Thursday, June 12, 2014

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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Stryker Chapter 1 - Stryker's Beginning

Stryker’s Beginning

             Stryker was a strong boy. He had not cried out at the ceremony. His hands still stung a little as he knelt beside the low table, soaking them in the wooden bowl filled with seawater. Three red lines, stretching from his wrists toward his fingers, slashed across the back of each hand.  Soft sunlight came in through the window of the hut.  The walls of mud and thinly woven reeds let in a breeze. With it came the smell of the ocean.  The gentle wind calmed Stryker as it rustled the thatched palm leaves of the roof.   His mother had gone to the garden, leaving him alone in the cool shade of the hut. Stryker felt a great calm, a relief he had not felt for some time.  The ceremony marked his twelfth birthday and the last rite in his ascension from childhood. He was home again and with honor. 
            He was proud that he had not cried out at the ceremony and glad that his mother and father had seen his strength.  He had not been afraid to enter the circle of torches on the beach. The drums and the ghostly chanting had not caused him fear. He had controlled his nerves as the old priest anointed his hands. He had not even flinched when the priest took the shell blade and cut the long slashes down the back of each hand, nor grimaced as the priest inserted a long black spine into each cut. He looked intently into the old man’s eyes as they pressed their hands together to seal the wounds over the spines. The old man’s face, as always, had remained hard but kind, ancient but strong.  The priest, Master Taum, had been his teacher and closest companion over the last seven years of preparation for Ascension. Stryker had grown accustomed to the ancient face. He loved his master and knew the old man loved him. 
            The ceremony marked the end of his childhood training.  He was now an Initiate. With the spines of the black scorpion fish in his hands, he was well on his way to becoming a full Cleat, a warrior of his people. Stryker’s father was a Cleat, as his mother’s mother had been.   Even before he was born it was hoped that Stryker would undergo the training. Before he was three he was already showing signs that indeed he had inherited the talent. On his fifth birthday his mother left him in Master Taum’s care. 
            Now, seven years later, as he sat with his hands soaking, he could hear his mother singing in the garden.  He could not make out all the words. It was a playful song, something about a whale hunt and a mermaid.  The sound of her voice brought back vividly the day she had given him over to Master Taum for training.
            That day he had cried, and so had she. He remembered how she had hugged him tightly and pressed their foreheads together,   “Be strong my son, my little warrior son.  Train hard and fight well. May Father Earth give you strength, and may Mother Moon touch you with her power.”  The familiar prayer to Father Earth and Mother Moon brought even more tears to his eyes.  They had said it together so many times, over meals or whenever his father left with the patrol ships.
            The small training islands were not far away.  As a boy, on clear days, Stryker had often looked out at them with his mother and father.  He had even been excited to, one day, travel across the small channel.  Still, when the day came to leave, he had not been excited.  Though the islands were close, the trainees and their teachers were kept separate from the other islands.  He would not see his parents, even once, during the seven years of training.
            “You’ll have Taum,” his mother had told him, “and the other trainees. You’ll make friends.”  She wiped his tears and added, “You know your father would not want us to cry.” As always, when she mentioned his father, he had felt braver and pulled away from her embrace. Yes, he would be strong.  He then kissed her cheek, as he had often seen his father do.  Against his lips, his mother’s cheek was salty with tears. 
            “You taste like the sea,” Stryker said, almost smiling.
             His mother laughed through her tears, “Yes, like the sea.” 
            Stryker was surprised at how well he remembered his mother and father. It had been seven years and he had been so young when he left, still the hut felt familiar, and there was no awkwardness with his parents.  As was the custom with his people, after the training, a child could call his parents by their given names, his father Jaden and his mother Mina. 
            He closed his eyes and concentrated on his hands in the water.  The energy of the water was cool but strong.  He focused on the flow.  As he had been taught, he focused on the energy of the water and the energy of his hands.  Pressing and pulling with his mind, he made the energy flow out of the water and into the cuts.  He felt the wounds healing over the spines.  As he focused, his thoughts returned to that first day on the training islands.
             Master Taum had told him firmly, “do not cry for your parents, you will be with them again.”  He had then knelt down and added more kindly, “Her Ra will remain with you, and if you learn to be patient, to sit still and to listen, you will sense her.”
            Stryker had been aware of what the grown ups called Ra, or spirit energy, as long as he could remember. He could feel it flowing through his body.  He felt how it changed when someone touched him.  It was this awareness that qualified him for the training. Being able to sense Ra was common among his people, but only those who could control its flow were chosen to become Cleats.     
            Controlling Ra was what made their people so strong in battle. It was why, anciently, they had been separated as a warrior class.  In the Great Wars following the fourth destruction they were used as human weapons, soldiers or assassins.  Some Cleats, especially adept, became healers, but mostly they were used for violence. After three centuries of fighting, they withdrew to the islands in the great Middle Sea where, four hundred years later, Stryker was born. Seventeen main islands formed the archipelago.  Each was a harsh desert, the earth dry and barren.  The people went for months in the summer without rain, but during the wet months, hot storms beat against the rocky shores for days at a time. 
            The people survived by fishing, raising herds of thin goats, and hunting the great whales that migrated back and forth across the Middle Sea.  The people stored water in cisterns, and no one lived in wealth or idleness. The wars continued across the continents, but the Cleats and their people no longer fought. They continued training warriors, but now only to protect their isolation.  They had minimal contact with the mainland, only through the occasional fishermen, tradesmen or smugglers who crossed the sea from the Southern Kingdoms to the lands of the Empire.  These strangers were allowed to pass through Cleat waters if they did so quickly without stopping or disturbing anyone. Stryker’s people loved peace and fought only to protect it. In four hundred years the Cleats had never lost a battle at sea, yet the Empire still sent ships to raid and pester the islands.  It was for this purpose that Stryker’s father left for months at a time to patrol the open channels.  It was for this reason that Stryker’s mother gave him to Taum.
