Several Thousand Years Ago, Somewhere Very Far Away From Earth
The boy’s name was Merakeul. Barely nine years old, he was an unimpressive sight. Slightly less than average height for his young age, with a very slightly chubby build yet not exactly fat. His brown hair was worn long, with a pony tail that matched that of the pretty girl who stood beside him. Where Merakeul was average, his twin sister Rahanvael was decidedly not. Her own features favored their very attractive mother far more than their father as Merakeul’s did, granting her an impish appearance that many said would lead to great beauty once she grew old enough for such things to be noticed.
Both of the twins, Mera and Rahan as they went by, wore the traditional mourning whites. They were shapeless, sack-like robes that society dictated be worn by the immediate family members of the deceased for at least one week following such a loss. After that, they would wear a simple white sash or armband denoting their grief for the remainder of the year. None but those grieving the death of dear loved ones ever wore an all white ensemble, or even the white sash or armband. It simply wasn’t done.
Staring straight ahead through the small, entirely empty and undecorated room at the single metal door set against the wooden wall, Mera struggled not to let himself squirm too much. The mourning robes were hot, and these ones clearly hadn’t been washed properly, because they had been itching since he put them on. Still, he tried to remain quiet and motionless, waiting as patiently as a small child could for the door to open. That was the right thing to do. It was what his mother would have wanted.
But it was just taking so long. And now his forehead was itching. Slowly and carefully, the boy lifted his hand, just to give his head a tiny scratch. Yet before he managed to get any relief, there was a whistle of wood, followed by a sharp pain in his knuckles that made the boy yelp in spite of himself.
“Be still,” Ozinar, father of the twins, ordered while lowering the cane he had used to discipline his son. The man was tall and heavyset, with a plain face that was well-lined from years of working in the fields. Like his children, Ozinar wore the traditional whites, though his were old and had been patched several times from previous mourning periods. The last had been his own father three years previously.
Flinching from being caught (and still itching), Mera lowered his stinging hand. Beside him, Rahan took it gently, her fingers cool as she used Mera’s body to shield her actions. With a tiny smile that only Mera could see, the girl gently rubbed the sting out of his knuckles, just as their mother would have.
The sting had faded by the time the door ahead of them opened. A figure in a red robe stepped into view. A golden hood obscured part of the man’s face, leaving his features in shadows. This, again, was tradition. The idea was that person who guided a mourning family through their final rites should have no real name nor appearance, as far as the family themselves were concerned. Their identity was unimportant. They were anonymous. Only their work, their gift to the surviving family, mattered.
The golden-hooded guide said nothing. He simply stood there while Ozinar gave his twin children a little push. Together, the two nine-year olds started to walk that way. They passed the silent, robed figure while their father fell into step directly behind them. Through the doorway, they found themselves in a narrow corridor that was cold enough to make Mera shiver. Why did it have to be so cold in here? Tradition again? Why did tradition dictate everything they did? It didn’t make any sense.
The corridor slanted downward, leading the group deep under ground. They had been walking for ten minutes, and both children were tired by the time the slope leveled off and the corridor opened up into a large circular chamber. The room they were in now was enormous. The ceiling, if there was one, was far out of sight through the darkness. The chamber was lit by spotlights positioned along the walls, focused on two bits of furniture: a small wooden table and a stone coffin that lay directly behind it.
Those two pieces, the table and the coffin, were the only objects within this massive chamber as far as Mera could see. Other than that, the room was empty. Which made the boy wonder why they needed a room that was this big anyway, if all that space was wasted. Tradition yet again? Did it really matter?
Their guide strode past, moving to the table on the same side as the coffin. As the hooded man turned to face them, he laid his hands on the table and spoke clearly for the first time. His voice was deep, but purposefully plain and forgettable. “You who have lost, come to pay respects to they who are departing this world. You who have lost, step forward and bid farewell to those who must dwell no longer.”
Together, the twins and their father moved across the chamber to join the man at the table, standing on the opposite side. Ozinar positioned his children to his right hand side, as was expected. Descendants of the deceased stood to the right of their mate or closest living relative, while other family stood to the left. As they had no one else save for the three of them, the space to Ozinar’s left remained empty.
Once they were in position, the hooded man spoke again, reciting the words exactly as Mera had seen them written many times. “Those who are prepared to depart, show yourself here one final time so that they who remain in your wake may bid you farewell. Come forth, one last time, to say goodbye.”
