.”
“Then they don’t care because they’re stupid.”
“Maybe,” Sasha said, giggling. “But it’s just somewhat... atypical for kids our age to worry about astronomical phenomena, be they of monumental significance or not.”
“I wish I didn’t have to spend so much time here.”
“You and me both, buddy. But this building is our prison for five more years.” Sasha held out her wrists, tugging against invisible cuffs. “We’re trapped. It doesn’t matter that you’re a genius and that I’m smarter than the average kid. We can’t think our way out of school.”
Jacob frowned because he knew Sasha was right. Of the Earth's seven billion people, Jacob’s mind was among the brightest. Yet his adoptive parents forced him to attend middle school, claiming that his socialization, as they called it, would prove far more valuable throughout life than his education.
“Don’t look so dour,” Sasha said. “Only one more class today, then we can wander the streets for a couple of hours before your parents worry.”
“Can we discuss the gravity idea instead of wandering?”
“So my insight is valuable, after all.”
“Of course. You’re the smartest person I know.” Sasha’s dark cheeks turned a deeper shade of rich brown at Jacob’s earnest praise, even though she’d fished for the compliment.
The bell rang, and they were about to rush to their next class when the overhead fluorescent bulbs flickered and then shut off, replaced by red emergency lamps powered by the school’s backup generators. Jacob rushed to the window opposite his locker and looked outside to see the street lamps blink to life. It had been a beautiful day, with a blue sky only found during the few weeks between winter’s chill and summer’s heat, when a westerly wind would usher a humid haze into the city. Jacob craned his neck towards the small slice of sky between soaring buildings, but he could see only darkness.
“What’s going on?” Sasha asked, coming to stand beside him.
“The sun vanished.”
“That’s not possible...”
“Like Alpha Centauri’s stars can’t have disappeared?” Sasha looked close to tears, so Jacob continued, “Well, the sun must still be there, because if it had died out, we’d freeze solid.”
“You’re right.” Sasha squared her shoulders to subdue her quaking chest, but her voice shook, and she grabbed Jacob’s hand. It was his turn to blush now. “What do we do?” she asked.
“Attention,” said an automated voice over the loudspeaker. “All students, please and attend your scheduled classes.”
Sasha turned to leave, but Jacob held onto her hand, tugging her back. “We should go home. There may be riots and looting soon, and I’d rather not be outside when it starts.”
“I don’t think I’ll be much safer at my orphanage.”
“My parents won’t mind if you come with me.”
“You get suspended once a month, Jacob, but my record’s flawless. A disciplinary action on my record will ruin my chance to get into a good college.”
“That’s a dramatic lie. Besides, no one will notice our absence on a day like today. I promise.” Sasha nodded and followed Jacob through the halls, which had emptied with unusual rapidity. They didn’t encounter another soul as they left, not even a guard at the school’s exit.
Jacob lived just across Central Park in a large penthouse overlooking an unused reservoir. The gravel path surrounding the oval body of water should have been crowded with a constant stream of joggers at two in the afternoon, but when they reached the loop, they found it abandoned. Fifth Avenue proved just as empty after they emerged from the park, save for the occasional police car that screamed past at dangerous speeds.
They talked little as they walked, though they quickened their pace until Sasha broke into a full run with Jacob trailing far behind. Her athleticism carried her to Jacob’s building a full minute before he arrived, and when he caught up, he had to lean against a parked car to catch his breath.
“C’mon,” Sasha said. “It’s creepy out here.”
Jacob lifted his phone to check the latest news, but the most recent stories were last updated over an hour ago. He walked, still searching the internet for information, and banged his head on the building’s oak door when the doorman didn't open it. Sasha pushed her way inside while Jacob rubbed his bruised forehead and followed.
At the end of the empty hall sat a single elevator, a remnant of an older breed of machines controlled by an operator. Only the most expensive city properties eschewed the modern convenience of an automated lift, and Jacob often lobbied his parents to move into an updated home. His father refused, for he cherished the prestige that came with inhabiting such an ostentatious property, driven by an ego that had been further inflated by his recent acquisition of Broder Industries.
Just five years ago, no one in the energy business had thought to seek a buyout of Henrick von Broder’s company. But then Henrick had gone missing, along with the bulk of his valuable research. Jacob’s father swooped in to acquire the flagging business, multiplying his wealth overnight and thus leading them to such an antiquated apartment.
