Chapter 8 - The Central Core

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What did I do? Zain looked at his hands. What did I do?  He put his palms into his eyes and cried. Even after an hour of riding in the ship, guilt still clung tight to him as if it were the rain that still soaked his body. "Zakk . . ."

"I zought he looked familiar."

What? Zain looked up and noticed the woman still staring at him. He had forgotten about her. Her name was Gabrielle Ravwey, and she was the star student at Gracie's Academy—the sister school for Gazo's, one only for girls. She knows. She knows I killed Zakk. She knows Zakk. Zain had caught glimpses of her tournament bouts and a few times taken to the winner's ring with her when the winners of all different divisions were pooled together for a photo and celebration.

"You don't understand. . . ." No one does. I don't even understand. He looked at his hands and tried to figure out why they let go.

"I suppose I don't. But I do know zat we ladies over at Gracie's are much more decent zan you brutes at Gazo's. We actually look our enemy in za face before using our daggers. We actually do not kill others from our own academy. We actually—"

"Enough!" Zain yelled. "Please. . . . Stop it. . . . Don't say that. . . . He's alive. . . . He has to be. . . ." His mind reeled as he imagined the fall: how time must have slowed, how Zakk's life must have flashed, the mixture of emotions he was sure to have. Why? Zain cried again and closed his eyes. Even in the darkness, he still saw Zakk's confusion as Zain let go. Even as silence settled, he could still hear Zakk's plead for help. His fingers felt heavy. He flexed them, trying to wake them and revive their use, but all he felt was Zakk slipping from his grasp. 


Zain opened his eyes to a mechanical voice filtering through the speakers. "An hour to the Central Core."

Zain gazed out of one of the windows near his seat. Another identical ship approached, one wingspan away. The ship floated through space as seamlessly as a boat on ocean waters. Gazo's taught Zain that the wormholes in Gladonus were like the veins and arteries of a body. They led to vital parts of the universe—aurorae, magnetic fields, and planets. Many different wormholes led to the Central Core, the heart of the system. All wormholes stopped, however, parsecs from the Core, near the militia base of Hown, led by General Soren Satorus. From there, only one wormhole led to the Central Core.

The ship hummed and moved again. On the monitor in the cargo room, a large asteroid, large enough to be a moon and suspended amongst stars, came into view.

"Is that Hown?"

"Yes," Gabrielle replied. "Zey are shutting off za guard beams so we can enter."

"And the other ships?"

"You didn't zink it would be just you and me competing, did you?" She smiled at him, bent her hand toward herself, and laughed.

Zain blushed. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. He looked at her smile. It caught him off-guard. It was the same smile. . . . But Ava was gone. She fell to her death, just like. . . . Zain caught his hand trembling again.  

For the next half hour, Zain kept his gaze steady on Gabrielle. She saw. She knew what happened. Would she let others know? If she did, what would it mean for Zain? Would he still be allowed to compete? There were several times she caught his gaze and appeared to be disinterested. Finally she asked, "Why do you keep staring at me?"

"Are you going to tell what happened?"

"No. It isn't my business to tell."

The knot that had been tightening in his stomach loosened a little. He let his shoulders relax. He tried not moving his hands, because that caused him to think of it. In fact, he tried to do as little physically as possible. Now that he was guaranteed a chance to compete, he needed to use it. For him, for Zakk, and for Ava. For the sole purpose of pushing Zakk out of his mind, he tried to fill it with as much about whom these contestants could possibly be or where they could have come from.

Through the speakers, the mechanical voice spoke again, "Fifteen minutes until landing."

How are we supposed to land? There is no planet here. Zain only saw empty space with two silver rings crossing one another. Past the rings was the red sun, Freyr, as large as a fist, and Lugh, as small as a thumb.

"Where are we—" Zain never finished his sentence, for at that point, as the ship glided underneath one of the silver bands, a large mass of brown, specked with dots of blue, and a mass of green to the north appeared instantaneously. "How did that happen?"

"Za Ancients Lyoen and Bane said a prayer before zey disappeared during za Great War. Zey wished zat zeir homelands wouldn't be discovered by zose not of first blood."

"Prayers don't work."

"It did. Zey always do. Gazo's wouldn't know about prayer zough. . ."

"Please fasten safety belts; touchdown in a minute's time."

Zain's was already secured. Dirt and dust made the other ships invisible, but he assumed they were in hovering mode as well.

The humming below stopped, and the ship dropped to the ground. They were here. Zain unbuckled and looked at the monitor displaying the view outside. Dust still held the air captive.

He turned toward Gabrielle and then back to the monitor above the door to the rest of the ship. The dust settled, and beyond it stood a mansion painted in sepia. Twelve columns of gold held up the second-floor balcony. Six columns of gold on the balcony held a third-level veranda, which overlooked a vast area of dirt and sand and emptiness. Behind the estate was a sky of purple. This is the Central Core?

"Unlocking door hatch."

The back of the ship opened, and a ramp extended down to the dirt below. Zain looked toward Gabrielle, who stared back at him. She gave a whimsical smirk and continued staring.  Why does she have to smile? Zakk infiltrated his thoughts soon enough, and he could only look down at his bags. He tried not to cry, but he did. Everyone else deserves to be here. I don't.

A hand squeezed his shoulder. "Good luck."

Zain looked up, mopped up his tears with his forearm, and asked, "Why'd you wish me that?"

"Because I'm decent, and," Gabrielle picked up her things, "since you don't pray, you'll need it." She flounced down the ramp and out of sight, leaving Zain as confused as the dust that still wandered in the grave of night.

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