Then… Mera felt a tug. It wasn’t quite physical. Yet it was more than just a thought or an imagined feeling. Lifting his head, the boy looked to the source of the tug: the stone coffin that lay behind their guide. There was a sort of energy there, a feeling that he couldn’t explain. But it was growing stronger.
“The boy,” their guide broke from the established script for the first time. It was surprising enough to break Mera’s concentration, and he looked up to find the hooded figure staring at him while continuing to speak. “He has the gift. He can feel the energy of life as it gathers here. He will join the Order.”
“He will farm,” Ozinar stated flatly, his voice brooking no argument. “As I have, as my father did, and as all of our fathers have for as long as the fields have taken our seeds. That is how it shall be. It is–”
“Tradition,” the hooded man finished. He clearly didn’t agree, yet had already broken the ceremony too much to risk continuing the argument. His head turned slightly, and Mera felt eyes on him from under that hood before the man turned to gesture with one hand. The energy that had been steadily gathering suddenly peaked, coalescing into a single bright point of light that flared up almost painfully bright.
When the light faded, a translucent figure floated there atop the coffin. As soon as he saw it, Mera gasped in spite of himself. Beside him, Rahan did more than that. Her mouth fell open and the little girl blurted, “Mother!” She even made ready to fling herself that way before their father laid a hand on her shoulder, stopping her without speaking. Yet there was no reprimand. Stern as he was, even Ozinar recognized the situation. He simply put his hand on his daughter’s shoulder to stop her, then nodded.
At the nod, the hooded man waved his hand, and the ghost of their mother crossed the distance from the coffin to the table. She floated there, beautiful and smiling. When she spoke, it was quiet and sounded as if the sound was coming across a vast distance. Yet even then, there was love in her voice.
She told them how much she loved them, how much she missed them already. There were tears from mother and children, and even the stoic Ozinar dabbed at his eyes. The family held one last, final meeting. They spoke of school, of what the children were going to do and who would ensure they made it to school on time while their father was working out in the fields. They reminisced and spent their final ten minutes together talking about as much as they possibly could in such a limited time.
It couldn’t last. There were too many others waiting to have their own final rites, and only so many members of the Lerikan Order, those precious few with the ability to summon the recently deceased before they moved on. Ten minutes was all that Ozinar had been able to afford. Yet that was more than many. Some only managed the law-mandated two minutes to say good bye to their dead loved ones.
Astinel clung to her last few seconds, smiling in a way that didn’t quite hide her fear. “My family. My beautiful family. I love you. I love each of you. Rahan, Mera, mind your father. Be good, my beautiful babies. Be careful and live your lives. Be safe. Be prosperous. Grow old and be loved.”
She made a motion as though to run her hands through her children’s hair while smiling at her husband before beginning to fade away as the hooded member of the Lerikan Order stopped using his energy to anchor her. The figure faded, growing harder and harder to see before entirely disappearing…
And then reappeared, solidifying as much as she had been at the beginning of their meeting. Both ghost and the hooded figure gasped, and their eyes moved together to the single small figure who was holding his hand out.
Mera could feel the energy. He’d spent the entire meeting with their mother’s ghost testing it, reaching for it, until that final second. Just before the energy, his mother’s energy, had faded away entirely, he grabbed for it. He grabbed and held onto it, feeding his own strength into the connection.
“Merakeul!” his father snapped, the horror in his voice turning it hoarse. “Stop this now! Stop it at once!”
“I can hold her, father,” Mera spoke calmly, eyes wide as he stared up at his mother. “I can keep her here. She doesn’t have to go. She can stay. I can hold it. It’s all right now, it’s okay. We don’t have to–”
Something was tugging at his mother, trying to tear her away from his grasp. Mera turned his gaze to the hooded figure, whose own hand was twitching. The man spoke calmly, yet there was a strain to his voice. “It is not done,” he tried to explain to the boy. “Holding the deceased beyond their death is an affront. It is against nature. It is against the will of Ysoldeh. We say our goodbyes and allow them to depart. That is how it is done.”
“No,” Mera argued. “It doesn’t have to be that way. I can hold her. You don’t have to do anything. I can do it. I know I can. Just let me–”
His father’s cane rapped hard against the knuckles of his outstretched hand. The pain made Mera yelp and recoil, grabbing his hand. Too late, he felt the energy slip from his grasp while he was distracted. When the boy looked up, the ghost of his mother was gone. And he couldn’t feel her anymore.
