Another rewrite? Yes, another rewrite. I’ve been stuck on the first 5 chapters of Book Three for some time. After feedback from beta readers, I realized I needed to change a few things in chapter 2 and insert two new chapters between 3 and 4. So for the sake of keeping posts in order, I’m reposting chapter 1 (it hasn’t changed much since last time) and sharing the slightly improved chapter 2 with you. I’ll post the slightly improved chapter 3 later this week. After that, I’ll share the brand new chapter 4 and 5 with you.
Feel free to read and comment with your feedback. Don’t worry. If it needs fixing, I don’t mind doing a 5th or even 6th rewrite–whatever it takes to make this story perfect!
An internal heat fueled Terkeshi’s determination. He sucked in a breath and scrutinized the wild scene before him.
Shrieks, chirps, and tweets created a racket that would have annoyed him at any other time. Tenacious vines strangled limbs and branches, but the trees defiantly sprouted varying shades of green. Short invasive scrub flourished under broad-leafed plants as towering evergreens barred all but a few dabs of sunlight.
Terk wiped a blanket of sweat from his brow. The sweltering jungle air clung to him but did nothing to alleviate the dryness in his mouth. His eyes followed the barely discernible path that disappeared into the bush as he evaluated the task ahead.
“You can do this,” he muttered while flexing his fingers. No more failing.
With a few puffs of breath, he posed into a starting position. His muscles went taut, and he imagined himself a blackbeast getting ready to spring from hiding to run down prey.
His heart pulsed, flushing oxidized blood throughout his body. With a set of his jaw, he lunged into action. A giant green leaf slapped him in the face as he sprinted down the path, but he ignored the sting.
The gurgle and splash of rushing water filled his ears. After rounding a wide trunk, he jumped from an exposed root and landed on a wet stone. Without hesitation, he sprung over the water from rock to rock until his feet squished into the mud of the opposite bank.
Getting over the stream was the easiest part.
He scrambled up the slippery bank, grabbing at roots and rocks. The slope grew steeper and his breaths deeper. His leg and shoulder muscles burned as he pushed and pulled himself up. With a grunt, he grasped the edge of an overhanging ledge and heaved himself up.
After all that exertion, the strength of his body wavered. He forced it to keep going and raced on. Razor thin branches and leaves cut across his face. Sweat filled the slashes, overshadowing the fire of his spasming muscles.
He dashed onward—once hand over hand as he used a hanging vine to cross a swamp, twice ducking low to avoid limbs, and several times in bounds as he hurtled over rocks or dead wood.
The final leg of the course neared. His heartrate hastened. Almost there. You can do it. He huffed in measured breaths until the path cleared and a ravine cut before him. His muscles tensed as he prepared to jump.
Now! He leapt from the edge and stretched his arms overhead, aiming for the thick hanging vine. The instant it brushed his hands, he seized it. The vine slid through his palm and sliced into his skin. He gritted his teeth and endured.
His momentum swung him over the gully, closer to the other side. This is it! I’m gonna make it this time.
As the tail end of the vine slipped away, he maneuvered his body to keep his power driving forward. His feet struck the lip of the ravine and—slipped.
He fell backward, falling only a few feet before landing with a back-breaking whump.
The simulation fizzled out. The humidity dissipated and the jungle disappeared. Vines turned into ropes, rocks and hills became makeshift obstacles, and the ground reverted into a plain padded flooring.
Terkeshi caught his breath, then rolled to his feet with a curse. “Chusho!”
He’d been at this for hours. Why couldn’t he get over that ravine? It was impossible. Whoever made this damned sim course was delusional. No one could beat it.
Except someone had—the one person he could never defeat. Terk’s younger brother had been only ten years old when he died, yet his accomplishments lived on.
Terk growled and punched his thigh. Damned that little brat. It wasn’t fair.
“You will get this, my Lord,” a gruff voice said from the edge of the court.
