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The Promised Ones; Guardian War 1

Promised One

Guardian War #1

 

By Axl Briar

 

Copyright 2011 by Axl Briar

 

Shakespir Edition

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or if it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

 

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Chapter 1

 

The sun blazed overhead. A cloudy haze, bringing the hope of fresh rain, drifted across the peaks of the Serrania de Baudo range. These low lying mountains were covered in rain forest like the swampy Atrato Valley below. It was January, during one of the two dry seasons in the pacific lowlands of Columbia. High on the side of one peak was a rocky outcropping. Concealed along it was a strike group.

Major Javin Cox, Special Operations, touched lieutenant Bowski on the shoulder and pointed down into the valley as they peered over the rock. He nodded and hefted his rifle back into position. Strict silence had to be maintained.

In the valley center about 10 klicks away, surrounded by thick foliage and sitting beside the flowing Rio Atrato a grouping of opaque domes glistened in the sun. It was the Toad nerve center on Earth.

Javin raised oil-lens binoculars, trying to get a closer read on the enemy. A clear view was blurred by heat waves shimmering in the moist air. He wiped the sweat from his brow above peculiar black eyes, silently cursing the mud smear it left. His dusky brown hair, grown long and shaggy out of his military crew was caked with mud along with his damp jungle cammos. His slight but strong frame was tired and sore from hiking.

It’d taken twelve days to get this close. Slow crawling, silent moving, and creeping under the jungle canopy avoided detection. They’d done well in spite of the rain, heat and humidity; in spite of low rations and living off the land. Javin couldn’t shake the feeling they were being watched. Was it just paranoia? If they’d been seen, they’d never have made it this far.

He stared up at the sun. It’d be nice to have some cloud cover. A huge storm would be even better. On the ground they could handle the downpour. It would hinder the Toads in the air.

It was just three months ago the Toads had come -- three months which seemed an eternity for the human race. Finally the age-old question had been answered. Are we alone in the universe? No! There were others.

The Toads were a race that looked as their name implied. Humanoid in form, they averaged around six feet tall with sleek rubbery skin. No hair, dark green backs, lighter green fronts, and large eyes. Their heads were flat and oblong. Sinewy arms and legs were lined with whip chord muscles allowing them to move almost faster than the eye could follow. The guess was they were descended from amphibians. One thing wasn’t a guess. They were hard to kill.

When they arrived, they arrived with vengeance. Civilian or soldier, woman or child, it didn’t matter, they just killed. Humans quickly learned it was Us or Them.

Their first surprise strike left earth’s civilization virtually defenseless. Every military installation was decimated. Now it was a guerilla war. Military commanders of all stripes and nations were in hiding with whatever forces they could muster. Underground organizations were fighting back however they could.

The Toads didn’t want subjugation, didn’t want tribute. They simply wanted Earth for themselves.

Now they were launching systematic drives, rounding people up. Javin was still trying to blank the memories. The word “humane” didn’t register. There was no comprehension of mistreatment. Humans were simply vermin to be exterminated without doing too much damage to the planet they’d claimed.

Javin had been in Quibdo on some R&R when the Toads had invaded. He’d ditched the jeep after two close calls with Toad aerial patrols and moved through the jungle on foot to join up with his ops team at their base hidden in the San Jorge Valley. They’d been fighting the ‘War on Drugs.’ None of that mattered now.

While in the city, he’d overheard some of the Caucano Indians who lived in the Atrato swamps telling their city brethren that the Toads had built their ‘fortress on earth’ on their land. Normally those Indians kept completely to themselves and were the ones Javin had tried to interdict from hauling the raw coca out of that region. He knew he had to do something with the intelligence. Communications were either down or being monitored. Transcontinental transportation was non-existant. It would fall to him to do something if he could.

Javin had thought long and hard as he’d hoofed through the jungle back to his base. By the time he’d arrived he had a plan. After two days being back a nagging feeling told him he had to move now. As he’d learned from countless missions, he didn’t ignore the feeling.

No sooner had he gotten his people beyond the base perimeter into the jungle than a Toad aerial patrol swooped in and hit the base with pulse cannons. Javin and his team had barely gotten clear with the few support stragglers who’d decided to come along and help with the ‘package,’ a suitcase nuke Javin carried on his back. Most of them had made it the 12 days to where they were now, overlooking the Toad base.

He unconsciously touched the chest pocket where his lucky marble sat and continued to study the compound.

Javin put the binoculars down and rubbed his neck. His unease was getting worse. He’d never been wrong about something like this.

Should they abort?

They’d never get this close again.

He crept down the line to where his team waited. Only his team would make the final run into the valley. The rest would wait on the ridge. He’d thought about using those remaining as a diversion for about a minute. It wouldn’t work. The Toads would figure it out. It was best the Toads had no idea anyone was close. Besides, the support people weren’t combat hardened, just company clerks and file boys who’d gotten out with his team.

They’d keep their heads down until Javin’s team had done its work. Then it wouldn’t matter. The compound would hopefully be destroyed. The nuke on Javin’s back would see to that. He’d have done his part. It would be up to others to carry on and make of it what they could.

The nuke had been sent down for another mission, one planned from before the Toad attack. It had been intended for a strategic deniable ‘hit’ against a group of terrorists using drug money to finance their operations. It would have been assumed the terrorists were playing with nukes and made a big mistake. Now the bomb had a different target.

Without their command center Javin hoped the Toad invasion would falter, giving humanity a chance to regroup and fight back.

They couldn’t turn back.

Huddled underneath some thick growth his team waited. Four men and one woman had fresh mud caked over every exposed part of their bodies, masking odor, minimizing heat signature, dulling surfaces. They weren’t sure what Toad sensors picked up. Any electronics except the nuke had been left behind. They did everything they could to blend in. It seemed to be working . . . so far. Except that bad feeling which kept gnawing at Javin.

He knelt and gestured for his Second to help offload the pack. Two others came forward and helped slather fresh mud on him and the pack. He was used to the smell.

Once re-caked, he re-shouldered the pack.

Javin had been assured the nuke wouldn’t go off until armed.

Right.

The tech who’d instructed him also said the power source was shielded.

Shielded enough?

That tech was dead. Fallen into a jungle sinkhole he should have seen. Sloppy. He hoped he hadn’t been sloppy in his instruction. Javin would find out soon enough.

Setting the timer wouldn’t be a problem. He’d already decided if they made it close enough, he’d give his team time to get clear then set it off manually. He didn’t want the Toads to find and disarm it.

Javin looked at his team, paused then reached into his pocket, pulling out his lucky marble. His Second smiled, knowing what it meant. The small milky-white sphere with wriggly-grey veins felt warm in Javin’s palm. Clenched in his fist it gave comfort.

Whatever worked.

Javin tilted his head to Second, held up one finger. Take point. The man nodded. Javin pointed out one more. You next. Then touched his chest and glanced at everyone to make sure they understood. The next two he pointed to either side, splaying fingers, thumb holding the marble against his palm. Fan out. The last knew he was Tail.

Second moved to the rocky escarpment and slithered over. The next followed. Javin moved slow, easing gently over the outcropping. No sense jiggling the nuke too much.

He landed light on the mulch then ghosted into the foliage.

***

It took all afternoon to reach the valley floor. Javin called them in with hand signals and climbed into the center of a dense thicket to wait for night. It would be clear with a full moon. It increased their chances of being seen.

Javin shrugged out of the pack and pulled open a flap. His team watched him arm the mechanism, hesitating now and then to remember the steps then pulled out a palm switch, holding it in his right hand.

If they were attacked and couldn’t get closer, Javin would touch it off hoping they were close enough. He rolled his lucky marble across the fingers on his left hand. It was still warm. He’d been holding it since leaving the ridge.

The others’ eyes were dim points of light against their mud caked skin. Javin sat and pointed to the last of the sun, motioning with his finger across the remaining sky and down. They understood. They’d wait until dark to move out again.

Each took a place equally spaced and sat facing out, Javin in the center. His package had to be protected.

The jungle had become eerily silent. No insect chitter, animal growls, or hoots. It was so quiet he imagined hearing the sound of moist air being belched from the smoldering jungle floor. The mud on his skin had been itchy. Now it was a coolant. Not really cool, but cooler than the hot, tepid air.

They waited.

***

Night fell. No one had moved except for minor shifting. Javin peered through the growth. Faint moonglow shimmered from behind a mountain peak lighting the starry sky on that side. It would top soon. They should move as far as they could before then.

There had been no movement from the Toads. No ground or air patrols. Odd. Too quiet. Javin’s uneasiness grew. What was it saying? That he was going to die? He already knew that.

There was something else: a vague feeling of familiarity -- Déjà vu. He couldn’t pinpoint it. Giving up he filed it in the back of his mind to let his subconscious mull it over.

Stupid feeling to have now anyway; nothing I can do about it.

Javin gathered his group and he made hand-signal assignments. Point would rotate every thirty minutes to stay fresh. Flanks would move a bit wider, and everyone would spread a bit, just keeping in eye contact. A tighter group would be easier to spot.

They were ready to move out.

Javin then made what he thought was a crazy decision. It was spur of the moment, something he couldn’t explain. He just had a compelling feeling he couldn’t shrug off, so he followed it. He left his weapon in the glade, det switch in his right hand . . . lucky marble in his left.

Why am I doing this? This is really crazy! The feeling was so intense it couldn’t be ignored. Something about holding that marble in his hand outweighed the safety of holding his weapon instead. He could only imagine what his squad thought. They didn’t question, though. He’d brought them home enough times they figured he knew what he was doing. Javin just figured he was going nuts. Well. Not completely. No one but he knew how he’d been given that marble years ago. He still was trying to figure that one out after twenty years. The marble wasn’t magical or anything. It never did anything except help him focus while he was holding or looking into it. It was special in a way he couldn’t describe. It was his lucky marble. To top it off, now it felt like it was getting warmer and starting to glow. A trick of the moonlight?

His team moved slowly to catch the sensors they knew would be in place. Javin wished he could take point. He was the best, but had to hang back to protect the ‘package’.

They hadn’t gone far, when Point held up her hand. Everyone froze. She motioned Second to come up. After a time, they stood and signaled all clear.

One down, how many more to go?

They moved on.

The night remained still, the jungle silence unnerving. Time wasn’t measured in minutes, but by the moon trekking across the sky. By steps growing into klicks.

Two more times they stopped, once by Point, another by Left Flank. Each time the device was successfully circumvented.

Toad technology was simple. Straight-line programming was easily duped. The hardware, though, was virtually indestructible. Just like the Toads; seeming soft and squishy, but hard to kill.

Javin’s nerves suddenly spiked. There was a rustle on right flank. Johnson was gone! They all froze. After a bit, Javin motioned Second over to check it out. He moved silently out to the area, stepped around a bit then turned, shaking his head. He held up a hand. Question?

Javin pointed. Go further.

They all waited, listening. After a time, Second appeared just ahead of where he’d stepped out of sight; shook his head.

Move out! Javin signaled. Eyes hardened but obeyed. They’d never left a comrade before. Javin didn’t like it either, but the nagging feeling was more urgent. They’d been seen. The Toad’s had been watching all along.

Why are they waiting?

It didn’t matter. What mattered was getting closer. Javin’s thumb hovered over the det switch. Just a bit further. One more klick at the most. He thought he could make out the faint glow of the domes up ahead emanating above the tall foliage they could barely walk through.

Time seemed to freeze. Javin’s senses sparkled. A hundred steps and he knew left flank had been taken. There’d been no sound. Javin just couldn’t see him anymore.

He didn’t stop. Did the others know? It didn’t matter. All that mattered was the target. He hated that he couldn’t let himself feel for his people.

Feelings didn’t matter, only what he had to do.

A soft breeze swished through the foliage. With it Second was taken. Javin saw the Toad rise up and pull him down and away, the bushes swishing as he was dragged quickly out of their perimeter. Point spun just in time to see. Then she was grabbed. Javin didn’t have to look to know their tail was gone too.

Do they know about the nuke?

Javin stood still. Someone was coming. He could feel it. Someone he thought he should know.

Strange. That feeling again.

Startled, he realized his lucky marble had grown hot. He opened his palm to see small trickles of wriggling light coming from inside. He didn’t know why he wasn’t surprised.

He looked back up. The presence was drawing closer. If it reached him, he instinctively knew he’d not be able to touch off the nuke. Javin sensed a dark power coming closer that would overwhelm him.

A ring of Toads rose in full view, their lanky bodies moving forward about ten paces off.

This is it. Can’t wait any longer.

Javin was surprised it wasn’t harder. He took a deep breath holding both hands out, palms up where the Toads could see; lucky marble in one hand, the det switch in the other.

He thumbed the detonator -- absently noticing his lucky marble flash with searing white . . .

 

Chapter 2

 

Where am I? I’m floating, drifting. It’s dark. It’s warm.

This isn’t right! I shouldn’t be here. How do I know? It’s a feeling.

He floated longer. Then another question came to his mind.

Who am I? It seemed odd to even ask inside his mind. It struck him that he should know.

A name flashed. “Javin Cox.”

Mine.

There’s nothing with it, though; nothing telling who I am.

I am myself.

I don’t know who that self is. I should know. There is nothing other than just the being I am now, this instant.

He felt confusion.

I am a blank. A non-being. Yet I’m aware. He waited for a time in warm patience.

What am I?

A picture came to mind. I am a -- _____________. The name doesn’t register.

Man?’

Again a picture flashed in his mind. A form, head, arms, legs . . . another word. Human.

Oh, that’s what I am.

How did I get here? His mind darted back and forth. Do I belong elsewhere? I don’t know. This drifting, it’s all of my existence, all I remember. Yet I feel I don’t belong. It’s not . . . natural.

He continued drifting in the blackness. Then another thought came.

Time?

How long? Short, I think.

More time passed.

Drifting. Warm.

FLASH!

He wobbled, finding he was standing now, surrounded by white. He looked around. There was no contrast, no depth to measure size, just endless white. This place, is it big? It seems infinite, yet small, comfortable.

He looked down at himself. I have a body? Yes, that’s it. Pale. Appendages. Arms, legs, feet . . . Head. Hands reach to touch . . . hair. What color? Don’t know. I’m naked! Strange he should wonder about that. He didn’t know anything else. And of course he had a body. Why wouldn’t he? Something told him he should be surprised. Something deep within told him he shouldn’t even be . . . Alive?

Hesitation.

Something is definitely not right.

Again he looked around. Still no depth, no sense of distance. A no-place.

Should I worry? I don’t think so. There’s no threat.

Amazing! Threat. Another concept I just know.

He shook his head.

At least it’s warm.

“Who is that?” Someone is here but I can’t see.

“Where are you?”

“Wait! I hear you. What do you want?”

“Come on! Talk to me.”

There was no answer.

A dark spot appeared at a point directly in front of his eyes. It was the first contrasting thing he’d seen since coming to this . . . place. Is it a spot on a wall or an opening far away? He felt himself moving towards it and noted it started looming larger. He realized he was moving at a high rate of speed!

Javin started to turn, but it was too late. He was engulfed!

He was floating again in black. Wait. There were dim points of light streaking by. Awkwardly he turned, flailing just a bit, but noting the continued movement. I’m traveling fast!

Where?

Why?

 

Chapter 3

 

Javin awoke, eyes flickering. He tried to move. Something was pinning him down and no amount of straining would allow him to move so much as a finger. He lay in stillness. The area was dark, misty, damp. Then a faint light began to grow off to his right, illuminating to a blue-green. The mist began to strain down as the light grew brighter, gradually rising higher. The temperature rose too, though not overly hot. Air thickened and Javin labored to breath. He still couldn’t move, as though held by an oppressive weight.

His surroundings grew lighter, the mist continuing to strain lower, distilling into the ground leaving Javin covered in a damp sheen. He squinted against the light.

High above, dense clouds obscured the light source, though amplified by water molecules in a prism effect it cast brilliant light all around, eliminating shadows.

SNAP!

Javin felt the binding give way from inside. He lurched to his feet, staggering in a chest-high growth of thick blue-green grass. It now was as light as a bright summer day high on a mountain. He stopped. How did he know this? There was a picture in his mind. There was understanding, a frame of reference. He looked around, saw dense jungle, incredibly tall trees, clouds swirling through their tops.

He was naked.

This is wrong!

What’s normal? He concentrated. Nothing surfaced. Blank. Wait!

He’d just come from . . . white. It faded from his memory. No amount of coaxing brought it back.

Javin started walking. Javin? It was his name. Javin Cox. No memories surfaced with it. Again, it was only a frame of reference.

He stumbled from the grass to a vague path. It led into a clearing ringed by thick trees. Bushes grew between the trees, pushing up against and filling in. The clear ground was a mulchy grass and fallen leaves. Even under the trees the light was bright. “Water crystals in the air are refracting the light,” he said aloud. How do I know this?

Javin looked around then sat against a mossy tree trunk, fear growing to panic. He realized he was far from home.

Home? The concept registered but no place came to memory.

My memories! They’re gone. How did he know he had memories? He just knew.

The tree trunk was cool. Tilting his head back and closing his eyes, he tried to relax, letting his senses drift, thinking of nothing, only letting brief snatches of thought, impressions, tiny pieces of memory flow, trying to put them into some semblance of understanding.

Flashes of memory came and went.

Trouble! Lots of it. He’d made a decision. Blinding light. Voices. They were talking about him. He was supposed to do something. They’d never said what. Movement . . .

And waking up here!

It was all a jumble no matter how hard he focused.

Javin Cox! That’s my name. But there’s nothing to go with it. I’m somebody! I’ve got a life! Still no memories would come.

They’re blocked.

Javin knew this. It didn’t help. Anger flashed.

Wait! I’ve got to stay calm.

He pushed down anger, apprehension, breathed deep, closing his eyes to find his center. How did he know to do that? Don’t question. Just do.

He opened his eyes, scanning the surroundings with full awareness. Stop!

Eyes! Staring straight back from the far side of the clearing. Brilliant blue orbs were attached to a stocky four-legged reptile about the same height as Javin. It was muscular with a splotchy green and brown hide and a curved, sinuous neck ending in a diamond-shaped head. A tail curled back into the bush, and stout legs ended in . . . claws!

The glistening blue eyes entranced. A tongue darted out revealing pointed teeth.

That’s no herbivore! Disgust colored fear as he knew the terminology but not the memory references.

Javin tried a slow movement -- and couldn’t!

Not again! What’s happening with my body?

He tried to tense muscles. They didn’t respond. He sat, staring back into the deepening blue eyes. His body remained limp, relaxed, not hearing the messages his brain was sending.

It’s the eyes! I can’t break contact. Javin realized he couldn’t even blink.

The beast crept forward slow and steady, head level, eyes fixed. A low guttural sound was forced through its long neck.

Sweat trickled down Javin’s face. He concentrated, focusing every faculty. His body remained slack, eyes starting to hurt.

This isn’t going to be pretty.

There might be a chance. When the beast went to take a bite it’d have to break eye contact. Maybe he could get away with whatever parts of his body he had left over. Then Javin remembered the claws and realized it wasn’t likely he’d get the chance.

The beast moved closer, step by step. I’ll only get one shot at this..

A sound came from above, a heavy rustling of leaves, then a snap!

What was that?

It physically hurt that he couldn’t look. Javin’s nerves were strained to the limit. The beast was almost in reach.

What would it grab first? A leg? An arm? Maybe the neck. If so . . .

Steady . . . Javin tried to focus on the right muscles so when, or if, released, he’d be ready for the slashing movement.

Suddenly a branch landed square across the beast’s snout. It snorted in surprise, shook its head and reared back with a deep-throated bellow.

Javin blinked. He could move! He turned from under the tree and jumped for the nearest branch, swinging up just as he heard the beast howl again from behind. A tremor shook the tree as its claws raked the bole where Javin had just been.

He pulled himself up with panicked agility, moving farther into the tree and praying the beast couldn’t climb. The reptile continued to pound its forelegs against the tree, scraping gashes in the trunk as it bugled.

It was mad! But at least it was still hungry.

Javin climbed to a wide limb and stood bending over, sucking in deep breaths, resting his hand against the thick trunk for balance.

That was close!

He rubbed his eyes and peered down. The beast was ambling back into the jungle. Its mottled green hide blended quickly with the dense cover. It’s good that thing doesn’t have more patience. Probably doesn’t need any. Not much would ever get away. Then he remembered how he got away. The branch had come from this tree!

Javin straightened, eyes darting. They settled on another pair of eyes.

Not again!

These eyes were red with black pupils staring back from a few steps away. They were attached to a humanoid form with sleek green-brown scaly skin without any hair. It wore a loin cloth and a small scrip made of green mottled leather draped over one shoulder. Its head was smooth and human-like with a ridged bone crest front to back over the crown. Taller than Javin by a bit, it had sinewy muscles, slender fingers, and its head canted to one side. The eyes reflected intelligence, studying him in what he hoped was a non-threatening way.

Javin slowly raised a hand. “Look, friend, I think I owe you thanks. You threw that branch?”

The being continued staring, head moving in small jerks as if trying to decide what manner of creature Javin was.

Then its body moved slightly . . . and Javin gaped. The being seemed to disappear from view, leaving a faint outline with only its loin cloth and scrip visible.

“Hold on. I didn’t mean to make you nervous. I was hoping you could help. After all, you saved me from being dinner.” Javin spread his hands out low hoping to show he meant no harm.

The being crouched at Javin’s movement. It was barely discernable. Then it sprang, booming out a throaty “Whoooot!”

Javin nearly fell, going to a defensive stance as it bounded past, barely touching him and moving through the canopy like it was flat ground. It blended into the foliage so fast he lost sight of it only a few paces away. He could hear it moving further out into the jungle.

He waited. It didn’t return, though it could easily come up again if quiet enough.

Chameleon! The word and its meaning sprung into his mind.

“Ahhrr!” He clenched his fist, tempted to pound it against the trunk.

Instead he sat. “Now what?” He took a few deep cleansing breaths, this time keeping his eyes open.

He needed a plan. He needed food and water. There was no telling how long he was going to be here. Wherever here was.

 

Chapter 4

 

Days later Javin paused, staring at the solid wall of foliage barring his way. He edged closer using his hands to gently separate the branches and peered through. Nothing immediately caused alarm. Then his eyes grew wide at what he saw. It wasn’t the small clearing he’d come to expect. Instead it was a broad chasm, the far side hazy with distance. He stepped through and stood on the edge of a precipice. It was deep; almost as deep as it was wide, with sheer cliffs and green growth dotting the sides. His breath caught in his throat. At the bottom lay a city. It was overgrown with jungle. No one moved about. He could pick out roads, smaller blocky buildings, and at the center, five giant pyramids. Four relatively smaller pyramids sat at each corner point with the largest, half again larger than the others, sat in the center of the ruins. The rest of the city seemed oriented around that central square. This is what Javin had been searching for! A place he might find some answers.

To his left he noticed a path that lead down. All other directions were overgrown with the thick foliage. The mist overhead still obscured what might be the sun. It was a brighter patch in the wispy covering, moving along a set path until setting at night. It must be the sun, if indeed he was on a planet and not some artificial construct.

Javin was amazed he knew these principles. He’d been aware and surviving in this environment for some time using knowledge he didn’t know he possessed – until he used it, or it popped into his mind. It didn’t make sense. How did he know?

He’d found water in small pools condensed out of the air during the cool of the night. When the sun rose, he’d slake his thirst. Larger pools would last throughout the day, though he’d learned not to approach them casually. Other animals used them too, and he didn’t want to chance running into another of the big lizards.

There was plenty of vegetation he could eat. He’d watched what other animals had eaten and guessed they were safe. Small animals he’d trapped for protein. He ate the meat raw. Starting a fire was impossible with everything so damp. And that’s another thing that irked. He’d known about fire. Even how to start one. Little good it did.

The skins of those small animals he’d fashioned into a rude loin cloth and a small pouch to sling over his shoulder. He filled it with food and tools he’d made out of wood and rock.

He hadn’t really needed the loin cloth. The air was warm enough day and night. For all he knew, he’d always been naked.

Right.

Early on Javin had decided to follow the path of the sun -- or whatever it was. He’d traveled pretty far and if he were in a sealed chamber, it’d have to be awfully big, especially now after seeing the chasm and the city at the bottom.

