Daevin blinked several times, but every time he reopened his eyes, there was still no light by which to see what was around him. He was no longer trapped in a vise of dirt, but he could still feel it on the palms of his hands as he sat up. He could hear people breathing, but he wasn’t sure if they were his friends, or whoever had dragged them down into the subterranean world. Finally, a deep voice thundered forth and shook his eardrums, but Daevin still was not afraid. He arose and unveiled his sword, prepared to face the owner of the resonating voice in a battle of steel, wits, whatever was at his disposal.
“You have trespassed our territory, and think not that your lives will be spared unless you give us good reason for your offense. Dark is as light to our eyes, and we will not hesitate to cut you down to your knees if you try to escape. Am I right, brethren?”
A chorus of voices shouted “Aye!” in response.
“Which of you shall speak for your group?” asked the first voice.
Daevin couldn’t restrain himself; he had to know if his friends were with him in that dark world.
“Is everyone here?” he demanded. “Answer me!”
Daevin counted the voices that mumbled, exclaimed, or growled in response, and sank with relief when everyone was accounted for.
“Sir, we didn’t know this was your territory,” Daevin informed. “We were only trying to escape… the Dark Lord.”
A surge of displeased sounds emerged from the unseen beings around Daevin.
“We know well the destruction the Dark Lord has wrought on this land,” boomed the first voice. “But how can you prove that you are not one of his spies?”
“Look on my face and see the mark of the King!” declared Daevin.
Calloused fingers grasped the tip of Daevin’s chin, and Daevin stared hard into the darkness to challenge what he assumed was the withering glare of the leader of the voices.
After a moment, the fingers fell from Daevin’s chin and the voice announced, “He is the Crown Prince of Eurovia. Stand down, and light the lanterns.”
With the glow of the lanterns appeared the faces of a multitude of male and female warriors decked in leather armor. Their sturdy armor, trimmed with dark green, had overlapping layers of leather from their torso and shoulders down to their elbows and knees. The hands of every warrior gripped spears, swords, clubs, and other heavy weapons whose handles or pommels were embroidered with emerald and gold decorations. Their skin was the color of the earthy cavern around them, their arms and legs were as thick as tree trunks, and their eyes were a mixture of dark brown and green. Daevin and his friends instinctively edged closer to each other once they took in the sight of the massive warriors. The leader, the strongest of them all in body and in heart, took a few steps forward while his crew gathered behind him.
“Ekon is my name,” the leader informed. “The Terrathians are my people, the people born of the earth.”
“I have heard your name in legends my grandfather learned of as a child,” commented Magus.
“I have taken on the name of my father, who took on the name of his father, and so on many generations back,” replied Ekon. “If you are seeking refuge from the Dark Lord, you may find it here and nowhere else in Viridis Valley.”
“It’s a good thing we got a hold of you before the Aethers or Aquas did!” exclaimed one of the younger warriors.
Several of them laughed in agreement.
“Aethers? Aquas?” echoed Jack. “What are—?”
Magus’ hand covered Jack’s mouth.
“Believe me, you don’t want to get the Terrathians started on that,” murmured Magus.
The Terrathians had very good ears, and were quick to respond, “No, no, we’ll gladly tell this fellow all about it.”
“The Aethers, people of the air, and the Aquas, of the water, have been at war with us for thousands of years,” explained Ekon.
“For reasons that only can be explained by the coming of the Deceiver,” added Magus.
“Whose history is it that we are discussing?” snapped a warrior.
“My apologies,” said Magus. “Please, do tell us how it began.”
“We are earth, which the waters wear down and which the air blows away with every passing moment,” said Ekon. “The ways of nature are the manifestation of our opposite elements grating against one another. What other explanation is needed for the war we wage?”
Magus twitched, and Daevin could tell that he wanted to try to tackle the question, but couldn’t do so for fear of offending the clearly temperamental warriors. It was good Magus had restraint, because Daevin preferred not to die of suffocation in a mountain of earth.
“We train ourselves in the skills of combat every day in case we run into hostile Aethers or Aquas,” notified Ekon. “You young knights may join us, should you so desire.”
“Learn from the masters of defensive technique?” said Magus, getting excited for the first time since he’d been pulled into the Terrathian world. “You can teach my students things I never could!”
“Aye, even a master can learn new tricks, eh?” replied Ekon, as a smile appeared on his face.
“This is perfect!” exclaimed a female warrior with short, curly black hair and muscles almost as thick as Ekon’s. “They can join my trainees for their lesson today.”
“Which one is it?” Ekon inquired.
“Standing your ground,” she answered with a smirk.
