The Ninth Night Continued

There are still unknowns hiding in this world for me to find, there are still things about The Sphere I will endeavour to understand. But for now I will tell you the rest of my story from when I left you.

I stood up, wobbled and walked to the door. My hand hesitated as I reached for the handle, but I couldn’t NOT open it. I hadn’t come this far to just stare at it. I twisted, and threw it open hard beside me.

‘A Mirror?’ I thought for an instant.

‘Impossible!’ My next thought rang.

I extended my hand, the mirror didn’t respond; as though it were blind to my presence. But no, it moved; stepped towards me. Instinctively I moved backwards. Once his eyes passed the threshold of the room’s door, they locked with mine.

“I cant believe I’ve found you…” He began. His voice sounded oddly familiar I cringed with confusion, trying to process this noise. “I’ve been looking for you, ever since you appeared online. But it wasn’t easy. I have been altered in some way Reks, and only when you are in this room, do I feel whole. It’s almost as if I can’t think with all of my brain when you go back to The Sphere.”

My mind was ruined with queries and conflict. So much so I couldn’t even ask a question. But, I didn’t need to; the man before me simply kept talking.

“I’m Isaac, and you Reks, are my imagination…”

I was stupified further. How in The Sphere could I be HIS imagination? I asked my thoughts; to no answer.

“We used to be one being Reks. I remember the day clearly, it was the last day I saw the world in its beauty, and the last day I experienced a creative thought. You are eighteen, correct?” He asked me. I nodded, still in a stupor. “That would make you about four, and I was twelve when you were taken from me…”

“Taken? what do you mean? Was I placed on the Sphere?”

“More like imprisoned. For some reason someone has targeted us, they saught to destroy us before we were able to understand our own purpose. They trapped you on The Sphere and left me alone with an echoing mind.”

I shook my head in disbelief.

“All of my hardships? My friends? My family? My enemies? Everything I’ve recounted in this room is what? Imaginary?” Isaac stepped closer to me, I flinched back half a step. “Reks, your entire being is imaginary. I can’t explain all of it, I do believe all your accomplishments have truly happened, somewhere. I need your help Reks, someone has done this to us. I know we can find them together.”

Isaac extended his hand, he pleaded silently for me to take it. I could see something in his eyes, or more like something missing, something void, but something honest. His words, his motives and actions, I could sense were sincere. I also sensed that there was something out of my control, and out of his too.

But not this, this was entirely in our control.

A feeling expanded in me. Somewhere between my chin and my guts, it felt like fear, it felt like pain, like I wasnt alive, until just now.

I took his hand.

My eyes slammed shut, not by my own reaction but from some external, unstoppable force. The feeling in my chest grew to a level of pain akin to every hair on my body being pulled from my skin at the same time. I opened my eyes, and Isaac was gone.

“I’m here…” he said, I looked around; nothing, I couldn’t see him. “…I’m, in your head…” He continued. “Is this how it’s going to be from now on?” I asked.

“Well, no, I think you will be inside my head, once we leave here. This room I mean. Since I was the one in control to begin with, I can only assume I will be the one in control in the present and future.”

“Oh…” I said; defeated. “…Am I just a passenger now? Only ever able to feel alive within the confines of this room? Only allowed to exist within the walls of your mind?”

Silence was my answer. Isaac didn’t know, and I felt alone. “I can feel what you feel Reks. You’re not alone, not anymore, and never again.” He said. “If you can feel my emotion, shouldn’t I be able to feel yours, outside?” I asked.

“There’s only one way to find out Reks.” I knew what he meant. “What will we do, once we leave?” I queried. “Your writing of the events on The Sphere, was so powerful, it drew me to you and whether it was your intention or not, returned you to me. I think your… Our writing can help us uncover the truth to our seperation. Before we met i knew something was wrong, but I couldnt think of what or why. I’ve been in a shroud of unimagination, and now, now the ideas flow easily through my mind. I think the person responsible is a writer. Only a constructor of worlds, a creator of fates, could augment our lives like this.”

“So how do we fight someone like that? Write about them to flush them out?”

“If they’re smart enough to send someones imagination to another planet, I dont think they’re going to be easily outed by some creative antagonistation. No, I think they split us up because we are the only one who can stop them, who can beat them at their goal. The only goal any man truly wants; to rule the world. We have to beat them to it Reks”

“Wait, you want us to take over the world. You realise I just came from a place where my life was lost trying to end such a tyranny?”

“Yes, but you did lose didnt you? Your motives were foolproof, but you needed to rule The Sphere in order to make it happen. That conflict led to your demise, and I think if you had fallen anywhere outside of Sovereign City’s walls we would have never reunited. And now that we have, I can tell you easily; I will see this through, I will not let this slip through my grasp. You failed because you didnt have me, and I been a failure without you. Not anymore, I will give you, us, a new chance to end tyranny, will you help me?”

After less thought than I thought I would need, I decided he was right. I was right, from the very beginning. I was just in the wrong place, fighting the wrong tyrants.
I will help Isaac write a book, we will take over the world.

You will hear from us again.

Look for the name Reks Twelve.

The Ninth Night

Tonight, I write to you from a room with an escape.

A door has appeared.

And I have been too scared to open it.

All my trials, all these tasks completed, and I can’t even open a door. The thought of what lives beyond in this strange world; so unlike my own, so advanced and full of mystery. It fills me with a powerful anxiety, it leaves me crippled in my seat, and all I can think to do is tell you how I came to be here on this night. The last night I spend here.

Veek kicked me awake. His clawed feet tore at my clothing and nearly punctured my skin. “Reks we have to move.” He told me. I stood up sore, rubbing my side with one hand and the gunk from my tired eyes with the other. “Is it the Varm?” I asked huskily. He sniffed at the air. “Yes, but they are not targeting us. They mean to beat us to Sovereign City.”

“I have a plan…” I told him. “…I’ve noticed The Varm do not use weapons, we can use this to our advantage.”

“Weapons are for Hûms. We exist as we are, we thrive on our limitations, and become stronger, smarter at overcoming adversities. It has been the conerstone of our evolution.”

I shook my head and looked away before saying: “Our journey is one to end the traditions of our forefathers, we have to be willing to adopt new ways of thinking if we are to be a part of forging the new sphere.” Veek snorted and debated internally before nodding with closed eyes.

“You are right Reks, but we must run, tell me your plan on the way.” I nodded a single nod, and we took off into the trees, leaping over fallen giant flora, darting around thorny bushes, and cutting our way through thick vines weaved in our path. Veeks pace quickened when we came to a small clearing with a thin treeline in the distance. I feared he smelt a dire reason to hasten, so I ran with all my strength. We broke through to the otherside of the trees simultaneously. To my amazment.

Czarina’s brightly coloured dress was the first thing I could see, as she sat, contrasted against the dark blue sandstone walls of Sovereign City. We skidded to a halt when we noticed The Varm waiting at each side of us.

“You kept us waiting Varmint. We grew bored, and felt like playing with your Hûms. We wanted to play with the female first, but the male one wouldn’t let us. He proved to be more fun instead.” It was then that I noticed Mikado’s bruised and bloodied face resting on Czarina’s lap. From Mikado’s widows peak to the collar of his neck ran a track of claw marks, still weaping with blood onto Czarina’s dress.

“MIKADO!” I called. His head flinched and Czarina stroked his hair to calm him. He raised his trembling hand, his two smallest fingers were missing and when he raised it too far, he dropped it immediately to hold his ribs.

Czarina looked at me, she didn’t need to say anything. I knew she wanted it to be over; all of it, this moment, this day, this whole struggle. Her face, her energy was exhausted, she had nothing left to fight with. She yelled at me: “It didn’t work Reks. The gate wouldn’t let us through.”

Veek snarled, his anger swelled with each drip of drool that dropped to the ground. “Your senseless violence is not what The Varm stand for Beta.” Beta Khan threw his arm to his side “You don’t lord The Varm any longer Varmint. If you stand for the old Varm ways, you would call me Odious Khan, and kneel in fealty…” Odious paused. I looked to Veek, he was unflinching. I looked back to Odious. “…No?…” He smiled. “…I’ve been waiting to finish you off Varmint. And when I’m done, I’m coming for YOU; Hûm.” He pointed straight at me without looking, then he slowly turned his grinning gaze to meet my fearfull stare.

While Odious still stared me down, Veek dashed forward into the fray. The Varm that stood either side of us, converged behind him, once again closing the two foes in a circle and leaving me free. I rushed over to Czarina and Mikado to check them out. “I’m alright… I’m alright.” Mikado grumbled woozily. “You’re not alright, you dumb, brave, idiot.” Czarina said, still stroking his hair. He looked at me and winked a twitching wink “She’s over-reacting…” He said, coughing up a chunk of bloody matter at my feet. “Lay still man, we’ll get you out of here soon, get you some help.” I said, trying to reassure him.

“Why didnt it work Reks?” Czarina asked me. I couldn’t lie to her, not after what she’s been through, and I especially couldn’t lie to Mikado. “The seventh Diamond Gate is a fake. We found it at the centre of the Night Mist.” I said. “The centre of the? What? What’s at the centre?” She queried. “There’s a fifty metre woman with the gate on her back. The mist manifests because she was forbidden to stop walking, by the laws of the last King. I think she’s lost her thoughts though. She’s definitely gone blind.”

At this part of my re-telling Veek and Odious had entered combat, after circling each other, taunting and drooling their unacted moves into the sand. This wasnt a battle of movement, the moves were being played in each of their heads. Each attack parried exactly as the attacker would act. Each parry quelled before it can yield a resulting blow.

“I know how you move Varmint; old, tired, crippled. I will not let you escape me this time.” Veek grinned his jagged teeth, before saying: “I will have you at my heel, just as I had your father.” They circled, and I caught a glimpse of Odious’s eyebrow fade to grey. Veek reacted, immediately slashing at the greyed brow, knocking Odious into a torpor.

I turned back to my friends. There was a fledgling of a Maru tree to my side. I ripped it from the ground and wrenched it of its water reserves into Mikado’s mouth, and on his face. I tried to wipe the blood gently from his ruined face with a scrap of my shirt, but every touch coerced a grimace of pain to his face. Czarina took the rag from my hand, and the instant it touch him, Mikado’s face exuded serenity. She brought peace to his chaos, just as he brings chaos to her peace.

Something caught my eye. Veek and Odious locked hands in a test of pure strength; pushing against each other. Neither one yielding. Veek dropped his knee, allowing Odious’ weight to fold over him as he propelled his oponent behind him. Veek stood to anticipate his foe’s retalliation, but was too slow. Odious had landed on his strong leg and pounced at Veek. The two tumbled over, cinched in one anothers grasp.

For two rotations they rolled out fo the circle of Varm. Veek flew from Odious’s grip and landed: skidding to a stop, as Odious rolled to his feet and charged with great speed to Veek’s front. He lept to Knee him Veek in the jaw, Veek stepped to the side, and fluidly he revealed my dagger to Odious and stabbed him; to his utter disbelief, in his his thigh. Veek ripped the Diamond blade up Odious’ leg as he propelled forward; splaying his leg muscle in two.

Odious tumbled on his vanquished leg. He tried vehemently to stand, greying his hair with every roar of pain, and stare at his foe. Veek stepped slowly towards him. Odious scuttled backward, snarling and cursing Veek’s name gutterally. “How dare you sully our ways with the weapon of a Hûm. You! After berating me only moments ago. Hypocrite! Deceiver!” Veek came to his enemy and thrust the Diamond Blade into his chest. Before his heart stopped he spoke the word: “Khan.” Calmly into Odious’ ear.

He turned to The Varm massing behind him, blood droplets joined the drool on the floor and spoke: “The Varm have been chained to their old ways, we have dwindled in our defiance to assimilate. What I once thought to make us stronger has left us hiding in the shadow of the forest. Instead, we should have been wielding the light of knowledge and carving our names into time. Together with this Hûm, we can never be forgotten in the dark.”

I think the Varm that had followed Varmint devoutly were the first to kneel. The former followers of Odious were a bit more relluctant, but without the persuasive tongue of their leader, fear overtook them instead of courage. Within seconds, all were kneeling, and all were placing their hand on their reinstated Khan. Their hands greyed within his presence. I think it was them showing a tremendous fear to fight back.