Sasha and Jacob stepped into the ornate, caged elevator. Because Jacob had seen the operator work the brass lever many times, he figured controlling the platform’s speed wouldn’t pose a challenge. He depressed the lever with considerable force, and they lurched upwards, knocking into the wall as the wheels groaned on their rails. Sasha batted his hand away and took over, bringing the car to a smooth stop at his floor.
The door opened into Jacob’s dark penthouse. With no sunlight, only the gentle glow from growing lamps in the living room lit the cavernous apartment. Jacob ran his hand along the wall until he found and flipped on the light switch.
Sasha screeched, then slapped her hand over her mouth and said, “I’m so sorry.” Jacob’s mother stood beside his father at the end of the hall, still dressed in the same clothing they each wore to work; a crisp suit for his father and a flowing gown for his mother.
“Welcome home,” his mother said in an odd, stiff voice so unlike her melodic tone that carried over from long days singing opera.
“Yes, welcome home,” his father repeated.
“It’s good to see you, Mr. and Mrs. Hunter,” Sasha said, but they ignored her greeting. The hardwood creaked under Jacob’s feet as he walked down the hall with Sasha, their footsteps the only sound in the entire apartment aside from nervous breathing.
“Is something wrong?” Jacob asked.
“Come closer, and I will show you my special gift,” his mother said, not quite answering Jacob’s question. Jacob’s stomach knotted with nerves, unsettled by their behavior. His adoptive parents weren’t the most loving guardians a child could want, but this coldness in their voices was new.
His mother opened her palm, and Jacob leaned forward to see the gleaming jewel, a perfect replica of a delicate leaf. Forged from gold, its artisan had taken great care to mimic an actual leaf, down to the tiny veins running along its length.
As Jacob ran his finger along the intricate surface, an icy hand yanked the hair on the back of his head. He craned his neck to see that it was his father who had grabbed him and that he held Sasha in the same vulnerable position.
“You’re hurting me,” Sasha said, trying to squirm away. Jacob’s mother revealed a second golden leaf, which bore a unique pattern as if plucked from another branch. Jacob didn’t have time to examine it, because his mother stepped forward and slapped the leaves against each of their exposed necks.
A brief stab of pain exploded through Jacob’s spine, followed by a peculiar sensation like a live insect crawling beneath his skin. Both he and Sasha cried from the trauma, but then Sasha fell silent, mid-scream, like he’d muted a horror movie playing on the television.
His father released them both, and Sasha straightened. She looked up at Jacob’s mother and spoke in a steady tone, “I am welcomed to the House of the Leaf.”
Jacob furrowed his brow, confused. What were these strange words she’d uttered, and why had her voice lost all intonation? He rubbed the back of his neck, for though the pain had gone, his skin remained tender, and he could feel the leaf’s hard shell embedded within his vertebrae.
“He did not recite the words,” said Jacob’s mother. His father reached again for Jacob’s hair, who fell backward onto the floor as a young woman strode from the elevator. Vibrant, red hair shone atop her head, and her thin face appeared as Jacob imagined a queen from a medieval fairy tale. She raised her chin, and her eyes glinted in the dark, shining with a light of their own. Then Jacob’s parents fell to the ground, collapsing like unsupported dolls knocked over by the hand of a restless toddler. Sasha tipped over as well, right onto Jacob.
Shock from what he’d seen would lead most boys to tears, but Jacob was not a typical child. Summoning a calm that defied his age, Jacob asked, “Who are you, and what did you do to Sasha and my parents?”
“Figures you’d be smarter than the average kid. I should force you to sleep like I did your parents and carry you from this house like a sack of flour. But no, compelling your obedience would be an inauspicious start to our friendship. Very well. I traveled to Earth to persuade you to save the universe from your biological father.” Jacob blinked. On any other day, he’d have dismissed her preposterous notion outright, but the sun’s disappearance piqued his interest.
“You’re an alien?”
“I’m human, if that’s what you’re asking. But I wasn’t born on this planet. I’m Leyna. Nice to meet you, Jacob. Now let’s go.”
“How do you know my name?”
“Because I can read minds. Any more questions?”
“I’m afraid so.” Jacob crouched to check Sasha’s pulse.
“The leaf robbed your friend of her mind. When she and your parents awaken, they’ll kill you after realizing you were unaffected by the leaf’s power.”