Rahan grabbed and held him, hugging her twin brother tightly while crying openly. Mera let her hold him, turning his gaze away from their father and the hooded man. His eyes were lowered contritely, his shoulders shook, just as his sister’s did.
Yet where Rahan was shaking from her tears, Mera’s emotion was different. He felt grief, yes. But far more than that, burning deep within him, the boy felt a very different emotion toward their father. He shook not from sorrow, but from hatred.
Pure, unbridled hatred.
Seven Years Later
“Okay, okay.” Sixteen-year-old Rahan’s laughing voice filled the woods on the edge of their family’s property as Mera dragged her on through them. “I’m coming, already. What’s the rush? You never want anyone to come with you out here.”
“I’m ready,” Mera announced. The intervening years had not made him any more handsome nor distinctive. The teenage boy looked just as unremarkable as he had as a child. He all-but carried his sister toward a specific clearing, where a table stood with a cage set in the middle of it. In the cage there was a pella, a small rodent with pale green fur and a long snout that was used to stick into holes to find the bugs that were its primary diet.
“Ew,” the pretty girl made a face while staring at the rodent. “Please tell me that’s not your new pet, Mera.”
“It’s my demonstration,” Mera corrected her. “Just… stand there, Rahan. Just stand there and watch, okay?” When the girl reluctantly nodded, he reached out to open the cage. The pella made a bid for freedom, but he caught it in both hands. As it struggled, he turned to show it to his sister.
And then he swiftly broke its neck.
A scream of surprise escaped Rahan. The girl stumbled backward, eyes wide. “Mera!” she blurted in shock. “What did you—wh-what did you do?!”
“It’s okay, it’s all right!” Mera insisted. “Look, look!” Focusing on the energy, he made a gesture with one hand while using the other to hold the dead rodent. Before his sister’s eyes, the ghost of the small creature rose up, looking terrified and confused as it floated there in the air between them.
“Y-you killed it. You killed it,” Rahan stammered. “That’s its… its… ghost? But… but why–”
“Watch.” Mera held the pella’s corpse up, then gestured with his other hand. The translucent ghost-figure floated that way, scrambling against the invisible force controlling it until it was shoved back into its own body.
Then the rodent’s eyes opened and it jerked a little in his grasp, kicking and squeaking its little head off.
“You…” Rahan moved closer, staring in shock at the creature. “You brought it back. But—but how?”
“It’s not hard,” Mera explained. “Not now anyway. I’ve been practicing for years. But it only works if I do it within a day of the death. After that, there’s not enough energy. The spirit’s just… gone. And watch.”
He put the rodent down against the table, holding it steady while producing a small knife from his pocket.
“Don’t!” Rahan objected, moving to grab his arm.
He looked back at her. “Trust me. It’ll be okay. I promise. I know what I’m doing.” Extricating his arm from her grasp, he carefully exposed the animal’s neck before plunging the knife into it.
Rahan screamed again and jerked away… but there was no blood. There was almost no reaction at all. The rodent squeaked, but made no dying noise. Nor did it flail about in pain. It yelped a little, but seemed mostly unaffected.
Mera stabbed the thing twice more before pulling the knife away, showing her that there was no blood. “When I put it back,” he explained, “they’re different. They don’t die unless I want them to. They’re immortal, Rahan. Really immortal. As long as I want them to live, they will.”
“Mera,” Rahan managed, staring at him with wide eyes. “We have to tell father. We have to go to the Lerikan Order and show them what you can do. They can–”
“No,” Mera snapped. “Don’t you remember? I could’ve kept mother. I could’ve helped her. They wouldn’t understand.”
“But we can’t just keep it to ourselves, Mera!” Rahan insisted. “This is—if you can… this is too big for us. We have to talk to someone. We have to tell father.”
“Father is a–” Mera started before stopping himself. Taking a breath, he turned to put the pella back in its cage. Closing the door, he gestured to it. “Help me take it up there? He’ll want to see.”
Breathing a sigh of relief that her brother was being reasonable, Rahan stepped over to help pick up the cage. However, even as her hands closed around the handle, Mera caught her wrist. When she looked up, he stared into her eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “I didn’t bring you here just to show you. I brought you here to help you.”
