Chapter 1.1
 
 

This is the first chapter of my rough manuscript for Ethereal Seals. Being an amateur writer, you can expect some mistakes throughout. I am continually refining and adding to the document to improve it. Any feedback is much appreciated. Thanks for reading!

  

Shadows crept around the ancient blade. Its destination was a red-haired young woman with an equally intimidating weapon. Two knights, one a dark twin of the other, created a crescendo of intensity within their shadowy arena. The redhead missed her mark, and the dark twin found its own. The defeated girl fell to her knees. She retreated into silence before the enemy's blade finished its job.

"Looks like I lost again," Pepper moaned. She gazed at the legendary sword in her left palm, now a worn oaken stick. Through extensive use, the practice sword was little more than an oaken splinter. She sighed and tossed the makeshift sword away. Dirt mounds next stole her attention. She stood and brushed the dirt off her tan work clothes. "Time to get back to work."

She glanced over the cracked dirt, noticing the vegetable sprouts arching down. "Already dry, how typical."

Pepper yawned and stretched her tall body. The bright light from the twin suns outlined her developed feminine figure and athletic build. She winced at the view of midday and combed her head, running fingers through long strands of fiery red hair. Touching the knot of her long ponytail, she withdrew her hand. The girl's tanned and freckled complexion radiated a youthful look, no more than twenty-three. Shielding her vision from the bright rays, she noticed round space vessels gliding idly through the skies. Further still, she recognized three moons. One of the satellites emitted a bright commercial flash of activity from its surface.

She curled her bare toes in the soft, luxurious dirt, feeling the warm earth swallow her flesh lovingly. Her gaze turned to the sloping grasslands, circumventing by clusters of distant snowy mountains and tall thickets. The sound of insects tickled her ears. Humid, but balanced with a soothing wind. Typical weather.

She examined her hands, well callused from horticulture. She sighed. "That dream I had the other night felt so real. Maybe someday I'll become a knight and get a chance to explore the world again." She frowned. "Yeah right, maybe when I learn how to fly properly."

She dug into her pocket and pulled a small coin of gold. Despite the worn edges, the depiction of a gauntlet shrouded in vines shone clear as day. Underneath the illustration, curvy Atlasian cuneiform, engraved with a master smith's arm. "The Slyhart family emblem," Pepper said. She smiled and squeezed the coin before setting it on the ground.

The bauble flashed and a pillar of light shot up a few inches high. The image of a tall man with red hair and a short ponytail emerged. He wore a blue jacket with a sword strapped to his undershirt.

"You'll get your chance at adventure, Pepper," the voice of Saul, her father said. "Life isn't easy for everyone, especially us. Treasure it just like I treasure your mom." He held his arms out, as if for a weapon. "When we get back, I'll have some thrilling stories to share. I'll take you on some epic voyages too. Hoo-hah!"

An image of a woman in a silver dress and green twintails hugged his side. She bore a stubby tail and pointy ears. She frowned. "We hope this message reaches you well, dear. We love you very much." Pepper rolled her eyes. "There's extra food in the shed and a month's worth of gold if you need it. Please promise to stay out of trouble. Don't forget to water the fields."

The vision vanished and the coin's light dulled. Pepper pocketed the coin and drew out a fist-sized crystal of aquamarine. "Yes mom, I'm right on it," she said. "You've already been gone for several months anyhow."

Her focus fell on the shiny device. Mist spouted from the stone, intelligently drenching the rows of crops around her soon. The crystal gave a low shriek and a flash of light as it finished. Pepper lowered the stone and observed the waterlogged fields with a nod.

"I see you're still having fun with the farm plots, Miss Pepper Slyhart," said a calm, masculine voice.

Pepper turned to the voice. She smiled and ran towards a youthful and slender looking man of white robes. His bright blonde hair flowed down his back like a stream of gold, broken only by a pair of long pointy ears. He was a head shorter than she was, with an oaken staff tipped with a crystal and some prayer beads, nested inside a metal circle. Vir'gol, they were called, or conduits for divine miracles.

"Tarie Beyworth, I wondered when I would see you again," she said. The redhead and the monk exchanged bows and clasped their hands sideways--a native sign of Atlasian greeting.

Glancing over his robes, she examined a symbol of a roaring holy flame imprinted onto the center of his habit, a representation of a religious order. Numerous herbs and medical bags hung at his waist. "How are you, my friend?" she said. "I see you still haven't grown a beard."