From the ritualistic circle came flying my dagger, landing in the ground at my feet; Odious’ blood slid down and blended with the dirt. “I have to go now. Czarina, Mikado, I will be back” I told my friends, as I stood and walked past my dagger to meet with Veek. I almost picked it up, but I had the feeling it served its purpose already. That I no longer needed it on my journey. I asked Veek to have his Varm take care of my friends while we were in Sovereign City. Instantly he snarled an order to a few of the Varm; they dashed over to Czarina and Mikado to aid them.

Veek and myself walked up to the final Diamond Gate. I was in a daze, I couldn’t even fully absorb the magnificence of Sovereign city. Its uncountable tall spires, poking into the clouds. The courtyards of stone and red crystal looked as though they had been laid there only moments before we arrived. Each wall was straight and neat, built by master craftsmen.

Now that I’m pondering on it, they resemble the works of the buildings I can see from this tiny room in which I spend my dreams in. At the time I should have noticed how little the city had aged, by all accounts, it should have dilapidated, but I didnt notice. I was in awe. I made it.

Thinking back, I’m sure it wasnt a noise, nor a touch, or an instinct. I just looked back, and I could see Mikado standing; leaning on Czarina’s shoulder, holding his ribs. He looked like he wanted to say something, and then his arm pointed behind me and his face was wrecked with horror.

I stepped closer to them once.

My spine went numb, my eyes heavy, arms weak.

I felt a cold breeze on my stomach, and looked down.

The realisation struck me, and so did the pain.

I saw a hand, but not my hand, I inhaled sharply, and clearly a voice hissed into my ear.

“No King of mine!” The voice said, and with it came the hot stink of breath I had come to recognise. “V…Veek?” I struggled to blurt. “Deception is a skill that YOU taught me, Hûm.”

His free hand pressed hard against my back, I watched the claw shrink through my stomach and the second it left my back, I fell to the ground. Pain reverberated within me; it was so intense I couldnt tell if I was shivering or not, but I knew I was cold. Blurrily, all I could see was Mikado bashing on the Diamond Gate’s threshold, and Czarina trying to stop him, trying to convince him to go another way.

Thinking on it now I deduce she was trying to get him to go with her and find the Night Mist, or maybe she was just trying to flee the impending reign of Varmint Khan.

I blinked long and heavy, and between the comfortable, dark embrace of my inner eyelids and the consuming brightness of day, I watched my friends run away in flashes, from the Diamond Gate into the forest. When I could see them no more I returned my eyes to the peacful confines of my eyelid enclosure. My darkened solitude was beautiful, my brain felt supernaturally active.

I can barely explain it. I felt like my mind was spiraling through the stars at speeds my body would surely perish from. The spinning stars rapidly accelerated as I flew, blurring into a constant stream of white light. And then the opposite happened, it looked like black and blue stars were coming at me, spiralling and speeding into another blur, but of blackness. It stayed black for a while. A long while. Longer than I could count, longer than I felt I would ever live.

And then there was a soft red glow, all around me, with it came; an at first quiet: Thump thump… Thump thump… It grew louder until it was reverberating within my consciousness. I squirmed, and for a second I hadn’t realised that I had squirmed, I had bodily motion, I felt.

I felt my body, my heart beat, my lungs expand. The soft red glow was the light on the other side of my eyelids, and a feeling rose within my chest.

I opened my eyes.

THE ROOM!

Fuzzily, but clear enough to tell. It was the room, and as it came into full clarity so too did the understanding of what had happened. Somehow, I transitioned from the Sphere, to this world. This strange land, I have come to know only through this machine, this window of knowledge.

I tried to stand, but my legs were weak under my heavy body. My eyes grew strong as I stared at my hands to gain focus. As soon as I was able to see I looked down to my stomach.

No wound!

But how? I was sure Veek had tore a hole in my gut. I was dying on the grounds of Sovereign City, and now I’m here. Nothing about this made sense, and at the height of my confused pondering I felt something odd. As if someone was watching me. I turned to the corner of the room, but nothing was there. I watched for a moment longer, and then I heard it… Thump thump, thump thump.

With the noise, came the visualisation of a door, and once I could see it, I couldn’t unsee it. It was there, finally! An exit.

I will return with answers, I promise I will. I have to go…

The Eighth Night

My previous night here in this room, gave solace. Tonight, I feel claustrophobic, and uneasy.

This morning I awoke tired, as though I hadn’t slept at all, and had not for days. I close my eyes on the sphere and awaken here, I close my eyes here and awaken there. My mind is always active, and I feel like my consciousness and subconsciousness have melded, and now there is no need for sleep.

Well, that’s just one of my theories anyway.

Our hunt for Czarina and Mikado had taken a detour. Once I had calmed down from my adrenaline-fueled chase in the previous day, I thought about how far ahead they were likely to be. I decided it would be better to locate the missing Diamond Gate before reuniting with my friends. At least then I would be able to tell them how to do the same.

Veek and I ate the last of our rations, which was barely enough to satiate us, let alone uplift us from our slumping lethargy. Regardless of our stomach’s state, we walked with furious intent, pounding our heavy feet into the soft leaf covered ground. It was an hour or two of silence, when Veek stopped abruptly to smell all around him. “She’s nearby.” He stated. “She? Can you smell Czarina?” I queried, my hopes raised high. “No.” He answered simply, enflaming my intrigue further.

But before I could ask for more information.

“Reks MOVE!” Veek barked, as he dashed ahead of me. I made chase, unable to catch up, but staying only just within sight of him. He stopped after a full minute at top speed. Seconds later I arrived to where I though he was, but he had disappeared. It was a gangly tree that I had mistaken him for. I hunched over and panted to regain some stamina before I went looking for him.

It was then that I was grabbed from behind. I was dragged into some rough bushes, my mouth covered, my nose free to smell the stink of the hand smothering me. From the stench I knew who had grabbed me, but I had no idea why. Veek whispered into my ear barely louder than a leaf blowing in the wind: “Don’t speak. Put your hand to the ground and watch the mist.”

I couldn’t even see the mist, and as I placed my hand down, I focused solely on calming myself, attempting to feel anything other than my beating heart.

I looked up, to witness the thick fog roll into the clearing, like a soft tsunami it consumed its path, and then I could feel it. THOOM… THOOM… THOOM… THOOM. “What is that?” I asked. My heartbeat rose once again. “That is the Night Mist.” I didn’t understand what he meant, but as I kept watching I saw a figure come through the blur. A gigantic figure, a fifty metre figure. I thought of how impossible that could have been, I was about to ask Veek how it could be but it was too late, he’d already sprinted past me into the milky atmosphere.

Following him was my only option, he obviously had a plan. I ran after him, following his footsteps exactly. A perfect straight line through the mist. I guess he thought we’d either hit the center and find the fifty metre man, or end up on the other side.

Veek slowed and I caught up to him, we stopped together. He listened into the wind and coerced me to his other side gently with his arm. He gripped my shirt, I felt his muscles clench tightly. Then a gust of warm wind started up into our faces, and with it came a giant foot, crashing down to the ground I had only a few seconds ago occupied. Veek stuck his arm out and clawed into the leg of the fifty metre man. He didn’t break stride, and we were taken for a ride on his leg. Veek threw me onto the man’s thigh and clambered his way upward. We slipped and struggled to make it just to his hip. Veek rested for a moment on the stable mid-section of the fifty metre man, his ragged belt made a good place for us to tie ourselves to.

“How is it possible for a fifty metre man to make the night mist?” I asked. Veek, with panting breath answered: “The lasts king’s orders were not only to carve out The Scar, but to hide one of the Diamond gates, so that even if someone did make it across the chasm, they would have no chance of breaching Sovereign City.”

My thoughts were buzzing “Are you telling me, the Night Mist, the last fifty metre man and the missing Diamond Gate are all one in the same?” Veek laughed at my stupefaction. “You Hûms are a bit slow, aren’t you? It is a fifty metre woman” I had no Idea “It doesn’t help when your being so enigmatic about everything.” I retorted.

“But seriously Veek, how do you know about her?” I queried. “My father…” He began in a solemn tone I had originally thought his kind was incapable of. “…He used to patrol the trees personally when I was a boy, the aging shadow was far more dangerous then. The scar was only deep enough for the fifty metre men to stand in, and the lands were plenty with predators and prey alike. One night, while, alone he spotted a twinkle in the distance. Curiosity caught him and he immediately satiated it. For all he knew it was a threat that had to be eliminated at once. But when he got closer he could see, it was no threat. She was crying as she walked, my father caught up to her, and from the trees he lept to her shoulder, to ask of her plight. She told him of her woes and what she had left behind to fulfil the king’s order. My father, for the first time in his life was sad for another…”

He paused for a long second to put his hand on his chest and look down to me.

“…Our people Reks, The Varm, we do not feel as you do. Our hearts are not built for it, we dwindle, we grey and we die if we lose control of our emotions. If we love too long, cry too deep or even hate without restraint, we will die faster. As the seasons passed I watched my father languish with every returned excursion. He lost his place as Khan to Beta’s father. I was swollen with anger, seeing him age himself in secret with an outsider. So, I confronted him and he told me. He told me of her, of the King’s order and the Diamond Gate. And he said something that changed me forever. He said he couldn’t let her walk alone, he said: ‘none of what we do matters if it is all for the self.’ My father kept returning to her, kept regaling her with tales of fiction and fact, until he was too weak to move. He’s the reason I’ve helped you thus far Reks, he’s the reason we’re both here, and the reason I will regain my position as Khan of The Varm.”

I was moved by Veek’s story, as sad as it was, it gave me more of a purpose. Another person I could help. I got the feeling Veek’s father and the older generation of The Varm had a connection to the Fifty metre men. As though they were entwined in their histories, perhaps The Varm were the faithful companions, or, I think more likely it was the other way around.

Veek sighed, and I swear I seen a hair by his ear grey before my eyes. He must have reminisced too deeply on his father. After he sighed, he stretched his arms out, and gave me the impression he was ready to move again. We looked upwards, the mist was still around us. The fifty metre woman’s body was warm and we could see some vines dangling from above. I think they must have caught onto her as she passed by, and they’ve long since taken root on her heated exterior, gaining moisture from the mist.

We climbed up. The vines thickened as we ascended, and when we reached her back, we could easily tell the difference between her back and the Diamond Gate. It was tightly bound to her back, save for a small arch just above her shoulders. That is what we had to aim for. I had to pass through it.

Determination plagued my thoughts as I stared up to the gradually clearing vison of the Diamond Gate’s opening. I scoped every avenue of my ascent and leaped up, mirroring Veek’s moves earlier, fluidly clawing and leaping and before long I was through the threshold. I had made it, I reached Veek on her shoulder, and something strange happened. We could feel the fifty metre woman slow, almost to a halt. I looked to Veek, he too was confused.

The woman appeared to be sniffing at the air. Something about our presence must have reminded her of something. I didn’t realize at first but when Veek climbed over to her ear to whisper something I could not hear, I could tell that his scent; his pungent sweat-wet hair, that cut into my nostrils receptors, represented something different to the fifty metre woman. It represented an escape from her torment, it represented a friend.

I climbed closer to hear them talk. Veek was halfway through telling her of who he was. I caught him saying “My father told you stories” It was then we heard her speak, probably for the first time in decades to another being. “It is you, the child from the tales.” She said. From which I gathered that all the fables Veek’s father had told her, were of him. He must have poured all his pent-up love for Veek into those stories. As I watched Veek absorb this new information I witnessed a large streak of hair on his back turn white. His father’s love struck him unaware; years after his passing, he was able to send his feelings through the most unlikely of conduits.

A hum of sorrow escaped the woman’s cracked lips, as Veek let out a wailing howl in remembrance. I climbed close enough to ask her for her name. “I, I am, Noora…” She said “…Are you the Varm’s companion?” She asked me. “Yes, I am Reks, and Veek and I are going to end your suffering, so you can return to your people.” She sobbed into her giant hands. “My people are gone, forgotten, lost to The Scar. You should kill me if you aim to end my suffering.”

Veek stood up with purpose “No! They are not lost, I have seen another, in the scar. Caldera Kaiser still remains.” Noora stopped and shuddered with pain. I think she was fighting against her oath. “K…Kaiser!” She roared. I had the notion they knew each other, but it was hard to tell how. “He ran away to hide in The Scar the day I was sworn… NO… Cursed to my task. This is his burden I carry.” Her body heat radiated with ferocity. “Reks and Varmint, please! Pass through my gate and on through the rest. Become the next King and speak the words that will free me. I can’t confront Kaiser until the words are spoken. You must hurry.”