Now a new thing nagged at him. The pyramid shapes were familiar, like he’d seen them or something like them before. Maybe he'd already been here -- then knew he hadn't. He didn’t know how. Just that he knew. Javin grit his teeth.

How long would it take to reach the valley floor? It depended on the path. Probably take him at least the rest of the day. Then it looked like it would take several hours to walk in to the central plaza from the edge of the city. Javin lifted a hand to shade his eyes from the glare overhead. It was just past mid-morning.

He needed answers and this was a place he might find some.

Better get started.

Javin took a deep breath and turned down the path.

It did take the rest of the day to walk down the ridge then the next morning, after spending his usual night in a tree, he followed the road to the central pyramid. His sense of great age was confirmed as he passed through the buildings. The jungle had claimed more than he’d seen from the ridge. Thick vines wrapped in and around cracks in the stone. Bushes pushed up through breaks in the road which was made of an incredibly hard paving material. Kneeling, he examined broken shards, hefting them. They were light, but from the texture, dense and strong, obviously long lasting.

He took the time to go through several of the smaller buildings. There were no doors, just openings where a door would have hung, and window openings with no coverings. They were building shells with no clues left of the former inhabitants; no chairs, tables, not even a shard of pottery saying anyone had ever lived there.

Construction without wood, such an abundant natural resource, was extremely advanced, especially seeing the architecture up close. It was as if some power had softened the stone into a moldable state, then put it in place and bonded it together, hardening it into the finished product. Pale colors had even been annealed into the stone that hadn’t dimmed with age. Javin thought at first it must be concrete poured into place. Upon closer examination, realized it was all built from solid stone. Nothing else it could be. Where did the stone come from, the cliff face? It didn’t appear to be as easily available as wood. And how did they put it into place so precisely, having it last all this time?

He didn’t know how he knew to look for these things just that the knowledge was there, like it was a part of him. Try as he might, he couldn’t force anything else out.

Then again, where were the inhabitants? Why was the city empty?

The answers weren’t readily apparent. Javin continued to the central square he’d seen from the ridge above. The four smaller pyramids ringed the plaza, each on a corner with a peaked top. The centerpiece was the giant pyramid, half again the size of the others. Its peak was flattened off, with another building constructed at the top. The familiar shapes nagged at him.

The base spread wide, leaving a broad road traversing around all four sides, with the front being widened into an open plaza Javin supposed was used for gatherings. A narrow set of stairs led from the base of the central pyramid up to the building at the top. That was the only place he could make out openings.

It had had the feeling of a temple -- something used for a special purpose. The people probably gathered around the plaza while the priest-chief-prophet addressed them from the heights above and conducted ceremonies in the building at the top.

Javin was tired, but the mystery pushed him on.

The steps were narrow and steep. It took several rest stops before he reached the apex where the building beckoned. Catch basins of water ringed the landing where he quenched his thirst. The day was nearly over. Still, he didn’t want to abandon his search. It should be safe enough here for the night. Besides, the building didn’t look that big.

The investigation began. The structure stretched about three times as high as he was tall. He walked around, measuring about one hundred paces to a side. There were no other openings other than stark, open doorways front and back entering into narrow hallways. Javin took a few steps inside the dark and was surprised to find it dimly lit from an unseen source. He moved further in and examined the walls and ceiling. There was no indication of where the light came from. It wasn’t natural. The air just seemed to be illuminated in a subtle glow.

At the end of the entryway, about ten paces inside and three wide, there were five different corridors running every which way. It reminded Javin of a maze, though the building was small enough he didn’t think he’d get lost for long.

He decided to explore. This building was probably the most important in the city. If there were any answers chances are they’d be here.

Javin picked a corridor at random and wound around through the corridors, coming to several dead ends and had to backtrack before being able to proceed again. Finally, after many tries, he noticed a pattern. Each time he took a left intersection he would eventually run against a dead end, no matter how many right turns he took previous or after. Javin experimented, choosing the right most passage at each intersection. Sometimes the halls seemed to wrap around the inside of the entire building then it would double back onto an intersection where, again, he chose the right-most passage. There were no more dead ends.

The eerie nature of the light kept him from realizing how long he’d been moving through the maze. It seemed a long while from the way his legs felt.

Javin finally rounded the shortest corridor so far which opened into a large inner chamber. It was brightly lit compared to the dim passageways.

He took a cautious glance into the room. It was at least thirty paces on a side. There were three levels that moved down in equal steps to the lowest portion in the sunken center. Scattered about in seemingly random fashion were large rectangular slabs of stone in different heights and sizes, some on end others on their side or flush with the chamber floor like a scattered seating area. In the low center tier was a free-standing stone arch a little higher than he was tall and just the right width to be a doorway.

Javin couldn’t detect any danger so he stepped across the threshold into the room. A tingling hit like he’d passed through a barrier. He turned to look at the roof and walls of the corridor. Nothing. The feeling was gone as suddenly as it had come. Carefully, he stepped back through. Still nothing. He shrugged and stepped back into the chamber, looking closely at the doorway as he did so. He couldn’t see a thing until he got close. There, a tiny seam of blue-white light traversed the circumference of the doorway. He had passed through a barrier. What had it done? Carefully, he checked himself. He didn’t feel any different. There were no marks on his skin. Javin shook his head and turned back to the room.

For the first time he saw the ceiling. It was deceptive, feeling low and cozy, but looking directly up it was twice as high as he’d noticed from the outside.

That can’t be. I didn’t feel any incline in the maze. Still, he couldn’t argue with his eyes. He must have descended several levels without knowing.

There was something else peculiar about the ceiling. It was open to the sky! He could see blackness associated with night-time, and he could make out twinkling pinpricks of light that must be stars.

Wait a minute! What about the mist? I’ve never seen stars on this planet, especially at night! This isn’t what it seems.

Javin gazed at the ceiling until his neck began to ache. It never changed from the serene appearance of a peaceful night sky. He moved down to the center landing in front of the arch and looked back over the room, trying to discern any patterns that might mean anything.

When he looked back, the center of the arch had gone dark. Pitch black!

What’s happening?

Javin reached up a hand and started to place it against the plane of the arch. So far there wasn’t any resistance. Because it was so black, he wasn’t sure whether it was a hard surface or had just become a “doorway.”

Now why did I think that? He didn’t know, but was getting used to strange thoughts popping into his head.

He moved his hand closer until it met resistance. Was it the surface? His hands didn’t feel anything. It was as if his hand went as far as it could go then couldn’t be pushed further. Not a solid surface, but a barrier. Javin skimmed his hand along the plane. Faint ripples flowed out as his hand moved. Still, he couldn’t press through.

“Pop!”

Javin jumped back. Something had sparked, like a circuit closing. The arch had changed again into a smooth, reflective surface. He drew closer and saw his reflection.

Since waking, he hadn’t given much thought to his appearance, mainly focusing on jarring his memory, remembering who he was, why he was here. His appearance might give him a clue.

Javin stood full on. He noted with wry humor he was a good looking man, on the younger side of being middle aged -- whatever that was for him -- with dusty brown hair and curious black eyes that made him look twice to make sure. His frame was bronzed from being in the open though not burned by the mist-sheltered sun. Ropy muscles tending towards lean and supple were well proportioned with a sense of quickness.

Not bad for an old man . . .

Javin caught himself. Why did I think of myself as being old? I’m clearly not. I didn’t even mean it that way. It was just a joke. He rubbed the growth of long stubble on his face. I’ve got to find a way to shave. He didn’t like the beard. It itched.

He had recognized himself but was disappointed it did nothing to jar his memory. Strange to recognize yourself and still not “know” who you were.

Javin turned and moved over to sit on the nearest slab. He was hungry and tired. The skylight hadn’t changed. He’d been in the pyramid a long time.

Pulling a fruit from his pouch he chewed as he studied the arch. Nothing he’d seen so far helped him know who he was or why he was here.

The glow of the room was still a bit unnerving. He still couldn’t detect a source of light. Everything about this place was odd.

An impression flowed into his mind.

I needed to come here.

Strange, he hadn’t felt any draw towards this location. It’d seemed completely random.

“Oh well,” he sighed. “Add that to the mystery.”

He lied down on the stone, resting his back on the cool slab, staring into the skylight. It was hypnotic. The stars’ glistening points soothed his nerves. Tired, stiff muscles loosened. He felt himself drifting off.

May as well sleep here as anywhere.

Javin turned his head to catch sight of the arch one more time. It was clear again, just an empty arch sitting in the middle of the room. He chuckled, shook his head.

Drowsiness continued to overtake him, his consciousness slogging. A faint image flashed in his mind. A bright place. Voices . . . Javin frantically struggled to grasp the memory and hold it, but his mind continued to spiral down, scattering the memory in the bliss of sleep.

***

Chahzuu loped through the upper terrace of the trees just below the shroud of mist diffusing and spreading the ‘Great Light’. His mind was barely on his travels even as he moved easily from branch to limb faster than he could move on the ground.

His race had evolved in the trees and that was where he felt most at home. His body’s natural defenses mimicked the colors of each background he traveled through, and his smooth, hairless skin -- without sweat glands -- even masked odors another might sense. His body's natural pallor was a mottled green, a natural camouflage, now naked, to afford the greatest defense. Only his scrip was the visible, draped over one shoulder to carry the few items he needed for this journey. The slight crest on his head was tuned to every vibration, keeping him on constant alert for any threat. Every once in awhile he paused, mentally checking his direction. His lanky arms and legs easily maintaining balance high above the jungle floor.

Chahzuu had never traveled here before; had never left his valley home before. Still, he’d seen his way here many times in strange, recurring dreams he’d had since childhood. The dreams had come so often each step, each bush, each tree had been vividly burned into memory.

In his dreams the journey had always been uneventful. That image was now shattered! Something different had happened. He’d faced one of the two Pale Ones.

That had never occurred in his dream . . . at least this early. The Pale Ones always came later.

A small hint of hope rose.

Maybe his path was not set. Maybe it could be changed.

Perhaps I don’t have to die! Or at least be more certain my death will have meaning. Maybe he could save his people and live! It was something he must ponder.

One thing was certain. If he stepped from his path now whatever changes lay ahead, he could do nothing to help his people unless he pressed on.

Chahzuu sprinted lightly through the high foliage as he continued to consider his fate. He’d been set upon this path since he was old enough to realize his dreaming meant something. Once a year, it seemed, he would have the same mystic dream. He was set upon a journey, a quest for the Stone, the Joining, and then the two Pale Ones would appear. At the end, wrought with testing and pain, his inevitable death ended up either a noble sacrifice, saving his people from slavery, or a meaningless gesture.

Over the years he’d resigned himself. It was his Calling, his Khartoose, to see to the safety of his people and to set them on the path of their assigned role as Pontu’ Gi; protectors of this world and its people.

Each dream showed both paths, each seeming the same . . . until the end.

To this day he didn’t know what would trigger one path over the other. Chahzuu had spent many sleepless nights fretting over it. He could find no answer. It seemed his fate was sealed by nothing more than capricious chance, whichever way the Guardians decreed.

I will not have it so! He would fight! Cling to whatever strength was left to ensure his people were protected! Chahzuu picked up his pace akin to his purpose.

Already something is different. What does that portend?

Always, there were two Pale Ones – one kindly and virtuous, also willing to sacrifice for Chahzuu’s people; the other wicked, sinister, selfish, and determined to enslave his people.

Each path lead to his death, but at least the first path meant something. His people would be spared and become Pontu’ Gi. In the other path they didn’t. They became slaves to a great evil that would consume the world. It was something he refused to consider. Still, in his dream, he didn’t have a choice . . . Or did he?

I’ve already seen one of the Pale Ones. This is different.

This Pale One was about to be devoured by the Bach-lauh. Had Chahzuu known which of the Pale Ones it was, his decision would have been easier.

It was not part of the dream. Something has changed!

He’d stood on the limb watching the great lizard move forward, considering what he must do. At the last moment he knew he couldn’t risk it.

Distracting the great beast had been easy. The Pale One had escaped, but clamored up to his very branch! Meeting face to face had been most disturbing; all out of order. And still Chahzuu didn’t know which Pale One it was.

If he stayed would it ruin his pattern, his purpose? It must not!

It was safer to continue on the path he knew. Chahzuu had fled, turning back to the trail his dream had shown.

Still, he wondered. What if I had stayed? Can I change the path and still do what must be done?

Back in his homeland he knew the time had come when the dreams had become a nightly occurrence. There had been no trouble. No indication the peace his people had known for ages was coming to an end – calling his people to war -- to their prophesied role as Pontu’ Gi. He just knew it was time to start the journey.

Chahzuu was a Chahkzaa, a seer among his people. He learned the legends, received the Pourtha root, dreamed the vision of what must be, of what he must do . . . of his sacrifice.

Chahzuu caught himself and cleared his mind. I must not be distracted! He would deal with changing paths later. For now he must fulfill his first duty. He must enter the chamber and join with the Stone.

 

Chapter 5

 

The day had reached twilight. Chahzuu crept along the jungle floor through a narrow canyon. The green canopy was thick overhead but was surprisingly thin at ground level along a small lane leading to his destination. A hard surface was just under the jungle floor, forbidding the larger, thicker plants to grow; evidence there was a path -- a planned way laid down long ago.

He stayed away from that path, finding cover in what growth remained. Chahzuu followed its length leading to a grotto at the end of the canyon.

This was as he’d seen in his dreams. He knew better now though, than to assume all would be as he expected.

The grotto was nearly hidden behind a falling stream of water falling from the higher cliff face. Over the years, the water had carved out hollow in the cliff face covered in vines and dripping ferns that extended back until it fell into shadow. It sat high enough on the canyon wall that Chahzuu would have to climb a rocky incline to enter. The waterfall fell free over the opening, splashing into a pond at the bottom near where Chahzuu waited. From there the stream flowed with the incline further past him and down through the canyon.

He sat contemplating his way. The dream had given him all the instruction he needed, though now he no longer felt certain in trusting completely. He memorizing the way he needed to climb while waiting for darkness to fall.

***

It was time.

Chahzuu took a deep breath and scrambled up the incline. He moved quickly into the mouth of the grotto. All went as expected. He moved close to the left-hand side, hugging the wall and moved behind the falling water and stopped just inside.

He waited.

Nothing.

His senses stretched outward and he began to move, looking for the entrance to the chamber. He kept his hand in contact with the cavern wall.

The grotto seemed larger than from outside. Maybe that was just an illusion from having to move slowly in the dark.

He began to notice a subtle change in the quality of light. Complete darkness began to take on definition. Features of the bare rock became apparent as much by sight as by touch, and it grew lighter rather than darker. Then the grotto wall suddenly turned left.

He followed. The faint light grew brighter, details of the cavern, which had now narrowed to a cave, was just as it had been in his dream.

Several more paces ahead and the tunnel again curved toward the left, opening up into a broad chamber. Tiny pin-point sparkles glistened everywhere off the high, smooth walls providing a subdued glow of light emanating from the walls, eliminating shadows.

In the center of the chamber was a narrow stone pedestal about the height of his waist and flattened at the top. Upon it sat the object of his search. Its faint glow reached out to him.

The room was empty. Chahzuu stepped forward.

Directly above, the chamber roof opened to darkness lit by tiny points of light that winked and sparkled. He’d never seen the like.

He looked back to the pedestal. On it lay the Bhrusaala, the Stone. Chahzuu moved to stand over it.

As if sensing his presence, the small spherical crystal, small enough to fit in his palm, glowed with a warm, suffused light. Veins of gray appeared to wriggle just under the surface with an opacity that never changed, giving an appearance of movement, but as Chahzuu watched closely he could see, that in fact, they didn’t move.

He reached forward to take up the Stone and start his journey . . .

“I wouldn’t touch that if I were you,” a voice echoed from the back of the expansive chamber.

Chahzuu glanced up in the direction of the sound. Nothing was there. His hand hovered above the Stone. From where had the voice come? Again, a difference in his dream!

A shadow, a darkness he hadn’t seen, started to form against the far wall. It coalesced into the silhouette of a man, moving closer.

Chahzuu’s eyes widened and his breath quickened. The image formed, solidified into . . . A Pale One! Now he had seen both!

This one was strikingly similar in appearance to the other he’d rescued, but something told him this was the one he dreaded. He had darker hair those intriguing black eyes – just like the other, though this one’s gaze clearly reflected malevolence. A patch of hair also surrounded this one’s chin and cheeks. The other’s had been bare.

He was dressed in a sleeveless leather tunic belted at the waist leaving his chest bare, from which emanated a dark glowing – a shadow – that seemed to pulse from deep within the man’s heart. His tan breeches were tucked into calve-high boots that puffed the dust off the cavern floor as he strode forward.

“You don’t want that,” the intruder said, his voice as casual as his steps. “If you take it, it will kill you.”

Chahzuu remained silent, thinking. This was never in any dream! Either he had been deceived since he was a child or something had changed, rending the fabric of his destiny. Whichever it was, he knew he shouldn’t trust this man.

“Who are you?” Chahzuu asked. The man hesitated, tilting his head to one side, considering. “I have many names,” he replied. “The one I like best, however, is Nemesis.”

Chahzuu’s eyes widened.

“Ah,” the man said. “I see you recognize the word.”

Indeed he did. Chahzuu glared and the man’s lips curled into a tight smile.

“I’ve been waiting for you. We must talk.” The man strode forward until he stood on the opposite side of the pedestal. He glanced down at the still scintillating crystal. “You think that was meant for you?” the Pale One said, nodding to the Stone. “It is,” he said, “if not in the way you think.”

None of this should be happening! Chahzuu thought. He realized death stood right in front of him. All would be lost if he failed.

Chahzuu locked eyes with the Pale One. He snatched forth his hand, grasping for the Stone, realizing it must not fall to this being.

As fast as his grasp had been, he found his hand frozen a mere fraction above the crystal. Chahzuu tried to move but felt his whole body immobilized. He was still staring into the eyes of the Pale One.

The man’s features had darkened in concentration, and the shadow across his breast was pulsating.

Then the Pale One laughed. “You are as brave as I’d been told, though bravery means nothing to me.”

In horror Chazuu watched as the Pale One reached forward underneath his outstretched hand and took hold of the Stone. His heart sank. He’d failed before he’d even begun!

There was never even a chance! He cried in his mind. The Gods have cursed me. Where did I go wrong?

Chahzuu watched as Nemesis lifted his stone and held it against the shadow of his darkly pulsing breast. The pale glow of the Stone grew dark, changing until it filmed over, taking on a red sheen. The small veins running through transformed from grey to black seemingly writhing threads.

The Pale One laughed. “The Stone is not yours any longer. It’s my tool . . . and weapon.” He laughed again, “The Guardians’ grand design has failed even before it begun. Now you, my friend, will give me everything you have and are.”

Chahzuu strained at the power holding him frozen. Nemesis stepped around the pedestal and held the changed Stone up to touch Chahzuu’s temple.

A blinding pain coursed through his body! A flash seared into every cell, pulling it apart, stripping his soul from his physical frame. Chahzuu would have screamed in fiery misery but was still held immobilized.

He fought the pain, fought the stripping of his soul. Found he hadn’t the strength. Felt his life’s essence being drained. His eyes flared wide. The dark pulsing at Nemesis’ breast churned a brilliant orange, deepening in hue to a flame red. It pulsed and grew as Chahzuu’s essence, his memories, his knowledge, was stripped and transferred through the Stone and somehow into Nemesis, giving him power, giving him knowledge -- of Chahzuu's people, his world, of the legends, the hope of his race and their mission as Pontu’ Gi.

All flashed vividly through Chahzuu’s mind before being sucked away, leaving gashes of pain, of soul and spirit. He was being emptied.

Nemesis’ eyes were closed, head back, drinking it in, being nourished by the ecstasy of pure spirit-power flowing through the Stone.

This must not be! Chahzuu was amazed he could still think through the pain. Death was near, but he must stop this! Nemesis will destroy his people. Destroy his world.

The Stone!

The end was an instant away. Chahzuu felt it.

He tried to hold back; to hold one last bit of himself, his last core, his final essence, and with all his fury, all his rage, thrust it forward in attack just as everything went dark.

 

Nemesis felt the surge and staggered back, hit with something he hadn’t expected. He shook his head, clearing his senses. The red glow about his breast diminished, cooling into the black pulsing that had been before, and then that slowly calmed to reveal his bare chest underneath the tunic.

Smiling, he let go his hold on Chahzuu, who collapsed to the cavern floor. “Thanks, animal.” Nemesis scowled at the lifeless figure. A blur of thoughts ran through his mind, coalescing, categorizing, settling.

“Yes! You’ve just handed me the one thing I’ve lacked. My weapon will now be the people’s own belief.” He hesitated, as if sifting through more memories wrenched from the body sprawled at his feet.

“And another is here?” he was confused by the images. It looked like him . . . but different. Maybe the animal was just confused. “I knew the Guardians would try something. Well I can deal easily enough with that!”

Nemesis grasped the now clear and seemingly lifeless Stone in his fist. Shaking his head, he let the spherical crystal roll from his fingers to the dirt cavern floor inches from the outstretched fingertips of the lifeless Chahzuu.

Nemesis strolled to the back of the chamber. Shadows gathered around, enveloping him in a darkness that immediately began to fade until he was gone with it.

***

Javin felt a nudge against his chest. Sleepily, he rolled over batting at whatever had disturbed him. He felt a nudge on his back, this time more pronounced.

“Mmph.” He groaned, rolling back over and opened his bleary eyes. They widened. He didn’t dare move.

Standing above, holding a lance point indenting the skin of his chest, stood a woman. At least she had the form of a woman. She was covered in a silky coat of fur reminding him vaguely of an animal he knew.

A cat! Word and image came to his mind.

Flanking the woman stood more of the same, all covered in the same silky layer of fur, all in different shades of dun coloring, faces bare, hair cascading down shoulders, small tufted ears pointed up on either side of their heads.

Except for the woman pinning him down, the others held their lances at the ready like they knew how to use them.

All wore what looked like soft canvass breeches with short soft leather boots and a collar-less shirt that looked like a uniform fitting over the undeniably female contours. The uniform colors were a mottled green and brown Javin had seen before . . . somewhere. It was to help them blend in with the jungle.

Jungle?

Javin gasped as he remembered where he’d fallen asleep. It wasn’t in the jungle! But that’s where he was, under a broad, green canopy just inside a clearing where the women had found him.

Since being on this world, he hadn’t slept so deeply, knowing the dangers, but something had definitely moved him from the temple without his knowing. He was being manipulated. Someone was pulling his strings. It made him angry.

“Who are you?” Javin asked, trying to sit up. The woman holding the lance pushed him back down. Javin went with the pressure, trying to avoid impaling himself.

He held up his hands. “I mean no harm, I just want to make friends, okay?”

There was no answer. The group continued to stare until another moved into view to look him over.

“What manner of animal are you?” she asked. Javin noted she was dressed differently; a soft leather combination of pants and shirt. Something the well-to-do jungle traveler would wear, though it was in a simple tan almost matching the color of her pelt. She wore a jeweled necklace around her slender neck. A little shorter than the others, she was also less muscular and definitely not as mean.

“You understand me?” Javin was shocked. “You know my language? But how . . .” He realized it wasn’t that they knew his language, he knew theirs. Hearing himself, he finally realized he was using a different language than his natural language. And don’t ask me how I know what my natural language is, since I can’t remember anything , Javin thought as he discovered he spoke it fluently, and understood it as well -- as good as his own.

“This is getting weirder by the day.”

“What are you talking about?” the woman spoke again, narrowing her dark amber eyes. “And answer my question. What sort of animal are you? You have no pelt, your skin is indecently bare and you cover yourself with crude dead animal. Why do you do this? Where do you come from?”

“Uh, I can’t answer that,” Javin said. “This will sound strange, but I can’t remember. I’m kind of lost. I think I was sent here, but can’t figure out why. I was hoping you could help me.

“ As for what kind of animal I am; I was thinking the same about you. I'm normal where I come from -- wherever that is. You definitely aren't from the same place."

Javin took a deep breath. His was neck getting sore from holding it at an odd angle. "Look. I don't mean any harm. I'll answer any questions you have -- at least whatever I can answer, but you’re the first person I’ve been able to talk with since being brought here. Maybe you could answer some of my questions. May I at least stand?”

