Alex Inoue

Dead End, Zo's Journey, and more

Zo’s Journey 1-5

Posted by on September 30, 2020


Come read Zo’s Journey Books 1-5 for free!

These are a bit rough around the edges since they were written before Dead End, but you’ll find some of the same characters in the events before my current novel project. Once I find some time, you may find updated versions of these novels out on Amazon, but this version will, alas, no longer be available on Amazon once that happens!

Each book is about 20 pages, or around 5,000-6,000 words, and was meant to be a kind of serialized, monthly release! If these are popular, I may return to this format . . .

Anyway, check out what they looked like when first written over two years ago!

As always, click on a button to go to a book or click on a title to go to the top!

If you want to support me, come buy the book on Amazon


Valley of Frost

Chapter 1

You’re not cold. You’re warm. Stay warm . . .

Zo looked down.

A swathe of white and gray followed under her feet, dropping and swooping in slopes and sharp peaks until distant green dots infected the mountainside at its base.

Zo looked back to the icy cliff he clung to and fixed her focus back to her climb.

If anyone was there to see Zoeca Zepyst crawling up one of the peaks near the southern ocean as it brushed up along one end of The Valley, they would likely go back inside their boat and find a bottle of alcohol to reset their faulty senses and wipe their false memory. Aside from a dark gray cloth satchel and another device slung over her bare shoulder, Zo was wearing absolutely nothing. Not even her long, dark brown hair was of much help while tied into a ponytail.

Warm. Warm. Warm.

Each time she took a step, her bare feet would melt any snow and ice while slowly bending the rock inward. Below her was a wake of refrozen patches with thousands of niches formed into the steeper rises of the cliff face.

Warm. Warm. Body is warm, she would think to herself while visualizing the sensation of heat. Zo was taught by her family to recite the action she wished to achieve while focusing on a clear and distinct image, a common style when using spells and techniques on Andoa.

Zo climbed slowly and carefully, pausing her warming spell for only seconds while she inspected a new bit of rock to mold into her hand and fashion into a sturdy hold. Then, for only a second more, she imagined the rock warping as her fingers dug in deeper. Bend. Mold. Rock moves. Fits into fingers, she said in her mind, switching spells to a material manipulation technique. Once she checked the hold, she returned her thoughts to maintaining her temperature.

For many who lived on Andoa, swapping between different styles of spells would be slow and difficult. But many did not have several skilled guardians who enjoyed tutoring for years-on-end. Her mothers were both highly talented in material manipulation, with one having a mind for complex items and spells while the other was skilled in using technology from her home, Earth, in combination with Andoan techniques. But the one who trained her the most was her godfather. He was highly efficient in practical, everyday spells thanks mostly to the decades of work he’d done as an agent for his guild.

Good hold. I can work with this one, Zo thought as she tested her most recent niche in the rock-face. Let’s take one last photo of me climbing!

Zo reset her thoughts to regulating temperature while carefully grabbing her mother’s old Earth camera for a quick snap.

Now no one will be able to argue with me that I’m making it up! But while she distracted herself with thoughts of bragging in bars, her body cried for heat, and her hand strained to keep hold.

Warm! she nearly yelled in thought to focus back into her meditative state, almost losing her camera in the process.

Zo slowly pulled herself up the last few meters until she reached a gentle slope. Then, after another twenty minutes of easier climbing, she felt she had reached the highest point she could reasonably stand upon.

Finally!

After she saved more photographs from the summit in her electric camera, Zo put her clothes back on so she could descend with more comfort. All that mattered was that she climbed a crazy mountain naked and that she had graphic evidence to prove it.

Now, if only Andoans knew what a camera was . . .

Zoeca spent most the remaining day traveling back down, stopping only to have a drink or to nibble on her purchased ration. Then, a few hours after sunset, she arrived back to her temporary home. It was the last tavern before The Valley, just along the inside of a bay where ships occasionally harbored in the summer.

“Zoey! Can you show more photo? I want to see like from on top mountain! You climb go well, yeah?”

Zo let the tavern door fall back into place, snuggling up against the snow and ice encrusted wooden frame before air pressure forced it completely shut.

“Hey, Rychny!” Zo waved back in greeting. “And it’s just ‘Zo.’ There’s no ‘Ee’ in ‘Zoeca.’”

“Oh, so sorry, Zoeyehca.” The owner got up from one of his empty stools and came closer to her. “I learn Andrian late, it is hard speak, you know?”

“Anyway. Let’s sit down. I’ll show you the photos I took. It’s not like you’re going to have any customers this time of year.”

They sat down at one of the half a dozen pine tables in chairs closest to each other. Zo spun a dial and pushed a few buttons until the screen lit up with bright white light. Rychny leaned in until his height matched hers. Zo watched with her lighter hazel eyes as Rychny glued himself to the screen no larger than the back of her hand.

Chapter 2

“Zoeyehca! Good morning! I make food, it is good. You want? Eveen heary pig meat!”

Rychny knocked on his only patron’s door once more.

“Zoey?”

He slowly turned the knob and found it unlocked. He threw the door open and scanned the room, but found no sign of use but the lack of dust.

Hours southeast, away from the coast and toward the South Pole, Zo walked with a new goal this time.

The frozen earth held loose patches of hardy grass, and bored critters hovered high up above, hopeful a stray beast was left to die, abandoned from its herd. Some humans were crazy enough to live on the permafrost, but they never stayed in one place for long. According to the history books and encyclopedias Zo had read, no one bothered going further inland.

Zo slid her hood back on in preparation for the brisk wind that was said to blow through the mouth of The Valley. Though she was plenty far from the peaks she had just climbed back down from the day before, the pole was just as numbingly cold. If it weren’t for the nearby ocean and the relatively warm air it brought, nothing would survive. Any further into the pole’s mountain ranges, and The Valley they cradled, was suicidal. At least, for ordinary people. But Zo felt empowered by her skills and the Earth-technology-infused gear she wore.

Time to figure out what The Valley of Frost is all about. Then, after a pang of regret, she thought, Poor Rychny. I doubt anyone comes by this time of year, while the days are so short. He must spend most of his time alone.

Zo almost felt sorry enough to go back and give him company. But he seemed to be happy collecting timber and fashioning new furniture while he waited for the busier season. He seemed used to being alone for most of the year. And anyway, he chose to build a tavern just past the frigid ocean on the way to The Valley. Logically working to such a conclusion, she quickly discarded any emotions toward him and moved on, just like her mother would suggest for her to do.

Zo looked to the upper left corner of her visor for the temperature, which was written in numbers from Earth.

Her visor was one piece of her prized gear her parents made for her. The visor spanned most of her range of vision with a wide, arched pane of composite glass that a peculiar Earth device called a “printer” formed. Leading down to Zo’s backpack was a pair of wires that gave power and functions to the visor.

The temperature outside hovered inside the glass, displayed in faint red.

-15°

Jeeze! Almost as cold as that peak. Zo grinned. I’m a badass, though. I think that tops any of Pop’s crazy stories.

The wind picked up and blew from behind, and her boots were crunching deeper and deeper into the icy powder. There were no more trees ahead to guard her. But unlike her climb up the mountain the day before, her gear contained a special looping spell command that kept her body warm, and her blue-gray body-jacket included several sensors that would trigger the stored heating spell. Since she’d freeze to death without her gear, at least once had to rest, Zo took care to watch her spell battery.

After an hour more of walking, which brought her within the feet of the mountain ranges that made The Valley, Zo stopped for a minute to pull out snow and ice adapters from her pack and attach them to her boots. Going any deeper into The Valley without them was going to be dangerous.

After getting used to how her steps now felt, Zo looked out and around at her surroundings. Feeling extra adventurous, she attempted to turn the zooming dial for her visor with a manipulation spell. Without any distractions, she managed to move the dial despite it being out of sight or touch, which she felt proud to do, considering it usually failed.

Nothing unusual, yet. Just ice from here on out. And mountains on both sides . . .

She paused on her thoughts.

How far am I from everyone at this point?

Her visor displayed faint highlights of the cardinal directions. Ahead was a mark she had programmed in long before coming to the pole. “Incyon,” it read in English letters, spelled in her best approximation of the Andoan country name. Below and in smaller Earth numbers, it also said, “3716.1 km.” Zo remembered that, unlike on Andoa, which had dozens of different versions of numbers, these numbers were almost universally understood across Earth.

It’ll take days to get there—maybe a week. Ugh. If Rychny doesn’t count, then it’s at least hundreds of miles to the nearest village, right? Zo contemplated in her thoughts.

It was said that the Valley ate people alive and that those who claimed to have made it back were either frauds or insane. Zo didn’t care about superstitions, but she still wanted to explore such a place to see if it was all true. And then, to have the right to brag about it if she ever found herself back in society again. If nothing else, she knew it’d make her family flip a few times over.

Zo thought about the scene she might cause while the wind took a breather.

“You did WHAT while NAKED?” her mother from Andria might say.

Then her mom from Earth might just smile ever so slightly before asking in a sarcastic tone, “Did you want our attention that badly? Wait, I bet it’s a boy, isn’t it?”

“What if she likes girls TOO. Or INSTEAD!”

“You trying to make her into another you?”

Then her Earth mom would probably ignore the playful question veiled as malicious and profess, “You know I’d climb a mountain naked for you if you wanted me to! I don’t want to be shown up by my own little girl!”

Zo then imagined her goofier mom might do something stupidly affectionate to her calmer mom, who would likely be keeping smooching lips at bay.

They both were so predictable as if how they talked with each other was programmed in. Still, the thought of her parents talking together again made Zo smile.

But, suddenly, Zo noticed something new that brought her back to the now. Far off, to the left and halfway up the sloping wall of The Valley, was a shimmering light. It was hard to make out while eddies of ice were whipped up, obscuring the shine, but it certainly didn’t look like it belonged.

Chapter 3

That looks like glass—or maybe something made of metal? But what would be metallic out here?

Zo fell down under the crest of a snowdrift to hide from the wind and adjusted her visor until it read “15x” in small letters. Only then could she make out the details when the wind calmed long enough to let the ice settle.

It was the body of a military plane, but only the back end. On the tail’s stabilizing bits were decals of the Andrian Air Force, a black dragon surrounded by a pine wreath. But the design was old. New emblems didn’t have mountains in the background, and they were much simpler. The stranger thing might have been the size of the plane. It was much larger than any she’d seen before, new or old.

Zo looked around the plane while zoomed in with her visor.

There were hills of white in the way from where she stood, but as far as she could tell, there were no signs of anything else. No signs of any survivors.

A short distance away was the edge of The Valley. The gray rock sloped slowly until it formed a sharp crest many hundreds of meters up. Maybe the plane crashed while attempting to leave? She didn’t know how planes were flown, so she didn’t put much faith in her guess.

It did seem like a sad thing to experience, though. Zo imagined being on that plane. How close might they have been to making it out of The Valley? Maybe there were trees for shelter and things to eat on the other side? Perhaps they climbed over and survived?

But in reality, she knew that whoever crashed with the plane probably died on impact. The few hundred meters walk over would answer any questions she had, though.

Now might be as good a time as any to get used to dashing across ice and snow.

Zo formed wide, less dense pockets of pressurized air underneath her boots and prepared to glide across the top layers. Her godfather had taught her the tricks to air dashing spells, including how to do so over ice and snow. But that didn’t mean she was perfect at it. Snow kicked up from around her feet, and she lost her balance and fell onto packed snow.

She got up and tried to flatten the bubbles of air even further. Leaning forward nearly sent her back to the ground, but she successfully stabilized. It was much, much harder to do without the ice-gliders, but still plenty tricky even with their help.

Now for the tough part, she told herself as she prepared to launch.

After taking a short breath to relax, Zo recreated the right kind of air bubbles and pushed off.

Dashing on the ice was not unlike skating. And though she hadn’t tried the strange sports her mother spoke of from Earth, like skiing or snowboarding, she heard the sensation was quite similar.

A few minutes of what walking would have cost became thirty seconds, including falling a second and third time while trying to skip off the ice. Faceplants might have been catastrophic, but she also knew how to crash safely using air spells to soften her landings. Years of training with a master in air techniques always seemed useful in any situation. Even now, Zo thanked her godfather for sharing all the tricks he knew.

Once she had made it near enough to the plane, Zo replaced her gliders and went back to walking without any spells. With her focus back on investigating, Zo circled the crater and looked for a way inside the plane’s body.

If the other signs weren’t enough, the weathering of the impact and the plane made its age obvious. Zo had no clue if only months had passed, or years. But either way, no one should be around anymore.

Due to the volume of ice, Zo concluded that anything interesting must be buried. And the only place where she knew she would find something was conveniently flagged by the massive metal bits poking out of the pile of cold.

Zo got to work carefully, melting the packed snow and ice along one side of the fuselage. Standing up and attempting to manipulate the ground would be difficult and tiring, so she got down on her hands and knees.

Melt. Warmer. Warmer. Warmer. Melt. Heat. Heat in a circle. A circle around me. Melt. Melt. Warmer . . .

By repeating such words or phrases in her thoughts, even long-lasting and continuous spells became controllable. Zo first learned the trick to using techniques and spells when her mother from Earth taught her. Back then, she was only five years old when her mom told Zo about the first time she learned how to use what she would call “magic.” That’s also around the same time she had to study how to write English—Zo mostly remembered the magic, but not so much about English. The only words she knew well were those that always showed up in her visor. And the explicatives from her mom.

The whole idea that one of her mothers came from Earth and suddenly figured out how to use spells after spending only a single day on Andoa was still a bit dubious to Zo, of course. Almost as dubious as the whole “Earth” thing. Supposedly, it was after a very long and hectic day full of little sleep and lots of walking. Zo just figured her mom was really good at making things up. And that included the “whole different planet” that “might be in another universe.”

That didn’t change how useful the reciting trick was.

It had been only a minute or two. She didn’t think to watch the clock display on her visor, but it didn’t matter much. The sun would be out for another eight hours. That did mean that night was going to be twelve hours long this time of year if what she read and what she estimated was correct. But since it was still spring, there shouldn’t be anyone in The Valley or anywhere near. She hoped, at least.

Zo took a break to look up at the sky.

To think I might be the first person recording detailed information about The South Pole and The Valley of Frost. She couldn’t help but grin at the thought.

It wasn’t just superstition that kept people away. All countries around the globe held a long history of restricting movement through the entire southern mountain ranges and valleys. It was often banned outright or otherwise heavily discouraged. Not even expeditionary teams were allowed. Nearly every country had long ago signed an agreement never to claim land, send armed forces, or even to scout the regions declared part of the southern ice cap and mountains. Many simply stated it would be unfavorable in their gods’ views, while other countries likely feared war. But after deciding that she was no longer part of her country of birth, Andria, Zo felt compelled to go where no one else could.

In a way, it was almost disappointing to now be digging up an airplane in the snow. It meant she was not at all the first person anymore. But her curiosity was too strong to feel upset about it.

Zo went back to melting herself further into the ice. As she made her way, a few millimeters at a time, the water she formed would either refreeze to her sides or evaporate up and out of her slowly growing hole. She began to get into a nice rhythm of even heat and melting ice across the entire oval she kept herself on, neatly progressing faster and faster until she found something that wasn’t ice.

Is this a wing?

She carefully cleared the ice around a broad, flat bit of silvery metal. It looked like the same material as the main body, but Zo hadn’t studied such things to know for sure. All that mattered was that it might still be connected, which would help guide her toward a door or a window. If it wasn’t, there might be a hole leading into the plane where it used to be attached. Zo finished clearing the area of excess ice and snow until she could see the shape more clearly.

It was indeed a wing—a very big wing, and one much longer and broader than she felt worth digging out completely. Judging from the twisted and sharp looking bits facing toward the body of the plane, she wouldn’t have to dig around it. She only had to adjust her path back toward the fuselage and look to see if she could fit through whatever cavity the hole left her.

I hope these clothes really are tear-proof, she thought to herself. Otherwise, I’m going to get yelled at by Mom.

Zo felt around and began to melt a small tunnel leading away from the wing. She felt around with her hands as she expanded it to fit her arms, then went back to exploring with her fingers, searching for more metal.

The ice moves away. Melts away. My fingertips push. They melt. They move. They melt. Melt. Push. Move. Melt.

As with her visor dial, it was getting harder with her hands now out of sight. But it was faster and safer than trying to melt a body-sized hole sideways into the ice. And she didn’t feel like expanding another hole if it could end up going in the wrong direction. The body of the plane could only be less than a meter away. All she had to do was—

There! Metal!

Chapter 4

“Where is . . . anything?” Zo couldn’t help but speak aloud.

Her breath condensed instantly, and there was just enough light to see it do so. Zo then spent a minute opening up the hole for the rest of her body to fit through, and then she allowed her eyes to adjust well enough to see that the plane was completely empty.

There should be things here. Like, maybe even—well, corpses . . . and other things. Or signs that people were here. Surely the plane isn’t empty, she thought with mild nervousness.

The plane’s tail had been at a steep angle, but it must have evened out somewhere. Zo was able to stand on the cabin floor without too much worry of slipping. She had marked the top of the hole she came in through on her visor. Looking up and behind, Zo read “3.4 m” in faint purple letters. Her distant “Incyon” marker was covered up and faded out by the nearby “hole” marker she had set. Zo walked up toward the back of the cabin and looked again. This time, the hole marker took up nearly her entire vision.

She pondered, thinking on the situation. There’s probably no real point in mapping out the dimensions of this thing. It does seem unusually long, though.

Zo took out a small pad from her backpack and typed in a new label for her marker. “Plane,” it read.

There. That will do. Zo nodded to herself, then turned around and faced the front of the cabin with her visor’s flashlight turned on.

Back to work.

The air in the cabin was calm and slightly dusty. Or, Zo wondered, maybe it was tiny bits of ice she’d brought with her that filled her view? Still, she could see ahead very clearly. And it was exactly as she saw with her unaided eyes.

The plane was terribly empty of anything.

Zo crept slowly, her boots pressing against the uneven floor. She noticed a dip, just past her hole and where the wings were. Now, though not steep like the back end had been, the floor sloped upwards again.

To each side, she saw bare metal walls with occasional portholes. But there were no seats along the faded, red carpet floor. There weren’t even signs of what she thought should have existed. No benches. No harnesses. Nothing for people to be kept safe and comfortable. In fact, there didn’t seem to be anything to hold even cargo safely. If it weren’t for the carpet, she would have thought the plane was part of some sort of unmanned vessel.

Maybe that was the only answer that made any sense.

Too soon, Zo found herself stopped by a door. The door to the pilot’s room.

I hope this isn’t locked. Or frozen shut.

