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When War Calls

The Heroes Fall – When War Calls

Chapter One

One’s history defines so long as it is remembered.

Date Unknown


 

The world had ended.

It was the first thought in Jaden’s mind as he woke in the chamber, deep beneath the surface of the Earth. He was not sure how something so terrible had happened, for all of life to be wiped off the face of the planet so suddenly, but he knew it had something to do with the very thing that had kept him alive. The energy. The power. The thing he had come to know as the immortal essence.

World War IV had been lost. Not by the World Protection Alliance, the Peace Movement or the United Resistance, but by every living thing, and worst of all, the people like him. He was one of the few who had found control over the mysterious energy that seemed to have consumed the planet. Jaden could still feel the power coursing through his veins. It had been up to him and the others to save the world, but they had failed, and only he remained. He felt a jolt of pain in his stomach as he remembered the violent volcanic eruptions, the massive waves from the ocean as the seafloor buckled dramatically, and the incredible heat as masses of the essence were unleashed upon the world, vaporizing all in their path.

It had been a tragic and brutal end to life, and there had been nothing he could do to stop it. He could only protect himself as he fell into this chamber and sealed it from the horrors above. He had run. He had hidden. And now he faced a fate worse than death; he was now in absolute solitude, without a hope or a dream, savouring the nothingness of existence without life.

‘I remember that feeling.’

Jaden opened his eyes in surprise, as if he would see something in the darkness. He had heard a man speak. At first he thought it was a figment of his imagination, a sign of madness from his confined state, but it had been real. It was deep and comforting, a voice of a father to a son.

‘Who’s there?’ he asked.

The man laughed, seemingly finding humour in Jaden’s startled state. ‘You may call me Michael,’ came the reply.

Jaden looked around in the blackness. Before he had come here, before the world had ended, he would have called enough power to him to light this chamber, but after the damage it had caused, he feared even summoning enough of the essence to give a faint glow. He was sure he was not alone in this chamber, though. He wasn’t entirely convinced he was still sane, but the voice was definitely there, not just in his head.

‘How are you alive?’ asked Jaden.

‘The ability to manipulate matter is not exclusive to you,’ said the man.

It was true. Jaden was powerful, but others could use the essence as well. Were there others that had survived by using the power? It was possible. They would be scattered around the world, but it was possible. But this brought up a new problem; he had been alone when he fell, so no other could have been near him. There was too much destruction. How was this man able to speak to him now in this chamber? Was he able to move through the rock as if it were air? Did he know how to teleport himself? It made no sense. By all logic this man could not have been here with him, and yet here he was.

‘How did you find me?’ asked Jaden.

Again the man laughed. ‘Child, I have been watching over you since you first showed potential.’

‘When?’

‘Many years ago, when you were sixteen, still living in Callibra.’

Home, thought Jaden. It was where he had been born, where he had last seen his family. The last moments of a simple life before war had beckoned him away. But the past was now in fragments. He could barely remember how he had left the village or where he went afterward. The years of trauma caused by the essence had taken their toll on him. He was but a shell of whom he used to be.

‘I don’t remember you,’ said Jaden.

‘We have never met,’ said Michael, ‘but I have spoken to you more than once.’

Jaden was thoughtful, searching deep into his memories. He recognised the riddle for what it was, and knew it could only have meant one thing.

‘The voice in the wind,’ he guessed.

‘Yes.’

‘Who are you?’

‘I am the builder of the world you helped destroy.’

Jaden paused, trying to make sense of this extremely confident and apparently illusive man. What did he mean by saying he had built the world? Was he upset that Jaden had helped destroy it? If he was he did not show it. Why had he been watching over him, and how could he have watched over him without being seen?

‘I don’t understand,’ said Jaden. ‘What do you want from me?’

‘It’s your time,’ said Michael.

‘My time for what?’

‘To succeed where I failed.’

‘You’re going to have to be more specific,’ said Jaden, sitting upright and holding his head up with his hands. ‘I can’t even remember my own failures.’

Michael laughed. ‘Memory loss is normal after what you’ve been through, it’s quite remarkable that you remember anything at all. The power has a way of doing that to us, it’s why there are no records of World War III.’

‘What do you mean it’s normal?’

‘There have been others that have suffered this fate. I am one of them.’

‘What did you do?’ asked Jaden.

‘I almost died, but after I had recovered … I rebuilt the world, which is what you will do soon.’

Now Jaden had to laugh. ‘Me? I destroy worlds. I can’t rebuild them. It would take a billion years to undo the damage I have done. I wouldn’t even know where to begin! It’s just rock and water up there. I could put one rock on top of another rock and call it a castle if you like, but I don’t see how that’s going to help.’

‘On the journey of life, desire is your compass. To know where to begin, you must first want a destination.’

‘I don’t know what I want anymore,’ said Jaden with a sigh.

‘That is also normal. It is hard to want anything when you no longer have needs. You have become too powerful.’

‘Maybe, but one who can build a world would be more powerful than I am. So how do you still have desires?’

‘By recognizing the needs of others.’

‘Everyone is gone,’ said Jaden, bluntly.

‘For now, yes. But once you have rebuilt the world, there will be life again,’ Michael explained, and for a second Jaden thought he heard something walk by him, something with padded feet, as if it were wearing cushions on its soles. When Michael spoke again, it was from another part of the chamber. ‘For there to be a desire, there needs to be a vision, and for there to be a vision, there need to be memories from which one can build.’

‘And if I don’t have any?’

‘Then I will remind you of your origin.’

‘How?’

‘As I mentioned,’ said Michael slowly, as if emphasizing his next words as something Jaden needed to understand beyond all else. ‘I have been watching you since you first showed potential.’

‘How will I remember?’

‘You still wear a crystal around your neck. It was used to record much of your life and the events surrounding you, and then I had it given to you so that you could make better use of it. Some things you can’t have known have been added to help you understand. I was afforded no such luxury in my time, but I knew you would need to see it all again someday.’

Jaden picked up the crystal that hung from a silver chain around his neck, the faint blue glow inside of it still present after all these years. It had been a gift from someone very important to him, although he could not remember who. It was in a silver, diamond-shaped encasing, and while seeming weak, in all the battles he had fought it had never broken or left him. He realised then while studying it that it had been enriched with technology made from the immortal essence, its molecular structure modified to become a lot stronger than ordinary silver.

‘First you must see who you once were,’ Michael continued. ‘Before everything went wrong. Perhaps with the memories of the people you loved, you’ll remember the needs of others once more. I will show you your personal journey and all that you’ll need to see to understand how this happened.’

Without another word spoken, Jaden lifted the crystal to between his eyes, just as he had done so many times before. He felt his mind propelled into its realm, where the stories of old would come to life, and his dreams would become a reality. He would watch all that Michael had to show him as an unseen presence, unfelt and unheard, a ghost in a world that no longer existed.


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Chapter Two

Few moments are as temporary as paradise.

7th January 997 R.E.

 

Jaden watched patiently as lights materialised in the darkness of the crystal’s realm; mountains, trees, clouds and buildings all flashing into existence. Michael was rebuilding a memory from long ago, one that Jaden had thought was lost. It was of his home, the village of Callibra; a tropical paradise hidden in a valley on the southern side of the Aurialis continent. The year was 997 R.E., nearly a thousand years since World War III had almost destroyed the planet, but the world he lived in was vastly different to the one his distant ancestors had known. Cerulean blue rings now encircled Earth and the shapes of the continents had changed dramatically. It was as if the world had transcended all of its prior natural beauty and wonder. A new calendar was set in place to usher in this new age of prosperity, marked with the initials “R.E.”, which meant “Reborn Earth”.