"You are in no position to ask anything.” The woman hesitated then spoke again. “You may stand -- as long as you’re well guarded." She nodded to the woman holding the lance who moved back a pace and allowed him to stand while still keeping the lance at the ready. "You will not be harmed unless you make trouble. Understand?"

Javin nodded.

Another of the women moved close and relieved him of his pouch. This one had a heavier, darker pelt. Her uniform was the same, though a darker shade of green, and more rumpled. They were all silent as she emptied it.

She turned, bowing slightly and handed the contents over to the woman who’d been speaking.

Watching Javin warily, the leader -- at least she acted the part -- sorted through the handful. Then she stopped; holding up something which surprised Javin.

“Where did you get this?” The woman indicated a small milk-white crystal sphere sitting in her palm. Strange gray veins wriggled faintly through it as she held it up. It seemed to absorb and give off a dull, rich light. “What is it?”

“I don’t . . .” Javin was about to say he didn’t know what it was, then he knew it was his. He didn’t know how he knew only that he knew.

“It’s mine. Just a charm, really. I keep it for luck. Can I have it back?” Trying not to sound anxious, Javin slowly held out his hand. The woman ignored him.

“It’s smooth and it feels of a different texture.” She held it up to look more closely. The light, bright in its refractory dances from the mist, glanced off the orb. The scintillation held dull as it passed through.

“What is it?” she asked again.

“I really don’t know.” Javin said, surprised he should be so anxious over something he didn’t know belonged to him until just now. That was the strange part. It didn’t belong to him did it?

Somehow he had the feeling this crystal was important to him. Even though it had just been found in his pack, it wasn’t something he’d had with him before. Thinking back, he realized it must have been placed there by whoever had moved him from the temple.

This feeling of attachment was another matter. It went deep. Something he couldn’t explain, he just knew how he suddenly felt.

“Princess, this may help.” Another woman moved up, shorter, a very light pelt, carrying an open book. This one wasn’t dressed in any uniform, but wore a plain tan sleeveless tunic, tan breeches and boots that laced up to the lower part of her shins.

Princess. The leader had been called “princess.” Javin strained to see what the other was showing.

The Princess glanced at the page then back at Javin, her eyes growing wider, then narrowed again as her scrutiny deepened. She gestured for others to step forward to see. They looked at the book then looked at him. Some gasped, holding clenched fists over their breasts in a crossing fashion. Javin couldn’t tell if it was a warding, or a gesture of respect.

The woman -- the Princess spoke again.

“Again I ask. What are you?”

“I’m a human, a human being.”

“Hoomahn.” the princess tried, the sound pushed from her mouth in an odd way.

“My name is Javin Cox.”

“Jahvin’ Coxxx.”

“And your name, Princess?”

“It will be given if and when it is decided.” She said. “We must first see what it means, this being Hhooman.” She gestured to those holding lances on him. They moved forward and the points pressed against his skin while Javin did his best not to appear threatening.

The princess moved closer, holding the opaque crystal upraised in her palm. As she held it even with his breast it began to glow, pulsing with a bright sheen that grew brighter the closer it approached his chest.

Javin squinted, feeling its radiance as the princess continued to move it nearer to his breast. He heard a deep intake of breath from those around him, and then felt the crystal’s searing contact as it touched his breast, flaring with blinding brilliance . . .

 

Javin was four years old sitting on a carpeted floor playing with some blocks. His head was thickly bandaged but he wasn’t in any pain. His hands moved deftly and his unusual black eyes were quick, alert, watching the nonsensical patterns he was creating. Geometric patterns interested him, but it also let him listen in on the muffled conversation the two people were having in the next room behind a closed door.

Will he be okay?” That was from his foster mother.

Oh he’ll be fine,” the doctor answered. “His injuries are superficial. No sign of concussion. Head wounds always bleed the most, you know. Nothing more than any other active child hasn’t done. Don’t worry. Everything checks out normal except there were a couple of different readings in the scans; nothing to be worried about, really. They show his intellect to be quite well developed for his age. Do you work with him?”

Why no,” Javin’s foster mother responded. “I’ve only had him a couple of weeks. He was just transferred from his last foster home. There are so few foster parents anymore that he had to be moved because his first home was needed for another couple of children. I know the family, and they kept apologizing the whole time.

They clearly loved the boy, but weren’t able to give him much attention. They had three others besides, and he was the best behaved so they spent most of their time with the others.”

You don’t know his history, then?” the doctor asked.

I’m afraid not. He was found abandoned on a doorstep one morning. There was a little wrist tag with the word ‘Javin’ on it. Didn’t know whether it was his name for sure or not, but that’s what we call him. Could it be natural? The readings, I mean.”

Not likely,” the doctor said. “It’s hard to believe someone who worked with him so hard to foster his natural intelligence would abandon him.”

But he was just an infant when he was abandoned,” his foster mother said.

There was silence for a moment.

Well then, maybe my scans are off. It’s odd, but nothing to be afraid of. Actually it’s an interesting case. I’d like to follow it through sometime and check up on him from time to time as he grows and see what develops. Now if you’ll come with me, I need you to sign the remaining forms so I can release him . . .”

Javin heard them walk out of the connecting room. Thought furrowed his brow. He’d always felt he was different from his other “brothers and sisters.” Different, but not necessarily in a bad way. . . He hoped.

Focusing back on the blocks, he didn’t notice anyone enter the room until the stranger was suddenly standing over him. Javin felt weird. There was a stranger right there, but Javin felt like he knew him. Felt ‘comfortable’ like he was ‘family’. His young perceptions couldn’t define the feeling, only that he felt it.

The stranger was dressed in a blue form fitting coverall with patches and pockets. It zipped up the front, and all the pockets zipped. He had a small pouch clipped to his hip that he reached into and pulled out a small round object and put in on the floor in front of Javin. It was a milky white crystal just small enough it would easily fit into his hand. Javin was intrigued by its spherical shape and coloring. Just like a ‘biggie’ marble, but prettier. He could make out faint gray veins running throughout that seemed to be swirling, but as he focused his attention they never moved. They just ‘seemed’ to.

Javin squinted, trying to look deeper, and then felt drawn inside. Not really inside, but just . . . connected . . . to the crystal, and it lifted him, calmed him.

The man smiled. “It’s yours. In time, you’ll learn how to use it. Don’t show it to anyone. I think you understand why.”

And for some reason, Javin did. It felt like the crystal, without words, had imparted that understanding to him the moment he’d stared into it. The man smiled again.

There was a flash of light, Javin blinked, and the man was gone.

Javin stared at where he’d been then reached out and picked up the ‘marble’.

Just then his foster mom came back into the room.

Time to go Javin. Let’s put the blocks away so we can go home and rest.”

He hid the ‘marble’ in his other hand, and started picking up the blocks, taking them over to the table with the rest of the toys.

The doctor said you’ll be all right. You may have a headache for a couple of days, but after that you should be fine.”

Javin smiled and put his hands in his pockets, taking care to keep the crystal hidden till he was sure his foster mom wouldn’t notice.

Ready?” she asked.

Javin nodded, and they left the office . . .

The light returned to normal except for the spots in Javin’s eyes from the flash. He felt a burning deep in his chest, a hot coal warming his flesh, spreading outward to his limbs and the crown of his head, leaving every part of his body tingling. Javin would have been afraid had it not felt so good. He glanced down at his chest. Within the cavity he could tell the crystal had somehow merged, and was still glowing, illuminating his insides with a muted golden glow.

The tingling started to pass as he took deep breaths. He was still alive. How, he didn’t know. Why was even more a mystery.

What is happening?

All the women save for the princess had fallen to their knees, heads bowed. The princess was staring at him with a mixture of amazement, wonder, and a spark of curiosity. Even those with lances had dropped them by their sides and fallen to their knees.

“What’s going on?” he asked. “What are you doing?”

“They think you have been sent to save us.” The princess answered. Her voice was soft, a combination of fear, caution, even reverence. “They think you are Mulda’ fi; a Promised One.

“Why on earth would they think that?” Javin said. “I don’t know who I am, or why I'm here, much less anything about your world. I was just dropped here -- I think anyway -- by someone I haven't been able to figure out.” He stopped for a moment to catch his breath. “I was hoping you could help me.”

“That is curious,” the princess said. There was silence, everyone waiting. Finally Javin spoke.

“Look. I really don’t know what’s going on here, but I promise I won’t hurt anyone. Could you just answer some of my questions, please? And by the way,” Javin reached over and took the hand of one of the women and lifted her to her feet. “No bowing. It makes me nervous. And I certainly haven’t done anything to deserve it. Okay?”

“As you say,” the princess said with narrowed eyes, focusing on his face, as if she were trying to find any treachery hidden there. She gestured everyone to stand, but the look she continued to direct his way made Javin nervous.

“We will still be on our guard.” She directed a meaningful glance at the lancers who’d dropped their weapons. They cringed and quickly snatched them back, still not sure whether to keep him under guard or not.

Javin almost laughed, deciding it best not to antagonize them further. Besides there were more important things he needed to sort out. These ‘people’ maybe could give him some answers.

“With your promise of no harm . . .” The princess continued to look at him.

“Thank you.” Javin said. “I promise. Can I ask the questions now?”

“Yes, if that is your wish.”

“First, could you tell me what just happened; I mean, with the marble and all.” Odd that I should call it that, Javin thought. “To be honest, I think the first time I ever saw that thing was when your, ah, guard held it up. I told you it was mine, but I don’t think it was . . . At least I felt like it was mine, so I wasn’t lying . . . I think. Like I said, I'd never seen it before in my life -- at least that I remember.

“There’s so much I don’t remember! Like just about everything to do with my life.” Javin knew he must sound mad. He didn’t know how else to explain, and these women were the only people he could ask.

“You are a strange. . . Hoomahn. Then again, you’re the first I’ve met.”

“Please call me Javin,” he said smiling.

“Yes, Jahvinn. And you may call me Mouhra’ Lah. I am the Princess of Putra’ Fi Soro – City of the Winds.” She smiled back. It was lovely. Once you got past the fact she was covered in a pelt of fur, and her smiling teeth showed sharp pointed fangs, she was quite striking. Her features were delicate, yet she stood and acted strong, a natural leader. Javin supposed she was, since she was a princess.

Looking around at those staring at him with a cross between awe, confusion, and fear Javin couldn’t help a small chuckle. I may not know who I am and where I’m from, but these women sure think they do. Then they started to move forward, timidly at first, realizing he wasn’t a threat. They wanted a closer look. Some touched his skin, wondering aloud that it was not covered with pelt, as was proper.

"Now princess, about this marble -- crystal!” Javin tried to ignore the touches, deftly moving their hands aside until they got the message.

Mouhra’ Lah gestured to the woman holding the book to come forward. She took it with an air of reverence and held it up to Javin. It was turned to a faded rendering. On it was a depiction of several different types of humanoid creatures. One was [_ Human -- ] and a surprising likeness of [_him!]

At the breasts of each was drawn a peculiar white circle, lines radiating out, highlighting it’s glowing from within.

“Boy this is strange.”

“Is that you, Javin?”

“Normally I’d say no, but the way my luck’s running right now, I couldn’t really say. One thing’s for sure, I don’t remember ever seeing any of those others on the page.”

Then Javin looked at the page again. There were seven different species of beings, each humanoid in form, all different, as if each had evolved from a different branch of evolution. One looked decidedly feline, like Mouhra’ Lah and her attendants, but male, like a lion-man.

He didn’t know where he got that reference from, but it fit. The picture showed he was tall, muscular, had a dark burnished mane of hair framing his head, bushing out down to his shoulders. The rest of his body was covered in a dusky pelt that hid his body, but followed the contours showing a powerful man.

Another was reptilian. Javin looked again. It was the chameleon-like creature who’d saved him! He was one of these. . . Whatever they were.

“Is there something wrong?” the princess asked.

“I know this one!” Javin pointed to the reptilian. “I met him a few days ago, you might say.”

The princess looked at him, then back at the picture. “There are no such people that I know of. They are people of legend. Very old stories. Are you sure? Then again I see you, and until now, I thought you were just a creature of legend as well.”

"Believe me, if he hadn't been there, I wouldn't be here. Actually, he saved me from a rather nasty looking lizard, about yea tall --" Javin gestured with his hand "-- and glowing blue eyes."

“You escaped a Birta’ Fah alone? That truly is incredible! That is the only predator who would dare take a man. That is why we never travel the jungle alone. Once cornered there’s no escape unless you have another to distract it.”

“I told you, I didn’t escape. This. . . being, here, hit it across the snout with a branch. Startled it so I was able to get out of its way by scrambling up a tree.”

The princess looked at him, saying nothing. Javin couldn’t tell whether she really believed him or not. It didn’t make any difference he supposed. He wouldn’t believe it either.

Looking back at the picture, Javin pointed at the glowing about their chests, depicting the crystal now inside him.

“What are these called?”

“You don’t know? They are the Mulda’ fi. The Promised Ones.” The princess didn’t understand his question about the crystal. She acted surprised that one of the Mulda’ fi should not know who he was.

“And what are these Mulda’ fi, exactly?”

Again the princess’ eyes widened. She took a deep breath. “I see you have many questions. Why, I don’t understand. One of the Mulda’ fi shouldn’t have to be taught who they are or what they are supposed to do.”

“Look, I’m sorry,” Javin said. “I really don’t know anything about this. I’m not one of these [_ Mulda' fi -- _] these Promised Ones you're talking about. At least I don't think so. All I know is I was in this temple, looking at a strange gateway, got tired and went to sleep. You woke me up at the wrong end of a spear, and then you put that crystal thing inside me. That's all I know -- aside from wandering around in this jungle for I don't know how many days, after being dropped from somewhere, naked without any memory or tools or anything.” His ire was beginning to rise. “I think I'm entitled to just a few answers, don't you think?"

Those around the princess didn’t know whether to move forward in her protection, or run for their own.

Javin paused, took a deep breath, and got himself back under control. “I’m sorry, princess. It’s just that I really don’t have any memory of anything past just a few weeks ago. None of this makes any sense. Would you help me please?” He spoke the last as meek as he could.

The princess pursed her lips. The woman who’d been carrying the book cleared her throat.

“Princess, I don’t understand. But if one of the Mulda’ fi needs help, I think we should give it. I will teach him. Maybe we can learn from him as well as him from us.”

The princess pondered then nodded. “Fine. First we must move from this clearing. We must not forget why we’ve come and relax our guard. We will find a campsite then you may instruct our Javin here.”

***

The camp’s fires were burning low. Their eerie glows pierced the dark night and mixed with the cacophony of jungle sounds. Javin shivered at the surreal feeling. The princess’ personal guard, or Vouloo as she called them, gathered around their fires doing assorted chores, the work of the camp. Each time one passed by they would give Javin a strange look, smile then move on. Their pelts glowed with the dancing flicker of reflected flames and their faces were illuminated as they looked his way then fell in shadows when they turned back. Javin shook his head.

“You must forgive them their curiosity,” Siri’ Bhu said stirring the coals of their fire. “They have never seen a Mulda’ fi before. Neither have I. But I suppose the time is ripe for one, if there ever was.”

Mouhra’ Lah glanced her way with a sharp look.

Siri was the Keeper, as she had explained her title. She kept the history of the city, of the royal family, and chronicled their lives. It was a calling she’d trained for all her life.

Javin couldn’t really tell her age. She seemed a bit older than Mouhra’ Lah, who was across the fire sitting regally on a rock. From the looks the princess gave him, he knew she still wasn’t sure he should be running around loose.

“Tell me,” Javin said looking across the flames at the princess. “You said something about not wanting to relax your guard. Are you in some sort of trouble?”

Mouhra’ Lah took a deep breath. Siri’ Bhu looked at her out of the corner of her eye.

“Javin, there must be many things you do not know if you’ve just come to our world. One of those is the way things are right now, though indeed, my own people don’t know about it either. But they will.”

Seeing the princess’ obvious tension, Javin remained silent. The whole camp had gone still. Slowly the princess looked around, noting the silence.

“If you are one of the Mulda’ fi, perhaps you should know. And I shall tell you.” The women in the camp slowly went back about their business. Javin could tell they were quietly attuned to whatever was being said.

“Perhaps it would be best if I told him,” Siri said.

Mouhra nodded. “I think you’re right. You are the Keeper after all. And it may help to hear it from other’s lips rather than relive it in my heart.”

Whatever it was, Javin could see it pained her. Her composure was extremely thin, and his asking had pushed the pain even nearer the surface.

“The princess is heir to the throne of Putra’ Fi Soro, the capital city of the Land we call Mouhran’ Lih. Her name denotes her as the royal heir, actually now, the rightful queen if the truth were to be told.”

Mouhra’ Lah pursed her lips, slight lines formed at the corner of her eyes beginning to glisten with moisture.

“The last queen, the princess’ mother, recently was murdered. We believe it was poison, though no one could prove it. And her uncle just so happens to return from a secret venture he still will not discuss, not many days after her death.

“He had been summoned for the state funeral. No one knew where he was or how to reach him.

“Claiming he’d been called away on urgent matters of state at the queen’s behest, he said, his errand must be kept a secret concerning threats to the kingdom and sovereignty of the people. He said that what he learned there, and then the queen’s death, confirmed that the throne was in jeopardy.

“Proclaiming a state of emergency, he immediately usurped the power of the princess, asking to be named regent until Mouhra’ Lah’s safety could be sufficiently guaranteed, and she then ascend the throne.”

Mouhra’ Lah snorted. “The only thing Tranthra’ Joh wants guaranteed is the kingdom for himself! Always one for power, he found a way to seize where he could not ascend rightfully!”

Javin stared at her.

“My uncle was on no errand for my mother and I know it! We, my mother and I, talked of his leaving shortly after he left. She was just as curious as I where he’d gone.” The princess folded her arms indignantly.

“I brought that up to my Uncle. All he would do is smile in that condescending way of his, and assure me it was for the benefit of the kingdom.” She paused and anger glinted in her eyes. “More like the benefit of his grasping power!”

“Not long from his returning,” Siri’ Bhu began again when she saw the princess had once again grown silent – but kept watching her closely. “Tranthra’ Joh called the princess to him and proposed marriage.” Javin looked at the princess. Her eyes were flashing with anger, face flushed. “Of course the princess told him no.”

“In no uncertain terms!” the princess snapped.

“Yes,” Said Siri’ Bhu, again watching the princess closely, hesitating before she continued. “However, he continued to press his suit, saying it would be best for the kingdom, that he would be a strong king and protector for the hardships to come.

“Tranthra’ Joh boasted of having had a vision of where the kingdom must go, what it must do to become stronger, and that he could rally the people and forge the greatest nation in history.”

“The big blowhard,” the princess jumped in again. “I told him that the nation didn’t need his vision, that it didn’t need his leadership, and that I, Mouhra’ Lah was strong enough for my people. Further, I told him, that if he were really as strong as he said, then he should exert some of that strength to find the murderer of his sister, my mother, but that I intended to find out myself with or without his help.”

The little party was silent for a time. Javin could tell the princess was fuming again. Siri’ Bhu kept looking back and forth between them, but eyeing Javin in a strange way he didn’t think he liked.

“Tranthra’ Joh mentioned hardships to come?” Javin said after a time. “Is your kingdom in trouble?”

“It wasn’t,” the princess answered, this time in a lower tone. “That is, until my mother was killed and my Uncle started pressing for power. When I refused him, he hinted that I’d best reconsider or something untoward could happen while I was still waiting to become queen. It was clear that he meant it as a threat, but not in such a way that I could have him arrested.”

“What’s the hold up in your becoming queen?”

“It is forbidden for a queen to rule who is not, or has not been married.”

“Then why don’t you find some man and get married?” Javin pressed. “Then you could assume power and force your uncle off to the side?”

There was a sharp intake of breath from Siri’ Bhu. Javin glanced her way then back to the princess, whose eyes were flashing in anger. After a moment she calmed herself and her features relaxed.

“You are indeed a stranger in our country or you would realize it is not so simply done. I for one” the princess continued, her voice rising slightly, “would not hold for just marrying anybody who comes along simply so I could be queen.”

There was silence for a time again.

“Look,” Javin said, “I don’t want to upset you, it just seemed to me to be a simple solution to your problem. A queen can do many things, or at least she ought to be able to do things she wants.” Javin picked up a stick and began poking the coals of the fire. Siri’ Bhu continued to look back and forth between the princess and Javin. Several times she acted like she wanted to speak, but stopped. Finally the princess spoke again.

“There is someone, or at least was someone,” the princess began softly. “A prince of a neighboring mountain province – a powerful man, yet gentle. We met on several occasions, and aside from the benefits of a political alliance for our cities found we shared similar dreams and visions for our people. We continued to correspond and both agreed we should be married.

“I discussed it with my mother and she was heartened by the idea and immediately announced our betrothal.

“The City of the Winds had celebrations such as you’d never seen, and my betrothed and I were happy. A date was set, arrangements made then tragedy struck.

“Within a month of the time we were to be married, mother took ill with a strange disease the finest physicians couldn’t cure. The prince immediately set out with a party to come to me and offer what support he could. He never arrived. There were rumors he was attacked by a renegade band – people from another city trying to stop our cities’ alliance; though it’s been long since any of the cities have fought amongst themselves.

“An exhaustive search was mounted. No sign was ever found. Mother continued to grow worse. My heart pained me and I was torn between going out to find the prince or staying with my mother. If my mother should die I couldn’t be away from the city.”

The fire crackled. Javin noted the far away look in Mouhra’ Lah’s eyes. The sounds of the night seemed to close in and silence reigned throughout their camp.

The Vouloo surrounding their several different campfires were silent, acting like they weren’t listening, yet no one spoke.

The princess continued.

“Finally, after a night of pain and fever, my mother passed on to her rest.” Mouhra’ Lah gave a slight sigh. “The State funeral was planned and my people went into morning. Mother was a much beloved queen.

“And then my uncle came back from wherever it was that he had gone; all tears and mock sorrow at the queen’s passing.” Again Javin saw the anger flame back into her eyes. “He immediately addressed the Quorum, a group of close advisors my mother held to confide in and advise her in all State matters. They agreed that my uncle be set up as Conservator until such time as I married and could take over the reins of government.”

The princess’ voice started out almost as a low growl as she continued, “I was the only one who found it ironic when my uncle returns just shortly after my mother’s death, and the prince gone missing, and who just so happens to begin pressing for my hand in marriage when he knows there is no one else who could come forth.”

Siri’ Bhu moved over from her place and sat next to the princess, her arm consolingly around her. The princess didn’t seem to notice. She looked directly back into Javin’s eyes, making him nervous. For some reason she was speaking directly to him, confiding in him as if he had power to help.

Strangely he found he wanted to help. Not because of her beauty, not because she was in distress, but because he felt an innate rightness about her cause.

Something within swelled up and pushed forward, at once scaring him while at the same time emboldening him, making him proud, knowing that whoever he was, or had been, deep within he had a strong sense of rightness; a person who beyond anything else desired the right to succeed.

“I knew my prince was not dead,” the princess interrupted Javin’s introspection. “My prince could not have died, I can feel it here,” the princess held her hand over her breast. “Our bond was such, even though it can’t be described, we would know if the other had perished.”

Javin was skeptical though he couldn’t discount it completely. Maybe she really would have felt it. Maybe she just doesn’t want to admit it.

“My uncle’s importunities increased and I realized the only way I could save my country and myself from his greedy aspirations was to leave – to find the prince myself. So that is what I did.”

At this point Siri’ Bhu jumped into the conversation, her eyes alight with the fervor of loyalty.

“The princess would be alone had I not noticed her preparations. I quickly gathered her personal guard and we made our own preparations to follow. We had to be quick for the princess knew at any time her uncle might take hold and not let her go. No doubt he suspected her designs.

“On the guise of going to the market place with just a couple of her most trusted guards, the princess went out of the castle, wandered through the street for a time to make sure she wasn’t followed, then donned a dark cloak, pulling the hood up over her head she went out the front gate of the city and up the road. After she was out of sight of the city, she went into the wilderness, heading in the direction where the prince would have been traveling to reach Putra’ Fi Sorro.

“She hadn’t gotten far when her Vouloo and I made ourselves known.

“We’d been waiting without the gate just outside the cleared space from the city and followed her for a time to make sure she hadn’t been followed.” Siri’ Bhu stroked the hair away from the princess’ face much as a mother would. The princess, deep in her own thoughts, gazed at the glowing embers of the dying fire.