She found a handle and yanked hard. Then she pulled a few more times. Sounds of metal straining and creaking echoed in the cabin. The metal door was complaining in the cold. It didn’t want to budge.

The hard way, then. Zo focused on the entire door. First, she thought of nothing, only collecting herself and emptying her mind. Then, she placed her hands onto the door and began a pushing spell.

There’s weight beyond my hands. The door will feel the weight. The door will bend at my hands. The door will buckle. Will bend. Will buckle. Push. Push. Bend. Buckle. Push. Push.

She heard it groan and squeal in opposition. Her hood had some Earth-based technology to dampen sounds. But even without such aid, her godfather had taught her how to block sounds to focus on a spell. Push. Push. Push. Break. Break. Push. Push. Push!

With one last yelp, the door broke from its locks and hinges. It fell inward, dangling by broken bits of metal that only moments before had firmly kept it shut.

“Finally!” Zo exclaimed in victory.

However, it was a disappointing win. While there were a few frozen bloodstains that led through the smashed out windshield, nothing else seemed present. The pilot, or whoever was in the front cabin, was no longer there. It was her first sign that someone had been on the plane. It was also the last.

Even the windshield, which was the only way out, was completely buried and full of frozen snow. It was not going to be fun trying to stay on the search for clues. She didn’t feel like wasting any more time.

A little let down, Zo sighed. “Back to exploring The Valley, I guess.”

Chapter 5

-25°

Even in the middle of spring, the temperature was getting dangerously cold.

Zo was only a dozen kilometers away from the crashed plane, but the chilling wind was making it hard to dash.

I’m going to have to build an igloo if I want to sleep, aren’t I? she realized.

The prospect wasn’t appealing. Zo would have to waste an hour or more each time she had to rest building such a structure, and another fifteen minutes charging her pack to keep herself warm. And after that, she’d have to purify more water to fill her canteen. Finally, she’d have to eat some of her rations after warming them, too. Zo was growing worried her supply might not last the whole way across. If her rations were to run out while on the ice, she’d be as dead as those people on the plane probably were.

I’ll just have to go back to the coast if I’m close to half of my supply, and if I’m not halfway there. There’s still plenty of time for today, though. Zo nodded, feeling like her plan was reasonable.

Then, the wind died down again. Zo took the opportunity to make progress. Putting her gliding attachments back on, she prepared to air dash across the vast, flat terrain before her.

Air. Wide. Step. Push. Land. Air. Wide. Step. Push. Land, Zo repeated in her head, allowing the rhythm of the spells woven together to carry her forward.

This time, the ice was firm. And Zo’s gliders helped her grip the ice each step, allowing her to use a push spell each bound and rely on air only upon landing each foot.

Push dashing didn’t give the same speed or distance that air dashing allowed, but it was much more stable and straightforward for long sessions. Forming compressed air was highly effective—and her godfather’s favorite technique—but she was not nearly as adept as he was. So, coupled with the trickiness of moving across the ice in any case, she kept her best pace using the safer spell.

Air. Wide. Step. Push. Land. Air. Wide. Step. Push. Land.

Time passed.

Air. Wide. Step. Push. Land. Air. Wide. Step. Push. Land.

Zo’s subconscious drifted around, faintly registering the landmarks in the distance while repeating the spells for hours.

Air. Wide. Step. Push. Land. Air. Wide. Step. Push. Land.

There was a tall peak off far away and to the right. Some flat, squat hills to the nearer left. A few pathetic looking clouds in the distance wormed around the horizon. The red marker for “Incyon” stayed firmly ahead and just barely to the right. The numbers below slowly ticked down.

3710.3 km

Air. Wide. Step. Push. Land. Air. Wide. Step. Push. Land.

3710.2 km

3710.1 km

3710.0 km

3709.9 km

Air. Wide. Step. Push. Land. Air. Wide. Step. Push. Land.

Zo knew better than to look at the clock. It hid in the corner of her eyes, just at the right edge of her visor. It would make every dash feel long. It would make every hundred meters feel like forever. Each tick on her marker would slow down to the pace of tar. It would drip and fall far too painfully slowly for her to bear. So she kept her eyes forward. She kept her mind empty, in a state of meditation, and focused on the spells. Zo kept her body moving and thought of nothing else.

3699.9 km

A small milestone down, she allowed a small part of her comment. But it quickly fell behind the rhythm of the spells. Her mind needed to stay mechanical. Clear and simple. Just repeating. Just moving.

3655.4 km

Her thoughts were now so clean that she no longer felt each word in her mind. She knew she was still dashing correctly. She knew her legs were moving. But she no longer needed the words. Her training with her godfather was paying off. She dared not speak the thoughts in her mind, but she knew what happened.

A spell-high.

3555.5 km

3399.9 km

3000.0 km

Zo let her body fall, just putting in the effort to fall comfortably. She was going around 45 km an hour. But the ice was flat. There were no rocks in sight. She had lived from faster speeds before. Her crashing cushion spell would probably make it not hurt much. Zo limped her body into a slight curve and let her side ride on air and ice. After almost a hundred meters, she pulled herself back onto her feet.

Chapter 6

I gotta get up.

LOW BAT 10% 2 hr 39 mn remaining

The words obscured the thin blanket of ice and snow she laid under. Zo shook off the light dusting of ice and blinked her eyes awake.

The sun had already set long ago, leaving her with nothing but the faint light of a waning Nu.

Zo looked to the temperature reading on her visor.

-39°

Come on. Let’s go. But her legs were too sore to budge. Be that way, she yelled at herself in her thoughts.

Zo tilted her head down to her feet and spent a moment trying again. But her legs were far too obstinate.

Melt. Shape down. Melt. Move down.

Though her suit was already forming a groove well into the ice as it warmed her, Zo wanted to lower her legs to the point that she was artificially standing again. Forcing her body up with just a spell was very difficult, but her current environment allowed such a sneaky workaround.

Melt. Down. Melt. Melt. Good. Melt, Zo repeated in her mind as she worked for twenty minutes to melt through the thick ice.

Once her legs were far enough down, she focused on keeping the rest of her body stable and comfortable.

Come on, back, let’s move a bit. Come on.

Zo bent her legs and let her body crumple into the tiny hole she’d created. Her knees were bent and touching the ice wall while her back now laid halfway upright along the opposing, angled wall. Her head was now just above the ice.

I feel so stupid and lazy. This is stupid.

After another few minutes of pondering and sighing in mild shame, Zo finally motivated her body to leave the hole and get back upright.

LOW BAT 10% 2 hr 27 mn remaining

Fuck,” she said in English, one of the few words that still came easily

Was it because I was lying on the ground? I mean, I guess the battery was slowly draining away, but it was around 50% before I stopped running, right?

Something was wrong in her calculations. Either her solar collectors along her hood and back were broken, or the sunlight wasn’t strong enough for them to work right. Or maybe her math was wrong. Or perhaps her assumptions were poorly made . . .

Zo sighed once more, but not for her own failure.

Why didn’t anyone bring back more scientific information from Earth before closing the portal? Mom surely could have. Zo groaned in annoyance, slipping English words in her Andrian. “Why, Mom. Why not bring everything?”

She slowly admitted her failures, thinking, I messed up. But it wouldn’t have hurt to have better data—maybe I should have come here before and double-checked before embarking out . . .

LOW BAT 10% 2 hr 25 mn remaining

She sighed once more.

Zo pulled out her control pad and told her visor to stop warning her. When the sun was back, she would give up and head back out of The Valley. Until then, she had to build a shelter into the ice and try to rest.

Chapter 7

What are you doing out here?

Zo woke up. Getting up took more than a few seconds, of course. But, then again, it was far more comfortable to sit up that she thought it should have been. First, there was the sensation of warmth. Far more than what she expected to wake up to in her ice cube igloo. Second, there was the rather comfortably fuzzy material she was surrounded by. She expected a slick sleeping bag of ice, not some cozy bed.

It reminded her of home.

Then, it all grew very worrying. The voice that asked her something felt familiar, too.

Fuck. I’m probably dead. Or dying.

Zo stretched out her body and tried to get off of her side. If she were dying, it would be best to see if she could fight it off. Maybe it was just the murderous, sub-zero temperatures. If she could only get up and open her eyes for real.

Wait.

Her eyes were working just fine. Her body moved as it typically did moments after waking. Zo was already sitting up without any issue.

The voice spoke up. It spoke in pure, clean English, the language of Earth. And it was obviously irritated with her when it asked, “Care to tell me why you’re out here, miss?

Miss?” Zo slowly turned to see her mom staring back with her dark, steely eyes. “. . .oh no.”

End of Book 1


Zoeca
Zoeca
drawn by Ingri Ned

Knight of Andria

Chapter 1

Alice Utada. The Knight of Andria. Or, as she had been called in recent times, “Nightmare of Andria.” Zoeca’s birth mother.

Zo watched her mother relax slightly. But Alice did not speak. It took a moment for Zo to realize she was not in -that- much trouble. And when her adolescent defenses fell, she quickly reacted to what seeing her mother meant to her.

“I thought you died! Or something worse!” Zo couldn’t keep up with her emotions. Her face went flush as she sat up. It took all of her mental strength to not tear up. “What are you doing out here!?”

Alice’s scolding stare waned, then her eyes flitted to the side for a moment. “I’m researching…things.”

“Things? What things? There’s nothing out here! It’s just ice!”

Alice uncrossed her arms, gathered her black hair off up, and released the mess to behind her shoulders.

Zo continued, not allowing her time to come up with an answer. “You just went out one day. Jason and I were fifteen! You left us with Pops and Amo. The last thing you spoke of was something about ‘a new solution.’”

“Well, I wasn’t lying. I’m still testing my theories on ending horrific conflicts across Andoa.”

Her answer was stated simply, without emotion. Zo, in contrast, only grew further distressed.

“What about us? Why leave your kids without saying a word? You ran away!”

“It was getting more and more difficult to hide us all. I’m sorry we didn’t discuss it with you two, but Celica and Zeke agreed with me.”

Zo clenched her fists, restraining her reaction. “So you convinced the adults to lie for you? Why?!”

Alice sighed. “Trust me, it’s better this way. It was the safest choice for all of you.”

“Safest? From what?”

“From the entire world. I don’t think there’s a single country that likes what I did. It took all of our resources to integrate you two back into society safely.” Alice leaned against the gray wall beside Zo’s bed. “You should have known it wasn’t normal to get homeschooling, to rarely leave the house, or to live in the middle of nowhere. It should have been strange to suddenly change your name and move into Zatyon. You both went on to attend school if I’m not mistaken. Did you forget what it was like before and never put it all together?”

Zo couldn’t reply. The words just weren’t there. It did make sense. It did seem weird. But she had not noticed. She wouldn’t have figured it out.

Alice uncrossed her arms and relaxed once more. “I suppose I can’t remember my own past so well, now. You were sharp when you were young, but you weren’t an adult. Maybe I expected too much.” She frowned. “It’s hard to figure things out when your mind is young and stable despite being far too old. I can’t sort out what my wisdom, my ego, and my memories mix together, even though they all feel like they’re correct.”

“Too old?” Zo looked closely at her mother. It was strange how young she looked. “Magical” wouldn’t even begin to describe her youth. “You…you look the same as when I was young. But Amo is starting to have a few gray hairs, and Pops pretty much lost all his.”

“Yeah, that sounds right. I gave Celica a prototype cocktail based on my best guess as to what they gave me. Zeke declined it, of course. He’s not desperate to live forever.”

Zo pulled her legs closer and sat away from the wall. Now, she faced her mother head-on, her legs casually crossed as she began to inspect Alice.

Alice explained before more questions were asked. “My body is pretty much unaging. When I was 26, I participated in a trial drug for most health issues. They put in microscopic machines called “nanobots.” There were probably dozens of different types, each disguised as cells our body wouldn’t destroy on sight. They all had ways of manipulating the body to reproduce. There was even a set of counter-agents to keep the numbers down.”

Zo flattened her mouth in mild confusion.

“Long explanation short is: I have an advanced form of medicine that stays in my body and keeps different parts of me healthy. All the things that would kill people from within won’t kill me. Probably.” Alice looked away for a moment as if she was thinking of the best words to finish with. “I should look like I’m in my mid-twenties until I die. I’m biologically immortal.”

Chapter 2

Zo turned on her gear left on a nearby table. Her visor, manual electric charger, backpack, shoes…it was all sitting neatly there, waiting to be gathered up again. Everything but her old camera.

Alice had gone to prepare food and a nice place to eat it together, Zo to do whatever she wished. Well, as long as she didn’t leave her room, it seemed.

Zo felt like a child again, for a moment, but it didn’t bother her as much as she would have previously assumed. There was so much she could gain in exchange for a few inconveniences. Either way, her plans were now much different.

First, she cleared the visor marker for Incyon. It wasn’t all that interesting in the first place, but especially after finding her mother out in the middle of nowhere. According to her control pad, she was 515 kilometers southeast from her campsite, or 2737 kilometers from the nearest border of Incyon, about where her destination marker was placed. Though, in all honesty, it was a bit difficult to describe a cardinal direction any one particular name. Alice’s home appeared to be right on top of Andoa’s southern pole.

Zo pondered for a moment.

How did she get me that far without waking me? Then, she thought some more before asking a more interesting question. How did she know I was out there?

It would have to wait until later, though.

The door to her room opened.

“Alright, come on. I made some garlic bread. We’ll have pasta ready in a short while, but I thought you’d like to be let out.”

Zo removed her headset and turned her gear back off. “Sorry,” she spurted out nervously. “I was just checking my markers and seeing if my things were still working.”

Alice smiled. “We’re a little far from where you stopped, I know. And yes, I took your camera. Now, come on.”

Unlike previous interactions from her childhood, Zo felt a lot more comfortable. Her mother was warmer than before. And more reasonable. Though, it still bothered her that she would take her camera.

Zo stood up from the simple wooden chair at the matching table her gear was resting upon. “So, will I get it back? I guess you don’t want me taking pictures of this place. I promise I won’t.” Her tone had come off as pathetic, and she knew it. Still, she just waited for a response.

Alice waved her daughter to follow. “I was just inspecting it. Don’t worry, you can have it back.”

Zo relaxed her shoulders a little and took a few steps forward. “Wait–”she stopped, more nervous than before–“did you happen to look at the photos I took?”

“Not but the latest one. Nice shot, by the way. Was that over by Plyns Breach? One of the old glacial paths out of the valley? You probably came in that way, right?”

“Uh,” Zo tried to remember if the area was named. “I guess? It wasn’t marked on my map with anything, though.”

“Oh. I guess Andria doesn’t know the area well enough to bother.” Alice began to walk down the hall. Zo followed a few steps behind.

The hall they walked down was just as plain and boring as her room. It was covered by some kind of gray material she couldn’t quite decide what was, aside from maybe including a thin layer of gray paint. The floor wasn’t terribly organic looking, either. But it was oddly warm despite its cool, black appearance. Above, the ceiling dimly shined from everywhere. No one spot was too bright to look at, but everywhere did enough to light the way.

Her mother turned her head back halfway while she walked as if she didn’t need to see what was ahead. “Anyway, did you stop by old Rychny’s place? Or did you just hop over from one of the villages? Tell me you didn’t come all this way by boat or something equally stupid.”

Zo shivered. It wasn’t cold. It also wasn’t hot. For some reason, the halls -were- very weird and very unnerving. Something just felt so -unnatural- about it.

“Rychny? Yeah,” she replied weakly, distracted by the hall. “I stayed at his tavern thing for a night. He was nice.”

“I taught him Andrian, you know. And he taught me his language, Pynnyoy. Or was it more like, ‘Peenneoi?’ Really tricky pronunciations in that one.”

Zo thought back to the night she last spoke with him. “Did you really? How long ago?”

They turned a corner and went down one of two paths. “Oh, probably three or four years ago. Well, maybe more. I visited him a bunch to help make his ‘tavern,’ as you call it. Haven’t seen him in a few years, though.”

“He can’t say my name right. I guess it’s your fault, then.” Zo scoffed quietly, a small smile on her face.

“Let me guess: ‘Zoeyka!’”

“So it -is- your fault.”

Alice reached a black door and turned around with a grin. “I’m not the best teacher.”

“I’m probably not the best anything, yet,” Zo remembered her latest completed adventure.  “though, I have evidence to dispute one particular triumph! Even Pops would probably lose to me in this…I took a few photos as proof.”

Chapter 3

“Wow. You’re an idiot.”

Zo was finishing another massive mouthful of tomato-basil spaghetti.

Alice continued, reluctant to eat any more until she heard decent explanations. “Did you have to do it in the nude? And take pictures of yourself -in the nude-?”

After quaffing her carbonated fruit juice, Zo explained with excitement, “I HAD to! How else would I explain that? No one would believe me. Even with these pictures, people will still think I just stripped for each photo. That’s why there’s a couple of shots of the mountainside…where I threw my bag!”

“But why?”

“Because it’s badass! I mean, how cool would it be to tell someone you climbed a mountain…and you did it by yourself COMPLETELY. NO aid. Just you and your mind against nature!”

Alice rubbed her forehead, letting down her fork in the process. “You know, I don’t think anyone -has- done this before. And I doubt anyone will ever do this in the future. You’ve accomplished what others…well, let’s not say ‘cannot’ in favor of ‘will not.’”

“Oh, come on! Tell me that’s not impressive! I didn’t use any tools. Just what I could do with magic and my own physical strength.”

“You know, back on Earth, there were people who climbed up similar mountains without magic. But I suppose they had the advantage of wearing clothing.”

“See! I beat them!”

Alice made it apparent she wasn’t done speaking, waving her hand to stop Zo. “You used magic to keep warm, though, didn’t you?”

“Well, duh.”

Her mother smiled smugly. “Then you were not the first person to do such a thing. In fact, I’d say you had more aid than they did. In the right hands, magic will vastly outperform any clothing people from the late 1900s. That’s around one-hundred-and-fifty years ago, in case you don’t know Earth’s calendar.”

“No way! What crazy person would do something like that -without- magic?”

Alice shrugged. “I don’t know. Some guy. I forget his name, but I could look it up, I think. I doubt you care who, though.”

Zo growled lightly as if imitating an irritated animal. “I swear, I thought it was -impossible- that someone had done something -that- crazy.”

“Sorry, Zo. You’re not the first one with proof. And that’s if no one else had done so without actually recording their feat. And that’s -also- not including someone who -did- record it, but they weren’t trusted, or their recording was lost.”

Zo rolled her eyes.

Alice smiled again. “But hey, you probably -are- the first and -last- person to go climbing up a mountain with no clothes on.”

