Hey guys! I'm sorry it's taken me FOREVER to post . . .but life went on in blinding speed, and "The Chosen" remained untouched in my computer files . . . Then, by some strange twist of fate, my urge to write returned, and I'm going to try to post as often as I possibly can, which, because of my editing and perfectionism, might only be once a week to every two weeks, if that. I'm terribly sorry, but I hope you've enjoyed the latest installments.

Chapter Fourteen: "I Don't Want It!"

"Liam! Come on, Liam, throw the ball already!" Kale called, waving his arms in the air in the middle of Hydrum's sea. A wave rose and struck him in the mouth, gagging him. "LIAM!"

"All right! Fine, just cool it!" the brown-haired Hydronian yelled back with a laugh. He flipped in the ocean water throwing the ball with his feet. "How's that?"

Kale leapt, caught the ball with ease, and sticking his tongue out. "Have to do better than that to win finals!"

Liam grinned, white teeth flashing against a tan handsome face, blue-gray eyes crinkling. Only when he smiled could anyone have believed the level-headed, dark-haired Liam was related to the spirited Kale Morgana, much less his twin. "You're just jealous."

"Me, jealous of you?" Kale laughed. "Aw, come on!"

"I will!" Liam's arm swept across the water's surface, erupting in a small tidal wave that struck Kale squarely in the face. "Ha! Take that!"

"Oh, there is no way . . ." Kale sputtered, gaping. With his own wave, Kale broke out of his stupor, laughing. "Two can play this game!"

"But only one can win!" Liam crowed.

"And I can tell you who that will be!"

Liam threw his hands up in the air in victory. "Me!"

Kale dunked him underwater. "In your dreams!"

The two boys' rising laughter and wrestling could be heard, it seemed, by all the sea. All of nature seemed to smile, but, slowly, a shadow fell over the sun as if a frown had darkened the countenance of the once-grinning Great Light, and Kale's voice carried on the wind like a spirit. "I win, Liam! I always win! No matter what, I always win!"

Kale rolled over in bed groggily. Kai was outside cackling a wake-up call again, like she had every morning for the past three months, but, this morning, something about it was different. Kale didn't care, though. The only thing on his mind was the sleep he was losing. He slapped an extra pillow over his head and groaned. "Storms, doesn't that woman know that if I was supposed to be up this early, the sun would be up, too? It's just not natural. Not . . .na . . ."

His mutterings faded away as sleep subdued him, but the next minute his eyes flashed open. He jerked away, throwing the pillow off his head and stared at the tent ceiling. Mora. He hadn't seen Mora after she disappeared yesterday at the swimming hole. He could still see the fear, then the fury, in her face, the absolute hatred. Oh yes, there was no doubt in his mind that she truly hated him now. Hated every fiber of his being, every word he said, every glance he sent her way. Hated him. And he moaned. Storms, can't I ever do anything right?! Then, the worries filtered into his mind like cold slimy fingers. What if she's hurt? What if she got lost? Alastar warned us not to wander off into the woods. What if she . . .what if she's . . . what if . . . He shook his head and ground his knuckles into his eye sockets. "Storms, Kale Morgana, you're a moron."

"Huh?" Blaise, still squinting and hair still ruffled with sleep, pulled open the curtain to Kale's quarters. "What'd you say?"

"Just how funny you look what you first get up," Kale managed with a plastered smile.

"Har har," Blaise growled. He rubbed his hands through his hair vigorously. "At least I only look like this in the morning."

"Oh, that's funny." Kale rolled his eyes and kicked off his blanket. "Hey, didn't see Mora come back, last night, did you?"

Blaise raised one eyebrow. "Why?"

Kale shrugged and rubbed the back of his neck. "Just wondering."

"I can't remember," Blaise said casually.

"You can't remember?!" Kale leapt to his feet, eyes shining furiously. "Don't you realize she might be hurt out there! Or . . ." He stammered, backing away slowly, face burning. "Or . . . I mean . . . well . . . I . . ."

He pushed his hair out of his eyes awkwardly as Blaise's small, crooked smirk crept onto his lips.

Kale sighed. "Storms, I am an idiot."

Blaise chuckled low in his throat. "Hurry up and get dressed, Kale," he said. "Kai wants us outside."

Kale groaned and flopped back on his sleeping mat. He could hear Elgin shuffling in his quarters beside him, and Kale could see him mechanically making his bed and putting his clothes away, then after making sure the curtain-door was shut, would dress for the day. Kale's nose wrinkled. That guy's so neat it makes me sick. One of these days, I'm going to totally mutilate his room just to watch him spaz out.