“Sasha is my only friend. I won’t leave her.”
“Abandoning a friend is never easy. I won’t pretend otherwise. But sometimes you have to leave even those you love.” Tears welled up in Leyna’s eyes, and Jacob didn’t doubt her words. “How about this: I promise to do everything I can to help your friend and your parents after I get you somewhere safe. Fair?”
Jacob nodded, even though Leyna’s words shed scant light on this confounding situation. A hidden pressure behind her words convinced him to leave, and he followed her demurely from the apartment to an idling black sedan.
“Get in,” Leyna said, opening the door, and Jacob obeyed by clambering into the back with Leyna at his side. The driver’s shoulders were broader than his seat, and he hunched over the dashboard, his hands covering the entire wheel, like a teenager driving a toy car meant for an infant. An axe, silver and glimmering, occupied the passenger side.
“This is Priven,” Leyna said. “Former battle master of the Perianth academy and trainer for thousands of child soldiers. But those days are behind him. Now he’s just my bodyguard.”
“Bit of a downgrade,” Priven said in a baritone tenor that matched his gruff exterior. “We might have to fight our way to the harbor.”
“You’ve been hankering for a fight ever since we arrived.”
“You try being cooped up in that ship for a year,” Priven growled, but he started the car and drove. Jacob reached for his seatbelt, for although he had ridden in many taxis whose drivers swerved between lanes, he’d experienced nothing like this. Priven’s foot seemed incapable of applying anything other than maximum pressure to the gas and brake pedals, so they lurched and jolted through the city, jumping the curb on more than one occasion.
“I enjoy watching you struggle,” Leyna said, laughing, but Jacob noticed that she also fastened her seatbelt.
Priven added his laugh to hers, which turned into a groan when he slammed on the brake, throwing Jacob forward against his belt with enough force to knock the air from his chest. They’d stopped just short of a line of police cars that blocked the road.
“I’ll handle this,” Priven said, and it sounded to Jacob as if their predicament excited him.
“The cops will shoot you if you don’t listen to them,” Jacob said, figuring Priven wouldn’t be familiar with Earth’s rules.
“They can try.” Priven squeezed through the car’s tight doorframe, like a giant dog trying to fit through a door flap built for a much smaller cat.
“Release your prisoner,” a voice shouted from a loudspeaker. Priven ignored the command and instead walked to the passenger door, opened it, and removed his axe. He gripped the weapon in one meaty fist, then pointed it at the nearest officer.
“Surrender, or we will open fire,” said the same voice. For a sickening moment, a rush of clarity washed over Jacob, and he wondered how he’d gotten here. Had he allowed Leyna to kidnap him? Then a dozen gunshots rang through the air, and Jacob slammed his hands over his ears. He’d heard gunfire in movies, of course, but he’d never imagined how much louder it was in person. Despite the incoming fire, Priven continued to stand in front of the car, unconcerned.
“Lead pellets?” Priven asked. “Your master should have armed you with a weapon capable of defeating your foe.” A haze of bullets hovered in the air like a dark cloud before Priven, and he smashed the bullets with his massive axe to sent them whistling at the cops, who dove to the ground. Then Priven punched his fist into the sky, and cars lifted off their wheels and collided against storefronts before landing in a pile of crumpled metal.
“You shouldn’t have hurt those people,” Leyna said after Priven squeezed back into the driver’s seat.
“Remember, you chose me to come along in case something went wrong. I did what I needed to protect your magical boy.”
“And enjoyed it,” Leyna said.
“So what if I did?” Priven beat his foot against the gas pedal, and the car shot down the street, screeching around the corner and onto a pier overlooking the river. “We’re here.”
Jacob followed Leyna to what appeared to be a hollowed-out tree trunk protruding from the water.
“In I go,” Priven said, and he vaulted into the chute and slid out of sight below the water.
“I’m not going in there,” Jacob said, eyeing the dark hole. “I don’t even remember deciding to come along with you.”
“Because I pushed you.”
“Pushed? As in, altered my thoughts?”
“No. All I did was shift your memory of the sun’s disappearance to the forefront of your mind, so you’d be more likely to believe me. Since you’d already seen something unbelievable, I figured you’d be more receptive to my suggestions.”
“Are you doing that again, pushing me?”
