Seven years later, a boy of eight woke up to the loud creaks of the front door. He laid quietly as the door shut again and listened to the clomping of boots stagger across the living room floor. The intruder slowly navigated through the dark, trying to avoid bumping into any of the furniture. They didn’t want to wake up anyone living there.
Riles Arias sat up in his bedroom and felt for the telecom on his nightstand. He slid his fingers along the forms of several Serenity Seeker figurines before finding the pen-shaped device beside a glass of water. He pressed the center button and waited for the 4×4 inch telescreen to appear, casting a ghostly glow in his otherwise dark room. Riles stared at his reflection as the screen loaded. His face was slender enough to fill the screen, while his bright blue eyes could’ve pierced it, as they had through the bangs of his unkempt black hair.
Two additional screens appeared beyond the edge of the telecom’s initial projection, but Riles ignored them. The center screen that revealed what time it was and he grimaced when he saw that it was past midnight.
Riles clicked off his telecom and stepped out of bed. His eyes adjusted to the dark, revealing a door and knob where there hadn’t been a minute ago. He slid his feet across the room, careful not to step on the minefield of Serenity Seeker figurines in mid-battle below. He would’ve hated to have stepped on one his friends.
He hesitated when he reached the door but decided to open it anyway. It slowly crept open, revealing the long, dark corridor that led to his parent’s bedroom and then the staircase down to the living room. As he slinked passed his parent’s bedroom, the thought of waking one of them up didn’t even occur to him. Father got up early to run his Tri-City Forest tours while his mother slurped down more wine than usual that evening. Waking her up would prove to be a near-impossible feat.
Riles caught a glimpse of their wedding photo from nine years ago. A small caption on the frame read “Raiden and Wessena Arias, 2430 G.A.” He was conceived that night, or so they told him. He wished they still smiled the way they did in this photo. They insisted that they did all the time, but Riles he wasn’t convinced. The only Arias that still smiled all the time was Grandpa, but compared to Grandpa everyone looked miserable, so he was hardly a fair comparison.
The figure in the living room sniffled, making Riles more curious than before. He left the photo and his parent’s door, reaching the stairs. They creaked under his lightweight, but the intruder didn’t notice. Halfway down the steps, Riles discovered that the intruder wasn’t an intruder at all.
Father had collapsed somewhere between the floor and the shaggy couch. His legs were crossed under his body while his face and hands dug into one of the seats. Hearing his father whimper gave Riles goosebumps. Raiden was never one to hide his emotions, but crying was foreign to him. He would’ve wanted Riles to go upstairs and back to bed, but Riles couldn’t leave him like this. Mother couldn’t help, and Grandpa taught him that sadness was never something one should deal with alone.
Riles walked down the rest of the stairs, only catching his father’s attention when Riles was close enough to see cuts and bruises on his arms. The tree orbs that emitted light into the room caressed Raiden’s face, where his lines of tears glistened like morning dew. The red in his eyes matched the scrapes on his shoulder and dried blood on his tunic. He reached for Riles’ face with his hands. Riles could smell the earth on his palms and dirt beneath his fingernails as if father come back from some midnight gardening, but gardening wouldn’t leave a blood stain on Raiden’s chest where he bore no wound.
Suddenly Raiden was holding him tighter than ever before. Riles hugged him back, but his father’s embrace didn’t bring him the warmth that it should’ve. Something was not as it was before.
“I’m sorry. I… I tried.” Raiden’s voice was barely a whisper.
Riles asked why he was sorry, Raiden only continued to cry.
Riles shivered, as the damp tears on his shoulder felt like ice. He started to regret waking up at all, but he couldn’t leave his father in such a state. He placed his hand on Raiden’s shoulders until his father winced, and then stared into the only eyes he’d ever seen that was as bright and as blue as his. “I’m gonna get you a new shirt and a washcloth.”
His father could only nod and bit his lip, fighting down more tears.
Riles went back up the stairs and tried to ignore what caused his father so much pain and where he got his injuries. None of them looked serious, aside from the bloodstain on his chest, but that was what worried him the most.
His mother slept like a rock in her bed. She was nothing more than a lump under the covers, and he knew that waking her wouldn’t help. Raiden needed someone that could take care of him, and she wasn’t in any condition to do it.
Riles grabbed the first shirt of Raiden’s that he could find in his closet, then went to the bathroom and soaked a washcloth in water and peroxide. He returned to the living room where Raiden was sitting up on the ground with his back against the couch.
Raiden struggled to take off his shirt without catching the material on his open wounds. Riles noted that his father was just as lean and slender as he was, thinking him a hypocrite for always telling Riles to eat more. Riles dropped father’s new shirt on his lap and draped the washcloth under the cuts on his shoulder. Father winced and bit down on his lip, but didn’t cry out in pain.
Raiden tried hard not to show Riles how much agony he was in. The scrapes were all new but wiped clean in just a few minutes, and Riles doubted that any of them would leave a scar. Father’s injuries were almost exclusively on his shoulders and forearms. His back had a tiny cut, but his chest was bare, only making the blood on his shirt more ominous.
Riles handed him a pair of pills he’d grabbed from his parent’s medicine cabinet. Mother frequently took them in the morning, so he knew that they helped with the pain. Raiden took them generously while Riles collected his dirty shirt and the stained washcloth. He turned and stood up, stopping when he noticed a pistol on the ground by the front door. He recognized the nozzle and design to be Serenity Seeker grade. It confirmed what he’d been worried about ever since breakfast that morning…
“I’ve got one from here, and from Barencos, Kalia, and Meniffa!” Riles exclaimed. He moved his plate to make room for his Serenity Seeker figurines.