“At first she was angry,” Siri continued, “then hugged us all for our loyalty. She needed to know she wasn’t alone – that she was loved. And most importantly that she was supported by all of her people.

“To most of us within the court it was easy to see what her uncle was up to. And we, like the princess, desired no part of it,” Siri’ Bhu’s fervor raised the pitch of her voice. “The sooner we got out of there the better, to my mind!” Suddenly she stopped, as if realizing her outspokenness might be out of place in front of the princess. Instead the princess reached over and squeezed her hand.

“The Keeper’s fervor in a good cause is much to be admired, don’t you think?” The princess once again looked directly at him. He could almost see the working of her mind behind the glistening brown eyes that reflected intelligence along with the glow of the coals. It seemed as if in her silent pondering while Siri’ Bhu had been speaking she’d drawn several conclusions, made an assessment, and reached a decision . . . all about Javin.

He could feel it.

“We have been away from the palace ten days now,” the princess continued, her eyes sparkling, her body erect with resolve, assuming a soft but commanding tone. “Surely my uncle has sent out search parties, but our goal is still the same: To find my prince, then go back and take my rightful place as queen.”

She paused briefly and Javin felt her eyes piercing deep as if trying to plumb his soul.

Mulda’ fi,” she said, and the word slapped Javin a stinging blow across the face as if it had been physical. Siri’ Bhu’s eyes widened. The guards around the other fires craned their necks, turning with an almost inaudible gasp of surprise.

Mulda’ fi,” the princess said again, “for that is what I believe you are. I humbly ask your aid. If the legends are true and you’ve been sent to our world, here is a good place to begin. Begin for my people; my city . . . And maybe other cities. I don’t doubt that Tranthra’ Joh has designs beyond Putra’ Fi Sorro. The prince is missing.”

To Javin the implication was plain.

Silence reigned in the camp. All eyes turned toward him. The fire popped, throwing a coal off into the dirt. Javin stared at it for a time, stunned. Then the feeling of rightness returned, the swelling in his breast, of not being able to stand aside while those whom he could help stood in need. He clenched his jaw as the feeling surged. Then he felt a warming in his breast, a heat where the crystal must invariably sit next to his heart. It was hot, encouraging.

“I will help you,” Javin started in a low, rumbling voice. “I will help you in whatever you need, for as long as you need it. That is my pledge to you. I don’t know how a single man, such as I, unarmed and unaware of his past and his very surroundings, can help, but that I will do with my very life!”

There was a power in his words that seemed to make the air crackle with energy. His breast burned within until he felt like he might be consumed.

Siri’ Bhu hugged the princess, tears unabashedly streaming down her face.

Javin didn’t know whether to be terrified at what he was saying and feeling or just let it flow through, for he truly did feel the depth of what he said, meaning every word.

Silence languished for a time. The feeling in the air sparked low to a burning ember setting in Javin’s heart, and by the look on everyone’s faces, theirs as well.

Finally Javin took a deep breath, a wry smile crossing his face, echoing the strange humor he found himself having even in the most dire situations. “Not to put a damper on our little party here,” he said, his smile growing larger, “but since you’ve given me the title, Princess, maybe we should begin by having you teach me just what a Mulda’ fi is and what I’m supposed to do.”

There were muffled laughs around the fires and the guards turned back, murmurs of low conversations back and forth. The princess giggled softly and clasped her hands together with deep relief evident in her face.

“For tonight it is enough you have accepted. It’s late and I’m tired, as I’m sure everyone else is.” She glanced around the camp, winking at those who caught her eye. “Tomorrow Siri’ Bhu will undertake your instruction as we travel.” She looked at Siri’ Bhu who in turn smiled at Javin.

“You know, if I may say this even to a Mulda’ fi. For a pale, bare-skinned animal, you are strangely handsome -- in an exotic sort of way.”

Laughter erupted all through the camp. Javin smiled, enjoying their much-needed humor.

“Thanks . . . I think,” Javin panned, “and maybe tonight I won’t sleep so deeply and find myself at the point of a spear again.” Again muffled chuckles sounded as everyone started dousing the flames and retiring to their bedrolls.

For a time Javin lay close to the still warm coals of the patted fire. Occasionally he heard the murmuring voices of one or another of the Vouloo as they spoke quietly before sleep took them.

So now I’m a Mulda’ fi, Javin thought. Somewhere deep in the back of his conscious mind Javin knew this was new, that he wasn’t as he’d been before he’d come here . . . wherever here was.

***

It felt good to Mahntra’ Bhu to be back in the palace although it did seem a little strange not to be wearing his robes of office. Instead he padded along in soft sandaled feet, a loose tunic and drab breeches. He felt almost guilty, but fought back the feeling.

He meandered down the ornate halls to the Keeper’s Chambers. Servants recognizing him would stop, smile and bow. He nodded and then stopped to talk for a while, thinking to catch up on the gossip of the place. All his old friends seemed pensive, as if they were afraid to speak. They would look over their shoulders as if afraid to be overheard, then seeing another servant they would bow again and excuse themselves to be on their way. It was odd.

The reminiscent feeling he started with moved to a troubled feeling, gathered from several of these terse conversations, even with the most notorious of gossips, the head chambermaid whom he’d just run into. She’d been the most nervous, only greeting him with a customary hug, then when she saw one of the palace guards coming down the hall had all but dashed off to finish her work.

Mahntra continued on his way, hoping his daughter could shed some light on what was going on. Ever since the queen had died and he’d resigned his position as Chief Keeper, he’d secluded himself at his residence in the city.

That was to give Siri a better chance to assume her new position as the Chief Keeper without him in the way, meddling every time she turned around. It was only right that Siri should take over as Chief Keeper since Mouhra’ Lah was to be the new queen and Siri had been her constant companion since she was a little girl. It was as he’d always hoped.

But he hadn’t seen her for so long. It wasn’t like her. Then came the gossip heard on the streets. He’d come to the palace today to find out what was going on. He knew she must be busy. Maybe there was something he could do to help, something he might be able to do.

Mahntra knew he had to keep fighting the urge to jump back into the fray. It was Siri’s place now. That was why he’d waited so long to come see her. Now he was glad he did. There was something wrong.

Turning the last corner he came to the doorway of the chambers where he’d spent the majority of his long life keeping the records and archives for the city. He loved history and anything to do with it. Most of all he loved what history taught. For a fact, he knew that what he’d helped the queen learn from the histories had helped prevent at least two wars with the neighboring cities that he knew of. He’d also helped the queen avoid making policy mistakes that had been tried in the past, and had proven ineffective.

It had been hard to let go, but it had been time. Besides, Siri’ Bhu had the same love for the histories and prophecies he did. She would often sit at his knee when she was younger and beg to be told the stories, drinking everything in that he could ever tell and still plead for more. It had comforted him when her mother had died, that she’d grown to be such a wonderful and attentive daughter. It was only his love for Siri and his love for the records that had kept him going before the pain had receded. It was Siri’s thirst for knowledge, even at such a young age that had given him the new spark of life he’d needed.

Pushing on the large wooden doors, he expected them to swing in like they’d always done, but they didn’t move. They were locked.

That’s odd. Siri must be in an audience then. He retraced his steps back down the hall to the ramp where he could make his way to the upper levels of the palace. His former position as Chief Keeper still allowed him the run of the palace.

Part way up the ramp he met the chamberlain coming down. He looked officious as always in his robes and staff. Mahntra smiled warmly. There had always been a bit of animosity between them. Not from him, but from the chamberlain. It seemed as if he were constantly jealous of the easy relationship he’d had with the queen and the standing orders she’d given that he be invited to any and all meetings she held. After all, part of his duty was to keep a record of all state meetings. The chamberlain had always felt it was his responsibility to either permit or deny access to the queen. It gave him power, but he’d never known the man to abuse it. That’s why he was so trusted.

As they came closer, Mahntra bowed his head in respect, thinking to pass on up the ramp. The chamberlain instead blocked his way.

“Where are you going, sir!”

Startled, Mahntra canted his head to one side, staring at the man. “What?”

“You cannot go to the chamber anymore without permission.”

“I . . . see.” Mahntra said. He didn’t want to start an incident. He would smooth things out with the princess later, and she would instruct the man to continue his access. She had told him as much earlier. Perhaps she had not instructed the chamberlain.

“What do you want?” The chamberlain said, planting his long staff on the floor holding it out to his side like he would further bar the way.

"I am looking for my daughter -- the Chief Keeper -- have you seen her?"

“What business do you have with her?” the chamberlain prodded, now a slight satisfied smirk crossed his face. It was plain he was feeling his power for some reason. The man had changed subtly; grown in his officiousness.

“That is not a concern of yours.” Mahntra said. His eyes narrowed, looking directly into the chamberlain’s. Still, he held his anger in check. “A father can see his daughter without your permission. It does not concern state business.”

“I see,” the chamberlain said, hesitating. “I’m afraid she’s not here.”

“Not in the palace? When will she be back? Is she out in the city then?”

Plainly the chamberlain was at a loss for words. This was not like him under any circumstances.

“She is with the princess,” the chamberlain said finally. “They are away from the city . . . on important matters of state.”

“And the Conservator is with them, surely!”

Mahntra was shocked. During a time of succession it was highly irregular for the princess to be away from the city.

“The Conservator is here. He was instructed by the princess to remain, to guard her city from the coming Time of Trouble.”

“What?” Mahntra could not believe what he was hearing. “The Princess and the Keeper are away from the city, and a Time of Trouble has been pronounced. I must see Tranthra’ Joh. This is not right!”

“The Conservator assures me the Princess is safe, and that she is conducting very important matters for the city. It is to be kept quiet or it could endanger the Princess and her mission.”

“We’ll see about that.” Mahntra made to pass by the chamberlain. Again he stepped in front, blocking his way.

“I’m afraid that is not possible. Tranthra’ Joh left strict instructions he was not to be disturbed. I will convey your request for a meeting, and inform you when he will see you.”

Mahntra hesitated, wondering whether he should push past or wait. This was not right. He should be able to meet with the Conservator any time he felt it was needed! Then he caught himself and remembered he was no longer the Chief Keeper. Maybe it would be better to bide his time after all.

Stepping back, he bowed to the chamberlain. “Forgive me. Please convey my request to the Conservator. I will await his summons.”

Visibly relieved, the chamberlain bowed back.

Mahntra turned and strode back down the ramp. There’s more than one way to get information, he thought. And I intend to get it!

 

Chapter 6

 

Javin’s eyes popped open. It was still dark -- the mists of moisture drifting high, yet closer than at full dark. He didn’t know why he had awakened and sent his senses out, listening, feeling.

Someone was near – someone who didn’t belong. Slowly he lifted his head, turning it each way. Even in the darkness he could make out the huddled forms of sleeping Vouloo. Turning another way, he checked the position of the sentries. They were in place, not alarmed at anything. Still something was amiss.

Then it happened! A shrill cry broke the silence. From all directions he could hear the sound of pounding feet. Javin was on his feet in an instant, at the same time cursing himself for not asking for a weapon the night before. A blurred silhouette of a being loomed before him in the darkness. Its arm was raised, a long dagger in its hand. It hesitated at the sight of Javin. Javin took the instant’s hesitation and drove his fist heavily into the being’s throat, at the same time grabbing the upraised knife and twisting the arm backwards with all the strength he could muster. He heard a snap along with a yowl of pain, as the being fell.

It was Javin’s turn to be surprised. The being, whatever it was, was cold to the touch and smooth. Javin instantly realized, even in the darkness, this was of the same species that had saved him from the hungry mottled reptile.

Chameleon men! That’s why he hadn’t been able to see them clearly in the dark. Their unusual color-changing ability made them blend so deeply, no features could be identified.

Screams of pain, grunts and curses filled the air. Javin firmly grasped the blade, ignoring the downed intruder.

Springing towards where he knew the princess had been sleeping, he stumbled full upon the backs of four intruders pressing a ring of guards, fighting valiantly but losing step by step.

More by feel than anything else, he buried his dagger into one back, pulling it out quickly and slashing at the neck of another. Reaching forward, he felt and grasped another arm, swinging the assailant around and turning the dagger’s end, drove the pommel into the attacker’s face, leaving him to slump to the ground.

Javin was amazed at his fine-tuned senses. Instinctively he knew where everyone was close to him on the field of battle without having to see them. Have I always been able to do this? He wondered. Adrenalin coursed, making his mind and muscles flash and dart like striking serpents. It was clear the other guards didn’t have his ability for they were flailing about with their weapons hoping to strike, though not too successfully. They were falling fast.

Javin felt a blow from the behind. Dazed, he struggled to keep his senses, swirling with his knife, opening up another attacker across the chest then followed through with a clenched fist to the face.

Sensing another to his left, he pivoted, ducking just as a blade sliced the air where his head had been. He dove forward in a roll, coming up, blade thrusting into the stomach of his assailant while at the same time grabbing the attacker’s long blade and wrenching it free, swinging it behind, and catching still another intruder coming up on him.

He turned back, now swinging the longer blade and using the shorter he’d wrenched free to deflect, cutting a swath to the princess’ aid.

He noted with satisfaction the enemy ranks were thinning, but almost all the Vouloo had fallen. Now only four, including Siri’ Bhu, stood defending the princess.

The few remaining attackers focused in on the princess. Javin was left free. He was about to jump back into the fray when a bark of orders sounded from the jungle.

Another mass of the dark forms darted in, cutting him off. Together they rushed Javin from all sides. One impaled himself on Javin’s long blade. Another took his short knife in the throat. It was slowed him just enough. Smooth, cold hands grasped him. Fists pummeled him.

Javin was in a haze, faintly wondering why he felt no pain. He knew his body was receiving a horrible beating. The swarming blows continued until the weight of the huddled bodies pinned him to the ground. He thrashed his arms and legs. His senses swam in murky darkness.

I need to get to the princess!

A square blow landed on the side of his head and everything went dark.

***

Javin heard faint voices, as if coming from a great distance. They didn’t make sense. He couldn’t understand them, yet he knew they referred to him.

Gradually the sounds grew louder and the voices more articulate. He was struggling to come back from the depths of unconsciousness.

With great effort one eye fluttered open; the other was swollen shut. Pain flashed through his right shoulder as he tried to move, experimenting.

Javin bit back a groan. His legs felt weak and sore, his chest hurt even with shallow breaths. His left arm was numb but he could feel his fingers move as he slowly curled them up into a fist. Then a heavy foot stepped on his wrist, pinning his left arm and bringing a new wave of pain.

“Ah, I see you have risen from the dead. Good.” The voice continued. “Now I can find out what sort of creature you are before I have you killed.”

Javin blearily looked up into the cruel face and dark features of a lion-man. He, at least, was of the same race as the princess. His dark, rumbling voice identified him as a male as well as the thick tufts of hair flowing from his head in a dark mane.

“Pull him up so I can have a better look,” the man ordered.

Javin felt the cold touch of two chameleon men pulling him roughly to his feet. His knees buckled and they grasped his arms harder, keeping him upright. Javin nearly blacked out again and struggled to stay erect, facing his enemy.

“Why did you attack?” Javin spat.

The man doubled up his fist, driving it into Javin’s mid-section. Then while Javin was bent over, he swung another cuff at the side of his head. Javin was held on his feet by the chameleon men.

“You will speak when I ask you to speak and not before,” the gruff voice commanded. “Now hold him up so I can see.”

Javin realized as he was painfully stretched upright that he had lain unconscious for some time. The morning light was high overhead. The mist had strained out with the heat and it still obscured the sky along with the canopy of jungle foliage. Several hours had passed since the attack.

With his good eye Javin scanned the camp. Bodies of the Vouloo were piled to one side. Chameleon men were still going through their belongings, confiscating anything that seemed of interest. Then relief washed over Javin as he saw the princess under guard, seated on a rock. Siri’ Bhu sat on the ground next to her. Only those two were alive.

Next, Javin looked at his assailant. His dun-colored pelt was covered with a rough black leather tunic and breeches. A heavy blade, about a forearm’s length long, hung at his side, a dagger fastened at the other hip. On his breast was emblazoned a golden yellow sunburst.

That’s odd, Javin thought. How would they know how the sun looks? I’ve not seen it since I’ve been here.

Then Javin’s eyes were drawn to the man’s left arm. A long red gash shown inside his forearm, hastily wrapped to stanch the flow of blood. The lion-man noted Javin’s eyes.

“I got too close to the princess who had a hidden knife we didn’t find. I like a woman with spirit, don’t you?” He raised his eyebrows and moved closer.

Fresh anger burned in Javin’s heart. His arms tensed in spite of the pain. The cold grasp tightened on his arms.

The lion-man smiled again. “You have spirit too. Little good it will do. I’ve got what I came for.” He glanced back at the sullen form of the princess. “You are little more than a curiosity. What manner of creature are you? You may answer.”

Javin kept silent for a moment then decided he didn’t have anything to lose. “My name is Javin. I’m a human being.”

“Ah, this animal has a name: Javin. And what, pray tell, is a hhumahn bheing?”

“It’s something you’ll never have talent for,” Javin snarled.

Again the man cuffed him across the head, this time sharp nails raked gashes across his face.

“You don’t seem to learn, Javin. Bring the princess here. Perhaps she can tell us a little more.”

Javin scanned the camp again. The lion-man, it seemed, commanded a troop of 50 or more chameleon men. His commanding these chameleon men seemed odd, unless they were a slave species. Yet they seemed too proud, too dignified for that. Although they obeyed him, he thought he could sense some distaste in some of their attitudes, as if they didn’t like what they were being asked to do.

The princess and Siri’ Bhu were brought forward. The princess held her chin high, regal, eyes flashing with defiance. Her manner dripped with scorn. The lion-man chuckled with indifference.

“ Tell me Princess, what is this hhuman bheingg you have with you? It's interesting and fought with strength. Is this another race you've found -- like your uncle found these?” The lion-man gestured to his group of soldiers.

Mouhra’ Lah looked at the lion-man as if noticing an insect and kept silent. The lion-man didn’t seem to notice, and continued to goad her into speaking.

“Your uncle is the savior of your people, you know. In this Time of Trouble, he has located the legendary Pontu’ Gi – Protectors; the race who’ll protect our world from certain doom as the legends say.”

The princess turned her head slightly from her captor, looking around at the strange soldiers. Javin noticed her eyes seemed to glisten with moisture. She had a look that, almost but not quite, belied a look of hopelessness. Javin felt for her. She was in a tough spot.

The princess then turned back, her face hardening, eyes staring straight ahead, still keeping silent.

“Ah, I see you will not be cooperative.” The lion-man raised a hand to strike . . .

Javin lunged but was held back.

“ Saballa!" Siri' Bhu blurted, "I will tell you what you need to know. Just don't harm the princess -- or this man, either.”

“Oh,” said the lion-man, turning to sneer at Siri’ Bhu, “and why not?”

Siri’ Bhu paused. Having saved the princess from a blow, she seemed startled and didn’t know what else to say. The man raised his hand again and Siri’ Bhu shouted. “We found him in the jungle!”

The man lowered his hand as Siri continued. “We don’t know who he is or where he came from . . . and neither does he. That is all we know.”

The man glared at Siri’ Bhu, then the princess, before turning back to Javin. “Well, ‘tis a pity no one seems to be making any sense.”

One of the chameleon men came up and whispered in the man’s ear. He seemed to anger then drew himself upright. “Well, I wish I could spend more time to learn who and what you really are, but my orders were explicit: find the princess and bring her back. I can ill afford to waste any more time with you, hhumahn bheingg.”

He nodded to the chameleon man who’d come forward. “Kill him,” he commanded.

The chameleon man pounded a fist across his breast in salute and stepped toward Javin, drawing his dagger and raised it high, about to plunge it into Javin’s bare breast.

Javin strained, saw a blur of movement. “Noooo!” The blade flashed downward, and the jungle was pierced by a scream of agony Javin realized was his own.

***

The dim glow of the cavern faded slowly. Tiny pinpoints of light imbedded in the walls flickered briefly then began to die, suffusing in darkness Chahzuu’s lifeless form sprawled on the dirt floor. His outstretched hand was barely beyond reach of the now empty crystal.

The light continued to fade and inky darkness fell on the room. Suddenly a tiny spark flashed in the center of that crystal.

A flickering spark began to pulse, and with each pulse, it grew, building with ever-increasing intensity until the crystal scintillated with blinding white flashes. Crisp shadows danced with every flash, as if the crystal had drained the energy of the room -- and the very air around it -- to power itself again.

Chahzuu’s body remained still. Then a spasm of movement came from his outstretched hand – a feeble flexing of a finger stretching, reaching for the source of the light.

It strained, moved closer, pulsing with the crystal. Stretching, stretching, until the trembling finger brushed the crystal . . .

 

A tremendous gasp convulsed Chahzuu’s body as he took in a deep lung-full of air. With a spasmodic movement, his hand closed over the crystal, clutching it as life energy melded back, filled him with the tiny kernel of life he’d set into the crystal right at the last instant.

It was his core essence – all that he truly was, deep down, nothing hidden, nothing false.

It all came surging back through the clutched, scintillating crystal in his palm. The light was so bright it outlined his flesh, highlighting the bone underneath.

Ecstasy filled his soul at being once again united with his body. He trembled in relief. And still the energy coursed, replenishing strength, though he dared not move for fear it hadn’t been real.

Chahzuu lay still for a time. The crystal had stopped glowing. The transference was complete and he was enveloped in the darkness.

Finally, he allowed himself to move, feeling oddly refreshed. He felt better than ever. That surprised him considering what he’d gone through. Why? He wondered. Then it hit him. All his old inner barriers and falsehoods had been stripped away. There had been nothing left to place within the crystal other than that kernel of his true, most basic self. He felt strangely free. But he also saw himself now, with no bias, no pressure to be . . . He just was -- and grateful for it!

Chahzuu sat up, still in the dense dark, holding the crystal up in his open palm.

There was a bare hint of light in its center, the only thing keeping the chamber from utter darkness. Then the chamber walls seemed to flicker. The tiny pinpoints of light faintly started growing, as if the energy the crystal had drawn was now finished and the power could now return to the chamber.

How can such be done? Chahzuu marveled. Praise the Guardians! As the last light flickered and died from the crystal the chamber was again as light as before, and the crystal was completely clear now . . . Except, when Chahzuu studied it, he could barely make out the gray, scintillating veins again. The crystal was different than he’d seen in his visions, yet it had saved his life. And he hoped the last gasping thrust he’d sent out at Nemesis had at least given him a headache.

Remembering Nemesis, he quickly glanced around the room. It was empty save for himself. Then looking back at the crystal, he wondered if it had been damaged – if it would still function as he needed it to function.

His dreams had been hopelessly shattered. Nothing remaining as he’d seen before . . . only that he had died? Did I die? He wondered.

Should I still merge? Will it kill me? If it were whole would Nemesis have left it? These thoughts all ran through his mind as he stared intently down into the crystal’s clear depths.

I must proceed, he thought. My people are in danger more than ever! Calming his mind and focusing his concentration on the crystal, he sent his thoughts into it.

You are mine – I am yours – we shall be one.

Still seated on the dirt floor, he sat upright, back rigid, drawing his palm, holding the crystal near his breast, chin high, head back, eyes closed. The crystal began glowing, rapidly blaring into brilliant light the closer it came to Chahzuu’s breast. A flash erupted, illuminating the whole room as it contacted exposed flesh.

 

Chahzuu found himself surrounded by brilliant white. No contrast to anything. He couldn’t tell if he was in a large chamber, a vast open area, or small confined space with no hint of dimension. What is happening? Nothing like this had ever been in any of his dreams. Then he felt he wasn’t alone and a gentle, caressing thought crossed his mind in words, anticipating his thoughts.

Your visions are not the actual future. They’re dim projections of what may be. All are free and determine their own path.’

Chahzuu pondered a moment, then opened his mouth, trying to speak, trying to ask a question. Nothing would come out. His voice was gone. Was it the void?

[_ In answer to his silent thought, the voice again entered his mind. ‘You are no longer whole -- yet more than whole. The crystal was been used in a way it was not intended, yet you made it work for you again through sheer strength of will. That is why you have been chosen.’ _]

Chahzuu blinked and closed his mouth. These must be the Guardians!

Yes, we are.’