“If I were, you’d already have followed Priven into the ship. No, I want you to choose to join me, Jacob. You’ve been an outsider in your own life, smarter than everyone around you and frustrated that, despite their job titles, your teachers have been incapable of answering what you’d consider the most basic of questions. You inherited your intelligence, and I can tell you from whom. I can answer questions you would never think to ask.”
“Why has the sun vanished?” Jacob asked, looking into the sky where not even the stars shone in the inky blackness of space.
“I don’t know.” Jacob snorted.
“It doesn’t matter. I won’t leave my friend Sasha.”
“And how do you plan on rescuing her? Even if you somehow evaded all the forces which are gathering to apprehend you, forces that wield power far beyond Priven’s demonstration back there, you would find that Sasha’s mind is not her own. She would not recognize you. But if you let me teach you, there’s a chance—a tiny, microscopic possibility—that you’ll save her.”
“That’s not logical. I have to abandon Sasha to rescue her?”
“To save someone you love, you sometimes need to leave them. Five years ago, when we were still children, I left the boy I love. Cayden and I shared our minds as few humans ever have, but I had to go because he travels a dark road. I seek a better path, one that doesn’t extinguish free will from billions of lives. Now I’m millions of light-years from my home, talking to you in front of a river that stinks of rot while hoping with the entirety of my heart that you can cure a disease that kills the universe. But I didn’t do it for the universe’s sake. I did it for Cayden’s, though he hates me for turning my back on him. So make the smart choice for your friend, Sasha. Leave her to save her life.”
“Fine,” Jacob said. “I’ll come.” For now.
As Cayden ran across the open desert, his thoughts settled on Leyna. He sought to blast her last words from his mind with a brisk morning jog, but the harder he tried to forget her scathing fury, the more potent the memory became. It was like trying to blow out a forest fire, only to lend the flames enough strength to leap to untouched trees. His efforts helped the fire spread that much faster, consuming his every waking thought.
Cayden gritted his teeth and ran faster. He directed his Ethereal Hand into his legs, using the invisible yet mighty force to reshape his muscles and bones for maximum speed. He sprinted onward faster than the swiftest man had ever run, faster even than a cheetah on Earth. He flew across the land, each leap covering twenty feet until the ground blurred and his eyes teared from the force of the wind.
Though his speed delivered a giddy exhilaration, Cayden’s overall mood didn't improve. His muscles would continue expanding and contracting for a thousand years, fed by his Ethereal Hand with an infinite energy supply. He could go on running in an eternal circle until his feet eroded a deep cavern through the sand. Such power bored him.
He remembered a time not so long ago when running a short distance through the streets would leave him winded, gasping for air for minutes afterward. Back then, he’d accepted Lysander’s training to empower his Ethereal Hand. He’d longed to become stronger, and he had. But with limitless control over his body came an intense yearning to return to those precious years when physical exertion meant something.
A shadow fell across the field, startling Cayden from his reverie, and he tripped, flying hundreds of feet through the hot, dry air. With nothing to stop his fall, he tumbled head over heel until he crashed into a rock protruding from the yellow sand. Of course, he could have brought himself to a rest with his Ethereal Hand, but he chose instead to allow several of his bones to shatter from the sheer force of impact, enjoying the pain that followed. Intense spasms shot through his body, but somehow the pain wasn’t as intense as it used to be. The longer he remained apart from Leyna, the more his senses crowded towards the middle, eliminating any of the extreme emotions he’d once feared but now missed.
An overgrown seed pod, the size of a compact car, plummeted from the sky, landing ten paces from Cayden. The seed peeled open, like a flower’s petals unfurling to greet the sun, and a boy stepped out. Cayden sighed when he noticed Dakota’s surly expression, which belonged more to an impatient man than a boy of fourteen.
“You’re wasting time again,” Dakota said, crossing his arms like a teacher scolding his student for misbehaving. Despite his words, Dakota’s tone remained flat, and Cayden wondered whether the boy experienced any emotion at all.
“You’re not my boss.” Cayden heard his own immaturity as he spoke, but he couldn’t stop himself from continuing. “Besides, I’m four years older. I just turned eighteen, which makes me a man.”
“A man who looks like a boy who has yet to begin puberty.”
Cayden opened his mouth to protest but then closed it, for Dakota’s statement was accurate. Since Cayden stopped aging five years ago, he’d not changed his appearance to suit his age and was indistinguishable from the boy Leyna had abandoned.
