Sitting in Syrik’s living room, Izdahl updated his brother on the latest developments with Armando.
“Say that again,” Syrik requested.
“He kissed me,” Izdahl repeated, “But I want to be careful about what happens next. I don’t want him to regret anything. I have to make sure we move at a pace that’s suitable for him.”
Syrik leaned back in his leather chair and stared at his brother. Then he began to slowly shake his head, laughing.
“What?” Izdahl demanded.
“Hello. I’m the magician, Izdahl Amasi,” Syrik mocked, “I can turn a positive into three negatives.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“Have you learned nothing from me?”
“Fulfilling your needs. He obviously wants you. And yet, you chose not to move forward.”
“Unlike you, I think through my steps more carefully.”
“Oh, I see,” Syrik said, chuckling, “Perhaps that’s why you’ve gotten into less trouble.”
“Exactly. How ironic that you’re in charge of risk management at Amasi, Inc.”
Syrik grinned at his brother’s jab and replied, “Who better to know which risks to avoid than one who has tried just about everything?”
“Point taken…At any rate, I still believe that Armando will come to me.”
Izdahl studied the thick, geometric, burgundy lines of the maze on the area rug; he wryly compared the complex pattern to his quest to have Armando.
“Until that happens, what will you do?” Syrik asked.
“Focus on other things. Father is angry with me. I haven’t been paying as much attention to the company as he’d like. I’ll invest more energy into that. Also, there’s The Gathering to attend. It will help the waiting to be easier. Armando will come to me. It won’t be much longer before he does.”
“I’ve never heard you be so confident in that regard.”
“I do feel much different. I think he’s exploring, questioning—and in the end, I’ll benefit.”
“Here’s to hoping that you’re correct,” Syrik said, raising his glass of brandy.
Seven main Nitelge families, Amasi, Havad, Markel, Nieri, Shabota, Terada and Ziyad, ruled the territories on Planet Kaved. All of the Nitelge swore allegiance to a clan. While one group controlled a specific area, members from the others were allowed to peacefully exist wherever they wished, provided they followed the rules of the domain. As a way to help foster goodwill among the clans, the Nitelge had created the Gathering. At the beginning of each year, for two weeks, they came together in the capitals of the various nations. It was a time to celebrate, share news and, for some, an opportunity to network.
Orchestral music filled the Teshan dancehall as hundreds of Nitelge mingled, dressed in their most fashionable clothing and multicolored ornamentation. Guests periodically requested refreshments from one of the serving staff members, who were dressed in rich burgundy. The chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, which was decorated with the silver and burgundy Amasi family crest, bathed the guests in shimmering gold.
Despite the finery of it all, not every attendee was completely impressed.
“Remind me why I keep coming to this thing,” Vadem Shabota, Syrik’s best friend, said dryly. With graceful fingers, he held his wineglass casually, his green eyes scanning for something to hold his attention.
“I’m also tired of socializing. I want to go home to my Kiana.” Syrik’s voice was a low growl, showcasing his annoyance. It had steadily grown over the days he had been present at the Gathering.
Izdahl laughed, thinking that the two were complaining right on schedule. It was typical for Syrik and Vadem to lose patience a week into the festivities. Friends since childhood, they were alike in temperament. Though they were from different clans, those who knew them well joked that they’d been separated at birth.
“This is the most interesting event we have all year,” Izdahl reminded them, “The Tournaments alone are worth attending.”
A main attraction was the two-day Tournaments, where participants competed in two categories, shape shifting and fire sparring. The winner in each contest would earn half a million of the planet’s strongest currency, the Arlkan Kabari. Since betting was allowed, the victor also took 10% of the amount in the betting pool. The tournaments were then followed by a lavish evening of feasting, one to easily rival the smaller dinners that took place each night. Then, the Gathering would come to a close.
“He’s right. We should stay for the competitions,” Vadem said, “Still, if they were first, I’d be much happier.”