From the smallest village to the greatest metropolis, every civilisation flourished with the abundance that the planet boasted. But even before Jaden was born the seeds of the next world war had been planted. While many nations reaped the rewards of the blooming Earth, there were those that accused others of destroying the beauty and polluting what should have been sacred to them all. It was for this reason that the World Defence Alliance had been formed, an extreme environmentalist organisation adamant on their quest to protect the Earth against its polluters. They were an alliance of the only nations still intact on their continent, and with their superior military might, they challenged and bested all of their adversaries and became the reigning super power in just over a decade.

After so many triumphs, they massed their armies to spread out across the lands and conquered three of the five continents, stopping only when they came up against the United Resistance, the second super power to rise. The Resistance was made of the strongest remaining nations of the continents Tiquan and Aurialis, which did not believe the planet was being polluted. They accused the World Defence Alliance of using their cause as nothing more than a justification of their greed, and argued that waging war against the world would do far more damage than another thousand years of using the planet’s resources. They were right, but not for the reasons they had thought, as even they did not realise what this world war would unleash.

Despite its strength, the Resistance was forced to retreat mostly into the Aurialis continent, such was the power of the Alliance. A stalemate had been reached, with neither the Alliance nor Resistance able to gain any ground, let alone maintain it. From 994 R.E. to 996 R.E. the two powerful armies exchanged blows, but all were futile. It seemed peace might resume, but the fourth world war was only just beginning, and Jaden would soon witness it firsthand.

Jaden stopped thinking of the history when he saw himself sitting on a group of overlapping flat stones with his friends, enjoying the afternoon sunrays after a hard day’s work. This was his home, the village Callibra on the Aurialis continent, where he had first felt the power of the essence. It was an untouched paradise, hidden from the wars for decades. They lived a simple life, with little technology and great amounts of food, water and shelter. All of their primal needs were met, and with the company of others, none could have thought of a better place to live.

Jaden let his mind quiet as he watched. From this moment on, he would allow Michael to show him what he needed to be shown. He felt regret knowing that all of this would disappear again once the visions had ended, but he could not resist living these moments one last time, and allowed himself to be one with the crystal’s realm; watching tentatively as his younger self and his friends appeared in the village.

The five boys breathed in the summer heat, the fragrance of freshly blooming flowers and the distinct sense of the season filling their lungs. Birds were singing cheerfully, cheeps and chirps residing somewhere in the back of their minds, while the clang of steel against stone and the low gush of the waterfalls echoed throughout the valley. The sun was still high, coating the land in its boisterous yellow glow and almost hiding the grassy hills, thickets of vegetation and sandstone houses in its brightness.

It was just another lazy afternoon for the five friends at their designated meeting place, which by no accident had been chosen because of how close it was to the stables, where the girls of the village tended to the horses. There wasn’t much for them to do here, aside from talk and lie about in the sun, so the girls being close was a must. It was a simple pleasure, but it suited them well enough. They couldn’t imagine a better way to pass the hours before nightfall, especially if there was a chance to share them with a certain someone from the stables.

‘She’s just there, Jay, go talk to her!’ said Bo, sitting up on one of the stones.

‘Soon,’ replied Jaden casually. He stretched back on the next stone, making a point to emphasise his movements to appear even lazier than they were. He knew Bo would be watching him for any sign of nerves. ‘It’s all in the timing,’ he added.

Silence followed. Bo was hesitating. He hadn’t seen the sign of nerves he was expecting. Jaden felt relieved. He had learned long ago to hide the emotions he felt, primarily from Bo, or he’d need to prepare for weeks of continuous insults directed his way.

‘He’s scared,’ said Bo finally, receiving a nod from Konnor, the young man to his left.

The others laughed, but Jaden still refused to react, his eyes now closed as if he were about to go to sleep. It was rare for him to have a free moment in these times; whether training for sport matches, working in the fields or helping others with odd jobs around the place, it seemed he was always needed somewhere. And now that he was able to relax, he refused to let it slip by for the sake of Bo’s amusement.

Still, he couldn’t help but wonder at Bo’s intent. It was as if he were one of the few that were not content simply to live in the tropical paradise that was Callibra, always needing something extra, something more exciting. Few of those lucky enough to visit the village wished to leave afterward; enchanted by the beauty of the lush greens and dark rocks exclusive to the area. There was not a more perfect place on Earth, and yet when Jaden just wanted to enjoy the surroundings, Bo was always distracted. The mountains that cradled their home to create the Callibrian valley meaning nothing to him, the waterfalls crashing down over rocks into small swimming pools of little appeal, and the people apparently quite boring.

That explained why he spent most of his time teasing them, Jaden mused, but the rest remained an enigma Bo would refuse to ever shed any light on.

‘You’re going to miss your chance if you wait any longer,’ said one of the others.

Jaden opened his eyes to see Dion leaning against a stone on his right. At seventeen, Dion was the oldest by one year and tallest of the group, but also the quietest. It had startled Jaden to hear him speak, expecting a stranger to be standing next to him. But there was no mistaking the dignified confidence that Dion brought to conversations, no matter how minor his role might have been.

‘That’s what he’s timing for,’ Bo smirked.

Following the direction of Dion’s eyes and ignoring Bo, Jaden looked to the stables and saw that Dion was right. Jaden was about to miss his chance. Alyssa, the only girl in the village who had been able to really capture his attention, was getting ready for her daily ride. He had to hurry.

He took a breath.

Finally, after months of hoping for a chance to speak with her, this was it. This was his moment to shine, his moment to really show what he was about. The other boys had often spoken of how they had suddenly become nervous around the girls they liked, or how they would say things they would later regret. Jaden had always boasted that he never felt nervous or lost his rhythm, laughing at them for being wimps. Now he was starting to wish he had just kept his mouth shut.

The sight of Alyssa was changing something in him. They shared some similar features; shadowed blonde hair, green eyes and still child-like, rounded features, but there was something extra about her, something indefinable. There was a sense of fate. Although Jaden’s father had taught him that nothing was predestined, he somehow felt there was a connection between them in the future. And that future made him very nervous.

He shook his head to clear his thoughts.

‘Maybe he doesn’t like her anymore,’ Bo announced, noticing the gesture.

Jaden gave a faint smile. ‘If it were between the world and her, you know whom I’d choose,’ he said, and quickly leapt from the rock toward her.

Bo and the others all laughed as Jaden comically slowed his pace to a careless walk before Alyssa saw him racing toward her like a dog just let outside.

‘He has confidence, I’ll give him that,’ said Bo, ‘but that girl would be harder to crack than a whip made of iron.’

‘Try telling him that,’ said Konnor.

‘Many have,’ Dion’s brother, Corey, interjected, his concentration set firmly on a piece of bandage he was wrapping around his hand on the stone next to Dion. ‘But he is not the kind that will listen, despite how wise the given words might be.’

The boys sat in silence, as was often the case after Corey had spoken. Unlike his brother, Corey had a knack for saying too much rather than not enough, offering his opinion even when it wasn’t necessary. If it wasn’t for the fact he was nearly always right, they probably would have ignored him or cut him short more often. But he had proven his worth in their childhood, and now they had become accustomed to allowing him a few moments extra for anything more he might have to say.

‘That’s our Jaden,’ said Bo, deciding the silence had lasted long enough.

‘Here’s trouble,’ said Konnor, pointing with a nod of his head.

The three others turned to look where Jaden was standing. Alyssa had mounted her chestnut brown horse and was readying to ride away, but Jaden was still twenty yards from her. In his path stood an adolescent almost twice his width in shoulder and not far from a full head taller. Hair already lined his jaw at age eighteen, while thick brows dominated a fierce glare, wide flattened nose and cracked lips. There were small scars where blemishes had come and gone from his cheeks, still visible even with his darkened skin. He resembled a bull more than a man and had been a vicious rival for Jaden ever since they had first set eyes on each other a decade earlier.

