Izdahl was riding to a goal that he had barely defined. He was determined to reach a mental destination, a point where all the pieces in his head would fit together.
A feeling of unrest had grown within him. His chosen outlet was to go to one of his family’s property in the Arlkan countryside. He was rushing across acres of lush, landscaped greenery, designed for the skilled luraga riders in the Amasi clan. For almost a decade, Izdahl had ridden those grounds, bonding with Koraiy and releasing the worst of his frustrations. Today, Izdahl had already run the courses seven times, three being his usual habit.
Koraiy threw his head fiercely and whinnied reproachfully. He was exhausted; sweat dampened his coat, his finely honed muscles complaining, as Izdahl continued to push him forward.
The tension that was coursing through the Nitelge’s body had been transmitted to the reigns in his hands, traveling to his steed. Sensing Izdahl’s need to rid himself of his anxiety, Koraiy had endured the unusually grueling pace. He was spurred on to quickly bypass trees, jumping, making sudden stops, all at the insistence of Izdahl. And six hours later, it was now time to be finished for the day. Even the disciplined, proud luraga had to protest.
“I am sorry, Kor.” Izdahl acknowledged his animal’s discomfort and slowed to a soothing walk. “I’ll make sure you get several extra-large sugar cubes tonight.”
As a down payment on the promise, Izdahl offered one to him now. Appeased, Koraiy abandoned the plan to nip at his hand. Izdahl chuckled and looked up at the sky, which showed the first signs of stars coming out for the night. When he had set out from the stables, it had been early afternoon. Now, the sun was giving way to the moon.
He made his way to the nearest shelter, one of several that accommodated those who decided to camp, even if it was impromptu. His paternal grandfather had designed the lodges, complete with a small stable. Each cottage was kept fully stocked with food, drinks and other supplies. Those who wanted to camp more completely under the stars had the option of using the tents and additional gear. Some Nitelge and humans, Izdahl included, had also left a change of clothes at the six locations that were available on the 60 acres.
He was almost to the closest shelter when the sky opened and rain suddenly pelted down on him. He raced towards the cottage but ended up still being drenched. After seeing to Koraiy, making sure to feed him additional treats, he went inside the cottage and showered.
He hoped the water would wash away more of his tension. Even as he lathered his skin, images of the cause of his distress came back to him; Dagmar.
After changing into a pair of linen pants, he went to prepare dinner. He laughed when he realized he had automatically made enough food for two. Armando was not here with him on this occasion. Instead, he and Jonas were on a site visit in a Havad territory, reviewing a zone for a possible construction project.
Though Izdahl was not pleased about this development, he’d made limited commentary about his reservations. He knew that much of his concern was because he did not particularly like Dagmar. Yet, apprehension, as reasonable as Izdahl believed it was, could not automatically justify restricting Armando’s business opportunities. However, during the week that Armando and Jonas had gone on their trip, Izdahl’s unease had grown. It had been several years since Armando had begun changing his mind about Nitelge. Izdahl was doubtful that the same open-minded transformation had happened with Kelcho Havad. And it was this unrest that had him riding his family’s fields, trying to fully cobble together a more complete picture of why he was bothered.
While finishing his meal, he decided that he would cover the more pressing concern, once Armando returned. Izdahl had not told Armando about his role as a Guardian.
Izdahl was now firmly part of the intricate process to safeguard the planet. There were the usual military defenses for land, sea and air. Five massive space stations also existed, primed with the most technologically advanced equipment. They were constantly streaming information back to the planet in the effort to protect the citizens.
In addition to all of these procedures was one that required the greatest commitment. At the age of seven, each child, human and Nitelge, was taken to Resonance Centers in various sectors of every territory. The children were allowed to be around cloned fragments of the Kaved Force Field and their ability to resonate with these fragments was recorded. Those who were the most capable were predicted to be the ones who would have a fragment implanted into them at the age of 20. The cloned segment of the Field that they received corresponded to a real location on the protective device.
Two of the most difficult roles anyone would be called upon to fulfill were that of a Core Guardian or a Core Receptor. Those two positions were incredibly demanding on the body and spirit. Core Receptors had the strongest ability to resonate with the Field, carrying fragments that were connected with the powerhouse center of the device. Core Guardians protected the Receptors. On the entire planet, at any given time, there were only 20 each of the Core Guardians and Core Receptors. Their spiritual energy was the driving force for the most central portion of the multi-layered Field.