Chapter 4

Zo sighed and went back to eating. Alice finished up her much smaller portion and went to sipping her sparkling apple cider.

After a minute of silence save her daughter inhaling her pasta, Alice spoke up with a curious tone. “How did you regulate your oxygen?”

“It, uh…it wasn’t -that- high of a peak.”

“There are some tall ones in that range, but I suppose if you were between Biuhnii Bay and Rychny’s place…which would mean you probably came through Ferci by train. Did Zeke give you a fake passport from an innocuous country? This is what I get for leaving those two in charge of you and Jason…”

“Hey! What’s that supposed to mean!”

Alice smirked. “Nothing. Just putting things together.” She reset her face to neutral. “Anyway, you were talking about your climb. Your ‘not-so-tall’ mountain.”

“I mean, it was the tallest around, but I know it’s not actually all that tall. I checked to see how thin the air should be and read that most people didn’t need oxygen for peaks near that height. I was probably running out of air toward the top, though, since I was losing focus…”

Alice chuckled. “It’s funny how you boasted earlier, and it wasn’t even the tallest mountain in the world. You probably walked up most the way.”

“So? It’s still badass!”

“You have a lifetime to catch up to that guy I was talking about. He was the first to climb Mt. Everest without an oxygen tank. It’s taller than any mountain on Andoa, though there are a few that come close. I think he might have also gone across Antarctica, the more circular version of this place, but on Earth’s southern pole. It’s about as long across as the trip you were making. And again, he didn’t have magic.”

Zo swiped her index fingertip around her bowl, licking up the remaining dredges of sauce. “You’re just trying to ruin my fun, Mom.” She pointed a red finger before sucking it clean and wiping it off on her pants.

Alice looked across the long table and eyed Zo’s bowl. “And you’re still a kid. I thought you might have graduated from such habits, but here you are, unchanged since the day I left. I guess you still have a lot of growing up to do. You’re boasting about how awesome you are while taking naked selfies and slurping up soda.”

“Hey! I’m trying! And besides, ‘growing up’ is just a code-word for ‘assimilation’ into society. I’m not going to fall for that trick, Mom.”

“Mhh-Hmm. Sure.”

Zo frowned. Then, she replayed the last sentence her mother had spoken back in her head. “What’s ‘selfies’ and ‘soda’ mean? They sound like rude words to me.”

“Photos of yourself, often while holding the camera above yourself while taking your own photo, and a carbonated beverage. That’s sort of what you’re drinking now, which would more appropriately be called a ‘sparkling cider.’ Sodas are typically made from purely artificial flavors.”

Zo made a few faces, none of which were terribly understanding or grateful. “Uh. I see? Thanks, I guess that makes sense.”

“Sorry, it’s been too long since I’ve spoken much English around Andoans. I slip into old words that don’t work over here.”

“Right. ‘Cause you’re from Earth.”

Alice leaned back in her metal chair. “You seem to not believe in the whole ‘other planet’ thing.”

“I just haven’t seen it, that’s all. It’s like telling someone to believe in monsters that -they- saw once.”

“Dragons are real, you know. If that’s one of the monsters you’ve heard about. They’re kinda like big birds. If I didn’t think they were native to this planet, I’d have assumed they were escapees from some ancient pterosaur family.”

Zo’s face began to slack while her eyes wandered.

Alice coughed. “Sorry. I know you’ve heard of dragons, though, right? Since I told you about them when you were young.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, anyway, I’ve been studying them while out here. They like to nest near some of the beaches. In fact, if this were a different season, you might have gotten to see them. But my point was that you should believe -the right- people about these kinds of things. Just don’t listen to hearsay reports.”

“Hearsay?”

She sighed. “Gossip. You know that word, right?”

“Yeah, Mom. Jeeze.”

Alice stood up, grabbed her dinner dishes, and walked over to pick up Zo’s. “I suppose there’s still so much you can learn.”

Zo handed her bowl, fork, and bread plate. “Then maybe I should stay here for a while?”

Chapter 5

Alice walked out of the massive dining room, which was nearly bare besides the much too long metal table and the pair of chairs at opposite ends, and into the equally impressive kitchen blocked off only partially by a bar.

“Why would you want to stay here?” The sound of running water and the brief clinks of stacked dishes bounced off the empty walls.

“I dunno. Maybe I miss you?”

Alice turned off the water and wiped her hands on a blue hand-towel wrapped around an oven handle. “Hm. Sure.” She turned around and leaned over to the bar. “That’s all?”

“I mean, I -am- curious about this place you’ve found-”

“Made.”

“-made. And I want to know how you found me several hundred kilometers away. And how you moved me without waking me. And, you know, a million other questions I have.”

“So you want me to answer any question you have, then? What about what I want?”

“Oh. I dunno…what do you want?”

“Nothing from you.”

Zo looked at her glass. It was rather nice. It didn’t feel quite like glass, and it somehow played with light in ways that mesmerized her. Even the remaining drops of sparkling cider looked beautiful when surrounded by the softly curved bell held up by its delicate stem.

There was no good response to her mother. But Zo tried the best one she could think of.

“I could give you company.”

“You? You can hardly keep up in conversation.”

“Well, I feel like that with everyone else I meet. Maybe, if you can give me time, I can catch up to you.” Zo couldn’t look at her mother, so she kept staring at her glass, instead. It was hard enough trying to think of a way to stay. She’d lose the moment she had to see Alice’s cold stare.

Alice looked down to the polished marble bar.

Zo snuck in a sideways stare, but she slowly turned and watched her mother straight on with worry in her eyes.

Alice spoke after a long silence. “I saw you investigating that plane. Do you want to know what happened to those guys?”

Zo’s eyes nearly flickered into tears. The stress of a serious discussion with her mother becoming a heavy burden. But she blinked them back and nodded. “Yeah.”

“Their plane flew over my magic nullifier a few months ago. I didn’t expect anyone to be within my estimated trap range, but they were apparently very lost and very low on sleep. They ran out of standard fuel and were on full manual generation, which is very inefficient and required both of them to maintain, making it hard to navigate and fly the plane. Then, when they were probably only a few kilometers above me, maybe eight or ten, their plane’s engines began to fail from lack of fuel. I heard it coming, but not fast enough to turn off my nullifier in time.

“They crashed a good distance away, over on one of the edges of the valley near the Ychynyaan mountains. Where you seem to have climbed and to have come in from. Anyway, I hopped into my power suit, threw some medical supplies in a backpack, and bounced off toward them. By the way, do you know how hard it is to avoid stress from too many G-forces while moving way too fast? But anyway, I fished the two survivors out and gave them care. We buried the other two who perished upon impact out by the plane, though their graves are probably buried under a bit of snow and ice by now. The two thanked me after some rest over here, and I sent them home with plenty of supplies. After escorting them out of the valley, of course. Blindfold. Just in case.”

The story was over, finally. Zo tried her best to wrap her head around all the odd bits of information. Magic nullifier? That goes out for ten kilometers? Why does she remember the topography so well? Even so far as to recognize mountains from close-up photos.

Then, there was the enticing mention of her gear. “Power suit” sounds awesome! But why not dash. Why bounce? What’s a “G-force?”

Instead of asking every question that came to mind, Zo simply said, “That makes sense. You don’t want them coming back, right?”

“Exactly.”

Zo figured it’d be better to ask questions after securing an agreement to stay.

But after some silence, she brought one up in a different manner. “So, how does the nullifier work? That seems pretty crazy, especially if it stops magic from that far away.”

“Well, it’s actually quite simple…”

Chapter 6

Zo woke up in a soft bed once more. Had it been a week? Pasta and talking, more talking and using the computer, and three more days like that after…and yesterday she promised to show me around her home some more. One week and today is eight.

As had become the norm, Zo made her bed and left her room to find her mother and ask for fresh clothes.

“I have pink and white left. Which shirt do you want?” Alice held up two identical long-sleeve shirts for Zo.

“I don’t much prefer either.”

“Pink it is. I’ll mix in my clothes for the week and have them all washed. Don’t worry, you can shower without losing heat while the washer is on.”

Zo grabbed the white shirt from her mother’s left hand that had already been resting behind Alice’s back. “I pick white over pink.”

“You’d hurt your amo’s feelings talking like that!”

“Well she’s not here, is she?”

“I could go get her. I might even make it back in time for dinner.”

Zo walked past her mother and found a set of clean clothes missing a shirt and walked off to the shower.

Alice called out to her in a playfully scolding tone, “Don’t make me do it! Come help me hang our laundry when you’re done. I know you’ll take longer than the washer!”

Chapter 7

After silently hanging up their clothes to dry, Zo and Alice began walking. But instead of returning to where they had come from, Alice led them down a different hallway. Still, Zo kept silent despite her curiosity.

The halls were all the same, so after several minutes of walking, a turn, and many more minutes of even more walking, Zo started to wonder what could possibly be so far away.

Then, in the distance, there was a black door. The straight hall had been so long that she didn’t notice until about halfway through the hall. It took what felt like another five minutes before they finally arrived at it.

Alice turned around instead of opening it.

“What?” Zo asked.

“This way leads to Celica and everyone else. If you want to go the whole way.”

“Why would I come all this way just to go back home? And aren’t you hiding or something?”

Alice frowned. “If you really wanted to, I wouldn’t say no. I wouldn’t be able to stay, but I could say ‘hi.’ No one would notice Celica’s portal turning on if she used the hidden generators. Though, she might prefer we just meet in the middle, on Earth. Or that we all hang out here, in my house. But I could afford to visit the house in Andria if you prefer.”

Zo almost forgot the situation she had been living in since her mother had disappeared. The confusion and depression. The way Amo and Pops had responded, a hint of guilt in their faces that never seemed right but never felt large enough to be of suspicion.

“No. No, it’s fine. I don’t want to put you in danger. All of us in danger, even.” Zo replied quickly, shaking away her memories.

Alice’s smile was full of sadness and regret. “Alright. Thank you.” After a brief pause, she reverted back to a more cheerful expression. “Then let’s just visit Earth and not worry about reopening that old portal in Andria.”

Chapter 8

The suit was thick and stiff. Unlike her thin and more comfortable one she wore to travel through the Valley, the protective suit for Earth was outright terrible. It was meant for her mother, so it didn’t even fit right. The undersuit clothes were alright, though they were baggy. But the armor pieces she had to wear over everything overlapped awkwardly, and worse, the chest piece was somehow too long and yet also too tight around. The fabric for the armor, if it could even be called fabric, was heavy and dull looking. Zo wasn’t sure, but it felt like there was -something- taking up space across her torso that wasn’t even made from the bizarre stuff the rest of her suit was. All-in-all, it was the worst thing she had ever worn.

“You look good.”

“Yeah, right. Nice one, Mom.”

Alice coughed to cover up her grin. “Are you ready? There shouldn’t be anything bad on the other side, but you need to wear that in case I’m wrong.”

Her mother was wearing another suit of black and grey, though it obviously was personally tailored to fit. She was also holding a strange object that had briefly been described as a projectile launcher, or a “gun.” Zo couldn’t imagine what it did, but seeing the strange metal club with odd parts and a little pipe at the end didn’t exactly give her the vibe of a dangerous weapon. Of course, she was told it would protect them, so she decided to believe in its capabilities.

Zo was able to lift her arm easily to give a wave thanks to the parts of her suit only loosely hanging over each other. “I’m ready. I’m also tired already from standing around with this thing on. But I’m ready, anyway.”

“Ok. Let me turn on the portal. Give it a sec. Oh, and you might want to stand a few feet back.”

Zo looked away and back at the strange door-frame standing in the middle of the room. Around the frame was a simple rail that suggested the area shouldn’t be gone through. It was the so-called portal.

Alice set down the “gun” onto a nearby metal table. Zo turned back after hearing the metallic “thud” and watched her mother walk back toward the door where they had entered. Alice veered off to the left to where a large computer screen hung into the wall. It lit up once Alice removed her black gloves and began typing on a suspended keyboard. Occasionally, she would tap or draw her fingers across the screen. It was difficult for Zo to read what all was going on, but she tried to pick out what she could.

“Check…March…9:01 AM…Clear…Bachron?” Isn’t that in Zatyon City?

There were a few colors, but mostly text and shapes in black and white. It looked a bit like the computer she had spent the last few days noodling on, but only faintly. While her “study” computer was always stuck in one screen with several options to navigate around, it seemed that wherever Alice was wasn’t the same at all. If it weren’t for the design of the bars and boxes Alice was pressing on the screen, Zo would have assumed it was completely different.

“Here we go. It’s almost ready. I’m just going to make a little call to double check.”

Zo watched her mother tap several times in the corner of her screen.

“Closed…Off…Clear.” What is she doing? Seems like it’s important…

Alice tapped the screen a few more times, pausing between to watch words and dots go by. It all was too fast for Zo to follow, especially without her visor to zoom in with. Being reminded of what she couldn’t bring briefly annoyed her.

I can’t believe magic doesn’t work on Earth…this is going to suck…

Behind, something shook the room all the sudden. It wasn’t a shake like an earthquake, though. It was somehow more. The feeling she got was like sitting in a very old autocart that slowly crept across a bumpy road. But a hundred times more shaky while being reduced to a hundredth the size of the shaking. Zo couldn’t begin to describe the sensation in any better terms but that it wasn’t painful or jarring, just that it was strong and -everywhere-.

“Zo, let’s go! It’s already open.” Alice swiftly walked by to pick up her weapon.

Zo turned, watching her mother stop right in front of the source of the vibrations. A door-shaped concrete wall.

No. No…way!

“What?..” Zo lost her voice immediately, along with her thoughts.

It was strange to see. And it was getting more and more strange the longer she watched it.

The door, “thing,” stood there in the middle of the, well, honestly speaking, previously dubiously and only now appropriately named, portal. The sides of the portal, ignoring the frame, were just the room they stood in. There was a fair distance to the other end of the large, open room they were in. And the ceiling was nearly half as high, which itself looked to be almost three stories up. But the wall in the portal was far from far away or tall. That alone was hurting her brain.

But then, there was the way it felt like it belonged. When she let her eyes fall into the portal, it seemed like that’s what was right ahead of her. The idea of the room she was in began to feel wrong. It was making her a bit sick. The feeling was like when she tried to read books while in an autocart as a child.

“That…that doesn’t look safe to me, Mom. It’s making me sick.”

Alice had been inspecting the portal up close as if looking into another room from the outside. She looked back and frowned. “Hmm. You’d be best to come closer, then. I think. I don’t remember anyone else getting sick being around one of these.” Alice poked her head into the portal, then stepped in and pointed the pipe end of her gun around. Finally, she beckoned Zo to enter. “Come. It’s safe.”

Chapter 9

Zo blinked her eyes and walked closer. The sickening feeling was not as bad the closer she came. Now, only a step away, Zo almost felt alright again.

What the hell is this thing?

Ignoring her mother’s summoning waves, Zo gripped the railing she was now standing inside of and took a look around the portal to see the other side. And, as she had guessed, it was the rest of the room that should have been there. The large, empty room, not the concrete one through the portal. With a bit more effort, Zo leaned further to see what the portal looked like from the other side. It was a gray concrete wall like the front, but with a dim set of wide steps going up to a dark, flat spot that blocked the rest of the way.

Is that a floor door or something? What would you call a sideways door…

“Zoeca! Stop messing around!”

Her mother’s voice was sharp, but it felt slightly faded. Or far away? Like she had scolded her from across the yard. Zo slowly pushed herself back to face the portal to see Alice with crossed arms only a few steps ahead.

That was…weird.

Then, she saw something that bothered her even more. Despite the light that seemed to exist in the room past the portal, however dim it might be, it was as if the colors were slightly wrong. Or maybe it was just the lighting, and nothing else.

“Zo-e-ca~.”

“Fine, okay. I’m coming. Sorry, Mom.”

Zo walked her foot in, and her body followed. But she was so conscious of her movements that every body part felt strange and slow as they all, individually, crept through the image that was the portal. It was as if there was a painting that she was stepping into. At the last second, she closed her eyes and cringed as her face went through. There was no sensation but the vibrations and a flash of blue-white that was gone faster than she could even understand it had passed.

With her eyes open again, she looked and saw the room she had seen past the portal.

“Welcome to Earth!”

End of Book 2


Alice
drawn by Ingri Ned

The Empty City

Chapter 1

“First thing first. You’re going to meet Vic. He’ll be here in a minute; he’s already on his way, I’m sure.”

Zo watched her mother navigate around and behind the portal without hesitation.

Alice spoke as she went. “He really needs to build some protection, so accidents don’t happen here. I rather like my guard-rails. It shouldn’t be all that hard to print off some interlocking parts and anchor them into the room he’s built.”

Instead of seeing Alice, Zo saw the large computer screen and the door at the far end of the large room they had just exited. Zo leaned to the right a bit and saw the desk that was just to the side of the portal entrance on Andoa. And, beyond the portal and in the room they were now in, she saw her mother opening up a flat door at the top of the concrete steps.

“Well? Are you coming?”

Zo took a full step to the right and stood up straight. “Yeah. Sorry, Mom. I’m coming.”

Alice turned back to the door and finished pushing the two small doors apart. “Make sure to keep away from the portal. Bad things seemed to happen when it closes. I haven’t tested the effects on people, but it wouldn’t be pretty, I’m sure.”

Immediately, Zo backed up further and took a wide angle around it. Without a door frame to hold the shape, the portal seemed like a rectangle with its corners shaved off a bit. And as she walked right to the side, the portal disappeared entirely. Zo kept watching as she arched around toward the steps, and it reappeared again.

It’s thinner than a piece of paper! What in the world -is- that thing? -How- in the world…

Then, suddenly, it evaporated. And with the portal gone, the humming also ceased. She had grown used to the vibrations that shook her softly, but now that they were gone she felt a bit more at ease again. And somehow, the room felt brighter? Or was it always so dim? Her eyes felt wrong, and her mind felt deceived.

“Zo~.”

After hearing her mother, she remembered to breathe. “Right! I’m coming! Sorry!”

Alice removed her head from the top of the steps and stood up with her “gun” held up.

I still don’t see how that’s supposed to be threatening…how fast can something that small launch a projectile? At least arrows or shards thrown with spells seem big enough to hurt a lot compared to whatever fits in that tiny pipe.

Alice watched her with one eye while glancing around the room above while Zo made it to the wide steps and climbed up the short set. The small, concrete room they had left reminded her somewhat of more industrial areas in Zatyon while the new room felt like the military apartment Pops sometimes had to live in while he was working.

After Zo left the steps, Alice quickly replaced the floor door.

“Did…did the floor just eat the floor door there?” she asked.

