Zincian Legend: Overview of the World

Story Behind the Story

The Chosen was based off a set of dreams I had one night way back in my freshman year of highschool (October 2003 to be exact). I had doodled a random girl that had blue hair (the color of the ink) and a red mark on her forehead before heading to bed. Little did I know that that doodle would follow me later.

She appeared to be in a village. It was a simplistic village with simplistic values surrounded by forest. I woke up the next morning after she had gone back to her village to find it in flames. I was quite intrigued by the dream and wanted to know what in the world was going to happen next. During class, I constantly had the dream in the back of my mind, and later that night when I went to bed, I found out what happened next. By some sort of sheer luck, my dream picked right back up where it started from and continued on. I traveled with her companion, Reeze as he was called in my dreams, to a vast world with crystallized walls and boxes. And the dream ended that night with her and Reeze awaiting their fate from the priests and priestesses and Etal. Just like the day before, I had the dream in the back of my mind the entire day through and just like the previous night, the dream continued on.

The next morning, after having dreamed of this place and the people for three nights straight, I decided that it was time to pick up a pencil and write everything down on paper. What resulted was roughly three to four chapters, which eventually whittled down to the first two chapters plus the first few pages of chapter three. Unfortunately, as soon as I sat down to write all the events down on paper the dreams ended! It was now up to me to finish Kaia and Reeze’s story.

I knew from the very beginning that this was going to be a story with a journey in it. At the time, the only things that I could really base that off of were the more “epic” anime (epic as in they had way too many episodes) such as Pokemon and InuYasha. And I thought that because of the characters’ odd hair color, it might be better suited if I had based it off of those anime adventures and turned it into a light parody. The four main characters were then turned into cookie-cutter types that you would find in a typical adventure, but I realized quite quickly that these characters didn’t want to be in a parody. They wanted to be in their own story, so I scrapped the parody idea. The characters themselves still hold a bit of the stereotypical anime characters you find in the more “epic” shows though.

For the next four years, I wrote the story on and off not really sure if I would even finish it. The most I’d ever written were a few poorly written fanfiction that I managed to finish and a number of papers for school. Finally, I took it more seriously in my senior year of highschool, and managed to get over a bit of a block that had been bugging me for quite some time. I researched magic, Wiccans, mythology, folk lore, and origin stories. It took five years, but I finally managed to finish my story. I took another year to revise, read, and revise again. In 2010, the book was as perfect as it was ever going to be (though my inner author voice keeps shouting that I could revise again) and I submitted it to be published, with the helpful nudging from my father.

The Chosen: Book 1

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Kaia’s entire life has erupted in flames after an assassin appears and burns her village down. She’s rescued by a god from another planet who requests her help because she’s the descendant of their last savior. Together with Reeze—the only other survivor from her village and her appointed guardian—they set off on a quest to find the treasures of the gods in hopes of preventing a dire prophesy.

Kaia and Reeze quickly meet the Tueors, a group of people many thought extinct, who are searching specifically for Kaia. Their intention: to protect the truth. As Kaia discovers more about the truth and her family’s past, she also learns of the Tueors’ bloody secret. Will Kaia be the savior the gods have been waiting for? Or will she let the prophesy come true?

5 stars review“It has a similar tone to The Iron Fey, if you are familiar with Julie Kagawa novels. The big difference here is The Chosen is not a tale of fairies. The journey surely takes us to another world with another civilization altogether and one with a mythical and mystical feel to it.”

— Cynthia from The Wytch’s Mirror

4 stars review“Secrets, that I totally did not see coming, unfold about a certain favorite character of mine. And, of course, more secrets were out of the magical basket from here on out. The ending was well-written, and a total cliffhanger!”

— Rockee from RockeeMusikReads

3.5 stars review“Freitas has created a great novel for MG and YA, and although it can be a little slow at times, the plotline and characters are interesting enough that it keeps the reader bound to it. I really enjoyed reading about the many different types of heroes that Freitas has strung together in her novel, and watching this unlikely crew, humans, mermaids, vampires, Tuoers, and demigods all work together to save and protect Kaia was a real treat.”

A Book Vacation

4.5 stars review“I found myself hating and liking Kaia. She doesn’t mope around, constantly complain, or take out her frustration/anger/sadness on other people, unlike most heroines (which is a good thing. A very good thing). … I loved the mythology of the book. The details about the Gods, Luminaries, Aeons and circles fascinated me. All the information clicked into place.”

— Sabrina from Cup of Tea Reviews

3 star review“In spite of what I felt were shortcomings to the book, something kept me reading. I wanted to uncover the secrets. The ending of the story felt at once incomplete while still offering some closure. If this were meant to be a stand-alone book, I would have felt disappointment.The ending answers some questions but leaves others unanswered, and even adds a question or two to the mix. Knowing there is a continuation of this series in the works, the ending feels more satisfactory.”

— Gracekrispy from Motherlode

4 stars review“This book is perfect for those who enjoy mythology. The book starts out by almost shocking the reader. The first chapter lulls the reader into a sense of security until, about halfway through, the action breaks in and chaos begins.”

— Krystal from Live to Read

4 stars review“The author spins an amazing tale full of love, courage, a good basis on mythology about Gods and such, and she manages to bring it all together with writing that flows. I seriously can’t wait to read the next in the series!”

— Sahina from Reading in Between the Lines

Chapter One

From behind the bar counter a young woman looked about and sighed. There was much that she needed to do before dusk arrived bringing with it her first customers. Diminutive sunlight made its way from a shattered window; the ones that were intact had so much dust caked on them they sucked everything in like a black hole allowing nothing to pass through. Like the windows, the floor was covered in a film preventing its true luster from being seen. Miniscule tables filled the room with dull chairs on top. She pulled her blonde hair back behind her, but it managed to come undone within the first hour of cleaning.

Children could be heard outside, giggling. With a heavy sigh she dropped her mop and headed toward the door.

The sun was shining down on her as she walked out of Eternity, a small building in the dilapidated part of town. A month of cleaning and repairs wasn’t enough to take the years of negligence away. It was a bar for the hopeless, the weak, and the poor.

She peered down the alley. It stopped at the main street and continued on until it hit another road before continuing on again. To her, the alley was neverending, forever testing a human’s patience, much like time. In front of her was a concrete courtyard the other businesses in the area used. The children, who were playing with a ball, hadn’t noticed her yet.

She waited, standing there until a little girl stopped and stared. Another child, thinking the girl was still playing, threw the ball toward her and it hit her in the head. Like a wave, the other children turned toward the young woman. There was a moment’s pause before they all ran toward her with open arms and bright smiles.

“Tell us a story, Catrina! Tell us a story!” they all yelled and shouted with delight as they fought to be the first to embrace her. She heard another child cry above the others, “Please? With a cherry on top?” The woman attempted to hug them all at once, but failed and instead laughed at their eagerness. The children were all war orphans and it pleased her that there was something that could still put a smile on their little faces. She knew herself that it was hard to go on when you lost everything. It had taken her years to truly smile again.

“I do have a new story,” she began.

The children’s cheers drowned out the rest of her sentence. Taking control of the situation she settled them down before continuing on.

“Hush, now. Like I said, I have a new story I haven’t told you before. A story about how the war actually started.”

“What d’ya mean?” a boy said.

“What have you been told about it?” Catrina asked.

“Everyone always says that the war started because of a family dispute!” an older boy said and the others murmured in agreement.

“And has anyone ever told you why there is a war?”

“To bring the world peace,” a girl chimed.

The woman grinned at them. “What if I told you, you were wrong? Everything that you’ve been told is a lie.” They looked at her perplexed.

She herded them inside the bar. They eagerly took seats down and arranged them around her stool. Looking down at their stares of anticipation, she began.

“The war didn’t start out as a family dispute. That part, though partly true, didn’t happen until later. The real reason the war started was all due to one girl, a girl who didn’t even live here on this planet. This girl lived on our sister planet, Earth, a few years ago.

“There are certain parts of Earth where people can escape from the overcrowded cities and suburbs. Places where people can escape from the noise and the stresses of everyday life. A place where people can live off the land, yet ironically, to keep it hidden they had to work with technology to keep what they called the Outside World away from them.

“It’s in one of these hidden forested areas where our story starts . . .”

* * *

Kaia Ketoki was sitting and looking out a window near the kitchen where her mother was searching the cabinets. Her head rested in one slender hand as the other lightly drummed the wooden sill. Her hair was an unusual color: a blue as light and soft as the sky. Kaia’s complexion was fair, although she spent most of her time outside. Her magenta eyes were drawn to the quaint dojo adjacent to her house. A red symbol that resembled a backwards C and a dot placed with the utmost care just above and below it, rested in the middle of her forehead. It was the most peculiar thing she found of herself, and when asked why she had inherited this trait from her mother and grandmother, her mother simply said because she was special and that ended the conversation.

A clatter resonated from the kitchen. “Kaia, could you get some berries?” her mother called.

Kaia peered into the kitchen. Wooden bowls were spilt across the travertine counter. A pile of flour filled a corner of the countertop, having escaped from a large gash in the bag. Sugar and salt were intermixed, emblazing the counter with tiny diamonds. In the center of the mess was her mother, covered in flour; a bowl had landed upside down on her head.

“What kind of berries?” Kaia managed to ask without laughing at her mother’s appearance.

Her mother coughed and looked at the mess. “Blackberries,” she answered with a bright smile.

“Okay.” Kaia disappeared from the doorway. Her eyes lingered back toward the dojo. An old man named Driscoll Nova lived there, attempting to teach martial arts. He swore that the peaceful village would need to use it one day, but none of them believed him. Some of the parents sent their children there to stop him from lecturing to them; it wasn’t a secret that most believed he was growing senile. If he wasn’t rattling on about the importance of defense, he was bragging about some boy he had taken in years ago.

He had never allowed this child to come out in broad daylight while everyone was around, which naturally led most to believe that he was making everything up. The others didn’t have anything to say about the matter, but eventually Driscoll learned of everyone’s opinion of him. Despite matters, Kaia’s mother wanted to believe Driscoll, but Kaia knew that in her heart of hearts that her mother had the same doubts as everyone else. Still, every so often, Kaia’s mother would go out of her way and make something for Driscoll’s child. Sweets solved everything, she had said to Kaia one day, and it was a piece of childhood every child needed.

Kaia moved on, grabbing the wicker basket that was kept next to the door. She hesitated before leaving and looked toward the portrait of her dead father. Shaking the strange feeling that was overwhelming her, she took another quick peek at her mother who was now brushing the flour off of her; the bowl was still on her head, unnoticed. A large poof of white flour clouded over her, making her ghost-like; the flour spread quickly, creating an even larger mess. Stifling another giggle, Kaia shouted, “Be back soon, mom!”

“Take care!” she heard her mother yell as she closed the door. She dodged a ball a child threw while walking to the perimeter of the forest and as she entered the welcoming shade the canopy had to offer, she found herself in a fit of giggles.

Kaia wasn’t far from her village when a shadow flashed from the corner of her eye, awakening her from her thoughts. Though her curiosity was piqued, she continued on her task. Perhaps after she had delivered the berries to her mother she would investigate what had gone by. With a soft sigh, she began humming a tune with forgotten lyrics and eventually managed to find the blackberry bush she sought.

There were other blackberry bushes closer to her village, but she always sought this one bush. Here, the blackberries were always plump and ripe. She could pick every berry off the bush and if she arrived in the morning, twice as many plump and ripe berries would have grown in their place. This bush was also near her favorite place in the forest: Spirit’s shrine. Kaia filled her basket comfortably and stood up. She hesitated, contemplating between going straight home and making a small stop to the shrine. Deciding her mother wouldn’t mind if she made a stop, she plucked a few more berries from the bush and settled them neatly in her apron pocket.

After a short walk through the foliage, she came to a small clearing. The shrine was in a secluded spot next to a miniature waterfall that fell into a quiet stream. The shrine was Chinese in appearance: a navy blue roof lined with a rich red, its walls a cream that looked as if you could eat it, and the green sliding door was as green as the tidiest lawn. Although small, it held an air of majesty.

As Kaia approached, a doe drinking from the stream with her fawn looked up, alert. Sensing no immediate threat from Kaia, she continued to drink alongside her child.

Grabbing some of the berries from her apron pocket, Kaia placed them in an old tin bucket that was kept hanging on a pole near the steps of the shrine. With each berry she dropped, she heard a small plunk. She fished the rest of the berries out of her pocket and scattered them across the lawn. Sitting on the steps, she watched as the doe and her fawn wandered over and nibbled at them.

She felt harmonious with the world as she sat there and only when she noticed the growing shadows did she realize how late it was getting. Jumping up, Kaia gradually made her way back to the path after rechecking the berries in the bucket. Giddiness overcame her and she found herself excited to go back home. She imagined her mother now, flour free. The bowl would probably still be on her head, completely unnoticed. The kitchen would be spotless and by the time the two of them finished, it would be a complete disaster once again.

While trying desperately to remember the words to the song she had been humming earlier, Kaia began to notice smoke rising high above the trees. The wind blew a heavy scent of burning leaves toward her and she broke into a full run, spilling the blackberries across the path and tossing the basket aside in frustration. Crackles and splitting wood rang throughout the forest, nearly drowning out the bloodcurdling screams and mournful cries that rose above the hellish flames.

Smoke and tears blurred her vision. Kaia slowed down, exhausted from her sudden sprint. She coughed out the smoke that threatened to suffocate her lungs and the heat was unbearable here at the perimeter of the growing flames: her village.

There was nothing she could do except watch it burn away, yet her brain continued to race, trying desperately to think of a way she could extinguish the massive flames. She came up with nothing. With her mind numb, she meekly called out, “Mom?”

Kaia’s voice went unheard with the anguish shout of the blaze. It inched closer with every passing second. Her heart began racing and she shouted, “MOM!” while running recklessly toward the fire. Two arms shot out from behind and embraced her, halting her body.

“Let go! Let go! I need to see my mom!” She thrashed around, trying to pry the strong arms off of her. “Mom, I’m coming! Hold on!”

The arms were unrelenting. Kaia thrashed and threw her body against them until her body grew limp from exhaustion. The arms loosened around her slowly; her body slumped down into a heap. As she sobbed, a hand rested tentatively on her shoulder sending a shiver down her spine. Hesitantly, Kaia lifted her eyes to see who had stopped her from rescuing her mother.

She expected to see the face of someone much older, but was surprised to find a teenager of around seventeen — an adult to her village’s standards. His eyes were mysterious and glued her eyes to his. They penetrated her, appearing to see every thought and secret. His hair, like hers, was an unusual color, though his was a light indigo. He kept his hair a bit longer than most males, but wore it tied back. The glow of the fire caused his face to seem hard, which only frightened her more since he showed no sign of friendliness. Whatever he was to her, she wished he would stop looking at her.

