First Chapter


1. Walking Nightmare

Our world is not what it seems. I’ve learned this from a metamorphic madman with submarines, jet packs, computers, shock waves, and minion armies at his metal fingertips. The truth would disrupt our simple society, so once I record my story, I’m going to lock it away. Quite possibly no one will ever read it.

As Historian of Za, I thought I knew everything about my tiny island, or at least where to find it in the archives. Then an iron hulk demolished my door and made me a proposition.

The door in question was the front entrance of the Library, a stone and bamboo building on a low cliff over the bay. The day everything changed, I had finished teaching the island’s history to the newcomers. They departed for their next class, and I straightened up the dormitory.

Then I slipped on my swimsuit. I descended steps chiseled into the bluff by the ancients and crossed the beach.

The cool bay soothed my tired body. I drew in a lungful of water and dove toward the reefs with a flip of my webbed feet. Fish drifted around me, their iridescent scales flashing filtered evening sunlight.

Abruptly, the water darkened. The sea creatures darted under rocks. I surfaced to see roiling gray clouds. A strong wind was whipping up frothy whitecaps.

Wringing water from my hair, I hurried up the cliff. Ever since my mentor’s death, bad weather terrified me. I battened the shutters and lit a candle.

As I pulled on a dry tunic, I heard a knock. The lighthouse apprentice had doubtless returned, on the pretext of storm safety, to finagle a few more cookies from me.

Hand on my hip, I yanked open the door. “Shouldn’t you be—”

An angular form towered against the sky. My gaze traveled up the individual I never wanted to see on my doorstep, ever.

It was Morgoz the Dark Destroyer.

Two feet above my head, his voice rumbled, “Were you expecting someone, Zarena?”

I slammed the door and slid the deadbolt. What was he doing here, and how did he know my name? Had he discovered I was researching him, and come to kill me?

You may not be from my island, or even my universe, so I’ll explain my terror. Za is defined by contrasts. At each cardinal compass point is a distinct climate region (beach, jungle, volcano, mountain) with a tribe suited to the element. The blue amphibious Aquans and silvery feather-tufted Aerans are female, whereas the red scaly Pyrans and tan leonine Terrans are male. Even our island’s benevolent protector, Zan the Liege of Light, has an opposite. When the Creator formed Zan as a surrogate to continue the work of creation, he simultaneously forged his shadow brother. This dire being now stood on the other side of my front door.

The rapping became more insistent. Heart pounding, I dashed into the kitchen and veered around the table. The door exploded into splinters. “I don’t know why you’re bothering to run,” growled the intruder.

I reached for the back door. A rock wall erupted from the flagstones at my feet and blocked my escape. I spun around.

Clanking heavily, the Dark Destroyer stalked into the main hall. I grabbed my harpoon from the broom closet. “Get out of my Library,” I said, my voice thin and trembling.

He stopped and uttered a laugh, low and gravelly like grinding machinery. Candlelight glinted off his tarnished silver armor. Under the visor of a spiky helmet, an optical instrument covered one eye. The other glowed purple in his shadowed face. He had a gauntlet on one forearm and a scythe-shaped staff. A tool belt cinched his waist. A rifle and metal pack were strapped to his back.

Spots fogged my vision. I reminded myself to breathe.

Shifting the staff to his elbow, he turned to my desk. He pushed aside a letter and perused my notes. “It seems you’ve taken an interest in me, Zarena. I’m flattered.”

I winced. “What are you doing here, Morgoz?”

His jointed metal finger ran along the book spines, stopping at my late teacher’s History of Za. He removed it from the shelf and opened it.

As he flipped the pages, I had an idea. The document storage vault had an exit to the sea. Maybe his iron plating would slow him down in the water. I knelt and reached for the trap door.

Ice spread in a thick sheet, freezing the wooden panel to the floor. I jerked my hand away and stood gaping at my nightmarish visitor.

Morgoz looked up from Ileia’s work. “This is impressive. Did you help?”

I nodded slowly. A thunderclap made me jump.

He tilted his head. “But it lacks perspective.” Closing the volume, he approached.

I glanced at the window over the sink. After what had happened to all the doors, escape seemed unlikely. “If you want, you can take that copy with you. We have a lending policy.” The moment I spoke, I realized how ridiculous my words were.

“That’s very nice.” He tucked the book into his rifle strap. “But I think I’ll stick to my policy. Take what I want, and set fire to the rest.”

“Are—are you going to kill me?” I blurted.

His whirring eyepiece examined my face. “That’s up to you.”

I inhaled sharply.

He shrugged. “You historians of Za have not been kind to me. My role in the universe is every bit as essential as my brother’s. Yet wherever my name appears, fear and hatred practically radiate from the page.”

“Well, you’re—you’re awfully scary,” I stammered. I watched him stride toward me. “Especially up close.”

“Intimidation can be quite effective,” he remarked, striking the kitchen table with his armored fist. He kicked the pieces out of the way and took a step forward. “But in your case, I…”

I found myself backed into the stone wall. The table had offered no real protection, but I felt even more vulnerable without it. Flustered by his intense stare, I squeaked, “What do you want?”