“Aha, their timing is perfect then,” laughed Ekon. “Well, depending on your perspective.”
Mia didn’t know what to think of Ekon’s statement, until a boulder was hovering inches from her nose while she stood plastered to the wall, panting heavily. The exercise, as Mia now understood it, involved a Terrathian doing whatever was in his or her power to cause her to flinch; all she was supposed to do was “stand her ground” and not move a fiber of her being. The unfair part was that Terrathians could manipulate rock, dirt, or sand in whatever way they liked, since they were born of this material in the beginning of time. Their connection to the earth was strong, as Mia had instantly realized when she saw the boulder hurtling toward her like a falling meteorite. Was she really mistaken in moving back as fast as she could? From the snickering of a few of the male trainees, apparently so.
“You can’t let a rock intimidate you,” admonished the female instructor.
“Well you have to admit that it’s a pretty big rock,” Mia pointed out.
The instructor gently allowed the boulder to drop, and Mia puffed out a sigh of relief.
“You can’t let your enemy push you around—physically or psychologically,” declared the instructor, loudly enough for the others to hear. “Here, you know we wouldn’t let you actually get hurt—but you don’t get that sort of luxury on the battlefield. Stand firm, have your shield at the ready, and do not lose the courage that Adonai has given you.”
The instructor kicked her foot, causing the boulder to rise again and fly towards Daevin, who sprang out of the way instantly. The instructor released a frustrated exhale.
“What are you, an Aether?” she asked Daevin, mouthing the last word as if it tasted bad. “We don’t evade, we don’t dodge. We fight.”
“Do it again, I won’t budge!” cried Daevin.
“No,” sighed the instructor, “you’ll be expecting—HYAH!”
The boulder raced towards Daevin, who instead of running back held his shield protectively in front of his face. The rock halted just in front of him, but his feet had not sought new ground. The instructor clicked her tongue approvingly and nodded.
“That’s more like it,” she hummed. “When I’m through with you, you’ll be able to stand still without even blinking an eye.”
“This woman is too much,” thought Mia, who snuck out while the instructor was busy.
Mia ached for sunlight, which she felt like she hadn’t seen in days, and went around looking for a Terrathian willing to show her the way out. Finally she ran into Zwinkie, whose charming and adorable demeanor had won him much knowledge about the Terrathian’s tunnel system. He told her where the nearest exit was, and after promising Zwinkie her speedy return, she hastily climbed up before Ekon could walk by. She had a feeling Ekon wouldn’t approve of her outing, but Mia was going to suffocate if she stayed underground a minute longer. Her eyes blinked quickly when she emerged, until at last she had adjusted to the blaze of light. She trudged toward the river that ran between two green hills nearby, and stooped down to scoop up water to splash onto her face. When she reached the riverbank, she realized that a girl who looked to be her age was sitting on the other side.
The girl had olive skin, shimmering tresses of dark brown hair, and a fishing pole in hand. She was wearing a light blue tunic whose hem was just above her knees, light brown leggings, dark brown boots, and a belt around her waist. The girl looked up, and Mia’s breath hitched. Mia’s paralysis only melted when, after a few moments of staring, the girl grinned and waved hello. While Mia’s hand looked for the courage to wave back, the girl stood up, and did what Mia least expected. She went to the very edge of the bank, and rather than swimming across, she began walking across—right on the surface of the water itself. It was barely a few seconds before the girl had made it to Mia’s side of the river and began smiling widely at her.
“Hi, I’m Dayla,” greeted the girl.
“Y-you… did you just walk on water?” stuttered Mia.
“Oh, that?” said Dayla. “It’s pretty easy if you descend from a long line of, well, water itself.”
“You’re an Aqua,” guessed Mia with wide eyes.
“Ah, so you have heard of my kind,” said Dayla. “I bet you didn’t know that we can let other people walk on water, too. I’ll show you!”
Mia laughed nervously and shook her head. “That’s okay, I’m not exactly on the best terms with water.”
“Well then it’s time that you two reconcile,” asserted Dayla, who took Mia’s hands in hers and began leading her towards the river.
Mia clamped her teeth on her bottom lip, dug her heels into the ground, and shook her head again.
“Just take one step,” urged Dayla. “One step. You’ll feel it—your foot won’t sink, no matter how hard the currents push or how heavy you think you are.”
Dayla was already standing on the water, her hands still intertwined with Mia’s hands and her blue eyes reflecting sunlight. Tentatively, Mia stuck out her bare foot and planted it onto the water’s surface; Mia gasped immediately, because although the wet sensation of the water was the same as it had always been, the surface felt as solid as a stone. Mia leaned a bit of her weight forward, and although her knee shook a bit (more from nervousness than from anything else), she knew her foot was still supported. Dayla laughed with delight, which broke the tranquil moment of awe that Mia was experiencing and opened up an almost-forgotten image from Mia’s childhood.