“Is an old man who has never fished more likely to catch a salmon than a boy who has practiced for years?” Dakota asked.
“I take it I’m the old man in your example.”
“More like a foolish child who throws tantrums when he doesn’t get his way.”
“Fine. You win as always.” Cayden commanded his body to repair itself. Within seconds, bones slid into place, bruises cleared like clouds blown from the sky, and torn skin resealed. Only the blood that stained the packed sand remained as evidence of his injuries.
“That’s better,” Dakota said when Cayden had finished.
“Can’t you give me a bit of time to myself, just this once?”
“How much time? We’ve not left this planet for a month. Do you think my father, Sevron, sits still while we linger here? Do you think he has rested?”
“And yet our firewall against his influence remains incomplete.”
“The troops need rest as well,” Cayden said, and Dakota narrowed his eyes as if stunned Cayden would utter something so idiotic.
“Five years ago, you used your Ethereal Hand to embed the golden leaves in everyone’s necks. You now control their actions, Cayden. You took away their free will. It was necessary to halt my father’s advance, a decision you came to all on your own. So do not blame our being here on soldiers you control.”
“Fine, you’re right, Dakota. Damn it. You’re always right.” Still, Cayden didn’t move.
“Then what’s the problem? Because you followed my advice, I assumed that meant you accepted my superior ability to craft a plan capable of sparing all life from my father’s influence. What has changed?”
“You lie. Your mind often wanders, and your actions have become meandering, indecisive.”
“Let’s just go back to Stomatus. I won’t engage in this conversation in the middle of the desert.” Dakota looked around, eyeing the emptiness that lay in every direction.
“We’ll return. But I will see this matter addressed. My timeline is clear, and your needless delays threaten the plan.”
“Alright, see you back in Stomatus.” Before Dakota could respond, Cayden leaped straight into the air. His muscles propelled him a dozen feet before gravity slowed his ascent, at which point Cayden commanded the wind to carry him high into the sky.
Back in the Perianth Empire, on a planet thousands of light-years away, they’d called Cayden the Airwalker, a title given to a mythical figure from ancient history whose Ethereal Hand was so strong that he could walk on air. Cayden happened upon the unusual ability by accident after a witch threw him from the heights of a bell tower. As he’d fallen, he’d formed a bond with the air itself, commanding it to blow upwards against him with force equal to gravity’s incessant pull. The effort had exhausted him so that he couldn’t stand without support. Now, he flew through the sky like a circus performer shot from a cannon, directing his trajectory with gusts of intense wind.
Miles passed below, and Stomatus’ central tree rose into view, appearing above the horizon like an inverted gold chandelier shimmering in the twin lights of the setting suns. Cayden managed his descent to bring himself to a smooth, running landing, coming to a stop just outside the city walls.
While traveling through space, those walls rose from the ground to form a dome, but whenever they landed on a planet with a breathable atmosphere, Cayden liked to let in a breeze to freshen the city’s stale air. On the rare occasion he escaped Dakota’s constant supervision, he enjoyed standing in the wind amidst the branches of Stomatus’ noble tree, which rose from the city’s center, its golden leaves reflecting a warm, shifting light onto the surrounding towers. The white crystal structures glowed a warm gold beneath the orange suns, and to Cayden’s eyes, Stomatus looked like a rare, precious gem, glimmering atop a yellow cushion of fine sand.
The gate swung open as Cayden approached, and he strode into the outer ring’s streets. He soon entered the Dumrolls, a once-decrepit section of the city that now featured the tallest tower in all of Stomatus, a delicate spire rivaled in height only by the great tree. Massive wheels of wood, like gargantuan tree trunks bent into a circle, floated around the tower, pulling against their tethers as they swayed in the wind. Perchidians, or Sky People, lived within these airships and rarely set foot on solid ground.
Cayden approached the nearest of the ships and sent his Ethereal Hand questing through its interior until he located Balint, a thick stump of a man who commanded his airship with a loud confidence that never failed to bring a smile to Cayden’s face. “Balint, I need to speak with you at once,” Cayden called, using his Hand to carry his voice into Balint’s deaf ears.