After what felt like an eternity, he finally spoke. His voice was tough, straining to sound friendly, but failed and came out commanding, “Go to the shrine. It’s safe there.”

“Why?” she asked, tentatively, her voice barely a whisper.

“There’s no time to explain. Just do it!”

She still didn’t move and just as she was about to question him again they heard a noise. In a nearby tree, they spotted a man standing on a sturdy branch. Dressed in black, he held a box of matches and had a sword at his side. He tossed the box up and down, up and down, and then stopped. He looked at them and feigned surprise. Casually, he threw the box into the inferno and gave a sinister smirk.

“It would appear that I missed two,” he said, gracefully unsheathing his sword and directing it at them. “Now, who should I kill first? Her — or you?”

The man looked over Kaia and her face scrunched up in revulsion as the man smirked and licked his lips slowly as he clutched the hilt of his sword. The teenage boy’s eyes hardened and he stepped closer toward Kaia.

As she took a few tentative steps back to distance herself from the man and the steadily approaching flames, the teenager said, “I don’t think you’ll be killing us. Or anyone else for that matter.”

She looked quickly at the teenager, but his face was still without emotion. The man in the tree laughed, turning Kaia’s attention back to him.

“And why won’t I be killing anymore?” he bellowed.

“I’ll tell you why,” the teenager said, his voice rising with anger, “because I’m going to put a stop to it!”

Kaia saw that he had a sword of his own. He agilely unsheathed it and pointed it toward the man in black. The man only laughed. “You’re barely out of diapers, and you think you can take me on?”

The teenager said nothing but coldly stared back. More quickly than she could follow, the man jumped down from his perch. Kaia squeaked and moved behind the teenager. The teenager, however, didn’t flinch. He seemed steadfast and sure of himself. The man in black also noticed his demeanor and his grin vanished.

“What’s your name?” the man suddenly asked.

“The name’s Reeze,” he answered coolly. “And yours?”

The man gave a wolfish grin. “You can call me Tipton.”

Kaia closed her eyes for a split second, wishing desperately that everything was just a dream. Opening her eyes, she found Reeze right in front of her holding back an attack. Sweat glistened on his forehead as he strained to push Tipton back; Tipton was grinning from ear to ear — it frightened Kaia more than death.

“Go!” Reeze yelled at her. Reluctantly, she scrambled up and mustered enough energy to get up and sprint toward the shrine. She never looked back.

Her legs ached with pain and her breathing was shallow, yet she kept running. She continued to push her body forward, forcing herself to look ahead. The distance from her village to the shrine suddenly seemed like days. The forest itself was unexpectedly different: trees loomed at her; branches made a grab for her, trying to make her stay. Scratching and batting through the foliage, she finally fell into the clearing.

Cast in a reddish glow, the small stream seemed to flow blood. Kaia made her way toward the shrine, shaking and shivering. She could hear the fire screaming as it approached. Wrapping her arms around herself, she silently passed the bucket and went up the stairs. Her fingers trembled as she hesitantly grabbed the groove on the door and slid it open, placing her first steps into the ancient shrine.

Inside, the shrine was musty. The dust that had collected on the floor was thick, drifting like smoke when she walked carefully through. She was disgusted that it looked so plain inside and hadn’t been taken care of — everything on the inside was a pale brown. If she had known this, she would’ve taken up the responsibility of caring for it; perhaps even giving the inside some color. Then again, nobody had entered it for fifty years and even she knew that. Ashamed, Kaia stood near the open door and stared at the opposing wall.

The shock of losing her family, friends, and the one place she called home crashed into her and her knees gave way. The thought of death crept into her mind, but she shook it out. Her mother had always told Kaia that she had a purpose in life, yet Kaia found herself doubting those words for the first time in her life.

Bringing her legs closer to her body, she placed her head on her knees and looked out. Her vision was a little blurry, but she could still see that everything was ablaze. Wiping away her tears, she looked again. Everything that surrounded the shrine was on fire, but the shrine itself was not. Steadily, she crawled to the small porch and took a closer look. Her mind refused to believe it.

“Reeze,” she said, realizing he was still caught in the flames. She began to make her way back inside when she spotted someone amidst the flames coming closer. She continued to watch hoping it would miraculously be her mother or Spirit, but Reeze staggered out clutching his chest. He had many wounds, but a golden glow surrounded him, protecting him from the licking flames. He collapsed onto the porch beside her and the glow dissipated.

For a second, Kaia could only stare at his body. Her mind whirled forward and she scrambled to turn him over and pull him inside. It was difficult to move him. Even while she was doing it, Kaia felt she was pulling dead weight, but she remained at her task. With one last heave, she managed to pull the last inch of his feet inside and collapsed next to him.

“Reeze?” she said timidly.

He winced. His hand still gripped his chest and he grabbed it tighter in pain. He gasped and then started to cough. Kaia’s eyes grew wider as small splatters of blood escaped from his mouth.

Concern crossed her face. “Let me see that,” she said motherly. With trembling hands, she carefully removed his hand away. She knew what she was going to discover, yet she still hoped otherwise. When she moved his hand, her eyes found the proof she had refuted since pulling inside: blood. Fresh blood.

“Reeze. You’re going to—”

Kaia was interrupted by a blinding blue light that appeared in the middle of the room. Two identical looking women walked out of the light in solemn procession, their eyes averted to the floor. The women had on different colored robes — one black, the other white — and the scars on their eyes were opposite each other. The blonde hair that spilled from the shadows of their hoods shone like gold and the light made them look like angels.

Kaia stared at the two. Reeze’s voice broke her trance.

“Who — who are you?” Reeze asked. His voice was raspy. Kaia assumed it was from the blood that was pooling in his chest. She stole a glance at him. His skin was paling and sweat covered his forehead. His eyes were already beginning to dull and cloud. She bit her bottom lip and cast a nervous glance toward the women.

“We are the priestesses of Cristos and Maura,” both said in unison. Their voices were hollow and echoed in the small shrine. They still did not look up.

“Who?” Kaia asked.

“You will soon know,” the one in white said calmly.

“Come with us, young one,” the woman in black ordered. She looked up and stared directly at Kaia. Her icy blue eyes were cold, powerful, and fierce — they were the eyes of someone who had seen all the evils of humanity and Kaia felt miserable. She broke eye contact, never noticing the other advancing toward her until Kaia’s arm was captured in a firm grip.

“Leave her alone,” Reeze rasped as sharply as he could, struggling to get up. A gasp escaped his lips and he collapsed.

“She is to come with us. She is not your concern,” they coldly said in unison.

“She . . . is . . . my concern,” he said.

The priestess’s grip on Kaia’s arm tightened and Kaia yelped in pain. The priestesses continued standing over Reeze, contemplating his words.

“He may find some use for this one,” the one in white said to her companion.

“I agree.”

Kaia struggled to break free from the priestess’s grip. With another hard push, Kaia was flung forward from her own force when the priestess suddenly let go. She looked up questioningly.

“Stay here. We will take you to safety,” they said.

The woman in black took out what appeared to be a small butter knife and began slicing lines around Kaia and Reeze. Wherever she sliced, a blinding blue light appeared. Kaia watched in awe as a large rectangle took form.

The other priestess looked on in satisfaction at her companion’s work. She then looked kindly toward Kaia. Unlike her twin, her eyes seemed to be those who had seen all the goodness of humanity and instantly made Kaia feel warmer, safe.

“Trust us,” the priestess said softly to her.

With the rectangle complete, the priestesses approached one another and faced each other. Taking each other’s hands and holding them level with their faces, the two stared into the other’s eyes. A swirl of blinding blue light rose from below them.

“Sumit duos in luminarium ut Shigonil,” they shouted in unison.

A blinding blue light blazed beneath Kaia and Reeze. Kaia attempted to move, but discovered she was paralyzed in place. In an instant the two were covered by the light and drowning in an endless abyss.

Chapter Two

Kaia slowly stirred. She couldn’t remember falling asleep; the last thing she recalled was a crazy dream she had. It had something to do with her village being up in flames, a strange man in black, a teenager, two priestesses, and a blinding blue light. Everything about it felt so real and yet surreal.

She rolled over, not yet wanting to open her eyes, and landed on something frigid. Her eyes shot open, then shut. The light was overwhelming. Once her eyes adjusted she found herself blinking at a gray-eyed, indigo-haired teenaged boy. His toned body was wrapped in bandages. Feeling heat rising in her cheeks, Kaia looked away as she sat up.

“Reeze?” The name was faint and felt foreign. She hoped he was just a figment of her imagination and that she was still dreaming. “Do . . . do you know where we are?”

“Haven’t got the slightest clue. I woke up with my wounds dressed. I’ve looked around and haven’t seen anybody or any way out.”

She looked around the entire room. They were caged in; there were no windows and no doors. Reeze, she finally noticed, was propped up with plush pillows on a small cot, while she sat on the cold, metallic floor. Cardboard boxes littered the room with no labels. The air was fresh and crisp, yet there were no vents or fans circulating it. No visible light source could explain why the room was so bright.

She crawled to a box and began picking at the tape; Reeze watched her every move. It unnerved her how his stare made her feel so uncomfortable. Just as she started to make some headway with the tape, the wall they had their backs to made a fump. They turned simultaneously to see a priestess emerge from the newfound door. She looked exactly like the other two priestesses, except no scar was near her eye. Instead on her forehead there was a small triangular tattoo, the same shade of blue as her robe. The woman smiled serenely at the two and turned her full attention to Reeze.

“How are you feeling?” Her voice was soft and gentle.

“Who are you?” Reeze demanded.

The woman laughed. “You may call me Blue.”

“Do you work for Cristos and Maura as well?”

Kaia looked at him, her brow furrowed. The names sounded familiar, but she couldn’t quite remember where she had heard them before.

Blue laughed again. “I see you’ve met White and Black. Those two are quite—” She stopped. “They are quite peculiar,” she finally said slowly. Kaia grinned; Reeze said nothing. “And again I ask you, how are you feeling?”

His eyes darted toward Kaia for a mere second, analyzing her, but for what? Appearing to pass his test, Reeze said, “I feel fine. A little sore, but fine.”

Blue eyed him skeptically but said no more. She redirected her attention toward Kaia. “White and Black brought you here because Cristos and Maura felt a shift in the balance between good and evil. They talked it over with Etal and the three of them had come to the conclusion that it was best if we obtained your aid. None of us were expecting him,” she glanced at Reeze, “to come along, but Etal might find him useful for something.”

She tossed a clean shirt to Reeze and he deftly caught it. “Put that on and remain silent. I’m about to take you to a meeting that might change both of your lives.”

With Blue leading the way, the three made their way down a long hallway. The walls were made of the same thick, semi-translucent crystal that made the walls of the previous room. Every five feet, a golden torch was alight, carefully balanced within the jagged wall. With every step they took, their footsteps echoed all around them; their distorted reflections bounced off the walls and eerie shadows trailed behind them. Kaia kept quiet and followed Reeze closely. At one time she grabbed the back of his shirt. He gave her a cold look and she let go at once, looking frightfully behind her.

Not soon enough, they reached another crystal room, this one not as bright as the others. The ceiling came into a high dome directly above a stupendous circular marble table with golden chairs surrounding it. A chair stood at the head of the table that was larger and more elaborate than the others. Gears and springs weaved their way down from the very top of the back all the way down to its legs. The arms curved brilliantly and were inlaid with grooves. At the top of the chair was an elegant, inlaid golden clock. Compared to the other chairs, which had intricate decorations of stars, leaves, animals, and various other figures carved onto the backs and legs, this larger chair looked fit for a god.

“This is the hall where my brethren and I meet. Our meetings are overlooked by Etal, watcher of time. He is currently the only god without his own priest. There he is now,” Blue whispered quickly.

An old man appeared from the opposing side out of a hidden door. He wore a burnt orange robe with gold trimmings. The only hair that could be found on top of his head was along the rim; just below his nose he wore a thick, full mustache. His cheeks were rosy, he had sparkling blue-gray eyes, and he was endowed with an enormous stomach. Etal looked at the group with a questioning glance toward Reeze. Blue shrugged her shoulders and with a swift apology to Kaia and Reeze for having to leave, she walked briskly out another hidden door.

Etal walked leisurely toward the two. He had a quiet and calm disposition about him, yet he suffocated Kaia by his very presence.

When at last he appeared before them, he smiled and said, “My name is Etal. I am the watcher of time and I oversee all meetings held by the priests. I know who you are,” he smiled at Kaia and turned roughly toward Reeze, “but who are you?”

“Why do you want to know?” Reeze asked.

“Because I wasn’t expecting you. Now again, who are you?”

Reeze turned away sharply. “My name is Reeze.”

Studying him a moment longer, Etal coughed and finally walked away. He abruptly stopped and with a wave of his hand, two golden chairs materialized behind them. Without turning around, Etal said, “You’ll want to get comfortable, this might take a while.” He walked on and sat in the largest chair at the table.

With a small sigh, Kaia sat with her legs tucked beneath her. Reeze continued to stand.

A fump from afar indicated another door had opened. A march of brightly colored robed figures walked in from the left. The figures moved as if they were in a funeral procession with their solemn faces directed to the floor. Each figure took a seat at the table.

“The meeting regarding Kaia and the boy is now in session,” Etal announced.

A few of the robed figures looked in their direction, assessing the two. Their faces were hidden in shadow.

White and Black stood up. “As you know Cristos and Maura have felt a shift in the balance between good and evil,” they said in unison. Just as before, their voices were hollow and reverberated off the walls. “Maura has felt that the balance is in her favor which means that the prophecy might be coming true!”

With a quick turn, Black’s hood fell off. She glared at a figure in crimson robes. “Why do you laugh?” Her eyes pierced him.

“How can we take the two of you so seriously?” the man questioned.

One of the figures, a man in brown, who seemed genuinely concerned of the announcement, spoke, “Oh, but I bet you would love the destruction, wouldn’t you, Crimson? Narcissus would be so pleased with the outcome; so many wandering souls waiting for redemption. You’d be greatly rewarded, would you not?”

Crimson turned to the one who had spoken out. “You know full well that the gods do not reward those who are in their services—”

“Try telling that one to Ryder!” a female in pink called out.

Nearly all of them laughed and pointed to the one in green. He spoke calmly, “Ryder has said that it was a moment of weakness. How could he know that the woman was in his service?”

The one in pink tsked and muttered something.

The man in green stood up and slammed his hands down on the table. His hood fell off, revealing a face much like the other three priestesses. On his left cheek was a small, intricate, green leaf tattoo. “What was that?!”

