dreamstime_l_14923491

Raiden

Raiden let out a few steady breaths and wiped the layer of sweat that amassed between his palms and the steering wheel. The mist grew too thick to see through as it was exhaled through the trees that blocked his path. Their branches and leaves smacked his air shuttle and scraped along the glass with their untrimmed fingernails.

Without the shimmers from the forest lights, only the rays of Hela through the breaks in leaves guided his way. However, Hela was descending and soon the moon would claim the sky and give the mist a ghostly glow.

The twin red beams of his father’s breaklights gleamed through the layers of forest clouds. Raiden proceeded slowly as the beams sunk from twenty feet above the ground until the bottom rails of Father’s shuttle kissed a clearing of dirt. Raiden was relieved that the driving portion was over, but knew that once he stepped out of his vehicle he’d lose both his shield and his only means of escape. His rusty skills with a gunblade gave him little confidence, so Raiden’s only chances of surviving would be to become one with the forest with the dusk and the quiet as his two closest friends.

His shuttle floated in the sea of thick gray mist two stories above the forest floor. He wasn’t ready to let Father know that he followed them—especially when he was instructed not to. He found another clearing about a couple hundred feet from where they parked and quietly landed on a soft pile of leaves. A pair of bushes beside Raiden’s shuttle emitted a flurry of tiny green orbs that fluttered into the air, then evaporated like dying fireflies.

Raiden speed-walked through the wildberry bushes as another species of plants exhaled orbs of yellow and white. Their flickering lights paved his way while the canopy above was so thick that Hela’s rays were thinned to mere strings of light.

He reached his father’s shuttle faster than he’d anticipated. There was no telling how far ahead he and Hastings were, but the alcove they’d parked in front of made it clear where they were heading. Between a set of trees as wide as palace walls were a pair of leaves so large that Raiden could have laid across them, spread his limbs, and still wouldn’t have been able to touch their veiny edges. They bent toward one another and formed an archway into another world.

Raiden crossed under them and found that the angled trees no longer allowed for Hela to seep through. Father and Hastings could have been within an arm’s length and he wouldn’t know it. Something else could have been just as close.

Raiden withdrew his gunblade. The pistol itself was less than half a foot in length, but when he thrust it forward a silver, three-foot-long blade shot out of it. If anything was looking for prey, he’d be ready for it.

He stepped forward into the darkness, feeling the bristles of leaves tickle his ankles and amplify his anxiety. His paces were slow and steady like that of a dog’s when called by an abusive owner. Somewhere from above the birds were chirping, oblivious to the quivering man beneath them. He tried to count his steps, but lost track when the flutter of wings flew around the thick leaves of trees to his left.

He gasped and jerked simultaneously, accidentally shooting a stun orb from his blade. The yellow orb coated with gyrating streaks of lightning flew north and evaporated into the leaves, casting light on a tree stump a few hundred feet ahead. Raiden got a glimpse of another stump next to the first and cocked his head. It was unusual in this part of the forest to see two stumps in such close proximity. He quickened his pace and retracted his gunblade.

A pile of sludge puckered around his boots just before he reached the wooden stumps. He scowled and fought with the puddle to lift them. It was as thick as drying cement and almost won the fight, but Raiden managed to remove his feet from the muddy claws. Several plants around him exhaled another set of orbs and cast light on two other sets of footprints trudging toward the base of the stumps. The orbs lit up a whole line of them; a stairway in the middle of the forest.

He hoisted himself onto the first one, which came up to his waist. The rest of the stumps weren’t as steep, but he had to jump onto them and hope that his strides were large enough. The second stump was just a foot higher and a few feet away. The one he stood on was large enough for him to get a running start, so he backed up to the edge and darted forward, leaping onto the second stump and sticking the landing with ease.

The next several wooden platforms proved to be just as easy to navigate. Some even had tiny plants on the ends of the stumps emitting orbs of light and revealing a path to the top. He kicked off a pile of sludge that had built a small mountain at a platform’s edge and watched as it broke into fragments of mud disappearing into the nothingness below. He was easily more than a hundred feet in the air and saw no end in sight. Heights didn’t scare him, but usually he as able to see the ground. If he fell, the darkness would swallow him whole and his body would be lost forever.

A new set of orbs cast light on a stump that was only half-visible, concealed behind a wall of emerald and crimson leaves. He stopped just before it. With a deep breath he sprang, plowing through the wall of leaves before him, and landing on the stump on the other side.