“Is that complaining I hear?” Oran Kheder demanded.
The three Nitelge looked at the new, immaculately dressed arrival to their conversation. Chosen by the Amasi Clan, who controlled Arlka, he was the lead organizer for the Gathering in the country’s capital. The silver and burgundy badge embroidered on his formal wear, a black suit of the finest quality, signified his role of overseeing all of the festivities.
Oran looked expectantly at the three with his inquisitive, dark brown eyes, waiting to hear more of their thoughts.
“Some displeasure is to be expected,” Syrik responded, turning his boredom into a desire to harass the organizer, “After all, you’re hardly capable of managing such a monumental task. I’m not sure why you were selected.”
“Your Kelcho made a wise choice,” Oran said, giving Syrik a scathing look, “However, if you wish, you can voice your disagreement with her.”
“No, thank you,” Syrik responded quickly.
Everyone laughed, knowing that Syrik certainly liked taking risks. Yet, even he would never show such disrespect to Xersa Amasi, his clan’s Kelcho (leader) and his great-grandmother. At the age of 167, she was still more than capable of silencing her most irreverent great-grandchild. While she welcomed informed opinions, dissenting or not, she would stand for no disrespect. More often than not, Syrik was unable to express a dissenting opinion in a courteous manner. Twenty years ago, at the age of 14, he had learned how to curb this habit, at least around the leader of the family. The lesson, along with the resulting scar over his left eye, had stayed with him. So, he preferred to minimize contact with his great-grandmother.
“Will you be entering the Tournaments this year, Izdahl?” Oran asked, pleased that Syrik was momentarily stymied.
“Yes but only in one of the categories.”
“Why not both of them?”
“I’ve been preoccupied and have only practiced for one,” Izdahl explained, “I’ll compete in the Nakra Hein.”
Nakra Hein, or Fire Sparring, was about showing one’s ultimate control over the most volatile element on Planet Kaved. Two opponents would face each other, launching balls of flames in an attempt to destroy the heat sensitive capsules on each other’s knees, stomach, chest and throat in that order. To properly break a pod, one had to determine the size of the flame to send and the degree of heat; each target would only shatter after being blasted within a specific range of temperatures, usually fluctuating from five to ten degrees. Competitors could use the elements of water, earth, and air as part of their tactics. However, the capsules could only be destroyed by fire.
Izdahl, as in the past four years, was a favorite among the participants. Still, no challenger was to be taken lightly. Some contestants in the past had forgotten that and had been maimed in the process.
“Well, I know who I’ll be betting on,” Oran announced, boisterously pounding Izdahl on the shoulder.
“Easy Oran, it won’t do to injure him before he even competes,” Vadem joked, making everyone laugh.
Even as he was enjoying himself, Izdahl could feel a pair of malevolent eyes on him. All of this evening, during dinner and now, at the conversation after the meal, Rasmus Terada’s eyes had often found their way to him. Like most Teradas, Rasmus was usually unwilling and unable to hide his feelings. Yet, also like most Teradas, he knew there were limited outlets to challenge any Amasi, given that his clan was not as powerful, especially in one of the Amasi’s strongholds.
Izdahl was aware that Rasmus would be competing in the fire sparring. He felt that it would be the perfect opportunity for Rasmus to work off whatever aggression he was feeling. Izdahl would certainly welcome it because, while he tended not to trigger confrontations, he eagerly dedicated himself to humbling an opponent.
“I’ve heard there’s been a sighting of a Basheil craft. Some Nitelge are worried.”
Oran’s words caught Izdahl’s attention, pulling him away from his thoughts of Rasmus.
“What was sighted?” Izdahl asked, trying to confirm what he’d heard.
“A Basheil craft,” Oran responded.
“Really?” Izdahl was surprised.
The Basheil were the Nitelge’s sworn enemies. There had not been a sighting of them in almost 80 years. There had been many rumors. However, only one appearance was verified.