"Nymphians don't grow facial hair," he said, "You know that."

"I'm just teasing. What news do you have of your abbey and the rest of the world?"

The monk stroked his chin and grinned. "Well, affairs around the planet keep my church busy enough. One involves a clan of brigands and cultists causing mischief in several cities. Nations have teams bringing them in." He hesitated. "I'd say our planet Atlas still recovers from the war from years ago, let alone the previous conflicts."

Pepper flared her nostrils and clenched her fists. "Those damn Elemental invaders. If they hadn't shown up, we wouldn't be in such a state." She punched at a nearby bale of hay. It scattered over the vicinity. Gritting her teeth, she let out a deep breath to relax.

Tarie gave a start. "I-I understand your frustration Miss Slyhart. Maybe someday the guard patrol at the capital will accept your application as a knight. Though, I remember you've tried applying ten times already."

"I suppose I can only keep trying, as depressing as it is for me. I've only ever qualified for the rank of squire." She kicked at a rock. "I know I'm worth more. Maybe it's because my mother is a Dragonite. That makes me a half-breed."

"Dragonites are guardians of the planet," Tarie said, "What with their supernatural strength. Their breath has dominion over temperature, spewing deadly breaths of flame or frost at will and their wings create powerful storms."

"For all that's worth, I can't do any of that," Pepper returned. Her voice acquired a husky tinge, "Here I'm stuck defending the farm plots from hill bills, crag wolves, and heavens know what else. My father was a renowned war hero for Atlas sake. He taught me swordplay and for what? How did it come to this? Maybe it's because I'm a woman too?"

Tarie frowned and placed a hand on her shoulder. "Not many know of your dragon heritage. Thank the gods too. They say there's a terrible curse, in which dragons trade their sanity for power." He grimaced. "Anyway, you'd sooner be imprisoned rather than denied employment in the guard. As for being a woman, I know plenty who have advanced far in the military." He shook his head. "Take heart, Miss Slyhart. Good things come to those who are patient. If there's anything the church or I can do, please feel free to ask. I will see to it."

She smiled. "I appreciate the concern Beyworth, but maybe I'm not cut out for the guard. I do well as a farmer anyway. It's been months since I've seen my parents. I hope they're okay."

"Perhaps it best you ask around this area for ideas? You may get inspired that way. Anyway, I do believe some food and time off the farm may help you consider the idea better. It'll be on the church," he finished, winking.

"Seriously? You've been so busy with the abbey, and I wondered if you--" She hesitated. "I mean, that sounds fine with me, Beyworth. Let me grab a couple of things at my house first."

She ran towards her cone-shaped residence. An oaken barn stood next to the egg house, painted with a worn polish. Metallic bars bolted the door tight, but with metal rusted and bent from use. A small brick alcove opened towards the end, where a smithy stood. Smoke trailed through a metal pipe in its stone roof. The glimpse of an anvil and a rack of hammers and metallic tools caught the corner of Tarie's eye.

"Alright, I'll be taking in the scenery here while you prepare," he said. Finding a luxurious pile of hay to fall into, he smiled at the sky and fluffy white clouds.

He stood when his ears twitched from approaching footsteps. Pepper now dressed in long emerald skirts, guillotined with white and opal gemstones. Her earrings glinted in the afternoon sunlight. The fragrance of herbs stirred from her hair, stinging Tarie's nostrils pleasantly. He studied her speechless and slack-jawed, the image of the girl a clear contrast to the rugged, dirty farmer. Clearing his throat, he regained his posture. "T-that green dress looks exceptional on you, Miss Slyhart, especially with how the gemstones are ornately studded. The place I have in mind shouldn't be too far."

Pepper blushed at his compliment. "I'm guessing Traveler's Rest." She smirked, hands akimbo. "Judging by that astonished smile, I'm right, aren't I?"

"Yes, Traveler's Rest is a small local town, but it has its share of marvels and plentiful commodities."

How should we get there? My parents took the family's ship." She folded her arms, staring at the farming plots. "I wonder where they are right now."

Tarie pointed above. "I take it you still remember the art of flight?"

Pepper bit her lip and glared at the sky as if it bore a malicious guise. "I was never good at it, but I do recollect the basics. Can we try something safer like riding an airship? Then again, airships cost a fortune. We'd be lucky to rent one for the day selling my whole farm. I have a Yazell ostrich I use for business trips."

"That wouldn't be fun," he teased. "Come on; I'll guide you through it, Slyhart. Ships and Yazell are better for long-distance travel anyway. Traveler's Rest isn't too far."