Terk glowered at his mentor. Sensei Jeruko remained stoic. The silver hair streaked through his temples seemed to reinforce the solidness of his physique. Even as he advanced through middle age, his bearing exuded a tranquil power.
Terk used to look up to him. Now he found the old man’s even temper irksome.
“It took me hundreds of tries before I succeeded,” Sensei Jeruko continued.
“How many times did it take Jori?” Terk replied sourly regarding his brother.
“I don’t remember exactly.”
Although Terk’s sixth sense told him the man spoke the truth, he also detected his evasiveness. It had likely taken Jori only a dozen times to defeat this course. Damned overachiever.
His mentor exuded a pang of regret and it almost influenced Terk’s own. He shoved it aside and deepened his scowl. It wasn’t their fault Jori had gotten himself killed. They both warned him about what would happen if he helped those prisoners. As usual, though, his brother had let his sentiment get the best of him.
Sensei Jeruko clasped his hands behind his back. “If you’ve completed your exercises, my Lord, your father wishes to speak with you.”
Terk clenched his fists. Father had likely demanded rather than wished. Ever since Jori’s death, the man had assigned him one impossible task after another. Terk barely had time to sleep anymore. Yet no matter how hard he’d worked, it was never enough.
He stomped to the dressing room, not bothering to tell Sensei Jeruko whether he’d comply. It wasn’t like Father would praise him for promptness anyway.
He put on his nanite-infused uniform. The black garb of a senshi warrior fit him well enough to show the definition of his muscles. He admired himself in the mirror, noting the broad shoulders and the cords in his arms. His tall and muscular physique was coming along well for a fourteen-year-old.
His emotions soured. Father didn’t care how young he was. The man still expected him to perform as well as an adult senshi.
Terk abandoned the TTAC room without bothering to put the obstacles away. As he marched through the belly of the Dragon warship, giant senshi veered around him. Most nodded respectfully due to his status as the last Mizukian heir, but a few made derisive faces.
Prince or not, he still had to prove himself before these men respected him.
The corridor on this outer part of his ship curved, revealing a viewport that spanned about ten yards. While most of the panes displayed a sea of stars, one was pitch black. A camera was out. He tapped the MM tablet clasped to his wrist and checked the maintenance log to see if it had been reported.
While skimming through the list, a titanic object on the feed of the final viewport pane lurked in the corner of his vision. He pointedly ignored the other spaceship, not wanting to be reminded of how he would have taken command of the Fire Breather if Father hadn’t deemed him incompetent.
Adding menial tasks for the shokukin workers to take care of seemed all he was good for.
He jabbed his MM, closing the display, and entered the conveyor. The closer the car brought him to the command level, the heavier he felt. It had nothing to do with its acceleration. Terk delved out his sensing ability to check Father’s mood and bit the inside of his cheek. The man’s anger stewed as usual, but it held a stab of irritation as well.
The conveyor doors opened to the command deck. Terk veered left and soon found himself at the door to Emperor Mizuki’s office. Might as well get this over with. He sucked in a breath and braced himself.
A wintry draft struck his face as the door swished open. He stepped inside with his chin up and automatically fell into a stance of silent attention.
Father continued working. His brow crinkled, accentuating the modest wrinkles that gave away his age. Although some gray flecked his jet-black hair, his body was as robust as a man in his prime.
Terk peered straight ahead, resisting the urge to fidget as he waited for the man to acknowledge his presence.
The dragon picture on the wall behind Father’s desk seemed more menacing than usual. Never had Terk hated that image as much as he hated it now. It seemed to mock him with its fiery green eyes. You’re not good enough, it said. You will never be good enough.
Father raised his head and the nostrils of his hooked nose twitched. “I just read the report regarding the status of the emitter. It appears we’ve made no progress—none—these past several days.”
Terk considered his response. Of course no headway had been made. The only ones who’d had any chance of reconfiguring the perantium emitter into a weapon were gone.
A mix of anger and hate swirled in Terk’s gut. It was Father’s own fault no one remained. He dared not say this out loud, though. “We’re working on it, Sir.”