“Help me?” Rahan blinked. “Help me with what? Mera, what are you–”
His knife found her neck, stabbing deep into it. Tears filled the boy’s eyes as he plunged the blade through his twin sister’s throat. She made a strangled noise before starting to fall, and he quickly caught her.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he frantically apologized. “I love you, Rahan. I promise, it’ll be okay. It’ll be all right. I’ll bring you back and put you in your body again. Then you’ll live forever. You’ll never die, not until I want you to, and I’ll never want you to.”
She lay collapsed against him, gurgling her last breaths while he cried for having to hurt her in order to save her. “I can’t lose you, Rahan,” he whispered. “Never, ever, ever. I won’t. I won’t lose you like we lost mother. I’ll bring you back and you’ll be immortal. You’ll be immortal, Rahan. I promise, it’ll be okay. It’ll be–”
A noise behind him. Mera turned his head that way, just in time to see their father racing across the clearing, his cane held high while a bellow of rage tore its way past his lips.
“Father!” Mera blurted while holding his sister’s rapidly dying body. “Wait, it’s okay! I can–”
The cane whipped around, slamming into the side of the boy’s head. He fell sideways, releasing Rahan. The girl fell to the ground, her wide, sightless eyes meeting Mera’s own.
“Wait!” the boy screamed as he struggled to get up, trying to reach out for the energy that was his sister’s life-force. “Stop, sto–”
His father’s foot hit his stomach, driving the air out of him. Then there was another kick, and another. Still, the boy fought to remain conscious, reaching out toward his twin. The energy. He could feel it. He could reach it. Right there… he was so close. Everything would be all–
His father’s cane came down hard against his head, and the last thing Mera saw before his consciousness fled was the ghost of his sister, slowly fading away.
Seventeen Years Later
“Fah-Twen!” The guard of the prison where Mera had spent the past seventeen years of his life, ever since his father had stopped him from saving his sister in time, stood two cells down. Two more guards, each armed with stun weaponry, stood a safe distance back. The man called again. “Fah-Twen! Present yourself.”
The prison assigned each inmate numbers in the old world style, from one of the nations that had existed before the great unification.
Grumbling, the massive figure that was prisoner Fah-Twen (thirty-two in standard numbers) stood up from his bunk and stepped over that way. He stood there, allowing the guard to first cuff him, then search him before letting him out of the cell to head for dinner.
Next, the guard and his two companions moved to the cell beside Mera’s. “Fah-Kwur,” he called the next number. “Present yourself.”
Again, the prisoner did as ordered and was eventually sent to the meal. Finally, the guard moved to Mera’s cell. “Fah-Seur!” he called. “Come on, you know the drill. Front and center.”
This was it. Years of planning, of favors, of missed opportunities, and everything else had led to this. He had only this one, single opportunity. If he failed, there wouldn’t be another.
He stood from his bed, shuffling that way as he had every day for the past seventeen years. Shifting his feet apart, he put his back to the bars and allowed the guard to cuff him before starting to pat him down.
“Turn,” the guard ordered, and Mera obeyed. He pivoted, letting the man pat up his front while straightening. “Open,” he instructed, waiting to check the prisoner’s mouth for contraband.
Instead of obeying that time, Mera pursed his lips. A moment later, a small straw appeared, pushed into position by his tongue.
“What the hell is–” the guard started, just as Mera blew into the straw. A small, crudely fashioned dart shot from it and hit the man in his exposed neck. He recoiled as if he’d been struck by a bee, slapping his hand up to the wound.
As the man collapsed, the incredibly fast-working poison doing its work, both of his fellow guards lunged that way. One raised his weapon to take aim at Mera while the other checked on their companion.
The guard facing him fired a shot, but Mera was already diving to the floor. He landed awkwardly and painfully with his wrists cuffed behind him as they were. Yet the stun shot still missed, passing directly over his head.
By that point, the man he had shot the dart into was already gone. And as the guard by the cell fixed his aim, Mera rolled over while reaching out with his power. Immediately, he felt the dead man’s ghost. Tearing it away from the body, he forced the thing to obey his will, the way he had practiced with various dead animals for nearly two decades.