‘What’s Ardim doing here?’ asked Bo. ‘I thought we told him to keep to his side.’

‘Now, Bo, we all know he has a learning disability,’ said Dion sarcastically. ‘We’ll just have to go over and give him a friendly reminder.’

Bo chuckled. ‘Soon,’ he said. ‘I want to see how this plays out.’

‘He’s going to need our help,’ protested Konnor.

‘No, Jaden can handle himself. Besides … it’s all about the timing, is it not?’ asked Bo with a grin.

Although they did not agree, the boys laughed nervously and waited. There had been too many conflicts in the past to ignore them anymore, and like this one, it had always been Ardim that started them. Jaden would often try to avoid the conflict, but once engaged, he had shown he would not back down, and as Ardim aggressively shoved Jaden backward, it was clear the confrontation was already past peaceful resolution.

‘Where do you think you’re going?’ asked Ardim mockingly as Jaden recovered his feet.

Jaden rolled his eyes. ‘Who said you could talk to me?’

Pain struck across Ardim’s face, his hardened exterior shattered with a single question. ‘Keep away from her!’ he said harshly. ‘She wants nothing with you.’

‘Opinion respected,’ said Jaden, calmly attempting to walk past Ardim. He was halted again as the giant adolescent stepped into his way once more.

‘You may want to get out of my way.’ Jaden’s voice was controlled. The elders of Callibra had often warned him against his temper, punishing him with the most humiliating chores each time it was let loose. Ardim had been overjoyed when he had learned of this predicament. He now jumped at every opportunity to see how far he could push before Jaden cracked.

‘Strong words from a brat,’ Ardim sneered, his breath heavy and fists clenched.

Jaden sighed. It was all an act. He knew that, or at least thought he knew, but Ardim’s arrogance was like a bucket of icy water thrown on a chilly July morning, coating its victim in waves of hateful, oppressive sensations and leaving them irritated, unguarded and with a yearning to retort.

Jaden could hardly stand it. The mere notion that Ardim could think he was superior was disgraceful. One as ill mannered, lacking in wit and ugly as him … it was an atrocity! And no matter how the words he spoke made him seem, there was always a hint of incredible delight behind his eyes, suggesting he was having the most fun he had ever had in his entire life.

It was a trap, this much seemed obvious, but whether or not true was not relevant right now. Ardim would still be in Jaden’s way, and he would cause as much physical damage as was legal before letting him go.

‘Not all of us can be as big and stupid as you, Dimmy, why not go run into a wall a few more times? Make yourself beyond moronic.’

‘That’s not my name, runt.’ Ardim started to get closer, his size becoming more intimidating as he tried to stand over Jaden.

‘You’re right. I meant to say “Dummy”.’

With one big push, Jaden was sent flying back four steps, Ardim’s hands coming up faster than anticipated. Jaden had to take a quick breath before he lost his temper.

‘You push your luck,’ Jaden threatened, unwillingly allowing his anger to gradually surface.

‘She’s not yours, kid, stay away from her!’ Ardim was almost shouting.

Jaden was lost for a reply. ‘What?’ he asked. Did Ardim think he owned her?

‘I’m warning you, brat, you go near her again and I’ll make your life hell.’

Ardim raised his right fist, but Jaden was now paying more attention to Alyssa riding away. He had missed it, his one chance for the day to talk to her, gone again, right before his eyes. With a protective father, there were very few moments Alyssa was approachable, and whenever she was alone, Ardim was somehow always nearby. It was why Jaden was having such a hard time talking to her over the previous six months.

Jaden’s shoulders slumped as he sighed inward deeply. Why did this always seem to happen?

He focused back on Ardim. This bull of a man had ruined his chance the last time as well. There was little else to do than return the favour in some way.

‘I have to see your face,’ said Jaden slowly, ‘it’s already hell.’

Ardim’s upper lip curled at the insult a moment before he was upon Jaden, using all of his weight in an attempt to crush him. With expert accuracy, Jaden moved into the oncoming force, using his shoulder to lift Ardim up and over, flipping him onto the ground. Ardim fell heavily, hitting his head as Jaden spun and kicked down with his left foot onto Ardim’s chest. In less than a second, Jaden had then rolled to the right before jumping straight back up to be on Ardim’s chest, readying to deliver a deadly blow to his throat.

‘No!’ Bo was running forward. ‘That’s what he wants you to do. Get off him!’

As if Bo was an elder himself, Jaden heeded the order and jumped away from Ardim immediately.

‘The game’s in a few days,’ said Bo. ‘Don’t get us disqualified, it’s what he wants.’

Ardim’s smile was wide, revealing some missing teeth from his previous brawls. ‘Couldn’t do it, could you, runt?’

Bo shook his head. ‘Let’s go,’ he said to Jaden, and grabbed his arm to lead him away. ‘Don’t give him the satisfaction.’

Jaden nodded, dusting himself off as best he could as Bo dragged him away.

‘Watch your back, kid, I’ll be around,’ shouted Ardim after them.

Neither turned. Ardim would not pursue them for fear of being disqualified himself. He had credibility when confronting Jaden, but not a group of five.

‘That guy weighs a tonne,’ Jaden said to Bo, doing his best not to shout anything over his shoulder.

‘No doubt,’ said Bo, and resumed his seat back at the stones, allowing Jaden to continue dusting himself off unhindered.

‘Not a bad move. Your grandfather teach you that one?’ asked Konnor.

Jaden nodded, breathing deeply to relax.

‘He’s almost twice your size, how’d you do it?’ Konnor sounded amazed.

‘He doesn’t think,’ said Jaden. ‘He charges in blindly and hopes for the best. Bo is right, though. He wanted to see if I would throw the game.’

‘Not so stupid after all,’ said Konnor.

‘Maybe not,’ agreed Jaden.

‘He has cunning,’ said Corey, his gaze still set on the bandage on his hand as if to admire his masterful work. ‘He likes to play with all of you without you realising it. The more you think he has no intelligence, the more fun he has. He is smarter than many would believe, but he also enjoys acting the fool far too much. Jaden, you know of what I speak.’

Jaden nodded and there was silence again. As much as they didn’t like to hear it, they knew Corey was right, as always. If they became too lazy around Ardim, the price paid could be more than simply pride as it had been in the past.

As they all agreed half-heartedly, Jaden’s eyes became fixed on something far beyond the stones.

‘I have to go,’ he said.

Bo looked around. ‘Where?’

‘I’ll meet you later for tactics,’ said Jaden, and without another word, he sprinted away.

‘Where’s he going?’ asked Konnor.

‘Probably to Alyssa,’ said Dion.

‘Like there aren’t enough girls in love with him already,’ said Bo. ‘Cheeky boy.’

‘He’s not going after Alyssa,’ said Corey.

‘So where is he going?’ asked Konnor. ‘She’s about the only reason he ever races off like that.’

Corey seemed slightly confused. ‘I don’t know.’

‘There’s a first for everything, huh, wise one?’ Bo laughed

Corey sternly glanced up at Bo with an eyebrow raised, shook his head as if it wasn’t worth the effort, and returned to his bandage, amazed that the others could laugh so much at so little.

Jaden stopped running when his friends were almost out of sight. He had seen something outside of his home. Someone had opened and closed the mesh door and was now leaving. Jaden had been waiting for this all day, another reason why he had stayed at the stones with his friends and was not too concerned that he had missed Alyssa anymore. For now, this was far more important.

Jogging the last few steps, he reached a man wearing a full-length maroon coat, who limped slightly as he walked and held a staff in one hand. Jaden quieted a moment before addressing him. He wanted this to go as planned. They had become distant over the past months.

‘Tyral,’ he said.