While he waited, Cayden pictured what the Dumrolls looked like seven years ago, when he’d lived there with Leyna. He imagined the shantytown rising from a field of mud, with its broken huts and brainwashed inhabitants. Then the Sky People restored the area to its former glory by lifting the entire city of Afterlife and depositing it atop the Dumrolls, erasing any evidence that Stomatus’ ugly scar had ever existed. Cayden rather missed the grit and filth, preferring the unpleasant odors and sense of danger to the homogeneity that Afterlife’s return had ushered.
Balint descended from a platform that dropped straight from the bottom of his airship on living vines, and Cayden stood to greet him.
“It’s been a while, my boy,” he said, elbowing Cayden in the shoulder.
“I’ve been busy.”
“Busy avoiding your responsibilities, from what I heard. But you’ll find no judgment from me, son. There’s been plenty of times when I’ve guided my ship the long way ‘round to my destination, so I might avoid a problem I’d rather not face. Though, don’t let Jericho hear me say so.” Cayden didn’t imagine that Jericho, the stoic leader of all Perchidians, had shirked a responsibility in his life.
“Well, I have a scenic trip you can take to push off your responsibilities a bit longer. I left Dakota in the middle of the desert, about a hundred miles due east. Will you take your ship to fetch him?”
“That brat?” It seemed no one liked Dakota, which didn’t much surprise Cayden. The emotionless teenager went out of his way to cause tension, bluntly phrasing his thoughts with no tact and scant consideration for his words’ emotional impact.
“Unless you’d rather he die of thirst out there.”
“Ah, very well,” Balint said, relenting. Yet he still grumbled under his breath. “After we return, will we leave this planet?”
“Everyone’s ready to go except for me.”
“Not much left to do, is there? We’ve already accomplished our task. You Dominated the species that lives here, protecting them from Dakota’s wicked father. Besides, this damned sand doesn’t contain enough nutrients to feed our ships. If we don’t find better land soon, the trees will no longer produce enough helium to fly, and you’ll come home to a lot of dead wood mucking up your beautiful city.”
“I promise I’ll consider leaving.”
“You’re the boss,” Balint said, laughing as he reentered his ship. Cayden watched the lower hatch close, the tethers release, and the tree ring rise ponderously into the sky. He figured it would take many hours to return with Dakota, time without the boy’s constant distraction that Cayden planned to put to good use.
Cayden set off at once through the city, winding his way towards a hidden chamber beneath Afterlife’s white-clad streets. After checking to ensure no one lingered in sight, he used his Ethereal Hand to form an affinite bond with the rock and soil beneath his feet to force it to take on the properties of quicksand. He fell through the ground and into a modest chamber decorated with a golden mirror set into the stone wall. Unlike the city above, this stonework was ancient, rough, and chipped. Only the flawless golden mirror had withstood the test of time. Cayden walked up to its reflective surface and stared deep into the glowing material.
“Are you there, Lysander?” he asked, searching his reflection for the ancient man who had once lived within his mind. Cayden saw only himself.
“I used to think that you only taught me how to wield my Ethereal Hand, but I realize you held so much more wisdom I never had time to ask you about.” Cayden shifted aside a stone to uncover Lysander’s journal with two golden eyes emblazoned on its cover. He’d read its entire contents hundreds of times, but he still flipped through the pages to see if he might glean any more understanding from Lysander’s words, words he’d written over two thousand years ago. Nothing.
Cayden punched his fist into the mirror, which maintained a temperature above that of the surrounding air. He glared at himself, especially at his left eye with its golden iris, an unsettling color that elicited intense discomfort in anyone who dared look into it. Cayden pondered why he’d kept the iris, even after Lysander’s consciousness departed his mind. By keeping the color, he hoped Lysander might someday reappear. But as it stood, he’d lost just about everyone who mattered to him, beginning with his childhood friend, Charlie, whom he’d killed after the witches corrupted him. All of his teachers, the Perianth Academy trainers, Mogen and Priven, and Lysander were dead or gone. Even Leyna abandoned him. Her departure was the hardest weight to bear, because she’d chosen to leave.
Cayden wound his fist back again, this time preparing to shatter the mirror with his Ethereal Hand. But his rage faded as swiftly as it had arrived, and he shoved the book back into its hiding spot and propelled himself onto Stomatus’ streets.
Without deciding to, Cayden headed towards the great tree, entering it through a gap in its base. Inside still lay the old Perianth academy where Cayden had learned to fight. Nowadays, it served as housing for ex-Perianth soldiers, including Cayden’s two remaining friends, Tonius and Robinson. Cayden wound through the twisted halls until he arrived at their cabin, the same bunk room they’d shared while attending the academy.