Approximately three hundred years ago, the Basheil, a warrior race from Fieldre in the Dezcro Galaxy, had repeatedly tried to colonize Kaved, the planet closest to it. The Basheil’s first conquest was Totla, a Nieri territory, which was in the southern hemisphere, opposite of Arlka. The war had lasted for almost twelve years. The Basheil had reduced the human population by 416 million and the more robust Nitelge by 92 million.
While in the process of driving out the Basheil, the Kaved Madresh Oetan, Kaved Force Field, was constructed to surround and protect the planet. Kendrick Crane, a human, and Solvan Amasi, a Nitelge, had designed the barrier, a perfect illustration of the cooperation that could exist between Nitelge and Humans. Many had worked frantically to bring the design to life, knowing that at any minute their efforts could be obliterated. Fortunately, the project had succeeded and, after the last Basheil ship had been destroyed, the population of Kaved had turned to surveying its loss.
The force field, which encompassed the thermosphere had, thus far, held for 3 centuries, despite continued attempts on the part of the Basheil to infiltrate it. To hear that the Basheil could still be trying was certainly a cause for concern. They were the fiercest enemies the Nitelge had ever faced; the humans had certainly been no threat. Another conflict with the Basheil would likely cost even more lives.
Izdahl suspected that the leaders of each clan already had the information Oran was now sharing. Given its serious nature, he doubted the Kelchos would widely disseminate it, at least not without thinking of a way to soothe any unrest. So, prudent like the chief of his family, Izdahl suggested a change in topic.
“Perhaps this is not the time and place to be discussing this matter,” Izdahl remarked.
He took a quick look around to see if anyone could have heard them. It was doubtful, since they had pulled off to one side. Many were also engrossed in their own discussions. Yet, it was wise to put a halt to the present conversation.
“You’re right,” Oran admitted, “I would hate to cause any distress.”
“At a better time, I would like to hear what you have to say,” Izdahl assured him.
“We all would,” Vadem stated, “We should talk later.” Syrik nodded in agreement.
“After the Gathering, I have a meeting with Kelcho Amasi to debrief about it. Maybe, after that, we could all get together in a more secure location.”
When the topic changed to Oran discussing the numerous difficult guests he’d had to deal with, Izdahl excused himself. He went to one of the large balconies to enjoy the cool, night air. There were others who had the same idea and he could hear bits and pieces of their conversations.
He looked out at the city lights and found himself thinking of Armando. Not for the first time, he wished that humans could be at the Gathering also. He could have been speaking with Armando now. That of course, carried the presumption that Armando would be open to spending possibly two weeks among a group he had disliked for long. Still, the architect had shown progress, if only primarily in relation to Izdahl and his family.
Izdahl smiled, remembering their first kiss. He wondered what the architect was doing now. He hoped that Armando’s mind was on him too.
He was blissfully allowing himself to have visions about the one he wanted when he sensed a presence. He turned to see Rasmus a short distance from him. Izdahl nodded cordially and then proceeded to do his best to ignore the other Nitelge, until Rasmus invaded his personal space.
“I want you to know that his blood is delicious,” Rasmus taunted, “I keep some around with me at all times.”
Izdahl paused as he made the connection. He saw a three-inch wide disk of blood on a silver chain; Rasmus holding onto it firmly. Izdahl felt anger rising in him. To knowingly share one’s blood was a display of deep love. Surely Armando would not willingly give it to someone like Rasmus. This simply could not be the case. After all, the architect had only recently made great strides in being around Nitelge. He couldn’t have become so comfortable. Perhaps Rasmus was lying. The disk might not even contain blood, let alone Armando’s.
“This is definitely from ‘your’ Armando,” Rasmus said, chuckling. He touched the disk, revealing the image of when Armando had been riding Yohan in the woods.
“I think it would be best for you to stay away from him,” Izdahl said, his words edged.