“I don’t understand why this is taking so damned long.” Father’s dark eyes glinted with madness.
The man’s descent had begun with the death of Terk’s oldest brother who’d been killed in battle. The next in line had been next for being more of a failure than Terk. After that, one of Father’s closest advisors betrayed him. The final snap had been when Jori got caught helping the prisoners escape. Terk shivered at how Father’s temper had spewed a destructive energy, leaving Terk as the only surviving heir to the empire.
“This should have been done by now.” Father slammed his fist on his desk. “Jori would have finished it already,” he mumbled.
Terk’s gut twisted. Not twenty days ago his father had cursed his lost son. He refrained from pointing out the hypocrisy, though. No need to kick an angry blackbeast.
“If only Dokuri were still here,” his father said louder.
Terk flinched at the mention of his elder brother. If Dokuri hadn’t died in battle, Terk wouldn’t have to bear the weight of all this responsibility.
“Incompetence. I’m surrounded by incompetence!”
Terk’s cheeks burned. Dammit, Jori. Why’d you have to die too? You weren’t supposed to die.
“I will get on Malkai about this,” he said, hoping to divert some of his father’s anger.
“Malkai is a fool,” Father spat. “He has no more of an idea of what he’s doing than you.”
Terk bit his tongue to keep his rising anger at bay. “What would you have me do, Father?”
The man rose, leaning over his desk on white knuckles. His face darkened as his brows twisted inward. “I would have you do your job and live up to the Mizukian name.”
Terk resisted the urge to gulp and hardened himself instead. “I’m doing the best I can.”
Father pushed away from his desk and advanced. “Your best isn’t good enough!”
Terk’s breath hitched, and he reflexively stepped back. Father’s Herculean bulk stifled the words in his throat. The singularity of the man’s eyes flared like a relativistic jet. His dark hair, onyx eyes, and inflamed temper could easily outmatch the biggest blackbeast.
“Tell me what to do,” Terk managed to say evenly despite his quivering chin. “And I will do it.”
His father flicked his hand. Terk flinched, expecting to be struck.
“There’s nothing you can do, boy,” Father replied with a growl. “You give me no choice. I must contact the cyborgs.”
Terk’s heart jumped. The cyborgs? Those outsiders with their mechanical eyes and computer ports in the back of their heads made him cringe. “Are you sure? There’s something about them I don’t trust.”
“Unless you can tell me what it is, boy, I have no other options.”
Terk attempted to pinpoint the ill feeling they had given him. It wasn’t just their machine-like movements or robotic way of speaking that had unnerved him. The sense of their life force was different from most other people. It had been… He wanted to say flat, but even that wasn’t a good enough description. Stagnant, perhaps?
He shivered. “They’re not natural. I can’t sense their emotions the way I can sense other people’s. It’s different.”
“That’s because they’re cyborgs, idiot,” Father replied.
Terk’s cheeks heated at the insult, but he ignored it. “It’s more than that. It’s…”
“It’s what?” his father demanded.
Terk huffed. “I don’t know. The only thing I can tell you for sure is they feel wrong.”
Father glowered. “Can you get this done, then? Can you step up and at least be half as good as your brothers had been?”
Heat flushed over Terk’s body. “I’ll go over everything again, in greater detail this time. I’ll get on the workers and make sure they’re not slacking off.”
Father puffed out a hot breath. “Do it. If you can’t, I’ll contact the cyborgs and have them remake you into someone more worthy.”
The truth laden in the threat struck Terk’s senses, sending a shiver down his spine. Surly Father wouldn’t break the ancient laws. Would he?
Father’s growing madness tainted his essence more every day. Yes, he would.
Terk resisted the urge to swallow the dryness from his throat and tightened his fists. No more failing.
Emperor Kenji Mizuki released his fists and flexed his fingers. Micro sensations prickled as blood flowed through them again. He glanced at his deskview screen and tightened his knuckles once more.