“You look unwell,” Tonius said when Cayden entered.
“Have you been crying?” Robinson asked, grabbing Cayden’s cheek and jokingly pulling his eye open to look.
“Cut that out,” Cayden said, swatting away Robinson’s hand. Tonius, now a young man in his twenties, had kept his thin physique, a body he maintained through eating little and exercising even less. Robinson took a different direction, transforming his childhood blubber into pounds of solid muscle, which he wore as a proud testament to his continued hard work and training.
“Sorry. I didn’t realize our son’s tantrum could last so long,” Robinson said, laughing. Unlike his weight, he hadn’t shed his ability to find humor in any situation. “Remember when we adopted this boy into our family? I thought we raised him better!”
“You got it backwards, Rob. The way I recall, Cayden adopted us.”
“I’m sorry,” Cayden said, smiling at their antics. “Really. I haven’t been myself.”
“Because you’ve accepted the futility of Dakota’s plan,” Tonius said, who lacked Leyna’s ability to read minds yet still had a way of guessing Cayden’s exact thoughts. He sat on the floor with his shoulders pressed against the wall and the back of his hand rubbing against his pale forehead, a position he adopted when lost in profound thought.
“Maybe. After we left the Perianth Empire, I thought we’d make a dent against Sevron. But I doubt we’ve even scratched him. Dakota’s father continues to parade through the universe, unabated, while his army grows.”
“It’s an exponential expansion. The more sentient beings he consumes, the more souls he reaps, and the stronger his army becomes. The math is straightforward and undeniable.”
Someone knocked, and Robinson called, “Come in!” A middle-aged man stood in the door, as thin as Tonius but several inches taller and sporting an unruly beard on his gaunt face.
“Henrick,” Robinson said. “Take a seat. We were just discussing how we’re all doomed.”
“That sounds ominous.”
“Yes, quite. Tonius figures we have just a few years until Sevron’s domination of the known universe is complete.”
“Do tell,” Robinson said, patting the bed, where Henrick lowered himself with a pained grunt.
“I’ve spent weeks laboring in the bowels of the ship. When Dakota asked me to speed up our transit to new planets, I told him most of my time is devoted to ensuring Stomatus doesn’t tear apart at its seams. But our break here gave me time to think of something clever.”
“And did you?”
“Not really… but I did make an improvement. Three separate fusion reactions power our engines. Cayden draws energy from these miniature suns to fuel his Ethereal Hand, which allows him to pull Stomatus through space. Or, I should say, he pulls space to Stomatus. Anyway, what I’ve done is carve out room for three more reactors by removing a bunch of unnecessary terraforming equipment. In an hour, Stomatus will produce enough power to jump through space, and in a day, Dominate a planet.”
“Will the extra power make a difference?” Cayden asked.
“No,” Tonius answered with finality. “Dakota keeps talking about his plan, but even taking into consideration Henrick’s improvements, all we’re doing is delaying the inevitable. Think of us as a small island in a vast sea. Sevron wants to flood our island, so he adds more water to the ocean. We build a wall, higher and higher, until the pressure from Sevron’s water proves too great, and our dam collapses. Each planet Cayden Dominates is a brick in that wall. Dakota’s barrier may hold against Sevron’s flood for a time, maybe even a thousand years, but Sevron thinks in terms of billions of years, not thousands. He will breach the wall.”
“Then why is Dakota doing this?” Robinson asked.
“Because logic dictates his actions. He absorbs all available data and comes up with the most sensible solution. But logic won’t save us. We need a solution that defies reason, an unexpected breakthrough that even Sevron, a being as old as the universe, did not consider.”
“A tall order, but I accept the challenge,” Robinson said, guffawing through a mouthful of chips. Despite his impressive physique, Robinson always kept a snack within arm’s reach.
“Leyna would know what to do,” Cayden said to himself.
“Have you tried reaching out to her?” Tonius asked. “Maybe your minds are no longer connected, or—though I am saddened to say so—perhaps she is dead. The universe is dangerous, more so with each passing day.”
“No, our minds are still connected. Whenever she’s in danger, she lets her guard down just a bit, and I’m able to feel her emotions. Then she shuts me out again. It happened within the last day. I got a glimpse of water pouring into a confined space before she pushed me away.”