‘Did you send my dreams?’

‘We did not.’

‘Then where did they come from?’

‘The Source.’

‘Source? What is that?’

‘It’s the Source; the source of . . . everything. Your visions are why we sought you out.’

‘But you’re the Guardians! Aren’t you the Source?’

‘No. The Source is . . . Greater. Much greater. We are . . . between.’

‘What does that mean?’

There was silence, and Chahzuu felt the presences around him seemed nervous. ‘Please tell me. I don’t understand.’

The silence continued.

[_ 'You must help my people -- my world!’ Chahzuu directed his thoughts outward. _]

We cannot,’ the gentle thought caressed, a hint of sadness seeming to sweep through in tone. ‘We are under attack from forces you cannot at this time comprehend. But you have been chosen.’

Chosen for what?’ Chahzuu glanced around, trying in vain to see the speaker.

‘Chosen and Promised.

Chahzuu recognized the emphasis on the words. Words he recognized from his learning of the great prophecies.

‘You and others,’ The Guardian continued. ‘Especially The One. To help us combat the greater evil sweeping through all our realms.’

Chahzuu cocked his head as the thoughts continued to brush his mind.

‘We are fighting hard, yet losing, and we need strength – a powerful strength you do not yet realize deep within. You must find it. We have not the power to bring it out.’

Bring what out?’ Chahzuu was confused. There was no answer. He waited.

Will we win?’ Chahzuu asked in his mind, worried at the revelation that his once believed almighty Guardians may not be supreme after all.

What is winning?’ the thought filled his mind. ‘Winning is but the continuation of the precious right to choose one’s path, to be free, to emerge and evolve in knowledge, growth, happiness.’

‘Then what is losing?’ Chahzuu thought.

We will show you.’

Immediately he was hit with a wall of blackness, powerful, surging, encompassing, snuffing out all life before it. Chahzuu couldn’t breath. He felt himself suffocating, his body being crushed . . .

Gasping and heaving, he tried to cry out with his mind; then abruptly the brilliant white returned and he took a deep, life-saving breath.

There was silence in his mind as Chahzuu drew in breath after precious breath, trying to make sense of what he had just experienced.

Losing . . . is ceasing to exist,’ the voice came to his mind.

Trembling Chahzuu looked around again, still not seeing anything but white.

Will we survive?’

The voice came back in his mind, quieter still, yet just as piercing.

Unknown. We do not understand its advance and know of no way to stop it. Yet each world, each race, must be given its chance to fight.’

How?’ Chahzuu pressed.

Unknown,’ the answer came back tinged with deep sadness. ‘You have the right to try. The Crystal will help you become more than you are; all you can be.’

How do we fight?’ Chahzuu was at a loss for words, remembering and fearing only the emptiness he could not describe.

Unknown. But there is a chance.’

What? What is it?’ Chahzuu desperately thought.

It rests with the Two.’

Chahzuu’s eyes widened.

Two of the One – One of the Two. One of the blood yet Two of the spirit.’

Chahzuu’s eyes furrowed, thinking this must mean something.

It does,’ the voice caressed.

My dreams!’ Chahzuu thought, hope springing forward.

Yes. Your dreams. The Pale Ones.’

But what does it mean?’ Chahzuu pressed.

We don’t know. We’ve only the glimpses of your dreams. But you will know. You and the other Promised Ones. Only that brings a chance. You all must help The One and also Two. Only that may turn the tide.’

How?’

Unknown. You must try, you and the others, or all is lost.’

But the dreams?’

From the Source. We’re not sure we understand either. There are so few Dreamers now. Only a hint of the future; things that may be. It’s your choices, your power that will make it so. Yours and the One.

A silence came over Chahzuu’s mind like a warm blanket, and the light began to dim, grow bleary, until everything faded to darkness. He panicked, thinking the invading void had somehow found him. Then a thought soothed across his mind.

‘Peace.’ A glowing warmth settled within his breast, burning outward, calming him to his core.

 

The light began to grow again, taking on definition. Chahzuu recognized the chamber’s walls with their tiny pinpoints of light. He felt the dirt floor of the cavern, and glancing down, saw his palm was empty. He had merged.

 

Chapter 7

 

Javin strained, saw a blur of movement. “Noooo!” The blade flashed downward, and the jungle was pierced by a scream of agony Javin realized was his own -- but not for himself.

The dagger had buried itself in Siri’ Bhu’s back, who’d broken free and leaped between him and his executioner. She fell forward, her arms wrapping around Javin, her head resting against his breast. Her voice gasped. “Mulda’ fi, you must protect us – save our people.” She slumped to the dirt.

“You animal!” Javin strained to break free and dive on the wolfish leader.

“Calm yourself, animal,” Saballa gestured and the guard cuffed Javin again several times across the face, causing him to slump in the arms of his captors.

Mulda’ fi, did she say?” Saballa said as Javin struggled to stand on his feet again. “This is interesting. Perhaps I won’t kill you today after all.” Then he nodded to another guard. “Bind him firmly. This one has strength. It’s something Trantha’ Joh must see. If the Keeper figures this as Mulda’ fi, it bears study.” His eyes narrowed. “Yes, detailed study.

“Princess…” he said, turning back to where the princess was held, tears straining her cheeks as she stared dumbly at her friend’s blood staining the dirt a copper color.

“Princess, do you believe this is one of the Promised Ones?”

Mouhra’ Lah blinked then stared back defiantly at Saballa, answering nothing, chin held high.

“No answer, eh? Well . . . I’ve instructions to bring you back unharmed so I can’t question you the way I’d like.” His eyes looked menacing. “Perhaps another time your uncle will indulge me.”

“Javin was right – you are an animal!”

Saballa only smiled, gave the orders. “Everyone assemble. Prepare to move out. Bind the Princess,” Saballa nodded to another guardsman, a strong chord in his hand. “See to the wounded. Leave the rest. The jungle will clean up after us. The Emperor wants the Princess back now and we have at least a ten-day march ahead.” The soldiers sprang to life.

Mouhra’ Lah’s eyes widened at the mention of ‘Emperor’. “So my uncle has seized power already?”

Saballa turned back. “Only to a few who serve him. Soon, with your . . .” he hesitated slightly, “…cooperation, it will become so with the rest of our people. From there it will be little more effort to unite all cities under our beloved new ‘Emperor’.”

“You serve no one but yourself, Saballa! You grasp power wherever you can. Why not help me? I can reward you far more surely than my Uncle!”

Saballa held a hand to his breast, affecting hurt. “Oh, you’re wrong, Princess, I have nothing but the sincerest devotion to our Emperor. I am certain only he can lead us -- all people -- to the path of enlightenment.” Then a smile of irony crossed his face and he gestured for the soldiers to form up.

“What about Siri’ Bhu? She could still be alive. No one’s checked her. We must see!” The princess strained in the hold of her guards.

Ignoring her pleading, Saballa barked, “Move out.” He glanced at Javin, who stared piercingly, eyes smoldering with anger.

Javin was bound, he could do nothing for anyone now, but he vowed he would do something, someday to pay Saballa back and avenge the sacrifice Siri’ Bhu had made for him.

***

Unseen eyes watched from the edge of the camp as the Pontu’ Gi soldiers formed up and started through the jungle. As soon as the foliage obscured them from sight, Sohorkon’ Boh leaped from his hiding place, quickly advancing to the prone figure lying in the dirt. His well-muscled arms reached out, gently turning Siri’ Bhu over and tearing a piece from his ragged and torn uniform, holding it tightly against the wound to stanch the flow of blood.

He reached down to gently hold two fingers against her neck, feeling a faint pulse. Relieved, he glanced around the camp. The lines at the corner of his eyes tightened as he saw the piled bodies of the Princess’ guard. More evidence of Saballa’s savagery, having experienced it first-hand himself.

Sohorkon cursed under his breath for coming upon the scene too late. Even then, what could he have done alone? It was just as before. He had been helpless. There was nothing he could have done. Nothing now except save the Keeper. Another along with himself who could testify of Tranthra’ Joh’s treason.

A moan escaped Siri’ Bhu’s mouth and Sohorkon quickly turned his attentions to her, caressing her cheek, laying her out, taking care to keep the pressure on her wound. Her eyes fluttered open and she gasped in pain.

“It’s O.K.”, Sohorkon said, “You’re going to be all right.”

Siri squinted, looking up at Sohorkon, then concern flashed in her eyes. “The Princess – Javin – we need to help them. Where are they?”

“There’re gone, taken by Saballa’s men. There’s nothing we can do for them now.”

“But we must! We must stop them!” Siri tried to rise. The pain made her fall limply back. She shuddered then her eyes fluttered open again and she stared at Sohorkon. “Who are you?” a look of fear appeared in her eyes.

“It’s OK,” Sohorkon soothed, “I’m a friend. I was attached to the guard of Prince Sauros’ Boh. We also were attacked by Saballa and his men. I was the only one who escaped.”

Siri’ Bhu started again, this time didn’t try to sit up. She spoke through clenched teeth. “We were looking for the prince. Was he killed? Is he all right?”

Sohorkon’Boh lowered his head as if in shame. “I don’t know. I was ordered away to get word to my people. Several of those creatures were sent after me . . . they follow me no longer. I was hoping to get word to the princess at Putra’ Fi Sorro. That city was closer. I can only hope the prince was spared, as was your princess. Beyond that I don’t know.

“Now rest easy, Keeper. You’ve lost a great deal of blood. The wound is deep but didn’t strike anything vital. Let me get you some water, and when you’ve rested we will press on. Your testimony, combined with mine, will certainly raise the cry of warning to both our peoples.”

“We have to hurry!” Siri’ Bhu said, again struggling to get up. Again the pain forced her to lie back.

“Yes, we must hurry,” Sohorkon agreed, “only when you’re able. Here, chew on this.” He reached behind and pulled a dried root from his belt pouch. “It doesn’t taste like much but it’ll give back some of your strength.”

“Thanks,” Siri’ Bhu answered weakly. She reached up with her right arm to touch his chest, keeping her left as still as possible since any movement brought great pain.

“I hate to do this,” Sohorkon said, “but I’m going to ask you to turn over so I can dress your wound better.” The Keeper smiled, nodded, and gently, with Sohorkon’s assistance, started to turn. Siri’s wound was taken high on the back of her left shoulder, dragging deep but glancing off bone and striking downward. It had missed everything major though a great deal of blood had been lost. Sohorkon gently lifted the ragged dressing to see if the blood was slowing. Siri’s intake of breath told him the severe pain she was in.

“I’ll get some water to rinse the wound. That should help soothe the pain. Then I’ll clean these strips and dress the wound for you. With your permission,” Sohorkon began sheepishly. “I may need some from your clothing to make a sufficient dressing.”

Siri’ Bhu laughed in spite of the pain. “You may have whatever you need. A lack of modesty is much more to be desired than bleeding to death, don’t you think?”

Sohorkon smiled. “Yes.” Then he hesitated, concern crossed his eyes. “If I may ask . . . the princess has a sister.” The Keeper narrowed her eyes and watched Sohorkon close as he continued. “Was she safe the last time you saw her?”

“She is safe,” Siri answered guardedly. “Why do you ask?”

“I was just concerned,” Sohorkon said. “With Tranthra’ Joh’s treachery, I just pray she hasn’t been left in the castle. If the princess has been taken, there’s no telling what Saballa would do with her sister. She also is in line to be queen if something should happen to Mouhra’ Lah.”

Siri was quiet, her eyes scrutinizing Sohorkon’ Boh who returned her gaze levelly. “As I said,” Siri answered. “She is safe.” Then a pause… “Who are you?”

“I am Sohorkon’ Boh,” he answered.

Siri’s eyes went wide. “You’re the prince’s brother! You’re lucky Saballa didn’t recognize and have you killed!”

A wry grin spread across his face. “He tried.”

Again there was silence. Sohorkon’s expression grew pained.

“ I never should have left my brother. He made me – ordered me for the sake of our people -- to give warning.” He looked at Siri, his eyes determined. “That is what we must do. If my brother has sacrificed himself, it must not be in vain!”

Siri’ Bhu nodded.

“Now,” Sohorkon continued, “let’s dress your wound. Then we must make our way back to my city, Sunzah’ Nu Geeza, Heart of the Forest. There we can find people who’ll help. We must now consider Putra’ Fi Sorro in enemy hands.”

***

Mahntra’ Bhu appeared to be wandering aimlessly through the city. That was far from the truth. He was wandering because of his watchers. Why they were following him? His guess was it had something to do with his inquiries regarding the princess and his daughter. Tranthra’ Joh must be behind it. The chamberlain had certainly delivered his request for a meeting and more, probably. If Mahntra had suspected something was wrong before, now he was certain.

Surrepticiously he’d visited several of the nobles with whom he’d always maintained a close relationship. They were missing too. Representatives of the palace had told their families they’d been called away on important city business.

Mahntra grimaced, remembering how nervous the families had been. After careful pressing and assuring them that he, the former Keeper, certainly could be trusted they finally answered his questions. The families had been told they must not tell anyone their fathers were gone or it could endanger their lives.

How absurd! Mahntra had thought. Then he recognized the inherent threat in such instructions; both to the nobles and their families. This was worse than he’d feared.

It was shortly after that Mahntra began to notice he was being followed. He’d kept seeing three familiar faces wherever he went. Not all at once, but at different times like they were switching off. The main give away had been their posture. You can put a soldier in normal clothing but you can’t hide the way he walks, the way he stands.

Normally he wouldn’t have paid such close attention to those around him. Events had heightened his senses.

The question was what to do about it. There definitely was trouble; and growing worse with the Conservator announcing new security procedures in the city.

In a carefully crafted speech the Conservator had announced the princess had entrusted him with the defense of the city. There was evidence a Time of Trouble lay ahead. The new measures were for the city’s protection and the princess had given her full support. Of course the orders weren’t signed by the princess. They were issued nonetheless.

People were disturbed, but went along. What else could they do? They trusted that everything was fine. Yet there were softly voiced questions as to why the princess hadn’t made the announcement.

Most people knew a Conservator was not to make new laws or edicts no matter how important, without the direct consent of the princess. The Conservator was to simply insure the government continued to function as it had until the succession was completed.

Mahntra knew the princess hadn’t given Tranthra’ Joh any such leeway as he claimed. She wasn’t even in the city. And still there was no mention of it. People were starting to notice. They hadn’t seen her in days. It wasn’t like her. Was she sick like her mother? The low voices were starting to spread. Mahntra smiled to himself as he walked. I planted most of those questions myself. I should have been a dissident.

Mahntra wished he dared speak out more publicly, but what would be the consequences? What would happen to the princess . . . to his daughter? And what if Tranthra’ Joh’s story were actually true? What if the Princess was on a special envoy with the missing nobles? He thought that story was all a fabrication. Still, he must think about it more before doing anything.

His mind made up, he turned back toward his house, keeping the same casual pace as if out taking exercise. I must keep my shadows ignorant I know of them. If they suspected he knew they’d be changed. It’d take time to identify them again. It was better to have a shadow you knew. Mahntra had a feeling he was going to need all the advantage he could get.

 

Chapter 8

 

The march through the jungle had been speedy; stopping only for brief rests. At night a camp was set well after dark and they were on their way again well before the light grew in the sky. Javin was never untethered. His arms and hands were numb, his wrists raw with the chafing. Neither he nor the princess was allowed to talk together. Occasionally Saballa would wander by, attempt to question him. He answered him nothing even when receiving a kick to the side, further inflaming what he was sure were broken ribs.

Realizing it was futile, Saballa soon gave up with the comment that with Tranthra’ Joh’s leave he’d have all the answers he wanted soon enough. A knowing smile crossed his face and he stalked away.

He tried to engage his chameleon guards in conversation hoping he could learn more and perhaps even reach some shred of decency in them -- if they had any. These people appeared to be a dignified race. It was hard to imagine anybody could serve such a wicked and vile man as Saballa.

The guards remained silent, as if ordered not to communicate. Coming to accept this, Javin lapsed into his own thoughts for the remainder of the journey.

The march became routine – each rest stop the same; the evening’s camp exactly as the night before. Javin, still in pain but healing, allowed himself to go numb to everything on the outside while he sought desperately his inner mind.

So much had happened in such a short time, and so much was a blank. If he indeed was a “Promised One”, what was he supposed to do here on this world? Better yet, what could he do? So far all he’d done is go from bad to worse. What about the crystal inside his chest? What did it do? He’d certainly felt it when he had agreed to help the princess.

Could he trust his own judgment? It wasn’t that he didn’t want to help the princess, but he didn’t want to be forced into it either. There was way too much about which he knew very little to firmly decide one way or the other.

There was one thing he knew for certain: Saballa was his enemy. As well as anyone who could command such a man.

As his pondering continued, he decided that if the crystal inside him could have influence over him, perhaps he could have influence over it. During the daily plodding walk, he blanked his mind then focused on the crystal: trying to touch it, to affect it.

At times he would feel glowing warmth in his breast, then not knowing quite what to do next, it would fade quickly.

What is it? What does it do? Can I use it? Each time he became apprehensive about the crystal and its effects on him, a deep calm would wash over – a warm assurance that it would never do him harm. Even this irritated Javin. It could simply be a deception; another deception in a long line of deceptions.

With his memory a blank he had no way of knowing. There was one memory he had – the memory of how he had received the crystal when he was a little boy. That memory was real. Something in the crystal had allowed him to remember when he had first received it.

That’s all Javin had right now. That and an ironic realization about himself: He was fiercely independent, not wanting to be controlled by anyone or any thing. Any decision I make I must make on my own without pressure from the outside! Or inside for that matter.

Maybe that’s what the crystal had done. As he thought about his conversation with the princess, his instinct, his desire, had been to help her at the outset. Then the crystal had warmed him, helped him feel it was right. Was it reacting to my own feelings? Could he trust it when he needed? And if he could trust, would it do any good? Were there any powers it held he didn’t know about? And were they sufficient to help him get away from these captors and help the princess? The questions kept circling again and again.

***

Chahzuu stood just inside the opening of the grotto. The falling water crashed down over the entrance while inside the ferns dripped moisture to which he held his mouth, replenishing his parched body. He was famished with hunger and moved around the waterfall onto the ledge. The light overhead brightly illuminated the forest even down at this level. It must surely have been hours he’d lain as one who was dead. He couldn’t tell for sure. If his hunger was any indication, it could have been a couple of days. Like his thirst, his body was in bad need of sustenance from the ordeal it had gone through.

Just thinking about what the stripping had felt like made him cringe. Now he must do something. He had to stop Nemesis. The question was how? Everything Chahzuu knew had been imparted to Nemesis. He worried for his people. They were a race of destiny which now could easily be led disastrously astray if Nemesis got to them before he could.

Moving over to a plant he recognized, he dug at the root, pulled it out then held it in the waterfall, rubbing it briskly to clean away the soil. Chahzuu held it to his mouth, gnawing on an end, tasting bitterness as the juices were forced out. The bitterness faded as his eyes became distant and he began contemplating what he must do.

What were his options? He continued to gnaw on the root and sat down. Moving through the forest without any definite plan would be counterproductive. His first impulse was to rush back to his people. Even as he considered that, he knew, somewhere inside, it was already too late. His breast warmed and his eyes widened as he glanced down seeing a strange glowing aura of warmth radiate from within. Then he knew how he knew: The Stone.

If he couldn’t stop this Pale one his people would be lost! Darkness threatened to crowd in. The knowledge he had held would be the cause. Setting out to save his people, he had possibly brought about their ruin. He must do something!

For a long time only the crashing of the falling water invaded the deep privacy of Chahzuu’s thoughts, all just as jumbled and clashing. Even before he’d started, his dream had come true! The Pale One of his dream had killed him, and was, even now, bringing about the ruin of his people.

It had happened, if not in the exact same way, the players were all the same. The events which he’d always dreaded were surely occurring. He’d never make it back to his people in time to stop Nemesis from claiming them.

What of the Guardians? They had told him there was still a chance. That his dreams weren’t the truth, exactly, but an image of what could be. An echo of the future, not what must be.

Chahzuu jumped to his feet, breathing deeply in excitement. Maybe all was not lost! His dream had changed! There was a chance, and he must seize it! He concentrated, wondering what that chance might be. And then the thought occurred to him. If his dream about his death had been wrong -- at least so far -- there was still something he could do for his people. Maybe Nemesis hadn't gotten to them. Maybe the Stone was telling him what might happen if he didn't hurry back to his people.

Then thought and feeling washed over him again. It’s too late. Nemesis has already been to my people, they are his now. He didn’t know how he knew, but knew with a profound assurance that he couldn’t deny.

Again it’s the Stone! It was all so new. He knew the Stone had power, wasn’t sure what that power was or how he could draw it out.

His mind went back to the records and legends which now Nemesis had access to by virtue of his memories. There must be something!

Guilt tore at his soul again. It’d been his fault. Nemesis had all his knowledge to use against them. Anything he tried would be anticipated.

But he doesn’t know I’m alive. That one thought bolstered him.

Chahzuu continued to think. I must approach him from an unexpected direction. If he’s taken my people using their destiny against them to his own ends, then I must take them and put them back on the path they must truly follow.

He started to pace on the small ledge of the grotto’s opening, feeling his body continuing to recover.

Then it occurred to him. There was something in the oldest of records. Just a shred, even as it was, but there was hope in that. They weren’t related to the legends of his people being Pontu’ Gi. They were just old writings by an ancient Chahkzaa, not related to anything in particular, and so Nemesis wouldn’t have any context for them. He wouldn’t know their meaning, or at least he hoped he wouldn’t. They wouldn’t have any bearing on what he was trying to do with his people, so those memories would be jumbled among all the others of his life which had been stripped.

Those records had almost been discarded by the previous Chahkzaa, but Chahzuu had saved them by pleading so much that the Chahkzaa relented and gave them to him for study. It was contingent upon his promising he wouldn’t neglect his other studies for the mere curiosities he was told were within those records. Chahzuu’s thirst for knowledge made him think it was a curse to throw away anything that had to do with the attainment of ancient knowledge, no matter how frivolous it seemed.

The first step was to get out into open country and begin his thinking and planning. He thought best while moving through the trees.

Climbing off the ledge, he moved quickly back down the path through the overhanging jungle and over the vine and brush covered paving left by the ancients.

 

Chapter 9

 

Counting the nights, Javin realized they were taking longer than Saballa had anticipated. Saballa’s temper had grown increasingly short. Then early one morning they broke through the foliage of a small rise and looked across a broad sward of what appeared to be immaculately manicured grass. As he stepped out into the grassy plain, his feet sank as if into a bog. Javin’s eyes widened at the sight.

From the center of the expansive area rose a tremendous walled city set on a gradual mount overlooking the entire valley. From Saballa’s cursing he realized they’d been lost and only now, with luck, had come upon the city.

The city was big, filling the whole mount, spires lifting here and there in smooth, circular towers that rose to points occasionally broken by balconies,. The defensive wall surrounding it seemed high with no break except for occasional small doors at the base, which he was sure were heavily fortified, and could only be opened from within. The wall itself was peaked by towers and battlements at strategic locations all along its expanse. It was an inspiring sight. Seeing the bright colored pennants flying in the breeze from each tower, gave it a dreamlike quality. Javin was far from feeling impressed by the beauty. He knew entering it would bode no good for him or the princess.

The line between jungle and lush grass was clearly defined. Saballa barked an order as they stepped back out into the jungle, hiding again from view of the city.

Of course, Javin thought, Saballa can’t afford for anyone in the city to know he’s attacked and captured their princess.

And these other beings, the chameleon men, shouldn’t be seen either. Javin had noticed from the princess’ reaction earlier, she’d never encountered the race before, and like him, she’d expected them to be protectors, not aggressors.

Thinking back on the sward of grass, Javin was surprised at the spongy texture. He’d sunk in at least six inches with water surrounding his feet. He didn’t know how they could accomplish this type of terrain, but it must have been to provide a defensive perimeter to the city. What a simple yet impressive tactic. An army, no matter how big, would find it hard to rush over this ground, much less haul any kind of heavy weaponry or siege engine across it.

A guard, a lion man, one of Saballa’s seconds, came forward and moved a ways out onto the grassy field waving a heavy banner lifted high on a pole. Straining his eyes through the foliage, Javin could make out the small sign of a similar banner waiving from the wall. They had been noticed. There was a momentary lapse of discipline and the princess moved up to Javin.