“Is that an order?”
“Consider it…aggressive guidance.”
“Oh my, Sir Amasi, I hope I haven’t bothered you. You’ve become so agitated quite quickly. Perhaps the injury to your head did irreparable damage.” Rasmus let his words settle into Izdahl’s consciousness, watching realization dawning. “I’d hate for you to be unable to concentrate during the fire sparring. We are, after all, likely to face each other at some point.”
“Then you should be careful, Rasmus,” Izdahl warned, “I might not bring my conscience to the tournament.” With that, he opted to walk away.
“You almost make me want you,” Syrik joked, as he watched his brother put on the Nakra Hein gear. Izdahl wore a sleek, black, leather, fire retardant suit.
“Always with your obnoxiousness,” Izdahl replied, laughing. He surveyed his image in the full-length mirror. “Then again, I do look damn good. I think I want me too.”
Syrik took a few moments, monitoring his brother’s face. Then he said, “You’re fooling around but something is bothering you.”
Izdahl was moments away from having a far-off expression in his eyes, the same as when he was about to go into a long period of brooding.
“Sy, I have a great deal on my mind—and none of it pertains to sparring.”
“This is hardly the time to have your mind be elsewhere. The finals are in about 20 minutes!”
“I know. I let Rasmus get to me two nights ago. He somehow caused me to get that concussion while I was a hawk. Not only that, he also has Armando’s blood. He was the one to hurt Armando.”
“It will be your blood spilled if you don’t think about today’s match. In the previous games, Rasmus wasn’t above spitefully injuring his opponents. He always used fireballs that were at the highest range for breaking the capsules. You know damage happens when competitors play like that. Kelmi Ziyad continues to walk with a limp because of last year’s tournament. I doubt she will ever fully recover. The gear can only do so much for you.”
“I am well aware of what happened. You don’t have to remind me. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to fight Rasmus, to even the score for our cousin.”
“Well, I don’t think Mother would like knowing that. So, you’d better keep it from her.”
“I will…Look, why do you think Rasmus went after Armando?”
“We’re back to that, are we?” Syrik grumbled, “Well, I bet he’s working for someone. Teradas are usually for hire; they rarely do anything that’s not motivated by money. Wanting money, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. It’s just that—”
“Teradas tend to profit from unscrupulous deals,” Izdahl finished.
“Exactly. So, if he went after Armando, someone might have wanted him to do it.”
“I wonder wh—”
“Leave that for later. We need to finish preparing for your match. Practice your fire launching. Then we’ll put on your capsules.”
Izdahl nodded and began his last preparations. Above him, he could hear the roar of the audience growing as more and more Nitelge entered the arena.
He donned his facemask, a necessary piece of equipment for the finals where the competition was at its most fierce and competitors definitely felt pain.
“Welcome to the Nakra Hein Finals! I’m sure you’re as eager as I am to see Rasmus and Izdahl in action. They’ve battled their way against all types of competitors but hopefully they’ve saved their best techniques for last.”
The well-known voice of Paltra Nieri, the announcer for this portion of the tournament, curled seductively around the audience. Paltra’s sensationalism and humor were enjoyed as much as her stunning beauty. Her athletic body clothed in a form-fitting black sheath dress, she proudly walked back and forth across the leather tournament platform. Her amber eyes scanned the crowd, flirting with males and females alike, as she looked out at the audience.
The Nakra Hein was Paltra’s favorite event and her voice carried her enthusiasm for it.
“You have seen these two battle their way towards the top,” she continued, “And now, for your pleasure, they reach for the ultimate prize…Opponents, get to your marks.”
Izdahl and Rasmus took their stances, quietly reviewing their strategies as they stared at each other.
“Three, Two, One. Begin!” Paltra gave the signal and the competition commenced.
Rasmus spared no time. He released the first blast of fire, aiming for Izdahl’s left knee. Izdahl avoided it and sent one of his own. While it hit the capsule on Rasmus’ right knee, the temperature was not correct.