“Riles, eat,” Wessena said, skillet in hand.
Grandpa let out a haughty, masculine laugh. He looked at Riles with the same love that he’d had for him ever since he was small enough to cradle in his giant, calloused hands. His size and personality cast a large shadow on Raiden, but Raiden loved and honored the man for it. Neither he nor Riles could’ve ever asked for a better role-model.
“Can I get you anything else, Galen?” Wessena asked.
“No, this is delicious,” Grandpa said, still watching Riles.
“I want to get a whole set!” Riles exclaimed. “I’m gonna get one from all twelve city-states!”
Grandpa chuckled, careful to keep his mouth closed so that he didn’t spit out his scrambled eggs. Riles swore that he saw a frown in the laughter, but that could’ve just been a reflection of Father’s expression. He looked as somber as Grandpa was jovial and ate his eggs in silence.
It only then occurred to Riles that he couldn’t remember the last time Grandpa had called in sick to work.
Father pulled Grandpa outside before Wessena could take their plates away and shut the door behind them. Riles scarfed down the last of his pancakes snuck into the living room. The front door was closed, but the living room window was open just a crack. Riles peeked through it, doing his best to conceal the rest of his face and hair was Wessena started cleaning the kitchen.
“Raiden, I don’t know how to say this.” The lines of time that long avoided Grandpa’s face made their engravings overnight.
“I wish you would, Dad,” Raiden said. “You’ve had a heavy heart since you came in today. Even Riles noticed!”
Grandpa placed his hand over his Seeker’s emblem, leaving nothing visible but the bases of the twin gunblades over his chest. Grandpa commanded a team of Serenity Seekers for six years. He led them into the darkest parts of the world to bring outlaws to justice. He fought rogue criminals and rabid creatures, and never once did his job cause him noticeable stress.
“Riles is in danger.”
“Riles? My Riles?”
“Shh!” Grandpa replied. Riles ducked before Grandpa cast his eyes on the front door. “Please, keep your voice down.”
An air shuttle whizzed by and made a turn into another residential neighborhood two blocks away. It was the first sign of people by their tree-house that day. Even the walkways were unusually quiet that morning.
Raiden lowered his voice. “How is Riles in danger? What’d he do? He’s barely eight years old.”
Riles peeked his head out the window again and watched Grandpa struggle for words. “A man named Rexus Poloray has been spending a lot of time in the desert settlement. He’s made a lot of the residents very nervous. They kept the secrets from him—the ones that only they know about. Last night he cornered the Conservator and demanded that she tell him where he could find out about Transcendence Theory.”
Raiden’s jaw fell to the floor.
“She refused, of course,” Grandpa paused. “And then he threatened Riles’ life. That’s when she contacted me. She gave up the first clue about its whereabouts, and now he’s on his way here.”
“He’s on his way here?”
“To Malysai,” Grandpa corrected. “The clue she gave him is here in this forest.”
Raiden was baffled, then frustrated. “Where?”
Grandpa didn’t say a word.
“Where in the forest?”
“You cannot come with me.”
“You cannot come into my home, tell me that my son’s life is in danger, and expect me not to do anything about it.”
“That’s exactly what I’m expecting of you,” Grandpa said. His tone switched from stern to solemn. “It’s a part of the forest where no civilians dare to go.”
“The District of Shadows,” Raiden muttered.
“I will be heading there before nightfall to take care of this. No one—not even the other Serenity Seekers—can know.”
“Why not? They can help apprehend him.”
“No,” Grandpa was shaking his head. “I have been a Seeker for a long time, but I haven’t forgotten my roots. There are things that you don’t know—that no one can know—about the Transcendence Theory. The promise I made to them is more important than my oath as a Seeker. No one can learn about the Transcendence Theory. Not even us.”
“Why are you telling me all of this if you don’t want me to go?” Hela was shining directly behind Grandpa and caused Raiden to squint when he looked at him.
“We never know how long we have in this world, Ray. Every time I go on a mission, I know full-well that it may be my last. I’ve been lucky so far, but there are exceptions for everyone. If this is my—”
“If I don’t make it home tonight… If something goes wrong and I fail to apprehend Rexus, I wanted to have one last meal with all of you. I wanted to be with my family one last time—you and your son, one last time. I… I… I cannot let circumstances divide this family again.”
Father looked like he’d just met his hero and discovered all their flaws. The window’s pale reflection revealed the same expression on Riles’ own face.
“You’re coming home for dinner,” Father insisted. “I’ll cook it myself. And tonight, after this is over, we’ll sit down as a family. We can eat and forget that today ever happened.”
“You’ll be back here tonight once it’s done. I’ll hear nothing else about these foolish exceptions of yours.”
Grandpa placed his hand on Raiden’s shoulder. The notion silenced him.
Father tried to say more, but Grandpa headed back down the wooden walkway between the trees and treehouses. Another air shuttle glided by, but Father didn’t notice it until the breeze from the wave of the wind it created hit him as it passed. Grandpa disappeared around the corner a moment later, and Riles left the window to avoid being seen.
Grandpa’s gunblade was on the ground by the front door. Riles didn’t know how long he was staring at it, or how long Father sat there watching him. There was only one reason why it was there, but its owner was not.
“I didn’t get to say goodbye,” Riles whimpered, too shocked to even shed a tear.
His words paralyzed Raiden. “…Neither did I.”
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