“Green!” Etal called out.

“Sorry,” he mumbled as he sat back down and pulled on his hood. The tension between Green and the woman continued to thicken.

“Pink, I will advise you to not speak of things that should not be spoken about, understood?” Etal’s eyes flashed toward her. She nodded in agreement and bowed her head. “Now if we could get back to the matter at hand.” Etal motioned toward Kaia and Reeze.

White and Black took their seats.

“The prophecy was from Lemohoro, correct?” a man in navy asked. Etal nodded. The man continued, “And it was said that Rayba’s child will help Malum get rid of the source of humanity’s flaws? Exactly how is that a bad thing?”

Some of them murmured their agreement, looking to one another and holding whispered conversations on the matter.

“They say the source of humanity’s flaws is ‘knowledge’,” Crimson muttered. His voice was barely audible over their conversations, yet it silenced them all.

“Knowledge? How so?” a woman in gray pressed.

Crimson leaned back in his chair. Nobody dared to breathe as they awaited his words. Finally, “Narcissus told me something, peculiar. Now, the only one that we have to back this up would be our beloved Etal, here,” he motioned toward Etal who looked questioningly at his companion, “Apart from Etal and the gods that we now serve there was once another god. He called it, the ‘Ultimate God’.”

“What is your point, Crimson? How does this have anything to do with the prophecy?” a man in orange questioned.

Etal sighed. “Everything.”

Another wave of whispers spread across the table. Just as quickly as it crested, it rolled to a stop. All faces turned toward the old man.

Etal sighed again. “This god created four Luminaries for his son, Autogenes. Beneath the Luminaries were three aeons each. Sophia was the youngest aeon and wanted to be like her father, so she attempted to create an offspring without his permission or knowledge. Her offspring was imperfect, to say the least, and helped create the world as we know it today.

“Sophia’s offspring wanted to recreate the image of God, so he created humans. When the offspring blew onto the image, Sophia’s powers that resided in her offspring left him and entered the human. The offspring, jealous of the level of intelligence the human had, bound him to the physical world and kept him ignorant of his immortality with the help of his children — the seven deadly sins.

“Sophia wanted humans to be aware of their immortality and came down to inform humans of their divine essence. The humans, however, were ignorant and assumed that the gods placed to rule the world were the cause of their mortality. This of course, led to the First Great War and many perished. Rayba stood up to Sophia and killed her, announcing to the people that Sophia was wrong and thus bringing peace back to the world. Rayba was defeated years later at the hands of Shanti.”

“What does that have to do with the prophecy?” a man in red asked.

“Everything. The ‘knowledge’ Crimson was referring to is Sophia. She is the aeon of wisdom.”

“But you just said that she met her doom at the hands of Rayba!” Pink cried.

Etal was silent.

“What are you hiding from us?” Blue questioned.

He rubbed his forehead. “Her hourglass hasn’t shattered yet.” The murmurs rose and fell as quickly as a spring shower. “I am not sure where she is, or how she escaped Rayba, but I am positive that she is out there somewhere, alive.”

“But why should we really care about this prophecy? Why should we care at all about the death of an aeon?” Crimson finally asked.

“Balance. If Sophia were to really die, then the balance of everything would be off. She is the keeper of knowledge. Once knowledge is gone from the world, then chaos would take over,” Etal murmured. “Life on this world would simply cease.”

“And how does this all relate to the girl?” the man in navy queried.

“Kaia, here, is the last remaining descendent of Shanti.”

Kaia’s eyes widened and she stiffened. She had suspected they were talking about her grandmother, but how could her grandmother have helped gods? Couldn’t they have done something of their situation earlier?

“Kaia,” Etal started, looking nervously around at his fellow companions, “we would like you to collect the treasures of the gods.”

There wasn’t time for Kaia to form a rebuttal against the statement; angry remarks riled up from the priests and priestesses. A few of the comments surprised Kaia — it was hardly the kind of language she had expected from such solemn figures who served gods.

“We never agreed to such a thing!” Crimson declared.

“Why?” White and Black hissed in their hollowed voices, silencing their brethren’s remarks.

Lacing his fingers together and placing his chin carefully atop his hands, Etal said, “Presently, Rayba’s child is intent on one thing right now: revenge. White, Black, you both reported that when you came to deliver Kaia, she and the boy were the only survivors?”

Their icy stares were directed at him. “Yes,” they both answered curtly.

“Tell the others what you found.” He straightened up.

“Their entire village was burned down. You could smell the stench of burning flesh above everything else.”

And why does she,” a man in brown said, directing his gaze toward Kaia, “need to confront the mitem?”

“Rayba’s child probably thinks Kaia is dead. Don’t you think this child will come after the gods next, if not to kill them, then maybe to inherit their powers before helping Malum?” Etal answered.

Succinct whispers filled the air again before dying out.

“How do we know that Rayba’s child will even be going after the treasures?” Pink asked.

“How else could you kill a god with every power at her fingertips?” Etal questioned.

“And what of the boy?” a woman in gray inquired.

“I was wondering about that. I thought he could be used as, I don’t know, perhaps a bodyguard of some sorts?”

Hooded heads turned toward the two. After a few seconds had passed, a man in red stood up.

“I like it. All in favor?” Every hand was raised — most reluctantly.

Etal stood up as well. “Then the meeting regarding Kaia and the boy is now complete.” He looked toward the two. “I shall send one of the priests to inform you of what you will need to know, for now, farewell.”

“What do you mean—” Kaia started. A flash of blue light blazed all around her and Reeze, sucking them back down the rabbit hole.

Chapter Three

Kaia fluttered her eyes open. She found herself in a sitting position, propped against a tree; Reeze was nowhere to be found. Birds twittered from above, singing their lively songs as sunlight seeped through the spacious canopy. The tuft of grass her hand was resting on was cool and slightly wet. A rustle to her left caught her attention.

Reeze emerged from behind the foliage. He looked tattered: bits of dirt were on his face and hands and a leaf was stuck to his hair. The cool demeanor he held no longer had much effect in his current state. Reeze walked over and sat across from her, leaning casually against a tree.

“Where are we?” Kaia asked.

Reeze shrugged. Using the bottom of his shirt, he wiped his face clear of dirt and picked the leaf from his hair. His eyes studied their surroundings.

Kaia shifted uneasily. “What do we do now?”

Reeze shrugged again. “I suppose we wait for one of the priests,” he muttered in response.

An uncomfortable silence followed. In a rushed voice, Kaia asked, “What were you doing?”

She looked hesitantly at him. He neither shrugged nor answered. Instead, his eyes kept looking — watching for something.

Finally he replied, “I was surveying our surroundings, trying to figure out where we are. From here, it looks like home, but as I surveyed, I found the terrain to be a little different.”

“Different? How?” She straightened up and leaned slightly toward him, her hair falling around her face.

He said nothing, but continued to look around.

She sat back harder than she had expected. The rough bark lightly scraped her back. She winced slightly, hoping Reeze’s sharp eyes hadn’t noticed. If he did, he showed no sign of it.

A rustle from where Reeze had appeared moments earlier alerted them. Motioning Kaia to stay back, Reeze moved a bit closer to the foliage. A blond-haired, blue-eyed man emerged with his hands up in the air.

“I come in peace,” Green said with a smile. No longer in his forest green robe, he was still easily identifiable due to the intricate leaf tattoo on his left cheek.

Reeze relaxed a little. “Where are we?” he questioned.

“You’re on Zinc. They call it Earth’s sister planet.”

Kaia looked up, startled. It didn’t make any sense to her. How could they have gone from one planet to another in such a short time? Green was still speaking, but she neither heard him nor cared. If it was anything important, she was sure Reeze would tell her later. He had to protect her after all.

“This is for you,” Green said, handing Kaia a blue rod.

Her eyes met his questionably, but she took it nonetheless. The rod was smooth and the color was a remarkable deep blue. Toward the top, there was a black mount, which held a blue sphere, a shade lighter than the rod. The rod was cold and yet somehow warm at the same time.

“It’s called the Tiruv. It belonged to your grandmother.” Kaia’s hands traced the mount and sphere. Green continued on, “Etal doesn’t know you have this. Call it a gift from Ryder.”

Kaia looked at Reeze, hoping he’d tell her what to say. As always, his face was emotionless. Her eyes scanned the Tiruv, hoping it would whisper some sort of secret to her. Finally she asked, “Why?”

Green smiled lightly at her. “Shanti used it as a weapon to prove herself with. Ryder hopes that you will use it differently.”

“Why exactly does Etal not know about this?” Reeze questioned.

“Ryder hid it from him.”

“And who is this Ryder?”

“He is the Zincian god of the earth and the harvest. Trust me; he is your ally, not your enemy. He always looked after Shanti as if she were his own daughter. After she fled to Earth, he vowed he would watch over her and any of her descendants. That’s when he endowed her with his mark.” He pointed to Kaia’s forehead. “It’s the same mark that’s within this leaf, see?”

Kaia studied his tattoo more closely. The intricate design within the leaf shape was suddenly familiar at once.

Green sighed. “Anyway, there’s a small town not too far—”

“I know,” Reeze interrupted.

Ignoring the interruption, Green continued, “You will want to trek up this mountain. There is a village hidden somewhere up there, but I am not exactly sure where it is from here. You should ask someone in town, I am sure they can help you. When you reach the village, look for a girl named Catrina. She will be your guide.”

“Why?”

“She knows a lot about this world and should prove useful on your quest.”

Green smiled brightly at the two. A sudden flash of blue light appeared and he was gone. Reeze began heading out.

“Where are you going?” Kaia stood up and began to follow.

He motioned for her to stop. “Stay here. I’m going down to get information.”

Kaia stared at her surroundings uneasily. What if a stranger were to come by and be just as ruthless as Tipton was? She opened her mouth to protest, but quickly shut it.

With one last look behind him, Reeze set off.

Kaia kept telling herself that she should feel safe. The look and feel of the small clearing was a lot like the forest that had surrounded her village. And yet, whenever the wind rustled the leaves on the trees or she accidentally stepped on a twig, her heart raced. She would defensively clutch the Tiruv and slowly back up against a tree. Her eyes darted in every possible direction without her having to turn her head. Teetering on the edge of paranoia, she tried desperately not to fall into it.

When a considerable time elapsed, she couldn’t help but think that Reeze left her. He wouldn’t be coming back. Why did she even trust some guy she just met? She knew nothing of him, and likewise, he knew nothing of her. Of course he would want to leave her and just get on with his life.

Defeated, she plopped down on the ground, sliding against a tree. She began to pick at the ground. The sun’s rays dipped along the horizon, casting a glow of purple, pink, and blue. Impending darkness was trailing close behind, trying to catch up with the sun.

“Kaia,” a familiar voice called out roughly.

Kaia nearly jumped out of her skin. She turned in the direction of the voice but saw no one. Silence followed. Had she heard the voice or was she now imagining things? She peered into the looming shadows of the forest.

An unidentifiable face appeared from within the darkness. She managed to scuttle away from it and toward a tree that was farther from his reach without turning around as she screamed. Reeze walked out, staring at her with neither curiosity nor amusement. She managed to look up meekly at his face.

“There’s a place that will allow us to stay the night for free, come on.” He turned around and began walking back the way he came.

Kaia scrambled up and followed him without a word. It took a quick jog to catch up with him, but she immediately found her place behind him. She was close enough to where he could push her down to a safe place if danger lurked near, but far enough to not bump into him if she tripped on a raised root.

Crickets began chirping before Kaia and Reeze entered the small town. With the growing darkness, Kaia found herself nearly clinging to the back of his shirt. At one point she actually had a hold of his shirt, but he brushed her off as if she were a pesky fly that wouldn’t go away.

When they arrived, streetlights glowed dimly. A few people were still out walking the streets. Some were on bicycles, most were riding in carriages. Reeze led her through a maze of streets until they arrived at a small hotel.

The receptionist smiled at them. She wore a red and white uniform and an opal name tag that shined proudly.

“Here’s your key. Your room is on the second floor, number two-oh-six. Enjoy your stay.” She handed Reeze a red key card.

He took it and left without a word. Kaia glanced his way, apologized for Reeze’s behavior, and thanked the receptionist for allowing them to stay. The receptionist continued smiling while Kaia ran to catch up.

“You can take the bed. I’ll sleep on the couch.” He tossed the key onto a small table as they walked in.

Kaia sat timidly on the edge of the bed and became aware of the grime and grease on her body. Reeze leaned back on the couch with a sigh.

“How did you get this room?” she asked. She walked to the bathroom and began running the water.

“I was passing by trying to get some information on the village. Some guy was running out of the hotel and someone inside was yelling to stop him. So I stopped him.”

Kaia stared at the water. If something like that were to happen to her, would she have been able to tell the same abridged version in the same bored voice? She said nothing more.

When she walked out of the bathroom, Reeze was finally settled on the couch. He lay there, staring at the ceiling deep in thought. Seeing him there, Kaia felt safe and suddenly tired. She crept under the layers of blankets. Looking over at Reeze who had nothing but the small decorative pillow provided on the couch, she tossed the comforter to him with all her might. It missed him by a considerable amount. He glanced at the fallen comforter and then at her. For a fleeting moment, Kaia thought she saw some amusement behind his mask, but it was gone within a blink.

Blushing and staring at the fallen comforter, Kaia stammered, “I . . . I . . . I thought that you might get cold in the night.” She fidgeted and then added quickly, “I have a blanket and a sheet. That’s more than enough for me.”

The comforter moved slowly out of her line of vision. She looked up. It covered a bit of his feet, but was kept in a heap at the end of the couch. His eyes were closed, but she sensed he was far from sleep. She turned and buried herself beneath her blanket. Exhausted and miserable, sleep welcomed Kaia.

 * * *

The morning sun penetrated through the windows and managed to wake her up. She heard someone knock once on the door. Kaia opened one eye and looked around. The comforter was neatly folded and placed in the middle of the couch. She couldn’t help but wonder if he even used it. The door creaked open and a woman began talking in the background. She heard Reeze thank the woman and the door creaking shut.

She sat up as the aroma of eggs, sausages, and pancakes hit her nose. Reeze neither seemed surprised nor interested in seeing her awake; she was a wall. Slouching against the headboard, she kept eyeing the food on the silver cart.

She continued to sit there, watching him methodically place some scrambled eggs in a neat pile on one side. Two perfectly sized pancakes were given half the plate with minimal overlapping and with the final section he swiftly stabbed three sausage links with his fork before placing them in a neat row. He then poured himself a glass of orange juice and went to eat at the table. A newspaper was already open to the local headlines.