Rasmus’ response was a flash of fire, which exited the center of his palm before Izdahl could create another flaming missile. Fortunately, Izdahl was able to twist to avoid any of his capsules being broken. Likewise, Rasmus reflexes were good, as he managed to sidestep Izdahl’s next attempt.
Forty minutes into the competition, only two capsules on either competitor were broken. Izdahl and Rasmus were breathing heavily, each sizing up his target to determine the best method to achieve his goal.
The audience was leaning forward, anticipating what would happen. Those who were closest to the protective barriers around the battle square were thankful for the transparent walls that were shielding them. The competition was simply one of the most aggressive in quite a few years.
The attendees did not have long to wait to see the next move. Rasmus attacked, impatient and determined to get Izdahl on the defensive again. He decided that instead of just fire assaults, he would also engage in psychological tactics. He sent a fireball at Izdahl and prepared to heat things up in another way.
“How can you protect him? You can’t even beat me at Nakra Hein.”
Verbal sparring sometimes occurred in competitions and it was usually entertaining for the audience. The comments tended to be humorous, heightening the pleasure for the viewers. However, this time, most of the audience members were confused. What did Rasmus mean? Some looked to each other, hoping that their question would soon be answered. Whoever “he” was, the mentioning of him had caused an interesting change. There was now a different atmosphere to this competition. The audience couldn’t sense exactly why but the tension between the rivals was more severe than what was typical for the finals.
Rasmus continued his taunts. They were hitting a place where Izdahl rarely allowed anyone to affect him, especially when he had to keep his head clear. His frustration showed in the deep furrow that was on his habitually calm brow—and in the frequent failure of his fire launches. Attacks that should have easily landed were being casually knocked aside by Rasmus.
The competition went on at length. The time limit was 2 hours, with the finals tending to last for 1-½ hours. However, an hour and 15 minutes had passed and each contestant still had the chest and throat capsules to break. Now, it was even more about cunning.
“Don’t you wish he was here to see you compete? Or, maybe he’d be disappointed by your performance. All those Nitelge talking about how you were favored to win and you’re barely a challenge to me.”
Izdahl willed himself to further focus, determined not to allow Rasmus’ snide comments to keep bothering him.
Rasmus laughed, knowing that he was indeed affecting Izdahl. He discharged a massive fireball at his opponent. As it flew by Izdahl’s head, it scorched his face and shoulder. Rasmus grinned at the infuriated expression on his opponent’s face. Though it was not an illegal move, the audience frowned upon it, since it looked like Rasmus had meant to get in that type of headshot.
Annoyed, Izdahl decided to go for a complete attack. He concentrated a fireball in his hand while he tried to determine Rasmus’ moves. Believing that he read his opponent correctly, he released his shot. However, he was wrong and Rasmus sent a fireball, crushing the capsule on Izdahl’s chest. Izdahl roared in anger, giving Rasmus that much more pleasure. He was eager to savor victory and it appeared not to be far away. Izdahl only had a single capsule left, the one on his throat.
“Maybe I will take him, Izdahl,” Rasmus continued with his verbal jousting, “It will be a whole new experience for him.”
Izdahl said nothing. Instead he acted, determined to end the competition.
Using quick, successive spirals of wind, Izdahl surprised Rasmus, sending him backwards. Until now, neither of them had used any of the other elements. Rasmus had gotten used to only exchanging fire with fire. And, he was not as skilled at wielding the additional techniques. Unlike Izdahl, he had to be near something that contained the elements in order to use their power. He could not conjure them at will, regardless of his location. Izdahl had been aware of this fact and had sent Rasmus in the direction opposite of the canisters that contained samples of each of the elements.