The image involved a laugh that sounded very similar to Dayla’s, except it was coming from Mia’s mouth as she splashed around in Jack’s pool. Mia was ten years younger, and she still lived in a time when bodies of water didn’t send shivers down her body. Jack jumped onto Mia’s back from behind and playfully dunked her head under the water, until all she could see was bubbles and smiles and sunshine. The swirl of water and frantically moving limbs then transformed into a scene where Mia stood at the edge of that same pool with tears wetting her eyes. She had just found out that her parents were separating (“Forever?” “Forever, sweetheart.”), and she wanted nothing more than to escape to that wonderful new world again. Somehow, though, the magic didn’t work that time, and Mia couldn’t find the surface again, and she was struggling to hold her breath—
Mia yanked herself so forcefully from Dayla’s grip that she fell backward and landed on her rear with a hard thud. She panted for a few moments while regaining her bearings, and Dayla had a frown on her face.
“Too much too fast,” explained Mia. “Bad memories with the water.”
“I’m sorry,” apologized Dayla.
“Don’t be,” dismissed Mia, standing up and brushing the sand off of her body. “For a moment, it felt really amazing to do that.”
“Mia!” cried Lizzie, who came running over the hill and emitted a breath of relief when she saw Mia. “I noticed you had left the training arena, and I had to ask around to find out where you were.”
“I’m fine,” assured Mia. “Lizzie, meet Dayla.”
“Oh, hello I’m Lizzie,” greeted Lizzie, who snorted and continued, “Well, of course you know I’m Lizzie, Mia just said my name. Sorry, my head isn’t always ‘there’ if you know what I mean, but my brain always catches up with my mouth eventually. Anyway hi, uh… Dayla?”
Dayla giggled and said, “I like you already.”
“Good,” sighed Lizzie, “because that’s not always everybody’s first reaction to me.” Lizzie paused and leaned closer to have a better look at Dayla. “You don’t happen to be an… Aqua?”
“That’s exactly what I am!”
“Ohhh no Mia, what have you gotten us into?” asked Lizzie.
“What’s the problem?” inquired Dayla.
“The Terrathians have sort of…. taken us in,” explained Lizzie.
“We’re hiding from the Dark Lord, and they agreed to help us!” added Mia.
Dayla didn’t say anything for a while, but once her thoughts regrouped, she nodded.
“I guess the Terrathians aren’t as bad as they say,” commented Dayla, an edge of amusement lining her voice.
“So you don’t hate us for being with them?” Lizzie asked.
Dayla scoffed. “I’m not so close-minded as that. I think this war should have ended a millennium ago, and Imber does, too.”
“Who’s Imber?” questioned Mia.
“Our leader,” replied Dayla. “She doesn’t like this war, but as you can probably tell, Ekon isn’t an easy one to convince. The Aethers aren’t much better.”
“Why continue your part in the war, then?” asked Lizzie.
“Not all Aquas are so open-minded either,” admitted Dayla. “She has recently succeeded in creating a truce between us, the Aethers, and the Terrathians. So long as we stay away from them and they stay away from us, the war is technically at a standstill. However, I know some Aquas that drool at the thought of renewed warfare. Who knows when, if ever, we will begin to trust each other.”
“I haven’t met any Aethers,” began Lizzie, “but you and the Terrathians I’ve met seem to be good people. I hope one day everyone realizes that.”
“Me too,” replied Dayla.
“I suppose we should go back now,” commented Mia. “Or else Ekon might come looking for us.”
“Do you want to meet me here same time tomorrow?” asked Dayla.
“Really?” asked Mia.
“You might spend a lot of time with those dirty Terrathians,” said Dayla with a teasing smile, “but I think you’re still a great potential friend. Bring anyone else you’d like, too, and I can show you a few of the Aqua fight techniques.”
“We’ll see you tomorrow then!” exclaimed Lizzie, who paused as a look of slight panic and embarrassment entered her face. “You did extend the invitation to me too, right?”
Dayla laughed and nodded, urging the girls to be on their way. Mia looked back several times, trying to memorize the shape of her face, the glee in her blue eyes, and the splay of her messy, wavy hair, in case they never met again. Dayla, standing in a casual pose with one hand on her hip and the other hand waving, made a cheerful grin with her pearl white teeth. She refused to stop waving at the girls until they had made it to the other side of the hill.