Chapter One
9:22 a.m.
Cobalt Room, Touchstone

A chilling breeze swept through the Cobalt Room, licking at the heels of Atreyu as he paced across the room back and forth. His boots clapped sharply against the concrete floor in rhythm as he turned on his heel and headed back in the opposite direction, bringing his hand up to massage his temples briefly as he sighed. This was a problem. A major problem. He stopped in mid-stride, taking a moment to glance over the spacious room as he stood in thought. It was a simple design; all colored in the same shade of cobalt blue, hence its name.

The walls were made of a stony gray brick, but other than that everything was blue. The wide floor runner than ran from the door to the center of the room: cobalt blue. The large octagonal table situated in the middle of the room: cobalt blue. The eerie wave-like statues that sprouted from the walls of the room and even the hidden door behind one of the statues: cobalt blue. The simplicity of it all had always disgusted him, but he dealt with it. He had bigger things to think about than the color of his company's headquarters.

She was gone. Vanished. It was as elementary as that. Letting out another frustrated sigh, Atreyu tugged at the collar of his shirt, finding the room suddenly stuffy as he sat down in one of the chairs the surrounded the eight-sided table. "It's been eighteen years," he mumbled to himself, leaning back in the chair.

"Eighteen human years," a voice corrected as its owner stepped out of the shadows. It was Piran, a man older than the fledgling Atreyu by a great deal and therefore was the wiser of the two, but that didn't change the fact that he was his subordinate. Piran was considered past his prime, having recently celebrated his 672nd birthday. His hair was thinning, and his cheeks sagged, but he still managed to convey a sense of authority whenever he entered the room, with or without the high cheekbones. His seniority didn't matter though. It hadn't taken Atreyu long to earn the title of leader of the Cobalt Reach and it was argued that his inexperience in the group was the prime factor in his brash nature even if, on most occasions, he was the perfect lapdog.

"Remember, we age fourteen times slower than them."

"It doesn't matter, Piran," Atreyu said lightly, glancing up at the man as he folded his arms over his chest. "The fact is we still haven't found her."

"You've been in charge of the project, haven't you?" Piran asked, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "To tell you the truth, I don't think we've taken the appropriate measures to go about retrieving her. Last we heard after the invasion, she was in the world on the other side, the human's world, was she not? It's a relatively closed environment that w e hybrids have an easy access to, so it shouldn't be this hard to locate one girl."

"This one girl has caused a handful of troubles since she disappeared," Atreyu replied. "The human's world may be easy to reach, but she's not as stupid as you think. We can't trace her now that she's taken up her other form. She won't let herself get caught so easily. Not until she's ready." Piran raised an eyebrow in question, tapping his fingers quickly against one of the wave statues that protruded from the wall.

"Is that your opinion as the Cobalt Reach Commander or as her fiancé?"

Atreyu turned to Piran slowly, the corners of his mouth twitching ever so slightly as he stood up, deciding to ignore the inquiry. "The normal soldiers aren't gonna cut it. We're going to have to get permission from Chaim to send in some of the specialists; the high ranking ones if we ever want to find her."

"You mean. . . the hybrids such as yourself, right?" Piran asked, letting a small grin creep to his lips as the younger man snorted in contempt.

"Was there a reason for your coming here? The next meeting isn't for days and I doubt you've received a summons from his Highness. . ."

"But you have. That's why I'm here. His Highness, Chaim, has requested a meeting with you to discuss the very matter of the girl's disappearance. I'm afraid he's running out of patience with you. Perhaps you'll find that you're falling out of his favor."

"All of Touchstone is falling out of his favor."

"That may be so," Piran agreed mildly, nodding, "but don't forget that you're part of a company now. You have to put the interests of the Cobalt Reach above your own."

"Are you finished?" he muttered, taking a few steps towards the door.

"For now. Just keep in mind that nothing goes unnoticed here in Touchstone," Piran added. "Well, you shouldn't keep Chaim waiting," he said quietly, wiping off a layer of dust that had settled on one of the statues. A smile settled on the corners his mouth.
"I'm on my way there," the younger said as he brushed past him. "You can tell the others to hold off on the search until we get more orders from Chaim."