            Stryker flexed his fingers in the bowl.  He felt the spines bend and flex with his hands.   He was glad his mother had done it. He was proud to be an Initiate, though the path had not been easy. He closed his eyes and thought back on the training. 
            The first step was to learn to sit still, to watch, and to feel.  During the first year of training, Stryker learned to wait for his food, to wait to sleep, to wait for pain to pass.  He learned to sense the Ra around him, in the earth and the rocks, in the water.  He learned to recognize the Ra of birds and plants, of the worms in the earth and fish in the water.  At the end of the first year he had faced his first trial. 
            Stryker remembered the day clearly. Master Taum had given him few instructions. “This is your first trial and the only deadly task you will face in your training.   The first task must be the hardest.  If you pass, nothing will stop you from going on to become a Cleat.  If you fail, then we will not have wasted much time on you.” 
            Stryker knew that when Master Taum spoke casually like this he was hiding his true feelings.  He knew that the old man was afraid for him, and that added to his own fear.             
            “Sit here,” the old man went on, pointing to a straw mat in front of a small table in the middle of the hut. “You must sit perfectly still. Do not move.”
            Then he left, closing the door behind him.  Stryker was alone.
             On top of the small table, there lay a black cloth.  Stryker could see there was something beneath it, but he could not tell what it was.  He closed his eyes and tried to sense its energy.  It was too far away.  Stryker almost reached out his hand to touch it but stopped. 
            “Don’t move!” Taum whispered through the door.  “Under the cloth is a scarafa beetle.”  Stryker froze, now he understood why Master Taum was afraid for him.  Suddenly the cloth moved. Stryker nearly jumped back but caught himself. It was not the beetle moving but the cloth that covered it.  A small thread trailed from the cloth, off the table, to the door, where on the other side, Master Taum held the end.  Slowly and steadily, he pulled the string, revealing the beetle.
            It was frightening but beautiful. Its translucent, milky shell glistened like sea foam in the soft light from the window.  Stryker calmed his thoughts and studied the beetle.  It was a female, about ten inches long. The shell along her back formed two curved wings, like claws, at the tip of each a slight brownish hue marked the venom.  The wings did not move. From outside Master Taum whispered instructions.
             “The beetle will not strike if you do not move. Listen for her breathing, feel the rhythm of her Ra. When you have sensed this rhythm, you must begin to gauge your timing.  For a split second, when she breaths in, her energy will stop, she will be immobile, then you must strike.” 
            Then his master was gone.  He was not staying to watch? What if something went wrong? Would Master Taum really let him die?  If he were stung, Master Taum could counteract the poison, but only if he reached him in time, only if he watched closely.  No, Master Taum was serious, he could die. A lump rose in his throat and a brassy taste came into his mouth. His breathing quickened. For a moment he thought of his mother, he wanted his father to come.  The beetle flinched and Stryker froze.
            Slowly, he calmed his breathing. He dared to blink. He forced himself to swallow the knot in his throat. Still, the beetle did not move.  He began to focus his energy, probing out through his legs, into the ground and across to the table.  It was too far.  Against his will, his breathing quickened again.  He was too far from the beetle to sense it and too close to run. For nearly an hour he pushed his Ra outward, reaching, listening for any sound, any small ripple of energy.  His legs began to ache.  His energy faltered. He tried to press it back out but could not.  Finally, he stopped pushing. Perhaps he could just hold still and wait. When Taum realized he could not sense the beetle and could not strike, he would surely come back.  Master Taum would realize he had failed, kill the beetle, and let Stryker go. If that happened, he would be sent home for sure. His mother would not care, she would be glad to see him and his father…  but when Stryker thought of his father the knot came back to his throat. No, he could not fail and face his father again.  He was trapped and alone.  Too afraid to move, too afraid to strike, he could not even call for help.  His eyes began to burn with hot salty tears.  Stryker almost raised his hand to wipe them away.  He could not cry.  His father would not want him to cry.  His father would want him to be strong.  He shut his eyes, squeezing away the tears, and tried again to listen, to concentrate. 
            Stryker sat immobile for what seemed like an eternity.  When he opened his eyes again the light in the hut had dimmed.  As the sun went down outside, the beetle lost its shine and took on a pale, ghostly white.  
            In the darkness, he watched the beetle and listened. When the fear or the tears threatened to take him again, he thought of his father and forced himself to be calm. The hours passed excruciatingly slow.  Finally, moonlight came in through the window. The soft glow was a welcome sight. Master Taum had taught him that the Moon first awakened the spirit energies. Ra in the Cleats, Shar in the Blade Maidens, Mune in the Empaths, and Syth in the Kingdoms of the South.  She was the mother, and as her light moved slowly across the floor to where Stryker sat, he prayed to her, pleading for help. Why did the beetle not move? Why did it not crawl off or fly into the roof, or strike? He strained his ears listening for something, a step, a voice, for anything, but there was only the wind in the palm leaves overhead, and the distant crash of the waves on the beach.  Stryker was exhausted, and still he stared at the beetle, still he pressed his mind toward it.  Too far, it was just too far. Finally he withdrew his Ra and closed his eyes, defeated.
            Then slowly, into his exhausted mind, came a clear memory.  It was an old one, from before the training.  His mother had been sick but they had not known why.  Stryker could not remember everything, but he knew she had been sick for days.  Healers came to see her, but nothing helped.  In his memory Stryker saw his father kneeling over her with his hands on her arm. His eyes were closed, he was listening, waiting, and feeling her energy.  Stryker had remembered this scene many times, but as he knelt alone in the dark hut, the memory was somehow different.  This time he not only saw his father, but also felt his energy, the gentle steady Ra flowing from his father to his mother.  The energy was strong and warm.  It poured out of his memory and filled the room.  He could actually feel it all around him.