Raiden got a glimpse of his startled father somewhere in front of him, then nearly slipped forward over the edge of the stump. He put his hands out to balance himself as the arches of his feet teetered between the wooden platform and a shadowy grave.

Ray!” Father exclaimed and rushed to the edge of the crisscrossing tree limbs that were supporting him and Hastings.

Raiden waved his arms backward as a means of pushing more of his weight onto the stump. His heart raced wildly, but he knew he could do it. He wasn’t about to fall to his death before learning why Rexus Poloray threatened his son’s life.

His heels felt wood beneath them and he safely scooted backwards. “Phew.”

Ray,” Father’s tone switched from shock and worry to parental and foreboding. It reminded Raiden of the time he was caught stealing chocolate-covered blueberries from the market. He never forgot the look of shame engraved on Father’s face. It was a shade of disappointment that he never wanted to see again. Father must have known that, or else he wouldn’t be looking at him the same way now. “Ray, what in Noreis—”

Don’t even, Dad,” Raiden snarled. “I’m Riles’ father just as you are mine. You would do everything you could if someone threatened my life, so why do you think I’d be any different?”

Father’s once blue eyes faded to a time-withered gray. “I should never have told you.”

Arias’,” Hastings said with a scowl on his face and hands on his hips, “We still have a little ways to go.”

Hastings had been Father’s partner in the Serenity Seekers for three years. Raiden wanted to like him, but the man always seemed full of himself. He was also far too close to Raiden’s age to keep Raiden from thinking that Hastings might have been the son that Father would have preferred. Father always wished that Raiden had joined the Seekers. It nearly broke his heart the day Raiden told him that he wanted to work as a tour guide for the Tri-City Forest instead. Hearing about Father’s missions with Hastings caused Raiden to wonder if he had made the right decision.

Father, this morning you mentioned that Rexus threatening his life in exchange for information about Transcendence. What about it?”

Walk and talk, guys,” Hastings grumbled, turning from them. He continued to watch his footing as he alternated between the tree limbs. Hastings seemed numb to the sizable drop that could spell death should he misstep and fall.

Raiden eyed the crisscrossing limbs that his father and Hastings were standing on with caution. They were two curiously large platforms of wood that formed a double helix and traveled through another sheet of leaves. He leapt onto one of them with ease and found himself having to look up at Father yet again.

Raiden fell in line with Father, who had begun to follow his partner when he finally answered his son’s question. “Your mother told me all that she could about it: Dusk of the Eternal, Dawn of the First, Three and Three, the Second reveals the Third. As for what all of that means, I’m not sure that even she knows entirely. Either that, or, despite a thirty-year betrothal, she still doesn’t trust me.”

You were only married for eighteen of those years.”

She will always be my wife.”

You haven’t spoken to the woman in years.”

Father increased his pace to catch up with his partner. “Say what you will, son, but you were too young to fully understand the circumstances surrounding our separation.”

I wasn’t too young. She was too absent.”

Absent, yes, but that woman will always be your mother. She did what she thought was best for everyone.”

She did what was best for her.”

Hastings groaned and rushed ahead, but Father stopped moving.

Your mother is a complicated woman. Do I believe in everything that she did and the choices that she made? No, but I understand why she did it. You would have never met your wife if she hadn’t, and you wouldn’t have that beautiful son to go home to. It was the right thing to do back then, just as her telling me about Rexus’ threat was the right thing to do a couple days ago. Let’s do what we came here to do, then go back home.”

At last Father said something he agreed with. Raiden followed in his footsteps without saying another word as they walked forward and jumped from one intersecting limb to the next, trudging deeper into the dark side of the rain forest.

The first clue is ‘Dusk of the Eternal’,” Father said. “Your mother explained that there’s a clearing somewhere in the depths of this forest where the orbs emitted by the plant life have generated the same sequence for thousands of years. Twice a year at the time of dusk they reveal the collective image of the location to the ‘Dawn of the First’.”

Did she—” Raiden stopped talking to hoist himself onto a limb that curved upward at a forty-five degree angle. “Did she tell you what ‘Dawn of the First’ meant?”

No, but she did say that, if we were unsuccessful here, the ‘Three and Three’ meant that the clues are separated in a sequence of three days. That three days from now, at dawn, the second clue will reveal itself.”