Kaia sat in disbelief. She cleared her throat. Still no response. Admitting defeat, she slid out of bed and muttered, “Good morning, Reeze.”

“Good morning,” he grumbled.

She looked at him with disapproval before moving to the breakfast cart. From where she lay, she could only smell the eggs, pancakes, and sausages. But up close, she noted the small bowl of mixed berries. Looking at the blackberries in the array of blue, red, and burgundy, she was surprised at how quickly the tears welled up. Wiping them away, she placed the fruit on her plate. Compared to Reeze’s plate, hers was chaos: the scrambled eggs were spilling over onto the pancakes; the maple syrup she had applied quickly flooded the eggs and a bit of her falling fruit that she valiantly attempted to spare. Pouring a glass of milk, Kaia daintily sat across from Reeze.

The two ate in silence. Every scrape of their forks echoed in the room. Kaia’s sense of hearing was suddenly amplified. She could hear every chew Reeze took. Even when he was silently eating his pancakes, the collision of teeth against soggy bread sounded like nails in a grinder. She cringed, but endured it.

“Blackberry?” she offered.

“No.” He turned the page; the rustle was like thousands of bees buzzing in the air. She controlled herself and smiled.

“You don’t like blackberries?”

Scrape. Bite. Chew. Swallow. “I’ve never had them alone before, just in a pie.”

Her heart raced. “You like blackberry pie?” Her voice squeaked as a realization hit her.

He stopped and looked at her. “Why are you so interested in my liking of blackberry pie?”

“You’re Driscoll’s adopted son, aren’t you?”

He flipped the page again. “We’re leaving after breakfast.”

“My mother made those blackberry pies for you.”

He didn’t answer. Releasing a small sigh, Kaia continued to eat her breakfast and mentally prepared herself for the long journey ahead.

 * * *

Reeze navigated them through the labyrinth of streets once again and stopped when they reached the edge of the forest. Kaia stood close, clutching the Tiruv. Seeing whatever it was that he was looking for, he moved to a particular spot that looked to her like any other spot and trekked up.

The two hiked up the seemingly endless mountain. As the mountain began getting steeper, the forest became denser. They continuously dodged and grabbed onto the trees to keep up their pace. Bushes and hanging limbs grabbed and ripped whatever clothing they could reach. At more than one point, Kaia tripped and often resorted to using the Tiruv as a walking stick. Occasionally, Reeze would stop and let Kaia catch her breath.

Small strolls and running through the forest back home did not prepare her for this. There were a number of rocks littered on the ground, making it difficult to get a good footing. The incline was steep, causing her to wear out faster. Reeze, however, was able to nimbly walk and dodge with ease.

Kaia glared at him. Perhaps he wasn’t Driscoll’s adopted son after all. She was sure other people enjoyed blackberry pie as much as she assumed he did. Still, she couldn’t help but remember how he had avoided the accusation.

Grabbing a limb to help pull herself up onto a gentle precipice protruding from the earth, the two suddenly heard a scream ring through the forest. Kaia let go of the limb in surprise and nearly fell; fortunately Reeze had quick reflexes. He pulled her up and they both observed their surroundings. The scream sounded again from all around them.

“Stay close,” Reeze instructed.

This time he did not attempt to brush her away when she clung to his shirt. It was the same scream that Kaia’s friends and mother had shouted when they had met their deaths.

She glanced at Reeze. Just like his face, his body and demeanor didn’t show any sign of fear or emotion. Her eyes lingered at the back of his head before letting it fall toward her hands that were clinging onto his blue cotton shirt. That’s when she noticed his sword was missing. Her brow furrowed. The last time she remembered him with the weapon was when she had first met him. Where had he left it?

“Where’s your sword?”

“Gone.” He directed her away from a looming branch.

“How will you be able to protect me?”

Before he could answer her, an anguished cry reverberated around them. It was followed by a flash of neon green light that illuminated the forest from their right. The two stood for a moment, gazing where the light had flashed. Kaia was the first to move, tugging on his shirt and urging him to follow. However, she was pulled back. Magenta eyes sought gray, but found no answer.

“Why can’t we go?” she pleaded, begging him to answer her this one time.

His gaze moved to their right again. “We don’t know what’s going on. It’s none of our business.”

“But it sounds like she needs help!” She pulled at his shirt like an insistent child.

He grabbed her arm forcefully. “I am your guardian. My job is to make sure no harm comes to you. Do as I say and let the woman be for now. When we get to the village, we’ll tell them and let them sort it out.”

She cringed. Every word seeped with venom and penetrated her body. He let her go and allowed her to cling once more to his shirt. As she took her place behind him she wondered if the woman was going to be okay.

Before they could even take four steps forward, a teenage girl was flung in front of them, landing roughly against the midsection of a tree and falling in a crumpled heap. Kaia’s eyes widened and Reeze appeared to be paralyzed. Neither of them seemed capable of breathing or moving.

Snapping back to reality, Kaia looked at Reeze and asked, “Is. . . is she alive?”

Reeze nodded and pointed toward the girl, redirecting Kaia’s gaze.

The girl struggled to get up, leaning on the tree for support. Reeze watched her with interest. The girl noticed the two standing there watching and turned in the direction from where she was flung.

“Damn it,” she muttered. She wiped her mouth; a smear of blood continued to linger at the corner. Kaia moved toward her but the girl glared at her and shouted, “STAY OUT OF THIS!”

Kaia stopped, biting her bottom lip. Reeze gently placed his hand on Kaia’s shoulder. Saying nothing, she moved back behind Reeze. The girl flipped back her long brown hair and pulled out two daggers.

She twirled them in her hands before gaining a good grip on them and charged at the person who just appeared in view. The person dodged the attack gracefully and didn’t seem to notice that Reeze or Kaia were standing five feet away. Upon seeing the attacker, Kaia gasped and shrunk behind her guardian. Reeze’s hand gripped her shoulder tighter, making her wince though he didn’t notice.

The person was wearing a black outfit and appeared not to be wielding a weapon. Still, Kaia couldn’t help but remember Tipton. She managed to turn and look at Reeze. For once, his expression was readable: his eyes were wide, and like herself, he seemed to be holding his breath. There was something that flashed in his eyes, something she had only seen once before when they had met him: blood lust. Her heartbeat quickened.

Tearing her gaze away, she continued to watch the fight. The girl seemed to be holding her own against the new stranger. She disappeared and Kaia felt Reeze’s arm circle around her waist before both of them were lunged into the surrounding foliage with barely a sound.

“What are you doing here?” Kaia heard a female voice whisper to her. Startled, she whipped her head around to see the teenage girl. The girl was breathing hard and still clutched the two daggers defensively. Kaia slowly turned toward Reeze — he had let go of her waist as soon as they had landed. Did he see her coming at them?

“Catrina dear, now isn’t the time to hide . . . I’ll find you eventually,” the man taunted.

“Hurry and get away! This guy is dangerous!” the girl urged.

Before Kaia could issue a rebuttal, a masked face peeked in from behind the bushes.

“I found you,” the man sang, pushing the foliage away and making his way into their small hiding place. Kaia and the girl backed up; Reeze placed himself in front of the girls and was grabbed roughly by the collar by the man. The man gave a low chuckle. “Who are your friends, Catrina?”

“It’s me you’re after, not them. Let them go,” Catrina demanded. “I’ll give you what you want,” she added defeatedly. “Let him go.”

The man threw Reeze to the ground. The guardian stood up, brushing himself off. The man knelt toward Catrina who studied him curiously. She flinched when he touched her chin but said nothing. Kaia scooted away from both of them and slowly made her way back to Reeze.

“It’s not there,” the man said quietly.

Catrina eyed him fiercely. “What?”

“The fear,” he whispered audibly in her ear.

The words sent chills down Kaia’s spine. She looked down and could see Reeze’s hands clench. Though this man didn’t seem like Tipton, he paralleled him in ways that she could only have dreamed of such as his smug demeanor and need for finding fear in the eyes of his victims. She took in a sharp breath. The man terrified her, there was no mistake about that, but she couldn’t stand there and do nothing. Reeze had stopped her before — would he stop her again? She looked at him hesitantly. The blood lust was still in his eyes; he caught her gaze and nodded. On instinct she gripped the Tiruv tighter.

“Be careful with that, we don’t know what it can do yet,” Reeze whispered to her cautiously.

Kaia nodded. “It’s a weapon.” She said it aloud more to reassure herself than to remind him, but he said nothing. Shanti used it as a weapon to prove herself with, Green’s words echoed in her head. It was a weapon. Ryder hopes that you will use it differently. How differently? What else could it do?

She glanced at the man, who was now muttering something incoherent to Catrina; it seemed to be doing the trick because her eyes widened. However, there was no sign of fear there — only anger. The man held her down, rendering her incapable of thrusting a dagger into his neck. Taking a deep breath, Kaia pointed the Tiruv at the man.

“Get away from her,” she said with failed bravado.

The man laughed and turned his masked head toward her. Before he could say anything, Kaia felt a great wave of energy through her arm. It extended itself into the rod. Everything was warm, and within a second, a great beam of blue energy shot straight at him. The man was flung back into a tree. Catrina didn’t waste any time racing after him. She placed the blade of a dagger to his throat, daring him to do something. He did nothing; he was calm. Catrina placed her other dagger into its sheath and placed her free hand roughly on his mask.

“I want to see the face of the man who dares defy the gods,” she spat.

She flung the mask off. It flew through the air and before it hit the ground, Catrina had dropped her dagger. The man smiled sinisterly. He was good-looking and appeared to be the same age as Reeze.

The man grabbed the fallen dagger and sliced toward Catrina. Reeze appeared by Catrina’s side, pushing her out of the way. Kaia rushed forward, dropping the Tiruv onto the ground.

“HOLD HER DOWN!” Reeze barked, grabbing one of Catrina’s arms.

Kaia did as she was told and braced herself. Catrina bucked and thrashed against them. The man laughed at the girl.

“LET ME GO!” she kept screaming, tears streaming down her face.

Kaia looked from Catrina to Reeze. Were they doing the right thing? Wouldn’t this make things easier for the man? But Reeze had told her what to do and she had to trust him, didn’t she? Her life was in his hands. The man, she was surprised to see, didn’t make any attempt to attack Catrina while Reeze and Kaia held her down.

“Let her go,” the man said calmly, after Catrina seemed to have settled down.

No longer thrashing, the teenage girl lay on the ground, glaring at him. Kaia glanced at Reeze who nodded and they both let go. Catrina stood up, but both she and the man kept their distance.

“How could you, Quentin?” Her voice was calm, but there was something else in her tone. Disgust, anger, hatred? All three? Kaia couldn’t tell. Catrina took a deep breath, blinking away tears. “I . . . I thought you were my friend.” Her voice was softer.

“As did I, my dear Catrina. Now, hand it over.” He stretched his gloved hand out, awaiting his gift.

She stared at him and glanced toward Reeze and Kaia. “GET OUT OF HERE!” she shouted, charging toward Quentin with a ready dagger. Reeze grabbed Kaia and rushed her away higher up the mountain.

They could hear the sounds of metal against metal. Who was winning? Would she be okay? Why was Catrina fighting against her friend? What was he after? Kaia gasped and stopped, jerking Reeze back.

He turned swiftly toward her, his eyes flashing with a hint of anger.

“We have to go back!”

“You heard her; she wants us to stay away!”

“But, Reeze—”

He closed the gap between them. “But nothing. I am your guardian and you will do as I say if you want to stay alive.”

“The Tiruv is back there,” she said in a rush.

He swore and looked her up and down. He swore again once confirming the truth. Reeze gazed back behind them and sighed heavily.

“Stay here. I’ll be back.” Without a glance backwards, he left her again.

Kaia stared after him. She knew she had to stay, knew that he was protecting her, and yet . . . She bit her bottom lip, darting her eyes left and right. A female shriek filled the air and then a blast of neon green light was seen again. Glancing around her one last time, Kaia ran back.

The more she ran, the louder the screams became. Just like earlier that day, her sense of hearing suddenly became more acute. When she no longer heard the clangs of metal on metal, she feared the worst and held her breath. Only when the ringing of weapons began again did she exhale, relieved that Catrina was alive, at least for now.

At last she saw Catrina desperately trying to hold back Quentin’s attack. Her eyes scanned the area. Where was Reeze? Catrina let out a loud gasp and was once again flung against a tree — a great oak tree. The teenager glanced up at the tree and laughed.

“Go ahead, Quentin. Kill me!” she demanded, leaning up to give him her throat.

Quentin muttered something incoherent and threw the dagger toward Catrina. Kaia closed her eyes. A hand wrapped around her mouth and held her arms behind her; she immediately opened her eyes again. Catrina was still very much alive. Quentin was gone. The dagger had landed a couple of inches too close to her revealed thigh.

“I thought I told you to stay put,” Reeze whispered angrily into her ear.

Kaia swallowed and tried to relax her breathing. She gave a small nod, her eyes bulging, and tried to turn to see behind her.

“And I thought I told you to get away,” Catrina said as she made her way beside the two. She was calm and breathing normally again. She looked at them with a raised eyebrow.

Reeze finally released Kaia and handed back the Tiruv. She mumbled a quick “thanks” in response before facing Catrina. She saw Catrina’s eyes flicker toward the Tiruv and then toward Kaia’s forehead. Reeze continued to stand behind Kaia and although unable to see it, she could feel that he was analyzing the teenage girl before them.

The teenage girl’s muscles were toned and her skin was tan, yet her face was delicate. Her long brown hair fell behind her, looking perfect and well cared for despite all the fighting she had done earlier. Her green eyes flickered.

“There’s a village this way,” she said breathlessly.

Kaia said nothing and only began to follow when Reeze fell into position behind Catrina.

The Playlist

Below is a playlist of music that I created that I feel relates to The Chosen. Some deal with the book and the themes, others help set the mood for certain scenes, and some I selected way back when I was trying to figure out relationships between characters.

The Chosen from sheenah.freitas on 8tracks Radio.

The Number

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Kaia disappeared for five years. Now she’s back and her planet is on the brink of war.

The new “Numbers” program, created by the Tueors’ leader, tracks and isolates demigods. Kaia’s friend, Catrina, refuses to take part, and that makes her the most dangerous Number of all.

It’s Kaia’s duty to gather and protect the treasures of the gods.  But neither the treasures nor Catrina are what they appear to be.

As the day a dire prophesy foresees draws near, will Kaia reverse the gears of fate, or will everything she’s ever loved be burned away by the flames of war?

Reviews

5 stars review“From the very beginning I was captivated, thrilled, curious, and concerned. The excitement continues to build and again with lots of magic and mystical flavor. Freitas has an incredible writing technique that you are truly missing out on if you have not read her work.”