Morgoz blinked. Then he grinned. “I’m glad you’re willing to cooperate, Zarena. It would be a pity to destroy you over a gesture of futile rebellion.”

“I’m not agreeing to do anything,” I retorted, my fingers tightening on the harpoon. “I’m just asking what you want.”

His eyebrow rose briefly, and then the confident look returned. “I want you to do what you’ve always done. Write history.”

“From your point of view?”

“Exactly.” He extended a tarnished claw. “Come with me. I’ll give you my side of the story, and you’ll add it to your book.”

My eyes widened. This incarnate vortex of doom was requesting my services as a scribe. “And then… you’d leave me alone?”

“Yes. When you Zaians interact with the world at all, it’s through merchants, and they always have an agenda. You don’t have the information to compose an accurate history. I say it’s time to change that. What do you say?”

Curiosity edged out my fear. This might be interesting, particularly if it could avert my death. But by all accounts the Dark Destroyer was a shady character. “Will you be telling me the truth?”

He gave me an ingratiating smile. “Now, why would I want it recorded if it weren’t true?”

“Well, you’ve lied to us before,” I pointed out. “You posed as a—”

“It was a rhetorical question,” he groaned. His armor creaked as he shifted his weight onto his staff. “Once you hear me out you’ll understand. Destruction gets a bad rap because creation is more glamorous, but I’m necessary for life, too. So, will you come?”

“Where?” I asked warily.

“To my lair. I’ve set up an office for you, with conveniences you’ve never imagined.” He gestured around us. “Don’t you want to find out what’s going on beyond your little cloister?”

I pondered the consequences of transcribing his story. “How long would this take?”

“A few days. You can leave a note to say you’re traveling, so no one will worry.”

“And then you’d bring me home?”


“In one piece?”

“Yes.” Morgoz sighed. “I have no desire to hurt you, Zarena. I’m simply tired of being slandered, and I want the real story told.”

“You’d never come back to bother me again?”


“I’d only be adding events?”

“You will also correct some inaccuracies.” He lowered his voice. “But just between you and me, given the true nature of the universe, what you write doesn’t matter in the least.”

I narrowed my eyes. My mentor had insisted that truth was critical to historical writing. “How could it not matter?”

He crossed his arms around his staff. “I’m supposed to be the one asking questions here. Now, what’s your answer?”

The panic returned. I swallowed.

Morgoz tapped his armored foot. Lights flickered on his gauntlet.

Then the solution came to me. After he released me, I could preface his version with a warning about its source, and then recopy the original in the vault. “All right,” I whispered hoarsely.

The sinister face broke into a broad smile. “Wonderful. I’ve been looking forward to having you in my employ. Now, jot a note about your trip, so we can be on our way.” With a wave of his hand, the ice evaporated from the vault door. “And fetch the original manuscript.”

“But—but—” I stuttered, “you didn’t mention the original!”

He rolled his eye. “I thought that went without saying.”

I hesitated. How could I face myself in the mirror after replacing Ileia’s life work with lies?

“Oh, stop fretting about your principles,” he said testily. “I can erase your memory of the whole thing, and you’ll be free of regret.”

The Dark Destroyer was rumored to have such a power. And if I couldn’t remember anything, I wouldn’t know the history had been altered. I would be participating in the deception of my people. “Forget it, then,” I declared. “I won’t work for you.”

Morgoz seized my throat. The harpoon clattered to the floor as he shoved me into the wall. “Your objections are becoming tiresome,” he grumbled, his breath reeking of ashes and overheated motor oil. “It’s simple, Zarena. You do what I say, and I let you live. The inverse should be obvious to someone of your intelligence.”

As I struggled for oxygen, I formulated a plan. “I’ll get it,” I gasped.

He wrenched his fingertips out of the stone. I stepped around him, gingerly rubbing my neck. I pulled open the trap door and stumbled down the steps. Groping along the shelves to the iron hatch, I rotated the hand wheel and threw my shoulder against it.

Scents of sea, ozone, and rainwater met my nostrils as I crept onto the narrow ledge and shoved the door closed. Lightning tore across the sky, illuminating water roiled by strong winds. I leaped into the blackness and driving rain.

An orange streak slammed into my side, and the Dark Destroyer’s arms clamped around me. He flew up over the cliff and landed with a clang. A brilliant flash revealed palm trees whipping in the gale.

Morgoz lifted me through the door shards and followed me inside. “Your lie was really unconvincing. I didn’t even have to read your mind. Did you not know I can see through rock?” He tapped his optical instrument.

My rain-soaked tunic was clinging to my skin, and rivulets dripped from my hair down my back. I had no hope of outwitting him and preserving the original history, on paper or even in my own mind. And he would slay me if I didn’t cooperate.

Wisps of steam rose from his armor. “You’re trembling, Zarena. Shall I dry you, too?”