Every twenty years, new members had to be added to the Field Force, which totaled 600. For most Guardians, the task of carrying a fragment was too draining and could not be handled for longer than two decades. Finding that out had been a tragic process, as many of those who were carriers beyond that period had become insane, often ending their lives.
Since his childhood, Izdahl had known he resonated quite well with the Field. Until recently, he was unsure just how well. A Core Guardian had retired and Izdahl had to take her place. Izdahl’s portion had been fully activated by the Field Council, which was governed by the Kelchos.
It was not until his fragment had been completely triggered that Izdahl realized the depth of his responsibility. He knew it meant that his life with Armando would permanently change, whether or not the Basheil attack the planet.
The site of where he’d spent his youth should have warmed Khalaf. Yet that was not the case. He sat scowling as the mechanized gate hummed open to let in him and Rasmus.
Rasmus drove up the winding, tree-lined driveway. The beauty of the landscape of the Terada clan’s primary residence belied the unhappiness in the household. Most of the tension was caused by the dislike Balvan Terada and Khalaf had for each other.
Rasmus thought, once again, about how to smooth over the heated relationship between his father and his brother. He wasn’t sure what made him believe he would ever be successful at it. The two simply hated each other. Still, Rasmus was determined to make this visit as painless as possible. Before entering the house, Rasmus paused to give his brother some advice.
“Don’t be unreasonable when speaking with Father. You know how easily he can get angry.”
“With me. You are his favorite. He makes that known every chance he gets.”
“Khalaf,” Rasmus sighed, “he’s hard on both of us.”
“But he’s happy about your existence…Can we go inside and get this over with, please? I want to leave as soon as I can.”
Khalaf left the car, slamming the door. He hurried up the stone steps to the large wooden entrance. He was going to use his key but hesitated, ringing the doorbell instead. He hadn’t been here in quite a while and, more significantly, he’d rarely felt that this was truly his home.
A servant answered the door and was hurried out of the way by an order from a brisk, gruff voice. The approaching figure of Balvan was one that made Khalaf shrink inwardly. The Kelcho had been waiting for his sons.
Khalaf had hoped that his mother, Listia, would be the one to greet them, her gentle manner offering solace from the friction with his father. Instead, there were cold blue eyes under dark, brown eyebrows peering down at him.
Balvan’s muscular arms were crossed over his barrel chest, the thick fingers of his right hand drumming impatiently on his left arm. The baltium ring on his right index finger was emblazoned with the seal of the Teradas. It denoted Balvan as the clan’s ruler. To Khalaf, seeing it was a reminder of the burden he had of being a Kelcho’s offspring.
“Are you two ashamed of your family?” Balvan demanded. He skewered his sons with his eyes.
Khalaf stared at the floor, tracing the patterns in the black marble of the entryway. He did not want his father to see the displeasure on his face.
“Are you still chasing that architect?” Balvan asked of Rasmus.
Rasmus bristled, noting that he’d barely had a chance to close the door before his father was picking at him.
“I have been doing other tasks, Father,” Rasmus replied, quietly. “Armando Medina is just part of one of them.”
“Regardless, if you have time to be under the thumb of Kelcho Havad, you have time to return and help me improve our territories.”
“All three of them?” Khalaf unwittingly huffed out.
He had forgotten how quickly his father could move—and how hard he hit. He was reminded of both. With a vicious backhand, Balvan sent his youngest son crashing against the wide banister of the stairs leading up to the bedrooms. Khalaf crumbled to the floor, grasping his throbbing back.
“You have always been the least desired of my sons!” Balvan shouted. “You are the reason my precious Listia is a shadow of herself. Your damn birth nearly killed her.”
“Father, please!” Rasmus shouted.
“You promised me that you would be gentle,” Listia Terada said, her voice strained with emotion. Her thin figure, cloaked in white as it often was, seemed to be even more drained than her sons remembered.
Balvan turned to see that she had come to the foyer and witnessed what had happened.
“Love, I’m sorry. You know how Khalaf tests me.”
“I had hoped their return would be a happy one,” she said, going to help Khalaf. He looked at her apologetically and she brushed his cheek with her long slender fingers. Sometimes, Khalaf wondered if his father was right. His mother had always seemed a bit too delicate to him.
“You are right,” Balvan admitted, sighing. “We do not have time for strife. Khalaf…I…I am sorry.”
Khalaf and Rasmus looked at each other in shock. Balvan noted the expression but said nothing about it.