The mist thickened as her body temperature rose. “I will hold him to his word Noora, I swear in my father’s name.” Veek said, and then he picked me up and ran with me along Noora’s outstretched arm. She held off her first step until we had leapt from her fingertips. I watched her fade into the fog as we fell down to the floor.

Veek’s strong legs ploughed into the dense fallen foliage on the floor, landing us safely. He placed me down and we kept going in the direction we jumped from Noora’s arm. It wasn’t long of running before we made it to the Diamond gate. After this one we would be staring at Sovereign City walls. Staring at my goal.

We didn’t talk much after passing through the Diamond Gate. While our motives were still the same our perception of those who we fight for has altered. What Noora told us of Caldera Kaiser hasn’t only thrown our impressions of him in question, but of all the people we have encountered too. Well I can really only speak for myself on this, as my opinion of Veek has even been skewed, and if his view of me wasn’t changed it would be folly.

In that moment I couldn’t trust anyone but myself. We both stopped, weak and tired from running, we sat and silently looked at each other in deep thought. It was strange, I felt no inclination to speak, but there was an aura of animosity in the air, like an unresolved altercation the two of us had, but neither of us knew about.

I don’t remember falling asleep. I am here in my tiny room, and my neck is sore. I must be sleeping crooked. I hope tomorrow I can resolve whatever tension is between Veek and me. So we can complete the Sovereign Stride together.

The Seventh Night

“RROOOAARGHWAKE UP” I heard someone yell. I could feel my body being jostled around, I opened my eyes to Varmint Khan, gripping my shoulders and shaking me wildly.

 

Groggily: “Ahh, I’m awake, What?” I asked. He cast me aside, I skidded along the dirt floor, sore and confused. “What is wrong with you Hûm? Do you not dream?” He asked intensely.

 

I wasn’t sure how to respond, I wasn’t sure how to react. I looked over to my friends, Mikado and Czarina were passed out still, mumbling seemingly incoherent nothings into the cool air. Varm sitting very closely, listening to them, seemingly tasting their dreams as the sniffed It was then that it hit me. “YOU POISONED US!” I screamed, as I tried to stand. My legs felt like twigs under a boulder, I fell back to the floor. “What have you done to us? I queried, rubbing my head.

 

Varmint Khan crouched in front of me, and calmly he said: “The Varm have a ritual. It is meant to reveal the true character and nature of anyone’s intentions. All who live with us must endure it; you drink, then sleep, and when you sleep, you talk of the true journey you wish to take your life on. But you, you were silent, nothing came from your mouth. Never has this happened.”

 

He stood and began pacing in front of me “Where did you go? If not to the dreamland. TELL ME!” He bellowed “WHERE?!”

 

I didn’t answer. I looked away. I tried to invent a story he would believe, but gave up when the memory of his lie detecting sniff came to mind. He grabbed me by my shirt and pulled me up to my shaky feet. I stared into his eyes and could tell he was afraid of the uncertainty of my inability to dream.

 

For a fraction of a second I thought he was going to bite my head clean off. I gave in and told him “I go to a room of impeccable design, in a foreign land, where I am trapped, and can do nothing but record my exploits on a device known by the inhabitants as a computer. When I wake, I return here to my quest. To end the Sovereignty of the Sphere.”

 

The Khan sniffed at my words, and I could see in his eyes, he saw no flaw to my speech. He knew I was telling the truth, though he still looked me over trying not to, then angrily let me go. There was denial in the air, and his Varm were curious of their Khan’s intentions.

 

The Beta spoke up “Varmint Khan! We must not trust him, he failed the ritual, his purpose is turbid…”

 

“SILENCE!” The Khan barked. Beta Khan snarled to a murmur. “Tell me Hûm? Do you wish to know the path of your companions? Their dreams? Their desires?” He asked. At first the idea excited me, my eyes widened at the prospect, but a second thought came to mind. “No, they won’t know my thoughts, only what I tell them, the same with you and the Varm, so no, I don’t want to know”

 

“Fool!” The Beta Khan scoffed “Tell me then Hûm, why do you wish to end sovereignty? Why not rule the sphere and mold it to your mind’s image?” He asked. I thought about my words carefully, I didn’t want him to miss-understand me.

“Take a look at your family, your people. Do they look happy to you? Healthy? How long have you been living like this? And how many members have you lost because of Sovereign law? How many other families have been lost to the tyranny of a Sovereign leader?”

My heart was racing by this point, and all I could see when I looked to the Varm, was each of them reminiscing about a loved one; passed.

 

Beta Khan rebutted “And you think ending it will solve all of our troubles? We will still be hungry, and the Hûms will still lust for power. All you will do, is take away the laws that keep them from miss-behaving, but once they are gone, you watch! Watch the bad turn evil and the good turn bad and anyone else not brave enough to stand will be slaughtered for food by their neighbor.”

 

“NO!” I told him “We’ve lived without a leader for seventy years. Believe me, the people of the sphere are fine without a leader, even outside of the walls of Tor, I’ve witnessed this so-called lawlessness first hand, and sure, there’s thievery and violence, but the incidences are few and far between. I’ve seen more unity in the tribes of Hûms outside the walls of Tor than I have within your own ranks.”

 

The Beta Khan snarled away my words, he knew exactly how they smelled. He turned to his Khan. “Varmint Khan! We’ve heard enough of these Hûms, end this diplomacy and we will take the Sovereignty for ourselves. The soil in Sovereign City is bountiful, we will thrive there.” The Beta was panting after his own monologue. I felt like he had been holding such an argument inside of his head, changing it word by word over the many nights he’s pondered about taking control of the Varm.

 

“Khan, the other Hûms are waking” one of the calmer Varm said. Varmint Khan was being pressed for a response, but from what I could see, his composure was solid. If his kind could sweat, he was showing no signs of it. He simply walked over to his Beta; the only one showing any defiance to his regime, he wrapped his arm around his shoulder and coerced him away from the group. They walked and talked privately for about nine paces. I could hear them murmuring in their native tongue, but couldn’t guess what they were saying.

 

The talking stopped abruptly. Beta pushed Varmint Khan away. The Varm swarmed to their location, dividing un-evenly into two groups. I was surprised to see Varmint Khan with the smaller group to his back. I suppose when your fellow Varm can smell the intention of your words, you learn to keep your tongue still.

 

Beta clawed at Varmint Khan’s throat repeatedly, and repeatedly he missed. They exchanged blows, swift arms flew. It was hard to keep up with their motions.

 

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the wriggling of my companions. “Reks? What’s going on?” Mikado asked. “AARRGH” Czarina screamed, clambering for a hiding spot behind Mikado. Her mind must’ve still been affected by the drool. I turned back to the fight and witnessed the crowd tighten the circle around Varmint Khan and his Beta. “What did they do to us?” Mikado queried.

 

“They drugged us to see our dreams” I told him. “Those rat bastards!” He replied, almost loud enough to catch the attention of the nearest Varm. Sketchily looking around the room, Czarina urged: “We have to get out of here, while they’re still distracted”

 

No reply was necessary, we were of the same mind and as a huddled group we casually walked to the cave’s exit. I didn’t take my eyes off the fight as Mikado and Czarina led us out, then I saw a Varm turn to us, he snarled to his nearest comrade, who was deeply invested in the fight.

 

The Varm ripped his friend from the spectacle to give chase to us. “GO, RUN!” I said. We dashed and skidded and slipped in the dirt trying to gain traction. The bright afternoon sun attacked our eyes through a pocket opening in the canopy. It went as quick as it came and when my eyes adjusted, I found myself running alone with one of the Varm still chasing me.

 

At the time I was too fixated on running to wonder if Mikado and Czarina had abandoned me on purpose. Maybe I could no longer be trusted, or maybe they thought their trust in me would bring them more danger than anything the Varm could do. All I knew at that time, was my lungs hurt, and anytime I looked back to see the Varm chase me, he would fade in and out of my vision as he passed through varying grades of shadow. He was gaining on me. I couldn’t out run him, I had to fight, and if I took another step I wouldn’t have enough stamina to beat him.

 

I skidded to a halt and propelled myself backwards, pivoting off a root sticking out of the ground, my hand steadily gripped around my diamond dagger, ready to strike. But the second I locked onto my target I could see there wasn’t one Varm, but two, and the other Varm was Varmint Khan; he’d caught up to my pursuer, and subdued him within a few seconds. He then turned his eyes to me, I put up my guard, but he raised his palm to me “Reks! I do not want you dead” He spoke with a plea in his tone. “I have been cast out, I am no longer Khan of the Varm.” His head hung low and I could tell he felt shame and sadness at the events that had transpired.

 

“What do want from me then?” I asked. He paced closer “Your allegiance, your leadership, your will power. Beta Khan will destroy everything the old Khans have built, everything my father and I have built. He will war us into extinction, but not before he brings ruin to the Hûms. I cannot allow it Reks, we have to stop him.” Just as Varmint Khan could smell the lie to a word, I could sense the sincerity in his. “Can you lead me through the last Diamond Gates?”

 

A devious grin split his mouth in two “All the true Diamond Gates? Yes, I will. “There was some part of the diamond gate history I was missing. “True gates? What are you talking about?” My hand has not left my dagger yet. I felt like something was off with what Varmint Khan was saying. “There is one missing, and one that takes its place along the path to Sovereign City.” Even if he was trying to trick me, I couldn’t risk going through the wrong Diamond Gate. I had to ally with Varmint Khan. “Alright, we’ll help each other, but what do I call you now that you’re not Khan?”

 

He scratched his head and looked like he was trying to remember something. “Veek, you can call me Veek, until the second I am reinstated as Khan” “Let’s move Veek, we have to hurry and find my friends, please, lead the way to the next Diamond Gate.” He nodded and promptly dashed away. I could barely keep up. If it weren’t for the rays of light spearing down on him through the canopy every few seconds, I’d have lost sight of him.

 

We ran the rest of the day dark before we made it to the sixth Diamond Gate. “Look Veek, tracks! They were here” I said. “Your friends are heavy-footed” He remarked, sniffing the air. “The Varm have not come this way, but I would not rule it out, they know how to move around without even me detecting them.” I tried to rush in the direction of the tracks, but Veek caught me by the collar. “No Reks, if your companions are smart, they would have made camp by now. We should do the same, lest we wish to be caught in the Night Mist.”

 

I had learned at an early age about this Night Mist, sometimes it would creep into Tor on the coldest of nights, we would kick it around and play hide and seek. But in this landscape, it would have been folly to go through. “I can’t afford to get lost, not now. We should camp, I’ll take the first watch. I’ll wake you when we swap.”

 

Veek nestled himself into a nook of twisted roots at the base of a fat-trunked tree. He looked so peaceful as he lay there. Even though I bet his mind was running amok with the un-foreseeable events of today. He was probably thinking of how he could have done better or different to keep his Varm.

 

Or maybe the Varm don’t work that way, maybe they can simply shut out that part of their mind, to do the more important task; sleep. All I knew at that point was that I couldn’t sleep, because I didn’t want to end up here again, and despite my best efforts I did anyway, but not before I stayed up watching Veek scratch every phantom itch while he slept.

 

I tried to meditate my body into a sort of stasis, so I could get some kind of reprieve from the chaos of the sphere, and the silent solitude of this room. But nothing could stop my thoughts from clawing into my head space. I thought about Sephina first. I imagined our lives together after all this was over, and I worried that her view of me would change when she came to know the consequences of my actions. I thought she might even try to kill me right there at our first meeting since our last. I hoped she would understand. I hoped she would forgive me.

 

I sighed, trying to expel my wandering thoughts of her into the cool wind of the forest. And then the night mist rolled through. It enveloped the immediate area, I could still see Veek, but only barely. So I moved to sit right next to him. With the change of place came a change of thought. I wondered what had happened to my school rival Victor. Until then the occurrences of my journey had blotted out his existence from my mind. But here in the mist, where the closest things are thoughts, I pondered about why I hadn’t seen him yet. Did he take another route? Did he even make it out of Tor?

 

Parts of me wanted him to be waiting for me at the last Diamond Gate to Sovereign City. So I can prove to him… No! So I can prove to myself that I am better, stronger and smarter. The other parts of me were hoping he wasn’t, because I’m scared to face him, I truly am, and if he wasn’t there when I arrived, then I would know I was better without needing to beat him. I know it’s cowardly, I know a lot of Hûms that would say it’s weak to wish for an outcome like that, but not all battles won are battles survived, and cowardice can be a great companion in a war against your fears.