The man turned, showing pale features under messy locks of blonde hair. Under his eyes were black bulges as if he had not slept in weeks, giving the appearance of an old and ravaged wanderer. He did his best to smile when he recognised who had called his name.

‘Jaden,’ said the man warmly. ‘You’re not yet old enough to call me by my name. Please, call me father.’

Jaden bowed slightly. ‘I’m sorry, father.’

‘No, it is good to see my son is becoming a man. How are you?’

Jaden looked uncertain. He would have answered that he was well, but he was not so sure his father could do the same. Tyral had spent the past months on the road, travelling far and wide, taking away from any time they could have spent together. This had made the gradual change in Tyral more than visible to Jaden. It wasn’t just his poor appearance that bothered him though. There was also an uncharacteristic rasp to his voice, as if he found it hard to speak. It made Jaden sad to admit that for the first time in his life, he was feeling uncomfortable speaking to his father.

‘Where are you going?’ Jaden asked, almost as if he were now an interrogator.

Tyral seemed oblivious to the sudden change in Jaden’s tone.

‘Away for a few days, maybe weeks,’ he said.

‘For what?’

Tyral lowered his head and pressed against his right brow with two fingers on his left hand, a gesture understood only by the Daiyus family.

‘Business,’ he said.

Jaden bowed his head a little in acknowledgement of the gesture. Whatever Tyral had in mind, Jaden knew now it was of the utmost secrecy, and no further questions could be asked. If Jaden were to learn more, the information would have to be volunteered by Tyral.

‘Be careful,’ said Jaden.

‘I will. But I can assure you everything is going well. Kobin is handling everything.’

‘Why do you travel with him?’

Tyral chuckled. ‘Still you maintain your distrust after all he has done for us?’

Jaden nodded.

‘My son, he is the one man I would have to negotiate these matters for us. If it were anyone else, you would no doubt be recruited into an army and be sent to fight in the wars, so be thankful for his help. And besides, despite our differences, we have been friends practically since birth. Call it a sacred bond, if you will, but I will call him my companion on the road until the end, no matter what.’

Jaden lowered his gaze in another gesture of the family. It meant that he was not satisfied with the given answer, but Tyral also knew that once Jaden’s mind was made up, there was little he could say to change it.

‘Why do you have to leave now?’ asked Jaden. ‘You’ll miss the game.’

His father’s smile faded. ‘I’m sorry. I know I promised I would be there, but,’ he began coughing between his words, ‘this—can’t wait—I must leave—at once.’

‘Your illness is getting worse,’ said Jaden.

‘No. No, it’s fine. It will pass.’

‘You don’t have to act proud, father, we all have weaknesses. You taught me that.’

‘So I did,’ said Tyral, coughing loudly once more to the side. ‘This is just a minor sickness I picked up on the road … nothing of significance.’

‘Can you wait for a few days?’ asked Jaden. ‘You could watch the first two or three rounds.’

‘No, I’m afraid not. When I get back, I will make a promise not to miss a single game you play. However, until we are safe, I cannot rest.’

‘Are we really in that much danger?’

Tyral nodded. ‘The wars approach us. The World Protection Alliance is having difficulty with the United Resistance in these parts. Kobin is doing what he can to keep us immune from any battles. Without these negotiations, I fear we would all be going to war.’

‘I understand.’

‘I know,’ said Tyral. ‘As for the game, I am sure you will astound me as always. You have all my abilities and more. Just remember; if you lose, you will be hated by those who don’t know you, and understood by those who do. Pay no mind to the hate. Those who sympathise are your friends, stay with them. In my eyes, you have already achieved far more than I had ever hoped, and for that, I will always be proud of you.’

‘Thank you, father.’

‘Be well, Jaden, I will see you upon my return.’

With a bow to one another, Jaden watched as his father made his best effort to not look injured as he walked away. Jaden felt tears surface, realising the pain Tyral was putting himself through, simply so that Jaden wouldn’t have to see any weakness in the man who was meant to be invincible for him. Jaden felt the deepest respect he had ever held for his father then, and knew one day he would aspire to be just like him, facing up to the world regardless of the dangers it threw at him. He would remain strong as a protector of the weak in the presence of enemies, and be the kindest, most gentle man in Callibra in the company of friends.

Lowering his gaze in the family gesture, Jaden spoke softly, ‘Goodbye, father.’


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Chapter Three

One chases victory to the end, enduring loss only when the journey is forgotten.

January 9, 997 R.E.


 

Jaden grabbed unconsciously at a long shoot of grass, pulling at it until it released, then began twirling it around in his fingers. He was sitting cross-legged on an elevated flat of land in the southeast corner of the valley, staring aimlessly out over a few houses toward where the mountains dropped away and became hills in the west. It was one of his favourite places to sit when he wanted a few quiet moments to think. The sharp cliffs behind him gave an edge of greatness to his thoughts, while the waterfall to his left drowned out any sound from the village. It created an illusion of being alone, secluding him from everyone else, even though he could see people moving about below.

It was beautiful, he thought, and wondered what the rest of the world looked like. He had spent his entire life within Callibra, exploring once or twice outside the mountains, but never straying too far. He had relied mainly on his father to tell him of the other nations, sometimes hearing of incredible cities that boasted technology beyond his wildest dreams. It was always amazing to hear, as he and his people lived without many advances. The village had been created long ago to ensure this, the founding settlers believing that the more technology in a civilisation, the more distractions there would be from inner peace. And so they went about their daily routines, living off the land and using only what they needed, thinking of nothing more and being content as they were.

It was a good life, he knew that, but he was always intrigued to know how the others might have lived. It made him want to travel one day, and he knew he would, maybe just to see the world as it was. But unlike his father, he would only go once, and then he would return home. He would start a family and then he would stay with them, so that he could be there when they needed him. It was the right thing to do.

It was unfair to leave a family to fend for its self while you travelled the world, he thought harshly, his mood changing quickly. They needed time with you, to feel as though they were being taken care of and could always rely on someone. It was safe in Callibra, but there were constant battles being waged between the social clans. It would have helped to have a dominant figure around to stand up to them. But most of all, the family needed someone around so that they could understand who they were.
Jaden threw the piece of grass away in disgust of his realisation, slouching onto his right hand as he fidgeted with his left in the dirt.
His anger passed quickly. He knew deep down that he understood why his father had to go away. It was for the greater good of his people. The rivalry of social clans was petty by comparison. While they fought over land rights and political power, his father was out making sure they were safe from the wars plaguing the outer world. He sacrificed having a home so that his family could live on in peace. But he didn’t only do it for his own family. It was for everyone else’s families, too. He was protecting the ones that fought him and his clan every day.
It made Jaden laugh a little. He liked to entertain the idea of the other clans finding out just how much his father was doing for them, seeing the looks on their faces as they realised their sworn enemy was actually helping them. How much abuse would they shout then?

He smiled, concluding they wouldn’t even dare.

Life would have been so much easier if his father’s efforts were known. What Jaden couldn’t understand was the need for secrecy. He kept it only through the respect he had for his father, trusting his judgement.

For now, the arguments would have to be settled in the old fashioned way—the village’s sport tennagen.

Today was the final, his team and another fighting for this very piece of land that he was sitting upon. It was on his side of the village, it should have been for his clan by that alone, but the others had challenged the rights to it, under the claim that as the best estate in Callibra, it should be given to the strongest families. It was acceptable law in the village. The greatest families were rewarded with the rights to land and power to make decisions on how daily life would be run. It was why tennagen had been invented, to test the clans’ abilities head to head, so that the victor could be clearly seen. It was a game of cunning and wit, muscle and agility. Many were badly injured after each match, the elite the only ones to come off with little more than bruises. But all would be back on the field as soon as they could be. Such was the passion they possessed for the game itself.

Jaden stretched. The game wasn’t for another three hours. There was no need to stress yet.