            He opened his eyes again.  The moonlight had inched hour by hour across the floor of the hut, and now shown full on the beetle’s shell.  In the moonlight the beetle glowed like a white flame. Then, all at once, Stryker felt it. He sensed her rhythm and heard her breath. Her energy raced, quickly and shallow.  Of course, the beetle was barely ten inches long, she would not take deep breaths. Her energy would flow in tight fast circles. 
            He wanted to sing for joy, but stopped, he had lost the sound.  He had it, but it was gone. No. Wait. There, short, shallow but distinct. He could strike, but he would have to be extremely fast.  He silently thanked Mother Moon and asked Father Earth for strength.
            Slowly, he forced himself to time his attack. In, out, in, out, in, out, in, now, no, wait. It was too hard. He kept losing the rhythm.  A split second hesitation, a moment too late, and he would miss. In out, in out, in out, in…
            “Now!” he cried aloud as his hand slashed forward and crashed down into the beetle.  With his entire mind he forced his Ra out through three extended fingers and into the beetle.  His Ra slashed through hers like a knife.  
            For a moment nothing moved. Stryker held his breath. The scarafa did not even twitch. It was dead.  He closed his eyes. The breathing of the beetle was gone, her energy dispersed. She was dead. Stryker was alive.  He tried to stand and turned to the door, but as blood rushed back into his legs, his head spun and his vision grew dark.  He stumbled forward and fell down unconscious.
            The poisonous tips of the wings were saved and grafted into the top of Stryker’s ears, pulling them into sharp points.  The venom seeped slowly into his bloodstream, and thus administered, was not fatal.  After a few weeks the skin and cartilage fused with the shell, and Stryker had his own venomous spikes.  He had admired his reflection in the water. Though they made his ears look too large for his small head, he liked them.  They were like his father’s, and they made him look like a Cleat.  All Cleats had the spikes on their ears, though Stryker had never realized what they were, and he had never even asked.  He wondered if he had asked, if anyone would have told him.  It would have been an advantage to know of the test before he faced it, but perhaps that was why they had not told him.
            After learning to wait and sense Ra, he learned to move and manipulate it, to use the flow of his own Ra to move faster, to jump higher.  He learned to focus the Ra in certain spots to harden his skin, to heat his hands enough to boil water, or cool them enough to freeze it. He slept without blankets, heating the cool air around him. He touched fire and neutralized its energy.  He could skim across water by hardening it against his feet, or climb a sheer rock wall by fusing the Ra in his hands to the Ra in the rock. This training lasted two years and made Stryker the master of his own energy.  He had no trouble passing the second trial. It was easier than the first, and though the tasks were dangerous, they were not life threatening. None of the blades pressed against his skin had penetrated, the hot coals touched to his eyelids and tongue had not burned him, and he moved easily over the pits of fire, water, and shards of broken shell. 
            After his second trial, he spent three years learning combat.  He was bested many times by the students of other masters.  He had a hard time focusing his energy into attacks.  Cleats use no weapons.  They use their own Ra to disrupt the energy of their opponents.  It was much easier to focus his Ra to turn the blade of a knife, or to neutralize the heat from a fire, than to block another fighter’s energy.  He was fast, but the others were just as fast.  One touch would disable his arm, or leg, a blow to the back, or a touch to his head could stun him entirely.  Often he would strike and his Ra would backfire off the pooled energy of his opponent. 
            “You must attack when they do not expect, don’t give them time to build their Ra for defense.” His master was always kind but never allowed him to quit, or even sometimes, to rest.  Slowly, Stryker learned.  His speed gained accuracy, his energy gained strength and effectiveness. By his fifth year, he was winning more than losing. The third trial, at the end of the sixth year, was a tournament between all the sixth year trainees from the surrounding islands.  He placed third of forty-eight. He was also awarded special marks for bravery and technique. None of the trainee’s parents could attend the tournament, but Stryker knew his mother and father would hear of his success and be proud.            
            His final year of training focused again inward.  Stryker learned to control his internal energy to heal himself when wounded.  He learned to examine and control his Ra’s delicate balance.  By doing so he could neutralize poisons that entered his body.  He learned to read the patterns of energy in order to recall memories with perfect clarity. He learned to calm his energy so he could sleep, but remain alert.
            The Ascension was the last trial.  The spines were taken from the dorsal fin of a black scorpion fish.  They were hard, sharp, and poisonous. As they were pressed into his open wounds Stryker had to neutralize the venom and force his body to accept the spines. He had to make them part of his Ra.  The pain made it hard to focus, and more than once Stryker felt the toxin clouding his thoughts, but he was able to push through, neutralize the poison, and seal the wounds. When his hands healed completely the spines would be invisible, but Master Taum assured him they would help to focus and amplify his Ra.  
            The training of the last seven years had been hard, and despite all his efforts to be strong for his father, at times Stryker had cried. Yes, many times he had cried like a child. Now that it was over, as the seawater burned around the cuts on his hands, Stryker remembered all those tears. He remembered hot burning tears, like the sea in a tropical storm, and he remembered soft, chilling, lonely tears, like the sea on a cold, cloudy morning. Stryker remembered all the pain and all of the trials.  But now childhood was over.  He had to put the tears behind him.
            And with all the pain, he also remembered the times when Master Taum had smiled at him.  It was a warm smile that his Master had sometimes tried to hide. Stryker recalled the evenings spent on the cliffs watching sunsets at his teacher’s side.
            The years of training were a lifetime to Stryker. Now the future of his manhood stretched before him like a calm summer day.  As an Initiate there would be more training, more to learn, but now he would be a young warrior of the tribe, Jaden and Mina would be at his side.