"Frankly, I've only practiced Atlasian telepathy from time to time, but with my reclusive and dutiful life, I rarely get many chances to leave the farm. I still feel rather uneasy about flying."

"I'll keep an eye out for you. You can fly close to me," Tarie said telepathically. The voice echoed in her mind and filled her cells with a warm tingle. "Be sure to ease into it," he added, switching back to vocal speak. "Remember to first still your mind and then visualize a sphere of force around your body. The wind of the ether should surround you like a bubble."

"Okay Beyworth, you go first then," Pepper messaged, smiling gently.

Tarie nodded. He kicked off from the ground with his oaken staff and levitated above. His long blonde locks flowed like gold curtains in the breeze. Tarie gazed down to Pepper.

Taking several deep breaths, Pepper shut her eyes and wrung her hands. The air churned about her, swirling against the force of gravity. Pepper heard a popping noise as gravity weakened. The refreshing breeze of weightlessness filled her being. "Heavens, it certainly has been a while."

They set out towards a town spotted dozens of miles away. The air invigorated their bodies with the smell of fresh pollen and foliage. Beautiful was the countryside of Atlas, with its mass of levitating islands, each birthing sparkling waterfalls. Below, flowering groves and rich forests littered the landscape. Snowy mountain ranges of colossal scale reared themselves on the horizon.

They passed over groups of tusked bears, their fur rugged and streaked with brown and black. "Look Beyworth, a herd of Grasnouts! My farm owns a few docile breeds." Pepper smacked her lips. "I can still taste their extraordinary milk."

"Unfortunately, the abbey only offers the staple water and bread," Tarie said. "It's part of living a simple life for the divine. Ah, there it is--Traveler's Rest."

They landed in a vacant lot outside of town. Pepper tumbled onto ground painfully, thanks to a sloppy landing. Pepper swore at her incompetence. Tarie rushed over to help her stand.

"Damn me," she swore, "This is why I hate flying."

"E-easy there, it was your first time in a while, wasn't it? You got too excited with Atlas' splendors," he said, with a reproachful frown. "Anyway, it's not very ladylike to swear."

Pepper dusted her dress off and glared at the monk "Where is this place you mentioned? We're out to have a nice meal, right?" She folded her arms. "Sorry, I'm not setting a good mood here. Anyway, lead the way, Beyworth."

The settlement they entered, Traveler's Rest, was a large town, almost a city. A wide variety of marvels stood among its gem-paved streets, comfortable inns, and well-stocked markets. The streets bustled with families, merchants, and tourists. The sounds of kids screaming playfully and wives berating their husbands flew over the chatter of shop owners hawking their wares. The smell of freshly baked goods tempted the nostrils.

Pepper noticed a tall humanoid made of reflective crystal trudging through the streets. It was a golem forged in crystal technology and programmed to serve the public good. More designed for physical labor than combat, the slender golem moved carefully through the thick crowds, carrying bundles of miscellaneous items. Small spheres of brass, security drones, zoomed along the city roofs, letting our soft whirls that melded with the noise of the town.

Pepper turned her attention away from the machines, drawn in by street performers, juggling small vials of fire that glowed with a rainbow hue. The haunting melody of flutes echoed throughout the streets, adding a calming flair to the busy outpost. Pepper briefly settled on a potion shop, demonstrating a wide array of colorful alchemical mixtures at the front windows.

Pepper paused on a man in rags, chained at the ankles and arms with reflective crystal shackles. Dirt smeared on his face, adding to the man's deprived demeanor. On his exposed forearm, the tattoo of a dragon shone ominously. Two guards in blue jumpsuits and plated shoulder pads shoved the man forward. Their belts dangled with electrical batons.

"Keep going, half-breed," One of them said.

"A dangerous bunch they are, these bastards," the other said. "They're almost as bad as those Elemental wretches. This filth here deserves to be locked up for his crimes."

Pepper started towards the guards, her teeth clenched. A slender arm caught her. She spun around. "Let me go, Beyworth, I can't stand by and watch this."

"Miss Slyhart, please, there's nothing you can do. You'd have half the town's guard on you within minutes, and then you'd join him once they found out about your parents." The cleric's fingers dug into the redhead's dress.

Pepper returned to the wretched man in rags, watching as the guard herded him off. She ground her teeth, fiercely. "Someday...this has to be fixed. What did half-dragons ever do?"