“Boys, we have something we need to speak to you about immediately,” Listia said. “Come to the study…And Khalaf, please mind your tongue.”
Rasmus and Khalaf followed their parents, curious about what had prompted the rare apology—and even more curious about the urgency in their mother’s voice.
Spurred by Armando’s continual nightmares, Izdahl went to speak with his mother about the various matters that were now bothering him. He and Hadil began with discussing what she had learned about his cello. Prior to going on his trip, he had left his instrument with her, so she could properly analyze it.
“Izdahl, have you angered anyone lately?” Hadil asked.
While he stirred sugar into his tea, he thought about any recent negative interactions he’d had.
“Well, there are some who dislike me because of business and/or personal reasons. However, no one in particular comes to mind. Why?”
“It takes a great deal of skill to put this level of spell on anything,” Hadil informed him. “I was able to pick up residual elements of it. I did not get enough to conjure images of the entire casting. However, I do know it included some of your feathers and Armando’s blood.”
Izdahl set down the cup that had only been halfway to his mouth; he was even more concerned now.
“Armando’s blood? But the spell was put on my cello. It injured me.”
“No one uses this much energy to just break a string. The breaking of the string represented the termination of the spell.”
“I see…You mentioned Armando. How does he come into this?”
“It’s quite possible that he was actually the primary target. Has he been hurt recently, enough for him to shed a great deal of blood?”
“No.” Izdahl thought for a moment. “But several years ago, he was riding in the woods and was injured very badly. I found out who did it and…I had to restrain myself.”
“Who was this individual?”
“Ah yes, I remember you telling me this…He didn’t create the spell. Very few have this capability and we all have to be in the ISR.”
The ISR, or International Spell Registry, contained the information on its most spiritually powerful citizens, primarily Nitelge. There were ten divisions to the governing body, with Division 10 focusing on the Nitelge who were 10th Level spell wielders, Hadil Amasi being one of 85. Given their ability and the potential for some to overstep their bounds, each individual with incredible spell-casting skills had to be registered. Their family tree, physical attributes, spell capabilities and genetic material were all archived. They were also required to have a failsafe device implanted into their hearts, the code to which was also in the ISR. Their talents alone made them a formidable part of the planetary defense force. Currently 30 of them also carried Field Fragments, which magnified their powers, making them that much more remarkable.
To know that someone with talents similar to his mother could have engineered these events was disconcerting for Izdahl.
“I haven’t been able to determine who it is…but it’s possible to find out,” Hadil continued, wanting to offer her son some reassurance. “Has Armando been acting in an irregular fashion?”
“What do you mean?”
“Sudden bouts of illness, anger?”
“He has been having a series of troublesome dreams.”
“For how long?”
“It’s going on three months now. He only recently told me.”
“The materials for this spell were gathered years ago. They were made more viable for the scope of it by casting an augmentation hex on them.”
“To enhance the power of the items?” Izdahl asked.
“Yes. Someone must want to do considerable damage to you and Armando. To acquire the items, augment them for several years and cast a spell of this quality on them suggests a significant goal. I will need to take it to the leader of the Ziyads.”
“Do you think Great Aunt Sunja will know?”
“I believe so. Out of all the Ziyads, she has the most knowledge about spells, for healing and for causing damage.”
“And about Armando’s dreams?”
“I will have her look into that situation too,” Hadil told him. “I would do it myself but my skills are not as refined as hers. It’s possible a spell is causing him to have these dreams.”
“Mother, what should I do? How do I protect Armando?”
“Tell him these things, Izdahl. Let him know he doesn’t have to be overly concerned.”
“I’m not sure if now is the best time to cover all of this with him. I haven’t told him about my Guardian Fragment activating or the Resonance Ceremony. What if it’s too much all at once?”
“He is not weak, Izdahl,” Hadil reminded him. “Respect Armando. It really is best for him to be aware.”
“I’ll speak with him soon.”
As Izdahl and Armando ate dinner at Syrik and Kiana’s house, the four chatted about recent events in their lives. Nyrese, uninterested in the conversation, focused on her Uncle Armando’s dessert, strawberry flavored mousse. She’d already had two helpings and was determined to get more. Without warning, she flew over and snatched the object of her fascination. Moving quickly, Syrik grabbed her, ending her dash to escape with her prize.
“Nyrese!” he scolded. “You will apologize and then go to your room!”
His voice steadily rose on the last few words.
