Raiden often led tours in the Tri-City Forest that connected Malysai, Kalia and Hewenia, but he rarely ventured beyond the forest to the city-state of crystals and water. As his shuttle flew passed the border, he was overcome by the incandescent navy shades of the crystal structures that slept in the moonlight.
Dawn was still a few hours away, but he wanted to ensure that he knew where he’d be going before Hela reclaimed the sky. He passed two of the six rivers that helped outline the city of Kalia and kept in mind the image that he saw in the District of Shadows. The cluster of lights in the center had revealed where he needed to go.
Dawn of the First. He thought to himself. It made perfect sense that the clue referred to Kalia. It was the land that the first race of Noreis had inhabited, or so the stories went. Many thought that the first creatures, the Mashinians, had been a myth. Even if they were, enough people were inspired by them to create a much larger replica of the city than had been built by the Mashinians long before the Great Extinction wiped them clean from the planet. The more time that passed, the less people believed that it ever happened. The stories remained, but they’d become more like children's tales than anything.
There was much debate about whether building a city-state like Kalia would even be worth the trouble, given how much money went into it. It certainly wasn’t as cost-effective as its neighboring city-states. In Malysai, people built a city-state as a part of the forest and cast nets high above the ground so that even when people fell they wouldn’t be harmed. The city-state of Hewenia was given a grant by the Monarchical Board, but with the riches of many of their religious zealots, they hardly needed it. What saved Kalia was its beauty. It had the ability to attract tourists from all over the world, whether they believed in the first beings or not. Their operation costs were pretty low as well, since the city-state ran almost exclusively on hydroelectric power and solar energy.
Raiden turned his attention to a map of Kalia, which was a close replica in size to the image he’d seen. At first he thought that the cluster of lights was the hydro-dome, but it came into view long before he reached the center of the city-state.
“Woah,” he gasped at the sight of it.
The hydro-dome was easily two-hundred feet in height and encased in thick, clear crystal. Without the gleam of the moonlight, the dome would’ve looked like a half-ball of splashing water that swooshed and made waves that slammed against an invisible barrier. The water glowed neon, so it was impossible to see whatever generators were powering it in its center. Streams of water flowed out of the dome’s base and went on to light the sidewalks, streetlights, and the rest of the city.
Raiden faced forward in time to swerve just before crashing into a building of crystal spikes in front of him. He was so taken by the sight of the hydro-dome that he’d forgotten he was still in motion. He sighed, grateful to have avoided an accident. If he drove into the spikes, one of them would’ve certainly impaled him. He continued toward the center of the map, gazing down the sparkling streets as he went. The closer he got, the more he thought of watching his father taking a gunblade through the chest.
‘Just stay behind me and you’ll be safe.’ He’s dead because of me. I’m the reason he’s gone. Now Rexus must face the consequences… or I must face mine.
His shuttle glided onto a block where the streams of water stopped and the crystals’ gleams were no longer bouncing off the pavement. Raiden slowed down and examined the buildings in front of him. They were pale and white, as if this part of Kalia had been petrified long ago.
“Of course,” he said to himself. He knew that he needed to search no further.
When Kalia was recreated, there were four square blocks where the architects had purposely created the city as it may have looked six thousand years before. The crystals here were bland and sterile, made with the resources that the Mashinian creatures had access to when they roamed Noreis. It was far less pretty than the rest of the city-state, hence the shiny tourist trap that had been built around this cluster of buildings.
Raiden took another glance at his map, but already knew that he was in the center of the city-state. There was only one place in this sterile district that Rexus would go, and Raiden knew that neither of them would be able to access it until just before dawn. It was then that their fates would be decided.
He reversed and turned around. There was an inn two blocks back. Even if there were no rooms available, they’d have a bar or… something. If his life was going to end in a few hours, he wanted to be sure to have one last drink first.
Raiden parked in front of the inn and approached the door. It was a triangular shape in the wall with another triangle protruding in front of him. Luckily he knew enough of Kalia to understand how their doors worked. He placed his hand on the center of the triangle, where creases formed from the three points of the triangular wall and slowly inched towards the center. When the three creases touched, the new triangles they'd formed retracted into the edges of the triangle itself and opened up the entrance of the hotel lobby.