 

It was at the end of that thought that I spotted the moon perched right above my head, bathing the mist in its green glow. This was my signal to swap with Veek, but I let him rest for a few more minutes. And for those minutes I got my reprieve, I attained serenity.

 

And then, I woke up Veek. He nearly bit my arm off, but after seeing my face he calmed. We exchanged places and I laid in his nook. The warmth he left behind made it easy for me to fall asleep, and after I arrived here; in this room, I felt as though my burden had lightened, or maybe I grew stronger today and the same old weight of the sphere was easier to lift.

The Sixth Night

A death-like stench woke me this morning, it stained my nostrils, and now; even within the confines of this room it plagues my smell memories.

 
When my eyes opened, I had to blink hard a few times, just to make sure they truly were open. It was dark where ever I was. I had no way of knowing if I was with Mikado or Czarina. There was a dripping noise behind me, or perhaps just beside me, it was hard to tell. My head was pulsating where it met with my neck. My body felt weak and cold; I was still naked.

 
Somehow, I had to find my companions and fix the waterfall for Caldera.
I began feeling out the crevices if the walls to map my surroundings. The rock walls were sharp against my fingertips, I knew I was in a cave of some sort. I could feel two conflicting breezes as a wandered around, one was a thicker, stronger version of the original stink that woke me, and the other was warm and fresh. I had to make a choice, follow the putrid waft to its source, or the clean draught to what I could only assume was freedom.

 
In the pitch black, I deliberated with my thoughts.
I concluded, my friends were likely where the foul wind was strongest. I hovered in the warm clean air for as long as I could, to try and wash my nose before I embarked down the rank tunnel. Slowly I traced down the rotted path, until my vision was getting altered. There was light ahead; flickering on the edges of the cave’s wall. The ground under foot became soft; I was walking on sand. A noise was faintly filling my ears in the background.

 
Running water? I asked myself. Could this be where Caldera’s water had gone? I pondered. Somehow, I knew that, the shadows in the jungle, this flowing water and Caldera’s problem were all connected.

 
The cave opened into a larger room; with a domed ceiling, and fire pit in the centre. Three other passageways left the room, the smoke flowed down one; this would be my escape route. The other two were unknowns. I kept looking around, and I noticed the root of the smell. A pile of discarded bones and un-eaten flesh were decomposing in the corner. There was nothing else in the room. That must have been where the shadowy figures ate their prey.

 
My options were limited, two paths remained to search.
I crept towards the left, but heard some shuffling come from the right tunnel. “Mikado?” I whispered. It was a few seconds before a reply came. “Czarina?” came a soft and definitely Mikado-sounding reply. It’s good to know Mikado cares about someone other than himself. Moments later he tip-toed out of the passage. The instant he did, I stepped out from my shadowed alcove. He jumped. I put out my hands to reassure him, then quickly lifted a finger to my lips to silence any whimper that would follow.
He stepped closer and patted me on the shoulder. Mikado leant in to my ear and asked if I had seen Czarina. I answered by shaking my head. I couldn’t give him any false hope, so…

 
Silently, I turned his body to face the other unchecked tunnel, I pointed down it. Mikado swallowed a dram of saliva blended with fear. I heard it gulp. He then grabbed a bone covered with tattered cloth and animal fat, lit it on fire and stepped ahead of me.
I think he loves her; truly, if she is the one his mind goes to in such a weakened state. I bet, if she can see past his flaws, their bond will surely grow, in time.

 
The torch illuminated only a small orb of cave around us, we couldn’t see any further than a stride in front of us. The air grew wet against our face, the smell of decaying flesh diminished, only slightly, and blended with a new scent, one of damp dirty hair, like a dead beast in a swamp. The almost fog like stink wouldn’t quit attacking our senses, we had to breathe through our mouths. But now that I’m thinking about it, the taste was worse than the smell.

 
We turned a tight corner and the tunnel opened into a large chamber. It had to be bigger than the eating room we were just in, our flame’s light was being swallowed by it’s depths. We had only made one step into the room when we heard the rumble of snarls fill the space between stink and cold. Mikado waved his torch from side to side, trying desperately to find the source of the noise.

 
Quicker than a blink, a shadow stole the torch from his hands, leaving us with no choice but to cower together in the pitch, as our light danced around the cavern, taunting us. The shadow dashed past many stationary figures, beastly shapes, much taller than Mikado and me. There had to be twenty or thirty in the room with us.
The light stopped, we could see the creature’s face. His long snout was almost entirely mouth, lined with black scales, and black fur. His jaw was longer than my forearm and full of jagged oddly sized teeth.

 
It’s sly reptilian eyes squinted and darted around our bodies. He stood on two clawed feet, with sharp bone spurs at his heels. His legs were scaled from his ankle to his inverted knee and fur from then up, save for a patch of scales on his torso.
I could only assume the scales were harder than any blade. There were claw and sword marks scattered around his chest and stomach.

 
His hands were the size of my head, with gangly fingers that had claws half way down them on the palm’s side. Only now can I marvel at the sight of this beast, part reptile, part rodent, totally alien to me, but at the time I could see only an incarnation of fear. I watched on as he ripped a craggy grin, and threw the torch at Czarina’s feet.
I had missed her presence altogether in the black room. She was barely conscious and groggily looking around.

 
A pile of twigs and bone ferociously combusted, as though it were fuelled with fat. I flinched, despite my best effort not to, when I returned my gaze to Czarina, Mikado had already left my side. He was five paces in front of me when I snapped out of my daze.
He was so fast, not even when we fought did I think he was capable of such a speed. He leapt into the air and dove shoulder first at Czarina, he contacted with her stomach and toppled the pole she was tied to. They crashed to the ground and Mikado fervidly extinguished the flaming rope wrapped around her ankles.

 
After the fraction of a second I spent wallowing over my inability to act. I had to redeem myself. As the beast stepped closer to Mikado and Czarina I swooped down and stole a rock from the cave floor, dashed closer to him and threw it at his head. It smashed into the creature’s eye, causing him a temporary blindness. It is there, in his blind spot I stayed, as I moved in for my attack. I threw wild punches to every part of his body that didn’t have scales. I had to find a weakness.

 
He spun to see me with his good eye, flailing his claws at what he thought to be me, but I’d shifted, constantly staying out of sight. His perception had been disrupted, he could no longer judge distance, but my advantage was slipping, I could see him blinking his hurt eye back to health.

 
My attacks were for the better part futile, until I kicked his knee; it crumbled under the force. I punched him in the snout and elbowed the crown of his head. The beast howled, the noise was impossible, a booming deep roar but also a high pitched shrill. It broke my focus and crippled my mind.

 
“RRAARRGHENOUGH!” He blurted at the end of his scream, drool dripping from every tooth down his knotted chin hair. He threw me easily at my companions. “No Hûm has entered the realm of the aging shadow for a lifetime. You have come to claim the sphere for yourselves. What makes you think I, Varmint Khan and my Varm will allow you this honour?” He asked us. I stood and rubbed my ears, moving my jaw strangely to try and remove the odd ringing stuck in my head. “You haven’t stopped us yet” I said, hoping my honesty would earn me some of his respect.

 
The Khan snarled and scurried the few paces of distance between us to look me in the eye. His eye; still twitching from my attack didn’t give in to a blink. I scanned him as much as he scanned me. “A clever Hûm, your tongue is quick, but speed won’t cover the stink of your words.” Varmint Khan said as he began to circle me and the two on the ground beside me.

 
His sayings were odd, ‘the stink of my words?’. Could he smell a lie? I wondered. Is that his game? At the time, it felt right not to lie to the beast, even though we fought each other, his people didn’t stop me. They seemed to have a sort of honour about combat, but I felt if I tried to deceive them in any other way, they’d pounce.

 
“We have come to claim the sovereignty our births give us right to. But, right now, we serve a different purpose.” I said as I helped Mikado and Czarina to their feet “You must know of the Sphere Scar…” Czarina said, still befuddled by her horrible awakening. “…The people of the Scar are in dire need of water to grow their food and quench their thirsts. We came here to restore their waterfall’s flow” She continued.

 
Varmint Khan played with his chin hair, enthralled by our plight “Perhaps you are worthy to rule the sphere” He said, before abandoning his beard to throw his hand to the side and scoff “Humph, it is an honourable pursuit Hûm, but you are leaving something out, a piece of your story still lingers in your mouths.” He knew, his senses were highly tuned, he knew if we lied and he knew if we were deliberately leaving out a truth. I was astonished at this point, but before I could tell him the fragment that was left out Mikado piped up.

 
“They took our stuff, all our supplies and our clothes and gear” He informed. “TRINKETS?! Things?! You help them because they hold your petty items hostage? When the trees of the aging shadow gift you all that you need, you lament over curios?” Each of us were offended. “Sure, some of our possessions we could do without, but some items are irreplaceable.” I told him. Czarina stepped forward with a new-found strength “Yeah like my neckless was hand crafted by the all of the elders of my village, they toiled for months to honour me”

 
“And I’ve got the first money sack I ever stole…” Said Mikado. Czarina and I looked at him with a curious repugnance. Even the Varm looked at him oddly “…What? It’s brought me luck so far. I mean, I’m not dead yet, am I?” Varmint Khan sniffed the air and pointed to me “And what bauble of yours compels YOU to do another’s bidding?”

 
My dagger is precious to me, but, I couldn’t lie to Varmint Khan, especially since I couldn’t defeat him in one on one combat and his Varm were looking at us hungrily.
“My grandfather’s dagger; made from a shard of the first diamond gate, given to me by my father…” I saw the beast’s eyes squint, only slightly, when I mentioned the diamond gate. “…And a gauntlet built by my great grandmother; the last strider to make it to Sovereign City.”

 
As I concluded I could sense a change in the cave. Initially it was very hostile, like they would eat us at a moment’s notice, as though this were all a game to satiate their egos before quelling their hunger, and I was surprised that they didn’t. Maybe our fighting spirit spurred a contest within them. Maybe we were lucky. Whatever the reason, the cave’s energy was different, it felt like we had changed their minds. It felt like they would help us with our mission.

 
“The Hûms of the Scar? Do they follow Sovereign law?” The Khan asked. Czarina took her weight from Mikado’s shoulder to stand straight. “No, they live in peace, the pressures of Sovereign law caused them to flee to the Scar, to run from their lives, but they found a new life with others like them. Just as everyone outside of Tor has, just as my village has. Every person has searched for a place to belong, and each of their reasons has had something to do with Sovereign law; good or bad”

 
Mikado couldn’t hold his tongue “The Calderans are dying, because their water has been cut off, they took our stuff because they don’t trust anyone, and you know what? I wouldn’t trust us either. The Sovereign laws have twisted everyone on the sphere; some don’t know it but most have accepted the rules.” I agreed with both of my companions, they were right in their own ways, but Varmint Khan needed something else to come off our tongues; something bitter.

 
“It has twisted you the most Varmint Khan!” He snarled and waved his hand dismissively, I continued “Sovereign law has restricted you to the confines of the aging shadow, forced you to horde resources, pushed you to eat whatever comes into your midst. Instead of roaming the land in the sun and the fields of Maru, you skulk in the dim under the false pretence of a bountiful jungle, when really you are eating the scraps of the last King’s rule.”

 
“YOU THREE ARE NOT SCRAPS, WHAT IF WE EAT YOU?” He bellowed in frustration, showing all his teeth. I tried not to flinch “Then you will once again fall victim to the whim of Sovereign Law. Help us Varmint Khan! We can change the laws. We can change the Sphere, for everyone.” He flared his nostrils and I think he smiled from one side of his mouth, before shooting some snot onto the floor.

 
“Your words make sense Hûm, you wish to abolish Sovereign Law, and then what? There will be chaos before there is peace. All of Tor will hunt you down for taking from them what they are born for and die for. What then?”

 
“I will let them hunt me; if that’s what peace costs, they can take my life, but that will be their choice. It won’t be thrust at them straight out of the womb, it won’t be drummed into their heads through childhood, and it won’t be a choice that plagues their mind day and night as the hours count down to their eighteenth birthday. It will be a pure choice of defiance against tyranny, and I will gladly meet those who would seek to reclaim their birth right.”

 
“A Hûm that will use his birth right to gain a dictatorship, and use that absolutism to free the Sphere from the oppression that he and his predecessors so vehemently fought for and clung to with their lives, and then you will cast this Sovereignty away… What is your name Hûm?”

