Beneath the Eye by Jenna Whittaker

Beneath the Eye kindle coverWhen Shersti is taken to the prison-world of the Foundry, she thinks her life is over. However, her trials are just beginning. Overcoming torture and hardship, Shersti escapes the Foundry and becomes one of the most successful vigilantes working to overthrow her tyrannical government. But what was to be a routine sabotage mission turns into so much more when Shersti falls ill to the parasitic disease Revere. Ten years previous, on the world of Zutrara, Vaiden is captured by the Shalaki as a child, and he is threatened with death or working against his own people. Doing all he can to survive, Vaiden lives through a war that destroys his people and leaves him alone—welcome nowhere. Yet when Shersti contacts him, a decade later, to guide her group of vigilantes to an underground shelter on his now-enslaved homeworld, he agrees. It is a decision that changes his entire life.

*Note: This book is distributed by Writers Exchange, we are not the publisher for this title.

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GENRE: Science Fiction    ASIN: B07VSFY85M    Word Count: 90, 013

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Chapter One

 

Vaiden woke with the screams of a nightmare on his lips–a nightmare that had come every night for the past month. The sun burned red outside the dormitory window that morning, the stars fading from the sky as blackness gave way to a soft, orange glow, and the omen did nothing to calm his fears.

His heart pounded in his chest and sheets of silk tangled around him; strangling him. Vaiden pulled free of his bed, standing barefoot on the cold tiles of the dormitory, shivering. His bunkmate above him shifted in irritation as the morning bells tolled, and slowly the room began to wake.

But his dream would not leave him. The details faded, but the feeling of terror remained; and one thought, echoing over and over in his mind.

The Shalaki were here again. They have to be. The only other time I’ve heard of an ochre sky…The thought chilled him to his bones, but Vaiden quickly dismissed it. Better to wait and see.  The fear wouldn’t leave him and his mind raced.

A nagging, dark cloud hung over his head as he dressed for the day, tying on the grey robes of the young. The wool material was warm and soft, and heavy on his shoulders as he wrapped the darker grey wool belt around his waist, tying it in a knot. The other boys were readying themselves for the morning; hurried and whispered conversations floating through the chill air as they made their beds and dressed, slipping on the soft white moccasins to keep out the cold of the stones beneath their feet.

They made their way out into the hall, quietly following one another to the dining hall, the occupants of other rooms filing out and joining them. Just down the hall from the dormitories, the massive arched doorway led into a long room, a fire crackling merrily at the end. Long wooden tables stretched the length of the room, three abreast, and plates of hot, sweetened muesli steamed welcomingly at every seat.

Sliding onto the hard wooden bench and staring into his bowl, Vaiden picked up his spoon to take a bite, but his stomach roiled. He felt too ill with anxiety to eat, and he could barely concentrate through breakfast, ignoring the panicked whispers of the boys sitting to either side of him in the dining area, all wondering what the red sun meant, what would happen on this Appeasement. What would the Shalaki demand?

It was something Vaiden was wondering, too, but he knew he’d get no answers from the other young. Hypothetical questions were a waste of time. If they’d even listen to me, he thought to himself. He never did as well in their tasks; always weaker, always slower and smaller than the others. They’d bullied him at first, but now…I’m just used to it. He didn’t bother to befriend many here, anymore. Even his vague status with the Mistress separated him from them.

Better he ask her. The Mistress would know.

~~

After the tattooing sessions in the morning, Vaiden’s hands ached from holding the tiny needles, poking ink into the practice leather, but at last his work was done. He approached the Mistress’ door, breath in his throat. It took him close to half of an hour to walk to the far end of the complex, and he ignored the questioning looks every boy shot him as he passed them. They each had their Sections, and this was not his. None stopped him, though, and Vaiden was grateful for that.

What would I even say if they asked? He had no idea. It wasn’t expressly forbidden, but no one dared to leave their Section without approval and supervision; and certainly not of their own whim to see the Mistress.

But she was his mother. It was a small thing, and it only gave him a modicum of calm as he raised his hand to knock on the door. Child of hers or not, she was the Mistress, and she was above all.

“Enter.” Her voice came softly through the heavy stone door, but it brimmed with authority. How does she even know I’m here? Vaiden shook his head. She always did, and it never ceased to surprise him.

The Mistress was standing, sorting scrolls of vellum on her desk. It was piled high with strange steel instruments curving in and around on themselves, large glass bowls and vases filled with coloured liquids, and so many books. It was a mess, but an ordered one–Vaiden didn’t doubt that she knew where every item was, and the way she moved quickly, with purpose, grabbing one thing from here and another from there, only confirmed his suspicions.