The slave in the distance gave a sudden flurry of swings at the guard. His eyes turned to angry slits, like a reptile. Fire blazed in eyes, scorching the surrounding stone. Guards called out. Citizens immediately parted, but order quickly restored as the guards subdued the crazed man as if it was a common occurrence.

Tarie sighed. "There's the curse of dragon's blood I told you about," Tarie said. "No one knows what triggers it, but it only leads to destruction. Almost every half-Dragonite experiences it." He noticed Pepper's stricken mug. He patted her arm gently.

Pepper winced. "Well, I haven't."

"You must have the gods' own luck, Miss Slyhart."

"You aren't...afraid of me?"

He shook his head. "I've known you for many years, Miss Slyhart. I don't understand it, but you have a knack for control." He smiled wryly, "Even if you are still hotheaded.

"Filth will always be filth," a nearby guard atop a large ostrich said. Pepper and Tarie gave a start. The young man dressed in a velvet coat with golden buttons and shoulder pads with colorful plumes. Strands of blond rolled off his winged helm. A trident of silver sparkled on his back, etched with runes. His large bird mount bore a helm of metal, crafted with jagged edges to intimidate. He looked down at Pepper and Tarie with a pretentious grin.

"Lord captain Gerald?" Pepper choked.

"In the flesh. What's a lowlife like you doing here, Pepper Slyhart? Last I heard, you tried yet again for knighthood. A shame a bastard like you has no place among us, nor will you ever."

Pepper started forward but paused as Gerald aimed his spear at her throat. "Careful, or I'll have Midnight relieve you of your head, bastard."

"She's done nothing wrong," Tarie said, moving to her flank.

"A priest of the abbey--have you no shame? Defending a third-rate citizen may earn you an arrest. Just be grateful her father is a war hero." He withdrew his spear. "Killing her outright might cause political complications, but for self-defense of an officer, it's justified. As for her mother, pray she hides from my spear, Midnight. A bitch such as she--"

Pepper growled and charged the captain. Midnight twirled, slamming into the redhead's face. Pepper grunted and stumbled backward into a puddle of mud, staining her dress.

'It suits you, half-breed," he laughed, "I've enjoyed our little game, but I've better matters to attend." He slapped his Yazell. The bird gave a squawk and darted down the busy streets.

Tarie helped Pepper to her feet. Pepper watched the captain vanish. "That damned fiend. I'll break his face open next time!"

"That could've gone worse. How are you feeling?"

"My head hurts a little, but my dress looks terrible."

"I may be able to clean you up a bit." Tarie waved his vir'gol over the redhead. A stream of light arced from the gemstone tip. It engulfed the redhead, drying the wet mud with its radiation. Now dried, most of the stains broke off.

"Thanks, it's still dirty, but it'll have to do," she said, wiping a small river of blood dry. "Let's just get this day over with."

He led his despondent friend towards a tavern near the center of town. She squinted at the signpost, which displayed the image of a shining star engulfing a mug of ale. The Cosmic Respite, the display said.

A large number of customers sat at oaken tables. Servers patrolled the tavern, carrying slabs of crystal. Crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, rugs layered the polished wooden floor. Small waterfall fountains flowed gently with colorful jade, adding a refreshing tropical breeze.

"Traveler's Rest sure likes to stay busy," Pepper exclaimed, forgetting the episode in the street. At a server's hail, they found an empty booth.

"Yes, it is a fairly fundamental gathering center in this part of Atlas," Tarie said.

The waiter approached the booth, asking for a fare. Tarie obliged with a silver coin with the insignia of the holy flame on it. The waiter happily took the bauble and distributed two flat crystal devices.

Pepper gazed at the crystal device for several moments, and then glanced around the tavern. She spotted several customers drinking fermented Grasnout milk, the frothing yellow nectar swirling with cream. Others feasted on lean skillets of fish. She smiled. "Fish with a side of fresh milk should be good for lunch, wouldn't you say?"

Tarie shrugged. "I'm not too hungry, but feel free to eat as much as you need to."

Similar to the water crystal from the farm, Pepper concentrated on the crystal device on the table. A dance of lights took form, materializing fishmeal on a silver plate, accompanied by a fork and knife. "These ration manifestation crystals are handy," Pepper said, grabbing the utensils and licking her lips.

Tarie manifested a glass of mild ale to sip as Pepper consumed her fishmeal. "I've heard of some who can materialize food without a catalyst, such as these crystals. Who knows, if you manage to get into the guard, you may meet a few."