— Cynthia from The Wytch’s Mirror

“I really enjoyed reading about the characters, their journey and the world Sheenah so wonderfully built with words. It was fun and intriguing to see how the characters and plot developed as the story progressed. It was fairly easy to get inside Kaia’s head and see things from her perspective, but the character I found the most engaging was Reeze. The supporting cast added some depth and comic relief to the story as well. I was also very impressed with the depth and complexity of the twists in the plot, particularly as the end drew near.”

— Yue from Scribblings

3.5 stars review“The author’s creation of fantasy worlds is appealing; the mission is exciting. Middle schoolers and young teens might really enjoy reading this series of mystical adventures.”

— Colleen from Live to Read

3.5 stars review“I was often “on the edge of my seat” while reading this and my emotions were all over the charts. The ending was both brilliant and infuriating all at once! The author brings all emotions out full-force, without much rest in between.”

–Stephsgrn from My World

3 star review“Once again, we enter the world wherein gods, demigods, mermaids, vampires, and other mythical creatures co-exist. Kaia has grown a lot in this book, and she’s not the naïve girl we know in the first book.”

— Ice from Book Whales

Chapter One

Kaia Ketoki stood in the shadow of a column; it was just one of many that surrounded the town square. She watched people as they ate, talked, and laughed. They were a flurry of different nations coming together dressed in greens, browns, and golds; their skin was cast in red, orange, yellow, and blue as the sun’s light passed through the thin lining of balloons. Aromatic smells of roasted meat and cotton candy permeated the air. It was Messalia: a holiday celebrated throughout the planet of Zinc in commemoration of Ryder, the god of the earth and harvest.

There were a group of missionaries in a corner that surveyed and watched the denizens of Winlim — a neutral country — carrying on with their pagan ritual. They were grim faced with thin lips. The celebratory atmosphere only soured their mood.

Once Earthlings got wind that Zinc was on the brink of world war, a slew of missionaries had arrived, preaching to the people to pray to God for He would never let them down as their gods had let them down. Some Zincians converted, but the majority weren’t convinced. Why were there so many different religions that worshipped the same god? Why was Earth constantly plagued with war when they themselves rarely fought one another? The missionaries thought the Zincians simple-minded and the Zincians, for the most part, thought the missionaries dumb.

A young, slight nun broke away from the group. Her glasses continued to slide down the bridge of her nose and she constantly had to keep pushing them back up as she made her way through the crowd. She stopped and leaned against the column Kaia was hiding against, facing the crowd as she caught her breath.

Kaia glanced over at the nun who was standing so close, she could whisper in the nun’s ear. She pressed herself closer to the wall, hoping to further disappear into the shadows. The nun had closed her eyes, allowing herself to bask in the sunlight. Kaia stole a closer look at the woman.

“You have wonderful red hair,” Kaia said quietly as she leaned back against the column.

The nun opened her eyes and looked around. Spotting the person who had spoken to her standing nearby she settled back and composed herself. “Erm, thank you,” she muttered as she tucked a strand of red hair back into her habit.

Kaia shifted her eyes around and leaned toward her. “Aren’t you going behind your father’s back? Look at you, pretending to be a nun. I never would have guessed it.”

“I’d never betray my father!” she hissed. “But where else can I hide that’s as safe as a church? Even within the borders of Winlim I’m not safe. The Tueors are everywhere, watching and waiting for me.”

“Catrina—”

“Don’t say my name! You know it’s forbidden! It’s Kate for now.” Catrina took her glasses off and meticulously cleaned them, eyeing the crowd for anyone who might be listening in. Satisfied, she put them back on. “It wasn’t the most popular name in the world, but anyone who shared it changed it, I hear. And you’re stupid enough to actually use it as an alias in that bar you work at.”

“I knew someone would find me that way,” Kaia said offhandedly with a shrug.

Catrina rubbed her temples, “I’m sure the Tueors are looking into it. Do you want to get captured?”

The Chosen shook her head. “No. I told you before, I’m ready to start my quest. When are you going to stop hiding and join me? You’re supposed to be my guide, if I recall correctly.”

Catrina stayed quiet as a group of young women danced in with streamers wearing a crown of foxglove and oak leaves. Peoplehurried out of the square, moving to the perimeter and revealing a lavish circle painted in the middle. The women’s green and gold dresses moved around them in silky wisps as they floated to the center. They began to sway, moving their streamers in a choreographed dance.

“I can’t go,” Catrina hissed as she inched closer to Kaia.

“It’s not like you to be so submissive,” Kaia muttered under her breath.

The demigoddess clapped along with the crowd, but turned her head toward the Chosen. “Wouldn’t you be submissive if you were wanted for being a rogue Number? It’s not my decision to make either way. Father told me to hide. He said it was the best thing to do until you returned. So I hid in a place where I thought no one would look. I’m supposed to wait for his signal.”

The dancers began to move toward the edge of the circle and flicked their streamers back and forth in quick succession. A man slowly walked into view leading a deer. People looked on, leaning in a smidgen closer as their excitement began to bubble over. The young women danced over to the buck, placed their crowns on his antlers and bowed away with their dresses floating all around them like a golden mist. Someone pushed an old man out into the center and he looked back at the crowd with a scowl. When he turned toward the creature he hesitated for a second, smoothed his shirt, and walked carefully toward it. The man placed a few stalks of wheat in front of the buck and whispered something to him. The elegant deer looked into the man’s eyes, peering into his soul for a long moment before touching the stalks with his nose. The crowd cheered and the old man thanked the deer and his handler nonstop.

A line formed with various people presenting the buck with various crops. Sometimes the deer would touch their offering, other times it would stomp one of its hooves. The crowd cheered when the buck did the former and expressed their regret at the latter. When the last of the people had taken their turn, the handler began leading the buck back, but he refused to move as he caught sight of Catrina and held her gaze. The crowd began to conspire what its meaning was. Finally, the creature knelt down and touched the ground before allowing the handler to lead him away.

Kaia barely heard Catrina’s message as the crowd broke out into an enormous cheer. The demigoddess pulled her habit closer around her and slipped back into the mass of people that questioned her about the meaning of what just occurred. Kaia, taking her comrade’s cue, disappeared down a dark alley. She liked it better in the shadows and away from the crowd, it made her feel secure. Despite the current atmosphere, they were living in dark times. Staying hidden had become a necessity to survive.

Catrina’s last message rang in Kaia’s mind, “Meet me at the church tonight.”

She hurried her steps. Her friend was right about one thing, the Tueors were bound to notice a Catrina in Winlim. Kaia just hoped that they weren’t too late in leaving.

* * *

The night was cold with a menacing wind, so Kaia pulled her cloak closer around her and walked quicker. Spring had just arrived but the wintery winds continued to linger at night, forcing people to stay inside. There weren’t a lot of people out at such a late hour: a few vampires and androids walked aimlessly around window shopping (they were the only people who could really stand the temperature). Stragglers, like herself, walked swiftly to their destinations, keeping their heads low as they forced their way through the wind. A lone soldier stood on the corner of an intersection checking a map. Kaia glanced at his black uniform: Tueor. She hurried along faster than ever.

Though the Tueors weren’t allowed to attack Winlim (nobody was) they still dispatched a few soldiers in the area to keep an eye out for anyone on their watch list. They weren’t allowed to arrest or force anyone out of the country, but their presence in the area was enough to make everyone jittery.

The church loomed ahead, towering over the adjacent buildings. Perhaps it was her imagination or the howling wind, but she thought she heard footsteps following her. Kaia stopped, allowing herself to catch her breath. Her gaze wandered toward the giant cross on the façade of the church. There was a sort of majestic aura that resonated from the building that the small shrine her grandmother had helped build on Earth for their protector, Spirit, never held.

The wind blew again sending a shiver down her spine. She collected herself and continued on. This time she did hear footsteps behind her. In a panic, she raced up the steps of the church hoping that the guardians of the door — two large stone angels with swords — were enough protection and knocked on the massive doors.

A frail nun opened them.

“I’m here to see Sister Kate,” Kaia said in a rush.

The nun moved out of the way. “Sister Kate is in the congregation room, praying.”

She thanked the nun and made her way to the room. Five nuns sat intermittently throughout, their heads bowed down as they silently prayed. Kaia tiptoed down the aisle, bending down to catch a glimpse of the nuns’ faces. Neither of the four that were in the pews were Catrina. The last nun sat in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary, hands tightly clasped together, head bowed, and eyes closed.

“Sister Kate?” Kaia whispered as she settled herself next to the woman.

“Yes, my child?”

“Someone followed me here. A Tueor,” she hissed.

Catrina opened her eyes and glanced at Kaia. “Are you sure? Did you see who it was?”

“I’m positive it was a Tueor. I didn’t see their face though.”

Catrina took one last look at the Virgin Mary before making her way out. She led Kaia up a flight of stairs toward the cold and barren living quarters. It was a long hallway with a few open doors. Soft laughter spilled out of one, the only sign that there were living people in the area. The demigoddess made her way to the end of the hall where the laughter emitted from and walked into the room. Kaia hesitated at the doorway and reluctantly crossed the threshold.

There were two beds on either side of the room. One side was filled with color: pictures ranging from artwork to photographs were scattered along a wall. Three nuns had been sitting on a bed on that side, gossiping about something and had stopped the moment the two stepped in. Catrina paid the nuns no heed and walked to the opposing side where everything was barren and devoid of color. A pouch lay at the footrest of her bed. The tallest nun of the three observed both Kaia and Catrina; the latter was taking one last look at the place she had called home for nearly five years.

“Are you leaving for good, Sister Kate?” the nun asked. “Is this,” she gestured to Kaia, “the calling you were waiting for?”

The demigoddess shook her head with a grim smile. “No, the calling I was waiting for happened earlier this afternoon.”

One of the other two nuns giggled, “That buck that looked at you today? Honestly, Sister Kate, you shouldn’t let that pagan ritual win you over. That was nothing but cute little flourishes by pretty young women and silly farmers believing the buck would give a bountiful harvest for the next year! If you’re leaving because of that, God will be most disappointed.”

“Then let him be disappointed.” Catrina pivoted and began marching toward Kaia.

“You leave just as mysteriously as you came,” the tallest one said as Catrina reached the door. “Know that God is there for you.”

“God has never been there for me. Goodbye, my Sisters.”

Catrina ushered Kaia out and picked up their pace. A few nuns poked their heads out to watch them go as the three rushed out to spread the news. Nobody stopped them. Once they reached the main hall, the Chosen was unsure of where to go. She knew that by going out the front door, they were exposing themselves to the Tueor that had followed her there. Catrina ignored Kaia’s protests and opened the door.

“Calm down. I think I know who it was that followed you,” she assured Kaia as she stepped out into the cool, night air. The Chosen shuddered as she left the sanctuary of the church behind. The streets were devoid of activity.

The two made a cautionary sweep of the area, Kaia taking extra care to peer into the shadows. Something moved. They halted, holding their breath. A man in a black military uniform stepped into the pool of light beneath a lamp post. The Tueor insignia was unmistakable even from afar. Kaia’s heart nearly skipped a beat as she took in the man’s indigo hair and startling gray eyes.

“Reeze?” she breathed.

He was just as unreadable now as he was five years ago as he glanced at her. A moment of emotion — Relief? Joy? A mixture of both? — crossed his features for a fleeting second. He stayed rooted to his spot as both women made their way over to him. They stopped a few feet away.

“You found her,” Reeze said.

Catrina shook her head. “No, she found me.”

Kaia tensed. “What’s going on?”

“We’ve been looking for you nearly nonstop for five years. Reeze has been keeping an eye on the Tueors from the inside this entire time,” Catrina said gently.

“She’s not a little girl anymore, Catrina. She’s an adult now.” Reeze crossed the distance, towering over Kaia. “You left us for five years. Five years. Do you understand the consequences of your actions?”

Kaia held her ground under his penetrating stare. There was something that only she could hear in his voice — an urgency. They both kept perfectly still as she searched for an answer.

“The war, right? Because I was a child and couldn’t stand doing something that I didn’t choose. Am I right?”

“That’s what some are saying. You said it yourself, too. Did you really think that your little tale of a quest would stay within an orphanage for long?”

Kaia bit her lip and glanced away.

“More Tueors are planning to come into the city to look into the ‘Catrina’ at the bar. You two should leave as soon as possible. I’ll do what I can to stall them. Are you sure you’re ready for this?”

The Chosen gave a curt nod. “More than ever.”

“Things are different now, very different,” Catrina whispered, looking behind her. She shivered as another gust of wind swept through the area.

“I know,” Kaia said softly, “I was in Cunevo.”

Catrina’s eyes widened. “Cunevo? That village was decimated when the Tueors went through!”

“I managed to escape before they arrived. A handful of us were smart enough to leave.”

Reeze studied her carefully for a moment before slowly walking backwards. “Just be careful. There are people looking everywhere for both of you, and Kaia?” She looked up to see him extract something from his pocket and toss it in her direction. “Say hi to Derek for me.” Kaia caught the object — it was her old charm bracelet that she had thought she lost. The charms actually contained the powers and essence of the gods. Owning a charm meant owning the life of a god in your hands. Only one of the charms on her bracelet was in fact a real, ordinary charm: an amber shooting star given to her by Shawn, another Tueor soldier she had befriended during her imprisonment in Orlioz.

Kaia looked up to thank him, but Reeze had disappeared. Catrina led her down the streets, keeping close to the shadows, as they made their way to the forest that skirted the city. The welcome sanctuary of the woods provided an instant relief to both of them.

“Where’s our first stop?” Kaia asked as tension dissipated from her body. She hadn’t realized how tense she had gotten from hiding behind another identity.

“Aquabella. We need to give a certain merman Reeze’s message, remember?”

The Chosen smiled and ran her hand over her bracelet. She hadn’t realized how much she had missed it being on her wrist. It had always felt bare there and she had worn a watch for a while, but it still didn’t feel right. Seeing and feeling the bracelet was right. She welcomed it. Kaia took a deep breath, inhaling the strong smell of early spring. This time she wasn’t going to run away.

Chapter Two

The pristine lake of Aquabella was hidden deep within the forests between Winlim and Catrina’s tiny mountain village, Raccolta. Trees grew to the waterline along some spots and there were gentle slopes that led up to the water in others. One line of the lake had a stretch of sand-like dirt and it was there that Kaia had always come and gone.

It had been a nerve wracking journey, to say the least. Once they left the boundaries of Winlim, Tueor scouts were everywhere scouring the woods. They had changed out of their disguises and walked as quietly as they could, hopping over twigs and brambles so that they wouldn’t make a sound. There were a couple of instances where they were nearly caught, but managed to escape by sheer luck, or as Kaia suspected, Catrina’s father. The closer they got to Aquabella, the number of scouts thinned allowing them to get some real rest during their nearly two week journey.