What’s that damned traitor up to? Another attempt to dismantle his legacy, no doubt. Fujishin wouldn’t get away with this. Mizuki’s ancestors had ruled for nearly five hundred years already, and he’d be damned if he’d allow the empire to fall during his reign.
With a tap to his screen, he sent the video to his advisors. “Tell me who these men are.”
As the three seasoned warriors standing before him reviewed their MM tablets, he replayed the footage for himself. The static made it difficult to discern the two people, but the shorter one resembled the traitor well enough to make Mizuki’s insides knot. Light-colored hair with a receding hairline and a balding top could only mean Fujishin.
That chima had once been a part of his Five Talons making up the Emperor’s Claw. If one of his advisors could defy him so easily, what would stop another?
His eyes flicked to one of his advisors. The silver streaks through Corporal Jeruko’s temples suggested his wisdom and his dark eyes reflected his honesty. Mizuki had known him since his teenage years, yet Fujishin’s treachery followed by Jori’s raised his suspicions. Jeruko, after all, had been Fujishin’s closest friend and the boy’s sensei.
Mizuki leaned in and focused on the video. The man Fujishin spoke to was more difficult to identify. His short, boxed beard was his only discernable trait, but a lot of senshi and lords wore that style.
“Who sent this, Sire?” Jeruko asked in his usual gravelly tone that only got rougher with age.
Irritation spiked Mizuki’s temper. “What does it matter? Just tell me who they are.”
“The one on the right looks like Fujishin, Sire,” the giant General Samuru said. “I can’t make out the other one.”
“Agreed,” Jeruko replied.
“It certainly resembles him,” semi-retired General Nezumi added.
“Who is he talking to?” Mizuki tapped his foot.
As his advisors watched the video again, a hatred and a yearning clutched Mizuki’s chest. His father had once ruled from this same chair, and that drunken chima was the reason Mizuki was in this predicament now.
He regarded the case of artifacts standing in the corner of his office. Most items inside once belonged to his grandfather. If the stories were to be believed, Emperor Ryu Mizuki had been the greatest Toradon ruler of the past century.
Mizuki’s heart swelled as he gazed upon his grandfather’s sword resting on the top of the case. According to his old sensei, his grandfather had last used this sword in the Battle of Abira. He claimed that when the enemy had used new defuser technology to make phaser rifles and other energy weapons ineffective, his grandfather pulled out this sword and turned the tide.
The sword’s handle, made from the skin of some reptile, had degraded since then. It might have once been dyed red, but now it was browned with age. If not for the subsequent failures of Mizuki’s father, the sword could have been used as a symbol to carry on his grandfather’s greatness.
Nezumi shook his head. “I can’t make him out, your Eminence.” His narrow face combined with his thin eyes and pinched mouth made him look like a rat, but also reflected his cunning. Rats were considered deceitful, too, but Mizuki trusted him more than Jeruko right now.
“It almost looks like General Sakon, but this man’s not as wide,” Samuru added.
Mizuki puffed out a breath. “It’s not General Sakon.” He eyed the ogre-like man. Samuru was the fiercest warrior he’d ever met, but not always the brightest. The long scar running down the man’s cheek hinted at the number of times over the years he’d been struck in the head.
“The image is too distorted, Sire,” Jeruko said.
Mizuki gritted his teeth. Useless. “Could it be Lord Enomoto?”
Jeruko’s eyes widened. “He wouldn’t.”
Mizuki scoffed. “Yes he would. He’s got the means.”
Jeruko’s expression returned to its normal flatness. “I can’t imagine he’d be so audacious, Sire.”
Mizuki’s lip curled. Of course he’s defending Jori’s and Terkeshi’s uncle.
“Don’t be so sure, Corporal,” Nezumi said to Jeruko. “We all know what our spies have been saying about him.”
A heat swelled in Mizuki’s gut. The thought of his rule being challenged by yet another traitor both terrified and infuriated him. He bit the inside of his cheek to stem the flow.