The gaunt man at the front desk didn’t even look up from his paper when Raiden stepped inside, but he didn’t care. He wasn’t there for a bed that evening. He veered left and into the bar before the door could reassemble behind him.
Raiden noted that, of the fifteen or so tables, only one of them was occupied. The bar itself was completely empty, excluding the Trewanian bartender doing menial sidework from behind the bar.
“Good evening,” the bartender said as he took a seat across from her. “What would you like?”
“A double-tall maroki please.”
“Make that two, actually,” a deep voice had said behind him.
The bartender’s mouth dropped for a second and she was at a loss for words. “Of… Of course, Sir.”
A man in a fastened silver vest and a silky white dress shirt took a seat next to him, and Raiden knew immediately why this man drew such a reaction from the bartender.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Captain Koston Donnick said as he folded his diamond encrusted overcoat and placed it on the stool beside him.
Raiden didn’t know how to respond. He gawked while the bartender filled their glasses with liquors from two black bottles.
“A maroki,” Captain Donnick said as he inspected the grayish-brown cocktail in his hand. “I heard that these things could burn off your tongue.”
“You’ve never had one?” Raiden asked.
“No, I normally don’t drink,” Captain Donnick said. “I have tonight, but usually my son does plenty of that for the both of us.”
“Heh, he should meet my wife then.”
“I wouldn’t trust him around any man’s wife,” Captain Donnick said in a sudden spurt of laughter.
The bartender smiled and then started wiping down bottles on the top shelf. It’d prove to be a difficult task for most, but since she was seven feet tall, she had a distinct advantage.
Captain Donnick slid several gold coins on the table in the bartender’s direction. “That should be enough for the both of us. The rest is yours.”
The bartender stopped what she was doing to bow. “Thank you, Captain Donnick.”
“Yes, thank you,” Raiden said. “You really didn’t have to do that.”
“I have too much gold as it is,” Captain Donnick said as he raised the glass and peered into it. He gave it a queer look when the cocktail began to bubble and put it back down. He glanced back at the bartender with a set of already glazed eyes. “Perhaps I should have ordered something simpler.”
“Nah, live a little,” Raiden said as he held his glass up. Having a beverage with one of the most prominent men in Noreis wasn’t something he’d planned, but it’d be something he could tell Riles when he returned home.
Raiden nearly laughed as Koston raised his glass with a great hesitation, as if there was poison oozing within it. He didn’t think that the almighty Koston Donnick would be afraid of anything, much less something that came in a pint. He clinked his glass against Koston’s and took a sip. The liquid burned the tip of his tongue at first, but then his whole mouth came alive with an amalgamation of earthy flavors and the spice of the Tri-city forest pepper plants. By the time the first sip went down, he felt warm and his nerves subsided. Even the thought of impending death couldn’t scare him now.
Captain Donnick had barely taken a sip before he erupted into a coughing fit and grabbed a napkin from the nearby tray.
Raiden wanted to laugh, but he knew it would be inappropriate. He smirked on the inside and patted the Captain’s back. “Easy there. Perhaps we should get you a draft instead. Marokis aren’t for the faint of heart.” He made eye contact with the bartender, who bobbed her head in agreement.
Captain Donnick blushed, nodded, and slid his glass toward the bartender’s side of the counter. He cleared his throat and spoke with his sleeve over his mouth. “If you don’t mind.”
“Of course not,” the bartender said. Her hand was already clutched around a draft tap.
This time it was Raiden who placed a couple of coins on the bar. “I’ll get the Captain’s.”
“There’s no need,” Captain Donnick said.
“That’s where you are very wrong my friend,” Raiden replied. “I was just sixteen when my father and I moved from our small settlement all the way to Malysai. I’ve always loved forests. There weren’t too many where we used to live, so the very idea of getting to live in one was nearly unfathomable to me. The way that Hela peers through the mighty trees, the shuffling of the leaves when a gust of wind blows by, the symbiotic relationship between all of the animals and plant life just… I loved it all far more than I thought I would. I longed to work in the Tri-City Forest. Having this new world surround me, and growing up in a way that made me appreciate just how precious it all is made me want to share that with others.