“No, thank you,” I mumbled. I was shaking, but not because I was cold and wet. I had to stall him. “How many powers do you have, anyway? Ten? Twenty?”

“Sixty-four. Surely you’ve noticed our Creator’s compulsion to make everything binary. I’d like to acquire one more just to buck the system, but for now I’m stuck at two raised to the sixth power.”

“You acquire them?”

He straightened his posture, grazing the ceiling with his helmet spikes. “Yes. Some were obvious, but others I had to work to figure out. Now, how about getting that—”

“Like flying?” I interrupted. “Your jet pack looks like the ones Zan gives the fire Heroes. Did you build that?”

His face twisted into a grimace. “Don’t say that name again.”

“Sorry,” I whispered.

He jerked a metal-plated thumb over his shoulder. “But yes, I did build the jet pack. My glory-stealing brother is not the only inventor in this world.”

I nodded, relieved his expression had relaxed. I pointed to his arm. “What does that gauntlet do?”

“A variety of things. Are you finished distracting me? I’d like to get going.”

“Well, I do have more questions, but…” I glanced at the antique sword mounted above the desk. It seemed like an absurdly long shot.

“I’ll tell you all about myself in the comfort of my lair. Now, go retrieve the manuscript.” He grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the trap door.

I stopped on the top step. “Can’t you change the books yourself?”

“Sure. I could forge your lettering, or force you to rewrite them with a mind control device.” His eye glittered with purple fire. “But you need to believe my story and convince your people, so they’ll give me control of Za’s defenses. Once you have the facts, you’ll be on board. Then I won’t need to alter your memories.”

“You’re the enemy of my people,” I murmured.

“That’s what you’ve been taught. Still, as a historian, aren’t you eager to hear both sides of the story?”

I gave him a strained smile. I had no doubt he had concocted some elaborate lie to justify his ambitions. Perhaps I could act as if I believed him, and then he would spare my memories. But what if he read my mind? It would be a dangerous gamble.

“I know I have a reputation for being rather… unrelenting.” Morgoz glanced at my arm, pale under his metal fingertips, and released his grip. “But as long as I see earnest effort, I’ll treat you well. Although I don’t know why I’m bothering to tell you that. Now that you’ve coaxed me into divulging my plan, if you refuse I really will have to kill you.” He hooked his thumbs around a triangular belt buckle inscribed with an M.

I hastened to change the subject, even though I was digging myself in deeper. “But—but why do you want to conquer a tiny rock in the middle of the ocean with no industry, no riches?”

“My, you’re inquisitive,” chuckled the Dark Destroyer. “‘Conquer’ is such a pejorative term. I want to protect your lovely little island from a powerful evil. I’m the only being in existence that can offer you security.”

“What about Z—uh, your brother?” I asked. “We’ve always been safe in his care.”

He sneered. “He hands out weapons and advice. You fend off enemy hordes by the skin of your teeth, with abundant casualties. Ever wonder why he never gets his hands dirty fighting? He says it’s to keep you self-reliant, but he’s really just a coward.”

I bristled at his insult to our provider. But as long as Morgoz kept ranting I would stay alive, so I goaded him again. “You don’t have to invade us to protect us.”

“Actually, I do. I offered my support, but my brother rejected it. My choices are to stand by and let Za suffer enemy cruelty, or assume control and defend it competently. And given your ignorance, my attempts to help have made me seem an enemy. So I need you to set the record straight.” He looked at me sideways. “I can’t believe you’ve sidetracked me again! Forget the note. Just get the manuscript, and let’s go.”

I shivered. “I… I can’t…”

His dark brow lowered. “You’re beginning to try my patience, Zarena. If you won’t get the original, I’ll burn the archive.”

This would destroy all hope of an honest Za history.

My throat tight, I shuffled down the vault steps. I found Ileia’s masterwork and wrapped my fingers around the leather binding, but I couldn’t bring myself to remove it from the shelf.

Then a beeping metal sphere bounced down the stairs. Morgoz’s voice announced, “Ten seconds to detonation.”

I dashed up the steps with the manuscript. Blinking back tears, I set it in his hand.

He touched his belt, and the beeping stopped. The bomb flew from the vault and stuck to his hand. “There’s another one, if you’re keeping track: magnetism. Well, come along.” He stowed the book under his chest strap and started toward the front door.

After a few paces, he turned around.

Now, I’m no hero. I wasn’t trying to be noble. But since the day I lost my sweetheart, writing history was all I had. Pitching lies to my people would be worse than dying. I stood by the broken table wringing my hands.

“The results of this persuasion tactic are really disappointing,” Morgoz muttered. He raised his voice. “I said to come along!”

My pulse throbbed in my ears. The two people I loved most were dead. I wondered how it would feel to join them.

A pained look crossed the Dark Destroyer’s features. “Zarena, please don’t force my hand.”

“I’m not coming,” I croaked.

His eye turned crimson. He pointed his fist at me and pushed a button on his gauntlet. There was a flash of dark light and an impact to the back of my head. Everything went black.