 

“I am Reks Twelve.” I told him sternly, my heart was beating so fast. I was uncertain of what Varmint Khan would do, knowing my true intentions, so I kept my guard up.
“The Varm will help you on your mission, we too wish to see the old ways abolished, and new paths forged in prosperity for all.” An eruption of roars echoed through the cave. I think, the Varm were expecting a fresh meal, and not a laborious task. I also got the impression that they don’t like ‘Hûms’ as Varmint Khan has so dubbed us.

 
Despite their blatant opposition to their leader’s decision, I was surprised to see how fast the Varm mobilised. We left the cave and headed straight for the river. It was a short, determined walk to the river and when we arrived, the cause of the problem was obvious; the Varm had rolled a giant boulder into one side of the river, making it divert in the direction of their cave instead of over the cliff to Caldera.

 
In his native tongue Varmint Khan ordered his Varm to remove the boulder, although it sounded more like a gargled howl. The three of us watched on in amazement as the Varm displayed their brute strength and teamwork, flawlessly they rolled the giant stone sphere out of the water.

 
After some minor adjustments to the river’s bed, they forked the river instead of diverting it. We chased the water as it flowed eagerly down the trench to Caldera. When we reached the edge of the cliff, the water launched over, misting into the air, painting the wind with colour, and pouring down to the thirsty villagers below.

 
It was hard to see the villager’s reactions, at that distance all we could see were dots, but we could see Caldera Kaiser’s massive arms waving and dancing. His beard covered his mouth, but I bet he was smiling. He stopped his jig for a moment to pick up something and throw it. It was a spectacular throw, landing right at our feet.

 
We unravelled the crudely wrapped package as the Varm watched curiously, they could smell something, their mouths were dripping with saliva. Before I donned my gear, I found a satchel of Maru leaves and handed them to Varmint Khan. “Here, taste one of these” I offered. He sniffed at the bag cautiously. I began to dress. “That’s the Maru leaf, it smells sweet, but has a mostly savoury taste to it, with a hint of spice at the end. Oh, and one or two leaves will fill your stomach.”

 
Varmint Khan scoffed, but curiosity over powered him. He nibbled at it intriguingly. Within seconds his eyes widened and he threw the rest of the leaf into his drooling mouth. “It tastes like meat, why does it taste like meat?” He asked passionately, throwing the bag to his Varm for them to see for themselves. They passed the leaves around to share, each of them surprised by the flavour. “This food is like magic, one taste and my hunger is quelled” one said.

 
“Tell me! Tell me how this leaf works, I must know” The largest of the Varm, next to Varmint Khan asked me. “When I was in school, they taught us that when the Maru leaf breaks down inside you, it expands. Because it’s dense with nutrients to begin with, it gives you all you need to feel full.”

 
The Varm next to V.K. Who I later would know to be the Beta Khan; the one who constantly saught to lead, stepped right up close to me “Give us the leaf and we will safely escort you through the aging shadow.”

 
I was confused, so were my companions. Czarina pushed the Beta “Do you mean to say you weren’t going to take us the safe way through?” I looked straight at Varmint Khan “Do you aim to deceive us Varmint Khan?”

 

“No Reks, the truth is plain, traversing the aging shadow is perilous no matter which way you travel, but the Varm are more likely to protect you if there is an incentive.” Mikado, Czarina and I looked to each other with worry strewn across our faces, but even knowing their original intentions, we couldn’t do anything but trust them. We were in their territory, and slowly we were learning their rules. I was just glad we had something of value to them now.

 

The conversation dulled awkwardly as we finished getting dressed. Our situation took a comical turn when the Varm had looked at Czarina’s dress. “You look like the flower of the great round tree…” A young Varm pointed out. He leant in for a sniff. “…But you do not smell like one.” The group cackled a husky snarl of a laugh as the young Varm tried to scratch the smell from his nose. I thought they were about to cough up some fur. “Enough talk!” Varmint Khan ordered “The day is dying, we leave tomorrow at first light.” He concluded.

 

We trudged back to the cave, where we were taken through another entrance. To a less sacrificial looking chamber. I think the Varm use this newer section for rituals of another kind. I got the feeling it was to bond with each other and anyone friendly who would come their way.

 

The Varm sat us down in a triangle, Varmint Khan at the head, his two most trusted Varm at each other point; one of them included the Beta Khan. The others brought out the reserves of meat they had cured and stored away for dire circumstances. We all shared in the feast of Maru leaves and dried, seasoned meat of unknown origin.

 
Once we had finished, a shorter, scruffier looking Varm came over and handed us a bowl, it looked like a tree trunk that had been clawed into shape. We leant over to see the contents. The liquid was viscous and swished around the bowl like hot slobber on ice, but oddly it smelled pleasant. The Varm urged us to drink by sipping some for himself before pushing it at us again.

 

I drank first; it’s consistancy puzzled me, it was gooey in the centre but where it touched my mouth and tongue it was watery, and the taste was better than any sweet fruit I’ve ever had.” Mikado and Czarina could tell by my face that I was enjoying it, so they too had some.

 

Only a moment passed and something felt wrong, the room began to blur and ripple like heat in the distance. After that I passed out and came here, to this room. I’ve been scared that the Varm are going to do something nefarious to us. Something about Varmint Khan gives off this sincerity that makes me want to trust him. I think he genuinely wants prosperity for his people, and may even set aside his obvious distrust of Hûms, to set up trade.

 

WAIT! SOMETHING’S NOT RIGHT, I, I THINK I’M BEING WOKEN UP, ARGH MY HEAD.

The Fifth Night

The room is cold tonight, I’m not sure how that works but I feel like it’s something to do with what happened before I came here. As usual I’ll start from when I opened my eyes this morning.

 
Waking up sucked, more so than the morning I woke up in that pit cage the day I met Mikado, and even worse than his breath breaking my sleep the previous night.

 

I felt myself being dragged by the feet. The dry ground kicked up dust and stones as I struggled and twisted to get myself free from my bindings. I noticed Mikado and Czarina were with me; passed out, but obviously breathing. I was relieved, mainly because I was scared to face whatever was strong enough to drag the three of us with such ease.

 
A rock the size of a pillow slides under Mikado’s head as we track. It lifts it for only a second before slamming it down on the stiff sphere surface.

 

He wakes up.

 

Instantly in pain, and looking around frantically for the culprit. All I could do was laugh. His hands were bound, he was in shock, but then he seen me and a sense of ease came to his face. His easement was short lived though, when he looked to what was dragging us.

 
Until then I hadn’t even wanted to look. But the terror that crippled his face compelled me to. I wish I never knew. Mikado let out an awesome roar that squeaked at its forceful peak. I looked and saw a man, but something was off, the proportions were wrong. There were mirage waves at his feet as the morning sun began to cook the arid Scar’s land.

 
Mikado’s scream reached the man, he stopped and slowly stepped towards us, his extended gait was rumbling the ground. Czarina snapped into consciousness. She rustled around, kicking her legs wildly at Mikado across my body. “YOU! Why do YOU always bring chaos to my peace?!” She yelled. Mikado was unflinchingly staring at the man approaching us. Czarina’s fury dwindled, her pouty face caught a glance at what we were all looking at.

 
With each stride, the man grew larger. Czarina squealed through her frozen-with-fear lips. I was scared too. Was he going to eat us? Squash us? Feed us to his equally giant pets as a treat?

 
Before another fantasy could enter my mind, he was towering above us. His hair was bone white, his face withered like an old tree branch under his lengthy beard. He knelt closer to us, whirlwinds kicked up in the dust.

 
“You must be Fifty metres tall” I said, in utter disbelief of my sight. The brusqueness of his voice still crackles in my memory “Fifty metres exactly! Have you not heard the tales? None bigger, none smaller. My uncle claimed to be Fifty-one, but he was not known for his sound mind.”

 
None of us replied.

 
I think we were all expecting to be crushed by now. He scratched his head, his face scrunched, he must have thought we were mute. “You three tumbled hard, it’s a miracle you’re alive.” He continued awkwardly.

 
“Back away would you!…” Czarina barked “…Your breath is rotten” She stated. His hand shot up to cover his mouth and the Fifty metre man flopped backward to his bottom, rumbling the ground and increasing the distance between he and us. From behind his gargantuan hand he spoke with a stifle. “My breath is rotten but your words are foul young’un”

 
Mikado laughed, I tried to hide it but a smirk took hold of my cheeks too. “Whoa Czary, the big man’s got words” Mikado joked. “Yeah you talk real big, don’t you, frightening a small girl like that.” She said, only just loud enough for him to hear.

 
“HA HA HA…” He bawled “I’m Fifty metres tall, I walk big, talk big, and when impudent children are rude, I tend to sneeze big” He grinned. She fell silent and looked away “Sorry about her…” Mikado started “…She has that effect on people, doesn’t matter how big they are. It’s why I love her.” Czarina scoffed.

 
“You spoke of being rude, but you haven’t even introduced yourself” I said to the Fifty metre man. “ He apologised with his hands. “There’s no malice. I’m Caldera Kaiser. Lord of the Sphere Scar. What are your names?”

 
“I’m Reks Twelve, that’s Mikado, and the impudent one is Czarina. We’ve set out on the Sovereign Stride.”

 
Caldera finger-combed his beard “The Sovereign Stride eh?…” He trailed off into a mumble. “…And just left us here…” Came a grumble through his beard. “…His final command repeating in our heads: ‘Dig the scar, and then die in it.’…” He concluded whisperingly.

 
Caldera’s eyes were visibly glazed over and his face gurned with the thought of something only his mind’s eye would know the sight of.

 
He returned his stare to us “All Striders since the last King have ended up in my village”
I was almost lost for words “My great grandmother! She was the last one to make it to Sovereign City!” I said.

 
“Oh? We did see her, but I’m sorry to say she was unable to set any new laws, and we did not see her return.” He told me.

 
“It’s okay, the people of Tor are born into loss like that… Wait, you said we? Does that mean there’s more of you?” Caldera rocked back and forth and chuckled.

 
“No, no, no, none like me. I’m the last of the King’s guard, the last of the Fifty-Metre-men. Caldera: My village, is full of the fearful, the woeful, and wanderers, who once thought The Sphere had given up on them. They jumped into The Scar just as you did, and were caught by the roots just as you were. I’ve been dragging you there since I found you.”
“Just to be clear…” Mikado perked “…You’re not going to eat us, right?” Another hearty laugh boomed from the giant man. “Oh goodness no, I haven’t eaten meat in fifty years, I lost the taste for it after the last King” He replied.

 
Czarina sprang up.

 
“If you’re not going to eat us, then why are our hands bound?” Caldera swooped his head down close to Czarina’s face “You are strangers in my domain, I cannot yet trust you, but if you prove yourself to my town I will aid you in your Stride.”

 
I was filled with excitement, none of my schooling, none of the stories I had heard of the Sphere Scar ever mentioned a nomad town of misadventurers. I’m glad I have the chance to tell the story, even if it may never reach the people of Tor.

 
Caldera Kaiser stood and continued his walk, dragging us behind him.

 
It wasn’t until the sun was right above us in the sky that we reached Caldera. I felt like I had sat too close to a fire, my skin was dry and flaky. I looked to Mikado, he was the same, dry crusty bits formed at the sides of his mouth. Czarina on the other hand, was glowing, her skin loved the sun, bathed in it as though it energised her.

 
We stopped skidding across the ground and hazily Mikado and I looked around, Czarina stood up with ease. Some people came upon us suddenly, their clothes were ragged and faces dusty. They picked us up and carried us into their town. It was a sight beyond imagination; an oasis in The Scar. It was built up against the vine clad wall that lead to Sovereign City. The cliff wall towered into the sky at least ten kilometres. The view gave me chills at the thought of climbing it.

 
It really was a beautiful place; Caldera. Clay huts built in varying shapes and sizes. each decorated with the same blue pigment as the flowers on the vines plastered all over the cliff face. Smoke slipped easily from the little chimneys atop their golden Scar-sand roofs.
At the town’s centre was the trickling remains of a once grand waterfall, with a well at its base. I watched some of the people pull buckets of sandy slop from its depths, and strain it through a cloth into a cup to drink. I knew at that moment, the task at hand.

 
Caldera Kaiser hovered over the village, casting a grand shadow, bringing a slight reprieve from the midday sun. He watched as his people took us towards the well at the base of the waterfall. The villagers poked and grabbed at us as they coerced us through the streets. Their busy hands untied our bonds, and by the time we were at the well, our clothes, our weapons and our packs were gone.