“Sit,” she instructed firmly without looking up, even as Vaiden opened his mouth to speak. He snapped it closed and perched on the edge of the deliberately uncomfortable chair before her desk–the only spare space available.

His mother sighed, shuffling some papers on her desk–an almost futile exercise, as he was sure it had all been sorted and re-sorted before. She seemed to be trying to keep her hands busy, and as he truly looked at her, he could see the small signs of stress on the Mistress’ face; hairs out of place in her usually smooth bun, wrinkles on her face where she’d been frowning.

For some reason, this scared him more than the red sky.

“Vaiden,” she spoke finally, her voice soft, eyes downcast, “The Shalaki are here, and they have come with their demands once more.”

He froze. Why’s she telling me this? He’d barely expected any response to his questions, as out of his place as they were; yet here she was, telling him everything, it seemed. Why…

The Mistress allowed a small smile to skitter across her face, but it was quickly replaced by an expression that terrified Vaiden to his core. He could hardly recognise it for a moment.

Fear.

The Mistress was afraid. She’s never afraid. What have they asked for?

As if in answer to his silent question, the Mistress continued, “They’ve asked for sacrifices, Vaiden. Children.” She ground the words out as if they pained her. “Our children to be given to them for some purpose, I do not know what and I cannot ask. But if we do not give them the children in the grey homes, they will destroy us all.”

The grey homes. Where Vaiden and the other youth lived and trained every day. The Shalaki wanted the trainee tattooers? Why? The thought shocked him to his core, and it felt as though someone had poured a bucket of ice-cold water over him. Will she let them take us?

He couldn’t speak, even if he’d wanted to. His mother walked around the desk, standing beside him, and put her hand on his shoulder. She had never touched him before, and they were both as comforted and awkward with the contact–he could see it in her eyes as he looked up at her.

“Vaiden…” she murmured, and in that one word, he heard all he’d needed to.

She was going to do it. She was going to let them take him–take all of them. The woman who was not only supposed to protect all their people, but his mother. And she was going to send him off to the Shalaki, to meet an unknown fate.

Without another word, Vaiden turned and bolted out the door. Heart pounding in his ears, he ran down the hall. Vaiden’s mind was blank, his chest burning from his headlong flight long before he found a quiet corner and stopped.

Vaiden sank to the floor, his back against the stone wall. He couldn’t outrun his situation, but he was only fourteen; how could she ask this of him? Of anyone? All the youngsters are being taken, Vaiden realised. All of us. Not just me. He had blanked out that part of his mind when the Mistress had first told him, only the thoughts of himself looming over his head. Vaiden ached with guilt–how could he just forget? His friends. His family. They’d grown up–were growing up–together.

And they were all to be taken.

~~

When the Manic Devourer had entered her office in a beam of light, materialising before her, the Mistress hadn’t known what to do or think. Yet when it spoke of its demands, of the demands of the Shalaki to hold off on a complete decimation of her people, she found the opposite–her mind teemed with so many thoughts she could barely make sense of them.

She had never imagined that the red sky would come in her lifetime, though she’d always dreaded it. And now it was here, and what it asked of her was impossible. How can I? How can I give up my son, give up all the children?

For if she did, the youngsters surely faced death, or a life even worse than that abrupt end. But if she did not…they kill us all. It had always been that way–the Shalaki would come, they would send the devourer with their demands for foods, technology, and then they would be on their way, to return some point in the future. They’d always threatened extinction if their demands were not met, and no Mistress would risk calling their bluff.

But they’d never asked for lives.

Melar dropped her head into her hands. Always she was The Mistress, the Mother; but now she was only herself, the girl she’d been long before she knew this position. Yet even as she mentally shrugged off her cloak of authority that guarded her and guided her during the day, she could not shed her stresses with it. Not this time.

This time her concerns centred on her son. She was mother to all the youngsters in the training schools, but in name only. Only this one had she birthed and raised. And this one was amongst those the Devourer had requested by name.

It knew Vaiden’s name! They knew her son’s name.

Melar couldn’t even begin to comprehend what that meant. Never had the Shalaki even shown understanding of names, let alone put the effort into recalling one–not even the title of Mistress. No, the Shalaki weren’t concerned with such things. But to name, to ensure that these specific children were taken, despite continuing with ‘and all of the rest must be also’, that was something that chilled her to her core.

She had no memories of the Shalaki coming in her lifetime, but had been indoctrinated in their every previous visit to her ancestors, chronicled in the histories. Made to study it in-depth, in case it happened in her lifetime. Never had she thought she’d be so unlucky.