Jeruko shook his head. “Creating dissention among the lords is one thing. Conspiring against the Empire is another.”
“This is why I must know who this other man is,” Mizuki snapped. Just whose side is he on?
“Where was this video taken?” Samuru asked.
Mizuki would have admired the rationale of the man’s question if he hadn’t already asked it himself. “It was sent anonymously. I don’t know where it happened or who sent it, which means the sender is worried about the consequences of his espionage.”
“Or they are merely making a false implication in order to create dissention,” Jeruko replied.
Mizuki narrowed his eyes. “Why do you find it so difficult to believe that Lord Enomoto might also be plotting against me?”
“Sire, Prince Terkeshi is his nephew and your sole heir. It would be both foolish and risky for him to ally with that traitor.”
“He might do it if someone told him I exiled the boy’s mother,” Mizuki said with an accusation in his tone. After all, Lord Enomoto’s sister had been sent to the same place as Jeruko’s consort.
Jeruko bowed. “I assure you, Sire, that the security of her location is too strict to allow the word to get out.”
Nezumi grunted as though challenging Jeruko’s claim.
Mizuki refrained from following suit. It wouldn’t do any good to make an accusation he couldn’t prove—yet.
His eye twitched, threatening to trigger the involuntary spasms he’d thought he’d gotten under control. How could he expect to control anything at this point? It was one disaster after another, and every outbreak Fujishin caused undermined his rule and inspired others to conspire against him. Intolerable!
He shifted his gaze to a bulky helmet on the inner shelf of the case. The dragon-styled helmet had been part of a new, higher-tech space suit. A line of spikes beginning from the forehead ran to the back of the skull. Two sharp-tipped horns erupted from the sides. Its mouthguard bared a mouthful of carnivorous teeth.
Despite how menacing it appeared, his mentor had said it possessed a fatal flaw—one that had nearly killed its wearer. According to the story, its computer chip had malfunctioned when Mizuki’s grandfather wore it during the Rebellion of Minashi. Instead of being a protectant, the helmet became a deathtrap. The faceplate blacked out and Mizuki’s grandfather couldn’t see his attackers. Yet the man fought on blindly, his determination inspiring his senshi warriors until they’d won the day.
Mizuki relished the thought of winning a losing battle with his greatest warriors at his back—only many of those warriors seemed to want to stab him in the back instead.
Space dust had long since flattened the helmet’s golden sheen and dulled its sharp edges. Pock marks flawed its smoothness. When Mizuki had been young, the helmet inspired his ambition. Now it served only to symbolize the decay of the Mizukian empire.
He couldn’t let this happen. “Even if that’s not Lord Enomoto, Fujishin is still colluding with someone. It’s urgent that the perantium emitter become operational before my enemies find out about it.”
He tapped his screen. A mostly green planet expanded to take up a quarter of the screen. “I’d rather not deal with the cyborgs for assistance, so let’s consider other options. What about Pulcrate? Will it have the resources we need?”
“I believe it’s pronounced pool-cray-tee, Sire,” Jeruko said. Mizuki made a face, but the man continued. “Their planetary defenses aren’t that sophisticated, which indicates they won’t have what we need.”
“Doesn’t the Prontaean Cooperative help them out with experts and technology?”
Jeruko bowed. “Yes, Sire, but I believe the people there are still very much in the agricultural stage. Any specialists the Cooperative has sent them will likely be in geoscience and biology.”
“I agree, your Eminence,” Nezumi said. His upper lip rose slightly, as though he had a distaste for agreeing with Jeruko. “If they have engineers, they are likely more skilled in building and maintaining industrial machines.”
Mizuki pinched his lip. They needed physicists and aerospace engineers. The emitter he’d taken from Thendi a few months back remained in pieces in his auxiliary docking bay. He’d arrived at the other spaceship he planned on housing the giant device in, but he couldn’t move forward without the right labor force.