"Alrighty then." Atreyu watched carefully as the older man walked away, before making his way to the palace. There was something about that old man that he couldn't put his finger on. He'd have to watch out for him later if he ever planned to move up in ranks. Piran was a tricky one, that was sure enough.

The Cobalt Reach had always held something of a special place in Touchstone's government. Despite the particularly strict rules, Touchstone could be a rather peaceful community if you abided by the law and asked no questions. The entire place had been sent reeling since the incident seventeen years ago, but the commotion had inevitably died down since then thanks to the fact that it had been kept under wraps as much as possible as per the emperor's request. But things had changed lately, and Chaim had suddenly became restless when it came to the search for the girl.

Atreyu looked up slowly as he approached the gates of the palace, his eyes settling on the young woman in charge of the gate; Tresca. She was pretty scrawny, standing a couple of inches shorter than himself with very short black hair, light eyes and skin, and undoubtedly weighed only half of what he did, but she was well acquainted with her throwing knives and explosives. She alone was left with the task of guarding the entrance to the palace and no one had ever given it a second thought.

"Taking your time, eh?" she chided, fumbling with one of the clasps on her overalls. "Chaim sent out the summons for you nearly an hour ago."

"Tell that to Piran," he replied.

"Oh, Piran again," she cooed. "He sure can be a handful. I noticed he's been making an awful lot of visits to see you lately. You must be doing something wrong," Tresca said in a sing-song voice. Teasing high-class hybrids like him was one of her favorite pastimes. Standing around guarding a gate all day for years on end could get pretty boring, but this was one of the ways that she managed.

"I see Yoril's been feeding you lies again."

"Yoril tells me what I want to hear, although the only gossip he gets is from those back at the lab which makes for boring rumors. I can't help but wonder if you guys at the Cobalt Reach 'accidentally' lost his application during pending," she responded shrewdly, placing one of her hands over the lever that controlled the gate. She paused. "What's with the sad face? I'm sure Chaim isn't too angry with you. I mean, it's only been eighteen yea rs," she continued in a sarcastic fashion, watching the expression on his face turn from mild irritation to frustration. "Besides, it's only his da --"

"Just open the gate already," Atreyu interrupted, rubbing the back of his neck. "I don't have time for this."

"You look like crap," she replied, stifling a giggle. "How long has it been since you've had a shower? Don't tell me you spent all night at the Cobalt Reach again."

"What's it to you?"

"That's right," Tresca said. She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Why did it always have to be business with him? "Ever since you got promoted you've let it go to your head. It seems like a pretty ol' gatekeeper like me can't possibly take a moment to have a polite conversation. You're above that now, eh?"

"Would you just --"

"I know, I know." And with a quick pull of the lever, the gate instantly flew upwards on its track, emitting the familiar screeching sound as it stopped, leaving an opening nearly as tall as the palace walls in its wake. Without another glance, Atreyu passed through. "Don't forget to smile!" Tresca shouted after him, but he merely walked faster in response. "Boy is he grumpy," she muttered to herself, leaning against the back of the gate as she followed him with her eyes as he ascended the stairs to the palace.
Truthfully, Atreyu did have some reservations about meeting with Chaim so suddenly. He was certain that it wouldn't be a pleasant conversation but he had to report back to him on the progress- or lack of, sometime or another. As he made his way down one of the long halls, he unrolled the sleeves of his sweatshirt in a futile attempt to iron out the wrinkles in the thick material so that he'd look at least half-presentable in front of his governor. Tresca had been correct; he had indeed spent the entire night in that sickeningly blue room trying to sort out a course of action for them to take to locate the missing girl, but nothing good had come of it. Sighing with frustration, he ran his fingers through short brown strands of hair as he passed by the rows and rows of painted mosaics on the wall. Nearly every single open space in the whole palace had been filled with an art form of some kind. It seemed that Chaim had a flair for self expression, or at least that's what Atreyu had concluded after his many trips to various parts of the building.