 
They pushed us to the front of the mob, their crusty bodies dropped to our feet. They were pleading to us. Tears made mud as they trailed down their cheeks. The kids were yelling, it was hard to understand them all at once, but the message came through strong.

 
Caldera stepped over all the misshapen buildings to join his townfolk beside the waterfall “My family, please calm down, we must keep our heads… Reks, Mikado, Czarina, we need your help to restore our water” Czarina pushed through from behind Mikado and myself, where she’d been hiding. Her impulsive mind overruled her shyness. “Hey what’s the big idea taking our clothes and our things, dragging us and pushing us around all over the place, is this how you treat all your guests?”

 
“Young Czarina, we were merely restoring equality to the town. Without your possessions, you can see that everyone is equal here, equally hungry, equally thirsty, equally naked, and equally in need of your help. We need you to see the scar from our perspective, not a passing glance, but an immersive stare, with all your senses. I know that one of you is likely to become the new Sovereignty, and whatever you decide to do with that role is up to you, but if you wish to be a true leader you must help those at the lowest part of your kingdom. That is us. Will you help us?”

 
Even though they were silent, I could see the pleas of the villagers scream through every pore and crease in the skin on their faces, they needed us, and for me at least, I needed them. Czarina turned to look us both in the eye. “I’m sorry guys, I’ve been rash, too busy building my utopia, that I blinded myself from the dystopia that’s been going on outside. Reks we have to help them.” We both looked at Mikado who was in a stupor, staring at Czarina’s body. I left him that way, I knew he wanted to follow me, so I spoke for him. “We accept this task Caldera” His silver beard stretched with a smile of relief.

 
“Good, good… Hurry now. The waterfall is being choked from above, I’ll send you up there and you’ll fix the problem. When the water flows again, you’ll get your possessions back and I’ll aid your travels through the Diamond Gates.” He told us, and the way he said it felt very immediate. By this time Mikado had snapped out of his mindless stare “When you say send, how are you planning to ‘send’ us?”

 
“Climb onto my hand, I’ll take you to the device we used to get in and out of here when we were digging this place.” Sceptically Mikado climbed on, then I helped Czarina up and climbed on as well. Caldera lifted us into the air, we slammed down into his palm. He walked us ten of his paces and stopped right by a giant pillar of rock and twinkling diamond. He looked at us with his arm extended. “This is how I’m going to help you.” We all looked up, and atop the gargantuan column, was the third Diamond Gate. “Hurry back.” Was the last thing he said to us, before turning his sight to the wall and throwing us with all his might.

 
I thought I was going to turn inside out at the speed we were travelling. We passed through the third Diamond Gate in a blink. My eyes watered and my lips, along with my other appendages, were flapping around ferociously in the wind. We passed through the fourth Diamond Gate. The peak of our flight met, only just, with the canopy of the jungle on the other side of the Sphere Scar. I spotted a tower in the distance, it was blurred from my tears but I knew it was Sovereign City. We fell through the trees, and apart from the branches scratching us and knocking us around, we landed on the jungle floor safely. Lucky for us it had been padded with the discarded foliage of the last seventy years.

 
Mikado sprang up first, I was a little woozy, but Czarina had passed out at some point in our flight. The jungle canopy shaded us, it was dim green like a moonlit night. Mikado was on guard, he’d grabbed a rock, I looked for a weapon as well, while searching I saw shadows darting around us in the trees. I couldn’t hear them moving, they had to have been quieter than the sway of a branch.

 
One second later it was black.

 

The shadows had grabbed us.

 
And then I was here again, alone. Nothing had changed in this room, only my level of apprehension to face the next day’s mysteries.

The Fourth Night

Today was odd, nothing went to plan. Even though I had been expecting Mikado to come and get me, I wasn’t expecting the sight of his face hovering above my own, exuding his odorous breath directly into my nostrils. “Reks?” He queried, forcing the scent of old grog and rotted meat from countless nights of feasting, into my gasping mouth. I twitched and coughed the stink away; with no success.

 
I tried to wrestle him off me “What’re you…?” “Shh” He hissed, blocking my mouth with his hand. It was grimy and suctioned to my face “We have to move, we have to leave here now.” He said. Something in his eyes told me he had somehow managed to turn his entire village against him last night.

 
“What did you…?”

 
“SHh”

 
“But…”

 
“SHHH” He asserted.

 
There was no beating him. His face was determined to hear as it listened for external disturbances. “Grab your gear, we’re leaving” All I could do was trust him, there was no way I was going to be able to sway the minds of the town I only just met.

 
Dawn was breaking as we left through the window of my cabin. We dashed northward into the morning mist settling over the forest’s floor. We ran for a while, without looking back, my feet had grown sore and the forest fell silent. I demanded we stop and Mikado tell me everything. We stopped to sit and he turned to me. “They were plotting against me Reks, ever since you bested me, all I could hear were whispers about my shortcomings, and rumours of how they would dispose of me.”

 
“Well that makes sense, but why drag me along?” I asked him “You’re different Reks, you know that? You’re like I was before I quit striding; ambitious, cluey, willing to do what is required to get to Sovereign City and become King. I think you’re going to do it. With my help though.”

 
All I could think of was how sly this guy was, and how this could easily be another ruse. “I hope you don’t think I’m in your debt Mikado…” I began sternly “…Because out here you don’t have the intimidation of a town of cronies behind you, and I will beat you down if you try anything.”

 
“That’s not it Reks, it’s been a long time since I wanted to be king, I won’t take that from you, I don’t think I could, even if I did want to. No, all I want is a promise… Be fair Reks, being on the outside of Tor I’ve seen and done some dark stuff, and those things punish my thoughts in the day and consume them at night, but if there had been someone like you, someone like who I was before, to show us the way, I think the darkness would be scared to look at us for a change.”

 
“That’s really all you want?” I asked with mild scepticism.

 
“That’s all I ever wanted, but I keep getting caught up in my own schemes.”

 
This felt like another scheme, but at the same time I could see sincerity in his eyes. I think Mikado, at some point in his life truly wanted to make The Sphere a better place, and I think like a lot of other people; life and life’s lusts got in the way.

 
“Oh, and I should probably tell you now, while I’m being honest… My goons weren’t really plotting to overthrow me.” “They what?” I snapped “Yeah sorry, another scheme.”
I was about to thrash him, then I realised, his deviousness would come in handy. In a world designed to pit people against people, his cunning could prove better than killing.
“I guess there’s no rush for us to meet the One-Kilometre Queen, we can take it easy now. But you should probably lead the way.” I wanted him to go ahead of me, there was no telling when he could turn on me, he could just be orchestrating another scheme. His face lit up with excitement. I think I may be the only person he’s encountered that has acknowledged his potential.

 
So, then Mikado led the way through the forest; with less haste than before, to the Queen’s village. We didn’t have to travel too far to get there; being the One-Kilometre Queen doesn’t give you much ground to cover. At the perimeter of her domain, we decided to split up and survey the village to assess our odds; he went clockwise and I went anti.

 
The Queen’s village was beautiful; a well-constructed oasis within the forest. The buildings reminded me a lot of Tor. This must be where all the crafters end up after coming face to face with the Sphere Scar. Mikado had mentioned the town was the last bastion before civilisation ends and the real stride starts, but seeing it. Not imagining it. Seeing it gave me great hope.

 
The town itself was set up like a grid, with each building surrounded by a path or road, allowing for full access to all sides. The houses all appeared to be the exact same size and shape, suggesting to me an equality amongst the citizens. I can’t even discern which is the Queen’s house; any other monarch would have a towering throne or monument to their importance, casting a shadow on all who worship beneath. It looked as though there’s no marketplace in the conventional sense, but each house had a vegetable garden either in the front or the back yard. I’m under the impression they share their resources.
The main road through the centre of town is littered with guards and in the middle, sits the second Diamond Gate on my Stride. Majority of the guardsmen are surrounding the gate; which was odd to me, the rest of the town gives the idea of unity, a real community oriented settlement, yet none of them appear to be able to go anywhere near the gate. What kind of laws did they have in place? And where the hell is Mikado? I asked myself. He should have met up with me by now. I thought.

 
Sure enough as I looked frantically around for him, he was the only one I could see walking down the main road towards the Diamond gate. Some guards confronted him, they exchanged words briefly and then he pointed up to me, and urged me to come down from my vantage point to meet them. I shrunk into a bush to hide like it was a reflex. I had no idea what he was planning, but my position was compromised so I had no choice, and I went down to meet him.

 
“So what these guards have been telling me, is that everyone here is equal, even the Queen, until you pass through the gate. Then you become an enemy of their peace, and they swarm us like” Mikado told me “But how can you be Queen if you’re equal?” I asked him “It’s like I was saying to you earlier; she’s just someone who shows them the way through the dark.” He replied.

 
I thought: perhaps without anyone even wanting to, the culture of Tor had seeped out into the sphere, I think having someone to turn to when conflict arises can give a great sense of security. As I pondered the mechanics of the town, I felt something shove me in the back ferociously. I had no chance to turn around and see who, they kept pushing me forward through the wall of caught-off-guard guards. We broke through their defences and passed the threshold of the Diamond gate. The pushing stopped. I looked to see who it was, and I shouldn’t have been surprised to see Mikado laughing and panting with his hands to his knees.

 
I was in shock at what he had done, I barely heard the whistles of the guards sound off into the distance, signalling a defiance of their laws, I just stared at him in disbelief as the rest of the guards scowled at us. I didn’t even see their spears come in from all directions to aim at our necks until it was too late.

 
Moments went by, Mikado’s giggles only slightly waned, the whole situation was hilarious to him, or there was something else in his emotion, anticipation? Or mania perhaps? And then through the crowded mass of the villagers come to see the spectacle came a petite woman with lava coloured hair and autumnal collage dress to match.
“MIKADO CENT” She roared.

 
How in all the Sphere did they know each other? I looked to Mikado, his eyes had glazed over and his face pinkened. “Czarina my love, it’s been a lifetime since we’ve seen each other”

 
“Yes it has been, but your banishment was meant to be eternal…” The situation suddenly became clear to me. Mikado had somehow betrayed the One-Kilometre Queen or sullied the sanctity of her laws, maybe this isn’t the first time he’s passed through the Diamond Gate. “…Why have you returned? And who is this you have with you, another fool you’ve roped into one of your scams?”

 
I couldn’t let Mikado speak for me, I think given too much time to speak he would dig both our graves with his mouth. “I’m Reks Twelve, and I’ve come through your town to complete the Sovereign Stride.” The villagers gasped and whispered among themselves. “Everyone, calm down” She urged “We have a system in place here Reks, one that allows every person to be the king or queen of their own, equally sized domain. I am merely a figurehead, a tie breaker, the woman with the final word. We’ve all agreed to abide by our own laws, which include never continuing our stride past this point. Since you had no idea about that, we can let your transgression slide, but for Mikado… Wait!…” She looked around “…Where did he go?!” She squawked. Her guardsmen fled into the crowd in all directions to search for him.

 
Czarina sighed “Come with me Reks, you should see this…” She said as she walked up to me and took my arm in her hands. She was gentle, yet commanding. Her small stature perfectly disguised her strength, and I felt she could easily subdue me if I gave her a reason. She walked me North, to the edge of her town and when we reached the tree line she let go and walked ahead of me. My curiosity was enough to compel me to follow, I could have easily ran but I wanted to hear her out.

 
She peeled away the foliage, the blinding sun ignited her hair to look like flames dancing in the wind. Her sun-kissed face looked back, her hand stretched out, she wanted me to join her on the precipice, and there it was in all its terrifying magnitude; the sphere scar. “This is what the last King made, the people of the One-Kilometre refuse to let those in power make any more decisions, that’s why we’re all in power, no one is lesser or greater, not even those who enforce our own laws. We can’t let you stride Reks, but we can offer you a place here, with us, to be your own King.”

 
“I really wish I could accept your offer Czarina, but the rest of the Sphere doesn’t agree with you, I need to do this for them.” I told her. Her head bowed for a moment, as though she was aware of what she needed to do next.

 
I could feel the energy around us change.

 
My heart raced.

 
We were going to fight.

 
She looked up. “I understand Reks, but I can’t let yo…” Was all she got out before her face changed to utter dismay. She tried to warn me of the danger behind, but no words came out. I was tackled from behind. I crashed into Czarina, wedged between her and our attacker we toppled over the edge of the Sphere Scar, down into the chasm.