“Unfortunately, my education was not quite up to par with those that had grown up in the Malysai school system. It’s not that I wasn’t a good student, I was just taught different things—things that were pertinent to the home I lived in. When he was Monarch Superior, your grandfather passed a Norean-wide law that allowed for kids in my situation to go to trade schools as long as they passed a basic education test that proved that they had the skills that were needed, irrespective of where they lived. If it wasn’t for him, it would have taken me an extra three years to have gotten my dream job, and everything good in my life now are things that I’ve acquired while working there. So, yes, Captain Donnick, I believe that I owe the grandson of the man who made my dreams possible a drink. I owe you this whole damned bar.”
The captain resigned from his protest and took a sip of his new, more conservative brew. “I had the right idea when I donated it all. I don’t know why I decided to make all of it back. All money has ever done is cause me trouble.”
Raiden smiled and took another sip of his drink. He didn’t know how to respond to Captain Donnick’s trivial plights. He wasn’t poor, but having an abundance of money wasn’t something that he could relate to. Captain Donnick must have realized this. Once he took a sip of his drink he stopped talking for a moment.
“So how’d you end up here?” Captain Donnick asked.
Raiden thought the question was for him, but then he noticed the Captain addressing the bartender. He wasn’t too surprised. He probably didn’t look very friendly that evening.
“What do you mean?” She replied.
“Were you a citizen of Hewenia or was your family part of the Nonconformist Movement?”
Hewenia was declared a city-state only a century before. While it attracted many Hennians and Trewanians to move within it and deemed it their holy land, not nearly as many of the creatures moved as the religious zealots and the Monarchical Board had predicted. As opposed to millions, only a couple hundred thousand of Hennians and Trewanians left their homes to make the journey for a new one. Most of the races' creatures, both religious and not, chose to remain in the city-states they'd grown up in and became known as the Nonconformists.
“Neither,” the bartender replied. “My parents live in Raliffe. My grandfather moved there from Hewenia and started up his own textile business. I moved here when I was nineteen. I attended Kal-U, but I decided not to go to grad school. I'm still paying off my loans.”
“School's expensive,” Raiden said.
“Not school. Interest rate hikes.”
Both men agreed with her.
Someone else entered the bar, so the Trewanian left them to greet her new customer.
Captain Donnick took another sip of his draft brew. He seemed to like it. The glass was already half empty. Raiden was still getting started on his. Not even Wessena could drink marokis quickly.
“I hope my son decides to attend,” Captain Donnick said.
“Attend what? Kal-U?”
“Anything,” the Captain said with a shrug. “Do you have kids…?”
Captain Donnick held his hand out, so Raiden shook it and finished his sentence for him. “Raiden, and yes, I have a son.”
The Captain smiled. Even with the distraction of his impending encounter with Rexus, he couldn’t ignore the kindness in the Captain’s aura. “He’s still just a kid though,” Raiden said. “Barely eight years old… Not like your son.”
The mention of Marquez Donnick caused the Captain to let out a ‘humph’ and take a heavy gulp of his beverage. “I love Marquez dearly, but you should be glad that he is not yours.”
Raiden had read the papers and seen the news just like the rest of Noreis. Everyone knew who Marquez Donnick was and always aware of what he was doing. Marquez’s name was brought up even more than Koston’s!
“I leave Kalia tomorrow. I will become Advisor under Queen Kallisto in just a few days, and when I do, only a monarch or the Monarch Superior will have more say in the world than I. I am to become one of the most powerful men in all of Noreis, and yet I still have to worry more about my son and what sort of nonsense he’ll find himself in next.”
Raiden heard Captain Donnick’s words, but couldn’t shake the image of another man in his head. The Captain had used a stern, yet compassionate voice, strikingly similar to the kindness that rang in his father’s words. Perhaps this was a sign from the Gods. Maybe the captain was there to remind Raiden of what his father had been like, and what he was fighting for.
“I wish I could point him in the right direction,” the captain went on. “I wish he would just listen to me. I’ve been where he is…” A second later, Captain Donnick grimaced at the sight of the bottom of his glass.
I should have listened, too. If I only stayed behind…
“I’m sorry, Raiden,” Captain Donnick said. “You probably came in here to get a drink and sit alone. I just needed to get out of the palace. I had two drinks there before the serving staff started whispering amongst themselves. Somehow they already knew about my son’s latest indiscretions.”
“There’s no need to apologize, Captain—”
“—Koston. Please, call me Koston. I need an evening free from formalities.”