            He would still see his old master. Taum had been chosen to continue with Stryker’s secondary lessons.  It was not often that a pupil would have the same teacher before and after the Ascension, but there were no new pupils this year, and the younger teachers were spending more and more time away on patrol. Stryker was glad he would continue to see Master Taum, but he was glad to be home.
            “Still soaking?” A voice called from the door of the hut. It was Jaden, Stryker’s father. Stryker closed his eyes and focused again on his hands, trying to heal the wounds over the spines.
            “Thought you’d be all healed by now.”
            Stryker looked down at his hands in the basin.  The cuts were not bleeding, but they were still red, and his hands were swollen.
            “I’m just kidding,” his father assured him and dropped down on the floor next to the table. “My hands were red for a month after my ascension, and I had trouble with the poison.  I was in bed for three days.”
            Stryker was reassured but kept looking down at his hands. 
            “I saw no pain in you,” Jaden assured him again, using the formal Cleat expression.  “Here.” He placed his hand in the bowl with Stryker’s.  The water began to heat, radiating out from Jaden’s hand.  The heat soothed the sting. 
            After a moment Jaden withdrew his hand and stood up quickly. 
            “Master Taum will be coming over for your first Initiate lesson,” he said, trying to sound excited.
            Stryker’s shoulders dropped.  He knew the Ascension was not the end, but it had only been a day, and it did not seem like much of a rest.
            “It should be interesting,” Jaden reassured him.  This did not seem to help, so Jaden added, “You may be an Initiate, but you must learn about the outside world before you go out on the ships. Don’t worry, it’s not painful, and afterward your mother will have made dinner.  Her squashes are ripe, and they’re delicious. I remember you always loved them.”
            Stryker could not remember Mina’s squash, but he looked up and smiled at his father. Like Master Taum, Jaden was dressed like a Cleat.  None of Stryker’s people wore much clothing. Jaden was bare-chested and wore only a keen, a square piece of cloth wrapped and tied around his waist, hanging down halfway to his knees. Everyone in Stryker’s tribe wore keens, but they differed depending on the person’s position. Stryker, being an Initiate, wore a brown keen made of thickly woven cloth. Jaden’s was much finer, whitish tan, and closely woven.  Jaden also wore a belt made of polished baleen. Only Cleats who had personally killed a whale in the hunt could wear belts like that. Master Taum also had one.  Besides his clothes, Jaden looked nothing like Taum.  Jaden was much taller, leaner and stronger, and not at all old.  In fact, Jaden was much younger than any of the teachers on the training islands. After years with Master Taum, it was hard to see his father as a grown up. His smooth hairless face looked more like the other boys’ faces, though much stronger. Both of Stryker’s parents were young, really not much older than he. They had both been fifteen when he was born. Jaden’s skin was tan like Stryker’s and they both had green eyes, but Jaden’s hair was dark and wavy, while Stryker had inherited his mother’s loose blond curls. Stryker did not think he would ever be as tall or as broad as his father, but still, there was definitely a resemblance.
            Jaden also wore the Captain’s Band on his wrist. A solid band made of pearly white shell, it stood out against his tanned skin. Stryker did not know what shellfish it was from.  In all the islands there were only three bands like it.  When they first came to the islands, they were ruled by three captains.  As their population grew and spread out over the islands, power shifted to local councils.  The bands were passed down through the generations, always to the oldest child in the family.  Two centuries later, the families, like Stryker’s, still kept the heirlooms, though they held no real power.  It was strange, but not awkward, for Stryker to think of Jaden and Mina as his family. Though they hardly knew each other, Stryker could tell he would come to love his parents again.            A shadow came into the doorway.  It was Master Taum.
            “Welcome,” Jaden said.
            “Thank you,” answered Master Taum.  “How is your son healing?”
            “Well, very well.  I think Mina could use some help in the garden, so I’ll leave you two alone.” He paused for a second and placed a hand on Stryker’s shoulder.  For a moment he looked as if he wanted to say something more, but he just turned and left the hut.
            “Master Taum,” Stryker said, standing up to bow.
            “Oh! No more of that Master stuff,” Taum laughed. “You are an Initiate now, you must call me Taum, stand up straight when I come to visit, and shake my hand.”  Stryker reached out his hand and Taum grasped it.  Pain from the cuts shot up Stryker’s forearm.  He winced but did not let go.
            “That will get better in time,” Taum reassured him.
            They moved the low table out of the way.  Stryker sat down on the dirt floor hugging his knees. He curled the cool dirt up between his toes and watched Taum.  The old man was smiling, and his eyes seemed more excited than usual.  His teeth shone bright in the shade of the hut.  The endless wrinkles on his face all lined up around an enormous smile.  Stryker had never seen his Master, that is Taum, look like this. His eyes were sharp and alive.  In the old face, they sparkled with youth.
            Stryker decided that even on a beautiful day like this, when the other new initiates would be walking around the villages showing off their new powers and remaking friendships, he would be perfectly content to sit in the cool of the hut and listen to the old man. 
            He began with the story of “The Great Awakening.” Of course Stryker had heard the story before, but it was a good one. 
            “At the beginning of the Great Wars, during the fourth destruction, our mother, the Moon, nearly fell from the sky to destroy the earth. But, as she grew near, she sensed the spirits of the people and stopped.  She decided to spare the spirits of the earth. The world was in chaos, so she decided to send her guardians to protect the people.  She awakened four spirit energies.”
            Stryker closed his eyes for a moment, and concentrated on the Ra all around him. It flowed through his body, the floor, and the hut.  He could sense the insects in the roof above and he felt the constant radiating glow from his teacher. 
            “And they are? Stryker?” 
            Stryker opened his eyes.  Master Taum had asked him a question.
            “Uh…” Stryker stuttered a little.
            Taum smiled. “The four spirit energies? The four spirit peoples?  Who were they, and who are they now?” Taum asked again. 