The ghost lunged upward, turning just solid enough (thanks to considerable effort from Mera), to rip the stun rifle away from the first guard. While he was still recovering from his surprise, the ghost dove onto the second guard, wrapping its hands around his throat and choking him. It took more effort than Mera would have liked to force the ghost to remain solid for that long, but it would be worth it.
Meanwhile, the second guard straightened from the dead body and spun that way. A cry escaped him as he tried to shoot at the ghost to save his co-worker. Yet the shots went right through it. The ghost was only solid where Mera wanted it to be.
Then… there were two ghosts for him to work with. Both caught hold of the remaining guard’s shoulders, slamming him backwards against the cell to bang his head hard off the bars. They repeated the motion again… and again… and again.
Soon, Mera had three ghosts to work with. Whistling to himself, he forced their spirits back into their bodies before ordering them to stand up and release him from the cuffs.
Then he stepped out of his cell, brushing himself off. In the distance, the alarms had already started blaring as the people observing over the cameras noticed what had happened. A voice over the intercom reported, “Prisoner Fah-Seur has escaped his holding and has taken control of several guards. Repeat, Fah-Seur has escaped holding and is in control of several guards. All units, report immediately to…”
The voice droned on, but Mera ignored it and began to walk, accompanied by the first of what would soon become many, many new companions.
No. He paused, shaking his head. Not Mera. He hadn’t been Merakeul in a very long time. This prison had shaped him over the past seventeen years. Since his father had destroyed his chance to save his sister, since the man had ripped his twin away from him because of his pathetic lack of understanding, Merakeul had died in this prison. It had shaped him, reformed him, and now he was more than he had been.
He was Fah-Seur. Thirty-four. And he was done trying to explain himself. He was done trying to make people understand. He’d lost his mother because they wouldn’t let him try, and he’d lost his sister because they were too stupid to let him finish saving her.
From that point on, no one was going to stop Fah-Seur from doing anything he wanted to.
“Don’t think that I don’t know what you did.”
It was evening, and Fossor was sitting in his ornate dining room (one of several throughout the mansion, which itself was one of at least a dozen spread throughout this world), enjoying the meal that had been prepared by the reanimated corpse of a chef who had once been renowned throughout high society. His eyes were not on the delicious meal, however. Instead, they were focused at the other end of the table, where the beautiful blonde woman sat, her own plate untouched.
She had been watching him, waiting for the man to speak. Now, Joselyn Chambers arched an eyebrow. Her voice was calm. “What I did?”
“You,” the man replied while carefully cutting into his steak. He took the bite and savored it briefly before continuing. “Told our son how to break into Crossroads to visit his sister.”
The woman didn’t bother denying it. “You did say that I should do all that I could to let our son enjoy his birthday. I believe your exact words were, ‘no matter how much it disgusts or horrifies you, make sure our son has anything he asks for.’ And I do have to obey you in all things.”
Fossor took another bite, shaking his head. “Yes. And somehow, what our son chose to do just happened to expose their weakness to that school. And may even have drawn your not-so-little girl toward more answers than she deserves. Answers that you know full well she would not have found without that little bit of aid from Mother-dearest.”
That time, Joselyn said nothing. She simply sat there, watching him.
“It won’t matter,” he informed her after taking a sip of wine. “When the time comes and Felicity reaches her eighteenth birthday, she will join you here.” Setting the glass down, he added almost casually, “Perhaps she’ll provide me with another child, as you did. I’m sure that Ammon would appreciate having a younger brother or sister.”
She stood up at that. Surprisingly, the woman forced herself up against his previous order to sit. The magic that bound them should have kept her in her seat until their meal was done. Yet, despite that ancient, powerful magic, Joselyn rose to her feet.
She could go no further than that, only managing to stand and go no further. Still, her eyes were as hard as they had ever been.
“If you touch my daughter, in any way,” she promised him, “I will end you.”
For several long, quiet minutes, Fossor simply continued his meal. He said nothing, not addressing her failure to sit as ordered, or her words.
Finally, after setting the fork down on the empty plate and dabbing his mouth with the nearby napkin, the man looked up to meet the woman’s gaze.
He spoke quietly, calmly. “I have subjugated worlds, eradicated entire species, domesticated legions of once-brave warriors who thought to oppose me, yet now serve my every command. One of those is you yourself. And you say you will somehow end me if I touch Felicity? My dear Joselyn, it has never been a question of if.
“Only a question of when.”