“But Daddy, it was just there. He was taking too long. I—”
She ended her protest, seeing that her father was not willing to accept any argument. She went over to Armando and hurriedly whispered an apology into his ear. She looked at her father to see if that would suffice. A severely raised eyebrow and folded arms told her it would not.
She issued an apology loud enough for everyone to hear. She considered enlisting Kiana to avoid punishment but paused when she saw her mother’s look of displeasure. And it also was highly doubtful that either uncle was going to assist. Sighing dramatically, she flew slowly in a jagged line to her room, lower lip quivering, giving one last wistful, lingering glance at the remaining desserts.
Syrik shook his head and settled back into his chair. Kiana stared at him pointedly.
“Don’t look at me like that, Kiana,” he said. “I didn’t tell her to do it.”
“But you do tell her bedtime stories about your youth,” she responded. “Nyrese tries to copy what you did. You should just read the stories I selected for her.”
“But those are so boring,” Syrik practically whined. Kiana sighed.
“I thought the only child in the house went to bed,” Armando said, grinning. “I wasn’t aware there was another one.”
“Oh shut up,” Syrik grumbled. “If you had better reflexes, you could have saved your dessert.”
“You know, for her age, she is quite skilled at flying—and at fire sparring,” Izdahl commented. “Have you thought about encouraging her to enter the Junior Tournaments?”
The Junior Tournaments were for Nitelge children, a counterpart to the adult tournaments at the Gathering.
“True. She’d be eligible to go to the training academy in two years and—”
“That’s too young for her to be away from me,” Kiana cut off her husband.
“Kiana, she would be six,” Syrik stated. “Many Nitelge children—”
“She is also human,” Kiana replied. Her voice was quiet but the tone was strained.
“If you don’t let her have the full range of experiences,” Syrik countered. “that would be unfortunate.”
“She would be in the section for those aged six to ten,” Izdahl remarked, attempting to sooth his sister-in-law. When he saw the angry pursing of her lips, he knew he had only fueled her argument
“Exactly!” Kiana exclaimed. “And you are thinking of having her be part of this tournament when she’d only be six. There is a great deal of difference between a six-year-old and a ten-year-old. I have seen the Junior Tournaments. Children are quite rough. When they can fly and spar…I…I just do not want my daughter to be involved with any of that.”
“Both Syrik and I participated and we were just fine.”
“Oh really, is that why Syrik has that four inch scar on his left thigh?”
Syrik sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. This was one of those times he wished that Kiana didn’t remember everything he told her. He had received the wound that had created the scar his very first day in the competitions.
“Love, there are high standards for those who get into the Junior
Academy and who eventually participate in the tournament,” Syrik tried once again. “And everyone is well-trained. Misbehaving is swiftly handled. Who knows what doors this could open for her? Izdahl is now one of our best wielders. He already trains her…Sometimes I do not think you have come to terms with having a child who is of two worlds.”
“I agree, Kiana,” Armando commented. “If you’re not careful, you will deny her many things.”
He was taken aback by the piercing gaze of irritation that Kiana shot his way. Her follow-up blistering comment, coated in false sweetness, had him even more surprised.
“My dear brother Armando, Izdahl must be quite good in bed. He’s bent you in the direction of defending all things Nitelge.”
“Kiana!” her brother, brother-in-law and husband all exclaimed.
“Oh spare me!” She waved her hands dismissively at them. “I will not have the three of you downplay my concerns for my child! The last time I checked, I gave birth to her. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to see how she’s doing.”
Kiana threw down her napkin and breezed out of the dining room. Syrik, Armando and Izdahl watched her leave.
“Alright, who’ll ultimately take the blame for that?” Syrik asked, laughing. “You know she’s not finished with us. She’ll bring it up later.”
“What do you mean ‘who’?” Armando asked, grinning, “You! You have to live with her.”
“This is true,” Izdahl added, chuckling.
“She’s talking about rough children when she was rough herself,” Armando said.
“What do you mean ‘was’?” Syrik joked. “Anyway, you must have really deserved whatever she did.”
“Yes,” Armando admitted, musing about his childhood antics. “I cut off her beloved pigtails. She clobbered me with her shoe and left a big knot in the center of my forehead. The knot was there for almost a month.”
“With a temper like that, she probably passed it on to our daughter,” Syrik remarked. “Maybe she’s really worried about Nyrese doing damage. I might have to rethink this tournament thing.”
All three laughed but made a note to smooth over the situation with Kiana.