            Stryker relaxed, he knew the answer.  He had memorized the story during his first year of training.   “The Shrouds, who feel Shar, motion energy, they became the Blade Maidens.” Taum nodded encouragingly. “Then the Cleats, like us, we feel Ra, the life energy, we became, well us.” Taum smiled. “Then the Reefs who feel Syth, the connection energy, they are scattered throughout the great forests and Southern Kingdoms, and the Empaths who feel Mune, the heart energy, they rule the Empire.”  
            “Why did the Moon call out these powers?” Taum asked softly.
            Stryker sat up straighter, he knew the answer to this one too. “To protect the earth and to stop the wars.” 
            “But why was the earth in danger in the first place, why were the people at war for so long?” 
            Stryker thought for a moment.  The answer seemed simple, but it could be a trick question.
            “Well, because of the destructions.”
            “Yes, but what caused the destructions?”
            It was getting tricky.  Stryker had heard of the destructions all his life but only in Taum’s stories. This was the first time he had been asked to think about them in this way. 
            “Each destruction had its own different cause.”
            “Really?” Taum smiled, “What were they?”
            “Well the first destruction was a war, the whole world fought over an artificial energy source, petrum, or parleo, or something,”
            “Yeah, it was like the whale blubber we use to burn in lamps but it was unnatural.”
            “Unnatural? How?”
            “Well the oil came from the earth, so I guess it was natural, but the people did not respect its energy.  It is natural for oil to burn and we burn whale oil, but that’s all.  They did not just burn the earth oil, they tried to force its energy to do other things, to run their machines and their factories, and to make weapons.”
            “Good, so there was a war. And then?”
            “Well the second destruction wasn’t a war, but they were still after another source of unnatural energy, in adams,”
            “Atoms,” Taum corrected.  “Yes the nuclear energy in atoms.”
            “But they couldn’t control it.  It caused a winter, right?”
            “A nuclear winter, it lasted more than two hundred years, few survived.”
            “Then they tried to get energy directly from the earth right?”
            “Yes,” Taum said encouragingly. “They called it geothermal.”
            “But that caused the earthquakes.”
            “Three hundred years of accelerated plate tectonics.”
            “What is a tectonic?”
            “I’ll explain later, when we focus on the third destruction, for now just remember that the earth was reformed.  The Middle Sea, that surrounds our island, used to be much smaller and used to connect with the ocean.”
            “What’s the difference between an ocean and a sea?” 
            “The oceans are much larger, they cover most of the earth,”
            “Yes, next time I come I’ll bring you a map.  But for now, tell me about the fourth destruction.  What caused it?”
            “The fourth destruction was the biggest.  Some people had moved to the Moon, they gathered energy from the sun and sent it back to earth, on micron waves.”
            “Microwaves,” Taum corrected.
            “Yeah, but some people thought the microwaves were dangerous, so they tried to stop them.  They used one of those nuclear atom bombs to destroy the place where the microwaves came to earth, and that hurt the Moon somehow.”
            “It set off a chain reaction that caused the Moon to degrade in its orbit.”
            “Degrade?” Stryker asked.
            “It began to fall from the sky.” Taum explained
            “Right.  People thought the Moon was going to hit the earth, but she stopped when she sensed the people.  The moon decided to awaken the peoples’ spirit energy, so they wouldn’t have to look for or fight over artificial energy.  They could create and control their own energy.  The spirit people could protect the earth and keep the peace.”
            “And why did it not work?”
            Stryker did not understand the question. “What do you mean?”
            “If the Moon gave us the power to keep peace, why are there still wars today?”
            “Well, we’re not in any of them. We remember what the Mother did for us and maintain peace.” 
            Taum frowned.  “Peace on the islands perhaps, but we are constantly fighting to protect it, and some raiding ships still make it past our patrols.  Because we do not fight in the wars directly does not mean they do not exist or affect us.  Our constant vigilance has created some measure of peace on our islands, for our people, but are not all living things our brothers? Are not we all children of Father Earth?  Isn’t the Moon mother to us all?  Don’t you think the spirit energies were meant to bring peace to the whole world?”
            Stryker thought for a moment, but did not know how to answer. 
            “Why do you think,” Taum went on after a moment, “that there are wars at all.  After the fourth destruction there is no lack of land, no one fights over energy, why are there still wars?”
            Stryker still did not have an answer.
            “If you are to patrol the open sea, to hold back the wars outside, you have to understand why the people are fighting.”  Taum was not getting angry, but Stryker could tell he was displeased.
             “After the fourth destruction,” Stryker began again, “The Empaths seized power, and the others didn’t like it.”
            Taum nodded but did not smile, “Yes, but why did the other three, the Cleats, the Shrouds, and the Reefs, why did they not join together to stop the Empaths?”
            Stryker tilted his head back and looked at the ceiling. He hoped that if he waited long enough Taum would just give him the answer.  Minutes passed and Taum did not speak.
             “Well the Shrouds betrayed the others when they went into service for the Empaths.  The Reefs were too weak, probably, and the Cleats…well…we don’t like war so we stayed out of it.”  
            “So the Empaths seized power because the Shrouds were traitors, the Reefs were weak, and the Cleats were afraid, is that what you’re saying?” Taum’s face looked serious, “Hmm,” he said frowning. “Pity, I guess the spirit peoples just handed… ”
            “Well no,” Stryker interrupted, “we weren’t scared, not of dying or anything, but we didn’t want war, and the Reefs, well you can’t really fight with Syth, and I guess the Shrouds were traitors, but some people think they were tricked somehow.”
            “This is too soon,” Taum interrupted him. He stood up straight and clasped his hands behind his back. “I want you to go out and play with your friends.”
            Stryker was surprised. He must have said something wrong.  “I’m sorry…” He began.