Pepper paused and grimaced. She swallowed a tight mouthful of fish. "If I manage that is. It's irritating not getting anywhere with my life. It's because I'm a simple farmer, isn't it?"

Tarie's brow narrowed. "Miss Slyhart, please stop making an excuse like that. You can't let some snobby man dictate your life. Try thinking creativity with your situation."

Pepper wolfed down another large bite, glaring at Tarie. "That is easier said than done, Beyworth. I am not sure where to start with all that. Not to mention, compared to other Atlasians, I'm relatively unremarkable in both my physical prowess and ether shifting."

Tarie nodded. "Well, the art of shifting is fairly useful," he said, twirling his staff. "It draws from the divine goddesses and their universal ether all around us. Practitioners of the art are called shifters." He paused, eying Pepper with a small smile. "With the right training and state of mind, anything is possible. Entering a mental state of mindfulness is the crux of it." He frowned. "But, to use it, one must expend their own etheric life force in exchange. Overuse can lead to exhaustion or even death in extreme cases." The monk shuddered.

Pepper nodded. "Yes, I've known that for a while. I even refreshed upon it in the pre-exam booklets at the academy, not that I use it much anyway. I prefer crystals; they do all the heavy lifting, even if they are more limited. This is technology at its finest. You have to love it." She held one of the crystal slabs up, examining its polished surface. "I've studied the basics of crystography. It helps with my blacksmithing. Dad showed me some nifty tricks to work the flux better. I mostly work in my forge when I'm not on the farm, filling the orders. Mom always took over when I was too busy with the farming plots or out of town." She sighed. "Gosh, I miss those two."

Tarie remained quiet, his eyes studying the redhead. Pepper took Tarie's silence with a deep sigh. "Anyway, you're better off not worrying too much about me. I may as well accept what I am, staying in the farm fields. Though it is rather boring, I find it a comfortable lifestyle. It helps feed the nearby villages anyway." Pepper looked down at her fish and milk and then added, "The crystal manifestations are good, but it can't beat crops grown with the kiss of the planet or fresh Grasnout milk. Ration crystals have difficulty replicating fermented foods anyway." She wrapped her fingers around a tall glass of frothing nectar the server provided, downing it with a couple large gulps. She let out a gasp, wiping cream from her lips. "The men can have their royal guard. Even if I am a woman, farmer, or whatever else, I'll make something out of my life."

Tarie smiled at her, nodding approvingly. "That's the way, Miss Slyhart. I am sure you will grow into a fine farmer given time. Who knows where else it may lead you." He arched a finger, "If you want to explore the art of shifting, let me know, as I'll be more than happy to show you."

The two finished their food and drink, setting the crystal devices on the table for the waiter to collect. Pepper stretched. "It was a great idea coming here though. I feel like it did me good going out with a friend. We should definitely do it again sometime when you are not busy with your duties."

Tarie nodded. "Indeed we should. Anyway, we should go back--"

As Tarie spoke, a burly man barged into the pub. He was elderly, with a rugged appearance likened to that of an old tire, but matched by an aura of youthful vigor. His massive muscles illustrated themselves through his leather-skin tunic, breeches, and patched cloak. The man's full beard of gray further emphasized his wild appearance. A large scar circumvented one eye. Swiftly scanning around the pub, like a feral animal, the stranger settled on Pepper and Tarie. He walked over to them briskly. "You two, this place is in danger. You must evacuate everyone out of town immediately."

Both Pepper and Tarie gawked at the man before the former folded her arms. "Huh? Would you care to explain the demand you gave there? Maybe you need to settle down a bit."

"There's no time. We must act now if you care about the lives of those who dwell in this town!"

Tarie held his palm out. "W-wait, we would indeed like an explanation before we do as you say. Please, good sir."

The man groaned. "A clan of druids targets this town. They wish to make a sacrifice to their goddess, and they are already--"

A massive explosion interrupted the man's speech, rocking the town in the far distance of the city. All three widened their eyes in great surprise. The elder tore away from the duo.

"It's too late," the man cried, "I must go now, with or without your help!" He dashed out the door, pushing a curious patron away.

"Wait," Pepper said, "Ugh, stubborn old fool."

"H-he said clan of druids. Those must be the ones the church is after, Miss Slyhart!"

Pepper nodded at her friend, smoothing her skirts. "I would assume they are the same. Let's get out of here." She sucked her breath as she left the pub with him, and entered the ensuing bedlam of the streets.