Izdahl advanced, sending wave after wave of crushing streams of air at Rasmus. Rasmus went flying against the wall, his back and head striking it hard. Before he was able to recover, a fireball was coming his way. When it hit him, he fell to the ground, gripping his chest. He cursed when he felt that the capsule had shattered. The heat from the fire had also seared a patch of skin that had been exposed by a rip in his clothing.
Not wanting to give his opponent time to recover, Izdahl quickly went to him. He caused strips of the sparring mat to come up, attaching them to Rasmus’ neck. Rasmus fought, knowing that soon, he could lose. He sent blades of air to cut the strips but Izdahl kept on replacing them. He added a sphere of water around Rasmus’ head, watching as his rival struggled to breathe. When it looked like Rasmus would pass out, Izdahl removed the water orb, laughing at the drenched figure in front of him. Rasmus was barely able to catch his breath before his body was being encased in a thick plate of earth, leaving only his neck and head exposed.
His eyes never leaving Rasmus’, Izdahl quickly gathered a fireball in his hand, adapting the temperature to the number he could now read on the throat capsule.
No match for a now furious Izdahl, Rasmus struggled futilely. The larger the fireball in Izdahl’s hand became, the louder the audience roared.
“Rasmus, one day I just might scrape you off this planet.”
“Is that a threat?” Rasmus spit out.
“Yes. You hunted him and one day, I will hunt you.”
With those words, Izdahl pressed the fireball against Rasmus’ throat, rupturing the capsule.
Even as Paltra was being lowered onto the mat to congratulate the victor, Rasmus’ words about Armando were playing over and over in Izdahl’s head. Izdahl began forming yet another fireball. This one was the hottest he had created, a vibrant, dancing, blue orb, known to cause irreparable harm. While the use of it was not prohibited, many preferred for it not to be unleashed. There was a menacing stripe of black at the center of it, a clear representation of the malice Izdahl was feeling. Some audience members visibly recoiled, the presence of this negative portion of Izdahl’s aura having an undesirable effect on them.
I could do it now, Izdahl thought, feeding the fireball, I could mark him for life.
Sensing that something could go seriously awry, Paltra quickly made her way to Izdahl.
“You’ve won. Stand down!” she whispered fiercely.
Izdahl shook his head clear, realizing what he was about to do. He quickly extinguished the flame and released Rasmus, who dropped to the floor.
“Did you see the mercenary way Izdahl was just about to treat Rasmus?” Paltra shouted, working up the audience, “Maybe this particular Amasi has some Terada in his bloodline.”
The cheers and laughter from the onlookers were filled with relief. Many knew that the competition had taken a fierce, unexpected turn. The players had not simply been having a vigorous but overall friendly battle. Rasmus’ animosity had quickly come to the surface, the ill will that he bore Izdahl on display for all to see on several large screens. Even Izdahl had revealed the more aggressive side of his personality, never having assailed a competitor with such fervor. That had surprised many in the audience, particularly those who knew him well.
Standing between Rasmus and Izdahl, whom had both returned to the center of the mat, Paltra raised Izdahl’s hand, officially declaring him the winner. Paltra continued her banter, her words designed to completely return the mood to a more lighthearted one.
“I’m sure many copies of this fight are going to be ordered,” Paltra shouted, “Some will want it to study the techniques. Some will want it because these two luscious Nitelge going at it is just too much to resist.” She winked suggestively, making the audience laugh.
Her goal of brightening the vibes accomplished, she concluded that year’s Nakra Hein.
As Izdahl was removing his gear, Syrik studied him, wondering about the aggression that his brother had shown.
“Are you alright?” Syrik asked.
“Yes. I’m fine. There aren’t too many injuries.”
“That’s not what I mean…I’m talking about towards the end, how you went after Rasmus. You were prepared to do some serious damage.”
“Well, his taunting did get the better of me. He kept on mentioning Armando and took it too far.”
“You were a bit vicious,” Syrik noted, admiration in his eyes.
“Vicious? I merely tickled him, brother…Amasi style.”