            “You have done nothing.”  Taum waved his hand. He looked as if he was about to say something more, then stopped and looked at the ceiling.  After a moment he went on. “It was about choice.  You have been under my control for some time now.  I think before we continue learning about this subject you need some time to make some choices for yourself.” Without explaining further Taum turned and left the hut. 
            Stryker sat for a moment perplexed. He was sure he had offended Taum.  What had he meant, choice?  Why did he not just explain what he meant?  Stryker got up to go after him, but Jaden stopped him in the doorway.
            “Taum leave already?” he asked.  “Well we’ve got time until dinner.  Let’s go down to the lagoon.  I’ll introduce, well reintroduce, you to some of your old friends, and you can show me if you’re really as good at water sliding as Taum tells me.”    
            Stryker smiled.  He was about to ask Jaden what he thought of Taum’s words, but Jaden had already turned toward the trail to the lagoon.  Stryker looked back into the hut, then down at his hands.  It was okay. He would have time. He pushed thoughts of Taum and the lesson from his mind and followed Jaden.
            Mina waved at them from the garden.  She wore a light brown keen and a thin shirt.  Her loose blond curls, only a little longer than Stryker’s, shone in the sunlight.
            “I’m just taking him down to the lagoon,” Jaden called to Mina.
            “Okay,” she answered.
            Stryker looked from Mina to Jaden and then back to Mina. They looked so different from each other.  She was small and blond with gentle brown eyes, he was tall, dark and muscular. Though they were different from each other, Stryker resembled them both.  He had his mother’s hair and his father’s green eyes.  He had Jaden’s strong square jaw, and he hoped to be strong like his father, but his frame was slender like Mina’s.  Stryker smiled. He liked that he resembled his parents.
            “Come on Stryker,” Jaden called.  Stryker looked away from the garden. The sun was bright on the dry grass that stretched from their hut down toward the sea.
            “Stryker,” Jaden called. He was almost to the path that wound over the hill to the lagoon. Stryker smiled again and stepped from the doorway. His whole life stretched out before him.

Stryker Chapter 2 - John's Beginning

John’s Beginning

             John sat in the royal classroom slumped over his desk. His professor droned on at the front of the small room.  Maps covered the walls, maps of their Empire, ancient maps of the Old World, and maps that charted the movement of the continents over the centuries.  John was tracing the gray swirls on his desk.  The desk was a gift from his father.  Both his parents had given special attention to the decoration of all his rooms.  When he first began his isolation in the west wing of the palace, the rooms had all seemed new and exciting.  The side of the palace he would have all to himself seemed enormous.  Now, after six years of living exclusively in the west wing, with no one for company but his professors, his parents, and occasionally his twin sister Jane, it had become dull and excruciatingly confined.   In the beginning, his mother tried to make his isolation seem special, but for a long time John had still missed the other children. 
            When Peter, John’s younger brother, entered the military academy, some of his friends had come to the palace.  John saw them once from a balcony.  They were playing some sort of ball game; he could not capture the rules of it. He had almost allowed himself to want to play, but he held off the emotion.  He knew his brother would sense it, and he did not want Peter mistaking it for envy.  The eldest son of the supreme monarch could not be found, even by his brother, to envy any other position.
             But that was a long time ago. Now John was seventeen and he saw things clearly. He understood his position and did not envy Peter’s friends. Besides, Peter was now fourteen and had been living full time at the academy for two years.
            John was generally indifferent toward his teachers. Each had been picked by his mother, so they were constantly bowing and praising, but none of them showed any real interest in him.  When the Empress came on her daily visits, they would fawn over him and tell her what an excellent pupil he was.  “Destined to be a great leader,” they would smile, “just like his mother of course.” Destined… his destiny, his purpose, he had heard it since the day he was born.  He was the heir to the Throne, destined to become the Supreme Monarch, the great mind and will of the people.          
            John understood his privileged position.  Their abilities made Empaths the perfect rulers.  He would absorb his people’s desires, fears, and concerns, temper them with his own education, training, and the wisdom of his lineage, and act in a way that would benefit all his subjects. If he failed to lead the Empire, they would fall to the rebels.  The order of their society would fall into chaos.  They would degenerate like the Kingdoms of the South.  He accepted this position and was resolved to accept all the responsibility that came with it. 
            Now, he saw the necessity of his isolation, he was young when it began, only eleven, but his empathic capabilities had already developed.  Until he had control he could not associate closely with anyone whose emotional energy patterns would disrupt or contaminate his own.
            The desk was ugly.  The swirls were random, almost chaotic. John abhorred disorder and would have preferred plain white.  This desk looked so unorganized.  It was typical of the things his father would pick out. The Emperor loved anything disorderly and studied the Ancients with an almost unhealthy interest.  John sometimes sensed his father admiring the ancient days, before the great destructions, when countries where ruled by the ever changing whims of the uneducated masses, before the Empaths brought order to the world.  John’s mother often tried to downplay her husband’s interest in the Ancients.  She told people, and herself, that it was a hobby, that he merely thought the ancient ways were quaint and interesting.  She kept him from talking too much about it at dinners or court balls.  Still, she could not hide everything.  John’s own name was of ancient origin, as were the names of his sister Jane and his brother Peter.  John did not dislike his father, though he rarely saw him. 
            John did hate his name.  He traced it out on the desk with his finger. The h was particularly annoying.  It was superfluous. Sticking out of the middle of the otherwise concise and efficient word.  Jon, would have been adequate, Jonh would at least have been symmetrical but John… It was a ridiculous name. The professor was droning on about the political lead up to the South Pacific nuclear conflicts of the early twenty-third century.  John was utterly bored.
            A sudden sensation of anger from the professor brought him out of his thoughts.  He looked up at the fat, middle-aged historian.  He was angry.  Though the professor smiled calmly, John could sense the emotion.  He asked John to repeat what he had just said.
            John sat up straight and answered quickly, “The Asian Union defeated the Slavic rebellion, with the nuclear destruction of Novgorod.”