“You see my city,” she said to Javin – “the City of the Winds. There’s but one road to it, and we are on the back side.” She had a tight smile for Javin. “Saballa is not quite the forester he thought he was. We easily could have missed the city, but it seems my bad luck is holding.”

Javin smiled, trying to reassure her. “It looks to be a city that can be easily defended.”

“At least from enemies without,” the Princess answered. “We keep the jungle back, carefully uprooting any trees or bushes taller than these grasses so any approaching enemy can be detected. The one road to the city is narrow and built up so none can approach us unawares. It’s too bad we didn’t take as many precautions against enemies within the walls.”

Javin nodded wryly.

Saballa came forward. “Well, Princess, it appears you are home.” Then he turned to Javin, “It also appears you and I will be having more discussions. This time I am sure to get my answers.” A malevolent grin crept across his features.

“Move out,” Saballa barked, and the company formed up, Javin once again being separated from the Princess. The group moved further back into the forest, still following the line of jungle and the clearing. Every once in a while he would catch a glimpse of a city spire or tower though they stayed well hidden in the dense greenery.

Through one brief opening, he caught a glimpse of a small troop of soldiers moving out from one of the small doorways moving briskly towards what appeared to be the general direction they were traveling. A greeting party, Javin mused.

The two parties converged on the far side of the city. They met just to the side of a tall, thick stand of trees.

Saballa moved up. “Take a last look at the outside, animal. It’s the last you’ll see of it,”

Javin caught the princess’ eye, and smiled encouragement. He didn’t know what he could do to help. At least he could give reassurance. She smiled back, a thin, tight smile. A lion-man guard noticed the exchange and drove a spear haft into Javin’s gut, and forced him back while Saballa and the leader of the group from the city conversed.

It would have hurt worse, but Javin had grown used to this type of treatment. Miraculously, his wounds, which he was certain had been pretty serious, were almost healed. There was still soreness about his ribs, and his left arm was still a little stiff and pained when he moved it quickly. Otherwise everything else had faded, as if he hadn’t received a beating at all. Was this something natural to him, or was this an affect from the crystal? Something inside told him it must be the crystal. How was the crystal affecting him? Would it give him powers?

Trying as he’d tried many times before, he focused his thoughts into the center of his breast. Like so many times before, nothing stirred.

Taking a deep breath, he settled down to wait. There was nothing he could do now. If he kept his senses alert, something would present itself. If I haven’t always been an optimist now’s a good time to start.

“Form up!” he heard the guard commander shout. Javin was roughly pulled into line, flanked, as always by a cadre of seven guards. I guess I scare them to have this many guards watching over a trussed chicken.

The thought surprised him. What’s a chicken? Then the flicker of an image floated into his mind making him all the more frustrated that he could bring up the most banal images while nothing of substance would surface no matter how hard he concentrated.

What happened next was very curious to Javin. The leader of the city guard detachment stepped carefully to the stand of trees, and began a high pitched keening. The guard lowered his voice then thumped on the nearest tree three times, then leaned his head back and keened again.

There was a soft ruffling, cracking and popping, and to Javin’s surprise the stand of trees started swaying, moving, bending, into an arched entrance that opened through the overhanging limbs. The trees had bended, curved outward in the center and opened a path.

Reaching out, the guard rubbed a semi-thick trunk, purred in a deeper guttural keen, then stood back and bowed to Saballa.

Javin was sure his jaw was slack as he was pushed from behind and started to step through the tree stand into semi darkness. The path led down into a hidden underground passage in the center of the thick stand of moving trees.

Of course they’d have a secret passage, Javin thought wryly as he started down the steps of the damp, carved stairs. Automatically he tuned his senses, letting them scan and record almost subconsciously. He didn’t know where he’d learned that, but it was natural, a part of him that went into operation the moment he wanted to observe.

The stairway grew darker the further down they moved then a light started to appear at the bottom which opened up into a gathering area large enough for the whole group to stand close and make sure everyone had kept up.

Javin noticed the space was illuminated by dim globes of light fixed on the ends of short staffs set into wall brackets.

Two other hallways led from the small room. Saballa didn’t hesitate any longer than to make sure they were all together, then set a pace up the dim hallway directly across from the stairs. I wonder how many passages travel under the city. Javin was again prodded forward.

The group traveled in silence, the hall was lit by the light globes -- about the size of a bowling ball -- Javin grit his teeth at still another superfluous memory that made sense only after it'd come -- and of course, nothing else came with it. He shook his head and chuckled. The chameleon-man guard at his side looked at him askance as they walked, tilting his head, but didn't speak.

The hallway continued in a straight course. Javin assumed it led to directly under the city. After they’d walked for some time, he felt a slight pressure on his calf muscles indicating they were moving up a slight incline. Then, without any warning, they came into another room, this one much larger than the first and more brightly lit with a series of larger globes suspended from the ceiling. Around the expanse lay cells made of iron bars, most of which were occupied. Lion-men and women who stood in tattered clothing came to the front of their barred cells and watched silently as their group filed across the room. Visible bruises and cuts mapped some of their bodies, and the stiff way they moved told Javin the way they were being treated. Guards at various points throughout snapped to attention, bringing a clenched fist across their breast in salute to which Saballa paid no heed.

The princess was gaping in wide eyed horror about the room. She was visibly disturbed at seeing the cells filled. Javin could tell she recognized them, and pain filled her expression -- then anger, a livid pulse of fury that Javin knew would never be quenched until some justice was done.

“What is the meaning of this?” She snapped at Saballa as he stopped to give instructions to his seconds concerning the disposition of the remainder of the guard now they were within the confines of the city. “Why are these people being held?”

Saballa finished giving his orders, pointedly ignoring the princess. “Keep the Pontu’ Gi in their rooms and out of sight. It wouldn’t do to have them appear to the populace until Tranthra’ Joh commands it.” His second nodded. Then Saballa spoke to the rest of the men. “Go back to your various duties . . . and remember no word of this to anyone. The loyal will be rewarded. Those who fail will be punished.” His tone marked a definite threat.

Fists crashed along breasts in salute and the guard dispersed, most going up the steep stairs on the far side of the room. Another hallway to the right swallowed up one of the other seconds followed by the troupe of chameleon men. Their tread over the stone floor was silent as they padded across.

New guards moved down the steps passing those going up. These were dressed in what appeared to palace livery, black tunics, the bright sunburst design on the right breast, black trousers and shiny black, knee-high boots. On their heads they wore a black chromed scull helmet. Great color, Javin thought, makes it real easy to know who the bad guys are.

The new guards moved forward, flanking Saballa. He nodded, and they took up station, four around Javin and two on either side of the princess who stood fuming. It was only then that Saballa addressed the princess.

“These people are being held for crimes against the city.”

“What!” the princess stammered. “I know these people. They’ve never been anything but loyal. They’d never do anything against our city.”

“Loyal?” Saballa said. “Maybe to you but not to the city as it is now.”

The princess’ gasped. Saballa smirked, enjoying her reaction. Javin could tell that this Tranthra’ Joh was becoming your everyday dictator, political prisoners and all.

“I must caution you, princess,” Saballa continued. “As you know, we’ll be traveling up through the palace. The halls have been cleared and no one will see you. Any outburst on your part will be met with dire consequences.” Javin had no doubt he meant what he said. The princess didn’t answer. “Further, I advise you to cooperate with Tranthra’ Joh. It will be much less painful.”

He turned to Javin. “As for you animal, you’re nothing but a curiosity. Any outburst from you will mean your immediate death.”

One of the guards at Javin’s side pulled his dagger and held it to Javin’s throat.

“This guard has my permission,” Saballa continued, “to slit your throat at the slightest provocation. We’ll worry about the mess it makes later.”

Javin couldn’t resist letting a smile cross his face. Sure Saballa, I’ll behave . . . for now.

Once more sizing up the guard then adjusting his own clothing, Saballa turned and started up the steps. The princess followed and Javin was nudged forward, the dagger still held at his throat.

The top of the stairs opened into a rough hall which they followed until it stopped at a large wooden door. It was pulled open and they stepped out into a larger, brightly lit corridor. Polished marble flooring, colorful tapestries, and intricate carvings sat on pedestals at various intervals as they passed.

Javin kept a close eye on the princess as they progressed from hall to hall, each time it seemed they moved up an incline to a newer level of the palace. The decor grew finer and more lavish. Wealth and prosperity was evident.

Vacant corridors where there should have been a bustle of people clearly disheartened the princess. Her shoulders began to sag as if in defeat. Javin knew she was tired, and seeing all this, what she’d worked so hard to maintain being pushed aside so easily was taking its toll.

After walking some minutes through the palace, they came to a huge set of inlaid doors. Each door was easily four men across and at least two men high ending in a graceful arch at the top.

The two guards on either side of the door snapped to attention, lances held rigidly upright, eyes straight ahead. Saballa stepped forward and spoke a quiet word to one, who nodded and grasped the heavy brass ring on his half of the door and strained, pulling it open.

“Wait here!” Saballa moved into the room.

Javin tried to catch the princess’ eyes. They were downcast.

“Bring them in!” Saballa’s voice sounded from inside the chamber.

The princess took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and held her eyes level and high. She glanced quickly at Javin and smiled, then moved forward. That’s the way, Javin thought. Don’t show any weakness.

Javin was nudged forward, the guard still holding the dagger to his neck.

Inside the large hall, floor to ceiling windows ringed the space at regular intervals. The room was decked with a plethora of pedestal and tapestry finery. Great swaths of gossamer fabrics draped the windows, but still let the light fully penetrate and mute its glare to a subtle glow. The chamber itself wasn’t huge, just big enough to hold a hundred people, if necessary, on the burnished marble floors. At the far end a raised dais was located a bit into the center of the room with tall curtains rising up from its back to the ceiling. On the dais sat a gilded chair made of dark wood and upholstered with deep crimson. On it sat a large lion man bedecked in a grey tunic and trousers, black knee high boots like the guard, and his head was bare. He looked the picture of nobility. Javin sensed an underlying cruelty. It didn’t come from the way he appeared; more from the way he watched as they approached. A gloating, self satisfied smile crossed his face where the tinges of his slightly graying mane clung close to his cropped ears. The pelt on his arms and breast showed a slightly mottled beige color – mixed with gray. As with the guards, he had emblazoned on his right breast the sunburst symbol. That still seemed quite curious to Javin since he’d never seen the sun since being here, and doubted any of the inhabitants of this world had either.

Moving across the chamber he looked up and noticed several guards placed at equal distances around a balconied landing several spans up. Gives them a clear field of fire, Javin noted. Each held a bow knocked with an arrow ready to protect their sovereign. Only the Princess should be their sovereign.

Javin wondered what this Tranthra’ Joh had promised to entice these guards away from their hereditary leader.

“Kneel!” Saballa barked at they stopped in front of the dais. The guard at his side, finally sheathed his dagger and tried to force him into a kneeling posture. Javin shrugged him off and stood smiling. He’d be hanged if he’d kneel to the likes of this man. Javin was pleased to see the princess had ignored the command as well, and stood staring defiantly at the man sitting on the throne.

“I said, kneel!” Saballa moved forward, raising his hand to strike a cowardly blow to the princess.

Javin didn’t think, he acted, surging forward, snapping the bounds on his arms like they were nothing but strings. He caught Saballa a sharp blow across the jaw, knocking him sprawling.

The guards yanked swords clear of their scabbards and leaped forward as Javin turned to meet them. Instinctively he knew the guards on the balcony had pulled back drawstrings of bows ready to loose their arrows. There wasn’t anything he could do at this point but die. Maybe he’d get lucky and be able to disarm a guard then leap on the dais and take Tranthra’ Joh as a hostage.

“ Guard!” The man on the throne shouted. Another cadre of lion men sprang from behind the curtains on the dais and surrounded Javin and the princess. “I wouldn’t move if I were you.” Tranthra’ Joh said. He looked up to the balcony and raised a restraining hand. “Princess, if you value this man’s life you will tell him to stay his hand. I will not allow anyone to harm him – or you -- if you cooperate.”

Javin noticed Tranthra’ Joh staring at him, eyes wide, as if Javin looked . . . familiar. And he referred to him as a man. Either he was more intelligent than Saballa, or he knew things.

Javin was pleased Saballa was only now getting to his feet, slowly, rubbing his jaw and a trickle of blood flowing down the corner of his mouth.

“Javin, please,” the princess turned to him. There’s nothing you can do.” Then lower, under her breath so that only he could hear. “There’ll be another time. Wait til then.”

Slowly Javin nodded, keeping his eyes on the guards, and trying to glance every now and then up to the gallery where the bowstrings were still drawn tight.

“I’ll settle down,” he said, straightening somewhat from his ready stance, “but I’ll never kneel to this . . .” Javin didn’t have the appropriate insult.

“Keep your cowardly dog off the princess,” he said to the man on the throne. “If he wants to swing at something, see if he has the stomach to swing at someone who can swing back.”

With a muffled curse Saballa moved forward, drawing his dagger.

“You will hold, Saballa! Your time will come later. First we have matters of more import to discuss.” Saballa stopped, and turned a slight bow to Tranthra’ Joh, then a menacing look at Javin.

Javin smiled back and inclined his head as if to say any time you want, then turned his attention back to the Princess. She was under control standing with complete confidence, as though she were still the one in charge.

“What is the meaning of this? Why do you sit upon the throne and take me, your queen, as prisoner?”

“That’s what you’re here to discuss.” Tranthra’ Joh answered. “You’re not Queen yet, princess, and I am still Conservator. When you ‘abandoned’ your people, I had no choice but to take control until such time as you could be found and brought to your senses.”

Mouhra’ Lah dropped her mouth open in surprise. “So that’s how you’re playing it. I thought you’d twist everything around to your advantage. At least I’m not disappointed in how low you would stoop.”

Tranthra’ Joh laughed; “Fiery as ever. I like that it a mate.” He paused and looked down at the princess. “And mate you’ll be. The people would easily accept it, and you would be queen . . .”

“In name only, is that it?” the princess pressed. “A figurehead to rule, but we both know where you intend the real power to lie.”

“You’re not stupid. And you are right. What do you say?”

“Such a romantic proposal,” the princess said, her voice bland. “No!” The last came like a crack that echoed across the tall ceilinged chamber.

Unmoved, Tranthra’ Joh sat on the throne chuckling, “Just as I’d expected. There are ways to make you reconsider, you know.”

As the princess and Tranthra’ Joh had been speaking, Javin was paying half attention to the words. There was something else he was sensing on a deeper level; something in the atmosphere of this place, about Tranthra’ Joh and what he was doing. Something was vaguely familiar. Not with the people, but in its influence.

Then it hit him. Tranthra’ Joh was not the real power. There was someone else here. Someone more powerful, more sinister than even Tranthra’ Joh on his own.

Deep in his breast a warmth began to surge, a smouldering fire building, spreading outward, warming his limbs, tingling and growing, as his vision began to fade to sheer white . . .

 

He was standing in front of a stone rostrum where a man was sitting on a stone throne staring down at him. Surrounding them was a dense jungle, warm, moist, clammy. He was standing in the center of a clearing, bound, his clothes in tatters.

The man on the throne leaned forward, elbow on his knee, glaring with anger at Javin. He looked surprisingly familiar. Though he’d never seen him before, Javin knew him. Then he realized it was because this man was a mirror image of him! Save for the dark beard where Javin never had one, and the cool rage in the eyes that flashed intense hatred, they could have been identical twins.

A captive! This wasn’t a memory, though. A future vision? He didn’t know. Then he knew why he was having the vision . . . And the light began to fade.

 

Javin was back in the audience chamber. The princess and Tranthra’ Joh were still arguing. The princess was demanding her freedom, the release of all prisoners, and Tranthra’ Joh to submit himself for arrest. Tranthra’ Joh ignored her and again threatened her with the lives of the nobles if she didn’t consent to marriage. Javin hadn’t heard the conversation, yet knew what they’d said as if he’d listened with rapt attention. He didn’t know how he did it. One more mystery to solve, he thought. Now, time to end this farce.

“Nemesis!” he shouted. He just knew what name to use.

Tranthra’ Joh stopped mid sentence and glared at Javin, mouth open, eyes wide. Silence reigned as the last echoes of his shout died in the hall.

“Take her to the tower!” Tranthra’ Joh gestured for the guards. “And him to the dungeon.” His guards came close, the one drawing the dagger again, holding it to his neck.

Must have struck a chord, Javin thought as he was turned about.

Tranthra’ Joh was already off the dais moving behind to what Javin was sure was a special room. He craned his neck, carefully, and smiled at the princess as she was hustled out behind.

“See you soon,” he called cheerfully.

“Until then,” the princess called back, a wry grin crossing her own face. “You know how to stir things up.”

“I do my best.” They were turned in opposite directions as they exited the chamber and couldn’t speak any longer.

***

“You heard, Master?” Tranthra’ Joh lifted his eyes from where he’d bowed his head to the floor. The man seated on the ornate raised chair nodded. The odd black opaqueness that seemed to swirl within his breast moved faster. He wore a black silk open breasted tunic with the sign of the Sun made of precious jewels on his right breast. Tranthra’ Joh was still puzzled over what it meant. It was the same sign as on his breast, and on the uniforms of his hand-picked men.

“I heard.” The voice was low, sullen. “He has come after me. I thought I was done with him. Somehow his Guardians saved him. I’d thought the prophet was confusing his actual presence with his dreams when I saw the images. I guess not. He’s here.”

At the word, ‘Guardian’ Tranthra’ Joh, blanched. He knew the legends. And this man, the man who’d promised him kingdoms and power, acted as if he had intimate knowledge of the Guardians. Were they real, then?

“What of your meeting with the princess?”

Tranthra’ Joh was startled. If he’d heard the other, then hadn’t he heard his conversation with the princess? He’d been amazed by Nemesis’ uncanny abilities, though they were different than what he supposed they should be. They were sporadic. He didn’t know what to make of it.

Mentally shaking himself, for it didn’t do to keep Nemesis waiting, he quickly explained that the princess was proving stubborn. “She’s now in the tower. The other I’ve had taken to the dungeons. What should we do with him?”

“This time I’ll not fail.” Nemesis said to himself. “We’ll use him to help persuade the princess. If Javin was captured with her, then he’ll serve as leverage. When you bring out the prince, bring Javin out also. Start by putting Javin to death in front of her, then she’ll be more certain we mean what we say when we threaten her betrothed.” Nemesis hesitated, leaning forward in his chair. “You will make sure he dies.”

Tranthra’ Joh bowed his head again to the floor. “Yes, Master.” There was no doubt he referred to the other like him. How did he know the stranger’s name? It was never spoken in the chamber. And why do they look so much alike? Are they brothers? Tranthra’ Joh didn’t dare ask.

He stood, waiting to be dismissed. Nemesis looked preoccupied, his eyes staring down at his feet, chin resting on his curled fist. The blackness continued to swirl at his breast with brief flashes of red and orange.

“The rest of the Pontu’ Gi should be in place now,” Nemesis said. “Your man, he’s to be trusted?”

Tranthra’ Joh nodded. “Yes, Master. My most trusted, next to Saballa.”

Nemesis nodded. “As soon as everything is in readiness, we’ll have this planet under our rule.”

Tranthra’ Joh listened carefully. It seemed Nemesis was talking about someone other than him. But he had been promised the rule. Did Nemesis mean him? He must. Still, part of him didn’t think so. He’d also used that word again: Planet. It must mean the country; the whole of the country including all the people.

“Wait a few days. Let her stew then bring the princess down for the next conversation. The sooner we dispose of Javin, the better. I just wish . . .” Nemesis hesitated, glancing at Tranthra’ Joh. “Follow my instructions. All will work out as planned. You will have your reward.”

Tranthra’ Joh bowed low, then turned heel and left. I must watch closely. Nemesis is powerful. So far he’s proven all his words and kept his promises, but I must watch.

 

Chapter 10

 

Sohorkon’ Bho stared at his wondrous city rising up the sides of a broad mount, the highest point in the countryside.

Sunzah’ Nu Geeza; it meant Heart of the Forest. His heart filled with pride.

From the outer wall at the base of the mount the buildings of the city rose here and there in cascading towers and structures, some domed, others pointed, all made of the almost white colored rock the mount was composed of. It looked as if the city was carved from the mountain itself.

Just outside the defensive wall the city was ringed by a broad watercourse, preventing any approach to the city save for the two roads on either side. The waterway was wide enough that it would take several minutes for a boat to make it across. The walls of the city rose directly from the water, preventing any ground on which an enemy could gain a foothold.

Outside that was a broad manicured sward clearing the jungle almost to where they stood.

Wide avenues circled the city connected with steep streets all running straight from the lowest avenue through to the top. Higher up, banners and house sigils flew from rooftops and spires, carrying the eye straight to the grandeur of the palace at the crest overlooking everything. The palace was the center of the city, its spires rising up to kiss the mist, brightly plumed pennants flitting in the breeze.

The sight of it always took his breath away, but today he had little time to relish the view. He had to get inside the city and get help.

There were only two entrances -- each accessed by narrow roads built across the waterway to tall gates built into the thick wall on either side of the city. At least those were the only known entrances.

There were others. Sohorkon couldn’t talk of them. He trusted Siri, but if something were to happen he couldn’t guarantee the secret ways would not be divulged. It could mean life and death to his father and brother – if he were found and rescued.

Why am I thinking like that? Sohorkon thought. There shouldn’t be any reason why our family should be at risk here. He squinted his eyes and looked closer, trying to understand his feelings of disquiet.

His father was inside the city now, reigning as King. His mother had passed on when he was but a cub, barely able to remember. Father had never remarried. His brother was first born; Crown Prince, yet there was no envy. Sohorkon knew his place -- and loved it. He had no desire to rule. What he loved was travel, seeing new sights, new people, exploring. He loved the service, the arms, the discipline, and the purpose of being with the guard.

And yet he’d failed to protect the Prince. He needed to report then lead out in rescue . . . or revenge.

He cut that thought off quickly, taking his mind back to his first priority: to get inside and report. Why was he hesitating?

There was something different about the city. It wasn’t something he saw as much as how he felt. Guards walked the walls as usual. Tower watches were posted and alert. The bright light of day was crisp and the temperature just right. Still the feeling persisted.

Perhaps it was his intense connection to the city, the ebb, flow, the personality and flavor of it. Perhaps it was something different even than that. It was deeper; telling all was not as it seemed.

He dropped the foliage back into place and moved further back out of sight, helping Siri gingerly sit with her back against the thick bole of a towering tree and settled down beside her.

“What’s wrong?” Siri gingerly turned to look at him closely.

“I . . .” Sohorkon paused, trying to find words to describe his feelings. “It looks right to appearances.”

“But?” Siri prodded.

Sohorkon smiled. “You are too observant.”

“That’s what a Keeper is supposed to do. Observe and record those of royal blood.” She hesitated a moment. “There is something wrong.”

“I don’t know. It just doesn’t feel right.”

“What should we do?” she asked.

“First, we need to get you to a physician so your wound can be properly dressed.”

“I think you’ve done fine.” She flashed him a smile. “A fresh bandage would be nice, though.”

“Maybe it’s the jitters with everything else that’s gone on.”

“And maybe it’s not,” Siri said. “I’ve learned it’s usually best to follow your instinct.”

“Well, my instinct isn’t telling me what to do.” He fell silent, thinking. Should he go through one of the secret tunnels, and thus reveal it to Siri? If there were trouble, it would be best if he just not ‘appear’ inside the walls of the city. That would tip the fact of hidden ways. If caught either he or Siri could be forced to tell.

Pain, applied long enough, would surely break Siri, if not him. And maybe they’d need it to escape.

Why do I feel so unsettled about coming home! I should be relieved. What am I feeling? Why am I feeling it?

He reached down and extracted a claw, drawing designs in the moldy sod of the jungle floor. Siri sat beside him, waiting.

“I think a direct assault is called for, don’t you?”

“What?” Siri asked.

“I mean just walk right up to the front door and knock.” He smiled.

“What about your misgivings?”

"Can't do anything about them that I can think of. It's either go in and find out for ourselves -- and I hope I look really foolish for being worried -- or wait outside and stew about it. The latter doesn't seem too productive especially when you consider that my brother . . . and the Princess are counting on us."