He could only imagine what sort of chaos would erupt if the humans were to discover that the ruler of the Touchstone was almost always absorbed in the numerous pieces of artwork that we was constantly having shipped to his castle. Atreyu was so lost in his thoughts that he didn't notice he was being followed.

"Commander Desai, a good morning to you," a v oice said from behind him suddenly. Atreyu stopped in mid-step, turning to face the owner of the voice.

"Your Highness," he blurted out quickly, not expecting to see him in the hall. "I thought you wanted to meet in the throne room."

"No, this will do just fine," Chaim replied, a smirk setting on his features. Atreyu nodded slightly, taking a quick glance at the man.
Chaim, often mistaken for Satan to the outside world, had an appearance that was drastically different than what had been depicted of his predecessor in the old photos and picture-books that the humans had generalized him by. In all truth, he looked just like all of the other hybrids; who in turn looked just like the humans save the well-developed fangs on their top row of teeth. "You're late," Chaim continued, "but never mind that. We need to talk. I want to hear of any progress you've made."

"Well," Atreyu began, eager to get the response out without sounding like a complete idiot. "The girl is still undetectable. We haven't been able to --" he paused when Chaim raised his hand slightly, grinning a bit.

"You're in the palace now. You are free to use her name."

"Yes," the brown haired hybrid mumbled, trying to reconfigure his words under the awkward stare of his superior. "There hasn't been any sign at all of Hylika in the human's world. We don't even have a trace on her. There's a good chance that she's changed to her lesser form in order to stop us from detecting her."

"Something as meager as that shouldn't be an obstacle. A hybrid is still a hybrid, Atreyu, whether in their weaker form or stronger. Is this really the best that you can do? Perhaps I'm putting my faith in the wrong hands. . ."

"No, Sir," Atreyu defended abruptly. "We'll find her as soon as possible. Just give us more time. There's new technology being developed for --"

"You are aware that Hylika is your only objective right now, correct?" Chaim inquired. "You needn't worry about anything else at the moment. I'm leaving the case of carrying out the attacks to the Anke Division. Their meant for that trivial sort of thing anyway, and just think about it. The sooner she's back, the sooner you'll be married."

"That's not exactly one of my priorities anymore. . ."

"Is that so?"

"Unless that would inconvenience you," Atreyu said, feeling as if he'd overstepped his boundaries, then added a mute, "Sir."

"Very good," said Chaim, nodding a little. "At the moment, how exactly the attacks on the humans are carried out aren't of any concern to us. They ones we're sending out are low class hybrids anyway and if we order them to kill the humans, they will. They're of the one-track mind sort. Unlike Hylika and yourself. Of course, her powers are dwindling more rapidly the longer she stays in the world on the other side, which is why we need to find her as soon as possible. Once you finally capture her and transport her back to Touchstone. . ."

"She'll be put on trial in front of the Anke Division and be given her sentence, right?"

"Actually I've changed my mind," Chaim replied. "After her capture, and after she's safely tucked away into one of the prisons, I want her executed." Atreyu's breath caught in his throat as he b rought his gaze up to meet Chaim's.

"But, Sir," he said quickly. He could feel the bile rise in his stomach as he pondered the sudden change of orders. "Don't you think that's a little drastic? Earlier you were considering hard labor for life. Why doesn't that punishment fit her crimes anymore? She hasn't done anything else wrong."

"Are you questioning my decision, Atreyu?" He could only wish that yes was an accepted answer, but he'd learned the workings of the government long ago, and it was better not to ask questions and do what you were told; even if did mean having to go to great lengths to conspire against them in the future.

"No."

"Good. Keep it up and one day this might be your kingdom." He cast a glance at the younger. "'His Highness Desai Atreyu'. How does that sound?"

"I hadn't thought about it."

"Well you should," Chaim said, chuckling a bit. "Oh, and there's one other thing."

"What?"

"When she is eventually captured and imprisoned, I'll let you be the one responsible for her execution."

"You want me to give the order?" he asked, a feeling of dread washing over him. Chaim's expression didn't change. He moved his hand to Atreyu's shoulder in an attempt that seemed to display a certain amount of false reassurance.