Kale rolled out of bed, jerked off his sleeping tunic, and started rummaging through the mountain of clothes on the floor. Elgin poked his head in the door, then, eyes wide with mortification. "Sorry."

"Love of the Ancients, Elgin!" Kale shouted in disbelief. "They're just BOXERS!"

Elgin's muffled voice came from the sitting area. "I know that," he snapped, half irritated and half embarrassed.

"Storms, you're such a girl!" Kale rolled his eyes. "One of these days, I'm going to walk around here nude just to show you that underwear isn't half bad."

"Just proves how immature you are," Elgin sniffed.

"Proves what a sissy you are."

"Look, just because I'm modest doesn't mean-"

"Guys, just come on," Blaise called from outside. "Stop arguing and eat before breakfast gets cold."

Kale came out, tying his tunic's belt over his pants and stuck his tongue out.

Elgin scowled and mumbled something under his breath about Kale's being "incorrigible."

Blaise was waiting for them at the door, shaking his head. "Really guys, the Teachers have warned us that we need to learn to work together."

"What for?" Kale snapped. His frustration of the past three months finally boiling over and now spewed forth like smoke from a furnace. "They tell us all these stupid things, words and phrases that don't make any sense. Make all these weirdo rules, but they never tell us why or what for. What are we doing here, anyways? They haven't told us, just that 'You're Chosen. The time is soon. Blah, blah, blah, yadda, yadda yadda,' and all that junk. What's the point?! Why?!"

Blaise said nothing. He only pursed his lips and stared Kale straight in the face before saying, very slowly, "Sometimes, you just do things, Kale. You just believe them, even though they don't make any sense. You just believe and do."

"Well, I never do," Kale growled, plopping down on a stone around the bonfire that always burned.

"And neither did I," Elgin said quietly. "But, there are things you can't explain, Kale, and sometimes, we won't know the why right away. Maybe we never find out. Not that, in the end, it would really matter."

Kale munched mutely on a breakfast roll, not looking at either of them. Then, the girls' tent opened, and he leapt to his feet, mouth agape.

"That's disgusting!" one of them said, her nose wrinkling. "Waterboy, if you're gonna chew your food, could you spare the rest of us and do with your mouth closed?"
He gulped and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. "Mora! You're all right!"

"Sure I am. Once you stopped trying to drown me, I was fine."

The next thing she knew, Kale had his arms around her. The Helian stood, too shocked to move. "I thought you were dead!" he burst out, entrapping her in the biggest bear hug she'd ever known.

"Well, I might be if you don't let go," she growled. "I can't breathe!"

He released her, hopping back, still grinning. "You don't hate me?"

"Not yet."

His grin grew wider, threatening to swallow his entire face.

Suddenly, Mora's smirk changed to a scowl and she touched Kale's chest, puzzled. "Where'd you get this?"

He frowned. "Get what?"

"This." She lifted a strange ring on a silver chain that hung from his neck. "How'd you get it?"

Kale held it in his palm. "I don't know. I didn't put it on."

Mora's scowl darkened. "Tal and Ketti have them, too. Do the other guys?"

"Storms, I don't know. Girls are the ones who pay attention to clothes."

Mora rolled her eyes. "Be serious, for once, Kale."

"I am."

"Well, be more serious."

"I'd be dead."

Mora groaned. "Heaven help us."

"And it will need to, dearies, oh it will, it will," Kai said, coming up behind them, smiling.

It was an odd smile, both making her younger and older; her face wrinkled ten times over, but her teeth, surprising strong and straight, shone white, and her eyes, bright and electrically blue, sparkled with joy and vitality.

She fingered Kale's ring, and winked at him. "Bet you don't know what these are, lad."

"Well . . . uh . . . a ring," he said, frowning.

"Oh, but not just any ring, lovey," she crooned. "I suppose they've cut these out of your history books, too, eh? Just as well. Soon, everyone will know the secret things hidden in the corners of history's closet, yes, they will." She grinned at all of them and held his ring higher. "These, my dears, are the Keys to the Worlds, ancient keys made by the blood of the First Rulers and the soil of the Hall, the only way any mortal can enter the Hall of Worlds."

"But that's just a myth," Elgin burst out.