“You’ve convinced me,” Siri said. “I’m not used to all this. I’m a historian you know.”

Sohorkon smiled but didn’t answer.

“A frontal assault it is then.”

Sohorkon stood and held out a hand to help Siri to her feet. He knew she was in a great deal of pain. The wound was severe and far from attended properly. She didn’t complain as they made their way out of the jungle to the wide path leading to the main water crossing.

As soon as they stepped out into the open Sohorkon knew they’d be spotted. Word should quickly be passed through the ranks. He knew they’d not recognized him from this distance, but the closer they approached they soon would. Word that he was returning alone would surely raise an alarm and a message would be sent to his father. The news would surely prompt his father to come meet him at the gate.

He hoped his father would be there, anyway. He didn’t know what he’d tell anyone else. He couldn’t tell anyone else. It concerned the Crown Prince.

They hadn't gone too far when he noticed the city gates opening and a file of guards coming out. Sohorkon and Siri stopped and waited. There was nothing worse than bad news, and he didn't want to make the soldiers any more nervous than they already would be, knowing it was him -- without Sauros.

Sohorkon watched as they approached. He wanted to see if he recognized anyone. There were quite a few officers attached to the city defenses that he knew, but not all.

Sure enough, the commander was a friend. Good. It’d be easier to pass through and get to the real business.

“Greetings, Cahl’ Dho,” Sohorkon held his right fist against his breast in salute to an equal, as indeed they held equal rank.

“Well met, Sohorkon’ Bho.” Cahl’ Dho returned the salute.

“Not so well, I’m afraid,” Sohorkon said. “I must be conveyed inside the city and speak with my father right away.

Cahl’ Dho nodded then glanced at Siri.

“She’s okay,” Sohorkon said. “She’s the Keeper in Putra’ Fi Sorro. I need her to testify.”

Cahl’s eyes widened at her title then inclined his head in a combination bow, and acknowledgment.

“We must hurry,” Sohorkon pressed. “And Siri has been injured. Please summon the doctors as we meet with father.”

Again Cahl’ Dho nodded. “Follow me, my Prince.” He hesitated just a moment before turning, as if he wanted to say something to Sohorkon then thought better of it. “I will escort you inside. From there the Captian-of-the-Wall will arrange for your meeting.”

This is different, Sohorkon’s heart clenched. Normally, it wouldn’t have been a problem for him to get right in to see his father. The Captain-of-the-Wall would never have to be bothered. His passing through would have been logged in only. His chain of command bypassed the Captain-of-the-Wall. Cahl’ Dho knew that. Had something happened in the city to change that?

With his arm around Siri’ Bhu for support, they followed the guard until they came to the base of the large gate. It swung back open to admit them. Cahl’ Dho again caught his Sohorkon’s eye. It seemed as if he were trying to convey something, some sort of warning without saying anything. Why wouldn’t he speak his mind if there were something he needed to know? And why would he be nervous about admitting a prince into his own city? True, he hadn’t recognized any of the other guards with him. Was that why Cahl’ Dho was hesitating?

Cahl’ Dho moved aside as Sohorkon and Siri moved inside. As they passed under the tall arched gateway, Sohorkon started scanning the entry plaza. Nothing was out of place. All looked as it should, but something still seemed different. All the people looked the same, moving and milling about through the streets, the guard taking their normal station, with Cahl’ Dho again stepping up to continue their escort. It was the feeling, the Spirit of the city that was different. It was tense, strained.

They arrived at the Captain’s office. Cahl’ Dho reached up and opened the door and Sohorkon helped Siri up the steps and went inside. When he looked to address the Captain-of-the-Wall, his blood froze and his mouth fell open.

The Captain rose from behind his desk. Sohorkon didn’t notice he was a stranger, nor did he notice he was wearing different uniform, a black girt tunic and breeches with a sunburst sigil emblazoned on his chest.

All Sohorkon could see were two sleek, green, hairless creatures flanking the Captain. Siri clenched his hand, biting off a gasp.

Pontu’ Gi!

***

The iron bars swung out with a screech. Javin was prodded inside the dank cell by the guard who still held a knife to his neck. On the way down, he’d pressed too hard a couple of times and Javin could feel the damp trickle on the side of his neck. He hadn’t dared move his hand to try and staunch the flow of blood for fear the guard would use it as an excuse to push it deeper. Revenge, Javin decided. The guard was getting even for making him the fool in front of his new leader. That brought a smile as he visualized the memory of Saballa spinning into a crumpled heap on the floor.

Whatever happens now, I’ve made a good first impression.

A shove on the back, and a kick for good measure propelled him into the semi-darkness. The cells were barred on all sides. They saw little light from the strangely lit globes across the far side of the dungeon. The roof was of stone, which, after they cleared the cells, arched higher, vaulting to an immense open area, down which the stairs traveled.

It was the same dungeon they’d been in before, but he’d been relegated to a section far back, away from where anyone would have a chance to see him.

Right out of a Gothic Novel, Javin thought then mentally kicked himself. Gritting his teeth, trying to force his mind to remember something -- anything of substance -- he stalked to the back of his cell.

The floor was strewn with slimy patches of straw. On the back wall sat a bench that doubled for bed and seat. He took a seat staring out the door, rubbing the dark stubble on his chin.

A noise to his right caught his attention, and he turned to see the cell next to him was occupied. Sitting back in the dark gloom another being stared back. Something about the stare made him want to avert his eyes. Maybe it was the memory of the blue lizard.

He busied himself with examining his cell. The first duty of a prisoner: Escape. Javin didn’t know where he got that from. By now, these little thoughts popping into his head were more irritating than wonderment. Maybe in the future he’d be able to unlock his memories. That’s where these things were coming from he was sure.

He brushed his hands across the rough stone at the back wall then followed it around to examine the bars on to the barred entrance. One of the Lion men guards was watching him carefully from a distance. Javin smiled and waved, which brought a snort from the next cell over.

“I don’t think he’s very friendly,” came the comment from his neighbor with the glaring eyes.

Javin turned as the being stood up from the shadows and moved closer. It was a lion man, but the biggest of the race he’d seen. The majestic figure came forward and rested his hands on the bars separating their two cells. He was dressed in tattered trousers of a sort that Javin was sure once belonged to a uniform. His feet were bare and the fur covering his legs skinned. His arms were similarly marked. A bruise purpled one whole side of his face. His immensely muscled chest was sliced in several places with scabs healing roughly. The rest of his pelt was dank and streaked with grime from the cell, his flowing mane matted. There was a wound on his side that looked like a stab wound had been hastily dressed, then ignored.

With all the injuries and grime, he was a handsome figure, powerful in bearing and regal in appearance. Here is a serious leader, Javin thought. No wonder Tranthra’ Joh has him down here. Too much competition otherwise.

“It would seem they haven’t been too friendly to you,” Javin said, inclining his head at the injuries.”

“Hazzards of my position, I’m afraid,” the being responded, the quirkiness of a smile crossing his face. “They didn’t want me to be around, for fear of what I might do.”

“It seems they wanted you around for something,” Javin noted. “They haven’t killed you.”

“True, but I’m afraid it’s only a matter of time. As soon as I serve my purpose, then I’m going to be more trouble than they want.”

“Why is that?” Javin pressed. It was funny that they were talking this way. He didn’t know this man from anyone, yet somehow he felt instinctively he could trust him. In any case, talking wouldn’t hurt. He may learn something.

“I’m to be used as a form of persuasion, I think,” the man said, looking out at the guard who was still staring at them. His voice was pitched low so that none but Javin could hear. Then he looked back at Javin, and caught himself, somewhat surprised that he’d said as much as he’d said. Or at least that’s what Javin took out of his expression.

The man shrugged his shoulders, and grinned, showing pointed canines. It was infectious and Javin grinned back.

“I’m Javin,” he said holding out his hand. “Javin Cox.”

The lion man looked at his outstretched hand curiously then put his own through the bars. “Sauros’ Bho is my name.”

Javin clasped the limp hand, and shook it. “Pleased to meet you,” Javin could tell Sauros didn’t know what shaking hands meant for he just looked at Javin and tilted his head to one side.

“That’s called a handshake,” Javin said. “Where I come from, it’s a greeting among friends. Or at least a form of introduction between people who might become friends . . .”

“Ah,” Sauros said, pulling his hand back to rest on the bars. “And where is it that you come from. I’ve never seen a . . . person like you before.”

“That’s a good question. I don’t come from anywhere near these parts.” He hesitated a moment. “At least I don’t think I do.”

Again the lion man tilted his head. “You don’t think you come from near here? Don’t you know?”

“Sounds pretty lame, I know, but believe me, it’s the truth. I don’t rightly know where I come from. Just a few weeks ago I awoke in the jungle, naked and alone, with no memory of where I came from, and who I am. All I know is what I told you just barely. My name, that’s it . . . Oh, well, that’s if you don’t count the friendly people I’ve met along the way. Javin gestured to his surroundings.

“One thing I’m sure about, though,” Javin continued, moving just a bit closer to the bars so they could speak in lower tones, “this isn’t the planet I was born on. I think I was brought here for some reason I haven’t figured out yet.”

The lion man nodded, though it was clear he was confused by Javin’s explanation. “What’s a planet? Do you mean the country here? Is that a term in your language?”

“That’s right,” Javin agreed. “That’s a term in my language, or at least what I remember of it. It means your world here. I guess with the mist covering your world, maybe you don’t realize you’re on a planet, or that there are other worlds.”

“Other worlds?” Sauros asked. “You must mean other countries; those near and far to us.”

“In a way,” Javin said. “Look, you mind if I sit down? I’d like to talk with you a bit more and I think it would be good to make ourselves comfortable. Maybe there are some questions I can ask that might help me out.”

Sauros’ Bho gestured for Javin to sit and stiffly slid down to the floor near the bars. “There’s nothing else to do.”

“Thanks.” Javin brushed aside the soiled straw and cleared a place to sit. “First, can you tell me about your city, here?”

Sauros opened his mouth to speak then closed it again, looking carefully at Javin. “I’m not from here. Didn’t you know?”

“No,” Javin said. “Should I have?”

“You really must be a stranger, then.”

“So you’re not from this city. How did you come to be here? Are you an enemy? Are they holding you for ransom or something?”

"I'm hardly an enemy -- at least to the legitimate government. You could say I’m an enemy of the usurper sitting on the throne. I suspect I’m being held for a sort of ransom.” He fell silent again staring at Javin, then spoke. “I don’t know how much I should tell you, but for some reason I think I can trust you. It’s strange. You must now tell me more about yourself. How were you captured? Why were you placed here?”

Now it was Javin’s turn to pause. If this big man was an enemy of Tranthra’ Joh then he might be on the same side as him.

“I think I’ve told you just about everything I can,” He continued to hesitate, trying to choose his words carefully, not wanting to jeopardize the security of the princess in any way. For all Javin knew this Sauros’ Bho fellow really could be an enemy.

“One thing’s for sure, if you’re not a friend of Tranthra’ Joh then I think we’re on the same side. As for why I’m here . . .” Javin scrubbed his head, trying to think. “I told you about waking up naked in the jungle, right?” Sauros’ Bho nodded. “Then as I wandered around I finally came to this old city. It was hidden in a valley and it looked as if it’d been there a very long time.”

Javin watched Sauros closely hoping that maybe it’d strike a chord of recognition, but there was none. Continuing, Javin spoke of his walking down into the city, even to the point of where he explored the main pyramid. He was just about to start relating about finding the strange gateway, then falling asleep and waking up back out in the jungle, but he caught himself. It sounded impossible even to him. There was no reason to make his new friend think he was crazy as well as strange. Quickly glossing over and giving some explanation about being back outside the city without really learning anything, and then being captured and brought back here. At the last, he didn’t know whether he should say he’d been taken in front of Tranthra’ Joh, for then he’d ask questions about who he was with. That’d bring in the princess, and it wasn’t something he was ready to talk about. Being safe he left it out, instead focusing on the chameleon men. At the mention of them, Sauros definitely reacted.

“The Pontu’ Gi!” He growled. “They are people of legend who the Keepers have always preached would come from the hidden parts of the country to save us! Instead they are only another tool being used by Tranthra’ Joh to take power!”

Javin was silent for a time, looking at Sauros. He was breathing heavy with anger, his teeth clenched. Then it hit Javin.

“They attacked you too! You and a delegation coming here to help the princess! You’re the prince she was talking about!”

Sauros’ Bho hissed in surprise, jolting back.

“Don’t worry!” Javin held up his hands, looking back at the guard who was now standing over by another, talking, so they hadn’t noticed Sauros’ reaction. “I was captured with her. She’s been looking for you.”

A fur covered hand shot through the bars faster than his eyes could follow, grabbing him by the throat. His breath caught and he felt claws extracting from fingers starting to sink into the skin of his flesh.

Why do I keep making such good impressions? He thought, struggling a losing battle to loosen his new friend’s death grip.

***

Chahzuu stood on a sparse cliff overlooking a broad valley. The great light in the sky was growing dimmer signifying the end of day. He’d been traveling for several hours straight and had only now taken more than a brief rest. His thoughts were beginning to crystallize into what might pass for a plan. The direction he’d chosen to travel had seemed random, but there was something inside, nudging him to come this way. He’d been distracted enough by his thoughts that he hadn’t considered why he’d chosen to follow, and just did. Now as he stood peering over the ledge, he stopped to consider.

Spread out below was a broad valley where he could make out lines on the jungle floor. It was odd in that the lines were symmetrical, not erratic from natural growth. It was a puzzle distracting him from the current problem always in the front of his mind.

He realized his mind needed the rest too. All the way through his traveling his mind had been occupied in formulating his new plan. It was just a shred, even as it was, but it was the only hope he had. And it depended on his knowledge of the records, older even than the prophecies which had brought him this far.

Now he hoped that the basis of those very records could save his people.

Suddenly, a powerful, gusting wind came up from the broad valley and pushed him back a pace from the ledge, breaking his thoughts. Then something happened which he’d never seen before. The high mist overhead was opened for a bare moment from the gusting wind pushing up through, and a single ray of light speared down into the valley marking a spot that blazoned with reflected light as if it were bouncing off a crystal pool of water. It was different, though, in that it scintillated with all the hues of colors he knew, and some he’d never seen before.

Chahzuu’s mouth gaped open. He’d never seen the source of the Great Light before! And he’d never heard of such an experience as he’d just witnessed. He stood for several minutes just trying to make sense of what he’d just seen.

It had only been the briefest of flashes yet the scene had enthralled him, and he continued to stand and stare. Then something ‘clicked’ and his breast warmed. A memory from those old records he'd been trying to recall slid into the forefront of his mind -- a part of his plan!

When the great light shines, the mask will descend, and all who desire will begin to amend. The colors will flash and the light will display the place where the power of growing does lay.”

It was an old rhyme children chanted during harvest. Everyone thought it was just a meaningless dittie that helped pass time. No one ever thought about what it might mean, or that it meant anything at all. Chahzuu was thinking it did mean something.

It was old. Never mentioned in any of the newer records with the prophecies of his race being Pontu’ Gi, but it was mentioned along with several other similar nursery rhymes in the oldest records he’d kept.

Chahzuu had thought it odd at the time. That was the way the older records were. Cryptic in their content, never offering an explanation or even a reasonable organization of their content, just a random snatch of something, then it moved on to something completely unrelated. Or at least that’s what they seemed to do. He’d started realizing there was a pattern he was only beginning to unlock. And the flash from the great light overhead was part of it.

Was it a coincidence he was standing on this ledge when the light flashed? He doubted it very much, but what had triggered it? Standing here? Thinking about it while standing here? There must be something. It couldn’t have happened by mere chance.

A test then, he thought. Closing his eyes he tried to recall what he’d been thinking of just before the flash.

Yes! He opened his eyes and focused them down into the valley, then focused his thoughts on the old records, particularly the rhyme that’d come to mind just after the flash of light. It was part of the records he’d been pondering over.

Again the gust of wind surged, pushing through the foliage in the valley like a great wave, then rushed up the cliff, again pushing Chahzuu back several steps. Then he watched in awe as the mist overhead parted again from the rush and a narrow beam of light speared down on a distant spot in the valley below that Chahzuu marked well. Again the brilliant scintillation of colors reflected back to fill the entire sky with a rich panorama of dancing colors.

This time he also noticed the crystal in his breast warmed. That must be it! A connection between his thoughts and the crystal.

Chahzuu concentrated on the rest of the rhyme and noticed the crystal in his breast grew even warmer.

The growing will spread and prosper the field, of all who love right and never do yield. The power is there when it is used with light, for when darkness comes it will power the fight.”

It had actions to it where the little ones would always greatly exaggerate the ending, the “fight” part. He remembered doing it when he was young too. Making a big fist and shaking it at the sky then beating it against his chest. It was all nonsense, meaning nothing . . . except now!

His new plan had been simple. When he’d been studying the oldest records, his intuition had told him they must mean something. There were different rhymes the children did during various duties. One during the harvest, another during family time at night, and the last when they were most frightened. It was supposed to calm them in the dark.

Along with these rhymes were mentions of certain “Articles,” they were called; “Articles of Power and Light.” Chahzuu at first had thought they were writings of some sort, telling of principles as part of the religion of the ancients, but the more his mind had dwelt upon it, Chahzuu felt they spoke of actual things. “Articles” of Power that were actual instruments of some sort that when used, did specific things.

The first one, for instance, Chahzuu had puzzled out was used to help crops grow. But there was something else mentioned in the records. That it enhanced the initial growth -- or the creation of growth -- or the beginning of growth. The power of creation! Could it be that the actual Article was in this place below?

Here was one of the things Chahzuu was looking for! Hopefully Nemesis had not seen the same potential in them as a weapon. Chahzuu had never really thought of the old records other than mere curiosities before he’d run up against Nemesis. It wasn’t in the forefront of his mind as were the prophecies of his people and their role for his world.

He'd only been puzzling over these things on the most minimal level when the dreams came -- the dreams of prophecy -- coming every night that had drawn him on this quest. At least he hoped it wasn't prominent enough to have been picked out by Nemesis.

Then another doubt struck him. With what Nemesis did to the crystal, does he still have contact with me? Could he be discerning my thoughts even now?

He forced his mind to go still and tried to discern any other presence, any feeling of any sort.

None.

Still, he couldn’t be sure.

Waiting won’t stop him if he knows, Chahzuu thought and started working his way down off the ledge towards the center of the valley where the light had flashed. He started wondering about how he’d ended up here as if by random chance. Then he remembered the slight push in his choosing a direction upon leaving the canyon. What was guiding him? Below was one of the keys! One of the keys he hoped would enable him to face Nemesis again and take his people back!

 

Chapter 11

 

Javin grasped hold of the great hand encircling his throat. He could feel the claws extracting and starting to pierce the skin. There was nothing he could do, the grip continued to tighten cutting off his wind, but he continued to pry with all his strength, turning to look directly into the eyes of the giant lion man. He saw something there. Rage and hurt burned, but then they started to soften, as did the grip, and his eyes grew wider, realizing what he was doing. Finally the grip was released, and Javin gasped a large lung-full of air.

“I’m sorry,” Sauros gasped. “I did not realize what I was doing. When you mentioned the Princess, I thought you might have had something to do with harming her. When I realized you were here in the cells with me, I knew I was wrong.”

Javin could tell he still wasn’t sure. Massaging his bruised neck, he decided that trust breeds trust. This, after all, was the man the princess had risked everything to find. He needed to know as much as Javin could tell.

“Look, let me tell you how I know of her. I’ll warn you right now you’re going to think this is really crazy.”

He started from waking up in the middle of the tall grass, to the giant lizard, to the chameleon man, to the temple, almost all of it. He didn’t mention anything about the crystal residing above his breast, nor the fact that they’d dubbed him one of the legendary Mulda’ fi. He wasn’t sure he believed any of that himself.

Javin watched Sauros closely. Only his eyes widened slightly as the tale progressed. Javin saw his jaw clench when he told of the fight and capture of the Princess, and anger again flared in his eyes with the mention of the audience with Tranthra’ Joh.

“So the Princess is here and safe . . . at least for the moment.” It was a statement filled with resolve. Sauros looked around the cell, as if willing some way to escape.

There was silence between them for a time. Finally Sauros spoke.

“Your story is truly amazing. I’m not sure I understand it, much less can I say I truly believe. But, for some reason, I have a feeling you have spoken true.

“That the Princess is here, I have no doubt. There’s been a subtle change in the guards, as if anticipating something, and now I know the reason.”

Javin nodded.

Standing, Javin walked around his small cell again, looking it over then peering out through the bars at the posted guards. They still ignored them knowing there was no escape. But there had to be a way!

He sat back down near Sauros. “You sure we can’t find a way to bust out of here?”

“Believe me, I’ve tried. You’re welcome to see for yourself.”

“Not right now,” Javin said, again glancing at the guards. They could talk freely as long as they kept it low.

“Look. Maybe you can help me out a little. I’d like to know a little something about your planet here . . . I mean, your world.”

“What do you wish to know?”

“That’s a good question. Since I don’t really know anything, start off with telling me about the cities, and the people. Are all the people like yourself, or are there different races?”

“Races?”

“Yes. Different, like . . . like the Chameleon men.” Javin could tell Sauros didn’t understand the term. It must not translate well. “You know, the people who attacked you, the ‘Pontu’ Gi.’” He remembered the name given them by the Keeper.

"Oh, I see. Till now, I had known of no other types of people other than us -- Including the ' Pontu’ Gi.’” There was a slight sneer to his voice. “Until attacked, I had only heard the legends regarding the Pontu’ Gi, never seen them. I just figured them as myths, and didn’t worry about it.”

“I see,” Javin rubbed his chin. “Tell me about your cities. How many are there? Where are they located? I figure that with the armies and guards all around, you must have trouble between them.”

Sauros hesitated a moment as if gathering his thoughts. “You ask quite a bit, but I’ll try to answer what you ask if you’ll slow down your questions enough for me to answer.”

“Okay,” Javin said. He made himself comfortable.

“First,” Sauros started, keeping his voice low, but taking on a tone of voice that said he was deep in thought, trying to make sure of what he was saying. “For as long as anyone can remember there have been seven cities of the Miernah’ foh, my ‘race’ as you put it. Our cities have been evenly spread across our world to occupy all the space we know of. Each city spaced within 20 days of travel to the next closest. Those closer are more known to us. Still, over the years, there have been disagreements and disputes. There have also been times when the ruler of one city would think he or she knew best, and take more than her own city under rule through intrigue or force of arms.

“Sometimes they have been successful for a time then it would always work out somehow that the rule would eventually return to the native people of the city.

“So yes, we’ve had wars between cities. Rarely does it involve more than two cities fighting back and forth. The other cities keep out of their way, not wanting to get involved and leave them to their own ends. At the same time, there has never been a time when the cities were truly united in peace. That had been a hope of my father. A hope I’d shared. Part of that hope was going to be realized with the wedding of the Princess and me.” Sauros’ Bho grew quiet for a time before continuing.

“We had hoped that we could unite our two cities, if not politically, then at least make an alliance that would foster trade and exchange of culture and ideas. And then we could reach out in the same way to other cities. Start to make it so each city would become familiar with the other. Open trade and travel between all the Seven Cities.

“Now, a person can’t easily travel between cities without fear of being set upon by strangers from another city. Each constantly has roving patrols out for defense. It has been senseless!

“Don’t get me wrong. We are not constantly at war with one another, but we are not at peace either. We cannot travel freely from one city to another without an official purpose or envoy.” Sauros smiled, his canine teeth showing. Javin hoped it was in humor.

“These questions should be directed to my younger brother. It is he that has the lust for travel and has visited all the seven cities.”

“You have a brother?” Javin asked.

“Yes,” Sauros breathed a deep sigh. “At least I hope I still have a brother.”

Javin was silent.

Sauros continued.

“He was with me on our expedition to come help the Princess while her mother was sick. When the attack began, I could quickly see we were so outnumbered, it was hopeless, and I ordered him to leave immediately to get help. He argued, but I gave him a direct order he couldn’t refuse. Sohorkon set off just as the battle became most dire. I can only hope he made it.

“Just as he departed, I saw two of the Pontu’ Gi, chasing after. He is a good fighter, but with those tracking, I don’t know.”

Javin let things sit between them for a time before asking another question.