Raiden bobbed his head. “And then ‘The Second reveals the Third’ means that the second clue would lead us to a third clue?”

It won’t come to that. We’re putting an end to this now. If we don’t, others may come to learn of Rexus—or worse, about the Transcendence Theory.” Father mentioned that not even the monarchs or the Serenity Seekers could know about the theory, which would have baffled Raiden if he didn’t already have so many other things on his mind.

Hastings disappeared through another wall of crimson leaves in front of them. Raiden didn’t notice until he emerged through them. Even in the dark, Raiden was able to make out the astonishment on Hastings’ face.

Is that it in front of us?” Father asked.

Hastings waited for them to cross over the last set of limbs to reach him before saying anything. “I think so. Galen, you should have a look.”

All right then,” Father said casually as he brandished his gunblade and thrust forward a three foot shimmering blue blade. The blade was as beautiful as it was dangerous. To even slide one’s fingers along the edge would make them bleed. Riles tried once. Father never withdrew it in front of him again.

Hastings withdrew his as well. Hastings’ blade was as green as a forest and, though not as bright and Father’s, it was just as deadly. Not wanting to waste another second, Hastings muttered “It’ll be dusk soon” before trudging back through the wall of leaves.

Raiden grabbed for his gunblade and thrust it forward, being extra-careful not to lose his footing and slip over the edge. The dull silver of his blade didn’t capture the light like his father’s. Hastings would probably scoff when he saw it and make him feel like less of a man.

Father grimaced at the sight of his son’s gunblade. His burning eyes revealed a desire to argue Raiden’s following them, but he was left with no time to dissuade Raiden from going. He resigned to saying, “Just stay behind me and you’ll be safe.”

Raiden obeyed and kept five paces behind Father, and the two followed Hastings through the wall of leaves ahead. More tree limbs that served as walkways before them and formed a near-perfect circle four hundred feet in diameter. Other limbs intersect their circle with spiral the traveled down all the way to the ground and continued up as high as the treetops where Hela was all but an afterthought.

The ground was littered with tens of thousands of bushes breathing out millions of lights that flickered up toward them in an ever-changing canvass that painted their surroundings. Unlike the lights along the tree stumps, these orbs were all shades of greens and blues and reds and every other hue along the color spectrum that he could imagine. It was so blindingly bright that he found himself distracted from the fact that Rexus would soon be there as well, if he wasn’t already.

Raiden tried to make out designs in the lights as they floated up towards the treetops. Father said they’d be sequential, but if there was a pattern that they were meant to reveal, he didn’t see it yet. He wondered what it would portray when Hela finally set.

Father pointed upward. “Let’s head to the treetops. We’ll get the best view there and a good vantage point on Rexus.”

Hastings turned toward the spiraling tree limbs and led the way upward. Father followed right behind him. Raiden remained in the back and tried to focus on his footing, but was more concerned with keeping an eye out on what was going on behind him. If Rexus were to show up from below, he would be the easiest target.

He eyed the entrance to the clearing as they traveled up fifty feet, and then a hundred more. Rexus could slink through the leaves at any moment. The thought distracted Raiden from acknowledging of how high up he was. Down below, the orbs were too small and too many to identify anything more than swirls of colors merging and blending with one another, too random to be considered “art” in any definition of the term. Still, he knew that at any moment they’d—

There,” Father pointed toward the center of the room. The bushes emitted a new sequence of orbs that shot up toward the canopy. The orbs swirled like rotating pixels. Each floated upward at a different pace coming closer and closer together. The three stopped climbing to see what was rapidly approaching them from below. The orbs in this sequence were mostly earth tones. There were still traces of vibrancy, but colors were predominantly shades of blue, brown, and green. The closer they fluttered together, the more of an image they began to reveal. And then, for the slightest of seconds, all of the orbs came together in perfect unison to form a quick, clear image. It was the portrayal of a landscape from a time long ago; there were six rivers that criss-crossed one another, at one point almost forming a hexagon. Along the edges of them were plains and hills, while the center of the image was of a ground covered in shimmering blue and silver crystals. Among all of them, there was one in the very center that seemed to shine the brightest. Amidst what must have been several million orbs, the cluster of that hundred or so was what caught Raiden’s attention the most. Before he had time to think about what he just witnessed, the orbs parted and continued swirling upwards at different speeds, and finally faded before hitting the treetops.