"Oh, and with how far you have come and with all you have seen, do you still not believe, Son of Ice!" Kai wailed. She touched his chin gently. "My son, you have been there, do you not remember? Where all of time and space is still, the in-between, where there is no place, no time, just a tiny crack between it all, an opening to every reality. Don't you remember now? Can't you see it? Even now, so many years since my last passage, I can see it now, and I never cease to be amazed."

"It can take you anywhere?" Ketti asked.


"Any time?"

"Of course."

Ketti's eyes glowed with a strange light. "Even into the past?"

"Now, now, child," Kai said, holding up a finger, "to rewrite what has already been written is dangerous work. I, of all people, would know, for I had to do it, and both great victory and great tragedy came from it, but, you see, I had the blessing-no, the ORDERS-of the Unseen to do so. You, my dear, have no license to change the past, no matter how your heart cries out for it. Only evil can come of it."

"So, why do we have the rings, then?" Tal asked. She had taken a seat between Ketti and Blaise on the log and held the ring enclosed in her pale fist. "Are we supposed to go somewhere?"

"Of course," Kai chuckled. "One of you will open a door, and then the Hall will be open for all, Seen and Unseen, the mortal and the immortal, like it has not been since before the Ancient times. And then, my dears, as soon as the passage is cracked open, the world will begin its end."

Kale spat out his breakfast roll. "WHAT?!"

Kai only smiled at him. "The world will end."

No one moved. A scream, a denial, was on the tip of everyone's tongue, but it seemed they had all become mute, as if fear of the spoken word would make it real. It seemed time froze, then, encasing them in the silence and the shock.

"The world can't end," Elgin said. "It doesn't make scientific sense . . ."

"And what have we learned about science?" Blaise snapped, sarcastically. "It's answered all of our other questions, hasn't it? Showed us all the logical reason for why we're FREAKS!" He leapt to his feet, glaring sorrowfully at the Celian. "I thought you'd finally figured it out, El. Nothing makes sense here. Logic doesn't exist. If the world's going to end, then . . ." he collapsed back onto his seat, his face drawn and defeated, as if he were holding back tears. "Then it's over."

"Oh yes, soon, you shall perform your duty, discover your purpose!" Kai said, the joy spewing from her in a crazed fury.

Kale stared at her, eyes bulging. I knew it! The woman's a nut. A pure, honest-to-goodness, freakin nut!

"You're crazy!" Kale burst out. "I mean . . . the world ending? Who he heck can know that?! And, storms! If this is what my 'purpose' is, I don't want it!" He tore the chain from his neck. "You know what, it's been fun knowing you guys, but I'm sick of this. I'm going home."

And the ring fell from his fingers to the moist soil at his feet, glittering in the morning sun.

Darkness. Valmar had known light once, eons ago, before the world was formed, and he hated the memory, and being immortal, he had no comfort of fading memory. Now, there was darkness, and he savored it, dreading the ring of light that imprisoned him here, within Isyra's dark wood, his domain and his cage. He loved the forest as much as he hated it, but the past months had been torture. He could smell the living souls, and it made him restless for the first time in ages.

A tiny lizard of a Vulan, one called Cryll, scampered beside him, panting. "I hate Them," he hissed. "They've sent the mortals just to torture us."

A Vulan would never call the Unseen by name—only "Them" or "the Enemy."

Valmar paid Cryll no mind, so the tiny specter paced back and forth at the edge of the forest, his fingers of nothing twitching as he glanced venomously at his master, Lord of the Wood. "You remember when we were free to do as we wished among mortals? Do you remember the sheer pleasure, the sensation of watching them fall, engulfing their souls into our darkness?" His shadow jowls dripped with drool at the memory. "Then to be banished here, imprisoned for who knows how long in eternity." The thought made him scream with rage, and he tore back into the deepness of the wood, wailing.

Valmar didn't move. Over Cryll's ruckus, he thought he heard a small click, like a key turning in a lock. He cocked his shadow head, listening while his sharp eyes watched the edge of the forest. The light that had so blinded him before, was slowly fading. This was not what mortals called fading light for it was still morning, this was . . . different . . . He stepped forward hesitantly, his clawed foot of shadow testing the leaf-covered ground. A second step. And a third. He stretched out a long, birds-claw hand beyond the wood and did not withdraw in pain. If Valmar had had a heart, it would have been racing. Instead, he leapt out into the field, lifted his head, and howled in victory. The Vulan within the darkness stirred at their leader's call, creeping out of their prison, until shadows filled the air.

Valmar stood, tall and proud in their midst, howling to the wind, jeering at the light. It had begun.