He lay back in the grass, oblivious to the sky above as he became lost in thought. There was so much to ponder, so much he wanted to achieve in the coming days. His father had gone away, but his grandfather, Vennoss, would be returning. He always enjoyed talking with Vennoss during his father’s absence. Every time he and Vennoss met there was a new story to tell, a new lesson to be learned. Over the years, they had become close friends, and Jaden knew much of his ability to control his temper was to be credited to the words Vennoss had to offer. He was the wisest man he knew apart from his father, and couldn’t wait to hear what Vennoss had to say next.

Jaden relaxed further into the grass, strangely feeling able to sink deeper than usual, as if it were a soft bed of wet sand moulding around him, embracing each and every curve and corner of his body and then firmly supporting it. The crisp scent of freshly crushed grass grew stronger as he pushed his head back, and his breath became steady with its therapeutic aroma. The wind cooled as clouds blocked out the sun, and the land was blackened by shadow as he slept, but strangely he seemed more aware of the world around him than ever before. It was if he were awake, yet no longer in control of his body, frozen in time. He could feel movement around him, a force floating in wide spirals, coming in closer and then drifting out again, much like the water around a tiny island. It was almost comforting, if not a bit nauseating, as he was able to enjoy the fluid routes being taken around him.

The peaceful currents vanished suddenly and his senses peaked. No longer did he feel relaxed in his natural bed. An erratic motion had come out of somewhere in the ocean-like play and disappeared in the same moment. It felt like a spear; a shaft but of nothing solid. It was something deadly. Somehow he knew it was not right, that what he had just experienced was not something that would put him at rest any further. Whatever it was, it was a threat.

He searched his consciousness, moving around in the way that one does through their mind, as if actually able to explore an imaginary world. He hoped to discover the origin of the spear, to understand what it had been, but it was nowhere to be found.

The spirals gained in speed, first at a gradual rate, then more rapidly as more seemed to join the strange orbit around him. It made him feel dizzy, no longer sure of which way to turn. Everything now appeared confusing, as if he were a lost child stumbling through a haunted maze. He almost thought he had felt the presence of monsters lurking in the darkness, hissing silent threats and groaning with hateful misery. They would not attack him, yet, but their threat would linger.

In the commotion, he felt something shoot past him again. It was another spear of a sort. It had happened too quickly. He still couldn’t tell what it was. Two more crossed by him, followed by another that almost made contact with his shoulder. He did his best to analyse what they were, but failed as the spirals enveloped him once more. His head was spinning so quickly now that he couldn’t keep up with it. He was going to fall soon, without anywhere to fall to. He could feel the spears beginning to shoot past him again but at a more constant rate. His panic increased with the speed of the spirals, but still he could not command sense or limb. He was at the mercy of whatever it was that was controlling him.

As he tried to sit up with all his strength, he was greeted with success, gaining a little control as he arched his back up from the ground. But he was then met with a sharp pain in his back, as if one of the spears had shot straight into him, forcing him to relinquish his control and lie back down. It had felt as if an actual blade had been thrust straight through him, skewering him on its metallic point but allowing no blood to go free. Through the haze of pain, he was drawn by two oval outlines that had appeared ahead. They were almost invisible against the gray sky behind them, yet he could hear something, or feel it. It was as if they were calling for him to come forward, to get away from the pain, to come closer, to…

The ovals disappeared as suddenly as they had come. The pain ever present and still feeling paralysed, Jaden tried to think back to his talks with Vennoss, trying to find something that would save him. There had to be something he knew, something he could do to escape this nightmare. Vennoss had often spoken of strange things such as this, stories in which people would describe an incredible hurt in their sleep, only to die days later, or become gravely ill for the remaining weeks of their life. It all seemed a fantasy. How could it be? Could it really be happening? Was this the end of his life as well, just as it had been for theirs? Was this the sickness his father suffered?

No. He couldn’t let it happen. He had to break free. He fought against the pain, trying to flinch from the blade as his body arched and convulsed from its attack, but it was no use. Each time he gained control more pain would strike him and then increase the grip holding him to the earth.

He had to keep trying, he thought. There must be a way.

In one final attempt, he would move every part of his body in order to flee the ghostly restraints. It took him some time to work up the courage again. The blade-like pain was consistently stabbing at his consciousness, making it almost impossible to take the breath he so desperately needed.

He knew he had to try no matter how hard it seemed. He could do nothing else. Slowly he counted back from three, biding his time before he made the attempt.

Three…

Two…

One…

With a sudden burst of strength, he freed himself from the blade and rose to a sitting position. He could no longer feel the strange movement in the ground, nor the spears crisscrossing underneath him. It had worked. He was amazed to find himself free … or was he? No more than a second had passed before he realised it had been too easy, and that he was not sitting up at all. His eyes were still closed, and then there was the strange sinking sensation of knowing what was about to come.

Horror. Anguish. Death. It struck then, a pain so terrible, a feeling so raw and crippling that it threatened his very sanity as it washed over his body and mind alike. It felt as if a giant claw-like hand had reached up through the dirt and grasped him, pulling him back with such incredible force that it would take him deep below even the ground itself, to a hidden lair of a beast that would feast upon his flesh, content until its next unsuspecting prey came along. The threat of the monsters lurking in the darkness had come to pass.

This was the end. He tried to hold on, but the pain became too much. As he tried to escape it once more, he slipped out of consciousness and lay as if he were deceased; no longer able to think, move, or even breathe. The world had disappeared before him, and he before it.

* * *

‘Jay.’

He could hear a voice.

‘Jay!’

It came again.

‘Wake up!’

Jaden peered through small openings in his eyelids, light stinging at his pupils as it burst in.

‘I thought I’d find you here,’ said Bo, walking up to him. ‘The game … what’s wrong?’ Bo’s voice had changed from playful to concerned in an instant. ‘You look like you’ve just seen Ardim’s mother.’

‘What?’ asked Jaden, still dazed. Memories of the trauma soon returned to him, and he became aware of the dull throbbing in his head. Bo’s words then registered. ‘Nothing,’ he said, ‘just … I don’t know.’

He tried to think back to the dream-like state, the unfamiliar sensations he had felt. He couldn’t seem to remember much of anything anymore.

Bo said nothing. He knew better than to press matters. As was common in the Daiyus family, Jaden had always volunteered information if it were to be given.

‘Your say,’ said Bo, unsure what Jaden was trying to tell him. ‘Get up. The game’s starting in ten minutes. Everyone’s waiting for you.’

With a helping hand up from Bo, all Jaden could do was nod, walking with Bo’s support for a few steps, then on his own.

Together they passed empty houses one after the other. The entire village had stopped their daily chores to go and watch the game in the centre, where the tennagen field had been made. It was symbolic of their entire civilisation being created around the sport; a field of uneven terrain, jagged rocks, trees and a single stream that cut the valley in two. All of it was left untouched. No one could build there or use the land for anything but the practice and execution of tennagen matches. It was a long-held truce, an unbreakable sacred tradition that none dared challenge. The tennagen field was the one place they could relieve their anger and tension, and legally fight those who had wronged them in daily life.

They heard the roaring of the crowd some distance away, and both Jaden and Bo could feel the excitement of the match beginning to rise in their chests. This was their time to prove their abilities, to show what they had accomplished to their whole community.

‘Are you ready?’ asked Bo.

‘Always,’ said Jaden almost before Bo had finished. He had never refused a match in his entire life, and he was not about to start now simply because of a bad dream.

They entered the field to cheers from both sides, welcomed as heroes by young and old. It was a place of glory; theirs to savour, no one else’s. Those older than them were forced to retire from the game and allow the new generations to come through. And thus, this was why the sport had been named “tennagen”, originally shortened from the phrase “ten a generation”. Anyone over the age of twenty was considered as the previous generation, who were about to start families of their own and contribute in other ways to the village. This kept the achievements of each family fresh, allowing the people to know who were currently the best. In a few years, the same would happen for Jaden and his friends, but for now, they were at their prime, and the favourites to win this match.