            The professor’s anger turned to annoyance. They always hated it when he got the answer right, especially when they thought they had caught him not listening. “What year was that?” he asked, his annoyance showing in his voice.
            John sighed, “2394, by the ancient calendar, 1932 before present.  That is what led to the first lunar migrations, at the beginning of the twenty-fifth century.” John waited to see if this would diffuse the annoyance or cause it to shift back to anger.
            “Very good,” the professor said, still smiling.   He was angry again. John sat up straighter and asked, “But why were the Slavs in rebellion if they were tied so economically to the union? After all, didn’t they share the same land mass?”
            “Well,” said the professor, his anger fading as he turned back to the board and began to outline, “the Slavs had cultural and national unity that clashed with the integration doctrine of…” John tuned him out again but reminded himself to watch out for further annoyance.  If his mother heard he was distracted during class she would get the royal Empaths to suppress his curiosity again.          
            There were no more outbursts.  The professor ended the lesson by assigning him to trace the lineages of the four southern despots to see which contributed genetically to the royal line.  John already knew it was Geoffrey Leren, of the European confederation.  His mother had a picture of him on the family wall.  Some suspected he was an early Empath and that was why he was selected for the genetic conservation, and on and on. John would have Jane write the assignment.  She would be glad to help.
            He was excited to see Jane.  She had been away for a month in the country.  She had been back since that morning but she had to go through emotional decontamination with the royal Empaths before she could see him. She would bring him news of their father and the war. 
            The class ended with his daily lesson from the propaganda instructor. The propaganda lessons were all routine and memorized.  Today’s was about the energies. 
            “What is energy?” The instructor asked.
            “Energy is in everything, it is the force that holds atoms together, the gravity that holds the universe in balance, it is light, it is heat, it is love and happiness. The types of Energy are endless,” John answered.
            “Which energies are given to humans to control?”
            “All Humans can create and control heat energy in their bodies and kinetic energy in their muscles. Some humans are genetically superior and able to control higher energies, Shar, Ra and Mune. Some humans are corrupted with Syth, the degenerate energy.”
            “What energy do you control?”
            “Mune, the greatest of all energies.  The governing energy.”
            “Why is it the greatest?”
            “Because all other energies are subordinate to it.”
            “Why do you control it?”
            “It is the natural order, energy creates its own strength, and the strong rule to protect the weak.  Nature makes Mune, Mune makes an Empath, the Empath is ordained by Nature.
            “Whom do you rule?”
            “Those chosen by nature and infused with the Syth, the linking energy, the compliant energy.  Those infused with the Syth are the body.  Empaths, with their Mune, are the mind. It is Nature’s way.”
            “And the other’s?”
            “Ra to the Cleats, energy that can stall and freeze. Shar to the Blade Maidens, energy that can move and strike.”
            “What is your duty as an Empath?”
            “Mune is the ruling energy, we rule the masses infused with Syth, we direct the motion of the Blade Maiden’s Shar, and we use the Cleats’ Ra to hold the universe in balance.”
            “But the universe is not in balance.”
            “No, the Cleats and the masses deny their place, they deny nature.  They are the diseased limbs of the body.  As Empaths we must act as the immune system, destroy the diseased part and bring the limbs back to their natural order.”
            “Which is?”
            “Under our control.”
            “Praise to John, son of the Emperor,”
            “Praise to my instructor and gratitude,” John quickly pushed a feeling of gratitude at the instructor, who felt it, smiled and bowed. 
            With lessons over, John hurried down the stairs, unbuttoning his tight jacket and loosening his necktie as he went.  He rarely got this excited.  He decided to let the excitement stay.  Jane would feel it and appreciate it.  He turned down the long marble hallway that led away from his training rooms.  He stopped by the door to his study, probed inside but did not feel his sister there. She must be outside. He stepped into the study, quickly took off his tie, vest, and jacket, folding them neatly on the chair, then continued down the hall and entered the gymnasium through large double doors.  The lamp over the sparing rink was still lit.  They were cleaning it before tomorrow’s lesson.  He did get a lot of that kid’s blood on it last time.  Really, when were they going to let him face someone his own age?
            He went out through the double doors on the opposite side of the gym.  They opened into the courtyard.  The sun was low in the sky. Jane was sitting by the side of the swimming pool.  She had not changed at all.  In fact, she looked exactly as she always did.  Her hair was thick, dark, and wavy like John’s. It had grown a little longer while she was away, but the country sun had done nothing to tan her pale skin. She always reminded John of Snow White from the ancient legends.  She was tracing circles in the water with her finger.  She was dressed in a white dress with silver trim, a simple dress, the kind their mother hated. The Empress was always frustrated that Jane would not wear extravagant gowns or jewelry.
            Beside Jane stood her two bodyguards, dressed in simple chain-mail armor.  Standing next to his sister they looked massive.  They were Joined. As punishment for some crime or rebellion their emotional energies had been purged.   Now they quite literally lived only to serve. Any skilled Empath could transfer any desire into their minds, and they would obey. They stared out blankly from pale faces. Their short hair was ghostly white. A dark blue V marked their foreheads, and there was a dark blue dot on their right temples. The whiteness was a side effect of the drug used in the joining process, and the blue marks were burned into their skin when their Mune was extracted.  Frozen soldiers like these were a common sight around the palace.  Most of the Empire’s army was made up of Joined. 
            As John came out into the courtyard, he sensed Jane’s emotions before she noticed him. She was nervous, hiding something she did not want to tell him.  She looked up as he drew near.
            “John!” She cried energetically, coming forward and hugging him. It was something bad. She was afraid to tell him.
            “How are you?” She asked. “Silly question, I know, I can sense that you are well, I’m glad you’re excited to see me.”
            John decided not to ask her what she was hiding right away.  She knew he could sense it and would tell him soon.  They sat down together on the grass at the edge of the pool. 