That was Kalia,” Father said. “Not as we know it today, but what it looked like then.”

That cluster in the center,” Raiden muttered.

I saw it too,” Father said.

On the other side of Father, Hastings sighed. “If that was the clue, then Rexus missed it.”

Raiden felt the blood rush to his face. “Unless he’s already here.”

The three absorbed the eerie silence as another cluster of orbs was beginning to form. This time they were bright and in shades of orange, yellow, and red. They flickered upward and engulfed the three men in their blazing bright hues.

Crack!

Hastings clutched his chest as a flurry of flames shot up from it. “Ackkk!” He screamed in agony, but before he could do anything he was engulfed in a fire that couldn’t have come from the orbs.

Hastings!” Father exclaimed. He attempted to pat the flames off of his partner, but when Raiden got a glimpse of Hastings’ wide-eyded look of horror, he knew that it was too late. Hastings fell from the limbs, completely devoured in flames and vanishing through the next cluster of orbs.

Crack!

A ball of fire cruised through the flame-colored orbs and headed toward Father. Before Raiden could get a word out, Father flung his blade forward and sliced it in half. The flame broke to specks upon contact and vanished in mid-air.

As the orbs passed, Raiden got a look at a man with dark hair from across the clearing. Even from a distance he could tell that this man was about the size of Father—if not larger. Rexus wore a tattered sepia-colored coat that swayed around his feet. He held his blood-colored gunblade in their direction and shot another fireball from the pistol’s mouth.

Ray—duck!” Father yelled.

Raiden dropped to his knees as a ball of fire sailed overhead and slammed into the leaves behind him. If they were anywhere else in the world the leaves would’ve gone ablaze, but the trees of the forest had long ago coated themselves with a watery sap that made them fireproof. The whole world could go up in flames and the Malysai rain forest would remain intact.

Father bolted around the semicircle of limbs in Rexus’ direction. Rexus rushed toward him like a race horse with graceful, wide strides. Both men had their gunblades outstretched and met in the middle of the clearing to engage in a flurry of blows. Flashes of red swirled all around Rexus, but Father was just as fast. Father’s shimmering blue blade met every one of Rexus’ attacks and countered them.

Father’s eyes were wide and desperate as he gripped his blade and Raiden knew immediately that Father was too wary of his presence.

I shouldn’t have come. He’s nervous. I’m a distraction.

Another series of red, orange and yellow orbs floated towards the treetops. The colors surrounding the men made them appear as if they were two harrowing flames lashing out at one another. Rexus hit the blade with a loud clang but nearly lost his footing when he stood astride the limbs of the helix. Father started swinging at Rexus, coming down on him with heavy, powerful blows.

Come on, Father. Come on!

Raiden blinked with surprise at how fast Father was. Each swing was graceful and lacked hesitation. He had planned his attacks four or five slashes ahead. He was a giant and his blade was a sharp extension of his arm, pummeling Rexus with blow after mighty blow.

Father swung again, but this time Rexus used his might to slam into it with his red blade and Father had to jump back. Rexus swung at Father furiously. His blade resembled a blood-colored viper and struck at Father with a hissing metal tongue. Father’s blue blade hurdled through the sea of flames to block Rexus, but he backed up again keeping an eye on the awkward L-shaped walkway behind him.

Raiden clutched his gunblade and ran forward through the clusters of orbs surrounding him. He broke through the patterns and images they portrayed as if he was bursting through liquid canvasses. The orbs flecked away, giving him a clear view of Rexus and his viper-tongued blade. He pointed his gunblade toward Rexus and started shooting balls of fire through the plethora of glowing orbs.

Rexus blocked Father’s blows, then spun backward to dodge Raiden’s attacks with ease. He side-stepped past one fireball, and then sliced two more in half without breaking his stride. The drying embers while the viper-tongue seemed to hiss with victory.

Father struck at Rexus, who blocked it, and then both twisted their blades downward. Rexus pushed down on Father’s gunblade and drove it deep into the wood, nearly severing the limb entirely. As the two leaned toward the ground, Raiden rushed them. He leapt diagonally across the L-shaped limbs and landed directly behind the man who threatened his son and fought his father.

Rexus flung his blade upwards and swung at Raiden before he could strike. Raiden gasped as the viper’s tongue went to slice through him and blocked it with his dull silver blade. Rexus’ blow felt like it came from a monster, not a man.