They looked around the field, a sea of faces all with eyes fixed on them. Everyone was shouting words of encouragement, while at the opposite end the challenging team was being given the same treatment.

Jaden and Bo went directly to their team, where the three others, Corey, Dion and Konnor, were all waiting to form their traditional pre-match circle.
‘Took your time, sprinter, see another girl you like?’ asked Konnor.

‘Your sister is here, Kon, you know she’s the one for me,’ Jaden teased.

Konnor gave a forced laugh as they all leaned forward to speak together in hushed tones. Although Konnor knew Jaden was joking, he still didn’t like the idea of Jaden pursuing his sister, who he knew was very much in love with him, despite being three years his junior.

‘Touch her and—’ began Konnor.

‘Boys,’ Bo cut in, ‘enough. We have to keep our heads for this one.’

‘Relax, Bo,’ said Dion as Jaden gave a friendly slap on the back to Konnor. ‘You know we play better when we’re cheery.’

‘That maybe, but we’re playing Ardim’s side, and they won’t be as easy to beat as last time. They’ve been coached recently, making their strategy almost entirely new.’

‘What needs to be done?’ asked Jaden, now talking seriously.

‘Everything they won’t expect us to do. We’re running first and every match Jaden has started as our runner. They’re expecting that. This time I’ve given the band to Corey. They won’t expect it with his injury. Corey, I want you to take it home for us.’

Corey blinked slowly as he lowered his head to show acknowledgement.

‘It’s as we’ve said—Jaden fakes the run and draws the defence, we back him up while the real runner races behind. They’re bigger than us, so we have to rely on skill. Got it?’
‘Got it,’ they echoed.

‘Right, boys, this is it,’ said Bo. ‘When we’re set, the game begins. Ready?’

‘Ready!’

‘Go!’

They quickly split apart to find their respective positions of offence, signalling for the referees to blow the whistles to start the match. The battle between Jaden’s team, the Dynasty, and Ardim’s Pioneers would begin.

This was the tennagen field of so much history, where so much of Callibrian culture had been changed. The field was two hundred yards in length, divided into four sections of fifty yards apiece with a different type of natural hazard in each. Jaden warmed up his legs in the first section, while the four others were in the next. The game was simple enough; a team of five must choose a player in secret to wear the runner’s band under their left sleeve and get across the other end of the field without being caught by the defence. The strategy needed to complete such a task, however, was anything but simple. At the centre line the stream that ran across the entire field forced players to choose between two wooden bridges seventy yards apart, or swim across it, which would cause them to lose valuable time and energy. Players were then required to navigate through large rocks, ditches, trees and dense fern plantations without being caught by the defence.
Once held, a player was treated as out and caused the surrounding fifteen yards to become known as a dead zone after two seconds. This forced the attacking team to be careful where they were tackled and held, for fear of hindering the runner’s path. The defenders were often separated for this reason also, so that they wouldn’t cancel out their team before they were able to make a tackle of their own.

All tackles were legal, so long as the harm inflicted was not intentional. Players had mastered the ability to make things seem accidental, but had become reluctant as the ones being tackled learnt of ways to harm their attacker in a similar manner. Among the best players, there were rarely injuries sustained, as much from mutual respect as ability to counter anything that came their way.

Another whistle was blown. The round had begun. Jaden had moved up to his team in the second section and jumped into a full sprint with them toward halfway. They knew they would need speed to defeat their opponents. If caught behind the bridges, they would be tackled with ease.

They made it past the bridges with a good twenty yards to spare. Dion made first contact with a defender, pulling him down to the ground and creating the first dead zone on the left side. Konnor soon followed his lead as he took the next defender down with him, and Bo jumped at Ardim’s ankles to pull him down before he could chase after Jaden. Corey was running side by side with Jaden on the right side of the field, appearing as a protector. He dropped back a little, allowing the two defenders remaining to think they could grab Jaden without hindrance. They often used a double team, as Jaden had shown in the past that one usually wasn’t enough to keep him from dodging past them.

It worked. Corey faked that he was going to tackle the first defender that reached them, then dodged to the left past the next defender as they both ran full pace at Jaden. Jaden was tapped on his ankle and tripped a little before being brought down a few yards later, but the rest of the field had been left open for Corey to make an easy run to the end line. The crowd erupted in cheers as he displayed the runner’s band triumphantly, and then he casually ran back to the praise of his friends, who celebrated with a one-to-nil start on the Pioneers.

Their cheers were silenced in the next round as Ardim made a valiant and unexpected effort at jumping almost the entire distance of the stream. He passed the defence and scored what was looked upon as one of the easiest points ever made. Bo called out to his team to stay focused, assuring them it was still early, but they had to be a little more cautious than to leave such a wide opening.

The next rounds saw the Dynasty gain a lead of four points, the Pioneers unable to break their defence or halt their offence. Ardim cursed at his team, shouting at them to get into their positions as practised. It was almost a walkover, nothing as Bo had anticipated from what he had heard of the new coaching.

It all changed, however, halfway through the match.

Suddenly the Pioneers had grasped a bit of order, as if their leader’s shouts had finally sunk in, and the Dynasty were now the ones missing tackles and falling short of scoring. Bo tried to group his team, to calm them and maintain a bit of focus. With a few well-played rounds, they came up with some extra points, but their lead had diminished, and the teams became neck and neck.
By the end of the match, it was tied at thirty-seven apiece.

Bo called for the team to group. By stopping the Pioneers in the previous round, they had won the right to elect whether they would attack or defend in the deciding bout, and chose to go with their strength and attack. If their runner made it across the line, they would win the match, but if they failed, they would lose a point, handing the victory and the land rights over to the Pioneers.

‘They’re tough,’ Bo started. ‘We need to play this one safe.’

‘I say we need something fresh, surprise them,’ said Konnor.

‘Like the fifteenth and sixteenth rounds?’ asked Bo. ‘We didn’t even get close to scoring. It’s not going to happen. We have to play solid.’

‘That was new to us as well,’ reminded Dion.

‘We didn’t know how to make it work,’ agreed Corey.

Bo shook his head. ‘We can’t take the risk.’

‘Not so,’ said Corey. ‘That is precisely what we need to do; something new, but well-practised. I suggest the play we rehearsed last week.’

‘What? That was just a joke. This isn’t the time for mucking around,’ said Bo in disbelief.

‘But it worked,’ said Jaden. ‘They won’t expect it.’

Bo looked around at the others and saw everyone nodding. ‘Have you all gone mad? They’ll expect Jaden to be the runner.’

‘But they won’t expect the way he makes the run,’ said Corey.

Realising he could say nothing to dissuade them, Bo reluctantly gave in. ‘Fine, whatever you say, but it’s on your heads if we lose this.’

‘Sounds fair,’ said Dion. ‘Let’s do it.’

‘You all remember the positions?’ asked Bo, receiving more nods. ‘I guess that’s it. Jaden, you have the band still, we’re ready when you are. Go.’

The team broke away and found their positions for the final time in the match, all except Jaden who had remained where he was. He was still near the sidelines, looking ahead toward centre, as if he had forgotten the match.

Bo walked back to him. ‘What’s wrong?’

Jaden gave no reply at first, but then pointed with a nod. There, where he had been looking, was Alyssa, standing next to her father.

Bo had to use all of his strength not to roll his eyes. He couldn’t believe Jaden would stop at this point of the match just to look at her. ‘What’s she doing here?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘That girl is trouble, Jay, I don’t know why you bother.’

‘No other girl will have me.’