 
I could feel something wrap around all of us as we fell, looking down I saw rope circling our waists, and then it struck me in the nostril, like a pungent punch to the face. “MIKADO!” I bellowed into the oncoming wind.

 
I passed out.

 
Damn him. I hope I’m not dead and stuck in this room forever. I don’t feel dead, I think. I suppose I can’t be too mad at him, he did progress us closer to the next Diamond Gate, and we’ve gained another companion, whether either of us like it or not. Tomorrow will be very interesting.

 
If I survive the Sphere Scar.

The Third Night

It’s still the same, every item is exactly where it was last night. I ran an experiment to see if it would reset, but it didn’t. This place has got to be real somehow, somewhere. My actions here have consequences, and I fear, that if I lose my mind in this place, I may never return to the sphere, I may never fulfil my goals.

 
My only release has been to document my journey as I travel it. I feel as though I’m getting better, this machine is revealing more and more secrets about Earth to me. Or perhaps this illusive benefactor is allowing me to see only the information that he decrees.

 
Enough of these thoughts.

 
I woke up very cold this morning, the pale blue light of the sun warmed the vessels in my eyelids; I opened them slowly. I was in a red clay pit, the caged lid hatched shadows on to the wall I had backed onto for comfort in the middle of the night.

 
A figure broke the incoming light in half; they were holding a bucket. I could see steam coming out of the top. I sprung up and pleaded, without fully knowing what was going to happen “No no no, don’t, I don’t…” Was all I got to say before the figure lobbed what I soon knew to be water down on to me. It was so hot, I could have melted a little bit.
The cage opened and the figure pulled me out and handed me a blanket to dry myself with. “The King’s got a thing about the smell of Torians, hence the shower” He saw that I had finished drying myself and signalled to two burly, mean-looking men.

 
Actually, I think one of them was a woman.

 
Either way, they held onto my arms and pushed me through bushes til we met with a small pathway. It wasn’t long at all before we came to a village. I had to be close to Tor still; a guy who calls himself the hundred-metre king can’t really stray too far.
In the middle of the town, right next to the village well stood a 5-metre-tall throne, and atop it, was a boy not much older than myself. He sat there brooding at me for a while, with his chin resting on his thumb and his index finger pointing up into his nose. I looked around for any cultural cue by one of his men, but all they offered were blank stares. “Ack khem” I awkwardly cleared my throat.

 
He sat forward and put his hand on the arms of the throne, curiously looking down at me. “So you want to be King huh?” He asked me.
“I WILL BE KING.” I asserted. I had to make sure my voice carried well on its way up. He stood, and leaned forward, raised his hands and plummeted head first at me. He flipped at the last second and thumped down in front of me. The height of his throne must have skewed my original assessment of the so-called king. He was much taller than I was, by at least a whole head length. His tiny ears poked through his curly brown hair, but it could have been dirty because his eyebrows were red. His crooked teeth contorted a smile into his freckled face.

 
“Stand up!” he barked. I had no choice but to comply. As I was standing though, I was given an opportunity; his sword was closer to my reach than his. I couldn’t pass this chance up. I snatched it. The fool instinctively went to grab the blade but stopped himself and sprung backwards.

 
His subordinates gasped and oohed. I could tell they were eager to see a show. I pulled out my diamond dagger and held both weapons up, and on guard. The Hundred-metre King yelled “Sword!” at one of the burly men/women from before, They threw a blade at his feet. He picked it up and pointed it at me. “You got some big stones kid.”

 
We stepped closer, but too far for an attack. We circled each other and without blinking he lunged, slicing down with an overhead strike, I parried. He came again with a backhanded slash; it was faster than I had anticipated. I dropped to the ground and narrowly avoided it. He stabbed for my chest, I rolled to the left and yanked at his extended arm, he fell forward and pierced his sword into the hard ground, before landing stomach first onto the handle, knocking the wind from his lungs.

 
The hundred-metre king squirmed in agony, I scuffled to aim my dagger at his throat. He felt its sharp point poke his neck and his writhing switched suddenly to a pannicked pant. “I yield, alright! I yield” He said. I picked up his sword and handed it to him, I dropped my guard.

 
The fight wasn’t over.

 
He threw dirt at my face, luckily only blinding one of my eyes. I stumbled backwards, flailing my dagger at the blurred shapes. He waited until I was rubbing the dirt from my eyes to attack. I only had an instant of clear vision to act. He thrust his sword recklessly at my face. I flicked my neck back, I grabbed his blade with my gauntlet clad arm, his clumsy weight followed my slight pull and once again my dagger was at his throat.
The seriousness left the hundred-metre king’s face with a simple grin “You’re good, you may pass” I didn’t let him loose. At the time, I thought it could have been another ruse to get me to lower my guard. “You’ve won, you’ve beaten me, I concede, don’t worry this ain’t no ruse to get you to lower your guard”

 
Still I didn’t release him.

 
“It’s over kid, we’re letting you through. Relax” I looked around to see the hundred-metre king’s people nodding in agreeance, and finally I let go. He sheathed his weapon, I waited for the click of his hilt before I did the same. He scanned over me with curiosity wrinkling his face. He extended his hand, I flinched before realising.

 
“I’m Mikado, Mikado Cent. The hundred-metre king” I shook his hand “Reks Twelve” He pulled me closer, nearly jarring my neck, and whispering through his teeth, he said to me: “You’re going to need me Reks. If you want any chance of getting out of here, and past the One-K Queen. Now smile and wave to the crowd, they need to think you’re joining the crew”

 
At this point I was confused, Mikado was acting like he had something devious planned, but I couldn’t know for sure. I waved to the people, I told them I was honoured to join them. It felt odd to deceive the group of strangers at the request of a stranger, but I didn’t want to disrespect the masses; they looked eager to turn on someone. Perhaps that’s why Mikado seemed like he wanted to get out.

 
“We’re going to feast tonight Reks, but since you’re our guest of honour now, since you beat me. So you’ll be spending the entire day in the mad hut. ” He told me.
“What? Why is it called that?” I asked worriedly. “Oh its just a ritual we invented, we made this hut out of fermented Maru vines. It really brings out your inner mind. You know, so we can see if your strong enough to lead us.”

 
Before I could make any more enquiries, the two huge goons led me to a small cabin where I laid; too full of adrenaline to sleep, to exhausted from the battle to move. It was a brief fight, but due to the rough night before, it had taken its toll.
My rest was cut short by Mikado rushing in and hastily closing the door and single window.

 
“We don’t have much time Reks, listen to me very carefully…” I sat up, with difficulty “…This whole thing has been a scam, if you didn’t beat me in our fight you would have been forced to climb the ranks from the bottom, and I mean the bottom, you’d have been forced to clean all the thunder mugs.”

 
He shuddered at the thought, I guaged that the ‘thunder mugs’ were something not related to weather or drinking. “We’ve been planning to over throw the One-Kilometre Queen for some time now, but no one has been brave enough to lead us; not even me. But now that you’re here, the crew seems motivated, they’re ready to pounce Reks, and I can’t let them get to her.”

 
The instant he said ‘Her’ I knew Mikado’s motive “You’re in love with the One-K Queen, aren’t you?” I asked him. “Ever since I heard of her and this racket she invented, that’s why I banded these thugs together and invented the Hundred-metre title, but I’m too scared to face her, and none of these oafs know how to speak to women. But I saw it in your eyes Reks, you are a romantic, you have passion, fire, you’re striding for love, not for power. That’s why you and me are going to slip out in the middle of the night. Don’t worry I’ll come and get you at a random time. And then we’re going to leave all this hundred-metre nonsense behind. Because together, you and me are going to finish the stride.”

 
He threw a lot of information at me, but before I could even think of a reply, he said to me “I gotta go, there almost done with the fire. Be ready Reks”
Shortly after he slipped out, there was a knock on my door and the goons urged me to put on this ridiculous hat made of twigs and bird feathers. Then we had a meal; which was quite tasty. These guys knew how to season a bird. I was so full of meat and maru wine by the end I could barely make it back to my cabin. But I got there and I fell into a deep sleep, for a moment I thought I wouldn’t end up here in this room.

 

It was blissful, if only for a moment.

The Second Night

I have returned to the room, still, no escape. I’ll continue to recount my days until I find the answer.

My father was right, today I went to school and announced my intentions. There were glistening eyes all around. I think most of them were more shocked than anything. One thing I had noticed, was that there was no Victor. To be honest the thought of him being there had given me great anxiety this morning. I was certain he would try and end me right then and there in front of everyone. I didn’t ask anyone where he was. I knew, after thinking it through, he left for his stride already.

From the moment I declared my stride I had this strange feeling, this ominous energy vibrating through me. It could have just been adrenaline or the lack of Victor and his ability to negatively charge everyone against everyone else. Either way, I felt empowered, as though I was already king and I was visiting my old neighbourhood after years of being away.

And other weird things were happening, my classmates and people I was under the impression didn’t think I existed, were coming up to me and telling me how much they believed in me, and believed I could get to Sovereign City before Victor. My ego was inflating, but I did my best not to let it show. I tried instead to hone my focus on finding Sephina.

She and I had spent a few classes together before we each decided to take different paths of trade. I thought we connected though, she’d somehow manage to know what I was talking about when I was rambling a nonsensical notion or theory.

Then through the crowd, I spotted her. Leaning against the wall to the auditorium. Her hair was black, but when the sun shone onto it, it was almost green, which made the speckles of emerald in her hazel eyes burst. She looked to me with those entrancing eyes, blinked slowly and walked away towards the streets. I could tell she was telling me something, our minds were in tune, and I made chase through the rest of the bustling school crowd.

In the winding streets of Tor, I followed her for as long as I could, but she was nimble and gracefully swift, darting around corners playfully adrift. I lost her for only a moment, it was then that she jumped out of a shadowy alleyway and scared the soul out of me. She grabbed my hand and smiled before dragging me along, letting out spurts of laughter every so often. I was too excited to ask where we were going, but I had a good Idea.

After I thought my chest was sure to burst; we arrived at what I could only assume was her house. I managed to gain a glimpse at a painted portrait of her family before she thrust me into her bedroom and closed the door, confirming my suspicion of where I was.

“Reks, this year I’m going to stride…” I looked at her awaiting the rest of her sentence. She stared into my eyes; unyieldingly “…Well, you know how it goes” She continued. I knew exactly how it went, yet I still didn’t reply. “I know you’re going to be king, I’ve known it for some time, and I know, we don’t know each other that well, but it’s perfect, you stride now, I’ll raise our child until it’s time for me to stride. Then my parents will take over those duties so I can stride to meet you, and ultimately dethrone you.”

“You’ve put a lot of thought into this Sephina” I said “You have no idea Reks, I’ve been looking for a rival ever since I started school, there was no way it was going to be Victor, the guy has no concept of morality, he just wants to be the best. But you, you want to the best for everyone.”

At this point she mounted my lap and held my head between both of her hands. “I look forward to your challen…” Was all I managed to blurt before she kissed me. I had never kissed a girl, her lips were soft, but she squished them hard against mine. In the moment, I ran my hands through her hair, it was so smooth it felt like water. My fingers caught a knot and she inhaled sharply, followed quickly by a moan.

She pushed me backwards against her bed, I looked up to her messed hair and seductive eyes. She crawled closer; slowly. I could feel an energy in my chest swell, I grew warm with trepidation, though I was not scared. I eagerly anticipated her touch, her embrace, her breath on my skin. She ripped the shirt from my body, revealing it to the cold morning air. Her hair painted my torso with the scent of berries and flowers, starting at my belly button, ending at my neck. I grew chill-bumps all over.

She kissed me again, and her hand reached down to my pants. I found my own hands searching every crease and dimple of her body, I slid her shirt over her head, her pert breasts bounced only once as her top left her body. They filled my hands as I scanned over her chest. She cooed with delight as my cool hands perked her nipples within my grasp.

We laid next to each other and she removed her skirt, I followed suit, removing my pants and underwear. We delved into her blankets. I sprang onto her, my arms extended beside her shoulders. She stroked them up and down, slowing whenever her finger tips found a pulsating vein.

“You are beautiful” I stated, and she looked at me, her face gave me the impression she had never been told that before, and if she had, she knew it wasn’t sincere.

I meant it, with all my being. I found her to be the most beautiful person I ever laid eyes upon, and would ever lay eyes on. The feeling in my chest, in my heart, my head and my loins could never be replicated.