“Well... if she was so bothered by your Domination of the Perianth Empire, I don’t imagine she’d be too pleased to learn you’ve now Dominated hundreds more planets.” Tonius didn’t mean to upset Cayden, but he always spoke the truth, no matter how painful his words.
“I know, but Leyna’s still part of me, whether or not she likes it, and she can’t ignore me forever. We accomplished so much together in the Perianth Empire, so why won’t she help me now? Dakota’s wisdom is folly, and without Leyna, we’re lost.”
“It’s because we’re fighting fire with fire. We’re like children trying to beat a trained boxer by punching him. We need to defeat the boxer by changing the game to chess.”
“So, what’s our chessboard?” Robinson asked. Both Cayden and Henrick looked at Tonius, but he stared up at the ceiling.
“I have no idea,” he said.
“Leyna’s up to something,” Cayden said. “When she let down her guard, her thoughts betrayed that she’s discovered an object she’d hoped to find.”
“I don’t know.”
“Doesn’t seem like we know much,” Henrick said. “On Earth, I ran the largest energy corporation on the planet, and I invented new technologies that improved the lives of billions. Here, my only contribution is improving the ship’s systems. I’m afraid much else is beyond me.”
“You’re one of Sevron’s sons, just like Dakota,” Cayden said. “I wouldn’t underestimate yourself.”
“Nice of you to say, son. Mighty nice.”
“So what do we do?” Robinson asked. “We’ve all decided that Dominating one world at a time isn’t a sound strategy. Recognizing weakness is the first step towards building strength. That’s something Priven used to say. We’re excelling at recognizing our weaknesses, so we need to do the second part.” Now everyone turned to Cayden, including Tonius.
“Don’t look at me. I Dominated the Perianth Empire to banish Sevron’s influence. I shot millions of golden leaves into everyone’s necks, because I deemed it necessary. But that was playtime, and I only scraped by because Lysander helped me.”
“Hm,” Tonius said.
“Well, a thought just occurred to me. Years ago, you described how you used Lysander’s consciousness to dispel Sevron’s influence from the planet. You wielded his consciousness like a sword against Sevron, cutting Sevron’s disease from the great tree.”
“Not a sword, exactly. It was like Lysander turned into a glowing light that consumed Sevron’s darkness, eating it until neither light nor dark remained.”
“Right. We also know that Sevron corrupts people, somehow capturing their souls after their bodies die. And we’ve seen these evil souls take physical form from surrounding materials, transforming into an army of sand capable of wanton destruction. Cayden fought one of Sevron’s envoys, a Seer, with his Ethereal Hand and beat him—but just barely. So what if we’re using the wrong part of ourselves to fight Sevron? The Ethereal Hand deals with physical matter. Why should it effectively fight a being of energy?”
Cayden jumped to his feet and paced the room. “You’re suggesting that the Ethereal Hand is the physical side of consciousness and that a different power corresponds to the spiritual side?”
“I don’t know if I’d label it spiritual, as that implies a mysticism that I doubt exists. But yes. Sevron accesses a hidden aspect of our psyche that we cannot see or feel. He’s using that advantage to spread himself through the universe like an infectious disease.”
“Wait,” Cayden said, stopping in his tracks. “This just swings us right back around to Dakota’s plan. If you’re calling Sevron a disease, then we already have the inoculation. The whole reason I’m using the golden leaves to Dominate entire planets is so we can extinguish Sevron’s influence.”
“Do you know how the leaves work?”
“No.” This was a gap in Cayden’s knowledge that he preferred not to consider. He knew only that Stomatus’ tree produced the leaves and could broadcast his instructions to anyone whose neck contained the leaf, a process called Domination. Sevron’s disease hid within malicious thoughts, so by commanding an entire population to release all harmful thoughts, Cayden could wipe Sevron from a planet.
“My Ethereal Hand can’t affect thoughts. It has to work through the leaves. But you know who can change others’ thoughts?”
“Leyna,” Tonius and Robinson said simultaneously.
“She reads minds. Maybe she’s the missing piece of the puzzle.”
“I know you miss her, but that’s a bit of a stretch,” Robinson said.
“I agree with Rob,” Tonius said. “Maybe you should instead ask the Perianth King. He’s your prisoner, after all, and he’s close at hand. Plus, he invented the leaves.”
“I’m not talking to that insane man.”
“I think you might have to.”