            “How was the country?” he asked.
            “Oh, fine. We rode horses on the beach. You’d have loved it. The ocean air, it makes you feel so free, it’s like, well, I’ll show you.”  She reached out her hand and touched John lightly above the eyebrows.  John was instantly filled with a wonderful feeling of exhilaration and freedom.  He could feel the wildness of the horse and the wind blowing in his hair.  He pulled away from her touch.
            “Feels great.” He told her. 
            She looked doubtful.  He assured her with a burst of gratitude. 
            “We can take you there first thing when the isolation is up,” she said.
            “Yeah,” he answered quietly.
            “You’re coming along on your resistance training aren’t you?” she asked.
            “Of course,” he answered.  “It’s easy. I can block everything the royal Empaths can throw at me. I’m sure I could resist commoners.”
            “So you’ll be ready when the test comes?”
            John looked up at the guards.  He pressed into them the desire to go to the gymnasium and wait. Without hesitation they walked quickly and mechanically toward the gymnasium doors.
            He turned back to Jane, “I’ve been ready for the tests for months.  Mother is just dragging it out.  She says my combat training needs more time, but I beat everyone they put me up against.” He let her sense his surety.  She relaxed.
            “Well soon you’ll be out of this, and we can visit the whole Empire.” She smiled intently, pressing her excitement onto him. 
            “Yeah, it’ll be great.” He let her excitement take him for a moment. “It will be wonderful not to have to go to history classes anymore. I’ll bet Peter…” He stopped.  It was Peter. There was something she did not want to tell him about Peter. “I bet he’ll be sick of the academy by then.”  He hurried on, trying to cover that he sensed her apprehension. “We can all go to the country and ride horses on the beach.” 
            Jane smiled but did not answer.   
            “How is Peter?” John ventured after a moment.  A faint sadness rose in his sister, but she masked it well under resolve. 
            “He’s doing well at the academy. His happiness is genuine and strong, even mom can sense it.” Jane did not respect their mother’s empathic abilities. “Only he…” She stopped.
            “Only what?” John asked. Her sadness was rising again.
            “He is less and less sad to go back to the academy after his holidays are over.”
            “There’s something else,” John said questioningly. “Don’t try to protect me and don’t wonder if it’s best to tell me.”
            After a moment she said softly, “He doesn’t miss you anymore.”
            It was true, but there was still more. “You are afraid to tell me the rest.” John said simply. “Strange,” he went on, “but I’ll know when I see him.”
            At this Jane became genuinely angry.  John countered it with annoyance, followed by mild regret and then resolve.  This brought her anger down, and she did not challenge his resolve.  John was more skilled than his sister. He had much more control over his empathic sense.  Still, her energy had always been stronger than his, her emotions much more intense.  There were times when she almost overpowered him.  No one else in the palace could affect John like Jane.  If any other person had that kind of effect on him, he would fear them, but John could not fear Jane, and she did not envy him.  She was his only real friend.  She was the only one who understood him, the only one he could joke with about his parents.  The only one who saw him as John, rather than the Ruling Prince.  They both knew they genuinely loved each other.  
            He changed the subject. “How is father?”
            “Good,” she answered.  “The army should be moving again soon.”
            “And the resistance?”
            “Nothing to our armies.”
            “Are we anywhere near Kaara,”
            “The rebel stronghold?  No, we’re spread too thin across the plains, and fighting in the jungle is almost impossible.”
            She did not want to talk about the war, so John changed the subject back to the countryside.  Then she asked him about school.  They made fun of his professors, and she told him how Lady Mullen, her governess, was getting crabbier and crabbier.  They were old conversations.  Things they always talked about on her visits.  Still, they talked until dark.  
            Later they meandered through the west wing.  John showed her new pieces of art their father had commissioned, a painting of a quadratic expansion formula, a sculpture of two identical cubes, and a statue of their mother. 
            “She looks fat,” Jane laughed.
            “I think father paid the sculptors extra to make her look that way,” John said smiling.   
            Finally, Jane called her guards back and returned to the main part of the house.  John walked alone to his room. He shut the door, and after a few minutes, he sensed two of his own guards taking up their post at his bedroom door. 
            The room was large and nearly empty.  The walls were bare and white, the decoration simple compared to the other richly furnished rooms in the palace. John liked it that way.  Even Jane had tried to get him to decorate more, but he insisted that he should at least be able to choose the way his own room looked.  His mother was upset by the design.
             “Like a commoner’s room,” she had complained.
            His father had been amused at this. “I think John’s bed alone cost more than most commoner’s homes.”
            But John loved simplicity.  The world outside his room was always full of energy and noise.  He loved to sit in the dark with nothing to do, nothing to learn or fight, no one to sense or evaluate.
            He undressed and got into bed, slipping between the smooth cool sheets.  Pale moonlight came in through the window.  He wrapped himself in the familiar sadness that was always left when Jane’s visits were over.  As he lay in his bed, he let himself feel longing, an emotion he rarely let himself feel.  He was not longing for the old days, the days Jane hoped would return when his isolation was over.  He longed for those days he could barely remember. Days before his emphatic sense had begun to reach outward.  Jane had always been connected to him, he felt her emotions as long as he could remember, but for years she was the only one in his head.  They were alone together. 
            He longed for those days before other energies had invaded his mind, before his mother feared him, before Peter envied him. He let these feelings flow around him for a time. He felt remorse, sadness, even a taste of fear.  He did not let it go on for long, however.  After some minutes, he gathered the emotions together in his mind and sharply repressed them.  They disappeared instantly. John smiled at this.  Repression was the first technique he had learned as part of his resistance training, and he was pleased to see that it worked so well on such strong emotions.  It meant his isolation would soon be over.  He put his hands under his head and gazed up at the ceiling.  His whole life stretched out before him.