“Why aren’t there any scouts around here?” Kaia looked warily around.

“The merfolk are against the Tueors being around here. Of course Queen Ewelina will respect their wishes and do as they ask because she wants them on her side,” Catrina muttered as she took a long sip of water from a stream.

The Chosen took in her surroundings and recognized the area. They were only a few feet now from the hill that would lead them down to the beach of the lake. “Regardless, shouldn’t we be more careful?”

The demigoddess shrugged as she straightened up. She pushed past Kaia, nearly running the entire way to the lining of bushes. She parted them with fervor, her eyes glowing at the sight of the lake. Without warning Catrina bounded down, launching herself at the dirt. Kaia took her time, not in any real hurry to get there.

You don’t need to doubt the security you feel here. It’s not false, a voice whispered in Kaia’s head as she glanced down the hill to see her friend stretched out, basking in the sun. The voice had plagued her on her journey five years ago, constantly coming and going as it pleased. When she had disappeared, nobody, not even the voice, was able to reach her. Much to her disappointment, it had found her the moment she began to seek out her friends.

She made her way down the hill with a small skip in her step. The sunlight hit her face, uninterrupted by the thick foliage of the forest canopy. Kaia stayed there a moment, enjoying the warmth of the rays mixed with the slight coolness of the gentle wind. Her mind begged her to just stay right there and rest. She felt dirty and gritty and longed to bathe in the lake, but wasn’t exactly sure how well the merfolk would like that. Sighing, she dragged herself over to the water. The demigoddess hadn’t moved from her spot.

“Aren’t you coming?”

Catrina looked up and propped herself up on her elbows. “I can’t.” Her voice was soft. “I’m sure the merfolk are delighted I put my life on the line for their princess and Derek, but the truth is everyone knows what I am. They won’t let me down; I’m not wanted.”

Kaia looked away, remembering the deep hatred the merfolk had for demigods. Their memory of the Second Great War was as fresh as if it had happened just yesterday. Derek himself hated demigods with a raw passion, having witnessed his own parents being murdered by them years ago, but he had a certain fondness for Catrina that he couldn’t hide despite his best efforts.

She began moving into the lake at a snail’s pace. Once she was knee-deep, two members of the royal guard made themselves known and placed themselves in her way. They were imposing men with toned muscles and steely glares. Their helmets were of an unknown metal, intricately carved with swirls and shells, coming to a point that resembled the prongs of their tridents. Their skin seamlessly changed to scale-like around the edges of their face, neck, and shoulders. Their fin-like ears were hidden beneath their helmets.

“What is your business at the Lake of Lynn?” they asked simultaneously.

“I’d like to see Derek, please,” Kaia answered.

One of the guards sneered. “That’s Prince Derek to you. Only family members call him Derek.”

“Then I’d like to see Prince Derek, please.”

“Prince Derek does not see people without an appointment. Do you have an appointment madam?”

“Well, no—”

The first guard leered at her, “Then you have wasted your time. Good day!” He began to turn, but the second guard stopped him.

“Wait a second! I think I recognize this one. I think the Princess allowed this one down before.” The second guard looked her over more closely and spotted the red mark on her forehead she had been born with. “Of course! I recognize that mark on your forehead! We were told you’re allowed down whenever you want. Come on then.” He raised his hands and the water began to part, but the first guard stopped him, causing the water to snap back together like magnets.

“Wait. What about that one on the beach? Wasn’t she allowed down before, but not anymore? She’s that Number, right?” He peered at Kaia. “Are you a Number?”

Kaia shook her head as both mermen studied her.

“For your sake, you better not be lying,” the second guard said as he raised his arms once again to part the waters. Kaia took one last look at Catrina, waved, and began her journey down into the lake. The water began to cascade over and around her the deeper she walked down, boxing her into a safe air bubble of sorts. The journey reminded her of the first time she arrived in Aquabella, with Princess Recla creating the same box for her, Catrina, and Reeze. A small quiver of excitement ran down her spine. It was thrilling to see an old friend again. How much had they both changed? Would he be too different? Would he turn her away? Her thoughts tumbled around, over and over, as she pushed the voice’s assurances away.

Nothing hindered the group as they steadily made their way to the lake bottom. The waters were more abundant with fish and Kaia noted a few of the water demons Catrina was so worried about running into years ago. They watched the odd group’s progression from their hiding spots, but didn’t dare deter them. The tallest tower of the palace, a white spire jutting out from the center of the lake, lit their way like a lighthouse the deeper they traveled.

Upon reaching the city, Kaia noted how little it had changed. Perhaps it was the merfolk’s longevity that didn’t make them hustle to build a house in a three month time frame. The buildings were shinier than she remembered and she noted a few more carvings intricately engraved on some of the houses, but other than that, it appeared to be the same: pastel colored buildings squished together in tightly knitted communities surrounded the palace.

She was escorted through the palace doors among a myriad of people coming to see who the surface dweller was. The first guard left to control the crowd as the second guard stayed with her, ordering her which way to go as he concentrated on keeping the air bubble up for her.

Kaia found herself back in the throne room, a massive room with an equally massive throne. The walls of this room had always intrigued her: it was a vast mural that spanned the history of Aquabella. Kaia caught a glimpse of her first arrival in one of the newer paintings alongside a painting of a wedding. The King beamed at her as she walked in. He was far older than a century, though Kaia had never asked how much older, and he was still far more broad and muscular than any of the guards that were cast around the castle.

“It’s been a while since you’ve last visited, Chosen.”

She did her best curtsy. “It has. I’ve been told that Derek is now a prince.”

The King gave a deep chuckle. “It is strange to call him by such a title.” His eyes twinkled and he pointed his trident at her. “Orbis aerum.”

Lavender light enveloped her. It was a strange sensation, like thousands of bubbles popping in her stomach, leaving her body tingling all the way through her fingertips. She knew the spell well; it would allow her to breathe underwater so she could travel freely without having someone constantly following her around to ensure she could breathe.

The King waved the guard off. He gratefully bowed and left, dropping his tired arms. Water swelled around Kaia, popping her ears. Though she knew the water would crash down upon her, it still gave her a bit of a scare until she took her first breath. The King leaned forward, looking around to ensure that the two of them were indeed alone and said, “Between you and I, I think it’s fine if you call Prince Derek simply Derek. The title of prince doesn’t suit him at all. I had hoped he would grow into it, but instead he has resisted it, though he does as he is told and that’s all I had ever wished for him to do.” He leaned back. “Much has changed within the last five years, especially the surface. I’ve been trying to stay out of the surface dwellers’ affairs, but I fear that I might have to interfere soon. Soldiers are getting too close to our waters and disregarding the ocean! How have you fared these last five years?” he sighed.

“As best I can.”

He nodded, turned, and waved an attendant over. They spoke amongst themselves, allowing Kaia time to wander over to the mural and take a closer look at the newer paintings.

“How was the wedding?” Kaia asked as the attendant left.

“Beautiful. Recla insisted on a winter wedding on the surface, though I didn’t and still don’t understand. It’s so cold in the winter; the waters are much warmer.” He rubbed his forehead. “Though I fear that there’s trouble in their marriage. I knew that there would be, but I was hoping that they would sort it out themselves.”

“I never knew my father-in-law to be one who gossiped,” Derek said lightly as he came into the room. He gave the King a warning look and turned to Kaia, a bright smile plastered on his face. “Kaia! It’s been such a long time!” The merman opened his arms and Kaia gave him a warm embrace.

She pulled away and took a few steps back, looking him over. “You’ve hardly changed at all,” she proclaimed exasperated.

Derek gave a low chuckle and led her out of the room. “Well, you know us. We merfolk age considerably slower than humans. If I’m lucky I probably aged about a year since we last saw one another, but hey! Look at you! You’ve grown!”

Kaia gave him a small smile and checked his body for any visible marks of where Shawn had stabbed him before. She noted a faint scar on his side, near his ribs, but other than that Derek looked like Derek.

They walked in silence for a while. “Reeze says hi,” she blurted out.

He raised an eyebrow. “You’ve been in contact with Reeze?”

“Just recently. He didn’t say much, but told me to pass along that message to you.”

He shook his head and led them out onto a balcony. “Reeze never says much.” Derek leaned against the cool railing and peered down. Kaia looked down as well, catching a glimpse of the royal gardens. She preferred to view the gardens from above rather than ground level where one found out that it’s really just overgrown weeds that the merfolk love to eat. From an aerial perspective though, the place looked like an enchanted treasure trove just waiting to be rediscovered.

“How’s Cat?” Derek asked, his voice barely above a whisper. He stared somberly down at the gardens.

“She’s doing fine. We’re traveling together actually.”

He perked up and looked back out in the hall as if Catrina would appear. “Really? Where is she?”

“Waiting for me on the beach.”

Derek slumped. “So you’re not staying for a few days?” He ran a hand through his hair. “This is about the item, isn’t it?” Kaia nodded. There was a sudden seriousness in his eyes that Kaia had only seen on occasion. “I want to help you, but a lot has changed. Now that I’m Prince Derek, they’re keeping me on a tight leash. I can’t do certain things like travel around with you, otherwise the press might think I’m cheating on Recla.”

Are you cheating on Recla?” she asked seriously, remembering his vampire lover, Renee.

“No! I would never!”

Kaia eyed him warily. “How’s Renee?”

He gave her a grim look. “I don’t know. Haven’t seen her since you left and she was in bad shape then. Lost an arm, I believe. I’m not sure if they were able to put it back on her.” Derek buried his head in his hands. “Cat was at my wedding,” he blurted out.

“You invited her?”

“No, she came on her own. She said it was for support or something. I don’t know. I thought it was pretty stupid, even though she was disguised. I mean, the entire world was looking for her after that little stunt she pulled at the start of the Numbers program and there she was, in the crowd of my wedding, on live international television.  She might be brilliant, but she can be pretty stupid.”

Kaia gave a small smile. “I heard about that incident. She defied being branded for being a demigod, right?”

Derek’s face brightened. “Yeah. She caused a small quake. It wasn’t anything major, just a small little shake to knock the guy who was going to brand her and inject her with the tracker off balance. Then she made her speech about how all demigods should be treated as equals considering that they are the children of the gods. The first thing that we need to do is put our issues of the Second Great War behind us, at least that’s what she said.” He looked out across the lake. “Maybe she’s right.”

“Maybe,” she softly agreed.

“I wish I could be of more help, but I can’t. They won’t let—”

“Don’t say that we won’t let you do something when you haven’t even asked,” a female voice said. They both turned and saw Recla make their way toward them. She still held herself proudly and frowned at her husband. She turned to Kaia with a cordial nod of the head. “Chosen, it’s a pleasure to see you again.” Her smile was genuine and she gave Kaia a chaste embrace before turning her attention back toward Derek. “Now what is it that we won’t let you do?”

He muttered something unintelligible and stared at the floor with scorn.

“What was that?”

“I said, ‘You won’t let me go with Kaia to help her on her quest,’” he nearly shouted.

Recla shook her head and sighed. “You’re still very childlike. Of course we’ll let you go. We just need time to work out the details, if you wouldn’t mind waiting for a while as we wor—”

“Catrina is with her.”

Recla hesitated. She recomposed herself and gave him a warm smile. “Of course she is. Chosen, when you rejoin with Catrina, I’ll ensure that Derek arrives. There’s a village on our eastern shore that I’m sure will welcome you.” She entwined her arm around Derek’s. “Come along dear,” she said, her voice forcefully sweet, “we have much to discuss.”

The Princess turned, gave Kaia one last wave and led Derek down the hallway.

I was worried for a moment, the voice said as it slipped into her mind.

The Chosen watched the two swim off, talking heatedly amongst each other. I was, too.

She turned and began her way back to the throne room, taking her time as she tried to remember all the turns. It would’ve been easier to just swim out the windows and head back to the front doors to allow the guards to lead her back, but there was a sort of challenge in retracing one’s steps. She told herself she was doing it for the challenge, but the truth was she was doing it to exercise her memory capabilities. Her memories were always blurry. Major events that had happened to her were difficult for her to remember; things always seemed fuzzy and she had a hard time recalling conversations she may have had just the day before. It hadn’t always been like that, but as she got older, her memories began to scatter like dust in the wind at a rapid pace; it was disconcerting.

Just as Kaia rounded a corner, she noticed something moving from the corner of her eye. A door cracked open and she noticed a hand beckoning her over. She grabbed the Tiruv from out of her hair; it was a weapon that had been given to her by Ryder and had once belonged to Shanti, her grandmother and Zinc’s previous savior. Pointing it at the door, Kaia crept into the darkened room. Light from the hallway illuminated the room a smidgen. It took a few moments for her eyes to readjust to the dark and she found herself looking at a nobleman sitting casually in a chair. He looked familiar, but she couldn’t quite place him until the voice conjured up a sharp memory: Avion Atwell. He was Derek’s best friend and, if the memory that the voice provided her was accurate, he hated demigods more than anything else.

“You look well,” Kaia said, glancing over him. She vaguely recalled him nearly dying for her.

Avion regarded her. “You look well yourself.”

“I see you trimmed your hair. It looks better that way.” Her eyes took his body in, trying to find any major differences between the Avion before her and the Avion from her memories. Well, the image of Avion that the voice provided for her. There was a scar on his chest close to his heart. She scrunched her face in contemplation. “Is . . . that?”

His fingers grazed the scar. “Yes. Derek managed to forgive me for having you escape. He said he never took your stubbornness into account with anything and that it wasn’t my fault.”

“So stop blaming yourself.”

“Losing Derek as a friend was my fault. Not keeping you safe . . . It might not have been my fault, but it was my duty and I failed him there.”

“You did your best Avion. I’m glad to see that you’re doing well.” She turned to leave.

“But was it enough? Was it enough to amend all my wrongdoings?”

“It’s not my place to say.”

Avion looked weary and he ran a hand down his face. “I’ve hurt him more times than I can count. Now he’s a prince and further away from me than ever. How do I apologize? Where do I even start?!” He looked up at Kaia, silently pleading for an answer.

She was silent for a moment as she met his gaze. “You’ve made a fine start, Avion.”

“You really think so?”

“Of course. Just try not to take any more arrows for anyone, okay?”

A small smile crossed his face. “I’ll try not to.” The Chosen returned the smile and turned to leave, but Avion stopped her. “Chosen?”

“Yes?”

“Stay safe.”

“You too.”

“Tell the Number that I’m sorry for my behavior when we first met. I never got to apologize,” he said in a rush.