“Yeah, pretty much,” Alice chuckled. “I think Vic did a good job at concealing this thing, at least. You can push it open from the inside, but you need to enter a code to come back from out here.”

“Wow. So, like, with some sort of lock? Can you use a spell to do that?”

Alice rolled her eyes, then smiled. “Did you forget already? No magic here. At least, probably. Vic claims he’s occasionally found some instances where his city-wide server network does stuff when he leaves it running on one task, mimicking how I’ve set up integrated spells like in your gear.”

“City-wide…what? Server? Like, for restaurants?”

“Oh, nevermind. That can wait.” Her mother pondered for a brief moment, then pointed to the floor door. “By the way, you should call those ‘trap-doors.’ Or maybe cellar doors. ‘Floor door’ works in English, but it’s not natural. Sorry if what I taught you wasn’t enough…if I had to guess, you probably have a few bad words and naming sense for words you don’t know from your amo.”

“Hey! -You- left, right? I guess if you wanted me to be, uh, sophisticated, then you shoulda stayed!”

Alice ignored her. Just like she used to when Amo pouted. “Vic knows we’re here by now. Let’s go meet him. He’s probably on his way from his house across the street.” She brought her gun back up and pointed the pipe in front of her as she began to walk past the semi-familiar looking scattering of furniture strewn about and down a painted concrete hallway.

This place is even the same color as Pop’s stupid home-away-from-home. Boring-brown, faded-blue, and muddy-looking. I hope Earth isn’t like this everywhere…

Zo followed her mother down a corridor lit with random light-bulbs hanging from the ceiling. It was obvious that whoever lived there was not one for aesthetics. But Zo almost preferred it to Alice’s house on Andoa. At least the place looked lived-in.

From around a corner came a tired voice. “Ah. Alice and…Alice, who is that?” Of course, it spoke English, too. Unlike her mother, this voice felt more comfortable and relaxed.

“Vic, stop using your creepy network to spy on us and speak with your face present, please. Zo hasn’t even met you!”

A scruffy, scrawny man walked out a few feet past Alice and stopped to face them as Zo caught up. “Sorry. Been busy. Don’t talk to people much, anyway. Was just being efficient.”

Chapter 2

Vic was about her height, or just barely taller than Amo, Pops, and Jason. Or maybe Jason caught up to her by now? Either way, it seemed his height was too much for his body when even his cheekbones showed. If it weren’t for his dark eyes that seemed to be investigating everything around him with laser focus, Zo would have thought he was a zombie.

“You’ve grown up a lot since I last saw you. Um…” Vic pulled out a small book and peered at it, tapping the cover. “‘Zo-eh-ka.” He relaxed his arm, revealing the thing he held wasn’t exactly a normal book.

That’s…is that a -tiny- computer?! What the crap?!

“You never saw her, Vic! What are you talking about?”

“No? I’m pretty sure I saw the batch of zygotes and even the one you chose to grow.”

Alice smiled, but something told Zo it wasn’t a nice one. Alice then looked up and shook her head. “You’re ridiculous. And -technically- right, I guess. But you haven’t actually met her after, you know, she was born, or when you’d traditionally consider ‘meeting someone.’ I don’t think anyone counts seeing images of tiny cells as ‘meeting’ them.”

Vic ignored Alice completely, instead, putting on a pair of thin glasses and staring directly at Zo. “I can see her looks in you. Looks like you got some of Celica in your skeletal structure. And your eyes have some life in them.” He nodded his head toward Alice. “-She- always wanted some color. Meanwhile, hers are lighter than mine. Such a complainer.”

Alice scoffed. “-You- were the complainer, Vic. All day, every day. I can’t believe you’re calling -me- one.” She turned to Zo. “He was always saying things like, ‘oh, I’m tired’ or ‘oh, that sounds stupid.’”

“…that sounds stupid. Don’t listen to her.”

Zo put out her hand. “Well, anyway. I’m Zo. Nice to meet you, Vic.”

Vic looked at her hand. “Oh, going old-school, huh?” He took her hand and shook it. “Nice to meet you, Zo. You can call me Victor if you don’t mind. Or Mr. Utada, if you’re feeling goofy. Just don’t like Vic much; use it if you must, but it will make me mildly sad. No particular reason, of course.”

“Oh, ok. I like Victor. That sounds like a cool name to me.” Zo thought for a moment. “It’s not like most Andoan names I’ve heard, though I feel like it’s similar to my brother’s name, ‘Jason.’ Have you met him, yet?”

Victor stretched his back while eyeing Alice. “Hmm. Yes. And no. So no. He was the one Celica bore if I’m not mistaken. Heard it went well.” He finished his stretch and leaned in close. “You were more of a problem. She couldn’t have kids normally, so they had to get creative. I had to help a lot with that one. Didn’t see either of you grow much once things looked alright. You were probably three months developed, though I never saw images beyond the first week. Would you believe your mother? She had me drag some poor half-zombie doctor who could barely sustain a daily routine without going mad onto another planet to give advice for her children scheme with another person and her not recently divorced husband that had tried for literally ten years with her condition.”

“What nonsense are you pouring into that poor girl’s brain? Cut that out!”

“It’s true! You didn’t even file the paperwork, miss. Or should I say, Mrs. Utada? Technically, you’re still with me. You know that, right? Not that there’s a government that cares around here to recognize a divorce, much less investigate our marital status.”

Zo couldn’t follow what was being talked about in full, but she enjoyed seeing her mother interact with someone else. Especially someone who could upset her.

I guess she’s not impossible to get to. Amo only ever won by being cute and kissing her to death.

The two kept debating about things that stopped making sense for another minute or two until Alice gave up and remembered Zo was there. She turned around and smiled. “Well, anyway. This is your ghost father. You might have a few genetic bits from him, too. Messing with genes was scary, so we used a method that sort of gives you three parents. Sort of. You’re mostly our kid, but he was involved genetically, too. I’m still not completely sure on how it all worked, but I figure you might as well know him. But you’re not -really- his kid; Celica and I are your parents for all intents and purposes.”

Victor added in from behind Alice’s turned back. “Just you, by the way. Your brother used Zeke’s chromosome shell as a carrier, not mine. If you ever want to learn how that all worked, I could let you use a console connected to my database. The archive here is pretty insane, even after the attacks. Oh, and Dr. Kim is still around if you want to pick his brain. Good luck, though. He’s gone even more loopy these past few years. Literally! Does the exact same things all day!”

Alice let him speak but seemed very annoyed. Once Victor laughed a moment and began walking ahead, she whispered to Zo. “It’s all a bit complicated, but I can explain everything when we get back if you want. For now, let’s just show you around Earth a little.”

It was all very odd, especially seeing her mother lose her cool. But then again, the past week had been strange already. More interesting things couldn’t make it any worse.

“Ok. But I’ll be fine, I don’t really care. I want to see your home. It’s a whole other planet, right?” Zo hurriedly followed behind Victor with a forced smile. Not that she wasn’t happy. She just didn’t want to let on her confusion and surprise over how Alice was reacting. Besides, it got her in the right mood to actually become the illusion of being excited.

Chapter 3

“We’re going up here. I’d like to show off our house, but it’s a mess right now. And by mess, I mean it’s a delicate and easy to ruin a lot of time and projects because there’s cables everywhere kind of mess.” Victor faced a heavy metal door and typed a lot on a screen pressed flush into the corridor wall. “Come on, we might as well check out the city. It’s just up these stairs.”

Zo and Alice followed Victor through a short hallway and up a few steps before Victor had to draw open a canvas cover off up and out of their way. Beyond was a sky not as alien as Zo imagined. It was just as beautiful as the ones back in Andria. Clouds, some gray and near, some large, white, and far; it all was just like home. And then there was a distant mountain with white snow capping the peaks.

Zo finished climbing up and began to wander a few steps around the surface, taking in the scenery.

The houses nearby were a bit more alien, though they seemed more like something a distant country might have than an entirely different species of monsters might make. In some ways, it reminded her of Alice’s home. There was glass and strange looking concrete all over them. Then, Zo noticed the ground she walked upon and saw it be not too different, only lacking the variations in color.

What kind of city builds streets out of glass? Is that glass, even? At least there’s a normal path running around the road made of something safer looking…

As her eyes ran around the sidewalks, she turned back toward where they had exited. There was an empty area without a home. Just a small hill covered in grass that led straight into a dense forest of tall, green pine trees.

“How do you like Seattle, Zo?” Victor asked from a few feet away.

“It reminds me a bit of Andria. Especially where I grew up, out in the middle of nowhere.” Zo pointed at the forest. “There were trees just like those all over.”

“Oh yeah, I suppose there were. Really makes you think they’d been introduced a long time ago. Ages before Alice ended up over there.”

Alice let down her gun and faced them. “You know, I’ve looked into a lot of history, and I keep finding little folk tales about people disappearing or strangers suddenly showing up, speaking in tongues. But nothing seems big enough to explain the mixing of species.”

“Sure, but you also claim there’s dragons over there so you can prove they existed on Earth. Like one ‘escaped’ or something.” Victor put up his hand before Alice spoke. “Yes, yes. You showed me blurry photos or pixelated blobs. I’m sure there’s plenty of weird stuff living on a freaking alien planet. But there’s no way one of those things could make it through a teeny tiny person-sized door unless you’re telling me an egg or something was carried through.”

With an upturned lip, Alice turned back around and gripped her gun again. “It’s not -totally- impossible, sourpuss.” She continued to mutter to herself while Victor began walking again.

Zo enjoyed learning about her mother for the past week, but now she couldn’t help but enjoy learning about Victor and the world he lived in. It was strange to think Alice didn’t want to live on the planet she was from if it wasn’t much different, anyway.

Victor smiled, his messy short hair getting messier-looking in the soft breeze. “Let’s go check out downtown, Zo. I bet you’ve never seen a city like it before.”

Alice gripped her weapon.

Victor looked at her and said, “It’s not the same battlefield from nearly fifty years ago. You’ve been there several times since. It’s a ghost town with hollow, brain-dead survivors who can hardly hold a conversation. And you know I’m busy being a spy; why do you think there’s danger still there? How did you even convince yourself to come to the surface if it’s still that bad?”

Zo saw her mother freeze. Only stray strands of her long black hair showing signs of life while she continued to face away and toward a distant hint of taller shapes just above the evergreens.

“No, it’s ok. I’ll go.” Alice finally moved. “I’m sorry, Zo. I just don’t feel safe here like I do on Andoa. But I want you to see some of my past.”

Chapter 4

The city was the most fantastic construction she’d ever seen. But everything she saw kept painting a bleaker and more disparaging image.

“Are those gravestones?” Zo asked, pointing to the long, open park with bushes and tall grass.

Obscured by nature were metal sheets in rough rows. Zo had only seen carved stone with engravings detailing those buried, or lone statues with little plaques. Most people on Andoa were buried without anything but a small stone to mark the spot. But even a natural object seemed better than some thin, tall piece of metal.

“Yes,” answered Alice. “They are. A lot of people died here.”

Victor waited while they kept walking further toward the much taller buildings of “downtown” before filling in more history. “I helped the first wave. The NAC relief teams came out and cleaned up the town after the city was safe again, about three weeks later. It was horrible work, but it had to be done.” Victor covered his eyes and looked down, stopping for a moment. “I should allocate the memories I don’t like somewhere externally some day. Or delete them. That whole month was hell…and believe it or not, it was not the last time I had to carry a body, dig a grave, then try to find identifying information so I could at least give the poor bastard a mark on the world. I can recall every single person I buried despite more of my friends passing every year I live on.”

Victor walked ahead while Alice and Zo slowly caught up.

“I’m sorry, Victor,” Zo said. “I should have guessed it wasn’t a very good memory.”

Victor was silent, a half step ahead. He just kept walking as if he hadn’t heard her.

Alice put her gun into her left hand and gave a brief sideways hug. “It’s fine, he’ll be ok. He’s grown to be very resilient since the attack on Seattle. A lot more than me, honestly.” She then pointed up to the tall, gray and glassy blocks they were approaching. “Hey, would you believe we both lived in one of those things for a couple of years?”

Zo looked up. “Where? Those things? Do you mean the really boring gray things? They look so crazy to me. Are they some sort of apartment building?”

“Yeah, that’s right. They used to fit around 100 to 150 residents, depending on if couples were sharing a unit.”

“Can we go in and look?”

Alice glanced at Victor. “I’m not sure. They might be locked, still.”

Victor raised his voice instead of turning to speak, his pace already bringing him several steps ahead of them. “They are. But I will unlock one for Zo. Curiosity must be fostered in the youth, after all.”

As they came closer, Zo could see past the tall blocks and deeper into the city.

While there were all kinds of little differences, such as color splashed in small amounts or small designs that gave a more unique look for each individual structure, most of the buildings were largely the same. Like the uniform apartments that made a long line, all the rest of the buildings were at least a bit blockish and still mostly made of glass and gray concrete.

What made the city feel more interesting to look at was the pattern of buildings, trees or grass, then more buildings. All in between, of course, were narrow or wide streets. Unlike any city she’d ever seen, even the most advanced ones in Andria, this one felt like it had been painted. Everything felt so well layered and organized in pleasant patterns. Even the features that gave little uniquenesses to various buildings, ignoring the apartments, felt like small, human mistakes that gave the otherwise perfect design some humanity.

Victor slowed down at the entrance to an apartment building they had walked up to. Alice and Zo stopped as he tapped away at another computer screen in the wall near a glass door.

Zo craned her neck back and looked up the ten floors of glass. “What’s this city called again?” she asked.

Victor smiled. “Welcome to the tarnished jewel of yesteryear’s cutting edge technology: the former North American Coalition’s New Seattle.”

Chapter 5

“Who would want to live in a place like this?”

Victor shrugged.

Alice twisted her face up while attempting to think of an answer. “I mean, it wasn’t -that- bad. Just a bit Spartan.”

“Most Earthlings wouldn’t know what that means anymore. What makes you think poor Zo would get that reference?”

“Then she hasn’t studied enough! She’s the one who claimed she would catch up to my knowledge set so we could converse without making me lower my comfort and watch what I say. I’m sure she inferred what it means, anyway. She’ll go look it up later, or ask when we’re not in the middle of a conversation. Unlike you, Vic. You always interrupt me!”

Zo walked around the miniature room while the other two bickered. Behind Victor and Alice was a glass screen left ajar to reveal a tile floor only a few feet deep and a few wider. With the right angle, she was able to spy a suspicious shape pushed against the wall.

That can’t possibly…but where else would they go? Does it fold out? Eww!

She returned her gaze to the right half of the room. There were several more shapes pushed up against the wall. Zo, unable to resist the temptation, unlatched them one at a time.

The smaller ones made up a desk. Behind the biggest was a screen buried into the wall. It seemed pretty big when compared to everything else being so small, though it surely wasn’t fun pressing up against the wall behind only a few feet away. What was even more strange was just how low to the ground the desk was. Alice had her computers either at standing height or just right for a chair to be pulled up and sat on. But in these, there was only room to sit right down on the mat just a few inches above the rest of the floor.

Zo sat down on the mat and poked the screen, but nothing happened.

Well, darn.

Feeling a bit bored, she put up the desk and went about investigating the other remaining latches. One opened up a set of shelves, but it was empty. Another opened more shelves with three abused books set flat and stacked upon each other. She took one out and turned it about, inspecting every angle.

The cover was thin and soft. She couldn’t remember the name, but it reminded her of a material Earth used a lot of. If only she had paid better attention to the random things on her mother’s computer. Aside from the covers, the book was entirely filled with unusually thin paper covered with almost entirely illegible writing.

This must be what computers print out. It’s so freaking tiny!

Zo flipped around to random pages. Sometimes, there were very basic drawings done with straight lines and perfect circles. There were a few charts and diagrams, too. She noticed numbers along the bottom and went to the end immediately.

725 pages! What the crap?! How does that even work? Zo closed the book and focused on the front again. “Machine Learning: A deep look into artificial intelligence 12th edition Mitsuhiro Bourwe,” Zo read aloud. “Hey, Victor. Mom.”

“Yes?”

Victor turned but didn’t reply.

“What’s this thing about? Right here, this title here.” Zo pointed to the first two words.

Alice gave a sharp look at Victor. “This was your place…and that’s your book! Tell me you’re not still coming up here?”

“Well no shit I still come up here. Who’s going to stop me? And why do you think this place isn’t full of dust or dead people?” Victor finished replying to Alice before stepping closer and kneeling down. “Here, get off there for a sec. You might as well see the best part about these terrible cages.”

Zo scooted aside and got off the mat. Victor then put up all the wall latched compartments still open and then reached to the far wall until he had a loop in his fingers. With a hard yank, he lifted up the mat, and it unfolded out into three segments until it flattened out across most the floor up until near the pathetic bathroom where Alice continued to stand in front of.

“There’s even a little pillow if you pull on that other loop in the wall, right where this was blocking; there.” He directed Zo and waved her to lay down while he stood in the doorway. “You might as well have the full experience for a few minutes. You don’t mind, Alice, right?”

Zo went ahead when Alice rolled her eyes. The pillow was a firm cushion that flopped out of the wall. It wasn’t terribly comfortable, but after lying for a minute, she decided it would do the job if she had to sleep there.

Victor dug out the smallest book from the wall-shelf and offered it to her. “You should look at this one instead. It’s a storybook instead of an old non-fic. Even Alice enjoyed it, and she doesn’t normally read anything I like to. Probably because it has crazy alien dinosaurs and magicy science stuff.”

Alice replied, “I forgot about that one. Can we just borrow it, though? She doesn’t have the time just to lay around and read it.”

“Oh, you want to reread it, huh?”

“Well, I might as well since I don’t remember much of it anymore! Not to mention we need to go back in another fifty minutes. I want to be there early, so we don’t risk any…accidents.”

Zo began reading, only faintly hearing the other two for just a few minutes before they would probably have to go.

“I woke up in the dirt with a canopy of ferns taller than houses. Only a few rays of bright sunlight reached down around me…” Zo let herself fall into the story for a short while. It had been years since she’d read a book in English, back when her mother taught her and Jason. It always seemed odd to speak a language no one else used on Andoa. At least it allowed her to read many strange stories from Earth.

Chapter 6

“Come on, Zo. Let’s get moving. I think we should take a quick look at the city before we head back.”

Knowing where they had come in from, Zo ended up descending the stairs much faster than the other two, who continued to bicker. Using her spare time, she stopped at the ground floor and went deeper into the lobby area instead of leaving the apartment building. There was a long, tall desk that cut into the open space of the lobby. It reminded her of a store.

I guess they had employees here. Or maybe robots? That would be cool.