Bo laughed, ‘Whatever you say, heartbreaker, but you’re wasting your time.’

‘No … something’s wrong. I don’t understand yet, but this isn’t about finding my chosen. I need to talk to her … our lives rely on it.’

Bo looked at Jaden with an awkward expression, as he often did when Jaden said something out of the ordinary. ‘Jay, I respect you, you know that, so I won’t say exactly what I have in mind … but you’re dreaming, guy, the world isn’t as complex as you’d like it to be. Wake up. Understand?’

‘Maybe … or maybe it is more than we both think.’

Bo shook his head. ‘Well, I’ll leave that to you, but not right now. Keep it steady down the line this run until they least expect it. If we make this, this sport will be rewritten from this day on.’

Almost absently, Jaden replied, ‘I’m on it.’

Bo showed concern. ‘I know. Just don’t disappoint me, sprinter, this one is for my father.’

‘And mine,’ whispered Jaden, taking his eyes off Alyssa and scanning the rest of the crowd.

A whistle was blown. Sixty seconds before the final round was to begin.

Jaden stalked the baseline at the eastern end of the field, gauging his opponent’s strategy as he plotted his own course. Dusk had arrived, making their bronzed skins only just visible as the game made it into overtime. Earth’s rings had come alive with the sun disappearing beyond the mountains, the cerulean blue lines lighting up the sky from east to west, horizon to horizon. Jaden looked up to see them, appreciating their phenomenal presence as he often did to calm himself. No matter how much chaos there was on the ground, he could always take solace in them. No matter how ugly the times were there was always some beauty left around him.

He focused.

On the opposite side of the field, behind the stream that meandered through the centre, he could see his enemy. One, two … he counted the defenders on the right, behind the first bridge. Three, four … they were protecting the second bridge on the left. It was the standard defensive formation, blocking the runner at the two most obvious waypoints. They were being cautious. They knew how much was at stake.

Five…

Where was the fifth defender?

A second whistle blew. Thirty seconds remained. Jaden had to find him quickly. He should have been protecting the centre, in case the runner attempted to jump the stream where it was thinnest. Where could he have been positioned?

A flicker. Jaden had caught sight of movement at the other end, the white leg garments barely seen almost the full two hundred yards away. The fifth defender had chosen to guard the baseline.
But that can’t have been. It was foolish to take such a risk. Once a runner had made it past three-quarter field, the round was as good as won. There had been few occasions when a defender was skilled enough to take down a runner so close to scoring. It was thought of as boasting more than stylish tactical play. There had to be a reason Jaden hadn’t seen, something he didn’t realise yet, but what?

The third whistle sounded. Ten seconds.

Ardim. That stupid bull of a man was not one of the four defenders within vision. The fifth defender must have been him. Ardim, as if he hadn’t done enough to spite in the past, now appeared to be looking for the ultimate humiliation, attempting to prevent Jaden from scoring in the hardest way possible. And he was taking a very large risk in the process.
That was why the fifth defender had been hidden.

Jaden lowered his gaze to the ground, readying to run. Ardim had gone too far this time. It was not enough simply to claim victory, Ardim wanted to punish Jaden in front of someone they now both undoubtedly knew was in the audience.

Alyssa.

Now it made sense.

The final whistle sounded.

He would not let Ardim succeed.

Jaden quickly hopped into step and moved left and right, wanting to mislead the defenders as to which way he would go. Nearing centre field, he gradually drifted to the left, the two defenders that would guard that bridge becoming animated with anticipation.

Twenty yards from the bridge, he feigned a step to the left then ran to the right. The two defenders jumped into full run, chasing him to the middle. Jaden knew Ardim had put them in a precarious position, they must have been nervous. Leaving the centre so open made it almost too easy for the runner to score.

The Dynasty would be watching on in disbelief. Jaden was not following the game plan. He thought he heard Bo shout at him, but he had to take advantage of the opening. And most of all, he had to make Ardim think he had made the biggest mistake of his life.

At the bridge on the right, defence and offence had clashed and had tagged out, leaving the zone dead. No players were allowed within fifteen yards of where they lay. Jaden expected this, a loss of an option early. They had prepared for it. It was never his intention to make use of that bridge. His route was much more devious.

Nearing the stream, he readied to jump as far across the water as he could as Ardim had done earlier, needing then only to swim two or three more yards. One mistake in the water and he would lose whatever advantage he may have had, the defenders easily able to catch him as he climbed out. He had to be careful when he made the leap. But at the last moment, before he could jump, the unthinkable happened. Jaden lost his balance and slid across the ground.

Onlookers gasped, their cheers falling silent as time suddenly stood still. They began to speak to each other in hushed voices. Jaden did not get up, resting on one knee and clutching his ankle. A smile crossed the defenders’ lips as they threw up their hands in victory. If the runner was injured, the round was over. They would win by default. Those of the defenders’ camp were also celebrating, crying out as loud as they could. They had won. Finally, they had won.

Jaden turned to the two left on his team, Bo and Dion. They were coming towards him, sympathetic as much as disappointed. He stared at them hard, but then nodded slowly, causing them to stop. Without any sign, they began backing away steadily. The whistle for the game’s end had not been blown. Jaden had ten seconds to recover before it was declared. He waited until the cheers were the loudest, biding his time until they would least expect it.

Three…

Two…

One…

He jumped to his feet and ran toward the second bridge at full pace, the defenders looking shocked but only a few steps behind. Bo and Dion were at the other side of the bridge, ready to tackle the oncoming defenders. It was as Jaden planned.

The timing had to be perfect for this new strategy. If the defenders were able to pin them down before he had made it past, the zone would be dead as well as all of those within it. Jaden would be out of the game. The match would be over. It was crucial that they did not let this happen.

As contact between the two sides was about to be made, Jaden called out.

‘Now!’

It happened so quickly that the defenders had no time to react. Bo and Dion turned and faced each other, their hands at knee level, connected to form a platform. Jaden had raced and jumped between both, landing in their hands. The next second, Jaden was being propelled into the air, high over the defenders. Their momentum caused them to clash with Bo and Dion who tackled and pinned them down effortlessly. They looked around in desperation, trying to see where Jaden would land, but to their horror, Jaden wasn’t to be seen. The zone was classed as dead, but Jaden was above it. Only when he made contact with the ground again would he be part of the zone. But his feet would not touch the ground yet.

A deafening cheer came from the audience as Jaden grabbed hold of and swung up into a tree. It had meant he was free of both defenders and the zone itself. It had never been done before, and he had made it on his first try. There was nothing the defenders could do to stop him.

With a strong desire to smile, he climbed through the tree’s limbs to get to another tree, and then another, before reaching the rock ledge where he was able to run across the top. No one had expected this to be possible. The rock ledge was seen as an obstacle rather than a route, but now that he was up there, he knew how perfect a line it was. Even if the defenders tried to chase him, he had options left and right that he could use at any time to get past them to the end of the field.

Shouts of excitement continued to urge him on. The finish line was only fifty yards away, clear to the end.

He was not about to claim victory yet though; he still had to deal with Ardim, who would be lurking near the baseline. But where was he? With so little light, he would be almost impossible to see running at this speed. Jaden slowed a little, trying to search him out, and then jumped down from the rock ledge. Wherever Ardim was, he was too late to stop Jaden now, who was only thirty yards from scoring. He raced as fast as he could, Ardim still nowhere in sight.

Where could he have been?

‘ARGH!’

Jaden screamed out in pain as his right leg gave in and he fell heavily to the ground. The crowd’s cheers weakened until they stopped altogether. They were all trying to peek over one another to see what had happened. Jaden was only fifteen yards from the finish line, but unable to get up, clutching at his upper leg. Ardim emerged from a dense patch of trees in a run before jumping on Jaden with all his weight. He then got to his feet with hands well over his head, raised in victory.