Ray!” Father yelled as he shook his gunblade free from the wooden limb below.

Rexus swung hard at Raiden again and again. Raiden felt as if he was being attacked with a wall of cement and backed away. He struggled to stay on his feet as the limbs twisted and contorted behind him.

Father prepared to attack Rexus from behind, but Rexus was ready for it and jumped high into the air and well over Raiden’s head, leaving Father to swipe at nothing. Rexus landed behind Raiden and kicked him in the small of his back. Raiden felt the pain course through his vertebrae and fell forward, tripping over a small branch. He lost his footing and stumbled forward, over the edge. He couldn’t maintain his balance and tilted toward the swirls of colors covering the ground. As he dropped, he felt a strong hand grasping at his leg.

Raiden gasped as he watched his gunblade fall into the glowing abyss below. He dangled upside down for second and heard Father’s voice.

Raiden!”

Raiden twisted his body to get a glimpse of Father clutching his leg. In that moment, he saw Galen Arias look helpless for the first time in his life. He never thought he would see that expression on the man who used to check his room for monsters at night. Father’s eyes were bulging and his mouth was wide open, but he was too horrified to utter a sound.

Rexus stood over Father like an executioner over a man with his head in a guillotine. He plunged his gunblade through Father’s chest and it broke through both sides of skin with little effort. Before Raiden could scream he felt Father’s grip give way and he went freefalling down through the millions of orbs. The little lights floated upward, concealing the small openings through which the sky could be seen.

There was a groaning sound. It came from him, though he didn’t know how it was possible. He looked around at the orbs that were still floating towards the canopy. He didn’t know how long he’d been out, much less how he had managed to survive a three-hundred-foot fall. He started to move and felt the pillows of leaves give way, dropping him another two or three feet onto the hard surface below.

The plants and bushes were so thick that they broke his fall. It was a struggle to see with the overwhelming bright lights surrounding him, but he didn’t feel like he was in a lot of pain. Nothing felt broken, and nothing was numb.

Raiden rolled over and got to his feet. He dusted off his maroon-colored shirt and checked for scrapes and scratches. A few cuts on his forearms formed a map of his battle scars, but beyond that he looked astoundingly fine.

Father!” He gasped.

He rushed toward the edges of the clearing and quickly found several tree trunks that, collectively, had a series of tree limbs that intertwined with others. Raiden hugged the tree with the limbs that were closest to the ground and began hoisting himself up, grabbing at whatever small limbs and branches he could find along the way. His forearm started to bleed, but he ignored the pain. He had to get back to where Father was as quickly as he could. He needed to know if he was still alive.

He wrapped his arm around closest tree limb that started up the walkway and balanced his body until he was able to comfortably push himself onto it. He rested for a second, then got to his feet. The limbs grew wider and more stable the higher up they went. He started to run up them. The pounding of his feet echoed in the clearing as the orbs in the center flickered upwards with more vibrant colors and designs. He made one full rotation around the spiral, then another, and a third. He was losing his breath, but he didn’t care. None of that mattered if he could still save Father.

He caught a glimpse of Father’s shimmering blue gunblade from across the way, and then the silhouette of a body with a hand dangling over the edge.

No…”

He didn’t hear his footsteps as he ran toward the motionless figure. He couldn’t feel himself breathe. All he could think of was Father’s helpless expression as he held Raiden by his leg.

He reached Father and rolled his lifeless body over. There was a blood stain on his chest where the blade broke his heart, and for a moment all Raiden could think about was one of the last things father said to him. Stay behind me and you’ll be safe.

This is my fault. This is my doing. I should have stayed behind. It would have been Rexus lying here. Not you…

His vision become blurry amidst a sea of tears. He no longer knew what to do, or even how to get back to his shuttle. He was completely lost, like a young child who had lost the grip of a mother’s hand amidst a roaring crowd. He hadn’t known a life without Father. They had always been together. He was the constant. He was supposed to always be there for him.

The lights were reflected off of Father’s gunblade like the final spotlight at the end of play, drawing Raiden’s attention away from his Father. He thought for a second, and then knew what he had to do. He grabbed the hilt of the shimmering blade and claimed it as his own.

No one threatens my son and lives,” Raiden told himself through lips dampened by streams of tears. “No one…”