She had read about autonomous workers that did anything from greeting customers or serving food to building autocarts or exploring the bottom of an ocean. Nothing like that existed on Andoa, at least not in her country, Andria.

Zo kept walking deeper, walking through a short hallway and passing by several rooms walled with glass. There was one with a lot of screens and many chairs, and another with odd boxes covered in buttons and tables with chairs to sit in. In some ways, it reminded her of really nice taverns or hotels, though she couldn’t remember seeing any with so many rooms dedicated to just one thing.

Turning a corner, Zo soon found another glass room with many odd metal machines with black padding and some strung up with wires. There were more screens, too. And more tall boxes with buttons.

Wait, I think I know some of these things…are those the machines that give you food or drinks when you push a button? Uh–Zo closed her eyes and searched her vocabulary–they’re something-machines! What was it?

A sound brought her back from her thoughts. “Thump!” She searched for the source only to find a tall, muscular man wearing very minimalistic clothes. He seemed to have come from a door at the back of the room.

“Hey! You!” he said, noticing Zo.

She panicked, freezing up for a moment while fighting to control her initial reactions and preparing her mind to cast a spell.

The man, who had been standing still just past the door he had exited, began to march his way through the jungle of metal machines and cables. “HEY!”

Calm! Calm. Zo turned away and bent her knees. Air…pushing me…ball air…underfoot.

“You! Wait!” The man was closer, almost to the door out of the room and into the hallway.

She closed her eyes and focused once more. Ok! Ok. Just air pushing. Pushing me. Forward. Air rushing. Rush. Rush. AIR…RUSH!

Nothing happened.

The door opened. He was only a few feet away. She opened her eyes and, without magic, tried to run with all her might. Her spell failed, but at least she could try and weave around the halls until she found the other two. She prayed he couldn’t air-dash.

Zo quickly pivoted at the opening to the lobby hallway. Again, she tried to use air-dashes, but nothing happened. Suddenly, she had to fight herself from tearing up before they blurred her vision completely. She threw out every stride as if she were lunging forward. Her thighs were already burning from the extreme manual sprinting she had instinctively entered.

“MOM! HELP!” she screamed at the stairwell, hoping Alice was there.

From just outside came a reply. “Zo! I’m out here!”

The glass door was opened just in time for her to fly right through. Zo quickly veered off behind Victor and Alice and immediately slowed to a small, circular pace with her hands above her head and her eyes cautiously inspecting the lobby.

Victor, who had been the one to open the door, walked inside and waited; his demeanor calm. “It’s fine. I promise.”

But Alice was the opposite of him. She grabbed her gun with both hands and knelt, peering over the top of her weapon while pointing it just past the solid bit of concrete and into the continuing glass walls toward the place Zo had run from.

Suddenly, there was an ear-shattering cacophony of glass shattering and a high-pitched and painful sound, like a hundred pistons in autocarts or trains firing all at once.

“ALICE! STOP!” Victor yelled, approaching carefully from where he stood. “NO ONE WILL HURT YOU HERE! DON’T KILL THESE POOR BASTARDS! THEY USED TO SHARE THIS CITY WITH YOU!”

There was a groan, then a loud whimper. It came from the tall man who had chased after Zo.

Victor looked at the end of the hall and shook his head. “Damn it all, Alice. That was the one guy who kept this place clean over all these years. You fucking shot him.”

Chapter 7

“You’re lucky you only got him in the leg. You should actually practice with your Earth weapons if you’re going to strut them around like you can use them.”

Victor handed Zo the book she had started reading before. “Here, you can borrow this.”

Still confused and upset at her misunderstanding, Zo couldn’t even properly answer or react in any meaningful way but to take the book and hold it to her chest.

Alice finished typing on a screen, and the trap door back to the portal room creaked open.

Victor took a step closer to Zo and cupped his hand around his mouth. “Come visit anytime. There ain’t shit to do here and no one to talk with but crazy people like me so you might find it boring, but that’s just this place. I’ll print you off some gear if you want to travel and see actual Earth. There’s a lifetime in the archives if you don’t want to risk it, even. Infinite pictures and videos.”

“Oi! Victor!” Alice was lifting the trap door open completely when she caught him whispering to Zo. “What do you think you’re doing over there? You’re not trying to tell her something stupid, are you? Not after what just happened!”

“Says the one who shot John!” He stepped back and burst into a brief fit of laughter. “You never change! It’s amazing!” He calmed his breath and said, “I suppose I haven’t, either. But really, you’d have Zo think the whole planet was a garbage dump with the way you see it. Gotta tell her it’s not. Wouldn’t kill to have her check out the archive when she finds time to burn…you could even leave her with me today and come grab her in a week. That’d be fun, right, Zo?”

Guns are really scary, but Victor seems to be a nice person. He could probably show me the places where they don’t have guns. Besides, he’s like my uncle, in a strange way…maybe she wouldn’t-

“No.” Alice made the decision for her before Zo could even finish thinking about it. “Let her conquer her own world before inviting her to a new one. She wouldn’t last a day here.”

Victor shrugged and turned around. With a soft mutter, Zo heard him swear and say, “Like you did that.”

Chapter 8

After only a few minutes of waiting for the portal to appear, Zo passed through with her eyes open this time. It was blinding, but she could see right after. Maybe it wasn’t light that she passed through? She wasn’t sure, but the sensation was like staring at the sun for less than an instant but without the afterimage.

“I’ve been working on something since you’ve arrived here.” Alice began removing the padded suit pieces. Her gun was already lying on the table again. “You’ll like it a lot. I’m sure.”

Zo didn’t know what to reply with. Considering what she had just experienced for the last few hours, it was sudden, arbitrary, and distracting.

Her mother was back down to her simple black sweater and blue pants again. She made her way to Zo and reached out to pull away her baggy armored suit. “Let’s get this stuff off. It’s pointless here, especially considering the present I’ve got for you.”

“Present?” Zo moved her arms up and allowed herself to be stripped without thinking much. She was soon back to the set of simple clothes she had chosen earlier that morning.

“Just give it another few minutes. It’s in the exhibition hall next door.” She walked past the portal frame and waved Zo to follow. “Come on!” Her expression was off. It came off as happy, but something else was in her eyes.

Zo fixed her shirt and straightened her pants, then jogged to catch up to her mother who was already opening the door on the far side of the room.

Alice seemed nearly giddy with each step as they walked the short hall. Something nagged her from deep in her mind, but Zo never trained her instincts and gut reactions.

I wonder why she even took me to Earth if it’s so dangerous, anyway. If her gun thing is all over Earth and you can’t use magic, how are you supposed to walk anywhere? That thing was like if a cannon and a bunch of spell-flung stones had a crazy baby. It shot things that destroyed the glass wall, passed through a leg, and kept going through another glass room. Everything that got hit was instantly torn through! I don’t think even Pops could stop those things, and he’s shoved autocarts aside with air spells before…

Her mother spoke as she turned on the light to another massive room. “What do you think?”

In the center was another cage of sorts. But instead of the portal in the center of the twin room they had just left, there was a white power suit. The only reason Zo knew the empty suit was a power suit was from the one afternoon her mother had shown off her own. That was now almost a week ago.

“Wait,” Zo stopped, her mind all jumbled with pure joy, fear, and confusion. “You said ‘present,’ right? That’s,” she could hardly continue, but she raised her hand to point as she finished, asking, “that’s not–you didn’t make a power suit…for me, did you?”

“Well, it’s not for me. I wouldn’t want to wear something all white, anyway.”

“But–why?”

Her mother walked up to the hollow suit and stood up beside it with a broad grin. “You wanted to go exploring the world, right? You’ll never have to worry about endangering your life again with this on. I want you to see Andoa and feel safe. I once had the urge to explore, as you have now. But I always had to be safe and rely on others. I want you to do what you want to without ever having to fear what could do you in if you made a wrong turn.”

Zo approached with her curiosity barely beating back her ocean of warring emotions.

Compared to Alice’s black one, the suit seemed thinner, and the angles were a bit softer. The metal was also matted instead of shiny. Zo reached out to touch the suit, glancing at Alice to make sure it was alright. After a nod of approval from her mother, she finished stretching out her fingertips and carefully pressed them against the broad chestpiece. It was cool and firm, though not quite as rough as she would have guessed.

“The surface is hydrophobic. I painted it white for you. If water starts to gather on it, let me know. I can recoat it.” Alice rubbed the shoulder of the suit. “But you shouldn’t need that for years. Depending on what you do and how often you turn off your barriers.”

“Barriers?”

“Let’s get this fitted on you, first. We’ll go over everything it can do after.”

Zo let herself grow excited despite deeper worries and anxiety.

No way! I can’t believe I’m going to get to bounce around and stuff like how she said she could in her suit.

“Wait, hold on a sec.” Zo smirked. “So I’ll get to jump just like you showed me a few days ago?”

“You’re kidding, right? Are you just wanting to do that?” Her mother leaned in and gave a smirk back. “Have you ever wanted to turn invisible?”

End of Book 3


Nightmare in Fercia

Following the sound of a distant explosion, Zo activated her high-impact, heavy-kinetic barrier spell out in a broad span in the direction of the initial “bang.” A ball of metal tore through the only window and the wall surrounding it that separated the inn from the neighboring buildings while dragging a coma of wood chips, dust, and shards of glass with it. The ball then hit Zo’s spell with such force that it began to melt, lighting the small room up from the shower of molten iron flecks sent flying about.

Zo began to regret her recent choices.

Chapter 1

After training with her mother for several months, Zo was sent home using the portal to Earth.

Of course, she was forbidden to stay at the middle-point by her mother, but Earth did seem dangerous enough to warrant the warning. Either way, she decided going back home to Andria would be better, anyway. Seeing her family again and asking their advice first before adventuring onto some scary planet just seemed like the right thing to do. And besides, it had been almost a year since she’d been home.

“Zoeca,” an older man asked from behind. The gruff voice, speaking Andrian, then asked, “That -is- you, right?”

Zo couldn’t help but turn around with a big smile. “Pops!” she replied in the same language. She took off her helmet and set it down, then gave her godfather the strongest hug she could manage.

In addition to her efforts, her godfather hugged back with such force that her white, metallic suit triggered from high force gauges and separated them.

“So you have a spell armor now, too? Pech! I would have thought better of your mother than that.”

“Oh, come on, Pops! She was worried for my safety. This will just help protect me, that’s all.” Zo picked up her helmet and cradled it in her arms.

From the center of the room, the portal finally evaporated. Behind where it opened, Zo saw a tunnel lit poorly by more oil lamps. She looked around the small brick room, then back at her godfather.

“What are you looking for, Zo?” he asked.

“Oh, nothing. I’m just, you know, investigating my surroundings.”

“Good girl. Do not let anyone or anything catch you off guard.” Her godfather walked past her and led the way out. “Now that you are here, we might as well head home. This tunnel is long, but we can leave the city easily while keeping your armor hidden. Going up to the surface here, in the middle of Bachron, would be a mistake.”

Zo followed behind him as he continued to talk.

“While that thing you wear may protect you, it will also bring you misery. Be prepared to either hide it away or cover it up. Otherwise, you will find a whole world hunting for you.”

“Why? Because of Mom? It’s not even the same suit!”

“Sorry, but you should know better. You cannot stop others from holding grudges and make them think rationally. Moreso, they would not be wrong to assume Alice to be behind such an infamous armor design, even if it were just to be her creation and not also her piloting it. Unfortunately, you also have your mother’s likeness. You would be easily mistaken for her with that thing on you.”

Zo frowned, then pouted a bit. She even made it a game to try and get a reaction from her godfather with more and more pathetic looks, but he only rolled his eyes and kept walking ahead in silence.

The two walked on for a while. Right when they entered the tunnel, there had been a ladder leading up. But after what felt like half an hour, not a single exit was in sight.

“Just another few minutes, Zo. Oh, and make sure to stand back behind me. Objects do not hold up well when a distance door opens through them. But putting two halves of a person back together is messy and only good for the following funeral ceremony.” He stopped still, debating an idea. “I would like to see that suit fight the spell that creates distance doors; not with you in it, of course. But I am curious. After twenty years of fighting, no one cracked the Nightmare’s armor, but I have a few theories on how it could be done.”

“Pops! You’re such a joker!” Zo slapped his shoulder with playful intent, though her suit shoved him a bit more as it reacted to unexpected force once again.

“Hey! That hurt a bit!” He made an ugly scowl before smiling. “Who taught you to beat up old people?”

“Sorry!” Zo laughed. “I didn’t mean to. But anyway, you taught me to never hold back. Especially against you! And you always told me to never assume something or someone to be harmless! I’m sorry, but even if you’re bedbound, I’m still going to take you seriously!”

He turned a bit further around to reach up and tousle her hair around. “Good. You actually paid attention. I couldn’t have raised a better child.”

Zo twisted her head away after too much hair could turn into an unrecoverable mess. She then gave a sly smirk. “So I’m the better child, then? I can’t wait to tell Jason. He’s gonna be so happy to hear your true feelings.”

“You might be older by a few weeks, but you’re still a child. He’s already grown up!”

“No! What happened! Did he get with a girl and have a kid?!”

Her godfather kept walking, speaking with a wistful and playful tone. “Well, you see. It-well, it just…happened.”

“NO! HOW COULD HE?!” Zo reacted with greater emotion, her jesting combining with genuine surprise.

“I know, I said the same when he signed up.”

“Wow! You think you’re ahead of your lil’ brother. Then, ‘BAM!’ He becomes a–wait. What did you say?”

Her godfather continued as if he didn’t even hear her. “I warned him of the dangers. It seems like a good idea. Sure, there are many benefits. But the army is no place for youngsters, especially kind-hearted boys like Jason.”

“Pops!” Zo sneered. “You had me going! I almost believed you, there!”

“What?” He slowed down as the tunnel’s end drew near. “You thought I was talking about him and his girlfriend?”

“No! Well, yeah, but about them actually staying together and, like, having a kid or something! Jason couldn’t keep a girlfriend for the longest time!”

Her godfather held his hand up to stop her, then went to fiddle with a brick in the tunnel’s wall. “Ok, you got me there. But it was a surprise to hear they went to join the army together. They will not be placed together for at least the entirety of their training. Worse, they will likely fill different roles, which will only continue to split them up after their training. I do not understand why they wanted to do it, really. It was sudden, too. I blame Marasha. She is so idealistic. Jason was colored by her passionate personality. Now, look at where it got him! I would not be surprised if he is released before he completes his training if I were to be honest. He is just too soft for frontline combat.”

While speaking, her godfather had removed the brick he had spent a while loosening, flipped a switch, and replaced the brick into the wall. Meanwhile, once the switch was flipped, a set of sounds began to echo through the small tunnel. There were unusual ones as well, but then she heard the familiar rumble of a portal.

“Here is our distance door, just ahead.”

Zo looked to where he pointed. At the end of the tunnel where only a wall of bricks had been, only around twenty feet ahead, there now was an image of an even darker looking place. What worried her was the lack of framing around the sides and especially under the portal.

“What happens if I don’t step over the bottom of the distance door? The part that’s not within the part that goes to the other side, right there.” She pointed past him. “Even the one on Earth was big enough that I could easily avoid the edges, but this one is a lot smaller.”

“Oh. Nothing happens. Well, nothing bad. You will just trip yourself. Celica has done so twenty-thousand times by now, I am sure. Every time I have seen her, she has managed to stumble through, if not completely land face-first onto the ground on the other side of the distance door.”

“What about the whole ‘split in half’ thing you were talking about?”

“What, that?” Her godfather pondered on how to describe the difference. “Well, if you occupy the area where a door opens, your body will become part of two sides of a door. The problem is that doors work both ways with both sides. Half of you will go to the other side while the other will be leaving the other side and coming back to where you already were. Everything I have seen put at where a door opens was immediately split in two as it fell around both sides of the door. Sometimes, a half, or both halves, fall into the door, too, but coming out of both ends in the opposite order. You know, front half goes to the back side while the back half goes forward–bad news for living things. You can forge a sword back together. You cannot forge people, even with magic. Well, some people can do arms and smaller parts. But if you were to stand over a door’s location as it opened, you would probably be sliced clean across your entire body.”

Zo cringed. “Doors are scary stuff! What the heck? No wonder Mom put up a metal barrier and a frame!”

“Yeah, smart move. Unlike her spell armor, I approve of that decision. These things are death-traps.” He waved Zo to follow as he stepped through the portal. “Hurry through. The timer is lenient, but you would be best to go.”

Chapter 2

The other side was nearly pitch-black

Zo turned back to the portal.

I never really thought about what kind of magic is required to make such a crazy spell, but I would never have thought such a spell could be so dangerous. Mom warned me about them, but she never explained what would happen…

The light of the portal was faint. Zo could still see through to the other side, but it was just as dim and off-putting as the ones to and from Earth. The nearby lamps through the flat image seemed to lose most of their light before the last breath of life barely made it through. The dark room they stood in was proof that something happened to the light. It was unnatural. Each time she saw a portal, she felt more and more uncomfortable. Subconscious feelings began to be expressed in thoughts. What happens to people? Do I something every time I walk through a portal, too?

A flickering radiance along the walls caught Zo’s attention. “Pops?” she asked as she turned around.

He was holding a torch. “Sorry, Zo. Took me a minute to find my matches.”

“You should have asked!” She went to slap him but hesitated. Her hand lightly pressed into his shoulder instead of swiping straight across it. “Silly!”

He rolled his eyes and smiled. “Just slap me like you want to. I can handle a strong smack. Your armor only makes it slightly harder; you do most of the damage.”

“Oh? So I can hit you as hard as I can, and you’ll be just fine, huh?”

“Well, I never said that did I? You might kill me if I just take a hit like that!”

Her godfather chuckled as he waved his torch in search of the exit. Only a few steps ahead was a locked door.

“Here, hold this, please,” he requested.

Zo took the torch and lit the door for him while he got to work shaping the metal bars open. While locks with other methods were also used, it often took a skilled shaper a minute to get past several bars. Her godfather was one of the fastest she’d ever seen, and he still took over half a minute to get past all three. Metal molding spells were tricky when the door was sealed with thick blocks and bars locking the door in place.

Finally, he finished. He took his torch back and opened the door.

“You know, you coulda just busted the door down, Pops.”

“Impatient people like you can go ahead. I like to keep people from knowing I was here.”

“And what would you do if it was locked from the other side, huh?”

“I would shape a few holes in the wall around the frame where the bars would be and loosen them that way.”

“You’re silly.” Zo put on her helmet in preparation for the outside night that greeted them.