"You'll do it, right? You're my most trusted officer and I can only hope you'd like it to stay that way."

"If that's what his Majesty wishes," Atreyu responded finally, "I'll be sure to execute her."

"You're wise beyond your years. I'll have to keep an eye on you. Well," he sighed, lowering his arm. "I appreciate you coming here to meet me. You're dismissed for the day. Go enjoy yourself."

"Thank you, Sir," Atreyu said, bowing slightly. He hesitated for a moment, taking a last glance at the man before he turned around; exiting the castle through the same way he'd entered, trying t o pay no heed to Tresca's incessant teasing and inquiries.

"Wow, I'm impressed. You're still in one piece," she commented, letting out a low whistle as she trailed closely behind him down the stony path leading away from the gate. "You weren't in there for longer either. I thought you'd get scolded for sure. You're lucky; he really must like you."

"Shut up already," he muttered in return, not at all in the mood for chit-chat. But then again, he never was.

"So what did he want? Did he take you off of the project? Is there still a search for her? Are you still in the Cobalt Reach?"

"I said shut up," Atreyu repeated in an irked tone. "What're you doing wandering away from the gate anyway?"

"To talk to you, silly," she replied, sticking her tongue out at him. "It's not like anyone is gonna try to sneak in anyhow. They know they've got to me to deal with if they try anything shallow like that."

"Someone is going to r eport you whether anyone gets in or not. It's not wise to leave it open like that. One of Chaim's lapdogs is going to submit a complaint."

"Well aren't you one of Chaim's lapdogs?" she asked, raised an eyebrow. "I mean, most of us around here are. There are a few oddballs like you and Piran, but other than that. . ."

"Hardly," he said. "I may be commander of the Cobalt Reach, but I'm not a complete idiot."

"So you are planning on over --"

"Didn't I tell you to be quiet?" he interrupted, sending a glare in her direction. "You should get back to your post. Like I said, you'll get reported otherwise."

"If you're not nice to me than I'll just tell everyone about your little hidden agenda you've got going," she threatened mildly. "I'm sure that Chaim would love to know about --"

"Then I'd just have to kill you," Atreyu responded blandly, although there was no intention behind the statement.
"You know, Yoril was right about you getting nastier since you joined the Reach." Atreyu frowned, pondering the statement briefly. Nastier?

"Since when was I nasty in the first place?"

"Oh, just about all the time," Tresca answered in a drawling voice as she stepped in front of him, blocking his path. "But it was better back then. Now you're all uptight and apprehensive. Maybe that's why Hylika took the opportunity to leave when we were invaded. I mean, come on, she's known you for nearly two hundred years, maybe she's just gotten sick of you. I can't blame her though," she continued, giving a melodramatic sigh. "But then again, if she left because she was mad, she could've just stayed here and deflated that ego of yours. Both of you may be high-ranking hybrids but she really has the upper hand when it comes to the intellec tual arts. I would know, considering I took the class with you," she said, waiting for a reaction from the disgruntled hybrid.

"You've got some nerve," Atreyu muttered. If there was anything that bothered him more than Chaim's incessant summoning, it was when people got their facts wrong. Especially when they were about him. "I'm at least twice as strong as her. Where'd you get those stupid ideas, anyway?"

"That's not what Yoril tells me. . ."

"What would he know? He's just a lab rat," Atreyu said. "Now get out of the way."

"Don't insult him," Tresca replied, crossing her arms over her chest. "Besides, if there ever was a match between you and Hylika, I think she'd win."

"Then think again," he replied as he walked around her.

"You're still coming to the celebration tonight, right?" Tresca called after him.

"Celebration?"

"It's the first year anniversary of the wedding of Yoril and me," Tresca reiterated, a look of dismay replacing her smile. "Don't tell me you forgot about it. I'm sure that Yoril mentioned it to you earlier, he said that he would. You'll be there, right?"

Atreyu frowned slightly. The entire event had slipped his mind.

"Yeah, sure."