Raiden ran his fingertips around the edges of the glass, but didn’t take another sip. He wasn’t sure how much of it he wanted to drink. He didn’t want to run the risk of getting sleepy—not when so much was at stake.
“I get why he does it,” Koston said as he pondered whether or not he was going to order another drink. “I wasn’t exactly an upstanding youth myself. I certainly had a knack for trouble. Drugs, parties,” he clenched his teeth, “women… I crashed my shuttle into a daycare center once. Thank Gods it was closed that night, but that certainly didn’t excuse my actions.”
Raiden kept his astonishment hidden from his face. History and teachings only ever focused on the stories its writers wanted to tell. That one was obviously omitted. “What changed you?”
Koston went to speak, but it took him a few seconds to find his words. “My father… As bad as I might have been, he was worse. I can’t remember how often I'd seen him drunk. My grandfather had the ability to prevent an entire war between Meniffa and Raliffe with just the power of his words. He found ways to pay off the global debt without compromising any of our health, education, or defense programs. Even to this day he is revered as the greatest leader we’ve had in centuries. But amidst all of that, he couldn’t prevent his only son from overdosing.” Koston paused. Raiden could’ve taken the opportunity to speak, but he didn’t dare say a word.
“He never admitted to anyone how saddened he was. People were able to speculate, of course, but he never showed it to the public, not with an entire world to run.” Koston’s eyes grew heavy with the thoughts of darker times. “I doubt that you were old enough to remember it, but in his last speech as Monarch Superior, he talked about how proud he was to be given the opportunity to be the man that Noreis wanted him to be. The twelve city-states remained at peace, and across the board economies were thriving. He said that the greatest gift he’d ever been given was the ability to rule Noreis, and to earn the respect and love that he’d been given by the people that admired him.”
The bartender returned and Koston nodded his head. She began to pour him a second drink.
“There was a line in the first draft of that speech that he was advised to omit. His council had no idea if he was going to do so or not until he took to the podium that evening. He had nothing to lose, after all. He’d already lost the thing he prized most in the world. People came from around the world to witness his closing speech. The seats in the auditorium were removed for the occasion so that they could further maximize their capacity. Tens of thousands of people young and old alike were forced to stand so close together they were pressed against one another. Guards and staff members should have been scared of what would happen in the event of a fire, but even they were too fixated on my grandfather’s closing speech to be bothered with precautions.
“A whole world waited in silence as my grandfather captivated them with the potential of that last line. Five seconds went by, then ten, and then it was nearly a full minute before he said a word. Finally, he said ‘thank you,’ and walked off the stage without uttering the words that were really on his mind. The greatest gift he’d ever been given was the ability to rule Noreis, and to earn the respect and love that he’d been given by the people that admired him. His greatest regret was becoming Monarch Superior, and to have to watch his son devolve before his very eyes without having the time to do anything about it.”
Raiden could only frown. He no longer remembered what he was going to say to Koston before their conversation became so grim.
Koston grabbed the pint and redirected his attention to the bartender. “Miss, you mentioned that you went to Kalia University.”
The Trewanian turned from her cash till. “Yes?”
“And you’re still in debt.”
She shrugged. “I have a payment plan. I’ll be caught up in three years. It’s not a big—”
Koston dropped a small sack on the counter and a splatter of coins splashed within it. The Trewanian stared at the bag with a set of wide, bewildered eyes. “That should be enough to clear you of your debts. If it isn’t, please contact me personally in Cardeau Palace.”
The Trewanian’s mouth was moving, but if she was speaking, the words certainly weren’t loud enough for either of them to hear her.
Koston turned to Raiden with his glass in hand. “Without the wealth of the heart I have no money at all. I hope that my Marquez can understand that someday. You should teach that to your boy before he follows in my son’s footsteps. If you can, then you’ll be a far wealthier man than I, Raiden.” Koston clanged his glass against Raiden’s, which was still nearly full. “To the fathers of sons: May we protect them, love them, guide them, and never leave them behind,” he said. He took a hearty gulp of his second drink.
Raiden grabbed his glass, but couldn’t bring himself to take a sip during the toast. He couldn’t stop thinking about the promise he’d made to Riles. I’m doing this because Riles’ life was threatened, Raiden told himself. Even as he thought it, he got the image of Riles waking up that morning and combing the house in search of a father that might have already been dead.