All of the children of the grey–the youngsters here–had been given by their parents to the schools to learn the art of tattooing at a young age. Others would be sent to the other schools of trade–psionics, herbalism, and any number of pursuits that would be beneficial to the community. The tattooist apprentices would practice first with ink and hide before they graduated, and became the artists who would chronicle the lives of all their people. They would receive memories in their dreams; events that occurred both nearby and far, and preserve it upon the tapestries that would adorn the Hall of History like they had for generations past.

That was what her son was here to do–not this. Not to leave to an unknown–and possibly very short–future.

~~

Vaiden paced up and down the narrow pathway between the beds in his dormitory, much to the annoyance of the other youths he roomed with. After another long-suffering sigh, Bilu heaved a pillow at Vaiden’s head on his next pass.

“Would you stop?” Bilu asked exasperatedly, looking down at his bunkmate.

“Sorry,” Vaiden murmured, pausing in mid-stride. I didn’t even realise I was pacing. He looked up from his study of the floor to see all of the youths staring at him with varying degrees of annoyance and curiousity.

“What is it, man?” one of the older boys, Bilu, asked kindly.

Vaiden sighed, plonking himself down on the bottom bunk; one of three he shared with Bilu and another boy, who was busy trying to pretend to be asleep. “I…don’t know where to start.”

“We saw the red sky today,” Bilu shrugged “Was that it? The old tales scaring you?”

“No,” Vaiden crossed his arms defiantly. Scared? Of tales? This is real! “The Shalaki are here.” He blurted out, desperate. Maybe someone could stop this. Mother told you not to tell…

Silence followed his outburst for a moment, before one of the boys started chuckling. Soon others followed, and the room was filled with laughter. Vaiden lay down and closed his eyes, face burning; fists clenched with anger. He refused to move or answer their ribbing until they were forced to be silent as the lights dimmed and night began.

Don’t believe me?! You will, when you get taken like I…like I’m  going to be. We’re all going to die and I tried to warn you. Shalaki aren’t just tales…If only his mother hadn’t allowed him to hear her meetings, to see the seriousness of the Shalaki threat, he’d be in as much blissful ignorance as the rest of them.

~~

The next day passed like any other, and Vaiden began to doubt. The nightmare came again the previous night, and he woke from it in a sweat. He couldn’t get his thoughts away from the images of snarling monsters, teeth flashing white in the darkness; snake’s eyes and scales, wrapping tighter and tighter around him.

t’s not real. It was just a dream. He told himself, yet he couldn’t stop thinking about the suffocating pressure, the icy cold of his nightmare.

The bells tolled for their lunch break, and the boys put down their tattooing pens with relieved sighs. Vaiden was glad to have the break–it felt as though his fingers might fall off, if he continued–but it’d been a welcome distraction, and as he put down the leathers, reality came rushing back.

He’d concentrated on the tattooing work, and his world had shrunk down to the pen, the ink. Now he became aware again of the boys around him, the teachers pacing up and down the rows of desks, watching their work.

“Hey, you coming?” Bilu grinned down at Vaiden. He’d rather taken Vaiden in under his wing when the boy first started, and Vaiden was grateful for it. It’d been a terrifyingly different world in the complex walls, far from his family and younger siblings. He’d latched onto Bilu, and the elder boy had been happy to let him follow him around, learning the ropes. Now he felt a little more of an equal, but still he was ever slower and less proficient than the others.

“Yeah,” Vaiden nodded, stretching his aching muscles. Hunching over the leathers was hard work, and he massaged the cramps out of his hands as they made their way back to the same dining hall they’d had their breakfast in, hours earlier.

The smell of fresh fruit made his stomach rumble, and Vaiden picked up his pace as they entered the hall, grabbing quick handfuls of berries and apples, stuffing them in their mouths around their constant chatter, before heading out into the yard. Lunch break was only an hour, and boys were full of energy–they waste no time on savouring their food. The fresh air and games outside awaited them.

The games began.

Vaiden laughed as he dodged a tackle, ball tucked tightly under his arm as he skidded on the grass. Shouts and hollers followed as the opposing team fought to block his advance, bumping shoulders and shoving to keep in his path.

Sweat dripped down his forehead, but he ignored the sting in his eyes. The goal was so close.

Left. Right. He’s coming to block; dodge under his hands. It’s right there!

“Pass it, pass it!” Rolo shrieked. Vaiden took a deep breath and threw the leatherbound ball with all his might. It sailed over the gaggle of opponents trying to block him, and right into the other boy’s hands. Yes!

Rolo was tall and wiry; while Vaiden had used his size to dodge, Rolo would be so much better at getting a goal. The hoop, attached to the top of a tall pole, was out of Vaiden’s reach.

The ball sailed through the hoop, sure enough, and Vaiden’s team let out a whoop of victory.

Everything seemed right in the world.

 

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