Kaia nodded. “I will. Goodbye, Avion.” She silently shut the door, enclosing the nobleman in complete darkness once again.

* * *

The King insisted that Kaia at least eat and sleep at the castle before making the tiring journey back up the lake. She tried to get out of it — she did remember the merfolk’s delicacy consisting of weeds with a strong, pungent flavor and mystery meat that was slimy and chewy — but the promise of a bed and her own gnawing hunger convinced the King to force her to stay. So she stayed. The supper had, as she had initially guessed, disappointed her, but being able to sleep with no worries of Tueor scouts finding her in the middle of the night was a welcome relief. The moment her head hit her pillow, she was unconscious.

After what the King called a hearty breakfast, the two guards that had led her down, guided her back up. People were on high alert with her safety after the first experience with the whale-ish ice creature (she barely remembered it) but luckily nothing impeded the journey back to the surface.

Catrina was awaiting her, fresh from a bath. A welcoming fire blazed bringing warmth to the cool morning. There were a couple of fish roasting on a stick; the scent of food consumable by humans caused Kaia’s stomach to growl and her mouth to water. The demigoddess gave a friendly wave to the guards whom ignored her and curtly disappeared.

“They’re friendly,” Catrina muttered as Kaia arrived.

The Chosen gave a little laugh. “Yeah, they kinda grow on you. Are both of those for you?”

Catrina grabbed a stick and handed it to Kaia. “Go crazy. I remembered that the food was atrocious and thought you might be hungry. The merfolk were kind enough, at least, to allow me to do some fishing and bathe.”

The smell of the roasted meat was too much for Kaia. Her stomach gave another hungry lurch and she bit into the meat, burning her tongue in the process. “Avion wishes to apologize for his initial behavior around you,” Kaia managed to say as she fanned her tongue.

“You talked with Avion? I thought you were talking to Fishboy.”

“I did talk to him. And try not to call him that anymore,” the Chosen chastised as she took another bite of the cooler fish, “The merfolk will get offended.”

“They’re already offended with me.”

“Regardless, try to refrain yourself.”

Catrina frowned and retrieved her fish from the fire. She fanned it, allowing it to cool off before taking a dainty bite. Kaia took another bite and glanced in the eastern direction. “Recla told me that there’s a village on the eastern shore. She said we should go there and wait for Derek.”

The demigoddess frowned. “It’s a long trek that way. About five days. We need to leave now.”

They hurried through their meal and set off.

* * *

The minute village of Caselotti was such a speck it was hardly on the map. Most people weren’t even aware of its existence, but Catrina and Kaia managed to find it once they scoured the entire eastern lining of Aquabella. It was well past nightfall when they arrived. They took in the few houses that were scattered about, none of which were alight with electricity, but rather lanterns. The demigoddess looked horrified at the thought of staying in a place that was so primitive, but Kaia having lived the majority of her life in such a way and too exhausted from their trip, walked into the village in search of a place to rest her feet.

A group of people were sitting near a large bonfire that was situated in the center of the haphazard village. Adolescents were before a group performing a play. They had stopped mid-performance once they spotted the newcomers. The adults turned and welcomed the two graciously, planted them in the front row, and urged the children to continue.

The performers were in billowing robes saturated with symbols of the gods and their faces were adorned with equally elaborate masks. There had just been a huge mock battle and some of the children were lying on the ground with red silk scarfs around their necks. There were a few still standing, looking down at the fallen performers. Blue paper streamed from their eyes on their masks. One group of three stood slightly afar watching over the mourners. They stood so close together, it appeared that they were trying to merge into one being.

One of the fallen performers ripped off his scarf and swapped his current mask with a slightly different one and added himself to the collection of standing gods. The standing gods began to rip off the blue paper as one fallen performer after another began to rise, ripping off their scarves and swapping their masks. With a loud shriek, two girls from the trio broke away and turned their robes, which was full of time references, inside out to reveal simplistic black and white robes with gold trim. One of the girls swapped her golden mask for a black one, the other a white one. They moved slightly further away from the others and stood back to back. The other actor from the original trio — a boy — took a few steps and stood in front of the others, allowing the blaze of the fire to illuminate him fully. There was a dramatic pause and then someone began banging on bongos to signal the end.

The crowd applauded and the performers took their bows. Kaia studied the performer whom had stood in front of his peers. He was adorned with clock references. Something about the play plagued her mind, but the voice assured her that there was nothing to worry about.

“We don’t get many visitors. What brings you two to our fair village?” a giant man asked. His voice rumbled like a lion’s growl.  He was large, standing at about seven feet tall and nearly as broad as a mature oak tree. His dirty blond hair was untamed, flying around him like a mane. His beard was full, his hands calloused and the size of frying pans. His hat was most unusual, bright red, narrow brimmed, tall, conical, flat at the top, and was adorned with a black and gold buckle.

Catrina took a glance at him, wary of his appearance. “We’re waiting on a friend. Interesting play.”

The man’s beady eyes twinkled. “Did you like it? My wife wrote it. It’s all about the First Great War and the different gods that were spawned from it.”

“Could you tell me more about the trio of gods?” Kaia asked.

The man watched the child actors race to their parents. “It’s a forgotten story that not a lot of people are in touch with anymore. I don’t know much about the details nor does my wife, but the main thing is Cristos, Maura, and Etal were once part of a triad. There were a few other triads, but they were killed during the First Great War or simply separated from one another.”

“Why did they separate?” Kaia pressed.

The man shrugged. “I’m not sure why some gods ended up separating from their triad. Nor do I know why the Golden Gods separated from one another. Any other questions?”

“Where can we sleep?” Catrina asked as she stifled a yawn.

He pointed over to a house that was slightly larger than the other houses in the area. “My wife and I would be more than happy to have you as our honored guests. Come, come!”

They were pushed along to the home. He burst open the door and shoved the two in. The man went into the kitchen and clambered around, advising them to make themselves at home.

“So this friend of yours, are they from around here?” the man asked as he came in with some tea.

“Sort of,” Catrina answered curtly. She sat as far away from him, studying his hat and trying to place where she had seen it before.

He looked up as he served the tea. “Did you need me to lead you to their house?”

Kaia blew across her cup. “Oh, no. He doesn’t live in this village. He’s a merman who’s going to meet up with us here.” She sipped the drink.

The man stopped what he was doing. “Merman? You’re friends with the merfolk?”

Catrina’s eyes lit up with recognition as she looked at the hat. “Where’s your wife?” she asked. Her mouth hovered over her cup.

“She’ll be here any minute,” he answered slowly. His eyes began to turn a different color.

The demigoddess looked away from him, looking down at the floor instead. “Kaia, I think it’s time to go. We’ve overstayed our welcome.”

“We just got here. Are we any bother to you?” She turned toward their host, her eyes meeting his. In an instant, she became entranced, captivated by them.

“Stay as long as you want,” he whispered in a seductive tone. “You want to meet my wife, don’t you?”

She nodded sluggishly.  “Of course I want to meet your wife.” Her voice was slurred and slow as she leaned slightly forward.

“Take off that hat. It’s hot in here,” Catrina said as she stood up, keeping her eyes lowered to the floor.

The man turned his eyes upon her, standing up and towering over her. “This is my house. I can keep the hat on if I so wish. Don’t worry about the hat. Don’t even think about the—”

Catrina jumped, knocking it off and revealing a large fin-like protrusion emitting from his head. For a moment, the two stood there: the man staring at Catrina, willing her to look into his eyes and Catrina, staring at his feet. His eyes continued to change colors as he bent down and leaned in toward her, his nose nearly touching hers. She closed her eyes.

“You saw nothing,” he said slowly in a whisper. His breath smelled like rotting fish.

Catrina winced. “Encantado,” she seethed. “Your mind tricks won’t work on me. So let’s stop playing around and tell me what you’re doing here in this village.”

The encantado stood up. “My mind tricks might not work on you, but they seem to be working on your friend.” He pivoted toward Kaia. “Your friend wants to harm me. Me, who has taken you in and provided you with food and shelter. Protect me,” he pleaded.

Kaia stood up, unleashing the Tiruv. The encantado’s eyes lit with surprise and he took a step back as she unleashed a ball of energy without warning toward the demigoddess. Catrina let out a scream as she was slammed through a wall and landed onto the kitchen table.

She rolled over and coughed, shaking the dust and dry wall out of her hair. Kaia emerged into the kitchen, glowering at her friend.

“You should never harm the host,” Kaia seethed. She ran up, transforming the Tiruv into a sword and raised it, ready to strike.

The demigoddess rolled, fumbling for her pouch. She kicked Kaia’s legs out from beneath her, sending the Chosen to the ground. Running across the room, the demigoddess searched the contents of her pouch, aimlessly seeking for the right capsule. It didn’t take long for Kaia to get back up. Once she locked onto Catrina, she transformed the Tiruv back to its original form and shot off another energy blast from the Tiruv, but the demigoddess had anticipated the attack and launched herself out of the way at the last moment. She pressed the button on the capsule and threw it into the air just as it expanded. Kaia paid no heed to the compartment that had materialized; she threw herself at Catrina, but Catrina had much more experience with hand-to-hand combat and pinned the Chosen down. The demigoddess knocked the Tiruv out her friend’s hands and hurled herself at the compartment. She didn’t want to harm Kaia in any way and feared that what she had done already would leave marks or bruises on her friend.

The one thing Catrina prayed would work was getting rid of the encantado. They were fresh water creatures that could transform into a human at night (with the exception of its fin, hence the reason they wore the red hats), but never would she have guessed that there would be one so close to a merfolk community. Most of the water demons that did reside nearby a community were usually weaker beings that enjoyed the safety and protection that the merfolk gave to those who were loyal to them. She didn’t know much about encantados as they preferred to keep to themselves and rarely associated with people. Meeting one in a village was the furthest thing in her mind.

Kaia heaved herself up and retrieved the Tiruv only to slam it into her friend’s back once Catrina turned to open the container. Her breath escaped her as she collapsed, her hands on the compartment. With all the strength Catrina could muster, she swept her leg up and kicked the Tiruv out of Kaia’s hands and lifted herself up. Her eyes locked onto her daggers within the open container and she grabbed them, twirling them once before setting her sights on the encantado.

“Messing with my friend was a bad mistake.” Catrina flung herself toward the demon.

Focusing all her attention on the creature, she had forgotten about Kaia’s orders momentarily and was caught by surprise when her friend threw her body into Catrina. The demigoddess let out a piercing scream as one of her own daggers lodged itself into her palm. The demon sneered as he stepped on her other palm, but Catrina refused to let him hear her cry out in pain again. She looked up at him as high as she dared, avoiding his ever changing colored eyes and spat on his foot.

“You’ll regret that,” he muttered.

The front door burst open and a thick stake of ice was thrust into the encantado without question. “You’ll regret causing her pain,” Derek growled. “Before you die, tell me what you’re doing here.”

The water demon gave a deep chuckle. “Dead men tell no secrets,” he whispered before slumping over.

Kaia’s body swayed for a moment before collapsing onto the demigoddess. Catrina winced and gave Derek a weak smile. “It’s good to see you,” she murmured.

Derek took her form in and sucked in a large breath the moment his eyes spotted the dagger pierced through her palm. “Never a dull moment with Kaia, is it?” He strained to keep his tone lighthearted and forced a smile.

She stretched to take a peek at the subconscious body on top of her. “This is the most action I’ve had in five years.”

Derek shook his head and took her hand turning it slightly to see the damage. She winced. “I felt better when you were in a church.”

“Well, I felt better when you weren’t married.”

His fingers grazed her palm. “Guess we can’t have everything.” He gripped the dagger’s hilt firmly and held her injured hand with his other. “Sorry,” he whispered. He pulled quickly as the house became saturated with her screams.

Chapter Three

There was a bustle that came from afar, or perhaps it wasn’t nearly as far away as Kaia had initially thought. She concentrated on the sounds. There were a few people talking in hushed whispers but she wasn’t able to make out what the conversation was about, or how many people there were. Her head pounded and certain parts of her body ached, but she couldn’t remember what she had done.

Kaia opened her eyes and looked around. The barren room wasn’t familiar to her, nothing but the bed she was lying on furnished it. The blanket that covered her was thin and moth eaten. She cast it off and firmly planted her feet on the ground which caused her legs to throb with a dull pain. Taking in a deep breath, she stood up and walked to the door keeping a slow and steady pace.

The door opened and Derek leaned against the doorway frowning at her. “You should be resting more.”

“When did you get here? Where are we?”

Derek shook his head and placed her firmly back in bed. “I’ve been here since that first night you arrived at Caselotti. An encantado controlled your mind and ordered you to kill Cat. We’re still in his house.”

The blood drained from Kaia’s face and she gripped the sheets beneath her. “An encantado?”

“Terrible water demons. They have ocular mind control powers, so once they’ve made eye contact with you, you become their slave. There’s nothing that can set you free with the exception of killing it or hoping they’ll release you.”

Kaia hid her face behind her hands. “I can’t believe that I was forced to . . . Is she okay?”

“The only major wound she received was in her palm. She’s doing fine, but I’m more worried about you. She’s healing up nicely, but you aren’t.” He lifted her skirt slightly to reveal a large bruise mid-shin.

“Was it the encantado that caused that?”

Derek smirked and shook his head. “Did you really think that Cat was just going to allow you to kill her?”

“No.” She rubbed her arms. “How long have I been out?”

“About a day.”

“Who’s downstairs?” she asked as he turned to leave.

“Other merfolk. The encantado’s appearance caused a bit of an alert.”

“Why?”

“They’re not supposed to be around here and we’ve heard rumors that they might be aligning with our enemy, the vodianoi.” He gave her a reassuring smile, “Don’t trouble yourself with our affairs. Just concentrate on collecting the items before the Tueors can, okay? We’re lucky that Catrina didn’t use her powers and alarm the villagers though.” He patted her on her head and left.

You’re actually going to listen to him? You’re not going to sneak down and see what they’re talking about to see if he was telling the truth?

She shook her head. No need to yet. Have patience; we’ll find out in due time, but right now our fight is with the Tueors. I need to regain my strength.

Fine, but you know nothing about the true meaning of patience.

Kaia frowned and asked what the voice meant, but it had left as silently as it had come.

* * *

They stayed in Caselotti for a few more days. Catrina never let her daggers leave her side and her hand stayed wrapped up in a bandage. Every time she smiled at Kaia, Kaia was filled with guilt. She had only received bruises, but Catrina was the one who had been marred.