“And you’re naive.” He began to walk ahead. “But that is alright, honestly. You will grow out of it.” Her godfather looked around one last time before burying his torch into the frosted dirt just outside the door.

With her hair tucked inside her armor, Zo twisted her helmet in place. Once it was locked into place, the wide glass visor lit up.

“Charging…” blinked in transparent red letters. Then, “Connected. Syncing…Sync Complete. Reactive Barrier Mode: ON.”

More information began to light up her vision. The temperature, Central Andria’s time and date, and a few markers saved from before all came up along the far edges of her visor. The information was simple and currently useless.

Zo spoke in English to the suit, first saying, “Clear visor.” Once it was cleared, she commanded it again. “Night Mode.”

The glass of her visor shifted around, changing in ways that Zo still couldn’t entirely understand.

While many spells available with the suit were simple to activate, her mother had given up trying to explain how they all worked. She only knew a few spells she could activate on her own, most of which were air-based. The suit wasn’t designed to assist with spells, instead primarily acting automatically or off of vocal commands, but her mother did make sure to teach Zo how to create barriers and jump, both with and without the suit. Her mother complained that she wanted more, but that she was still figuring out how to increase the depth of her brain scanning system that. And so, for now, she said it required calibration and setup, and therefore was set to the two different types of magic that best fit the capabilities of the power armor. Like with many things, the details beyond the functionality were all a bit beyond Zo’s head.

“Zo. Are you coming?”

“Yeah, sorry. I was just getting ready.”

“You will make me leave you behind if you waste any more time. You can play with your spell armor again once we get home.”

Zo ran up to him. He went back to walking in the moonlit forest clearing. With her visor, everything looked just as bright as if they were walking about in broad daylight. How does he see so well without something like this? She decided against asking right then. Maybe he smells his way around? Zo giggled at her thoughts and hoped her helmet masked it from her godfather.

Chapter 3

“ZO~~!”

Amo! W–”

In a sudden blur, Zo’s other mother wrapped her arms around her from behind and locked her arms tightly against her chest. “YOU’RE ALIVE!”

Amo, your arms…how are you–”

Despite the great force being applied, the automatic barriers didn’t trigger. The back-hug employed by her amo was defying what Zo had assumed was how her suit functioned. And, while debating the reasons, she also found herself slowly getting crushed. Though, just as it always went, she was freed before her lungs began to struggle.

AMO!” Zo shouted, then bent over to catch her breath. “Why do you always do that to me?”

“Well, duh! It’s because I love you.”

Zo’s godfather cut in with his typical tone toward her amo. “You make me look like the only adult around here, and you’re her mother. You just can’t keep your speech straight, can you? Alice isn’t even around! You’re lucky we know some English. Or maybe you’re unlucky. ‘I love you’ sounds creepy in English. I kind of wish I didn’t know that phrase, to be honest.”

“Aww, Zee, I love you, too!”

“Celica.” He sighed. “I–what am I supposed to do with you?”

“Do you want a big hug, too, mister?”

Her continued use of both languages quickly eroded him. “Whatever. I’m going over there to sit down for a bit. I do not care what happens on the way.”

“Eeee! Comere you oaf!

He was caught immediately, squeezed with violent force, then set free to finally get some rest.

In the meantime, Zo had already taken off her helmet and fixed her hair. Following her godfather and amo over, she set her helmet down on the nearby coffee table and sat on the long leather sofa. Her godfather, like always, filled out the nearby armchair. Out of a random pocket, a small book was quickly brought out and opened up. He was going to read while pretending to not listen to anything for a while before wandering off to his room in a few hours to sleep, too. Zo smiled. She was home.

But part of coming home also involved the constant barrage from her amo.

“That’s Liss’s gear, isn’t it!”

And now she’s back to me. Zo chuckled to herself before answering. “Yeah, Mom made it for me.”

Yappari! She would be the kind to do some crazy thing like that.” Her amo frowned, her face almost sneering. “Liss never made me a cool power armor, though. I don’t get what’s so cool about you but not me! Or Jason! Or Zeel! I mean, imagine Zeel over there with a freakin’, uh, what did you call these things? ‘Spell armor?’”

His eyes still focused on his book, Zo’s godfather casually nodded in reply.

“Right! Imagine Zeel usin’ a spell armor! He’d prolly give Liss a run for her money!

Zo’s godfather paused his reading, his fingers pressing into the bridge of his nose.

He has no clue what she said…neither do I, really. Zo broke the strange English down in her mind before concluding it had something to do with being stronger physically to the extent that money had to be involved to overcome being weaker.

“So.” Her amo sat down right next to Zo with a big grin. “Zo-sshi…you look tired. Is your old, better mom beating a little young woman like you in energy? Should I go bring you to your comfy, warm bed and read you a bedtime story? It’d be just like when you were itty bitty!”

Dragging her hands across her face, Zo pulled away the smile that was creeping in and tried to be serious. “Amo! You’re the one with infinite energy! Normal people your age should be like poor Pops over there. No offense, Pops.”

A mild, unfazed grunt came from the armchair.

“Zeel is unusually tired all the time! He’s not a fair comparison, either! In fact, he’s been all grumpy and lame since I met him. And that was when we were, like, eight!”

“I was twelve. You were eight.”

Zo’s amo jerked her head back to see a book being held slightly higher than before, just right to cover up a face. “Oh, fine! Be a jerk! You talk and stuff, but only to make me look silly!”

He let out a brief snicker.

“I heard that! Mister Bookworm!

How are these my guardians…

Zo leaned back and tried to get comfortable on the sofa, but it was difficult while wearing her suit. She didn’t want to take it off until she got to bed. Of course, just as her mother had instructed, Zo always left the inner-straps that held all the base electronics. They were padded so that no metal bits or wires poked out. It wasn’t the most comfortable, but she had already gotten used to them. Apparently, her mother refused to remove her own inner-straps even while showering. Zo thought that was a bit much, but leaving them on while sleeping seemed quite logical.

Zo’s amo turned in place to face her completely. “So, sweety, I think you should know, but I’m going back to live with my parents. My pops needs help with his shop now that he’s getting old. Now that you and Jason are all grown up, I think we can leave this place to you two.”

“Really?” It wasn’t a huge surprise, but Zo wasn’t expecting to hear about it only minutes after coming back home. “What about him? My pops?”

“Oh, Zeep? He’s already been working with the K’s since you left. Well, he never -stopped- working, but now he’s gonna -actually- work for them more full-time.”

Zo looked past Celica who, like her mother, was far too young-looking to be in her sixties.

How could I have never noticed…

She compared her amo’s silvery hair and faintly wrinkled smile with her godfather’s pathetic whisps and whiskers on a frown almost completely covered up by his scrunched up skin. He looked his age while she looked in her forties, or younger. Amo doesn’t even exercise like Pops does…

Her amo waited a moment, studying Zo study her. Then she made a few silly faces.

Zo couldn’t help but laugh.

“There! I got your attention back! Thank goodness!” She poked Zo’s forehead. “Yo~~u need to relax a little more, missy. You’re like a nearly perfect copy of Liss; don’t go getting yourself in trouble by mimicking her like an ifueraca. You’ll be hunted like she was; like ifueracas were, until they were made extinct.”

Chapter 4

Zo woke in her overly comfortable bed.

I don’t think I need this many blankets and pillows…

Then, she thought about what was different and realized how much her new power armor did. It had been monitoring her heat and adjusting the air around her to insulate the right amount all through the night. She never gave it much thought when Alice’s home had been so well regulated. Working outside in the extreme weather felt like a mildly chilly morning in the middle of summer in Andria; Zo forgot just how much her suit had done for her.

She didn’t want to take over a whole house. If anything, it belonged to Jason and his future family he was probably going to make. Zo debated going with her amo and helping with the autocart shop, but there wasn’t any real business there. Going up into that tiny village north of the capital would be a dead-end for her. She knew her days would be spent talking to old people and being bored out of her mind. No, Zo knew what she had to do. It was the same thing she first set out to do over a year ago when she first left home. Now that her home wasn’t ever going to be the same again, and now that everyone was going their own way, she had nothing left to hold her back.

“Good morning, Zo. Sleep well?”

“Hey, Pops. Yeah. You?”

Her godfather rubbed his neck and stretched his arms. “As fine as old people do. Want to go for a run?”

“Run?” She looked to the covered window and noticed a severe lack of sunlight glowing through. “It’s still so early…I don’t even know why I’m awake, really. I couldn’t have slept for more than a few hours.”

“You no longer feel comfortable here. I can tell. That feeling is what keeps me from oversleeping. That feeling is also what has kept me alive.” He walked past her doorway and reached out an open hand to Zo.

Zo took his hand and let him pull her upright from where she was sitting on her bed. She thought to fix the mess of blankets and covers she had kicked off, but Zeke was already walking down the narrow hallway toward the back door.

After checking her suit’s straps, Zo ran up across the rugs that covered most of the wood floor and caught up to her godfather as he was putting on his boots.

“Your old boot should still work with your spell armor’s backup sensors. They did for Alice, at least.” He opened the windowed wooden door and began stretching on the back porch.

Zo followed without a word, getting back into the old routine they used to share.

They tested their muscles, then their minds. Some light calisthenics followed, and then they went for a jog.

Outside, the air was beginning to twirl about as sunlight slowly crept around the horizon. Though still fall, there was already a fresh layer of frost on the brown grass and patches of exposed dirt. It would only get colder in the coming months. And, considering they were a good way inland and higher up than Zatyon, the capital of Andria, many feet of snow would pile up before spring could return.

It was the perfect season to practice air magic.

“Ready?” Her godfather asked.

They had already jogged on foot until the sun came into view. Though she did not have her visor, Zo knew it had almost been an hour since she had left her bed.

“Ready,” she replied.

The two had gone through a short, thick cut of evergreens before entering a hillside. Now, they were in a clearing where a creek flowed into a large lake. For their first lap, they had spent a good fifteen minutes without any magic. The lap consisted of long strides. The next would be short bursts, and then, for the fourth lap, they would freestyle dash with attacks and defensive maneuvers. Zo paid no thought to anything but the habit and her magic.

Air went from flowing by to rushing and whining. Without her full suit, the elements were far more apparent. But it was just as she had always done for many years before. It was comfortable, despite the physical discomfort. The habit, the regularity, the repetition. She felt like she was a part of the world and a part of time itself. The sun began to climb a bit more, now clearly above the nearby mountaintops and nearby evergreens.

A final memory for her last day home. A final moment that lasted forever. And then, it was over.

Chapter 5

Why did I leave home…

The thought leaked out of her mind, though she was far too busy to give any notice to it.

Zo attempted to lean in and lower her center of mass before she was hit, but with only partial success. While her suit’s projected barriers soon filled the air with sparks and smoke as they attempted to dissipate the enormous volume of energy the shot brought, she was knocked back a foot and into a wall.

The fist-sized iron ball lost nearly all its momentum against the heavy outward-pushing spell, but because she didn’t know how much to block and had miscalculated the incoming force, the automated systems in her armor had to try and compensate. Additional kinetic barriers along her suit reacted to sudden pressure and pushed outward against the heavy-barrier she had cast, which in turn helped consume the remaining energy.

The sub-barriers then ceased and, finally, Zo consciously terminated the heavy barrier the moment the remaining half-melted ball dropped to the floor with a resounding “thunk.”

With only a second to investigate the situation, Zo tried to look through the growing smoke to search for her attackers. Without her helmet, which was still lying on the small desk about ten feet away and back inside her room, it was almost entirely impossible to see through the hole she had just made thanks to the small fires spawned after initial impact against her barrier.

Pech! I should have been more careful. Maybe Mom was right–

Another explosion rang. Zo immediately shattered the second floor with a jump spell. Flying upward, she held out her arms above her head and cast another barrier before hitting the ceiling. She crashed through wood and thin metal sheets before losing momentum halfway through, forcing her to pull herself the rest of the way.

The explosion’s shot shattered several support beams before bouncing off a third, denting it and destabilizing most of the upper floor. Zo’s room, and the others around it, all fell down and inward toward the middle of the small inn. Inevitably, the roof also began to crumple inward from the destruction, which nearly dumped her back into the inn. She only barely rolled to the edge of the roof in time. As she fell, Zo used a massive burst of uprising air to push her to the neighboring roof, which was only one floor high. Most of the shops nearby were just of the same design, making the inn slightly taller. Falling all the way down in her power armor would have hurt like a kick in the chest. Last time she had fallen so far without slowing the fall or relying on the suit’s stabilizing spells concentrated around her legs, it had knocked her out cold.

Meanwhile, a chain of explosions rang out before a near immediate roar of crunching wood and screeching metal filled the air. As the inn was mulched up and collapsing inward, the loud cacophony of crashing objects dominated all the nearby sound of a quiet market district. Doors, dishes, tables, chairs, and most anything else in the small inn were destroyed as the cannonballs either burrowed into the lower wooden floor or dug into the frozen mud and cobbled street outside.

From inside and outside, screams and frantic shouting began.

She knew there wasn’t time to help them. She winced to herself. I hope they’re alright…

Without another thought, Zo jumped onto the roof of another nearby shop, then quickly broke out into a sprint before leaping over a narrow cobbled lane and onto a taller concrete apartment. Leaping off the sturdier roof, she landed on the top floor of a large store. There were a few curious and terrified customers sipping tea while Zo continued her dash to the edge. She leaped once more, this time with such force that chips of concrete flew out from her boots and a shallow crack formed. Landing on smaller buildings with simpler roofs would end poorly, and it was challenging to adjust how much power she wanted in her jumping spells while getting to the source of the shots as fast as possible. Thanks to more sturdy rooftops, she finally landed across a major avenue and made it to those who had been shooting at her.

On the top of what looked like a tall, four-story school stood several soldiers and a handful of strangely outfitted people clamoring about with large barrels tied down to the roof’s railing. So those’re what launched those things at me!

An older man in a decorated brown uniform declared with surprising volume, “Wren bin  un poun, Andriu ben Alice! Ferchius bou erwan! Chi ba!”

Abandoning the cannons, every Fercian around the older man turned to face Zo and launch more personable attacks. Several bolts were fired from some soldiers while the others used magic to fling sharp bits of metal. The older man guided two more timid Fercians to adjust one of the large wood and steel cannons in Zo’s direction.

Zo dropped down from the one-story official-looking building with a heavy “thunk.” Without the suit, she wouldn’t leave a depression in a cobbled street; with her suit, she weighed at least twice as much, and her barriers added even more force against the well-fitted rocks, leaving a nasty pothole for any passing pedestrian or autocart.

Should I run? Or just clean them up? Can I even take on that many?

She debated her choice while casually jogging to a nearby alleyway, relying on another barrier spell to protect her back.

Chi ban, yunwetu!”

Two more soldiers entered the alley from the other side, cutting her off.

Well, there goes that way…maybe I should run toward the building to avoid that cannon?

The broad avenue was likely busier before all the cannon fire. Without a collection of people and carts to clog it up, it began to look daunting to cross. While it would be easy to cross with a dashing spell, her suit didn’t do so well with just air.

Zo pushed off with another leaping spell, this time with a low, forward vector. It wasn’t her favorite method of movement because the landing was always tough, but she worried her heavy barrier wouldn’t be stable while using another strong spell. Running on foot and relying on all her barriers was her second choice, but she didn’t want to chance eating another cannonball considering the noticeably shorter distance from the cannon.

With a series of chips, dents, and flying dirt, Zo bounced and rolled into another alley she had aimed herself into. Her body began to complain from future bruises as her adrenaline began to wane. She got up, prepared her barriers again, then began jogging down the small courtyard the short alley had led to.

They’ve got to be right above me by now. But they wouldn’t just drop down from that height, right?

She continued to veer to the right and away from the school rooftop. There were a few more Fercian civilians in the courtyard than out in the open avenue, though they all scattered out of her way as she tried to get back to running speed.

Several soft “thuds” came from a short distance behind Zo. Then, more shouting in Fercian.

I hate running in this thing! I wish I could turn off the automatic barriers, even if just for my feet…

Zo sped up and began to weave to avoid projectiles. Each press of her boot into the brick of the courtyard began to launch her into larger strides as she pushed off. And each time she landed, her suit would push more and more against the road. It was an uneasy sensation, but it helped her cover nearly as much distance as her preferred air-dashes. Another bounce would have been better but the number of civilians, the cluttered and less-organized block she ran through, and the lack of visibly stable ground to aim for prevented her from trying.

I think I can lose them once I make it to a more open street…

Then, there were more soldiers. This time, from several different angles. Zo panicked, not expecting twice as many people to chase after her than what she saw on the roof. She kept increasing her pace, almost losing control as each bound covered several meters at a time. But the Fercian soldiers were keeping up. And no matter where she seemed to run, another one would suddenly appear along her path.

A sword slashed a foot short as she bounced to the side of a tree. A couple of bolts missed her as she quickly pushed off of a thick wall air she formed and into a more open housing area.

Just a little more! I’m almost out of downtown…

Her reactive barrier fought back two steel-tipped bolts as they pierced an inch deep. Though they failed to break skin, it wasn’t the barrier that saved her but the strange material Alice had tried to explain to Zo. As far as she was concerned, it was some miracle metal that just saved her from two punctures in her back. Of course, there was only enough force that she felt the impact like two jabs in rapid succession. She didn’t want to keep getting hit. But she couldn’t run any faster.

I guess there’s no choice, now.

Zo weaved a few more steps until she made it to a house among dozens in a line. She turned around, planting her feet with a heavy barrier in front of her and the thick, woody trunk of a nearby bush. She knew they saw her duck behind the leafy object, but maybe they wouldn’t see her still standing there, preparing to fight back.

The familiar pain of a quick punch against her back was back.

There’s more from there, too? Damn!

Zo left her bush and ran around through the front yard, hoping there wasn’t anyone in the third direction left free from projectiles. But after crossing three and a half yards and even cutting down to the next row of houses, she ran into four more soldiers.

Bol!” One called out to the other three.

Another pulled out a strange, simple-looking gun. But he fired it up into the air.

Oh no…that can’t be good…

Two drew swords and immediately dashed toward her while the third gauged her actions and directed the others. The one who just signaled the ever-growing number of pursuers then pulled off his back some greater contraption and aimed it in her general direction, biding his time for a clean shot.

Just like Pops taught me…just like Mom showed me…

Zo leaped straight at the swordsman to the left, catching him off guard. It wasn’t common to counter a charge with another charging maneuver, but he managed to tumble out of her way in time.

Damn!

Zo also rolled as she failed to land correctly from the jump-charge. The bruises on her back were groaning as the suit and rough dirt street pressed into them. Without time to think about the pain, Zo rolled herself back upright and prepared for the next attack. It came sooner than she wanted.