We embraced each other, our souls stitched together from the waist up, we were one, her body accepted mine and mine refused to let hers go. We struggled to produce words greater than one syllable, and in our climactic moments she spouted the words I had thought only in fantasy existed “I love you” She said. My brain ignited with euphoria “I love you, I love you” I proclaimed.

Together we rested on her bed; exhausted, enchanted by the aura of each other, paralysed within ecstasy. Rain clouds darkened the already dim room, our bodies emanated a luminous purple hue. I had done it, I produced an heir. I chuckled a rapid exhale; the teachers at school told us of this phenomenon but I always scoffed in disbelief. It really is beautiful, and I couldn’t do much more than bask in her warmth. We laid on the bed for a short-lived eternity.

And then she stood up, she broke my trance, and her next words broke my heart “You should go Reks, your glow won’t last more than an hour, and you’ll need to prove you made an heir to the gatemen”

She smiled, putting on a blue dress, her glow was intoxicating, and she’d be that way until my child is born.

I awkwardly gathered my clothes, rarely taking my eyes off her. I was putting my last shoe on when Sephina stepped in front of me “I’m going to kiss you once more Reks, for luck, and then I’m going back to school to train for my stride” She kissed me, and in that moment, I told myself: “Just stay Reks, convince her to stay too, you can have a wonderful life together; raising your child, teaching them everything you know, and living” I didn’t want this to end; but the kiss ended. I knew that if I wanted that life I had to stride, I had to beat Victor, I had to persevere through all hardships. For that life.

Once we left Sephina’s place, we parted ways. She went to school and I headed straight for the first diamond gate; the only gate out of Tor. It was all a blur; the walk was long and full of turns but it was over in a few blinks. My mind was fixated on Sephina’s image, I couldn’t scrub her from the inside of my eyelids, and I didn’t want to.

Suddenly, I was at the entrance to the diamond gate, with a gateman in my face telling me to walk into a dark corridor for examination. I just walked to where he pointed without really processing what was happening, it was embedded in me from my schooling to just listen to the guardsman and he’ll set you on your stride, and then I was standing in front of the diamond gate.

It loomed over me, nothing prepared me for the magnitude. I felt tiny. I felt sick. I looked around, I was in a fenced off area, a large sign was plastered onto the wall; it read: ‘Guardsmen wanted, failed striders encouraged!’ And below it was a long, attempted-to-be-cleaned stain. The smell struck me with an image, it was the vomit stains of everyone who was too scared to move on. I felt the bile in my stomach rise to my throat. “No!” I told myself I swallowed the sick and turned to the guards above me on the fence. I could see that their faces were eager for another ‘puker’. They probably had bets on when I would run home. “It’s not too late to turn back kid” One of them called out.

“Open the gate!” I roared. The guards looked shocked. One nodded to another and the gate opened. I wanted the blur from before to come back, but no the gate opened so slow, and I was frozen. “Hey kid…” The guard called “…Congratulations on becoming a father, I hope you make it out there.”

I turned forward and stepped out into the Second City. It was chaos, or maybe I was just too used to the pace of Tor’s lifestyle. People were rushing everywhere with a mission carved into their face. Nobody seemed to care that I had just exited Tor. The odd person would look me up and down, some of them may not have seen the purple glow before, but I think they were seeing if I had anything worth stealing.

My parents always told me that Second City was a cutthroat place, full of thieves, criminals and con artists, but it was only when I left Tor, that I came to meet them and judge for myself. I grabbed a meal from one of the local street bars and headed for the second gate. I reached the tree line and I heard a very familiar horn bellow out above the forest.

Just as I was about to take another step.

“DON’T YOU TAKE ANOTHER STEP!” Someone warned. Within seconds I was surrounded by 20 men with pikes aimed at my eyeballs. “Nobody leaves without the King’s permission” I was shocked “There hasn’t been a King in 70 years. What King?” I demanded to know. One of the pikemen flipped his pike around and smacked me in the guts. “The hundred metre King, genius. Take him through.”

I was dragged through the forest; my stomach was on fire. They didn’t take me far when we came to a clearing. In my pain haze, I could see a slapped together village, made from what I could only assume was the thrown-out garbage of Tor, and old building remains from Second City. I was taken to a pit with a caged lid on it. The guards threw me in, and I must have hit my head because after that, I was here, in this inescapable room.

I know I’m closer to my goal of becoming King, but I feel as though I’ve taken a massive side step instead of a stride forward. I’m still yet to learn more of this benefactor of mine and I have no idea why there is a Hundred-Metre-King or why I have to confront him. I will leave it here tonight, I have much to think of and even more to prepare myself for.

The First Night

Tonight, I write to you from a room without escape.

 
My name is Reks Twelve and I don’t know how I got here. All I remember is going to sleep the night of my 18th birthday, and now I’m in this strange place. As though it is a dream, but, I can touch things. I can interact with this machine to speak to you, I feel breath escape my lips, I feel the air on my skin, I know I am alive in here. I can feel the sun on my face.

 
THE SUN! It’s coming through the window on my right. Damn, it’s not big enough for me to climb through, and there’s nothing in this room I can use to break it.
There is a desk fixed to the wall and ground, perpendicular to the tiny window; upon it is this device, this window to an internal reality of communication. I’ve managed to decipher the control mechanism well enough to record my plight. I am only lucky it is in my own language, or perhaps we share this language somehow. This is weird though, I can only access a limited amount of controls, and all my information has been documented by someone calling themselves “My Benefactor” I don’t know what to think. I can’t even change any of this, and the photo… It’s me, but the clothes are odd, and I’d never pose like that. How is someone able to do this?

 
“Path of inevitable danger” What does that mean? My benefactor must be talking about the Sovereign Stride, but it seems grander than that. They mention a place called Earth. Maybe that’s where this room is, maybe that’s where I am now.

 
I ponder as I look around.

 
To the right of the desk is book case; it’s empty. Behind the stationary stool I sit on, is a blank wall. I’ve scoured this place for clues, but I have nothing to give me any Idea of how I arrived here. The walls are hard and my bones ache from fruitless attempts to break through, or at the very least call for help. So, I’ve set myself on another task.
I’m here now, I may as well tell my story.

 
I live on what we call The Sphere; in one of only two cities in existence, Tor. The other is Sovereign City. In between the two cities at each pole, is a grand and dangerous wilderness, a mash of jungle and forest, desert and darkness. The current law of the land dictates that everyone born on the sphere has the right to take what we call; the Sovereign Stride. That’s where a person leaves Tor through the diamond gate and must travel through each of the other 8 gates in order to make a legitimate challenge to the current sovereignty.

 
As it stands there is no sovereign leader, and so, these laws take the leader’s place, until a new leader is crowned:

 
No killing unless striding.

 
No striding over the age of 19, nor before 18.

 
If you stride you must produce an heir.

 
If you stride you cannot return to Tor.

 
The last sovereignty was 70 years ago, and well, things were good for a while, but after a few people came close to challenging him, the king got scared and in his paranoia, he ordered his personal guards; the 50 metre men, to dig a trench into The Sphere. What we call the Sphere Scar is 1000 metres across, spanning the entire circumference of The Sphere.

 
My great grandmother, on her final day of eligibility to take the Sovereign Stride, just 5 days after giving birth to my grandmother, ripped a path through the jungle in record time to challenge the paranoid king. She beat him, but died in the process, leaving The Sphere without a king or queen.

 
People still stride to this day, but most either give up when they reach the gargantuan chasm of The Sphere Scar, or they die in the process of climbing down. Those who return to Tor; unable to return to the safe confines, have built a second city within the surrounding 2 kilometres. We often hear them in the night, celebrating the moons ambient green glow.

 
Tonight, I am 18 and the reason I’m in this room has to be linked to my decision to take the sovereign stride. Initially I wasn’t going to go, I was going to continue my schooling, become a clockmaker’s apprentice, do some minor guard duties, and then apply to be a watchman like my father. He said the watchmen have the most important task on the sphere. They keep their eyes on the stars, because one day the Sovereign Star will ignite in the sky and we’ll know someone has completed the stride and claimed the throne.
But something happened today that changed my mind. A boy I go to school with; Victor. He’s the school’s self-proclaimed alpha male, and he’s always besting the other students, myself included. Any record that gets set, he goes out of his way to break it, just so he can gloat about how much better he is than that person.

 
He approached me today on my way home. He’d never spoken to me without an audience before, and I was worried. Prodding my chest each time he said ‘I’m’, he began “I’m going to end the Sovereign Stride, I’m going to end our family’s feud, and if you stride, I’m going to end you too.” He told me.

 
This was the most serious I’d ever seen him, even when beating my latest achievement there was a comedic demeanour, as if it was all fun for him. I was scared, and when I went home that night, I told my mother all about it. She reassured me that Victor was all talk “He’s just bitter that his great grandfather was dethroned by a woman, his family has always been about power, and it has always gotten the better of them. I bet he won’t even make it to the Sphere Scar” She smiled, and I returned her one. “Thanks mum” I said, and before I could even get to my bedroom to stack my books, my father called out to me from upstairs. I left my books by the stoop and ran up to meet him. There was something odd about the way he called for me that made me worried.

 
He was sitting on his bed when I entered the room. “Reks, you know how when you decide to take the Sovereign Stride, you must leave an heir?” He gulped as I nodded “Well…” My father broke down, crying into his cupped hands. I’ve never seen him like this.

 
He coughed through his choked throat, and yelled away his tears just long enough to blurt: “I’m not your real father.” His tears returned with the force of contrition squeezing them from his ducts.
I wasn’t sure what to think, let alone what to say. So, we sat there for a few minutes, just absorbing the information, neither of us brave enough to speak, but just courageous enough to stay next to each other.

 
My mother walked into the room, she hugged me tightly. At the time I didn’t realise, but she must have been waiting for my father to say his piece before coming in, as though they had talked about it extensively prior, and he made a point to have the knowledge pass directly from him to me.

 
At first my mind was numb, blank, but I forced thoughts through the hollow space between my ears, and eventually I said: “I’m striding this year” And thinking of it now, my words were probably not the best for that moment. They didn’t reply, instead they squeezed me tighter and as they did I had more to say “I’m glad you stuck around, both of you, together. There are too many broken homes in Tor and even though ours is somewhat fractured, it has held together, because you two willed it to.”

 
My mother let go “Wait here, I have something for you” She said. My father released me but kept his hand to my shoulder “Be brave…” He hesitated, only briefly, but with a hopeful smile he continued “…My son” I smiled too “I will dad, don’t worry.”

 
We both knew he was my true father, the only one willing to stay, willing to teach me how to be who I am, for me. In no selfish way did he want me to become like him or deliberately unlike him, he just helped me chase all my dreams, regardless of how unrealistic they were, and that’s what made me want to be the most like him; his unyielding acceptance and nurturing, his unwavering patience and perseverance in the face of adversity.

 
My mother returned with a large item wrapped in leather, she placed it on the bed and unravelled it. My father wiped his sorrowful tears from his face, but they were quickly replaced with tears of joy when the item was revealed to me “A gauntlet?” I queried “I made this in my last year of school…” My father began “…I was going to stride with it, but I fell in love with your mother, your biological father had left the year before and your mother decided to stay with you, so I promised her I’d stay with her, she found it admirable that there was someone who would stay to raise her son, she told me I was braver than any strider, and any king…”

 
They smiled at each other and held hands. I could feel their energies ripple around the room; theirs is love of solidarity, of honesty and promise. Something I wish to have one day, to hold and ripple around my own room.

 
“And what’s this?” I asked pulling at a leather strap coiled around a long thin object. The item plonked onto the bed, its looked as if it were some sort of crystal, it had a handle and the point of it sat out of the bottom of a belted sheath. It was covered in rust or dirt; my mother picked it up and rubbed off a small area of it with her thumbs “This, Reks, is a diamond dagger. When my father was a guardsman, managed to chip off a loose chunk of the diamond gate” “Now you be careful with that Reks, if anyone catches you with that you could get into a lot of trouble.” My father warned. “Thank you mum, dad, I love you guys.”

 
“We love you so much Reks.” They said. “When do you plan to Stride, my son?” Father asked “I don’t know yet, I mean, well I haven’t even produced an heir yet”
“Well when the girls find out you’re striding, you’ll need that dagger just to keep them at bay.” My mother said and they both laughed.

 
Wait! Something feels weird, I, I think I’m waking up from this place.

 
The room is blurring.

 
I’ll continue if I return.

 
Wait for me.