Derek led the girls southwest, often taking them in large circles to keep them away from scouts and whatever else the Tueors had set loose in the forest. They had only heard rumors of the forest demons that the Tueors had supposedly let loose, but nobody could confirm with one hundred percent accuracy because there never seemed to be any survivors. They stopped a few times to rest and only started a fire during the twilight hours, when they would cook as fast as they could and extinguish the flames the moment they were done.

The nights were beginning to warm up and they no longer needed to depend on the warmth that the fires would bring. The three took shifts to watch out for any Tueor scouts; last time, Kaia hadn’t been allowed to take a shift — Reeze wouldn’t allow it — but she refused to let her friends barely get any sleep while she slept the night away. The others had conceded to her decision after seeing how adamant she was on the matter.

“Where are we going exactly?” Catrina finally asked. They had been on the road for over a week and it had been the first time that either of them questioned where Derek was taking them. She looked about the forest; the trees were becoming sparser in the area.

“Pays de Sang,” he answered with a jovial smile and gave a short, nervous laugh. The Prince began to pick up his pace, but Catrina was faster and grabbed his collar. She pulled him back, nearly knocking him off balance. “Hey! You’re messing with a Dauphin. Watch it or my public will harass you.”

“They already harass me, your Highness,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “Now what’s this about heading to Blood Country? Shouldn’t you have discussed this with us before leading us down to become vampire food?”

“Listen, the situation is under control. I’m the Dauphin.”

“More like a lost dolphin trying to find his pod, to me,” Catrina muttered as she let him go.

Derek fixed his shirt and glared at her. Without another word he continued along his path with Kaia following silently along. Catrina grimaced but nonetheless, trailed after the two. Kaia gripped the Tiruv tighter, her eyes flicking hither and thither. She remembered the two vampires she had met before and though both of them turned out to be rather friendly, there was a deadly quality about them.

The three continued to travel in silence, their pace much slower than before. A loud crack resonated through the forest and Kaia looked down at the broken twig beneath her foot. They stood, paralyzed in their spots for two beats, before a gust of wind swept through the area. Three vampires stood before them, analyzing them. They were unlike Renee and Celeste, the two vampires Kaia had met previously. The three before them exuded predator and Kaia had to plant her feet to the ground to prevent her instinct to flee. She took a glance at Catrina whom had become rigid on the spot.

The leader of the trio of vampires was a proud man with an angular face. He smoothed his dark blue tailcoat, adjusted his cravat, and gazed down upon them.

“Well, well, this isn’t something that comes along our forest every day, a merman and two human women. You do realize that by the Prowler Act you are free for us to feast upon.” His French accent was smooth like velvet.

Derek took a step forward. The Chosen stayed close to him, aiming the Tiruv at the group before her. Catrina continued to stay rooted to her spot, her hands on her daggers, but incapable of moving. Her eyes shifted from vampire to vampire, her breathing became shallower and for an instant, Kaia feared that the demigoddess was going to flee.

“Look, we’re not food. I’m here to see Louis,” Derek said.

The vampires laughed. It sounded like the flapping wings of crows, sending shivers down Kaia’s spine.

“You can’t just come to our country and expect to meet with Louis-Charles. Louis-Charles has to meet with you,” the leader said. His voice dripped with venom and he took a step forward.

Derek stood his ground. “I don’t think you know who you’re dealing with. I’m the Dauphin of the merfolk and friends with Renee and Celeste.”

The vampire looked him over. “Ah, so you’re the fish lover of Renee’s. I’ll be sure to tell her that you won’t be seeing her anymore.” He let out a fierce growl and pounced. Kaia placed herself in front of Derek, ready to unleash a blast of energy at the man, but before she could do anything, another gust of wind blew across the area and the vampire landed with a crash.

A skinny blonde vampire was atop him, baring her teeth. “You shall not do harm upon our friends!”

“Celeste, please get off Etienne,” Renee said as she slithered her way toward Derek. Kaia sighed with relief at the sight of the two. Renee was gorgeous with flowing red hair against her pale skin. She was more regal than before in her form fitting Victorian-esque dress and much to the easement of Kaia’s mind, the vampire before her was all in one piece.

Etienne stood up the moment Celeste got up and brushed his clothes off. He shook with fury at the sight of dirt on his white breeches, pivoted, and ushered the two vampires whom had arrived with him to leave. They heard him mutter, “He only gets special privileges just because he’s your lover.”

Renee narrowed her eyes at him and shook her head. “I apologize for Etienne’s behavior. We’ve all been a little hungry with the shortage of food.” Her French accent was thicker than Kaia recalled. “Derek, it’s good to see you. How have you fared?”

“I’ve fared . . . quite a bit better,” he admitted as he took a deep breath and exhaled. He turned to Catrina and placed a gentle hand upon her shoulder. She shook at the slight touch and hobbled over to him as he began to pull her close. “The bad vampires are gone now,” he said softly in her ear.

Celeste bounded up toward the two and gave Catrina a warm embrace. “Only us good vampires are left!” she said with a bright smile.

“I don’t think that’s the best thing to do right now, Celeste,” Kaia chastised as she observed her friend’s paling face.

The vampire immediately let go of the demigoddess. A small bit of color returned to the demigoddess’ cheeks. Renee gave Catrina a reassuring smile and scooped Derek up in her arms. “Come,” she said. “We’ll take you to the capital, Vivante.”

“Sorry!” Celeste apologized to Catrina as she scooped her up in her arms. Catrina let out a small shriek. “Hop on my back!” she ordered to Kaia. The Chosen clambered on, holding onto Celeste’s neck as tightly as possible.

They raced through the forests, everything blurring into one thing. Kaia shut her eyes. Everything was sweeping by so fast — too fast. A rush of nausea swept through her system, but she forced it away. And then, all too soon, Celeste made an abrupt stop. “We’re here!” she sang.

Kaia managed to open one eye and then slowly, the other. She blinked at the sight before her.

Vivante was a small sized city with only a few hundred residents, but it felt like one had been transported back to old-time France back in the late 1700’s. The entire city looked like a miniature version of Versailles, with select buildings having been recaptured and rebuilt. Petticoats and corsets were a standard in women’s fashion in this strange city of the past, while tights and powdered wigs were standard for men.

Few of the vampires that they passed upon their way to the Palace of Versailles eyed the group hopefully. One needed to be held back; her mate kept saying soothing things to keep her calm, but with fresh victims so near, her body kept shaking in anticipation as she continuously licked her lips. Celeste did her best to shoo the vampires away. Regardless, a parade of them still followed as they made their way down toward the gates of the replicated palace.

Renee and Celeste continued to go on, closing the gates on their people and led the three inside. It was the most exquisite palace Kaia had ever laid her eyes upon! Crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, gold paint was inlaid in every groove and crevice, and one large painting after another hung from the walls. The palaces of Orlioz and Aquabella paled in comparison to the exquisite Palace of Versailles. The wind blew, bringing with it the crisp scent of jasmine with a hint of carnations. Sweet, melancholic notes from a violin permeated through the building, sounding louder the closer they got to the Hall of Mirrors.

Kaia’s mouth almost hung open in shock at the sight of the Hall. The other rooms and halls had all been elegant and elaborate, but the Hall of Mirrors held a certain splendor all its own. The entire left wall was covered with arched mirrors and glass doors, replicating the arched windows they faced. They reflected the outside world, looking infinite. The white marble hall was adorned with bronze gilded embellishments and crystal chandeliers. Various paintings (Kaia counted thirty) adorned the ceiling. And there at the far end of the Hall, was a man sitting placidly, playing his violin.

“Charles,” Renee said her voice barely audible, “Prince Derek of the merfolk would like to speak with you.”

The man known as Louis-Charles looked up. He had a charming face with soft strawberry blond hair that curled and slightly framed his face. If it weren’t for his black eyes he would have looked like an angel. He put his violin down and began making his way down the vast hall.

“Have you come to ask for Renee’s hand in marriage, merman?” he asked softly with a small smile.

Derek chuckled. “No, your Highness—”

“Please. Louis or Charles will be just fine.”

“Louis, I’ve come here today to speak to you about alliances.”

Louis stopped in front of the group. He had a slender frame and looked breakable. He frowned.

“Alliances? I’m not so sure about that. We try to stay away from the affairs of the mortals.”

“Ewelina’s grip is tightening around all of us. I know we’re capable of dying, unlike you, but—”

Louis-Charles held a hand up. “Derek, we’re all capable of dying. Time just doesn’t kill us.” His eyes glanced behind him and took in both Kaia and Catrina. “It would appear that time stops for legends as well. It’s been a while since I last saw you, Shanti.” He took Kaia’s hand and kissed it.

The Chosen blushed and took a step back. “I’m sorry. You’re mistaking me for my grandmother. She died when I was ten.”

“Ah, I see. I heard she fled to Earth after her guardian perished. Such a shame to hear that she passed away. Did she have a good life?”

“Yes, I believe she did. What’s this about a guardian?” In all the stories she had ever heard about her grandmother, none of them involved any talk of a guardian. She had assumed that her grandmother was never given one as the priests seemed reluctant to allow Reeze to be her guardian at first.

“Her guardian followed her everywhere she went. Waited on her hand and foot I believe. He even worshipped her.

“I met her briefly before she ran off to do battle with Rayba. She was skittish at the time and kept mentioning that there was more to the Second Great War than what we thought, but she refused to let me know more. Said I’d live longer if I knew less of what was going on.”

“Why did she come to you?” she pressed.

“Sanctuary. There were a horde of creatures that were after her. I allowed her to stay within these walls so that she might get a good night’s sleep before the great battle. Shanti thanked me graciously and feared that she would never return. Of course, she was right and never did come back. Shortly after her guardian, Lemohoro, made the prophecy, she left and was never seen again on Zinc.”

“The prophecy guy was her guardian? Did he always tell prophesies?”

Louis was silent for a moment as he pondered. “No,” he said slowly, “I want to think that was the only time he ever made a prophesy. Shortly after, he died from severe injuries given to him by Rayba.”

“Was there really more to the Second Great War?”

Louis shrugged. “That, I’m not certain. I followed her advice and never looked into it.”

Of course there wasn’t anything more to the Second Great War. Demigods just went berserk,the voice huffed. Your grandmother was always paranoid.

Memories of her grandmother constantly looking behind her back flooded Kaia’s mind. She shook her head to clear the thoughts and stop the images.

Stop that, Kaia warned.

Stop what?

Constantly taking over my mind. My memories are mine, not yours to manipulate.

Who said I was manipulating? I’m merely providing. You’ve been suffering from such a terrible bout of memory loss lately that I have taken it upon myself to provide you the necessary memory. Think of me as your personal librarian.

The Chosen said nothing, instead turning her attention back to Derek and Louis. The two men were conversing to one another in low whispers, quietly enough so that no one else would hear. Louis-Charles looked stern and continued to glance at Kaia and Catrina from time to time. Renee led the two over to the windows and pointed at the gardens that were reflected in the mirrors. It was a hauntingly beautiful illusion to see oneself in the Hall and gardens at once.

As she was admiring the mirrors’ illusions, she noticed something shift near the hedges. Renee stiffened and placed herself between the windows and the two young women. Etienne came slinking out, his gaze never leaving Renee’s.

“What are you doing here, Etienne?” Renee called, her obsidian eyes narrowing. “You’re not supposed to be on palace grounds right now. Everyone was to stay outside.”

He gave her a charming smile and hopped up to the Hall in one graceful jump. “I am a noble of this court. I should be able to enter when I please.”

Louis-Charles gave a warning growl. “Etienne, when my sisters say that the palace is off limits, that means it is off limits to everyone. Including you. Why are you here, Etienne?”

Etienne glanced over at Louis as Celeste joined her sister to protect Kaia and Catrina. The demigoddess inched her way closer to Kaia; Kaia felt her friend shiver in fear and she held her hand in order to comfort her. The tension between the vampires was paralyzing. The Chosen wanted to run, to be as far away from the group as possible, but she had to stand strong for Catrina.

“I wanted to see if you were like your parents and wondered if you were enjoying a meal while the rest of your people are subjugated to starvation! What was it that your mother said before? ‘Let them eat cake?’”

“Leave my parents out of this. They have nothing to do with the matter at hand.”

“If you wanted to leave the past behind you, then why rebuild Versailles? Why torment yourself with ghosts of the past?”

“Etienne. I’m going to ask you one more time. Leave the palace grounds.”

Etienne gave a short laugh. “You claim to be the King of vampires, but the only qualification you have is being the last Dauphin of the French monarchy. You’re just as weak as your father,” he spat.

Louis-Charles growled and became a blur. Etienne disappeared and crashed into the gardens below with Louis-Charles on top of him. The two men were locked together as they wrestled one another.

“Charles!” Renee shrieked. She followed the two down, telling Celeste to stay with the three in the Hall.

“Should we help?” Kaia asked warily as she watched the fight.

Celeste shook her head. “It’s best not to do anything except allow the two to fight it out. Renee will ensure that no one gets harmed.”

Renee tried to pry her brother off the nobleman, but he refused to be taken away. The men began scratching and biting one another. Etienne became enraged at the sight of his tailcoat being torn and went for Louis-Charles’ throat, but the King punched the nobleman in the face. Just as he knelt down to tear a limb from Etienne, Renee managed to pry him off.

“That is not the sort of behavior a king should have!” she scolded.

He continued to glare at Etienne as Renee held him back. It took a while for the King to look away, though he was still fuming.

“I don’t ever want to see you again at this palace, Etienne!” Louis said.

Etienne slowly stood up and took off his coat. “You owe me a new coat.”

“I owe you nothing.”

The nobleman let out a low growl and disappeared. Renee straightened her brother’s appearance. “Was it wise to let him become your enemy, Charles?”

He sighed. “My dear sister, he has been my enemy since day one.” The King looked up and gave a wave to the others whom were peering out the window. With a graceful jump, he and Renee were back in the Hall.

“I’m sorry for that. With Queen Ewelina in power, things have been rather difficult. International laws dictate that all prisoners that are to be given a death sentence be turned to us, but she’s been taking them all to the guillotine instead — a death device I have never approved of. My people have gone hungry and I need a way to bring them food. If you can secure my people food, then yes, Prince Derek, I will ally with your people.”

Derek held out his hand. “Thank you, I’ll do the best that I can.”

Louis-Charles accepted it and smiled. “Stay and rest a while as my honored guests, I insist.”

The three thanked him graciously and began to leave to their rooms. Louis turned and returned to his violin. The eerie notes of Moonlight Sonata resonated through the air, leaving Kaia with a feeling of dread.

The Playlist

Below is a playlist of music that I created that I feel relates to The Number. Some deal with the book and the themes, others help set the mood for certain scenes, and some I selected way back when I was trying to figure out relationships between characters.

The Number from sheenah.freitas on 8tracks Radio.