‘Victors!’ shouted Ardim to a silent audience. Even the supporters of the Pioneers were quiet in shock.

‘What kind of cheap trick?’ Jaden cried out from the ground before being helped up by Bo and Dion. ‘What did you throw at me?’

‘Trick?’ asked Ardim. ‘You fell.’

‘Because you hit me with something.’

‘Don’t be a poor loser. You hurt your ankle. You fell. Accept it.’

‘What’s going on here?’ The head referee, who was dressed like the others in bright orange lower garments but had a yellow band on his head, had come over to evaluate the situation.

‘Ardim threw something, Elder,’ Jaden addressed him formally. ‘It hit my leg and caused my fall.’

‘Elder, I didn’t throw anything,’ said Ardim. ‘He must have fallen on his hurt ankle.’

‘My ankle is fine, you fool! I faked that injury to confuse your defence!’

‘Just like you’re faking this injury now,’ Ardim teased.

‘Jaden! Restrain yourself,’ called the referee, as both Bo and Dion had to hold him back from attacking Ardim at that very moment.

Jaden calmed, ‘Look, here’s the mark of where he hit me.’

He showed a large red patch just above his knee, where a bruise was already forming. The referee inspected the injury with interest.

‘He could’ve done that when he fell, Elder,’ said Ardim.

‘You’re lying.’

‘Quiet!’ called the referee. ‘As far as I can see, no rules have been broken, and no objects have been thrown. I myself did not see anything—’

‘Obviously you didn’t, it was too dark to see it!’ protested Jaden.

‘One more outburst and I will ban you from playing from here on,’ scolded the referee, and Jaden was forced to hold his tongue. ‘If no attack was witnessed, it must be concluded it did not happen. That is the rule. Pioneers win, thirty-seven to thirty-six. Match over.’

Jaden was whipped away by Bo and Dion before he could say anything more. They knew there was nothing that could be done once a referee had declared the match over, and would not risk losing Jaden as a player for their next match for something that was obviously futile.

‘Easy,’ said Bo, ‘it’s just land, don’t do anything stupid.’

Jaden was furious, but he too knew there was nothing that could be done. ‘Let me go,’ he said.

‘Swear to us that you won’t go after Ardim,’ said Dion.

‘I swear. Now let me go.’

Both Bo and Dion released their hold at the same time, and Jaden sprinted away without turning. He slowed to a jog when his leg spiked with pain, but he would not stop. He couldn’t accept that he had lost the match. This day would not end in defeat. He would beat Ardim, whether on the field or off.

There.

He saw her walking back to her home.

‘Alyssa!’ he called out.

She turned to where she had heard the voice and then stopped as she saw him running toward her. Her bright oval eyes stared softly at him in confusion as he neared.

‘Alyssa,’ he repeated. ‘I wanted to talk to you.’

She said nothing, waiting for him to go on.

He laughed nervously. ‘Every time I try to talk to you, something gets in the way.’

She smiled faintly at this, encouraging him further.

‘I’ve been meaning to ask you if you’re not busy sometime, I’d like to talk with you.’

She still seemed confused. ‘What do you want to talk about?’

‘I’m not sure,’ said Jaden, trying to think of what he had sensed when he saw her on the sidelines. ‘Have you noticed something … strange … in the ground lately?’

At first she seemed lost, but then her brows furrowed slightly.

‘Yes,’ she said, as if now that he mentioned it she had noticed. ‘Sharp … movement?’ she asked, puzzled.

‘Alyssa, come inside!’

Alyssa’s father’s voice was unmistakable coming from the kitchen window, preventing Jaden from saying what he wanted to next.

‘I’m sorry, I have to go,’ she said, her voice as gentle as her eyes and as caring as her smile.

‘Can we meet tomorrow?’ asked Jaden with a sudden urgency.

She looked troubled, pausing a second. ‘Come see me,’ she said, and then quickly hurried indoors just as her father called out again.

‘When?’ Jaden asked, to which Alyssa gave a shrug as she disappeared behind a closed door, without another word.

Jaden relaxed. It wasn’t much, but it was all he had hoped. He had arranged a time he could talk with her. That’s all that mattered. And strangely, she had known of the sharp movements in the ground. Whatever those movements were, Bo could not laugh at or tease Jaden about how he felt about Alyssa now. He had been right. They had something in common, even if neither could be sure what it might be.

Somewhat out of breath, he retreated from the house and walked back toward his home. Despite the loss, he felt relieved. Just talking for a moment and hearing her mention the sharp movements had put him at ease almost instantly. He would have to wait to talk to her the next day to find out more about what she had experienced, but for now, all seemed well. He had lost the game but it wasn’t so bad. Even if the Pioneers did get the land, it was a small price to pay to have finally been able to talk with Alyssa. Besides, it wasn’t that his pride had been hurt, there was foul play involved, and there was always the chance to appeal the decision another day regarding the land’s use. There would be another match to settle it, but next time, he would make sure Ardim was being watched by a referee.

‘What were you doing with my girl?’

Lost in his thoughts, Jaden had turned a corner and walked straight into Ardim.

‘I was nowhere near your mother,’ said Jaden instinctively.

Ardim pushed Jaden backward. ‘That’s a big call for a little man,’ he said.

‘That’s a big sentence for a dumb man. Been practicing?’

‘Your mouth is going to get you hurt.’

‘Why, you going to throw another rock? Get out of the way, cheat.’

Jaden had no sooner said the words and tried to push past Ardim when he wished he hadn’t. Ardim was not alone this time. His team joined him, coming out of the darkness behind.

‘What did you call me, runt?’

Jaden backed away as they advanced. He didn’t reply. There was nothing he could say now. He knew exactly what they had planned.

‘I think you’ve had enough fair treatment,’ Ardim went on, mockingly. ‘You need to learn your place.’

They wanted a fight. Jaden thought about his leg and its condition. It was still sore where the bruise was, he would lose some speed, but it would hold long enough. This was going to be anything but a fair fight. He could probably have handled two, maybe even three of them, but not five at once. He didn’t have a choice.

With a quick turn he was away, racing far from them before they had a chance to grab him.

‘Wimp,’ he heard Ardim say after him, but quietly enough so that he would not get any attention from the houses they were passing.

Adrenalin pounded through Jaden’s veins, making him run faster and causing the feeling in his legs to vanish. He knew he couldn’t run from them forever. He was too tired from the match. Eventually they would catch him, but they would be tired, too, so the first chance there was, he knew he had to lose them. He leapt up on top of a wall, deciding going up would be his best chance. He used the wall to grab at a ledge, which he climbed to get on the roof of a house. He ran across the flat and jumped to the next house. The house after that was too far for a single jump, so he climbed down quickly before they could see him racing through the gardens. They would never have attempted to follow him over the roofs.

‘Where is he?’ he could hear one of Ardim’s team calling out, no longer cautious of drawing attention to themselves.

‘Not here,’ came the reply.

‘I think he’s over there!’

Jaden ran around the grassy areas and through ferns and trees until he reached the plantations. Having worked in the fields almost every day, he knew the routes he could take to confuse his followers, and soon enough he was out of their reach, climbing up the eastern mountain, high through its dense foliage that scratched at his arms and legs, and to a cave that only he knew about almost at the top. This was his sanctuary for such times, or when he simply needed a rest.

They would be looking for him below, searching the entire village before growing bored and abandoning the hunt. It could take up to three or four hours for this to happen, but there was nothing else to do but wait.

Lying back against a smooth stone, he looked up at the stars. The rings were still shining brightly. They put him at ease, and as he forgot about Ardim searching for him below, he drifted into an exhausted sleep. He would deal with Ardim in the morning.

Read a review of the book here! When War Calls – Book Review