When he’d confiscated the emitter, he’d also taken prisoners. His plan had been to capture scientists and engineers and use them to reconfigure the device into a powerful weapon, but he ended up with Cooperative officers instead. Jori had claimed they possessed the skills needed to fix it, but the boy had likely lied.
Damned little traitor.
“Sire,” Samuru said, “if a Cooperative ship is there, we can attack them and take their people.”
“We can’t plan an attack based on what might be.” We don’t have the resources. His Dragon was the best warship in Toradon, but the Prontaean Cooperative vessels were well armored.
“We can always lay low outside the star system,” Jeruko said. “A Cooperative ship is bound to show up.”
“Another might.” Mizuki eyed the man. Jeruko was usually adept at evaluating plans of action. Was he holding back?
Samuru tilted his head. “We don’t need to go to Pulcrate, Sire. General Brevak is chasing down a Cooperative ship as we speak.”
That’s just another might, idiot. A pang ran up from Mizuki’s jaw and stabbed into his forehead. The Cooperative ship that had somehow convinced his young traitorous son to help them rescue their people was probably long gone, but he wasn’t about to give up and let those chima get away. “I don’t have time to see if he’s able to catch up with them. I need experts today.”
“I’m sorry, your Eminence,” Jeruko said. “I’ve run out of ideas.”
The others remained silent. Mizuki expelled an exasperated breath and slammed his fists onto his desk. “Doesn’t anyone have any viable suggestions? The longer it takes for this device to become operational, the more likely my enemies will find out about it and try to destroy it.”
He popped his knuckles. There was certainly no hope of Terkeshi being able to get the emitter working.
Mizuki suppressed a sigh. “I must contact the cyborgs, then.”
Jeruko’s brows twisted in a pained expression. Mizuki ignored him. Contacting those freaks could undermine his rule, but that wouldn’t matter if he got the weapon working. Not even Lord Enomoto’s high-tech planetary defenses would be able to withstand its power.
“Sire!” Major Niashi transmitted from the bridge. “An unidentified ship just showed up on our scope.”
Chusho! Mizuki jumped to his feet. “Who’s on tactical?”
Mizuki dipped his head to Samuru, who rushed out faster than one would expect from such a giant man.
Mizuki and his remaining advisors followed in haste. He entered the bridge and froze with volcanic fury. The ship on the viewscreen was a Rhinian mercenary ship. Hired by Fujishin, no doubt. “Blast that ship to hell!”
“I’m on it, Sire,” Samuru replied as he manipulated the tactic controls. The man could be slow witted at times, but he knew tactics.
Mizuki dropped into his chair. “What do we know?”
“Their ship is called the Shadow Croc, Sire,” Nezumi replied. “They’re firing at the Fire Breather.”
Mizuki growled. This meant Fujishin knew about the emitter already. How in the hell did he find out?
He watched with intensity as his weapons dissipated harmlessly against the Croc’s shield. A few more shots should defeat it, but would it be in time to stop them from damaging the defenseless ship he planned on using to house the emitter?
“Let’s move! Block their line of sight. Our shields can take it.”
“Sire,” Jeruko said. “Your son is on the Fire Breather.”
Mizuki frowned. He should have been worried but was too heated to think about anything other than Fujishin’s audacity.
“The Fire Breather’s shields are down,” another bridge crew member announced. “A blast from an energy cannon has struck its bow.”
The Shadow Croc turned away. Mizuki slammed his fist on the armrest of his chair. “Pursue! I want that ship destroyed!”
“Sire!” Jeruko stepped into the peripheral of his vision. “We can’t leave the Fire Breather behind. What if it’s a ploy? Rhinians are known to travel in packs.”
Mizuki bared his teeth and fumed. Jeruko had a point, but he didn’t want that ship get away. This was more than just an attempt at sabotage. This was a personal affront. “Keep firing until we’re out of range, then.” Damn it. That ship would be gone before he could penetrate its shields. This would allow it to return with reinforcements—which meant he needed the cyborgs now more than ever.