A chop from the front and another painful punch into her left leg. The three were relentless. Two swordsmen meant she couldn’t even avoid being cut at by dodging each attack when they took turns, working off the opening the other would make. And to make things even worse, the leader of the four seemed to have plenty of sharp shards of metal to sling at Zo while he slowly approached her. The last soldier followed behind with some large launcher that greatly worried Zo. Whatever it was, it took up most of his shoulder and both hands.

I hope he only gets one shot with that…

Zo was punished for thinking too much. Despite her rolling again to avoid the attacks, the swordsman who she had sent tumbling was back with a wall of wind to slow her down and a sharp thrust across her arm. Once again, Zo’s suit protected her. And, since the cut slid across her reactive barrier and the underlying metal scales along the outside of her suit, she felt nothing but a minor push along her wrist. Out of all the attacks, though, it terrified her the most.

They were pressuring her beyond what she could handle…and without constant heavy-kinetic barriers, she feared her suit wouldn’t protect her against several stabs like that.

Zo fell on all four, crouching her legs down to avoid further attacks and prepare an emergency jump.

With a large burst of energy boosted with her suit’s spell amplification, she pushed off the ground with the goal to fly up and several blocks away. Her plan was to go high and far, then worry about landing later. But she didn’t go the way she wanted to.

Zo crashed straight into a wooden house just a few meters in front of where she had leaped from. The pain began to take its toll. Without her helmet, her hair flew about in all directions as she broke through several walls, random furniture, and into the backyard of the house she just destroyed.

Just before launching, one of the Fercians must have kicked her from behind. It happened all too quickly, but she couldn’t think of any other reason why she would have failed her jump so poorly.

Zo coughed pathetically, her breath gone. The last crash was one of the worst she’d ever experienced. She didn’t prepare herself like earlier; she didn’t think she had to.

Things began to get fuzzy. Her helmet…of course.

She didn’t put up a barrier to stop any damage to her head. While the suit’s reactive barriers pushed outward along her body, including her head, there were no pressure sensors along her head or neck without her helmet on. Even though she curled her head inward for her jump, she still hit the first wall head-first without any protection.

It’s over. I’m done for. I’m surprised I’m not already dead from how hard I must have hit that wall…

Lying amongst bits of wood and the shallow depression her suit had dug into, Zo flipped herself over and onto her back, and slowly tried to get her breath back. Everything hurt. There was shouting from the other side, but it was hard to hear anything. Her ears were ringing, her eyes were still spinning, and her muscles refused to move anymore. She prepared a heavy barrier over her body and waited for the soldiers to start pummeling her defenses until she would inevitably blackout.

Chapter 6

“A shame I’m old. I would’ve gotten to you sooner.”

Zo didn’t reply. Her eyes were closed, though she continued to hold out her hands. Her chest slowly rose and sank.

Zeke sighed. She’s still alright…must be focused on protecting herself. Good.

Fercians shouted, not yet in sight of either of them. Zeke listened carefully as he quickly went to Zo.

You’re dead! Nightmare!

We’ve got her cornered! Let’s go!

Finally!

Zeke trusted in his only student to keep herself safe, at least temporarily. He set her helmet down next to her before hiding behind a wall of bushes. The Fercian soldiers continued to communicate with and direct each other as they drew closer, but Zeke was out of sight well before they began to reach the backyard.

Behind the bushes that separated each yard was a small grove that separated the rows of homes. Zeke slowly edged himself out of any potential line-of-sight an approaching soldier from any angle would have on him, taking care to be quiet and keep his senses open.

Three…no, four. Zeke listened to how they chattered, and to the small hints they left in their callouts. Forty seconds? Maybe eighty?

One swordsman dashed right past Zo and into the grove same grove Zeke crept toward. The leader ran through the left side yard and aimed a fist full of metal at Zo while directing the other two.

Just three, for now.

Zeke quickly moved on the first swordsman while the second exited the hole Zo had made in the house. The fourth waited around the right side yard, just out of sight.

Orders are a double-edged tool…

After going from a wide angle at the edge of the neighboring backyard, Zeke began to approach the first swordsman from behind. His long leather jacket helped consolidate his body as a shadowy blob slowly sliding through the shaded stretch of thin trees. Any of the two Fercians facing broadly facing Zeke would notice him if they looked in his direction. None expected him to be there, though; their sights were firmly planted on Zo, wary of her every move.

She’s not going anywhere…

The soldier readying his sword to cut off Zo’s escape, but Zeke was already at his back. With a brief flutter of leather and a soft thud, he pulled the man backward with a trip and punched him in the gut with additional force from a pressurized air spell. The swordsman’s ribs cracked and his lungs were instantly emptied of air.

One.

The other two didn’t even notice their other had been downed in an instant. Zeke didn’t give them time to, either.

From the edge of the grove’s shade, Zeke burst forward with such immense speed and force that his spell sent the first swordsman rolling into one of the grove’s fruit trees with the residual, back-rushing air. Unlike Zo’s jumps, Zeke could launch himself forward with less initial force, but the air spell continued to push him as he traveled. The rushing air he formed as he bulleted toward the leader kicked up the cool dirt, disturbed the spindly bushes, and even flung a few fragmented pieces of the house Zo had blown apart and scattered into the yard. The leader only saw Zeke as his shoulder connected with his jaw.

Two.

Zeke used another air spell to push himself to a stop. The leader fell to the ground, clutching his face in agony. His cry of pain was garbled and weak; Zeke assumed it was a recoverable wound. At the very least, he had tried to not kill the poor grunt-officer.

What the-” the other swordsman tried to speak, but Zeke was already two steps closer to her. With a harsh pull of air from above and across her chest, her wrist twisted and her grip on her sword slipped. “Who–”

Zeke lunged forward as the second swordsman’s weapon hit the ground. It only took one punch to knock the soldier out cold. Her face slipped from surprise to emptiness as she hit the ground, landing awkwardly into the dirt, next to her sword.

Three.

Captain Si-Hey? Fe-Hu? Something sounded odd. What should I do? This net-thing is going to work, right?

He put up his baggy hood from underneath his long leather jacket to hide his face in shadows. Zeke then turned the corner with a frown. “Hey, buddy. You should not have become a soldier. Go back to your family or learn another trade. Your whole team should quit, to be honest.

The young Fercian was shocked to see some random person speak to him in Fercian, but Zeke’s visage and clean, old Fercian accent struck something in the soldier.

I–what…what happened to the others.

They’re sleeping. Now go! Report back to the other groups what happened. And find yourself in another job after this is over!

The Fercian put down the awkward net-launching gun and looked around nervously. “What do I report?

Your team fought the Nightmare. But she got away. You never had a good chance to capture or kill her. You listened to orders, but your squad captain was taken out.

I was just–it was terrifying, y’know? I–Captain Si-Hey told me to wait for her to go this way, so I did. I’m…I’m sorry I failed.

Zeke calmly walked up to the boy. He was hardly sixteen. It wasn’t right to fight when so young, still. Unlike the others who were at least Zo’s age or older, the green trainee probably hadn’t been in a real fight before. Zeke stopped right next to the boy, resting his hand on his head.

Go on. I’ll put in a good word for you and your team. I promise. Let me check on your team. I need you to flag down the others so they can take your friends back to a hospital. Now hurry!

Yes! Sir! Thank you!” the Fercian replied with renewed strength. Not once did the boy look into Zeke’s cowl. Instead, he focused on his new orders, likely hopeful that his team would be alright.

Four…

Zeke turned around and walked back. He eyed the three he had taken out within seconds of each other, double-checking his work. After checking each Fercian for movement, he decided there was only enough time to get Zo and leave unless he wanted to face a whole division or two of Fercian troops.

He knelt next to her. Already, her arms were limp, and her breathing even slower. Zeke grabbed her by the shoulders and gave her a good shake.

“Zo! Sleep well? Let’s go for a run!”

End of Book 4


Celica
drawn by Ingri Ned

The Knowledgers Guild

Chapter 1

As they walked in the dark, rocky tunnel, an officer of the Knowledgers Guild welcomed Zo to their small base sheltered in an abandoned iron mine.

Zo heard the woman speak, but her mind drifted about, still recovering from her failures in the unexpected attack and chase half a day before. Without her hair tie, her brown hair looked like a frayed rope, and without her white power armor, the cold had settled and built grand cities all the way down to her bones.

So much for adventuring with Mom’s present, she thought as she rubbed her arms and tried to shiver.

It had only been a few months since she’d gotten her powered armor suit, but after it drew so much attention that the entire Fercian Army had tried to surround her, it obviously wasn’t worth wearing. Still, it felt wrong to bury something so amazing at the edge of a remote border town, much less a gift from her mother.

The officer spoke again as they slowly made it deeper into the tunnel.

“I’ve heard about you from your father,” she said. “It’s a shame your brother went with the Army. We’re glad to see at least one of his children following Mr. Zepyst’s path. He’s still the best spy we have, even though he’s retired. Maybe you’ll replace him!” A small, pleasant smile followed.

Zo smiled back, but the pain was getting a bit too much once more. She leaned back onto her godfather and digested the K officer’s enthusiastic words.

Right. They wouldn’t know he’s not my actual dad, I guess. Why does it feel like Pops has signed me up to become a K, though?

Zeke steadied Zo back onto his shoulder, then replied to the woman that led the way.

“Jason would have been good in an office, especially with people like you to guide him, lieutenant. Zo here needs some of that guidance now, though I believe she is more like me. After she is treated, I want her to be sent to the main facility for training.”

“Training!?” Zo pulled away from her godfather, though she immediately regretted it as a jolt of nerves screamed up her spine. Wincing, she stopped him and sighed. “You want me to sign up like Jason, huh? I thought you told me to avoid the guilds. That was why you helped me get different papers! I was going to travel around the world instead of worrying about what job I should do…”

“Papers? Mr. Zepyst, that sounds–”

Zeke turned from Zo to wave his hand dismissively at the K officer. “It is nothing, lieutenant. I may be officially retired, but you know better of the K’s. I still have reach.”

The lieutenant withdrew, changing her tone and expression to a far more formal and rigid style. “Sir.” She saluted Zeke with her palm flat to her heart. “Sorry for misaddressing you, vice-commander.”

Zeke sighed. “They should hurry up and find another ‘vice-commander.’ Or just cut me off entirely. ‘Mr. Zepyst’ or ‘major’ sound better.”

“Pops!” Zo grabbed her godfather’s arm. “Tell me you didn’t just sign me up! I don’t want to be stuck in a guild!”

Her godfather turned around and pulled Zo back close so she could lean on him. He then began walking again. “You are not signed up, Zo. You can leave at any point. Even now, if you would prefer. But I want you to recover your stamina, get some food, and then consider visiting the Knowledgers headquarters. Normally, you would have to sign up before they would ever offer a civilian to see the place, but they will let you in because they trust me. Just tell no one about what you see if you would like to keep your freedom,” he said with a chuckle.

Zo wasn’t terribly happy to hear what her godfather had ‘not’ signed her up for, but at least she could go back to adventuring after she took some time to rest.

Zeke then planted a seed of interest in her when he continued with, “Make it through training, and you’ll get to adventure like I always told you stories about. There are dozens of adventures -I- couldn’t even tell you. And I know you will make a better spy than me.”

Chapter 2

Work sucked. There were no adventures; just manual labor, like any other guild.

“Good morning, private Zepyst. Report to the Shipping Center, please.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

The first three months were absolutely amazing. Walking around a massive underground facility, talking to all kinds of K’s, including the commander of the guild; it started so well. Then, the twelve weeks of training after a week to decide if she wanted to commit. Of course, thanks to her godfather, training was a rather enjoyable experience where she got to show off her skills. But that was over, now.

“Hey Zo, where you goin’?”

She almost didn’t notice her roommate standing along the hallway.

“You know, more heavy lifting.”

“Oh, that sucks!” the young woman began walking with Zo. “They have me helpin’ the kitchen today. Do you want me to save you somethin’ good?”

“Why are you out here in the hall? You woke up hours ago!”

“I’m on break, of course! So, sweet or salty?”

Zo rubbed her face, preparing her mind for another ten hours of drudgery. “Salty; chips, if they have them.”

“Ok, lemme see if they have them. See you later!”

“Thanks.” Zo waved her roommate goodbye when they reached the Main Hall. “See you at lunch.”

“See you at dinner!”

Why do they make me work in the cold…and at night…

Zo continued past the hall leading to the cafeteria, then several other major paths to more important divisions of the guild headquarters, until finally reaching the back entrance.

“Ah! Private! Hurry up and put on your gloves and jacket, we could use you outside. The freight brought over a large supply of metal.”

I miss my suit. I don’t even want the full power armor. Just the straps would do.

Zo did as she was told and prepared for the chilling winter air outside. More than the glove and the jacket, she began to train her mind to keep her body warm. Unlike climbing a mountain, though, something felt mundane and stupid about the effort she had to put into her work.

Walking by the stacks of paper boxes, wooden crates, and steel drums, Zo thought back to her godfather’s words of encouragement.

What a bunch of lies. I want out…maybe today I should actually ask to leave?

Zo opened the smaller door off to the side of the main gate. It was still snowing outside, though the wind was relatively still. Just as she had done so for the past several weeks, Zo’s shift began only hours before the sun was down. She looked forward to the next few months only in the sense that there would be a marginally longer period of sunlight every single day. By mid-spring, she might have another hour to actually see what she was doing and feel relatively warm without immediately requiring a warming spell.

Really wish I got to keep the straps…they could save me from continually juggling spells.

The metal sheets she was directed to handle were broad and unwieldy. Zo used an air spell to help offset the burden that would otherwise completely exhaust her.

What a pain.

Zo looked up and down the train. There were around two dozen Knowledgers and Transporters working together to unload all the supplies. She ended up at the far end, lifting thin, flat sheets of pre-manipulated steel to be used in construction.

She alternated warming spells, air spells, and grumpy thoughts as she worked with good time and care.

Warm. Warm…warmer…warm my face, warm my hands. Rising air, rising below the sheet…

A second sheet landed on the first. Then a third.

I mean, I guess I see how this would help me train. Even with a little air to help. They had me doing all team jobs the first week. Or pulling the pallets across the snow. And that nearly killed me. I can’t tell if they want me over here for a reason, but the quiet is nice…

She fell into a rhythm again. Zo gave up other thoughts and just zoned out, focusing on her work and her spells to keep her going strong. One pallet, 15 sheets high. A second pallet, brought over by a less capable or less motivated K, then a third; Zo worked efficiently and tirelessly. A few K’s and T’s, older and younger, gave small words of encouragement, but she didn’t care all that much. The feelings of irritation and boredom were far too powerful.

Then, someone she wasn’t expecting came straight to her, trudging through the foot-high snow.

“Private Zepyst!” he called out to Zo. “Enough lifting, your assigned mentor is back and available for a training mission.”

Zo finished placing the forty-second sheet down before walking up to meet one of her trainers. “Captain Senst! What are you doing all the way out here, Sir?”

“Fetching my favorite big-pants. Letting you brood out here will only make your attitude worse; you need to be out in the field, seeing how much you can learn. Trust me: it was worth waiting.”

Chapter 3

I don’t believe it!

“Say ‘hi’ to your mentor, Zepyst. This is vice-commander Zepyst. A big-pants deserves an even bigger big-pants.” There was a sinister feeling in the captain’s smile that worried Zo ever-so-slightly, but she turned to her godfather and tried to forget about it.

Pops! This is going to be awesome! she thought to herself. A wide grin swiftly took over her weeks-long grimace.

“Thank you, captain Senst. You can head back, now.” Zeke turned to Zo. “Private, finish your assigned work for today. I want you back here at five tomorrow morning showered and dressed. I’ll have you your new clothes sent by dinner.”

As soon as her captain closed the door, Zo walked up to hug him.

But Zeke held out his hand. “Did you not hear me, Private? Get going! Pleasantries can wait until after you finish your work. Just because Senst was eager to see you face a real challenge does not mean you can shirk your responsibilities. From what I hear, you go beyond expectations no matter the task. Do not tarnish your image on an impulse.”

“But Pops! I hate that work–and who really cares much about me, anyway?”

Zeke narrowed his eyes in a way she’d hardly ever seen. “I will allow your insolent misaddressing of your superior so long as you otherwise adhere to the structure and culture of this guild. However, it is in your best interest to commit completely and call me ‘Sir’ while on the job.”

Zo was silent for half a minute. The change in her godfather’s demeanor was unexpected and immense.

He finally loosened his petrifying stare. “Zo. You must learn how to act here. Even if I am your godfather, I will be treating you like the arrogant big-pant trainee you are, and you will grow from the next few missions because of it. As your godfather, I treat you like my daughter. But as your mentor, I must treat you differently. Senst is not the only one who suggested I train you. You were reckless and reliant on your armor back in Fercia. However, you proved your practical skills are more than enough during your initial testing. Of course, no one knows you were who was in Fercia but me.”

The small, claustrophobic conference room was dead silent. Polished wooden chairs covered with minimalistic cushions and a layer of fibers around the metal door blocked out and consumed the typical noises within the guild halls, leaving Zo and her godfather to start listening to their own breathing.

Zeke gave in. “Fine,” he said as he closed the distance and embraced Zo. “Just don’t expect hugs in the halls.”

Zo’s muscles loosened save the ones involved reaching her arms out to find warmth and comfort around her godfather. “Thanks, Pops,” she said with a smile.

Suddenly, there was a knock at the door.

“Mr. Zepyst! Are you there?”

Zeke finished the hug with one last squeeze before letting go. “Yes, I am.”

A man opened the door with great urgency. “The commander has summoned you for a meeting. Just you, Sir. Something came in, something she won’t talk to me about.”

Zeke massaged his eyebrows. “Only one of two different reasons she would call me in. I’ll see you tomorrow morning, private.” He waved goodbye and was gone with a brisk walk down the polished granite hall, toward the Purple Wing.

I guess that’s where the boss lives. I don’t even get to go back here, normally. Maybe I’ll get a badge upgrade after a few missions? Doubt they’ll ever give me access to the Purple Wing, though.

Zo walked down the opposite direction and straight out of the Yellow Hall, hoping the guards knew she temporarily belonged. Her badge was looped around her belt, dangling slightly below on a bit of string. Zo inspected it as she walked back to her assigned post, wondering how cool a badge with any color would look compared to the lame one she currently possessed.

Chapter 4

“Alice has not been in touch with any of us in years, Ma’am.”

“Not in -any- manner? Given the level of technology she shared with us before her little tirade and following crusade to make the world -fair-, I’d guess she has plenty more we wouldn’t even yet understand. You’re telling me there’s no way she’s not using distance doors, physical travel, and advancements to her spell armor to conceal herself, -or- another advanced alien technology to keep in touch with her own family?”

Her office was a little noisier than those upstairs, though not from other people. Behind the commander of the Knowledgers Guild sat a small screen attached to a metal desk that hummed and whirred away from spinning motors and fans.

Half-ignoring the question his superior asked for another few seconds, he mused to himself with a minuscule grunt of dissatisfaction. Earthlings wouldn’t build their computing machines into their office desk…they’re getting creative. That’s probably a stupid idea.

“Well, Zepyst?”

He shifted his eyes back onto the commander. “I cannot say what improvements she has made to her armor, though we can all guess just how much the Nightmare can grow worse.”

“Is she using distance doors? We know her daughter came through the first one, and that you were there to pick her up. You shouldn’t know to be there.”

Zeke smiled pleasantly. “Ma’am, I know how to interrogate.” He waved his hand dismissively. “You have documents upon documents detailing the systems in place around that distance door. The only mechanism that Alice installed is another, smaller door the size of a wire so there can be a warning and safety system. Furthermore, it should be noted that the portal goes to Earth. Alice has both no will nor reason to be there.”

“Zoeca Zepyst never left through that portal, Zeke. She came from Alice. Or, and this would be far worse, she came from a secret portal you and Miss Aptyu created. How can you tell me there’s been no word from Alice? The alternative would be far more incriminating.”

He shifted his weight and crossed his arms in a purposeful display of irritation, though it was also his honest reaction. “Go through the distance door yourself, then. Talk to the Earthling for his picture-set records. Or did you not study English from the linguists you sent over there?”

She crossed her fingers in her lap and leaned back in her chair. “Alright, Zeke. I’ll stop pushing. You either won’t tell me or you can’t. But I trust the answer doesn’t matter. You’d tell me if it went beyond your family.”

“Of course, Ma’am. Protecting Andria has been my life.”

The commander turned back to her gray desk and picked up a set of printed papers. “Good. It’s time to call upon your service once more, Zeke.”

“Oh? Has something interesting happened?”

“I’m surprised you don’t know, to be honest.” She stood up and handed him two dozen papers. “Fercia is organizing a massive army, and they’re not all Fercian. Look at this picture; here.” She lifted away the first several printed papers.

The image was terribly blurry and without color, yet Zeke could still see thousands of tents and temporary buildings. And hundreds of armored autocarts, cannons, and other weaponry.

“This could just be training.”

The commander frowned as she replaced the top of the stack. “There’s been rumor of ‘The Knight of Andria’ causing trouble in Fercia. They’ll never publicly denounce us over such a thing considering how Alice burned bridges with -every- country on Andoa, but Fercia has always held a grudge against Andria. We have to assume the worst. The last war was dictated by an immortal alien with impossible technology. The Fercians have been more peaceful in the past few years than we’ve seen in centuries.”

“So they are trying to catch up, starting with better training. They are probably collaborating with their allies to pool resources. It is not like they are setting up tents at our borders.”

“They must think they can take Alice! They must have wounded her, or at least damaged her armor. The civilians have been so stirred up that they won’t stop coming up with various stories about the ‘Nightmare.’ None of the stories should be about her showing weakness. But many of them do.”

Zeke pulled his eyes from reading to stare at her. “Do you think Alice will be unable to put them in their place and peacekeep by force?”

“I’m worried she can’t, Zeke.”

Chapter 5

Sleep came and went with hardly a moment to enjoy it.

It was twenty and a quarter-twenty past three in the morning. At least, that’s what Zo read on the spell clock’s mechanical face. She had set the red hand for four. But there was no point, now. Zo twisted a small knob until it reached seven for her roommate, who was still sound asleep.

No time better than now, I guess.

She quietly put her bed back in order and picked up her designated change of clothes. The pants were itchy just resting in her arms, and the whole set was heavier and bulkier than anything she’d choose to wear. Zo only briefly noted such things deep in the back of her thoughts, entirely without conscious effort. Her pace was swift and full of energy, and there was nothing that could keep her from grinning with anxious joy.

The small dorms within the barracks were far away from the central hall. But with all the extra time she had to shower and prepare, Zo decided against rushing.

Maybe I’ll get my straps back! Or maybe Pops will teach me some more advanced magic and techniques.

Zo hardly paid attention to the warm water that crashed into her, the rag and soap she dragged and scrubbed across her body, or any of the K’s sharing a few of the other small stations around her.

I’m sure we’ll go out of the country. There’s nothing much to spy on that’s not already being done. At least, I hope I’m not going to be stuck in Andria. But they wouldn’t force Pops to do some boring mission just to train me, right? Captain Senst acted as if I was going somewhere exotic and dangerous.

Zo supremely disliked her outfit once she saw how it looked on her. It was baggy and very unrefined. Even the poorest, un-guilded Andrian wouldn’t wear something so drab and cheap. But her mind tucked those thoughts away in favor of more speculation.

Captain Senst -was- acting a bit suspicious, though. Maybe it -is- a boring, crappy job in Andria! But I don’t think Pops would accept such a mission. There’s just no way he would!

Seeing nothing better to spend her time on, Zo made her way back to the edge of the Yellow Hall. There, at the entrance to the area, sat a guard in her box with windows and a simple door. Zo waved at her, but the guard just raised an eyebrow, then went back to looking through a stack of papers.

“I’m waiting for, um, Mr. Zepyst. My mentor, for training. He wanted me to be here by five.”

The guard looked at their clock. Then she ruffled a few papers about. “Ah. Private Zepyst. So you’re his child, then? Or, at least, you’re a relative.”

Zo walked closer to the closed gate to speak to her through one of the windows. “Um, yeah. That’s right.”

“Well, you can wait until twenty before. I’ll let you into the room once Penst comes back, which should be around then.”

“Alright. Thank you, Ma’am.”

The guard nodded. “You have a good while to wait. Might want to spend it relaxing, I bet. If I had to guess what kind of training your mentor will put you through, it probably won’t be easy.”

Zo put a fist up against her chin. Pops does like to make me do difficult things. But nothing was ever all -that- tough.

“Then again,” the guard said with a smile, “you might be pampered by him if you’re his daughter. Those kinds of guys are always soft on the inside when it comes to their ‘certain specials.’ You don’t look like him, though.”

Zo laughed at one of many common phrases she’d heard over the years. “We get that a lot. He is my dad, though.”

“I can’t imagine seeing Mr. Zepyst having kids. Or, I think it would be more correct to say that I can’t imagine any girl actually mothering his kids. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of him even dating anyone, even once. He’s sort of well-known for being a permanent rock that doesn’t even recognize when someone is into him!”

“What? Really?! I, um…I never heard of that.”

The guard shrugged. “You’re not stuck in one of these things all day. There’s not much to do but chat with everyone, you know? Though, there’s been a lot more paperwork, lately.”

I wonder if Pops knows about his reputation?

“Anyway,” the guard said with a sigh, “I have to get back to organizing all these notes and papers before my shift ends.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. I guess I’ll just wait over there. Thanks, Ma’am,” Zo said.

The guard grunted back in reply, already busy double-checking her work.

Chapter 6

“Private Zepyst.”

Zo looked up from one of the dozens of plainly-painted wooden tables.

The box guard pointed to another, a man around her age. “He’ll take you to Mr. Zepyst,” she said.

“That was faster than I thought it would be!” Zo got up and walked up with a grin. “Are we going to the room in the Yellow Hall?”

The man shook his head. “I’m here to lead you much further. The commander wants to speak with you before you and Mr. Zepyst head out.”

“Oh! Really? Uh, I mean…yes. I understand.” Zo tucked her lips in and fought her cheeks in an attempt to look more professional.

“Good luck, Zoeca Zepyst. Maybe I’ll hear gossip about you by next week.” The box guard waved as Zo followed the man, then sat back down and finished organizing her papers.

Zo looked around as she followed the other guard past the Yellow Hall and into the Purple Wing.

The walls were now made entirely of polished granite with a band of white and purple painted along the sides at shoulder height. It was the deepest region of the repurposed mine, and the least visited.

“Have you ever ridden an automated platform?”

“A what?” Zo asked.

The guard pointed to the end of the hallway they had been walking down. There was a metal door split in half down the middle and a suspicious button just to the side.

“It’s a bit more mechanical than a distance door, but it consumes less power. Oh, and it’s probably a lot safer.”

As they approached, Zo continued to wonder what he meant.

“Here,” he said, pushing the lone button on the left of the door, “come on in.”

The door opened to a box no larger than the ones for guards to sit in and watch the gates to the different sections of the base. Zo walked inside, then the guard entered and pressed another button out of three on the inside.

Wait, I know these things! I wanted to ride one back in Seattle, but Victor said they didn’t work anymore. What were they called in English?

Zo dug into her memories in search of the word, but it never came. Before she knew it, they had arrived at wherever the third button led to.

“Private!” It was her godfather, Zeke. He then looked to the guard and smiled. “Thank you, Penst. I will bring her to the commander.”

“Of course, Sir!”

Zeke beckoned Zo. “The commander is just inside, waiting for us.”

She left the automated platform’s cramped area and began walking beside her godfather. Behind, the split metal door closed, and the guard was gone. The hallway was lacking the space and brightness those about the rest of the base possessed, but Zo didn’t mind the change.

“Pops! We’re going to talk to the commander?! Nobody gets to do that! At least, that’s what I always hear.”

“There are recording devices here, Private. Best keep your speech in line as you would on the main floor.”

“Oh.” Zo frowned. “Fine. Um. I am sorry, Sir.”

“Do you know what a ‘picture set’ is? Those are recorded as well, so avoid making unpleasant expressions about standard protocol until you have some achievements you can leverage.” He turned his face with the faintest of smirks. “Like I have.”

Chapter 7

“She is here, Commander.”

Zo passed a second door and entered a large room with a low ceiling. The walls were filled with strange metal cabinets and cases with wires flowing in between.

“How cute, an old Zepyst with a young one. I wonder if this means we’ll get twice the skill?”

The commander of the Knowledger’s Guild looked a few years younger than her godfather, but it was hard to judge ages with her unaging mothers for comparison. Zo tried to see what kind of person the older woman was, but, like with Zeke, she couldn’t read her controlled smile.

“You’re quite the lucky recruit, Private,” she said, getting up from her desk and stopping a few feet away from Zeke and Zo. “Most K’s see me once a year, and there’s only been around a dozen who’ve been in this room. Six of them were only here to build it!”

“I’m–I mean, I am not sure what to say, Ma’am. Thank you, I think. I mean–”

Zeke held his hand out to stop her. “That will do, Private.” He then asked the commander, “What is the mission, Ma’am? Do you wish to discuss other matters before briefing the mission?”

“You never dull, Zeke.” The commander waved them to follow her. “I have something of yours, Private.”

Oh no…did she dig up my–

“Zeke handed these over, explained how you got them, and how they work.” She held up the loose collection of pads strung together by elastic bands. “I hear you like to call these ‘straps.’”

“My–I mean, yes, Ma’am. Those are my straps that I like to use. They help my magic a little bit, mostly with protection.”

“What’s this part, right here?” She pointed to the only piece many times wider and thicker than anywhere else.

Zo looked at her godfather. Zeke nodded sideways at the commander.

I guess it’s ok.

“Well,” Zo said, “That part holds a single spell if I sorta train it to remember one. And it links the smaller pads together to help protect me. They can sense movement and project an opposing force.”

“Your father said something similar enough. But he couldn’t show me how to turn it on. Would you mind, Private?” The commander grabbed the main section, picked the mess up from the metal bench it was resting on, and held it out for Zo, letting the bands drop and hang like a canvas jellyfish.

Zo took the straps and flung them over her shoulder, then flipped the main section over. “You just have to open this spot here. It’s strange, but the cloth sorta sticks to itself. You can pull on it like this, though.” With a sharp “scritch” sound, she opened the square of tan cloth to reveal a small button, a rectangular hole, and a miniature metal knob on a plastic rod inlaid along the face of the plastic case the cloth-covered.

“You never mentioned this part, Zeke. Didn’t you ever get to mess around with this thing?”

“I am sorry, Ma’am. The opportunity never arose.”

“Hmm. I suppose that’s reasonable, though a bit against your character.” The commander looked back at the revealed casing. “So does it turn on when you push that button, Private?”

“It would, normally. But I haven’t turned in on since I got here. I’ll have to use this other thing to give it a little charge. I just hope I don’t have to redo the protection and stored spell calibration. The internal energy storage that stores those should keep its energy for a lot longer, though.”

The commander nodded. “Interesting. There’s a battery in there. Two, actually. Very interesting.”

Wow…that’s an English word…I wonder why she knows that word…

After she focused heat into the knob which lit the button red, Zo put the rod back into the groove with a snap and pushed the button, lighting the button green.

“There. It should be on now.” Zo closed the cloth square and pressed it down along the edges, just in case. She then pulled her limbs through the loops, adjusted the pads, then locked the belt band. The main section was now snuggly on her back, and the small pads were looped around her shoulders, waist, and high up on her thighs. With them all pulled across her baggy clothes instead of underneath, it felt ridiculous. Zo swore she saw Zeke make a face as if he enjoyed seeing her look even more uncomfortable.

The commander leaned over and whispered to Zeke.

He shrugged. “I can restrain her with those on. It will not be required, however.”

Zo tried to smile without showing any worry. “Um, anyway. Do you want to see the straps work, Ma’am? It’s–it is not dangerous unless you put a lot of force into an attack. The automatic barriers are weak, but you might send us flying away from each other if I use the stored barrier I use for scarier things.”

“Zeke, you can do that. You’ve interacted with the straps, yes?”

“Of course, Ma’am.”

The commander took a few steps back while Zo and Zeke faced.

“Alright,” he said, “just let the automatic ones trigger.”

“Ok.”

Zeke slowly reached out and touched Zo’s shoulder. “If there is minimal movement, they do not activate. But…” he moved his hand away, then slapped down hard. An inch before his open palm hit, the barrier slowed his hand and pushed it away. His hand rebounded several inches away. “When there is sufficient movement toward these spots, they push out. Even a normal grab will activate them. It happened when I tried to hug her.”

The commander chuckled. “I see. How funny!”

“Shall we show the other barrier spell, Ma’am?”

“Please.”

“Alright.” He turned back to Zo. “Are you ready, Private?”

Zo took a breath. “Yes.”

Zeke pulled his foot back and prepared to launch a punch. Zo had worked with her godfather before using air and non-magic methods to practice defense. Still, she had a feeling this one was aiming straight through her.

Breathe…breathe…wait…

Her godfather changed his stance and rammed his left shoulder forward. He planted his right foot next to hers and snapped his right fist upward with a rotation of his shoulders.

Barrier!

Zo’s feet slid back a few inches as her body rose out of her hunched stance for a moment. Zeke, who had come in low and tried to punch up into her chest, was sent onto the floor. His fist had slid and rebounded upward, and the rest of his body was pushed with his fist a bit to the right. The force was strong enough, along with his aggressively unbalanced movement, to leave him unable to recover properly.

With his left side lying on the floor, he slowly pulled himself upright and said, “That’s probably not the full force it is capable of, either, Ma’am.”

“How -very- interesting…”

Chapter 8

“Why did she have to -take- my straps?! She’s not going back there! I am!”

After hearing the mission from the commander of the K’s, Zeke made Zo wait a few minutes outside his room while he swapped into his own set of puffy, scratchy, and overall ugly-looking clothes. No matter how often she commented on their attire or the loss of her straps, her godfather refused to respond.

This is so dumb…

* * *

A few hours later, Zo and Zeke were traveling back down the same main line they had ridden back before winter began.

At least Pops has to wear an outfit as goofy as mine…

Zo sighed, then looked out the window. Much of the ground they passed was barren, with only occasional patches of grass or snow to dress up the tundra landscape. For the moment, there weren’t any trees or nearby mountains to draw her attention. Zo turned back and looked around the train car.

Her godfather mentioned the train was almost forty years old, with some parts and design choices from nearly eighty years ago. Zo wondered how the newest trains looked. Would they try to fit more people? It would suck if there weren’t any large benches, even though the cushions were pretty uncomfortable until you got used to them.

Zo rubbed her hands together out of habit, then looked at the passengers once more.

Old lady. Older ladies together…with a young man, maybe a grandson? She peered past Zeke and looked to a further set of seats. Same bald guy in nice clothes there, stealing a seat with a huge case. Zo then sat back down and looked to the opposing bench. And no one here since last stop. I think I missed those two. They were either a weird, dry couple or they were -very- friendly siblings…they were really fun to talk to, though.

“Feeling restless, Xie?”

Ugh.“No, dad. I just miss talking with those friends we made. You’re kinda boring, sometimes, y’know?” Zo held back the desire to sneer at her “spy” name. Or whatever her godfather had called it, officially. It was a dumb name…but he got to be called “Shen.” Way cooler than stupid “Xie!”

Zeke went back to reading his book. “Maybe you should learn to occupy yourself, sweetie. Wouldn’t hurt to read a book or something, y’know.”

He needs to stop talking like me…he uses words even I wouldn’t…

Zo gave up and dug around in her godfather’s satchel. “Fine. Where’s an interesting one?”

Zeke closed his own to pick out another for her. “Here,” he said with a grin, “you might like this one!”

“Fenci-ub Wenria.” Oh no. “Really, Dad?”

“Xie, Ferchi er sella...you’re disappointing your ancestors!”

“I’m sorry! You don’t speak enough Ferchi for me to learn!”

Zeke laughed. “Wren bin alsa…I always forget to. But your aunt doesn’t speak Andrian. You should practice with that some. There’s Andrian on the right pages with Ferchi on the left ones. I bought it on my last trip to the capital. Sorry I didn’t give it to you sooner, sweetie.”

“Whatever! Thanks, Dad.” Zo opened the book up and began studying the words.

“We still have many hours left, so take your time!”

“Alright, Dad. Got it!” she said with another sigh.

It was challenging to act a part, but at least she could be herself, mostly.

I have to wear crappy clothes, pretend to be some boring daughter, and now I have to learn a language in a few hours, somehow…being a spy sucks!

Zo scratched at her neck again.

I just hope they don’t recognize me. They didn’t get a chance to see my face all that well, right? They expect my hair and my white armor, so no armor and a wig should work…

A man walked into the car and announced the final stop in Andria was minutes away.

Zo pulled her lower lip in and pressed her teeth against it. Of all the places for her first mission, of course it was straight back into Fercia.

End of Book 5


Zeke
drawn by Ingri Ned

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Ceric Zoan