“What about your cities. There are only seven? Don’t they grow? What about increases in population? Do they all stay within the city, or do the cities just increase their boundaries?”

Sauros tilted his head in apparent confusion. “Our cities always have stayed the same. The population varies but little. I don’t think I understand. Why would we want to increase our borders or make more cities? They are as they always have been. We have known nothing else.”

“You mean there are no records of fewer or more cities than just the seven?”

“That’s all there has ever been. It’s part of our tradition that there be no fewer nor more than the Seven Cities of the Miernah’ foh. As far as the number of people? That varies, but not much.”

“Do you limit the number of children then?” Javin asked.

"No! We would never dream of doing such a thing -- at least in my city."

“You mean to tell me that the population just is steady in and of itself?”

“I don’t know what you mean, but we do nothing to limit births.”

Javin thought over that for a moment, before asking his next question.

“How far back do your records go?”

“Our histories go back for a thousand years.” Sauros replied, a touch of pride in his voice. There is a group of Keepers in every city, grouped under the Chief Keeper who maintains all the records. We have lost nothing of our history.

“In fact, that is the only group, the Keepers that is, that actually correspond between the cities. They can freely travel back and forth. Their role is a sacred duty, and they share back and forth between cities freely. We all have copies of the histories of the other cities.”

“Why?” Javin was starting to wonder about this world. Perhaps it is artificial after all.

“That is our way. I don’t question it,” was Sauros’ reply.

“Is there a history, or evidence of people here before the Seven Cities? What about the ancient city I told you about?”

“I know nothing of other cities. Perhaps they are in the areas that are forbidden to us.”

Javin was really starting to get interested now. “Haven’t your people ever explored those ‘forbidden areas’? Why are they forbidden?”

“They are forbidden! Why would we go where we should not?” Sauros replied, his eyes wide in surprise.

“As to why they are forbidden, I don’t know. Nor have I ever wondered. It is foretold that someday those areas will be opened, and they will reveal marvels beyond our comprehension.

Javin was puzzled. “That’s a strange legend. Usually those types of legends guarantee people will wander into those lands.”

“That is all I know,” Sauros said.

Sauros paused a moment. Then looked at Javin closely. “We are told that if we go into those areas before they are opened. It could spell the end of our world. Nothing more is said and my people do not want to risk it.

“You say that you have been to one of these cities of which I know nothing. Perhaps you have been into one of the forbidden areas and you have found one of those marvels. This ‘gateway’ you have spoken of. Perhaps that is one of these. And maybe the time is rapidly approaching where it will be opened. What think you?”

Javin shook his head. “I wish I knew. I wish I knew half of what I think I need to know, but right now, I don’t have a clue as to what is going on. Maybe more importantly why all this is happening.”

Sauros’ Bho shook his head in agreement. Then they both lapsed into silence.

***

Siri’ Bhu’s hand clutched Sohorkon’s, and his teeth clenched while taking in a quick deep breath.

The man standing behind the desk stared at him, then back at the two Pontu’ Gi flanking him.

“Never seen one of the Protectors before eh?”

Sohorkon wisely stayed silent. He could only pray neither of the two Pontu’ Gi would recognize him from being part of the party they’d ambushed earlier. Sohorkon knew one of them from the long white scar across his left shoulder. It was one of those he’d fought personally, given him the wound.

“They’re here to help defend the city now. Prophecy fulfilled and all that.” The man said, trying to sound sincere, but failed.

“State your business.”

Sohorkon took a deep breath and squeezed Siri’s hand for reassurance. “I’m here to see the King. I have been dispatched with an important message from a neighboring city.”

“Let’s have it then. No one sees the King. He’s with his advisors planning for the coming Time of Trouble. I’ll see that he gets it.”

“I can’t. I’m to deliver it in person.” Sohorken hesitated a moment, watching the captain closely. A Time of Trouble? That has to do with prophecy! This is not going well. He hesitated a moment, then decided he had to push.

“I’m Sohorken’ Bho, the King’s son.”

The captain’s eyes grew wide and the two Pontu’ Gi tensed. The one with the scar finally showed recognition. What will they do?

Then came a knock at the door and Cahl’ Dho stepped in. The Pontu’ Gi relaxed their stance and the captain sat back in his chair, trying to seem at ease.

“I’ve detailed my guard for their rounds, sir,” Cahl’ Dho said coming to attention. “I thought that since you don’t know the Prince, I would come to provide escort. I’m sure the King will be most anxious to see his son and receive his report.”

“Yes . . . I’m sure you’re right.” The captain hesitated a moment, his brows furrowed. “But take these two, here,” he gestured to the Pontu’ Gi, “as an honor guard so the others will know I’ve passed him.” He turned and nodded to the Pontu’ Gi on his right. The one Sohorkon knew had recognized him.

“Come,” Cahl’ Dho stood aside so Sohorkon and Siri could precede him. The Pontu’ Gi moved quickly forward in front of them and they all passed through into the broad avenue. Sohorkon was reeling and he could tell Siri was too. She hadn’t let go of his hand.

The Pontu’ Gi took positions out front. Sohorkon was relieved. This way he could keep an eye on them.

He watched to make sure they really were headed for the palace and not being routed somewhere else. One of the Pontu’ Gi recognized me! Sohorkon kept a wary eye on him as they made their way toward the palace.

On the way, Sohorkon tried to observe everything. Things still appeared the same, but the feeling was still different. Now he knew why. He’d been to many cities in his service. Each had a feeling . . . an aura that was distinct. Now his city felt . . . troubled.

Trying to explain this to someone else, they’d think him crazy, but he could sense the wrongness. Of course being escorted by his enemies in broad daylight up the main avenue was definite evidence something had gone wrong. But he’d felt it before. When he first arrived, watching the city beyond the defense line. He’d known. He’d felt it, but hadn’t followed on what his instinct was trying to tell him.

“What is happening?” Sohorkon watched the Pontu’ Gi as he whispered to Cahl’ Dho.

“They came not long ago, my prince.” Cahl’ Dho moved closer to keep his voice low. “They came with another being, all pale and hairless except on his head and face. I heard this being, and a few of the Pontu’ Gi appeared in the main audience hall. Materialized out of nothing!”

Sohorkon turned his head to stare.

“It’s true. I’ve been on duty at the gate since before they came. They never came through. I checked the logs at both gates.

“The peltless one proclaimed himself Mulda’ fi and said he’d brought the legends, the Pontu’ Gi, to protect the city.”

Siri tightened her grip on Sohorkon’s hand.

“I was told the Keeper announced his claim true. A Time of Trouble was coming and this strange being’s picture was in the Book of the World! How could that happen?”

Sohorkon didn’t answer. He didn’t know.

Sohorkon began noticing the people on the street. They studiously avoided the Pontu’ Gi, but their eyes grew wide at seeing him. It was clear some wanted to come speak with him, but didn’t dare.

Cahl’ Dho continued in a whisper.

“It was shortly after meeting with the King that a proclamation was made inviting the rest of the Pontu’Gi into the city. He approved the Mulda’ fi’s men . . . Men from Putra’ Fi Sorro . . . to take charge of the defenses. Others took charge of the palace guard. Those who’d been loyal for years were spread among other units and virtually all were detailed off to leave the city in garrisons the Mulda’ fi said were needed to protect other cities. He said it was to foster trust among all other cities, and stop the fighting, so all would be unified to meet the new threat that was coming.”

“My father wouldn’t do that!” Sohorkon hissed.

Cahl’Dho nodded, glancing again at the Pontu’ Gi. They hadn’t noticed anything . . . that they let on. Sohorkon was nervous about them too. They seemed entirely too calm. Especially since at least one of them knew who he was and that shortly word of their attack would come out.

“But it was done just the same,” Cahl’ Dho said. “The orders – my orders even – were signed in the hand of the King. Isn’t that strange?” Cahl’ Dho’s voice dropped off. They were nearing the main entrance of the palace. Instead of the regular honor guard, Sohorkon noted they had been replaced by a detachment of Pontu’ Gi. People around the square were obvious in the way they avoided coming too near the gate. This square should be constantly flocked with people coming and going, many in and out of the palace. Now it was dead quiet. The entrance was empty save for the guard. No approaching, no passing by. The festive air that usually filled the square was painful in its silence.

“The King hasn’t been seen since the decrees went out.” Cahl’ Dho said, finally. “There hasn’t been any trouble . . . yet. The people are worried. Perhaps you can find a way to put them at ease.”

They all stopped before the gate. Sohorkon turned and Cahl’ Dho gave a salute that Sohorkon returned.

“Thanks for the escort. Thanks for everything.”

Cahl’ Dho caught the emphasis and smiled before turning heel to return to his post.

Sohorkon turned to the palace entrance to find the guard moved aside and his escort patiently waiting to take them inside.

 

Moving through to the palace should have been routine. It was anything but. The first thing Sohorkon noted was the lack of retainers going about their usual duties. Strange guards milled about. All in black uniforms, boots and a yellow symbol over their breast. Condescending looks were thrown his way, only adding to his feeling of dread. It was like walking into the enemy’s lair. He had to speak with his father and put things right!

They reached his father’s private chambers. Pontu’ Gi were again on guard. No familiar faces. The feeling of dread grew to a point he thought he’d burst. Siri’ Bhu continued to grip his hand. She must feel it too.

The door swung open and they strode in. The Pontu’ Gi stayed out.

Inside was another group of Pontu’ Gi spaced around the room. His father was at the far end sitting in his chair used for private audiences. Sohorkon could see his sallow appearance, his hunched frame sitting there as if it took all his strength just to remain upright. He quickened his pace. As he came from the entryway into the main room he noticed the others.

“Ah, my prince.” The city’s Keeper came forward and bowed low. “I’d been passed word that you arrived.”

Sohorkon blanched. [_ How did he know so quickly? No runner was sent -- that I saw. _]

“What of the rest of the delegation?” the Keeper continued, rising from his bow.

The man was dressed in his usual robes of office but was acting strange. Sohorkon had very little contact with the man since he’d been in the guard. His father and brother handled all the affairs of state that dealt with the Keeper. There was no reason to distrust him. He’d been in his father’s service for as long as he could remember. It was hard to imagine him being involved.

Sohorkon ignored the Keeper and instead pointedly stared at the other standing next to him. Siri gripped Sohorkon’s arm in a vice, her claws half extracting, indenting his skin painfully. He didn’t notice.

“Greetings, Prince.” A Man stepped forward and bowed. Pale. No pelt. Dark hair on his head and face. He was dressed in the same dark uniform, though the symbol on his breast was a brilliant set of gemstones rather than embroidery. And his eyes. They were a curious black that made one want to look twice just to make sure of what they’d seen.

“Allow me to introduce myself. I am Yah’ Winn. Mulda’ fi. I came to offer my services to your father. As you can see he has graciously accepted.”

Siri’s grip tightened more and he turned to her. There was a look in her eyes he couldn’t decipher, looking for all the world deathly afraid to speak.

Yah’ Winn noticed and smiled. “I seem to have that effect on people.”

Sohorkon turned to his father, who lifted his hand and beckoned him closer. Siri moved with him, as if afraid to let go. To tell the truth, he was glad of the contact.

“Father. You’re not well,” Sohorkon kneeled and took his father’s hand. “What’s wrong? Why are these people in the city?” Sohorkon knew he had to be careful, but he couldn’t fight back the words.

“Your father has fallen ill, I’m afraid,” the Keeper had moved with him and now stood to his father’s side. The other, Yah’ Winn, dismissed the Pontu’ Gi and came over to join them.

“His illness has mystified the physicians,” the Keeper continued. “He’s been very weak for a long time. It came upon him just after you and the Crown Prince left with your delegation to Putra’ Fi Sorro.”

Sohorkon stared at the Keeper.

“Just like the Queen,” Siri whispered under her breath.

Then it hit Sohorkon. The queen of Putra’ Fi Sorro had also been stricken. Right before troubles started there. This was no coincidence. His father’s life was in danger!

Had he been the only one to hear? Siri was very close and had said it for his ears alone.

“My son,” his father gripped his hand feebly. “Your report. What of your brother? What of your mission?”

It was routine enough, but strangely he felt as if his father knew something had gone wrong. Of course he knows something went wrong! He only has to see my tattered uniform . . . And Siri.

Sohorkon looked into his father’s filmy eyes. Something was behind them, struggling to come out, to say something, but he just wasn’t strong enough.

“We were attacked father. A man was leading a band of these . . . Pontu’ Gi! We were overwhelmed.” Sohorkon hesitated. “Sauros commanded me to leave. To bring word. He knew we couldn’t win.”

Sohorkon stared at the Keeper and the other who called himself Mulda’ fi. “The Pontu’ Gi father! They attacked us!”

The Mulda’ fi’s face darkened. The Keeper’s brow furrowed and he turned to the one who called himself Jah’ Winn.

“Your brother! Where is he?” The king’s voice was strained.

“Captured . . . maybe killed. I don’t know for sure. I circled back as best I could after escaping my pursuers. There wasn’t a trace of Sauros. They left the other bodies. No other prisoners were taken.”

“Everyone else killed?” His father gazed into his eyes.

“Yes.”

“It has started.” The other being, Yah’ Winn, stepped forward. His presence seemed to hover over Sohorkon and his father.

“It was just as I’d said, is it not?” He turned to the Keeper.

“It is, Sire. Yah’ Winn said it would be so. The Time of Trouble has started. It is according to our oldest records.”

Siri clutched his shoulder and he looked as she directed an astonished look at the Keeper. She was a Keeper too, knew the records. It was clear she didn’t agree with his Keeper.

Yah’ Winn ignored the interaction and continued. “It was a renegade band of Pontu’ Gi. Not all follow me, but I will gather them in. You have my word. If your son is with them, I will bring him back also.”

Sohorkon knew the man was lying. He knew he was behind it all. He hadn’t any proof. He didn’t even know the man. But he knew just as surely as he was alive. It was his instinct again, and this time he was going to listen. Siri knew it too. He could feel her reaction went even deeper than his own, and she knew more about the legends.

Before Sohorkon could speak, Yah’ Winn spoke again. His tone seemed respectful, but there was a faint scowl to his voice that made Sohorkon grind his teeth.

“Sire. Who is this other your son has brought here? Is it wise for others to learn of these troubles? What would the people say if they learned your sons have been attacked by a renegade band? They may think that my . . . your Pontu’ Gi were part of the attack. It must not be allowed to spread until I can make it right.”

This stranger had no right to question him in this manner! Sohorkon was about to tell him so but his father spoke first.

“You are right.”

Sohorkon caught his breath. His father continued. “Who is she?” His eyes, however were softer, not accusing, merely curious, malleable. Something was very wrong. His father would never act this way of his own accord!

Sohorkon stood and acted as if making a formal presentation at court. He could do nothing else. He needed time to figure this out. Siri deserved this anyway. It might help once they knew who she was. The trouble was, should he tell of how they met? How her princess has also been abducted – again by a supposed renegade band of Pontu’ Gi? And led by Saballa, a second to the Conservator of Putra’ Fi Sorro.

“Allow me to present Siri’ Bhu of Putra’ Fi Sorro. She is the Chief Keeper.” With perverse pleasure Sohorkon noted his own Keeper’s eyes grow wide, and again he turned to Yah’ Winn. There was something between the two. Yah Winn ignored the look.

“Why is she here?” Yah’ Winn pressed.

“That is none of your business.” Sohorkon said. He’d had enough. It was time he started ridding his city of this . . . Mulda’ fi. He also needed to get his father alone. He needed to figure out what was happening. “It is for the King’s ears only, as is the rest of my report!”

The man bristled, but held his tongue for just a bit. When he spoke again it was with a feigned mild tone.

“I’m sorry, my Prince. It is just that I am concerned with all things. Things even beyond your city. There is a Time of Trouble coming, both Keeper’s here can tell you. There is nothing I cannot concern myself with if I’m to help not only your city, but Putra’ Fi Sorro as well. Indeed all cities on your world need my help and protection.”

He was smooth, but Sohorkon knew his father would never believe without proof. And even then he would never have let them take over the city . . . and the palace. Perhaps that’s why he suddenly fell ill.

“We were attacked!” Siri fell to her knees in front of Sohorkon’s father. “I was with the Princess out looking for your son. Attacked by a band of Pontu’ Gi!” She grasped his feeble hand and held it fast. “Please, Sire. Be careful of this man and the Pontu’ Gi. I too am a Keeper and know the records. They never mention a band of renegade Pontu’ Gi. And this man who calls himself Mulda’ fi. I have met another I know to be Mulda’ fi. Really Mulda’ fi. His name is ‘Javin.’ Is it not a strange? I know this other to be good. I am not sure of him!” She thrust a finger in Yah’ Winn’s direction.

“ Please trust your son.” She ignored the open fury in Yah’ Winn’s face. “Sohorkon has seen these renegades -- fought them. Maybe he could identify any in the city? That is a way you could tell if these are true!”

Had Siri noticed his recognition of the one Pontu’ Gi? She must have. Siri had also mentioned the other Mulda’ fi. This Javin. He didn’t know whether he’d accept him either, but at least he had not taken over his city.

There was a gasp from the other Keeper.

“Sire! You can’t trust this . . . outsider!” He swept his hand dismissively. “After all, you saw the proof. The demonstration of power, his knowledge of the legends, his very appearance matches that in the Book of the World!”

“This other looks just like it too,” Siri pleaded. “And I also know of his powers. The powers that are intended for good. Not to take over cities, but to protect them.”

Sohorkon’s father raised a hand. “All will be sorted out later. I am so tired. For now, my son, you will attend me . . . alone.” His weary eyes stared up at his Keeper. The Keeper meekly bowed his head.

Now Sohorkon would have a chance to talk with his father. To tell him everything he knew, and everything he suspected. It would be another problem, though, to get rid of these Pontu’ Gi unless he could work with the regular guard. He hoped he could get them back in the city quickly. They’d be needed. Yah’ Winn didn’t look like he’d leave peacefully.

“As you wish, Sire,” Yah’ Winn inclined his head in a semblance of a bow.

“Siri needs a doctor,” Sohorkon said to his father. “She was wounded in the attack.”

“I will see to her needs,” the Keeper bowed formally to Siri. “It will give us a chance to compare notes. And I must receive our honored guest as is proper, one Keeper to another.” He bowed again, this time to Sohorkon. He couldn’t tell if it was mocking or not.

Siri grasped his hand. It was plain she didn’t want to leave, but she knew he needed to be alone with his father.

“I’m sure it will be alright.” Sohorkon tried to reassure. If she stayed, the other Keeper would feel it his duty and prerogative to stay as well. He had to be alone.

Slowly, Siri nodded and the group retired from the room. Sohorkon went to his knee again and took up his father’s hand.

“Help me to my bed, son. We can talk while I’m lying down.”

Sohorkon stood and helped his father up. It broke his heart.

I must do something to stop this!

Sohorkon settled his father into bed then knelt close, still gripping his hand.

“Father, how did you come to let these strangers into the city?”

The king’s brow furrowed. “I . . . I can’t recall. The Keeper . . . He said it was prophesied. I remember arguing, then . . . I just don’t remember. Everything has been so foggy lately. I don’t feel well. So tired.”

“We must get them to leave. They aren’t what they claim, father.”

“Yes . . . I’m glad you’re here, son. But your brother. You must find him.”

“I will,” Sohorkon grasped his father’s hand tighter. The guilt still rode him. He should never have abandoned Sauros.

“First, we must rid our city of these . . . so called Pontu’ Gi!”

Sohorkon heard a soft shuffling noise. He craned around and saw four Pontu’ Gi standing over him. How? Sohorkon hadn’t heard anyone come in. They must have already been here, but where? He glanced around the room to see where they could have hidden. They were all naked and carried long blades.

Sohorkon heard the outer door open and steps approaching. Yah’ Winn came striding into the room flanked by the Keeper. The Keeper looked anxious, worried.

Anger welled up. “Are you with him?” Sohorkon snapped. The Keeper shuddered as if struck.

“How can you be a traitor?” Sohorkon made to stand, but one of the Pontu’ Gi pressed a knife to his neck.

“Calm yourself, prince,” Yah’ Winn said. “I don’t want you to be harmed until I figure out whether I need to use you or not.”

“Like you’re using my father?”

“Just so.”

Sohorkon turned his eyes again to the Keeper. “Why?”

“He is Mulda’ fi,” he answered. “He showed me his power. And he’s in the Book. I could show you.”

“Can’t you see he’s lying?” Sohorkon spat. “Even I know that the Mulda’ fi is supposed to deliver us from a Time of Trouble, not cause it! A real Mulda’ fi wouldn’t depose a king and take over his city.”

“But . . . He is the one . . .” The Keeper glanced at Yah’ Winn, a question in his eyes.

“Don’t be spineless, Keeper!” Yah’ Winn said. “You’ve proof enough. This whelp here doesn’t know even a half of what he thinks he knows.”

The Keeper nodded, but it was plain he didn’t know whether he believe Yah’ Winn or not.

“Your trouble young man,” Yah’ Winn said glaring at Sohorkon as a dark glow started to pulse beneath Yah’ Winn’s breast, causing Sohorkon to suck in his breath, “is that I really am Mulda’ fi. Just not in the way you or anyone else thought. I know the prophecies in a way you’ll never understand. The Time of Trouble is indeed here. A trouble such as you can’t even begin to imagine! The only way to keep your pathetic world safe is to do exactly as I say!”

The pulsing at Jah’ Winn’s breast grew to an angry blood red. The Keeper backed away. Even the Pontu’ Gi flinched. Sohorkon’s eyes grew wide as the Pontu’ Gi faded from view, disappeared into the background, but he knew they were still there. He felt the knife . . . could still faintly make out their outlines. That’s why he hadn’t seen them in the room!

“Take him to a cell. When his traveling companion is patched up see she joins him. We can’t have them out and about for anyone to see.”

“But they were surely seen coming into the city,” The Keeper blurbed, bobbing a nervous bow, trying to appease the angry Mulda’ fi. “Won’t that cause concern if no mention is made of him?”

“We’ll deal with that later. For now, just do as I say. It won’t take much. The people will be distracted by their king dying of a mysterious illness.”

Sohorkon tensed, and the blade pressed tighter against his neck. Yah’ Winn smiled and the pulsing at his breast began to calm.

“Then there’ll be the sudden disappearance of his two sons.” The smile grew wider and he turned to the Keeper. “The people will have no choice but name the trusted and faithful Keeper to be Conservator. It’ll be just as we planned.”

“It would have been much simpler if your father had agreed to see reason,” the Keeper said to Sohorkon. His tone seemed almost sincere. “He wouldn’t believe the Mulda’ fi, even when he demonstrated his power.” The Keeper tried to affect sadness, but Sohorkon could see the ambition behind the facade.

“That’s because my father has a conscience,” Sohorkon said. “He recognized evil when confronted with it . . . instead of embracing it!”

“Enough of this,” Yah’ Winn said. “Make my words action.”

“As you will, Mulda’ fi.” The Keeper bowed low. “Come, bring him.”

Another of the Pontu’ Gi placed a knife on the other side of Sohorkon’s neck and allowed him to stand.

“Don’t give up, father!”

The knives pressed his skin.

“Son? Was that you?”

Sohorkon’s heart sank as they took him away.

 

Chapter 12

 

Mahntra’ Bhu ducked around a corner of the building then stopped, glancing back to make sure he hadn’t been followed. It was dark out and only the glow of the street lamps provided light. He’d kept to the shadows and alleys as much as possible. Whenever he saw anyone walking about, he’d gone way around to avoid them as well. He’d been correct in assuming that his followers relaxed their vigil some at night incorrectly thinking he wouldn’t venture out, but they’d been wrong.

It was an easy matter to slide out of his home under cover of darkness and pass through a side entrance of his grounds he hardly ever used. Making his way through the city without arousing suspicion of the other posted guards, was a different matter. He was not practiced at skulking through the city at night, but so far he had gotten to where he needed to be . . . Near the palace.

Having been the Chief Keeper for so many years, he was familiar with all the entrances to the palace, even the ones no one else knew of. It was to one of those he made his way. He moved as fast as he could. Your age is showing, old man, he thought to himself. At last he came to a section in the palace wall that looked innocent enough, but Mahntra knew the key. Quickly he ran his fingers along the surface as high as he could reach, glancing back over his shoulder to make sure no one was watching.

There! He found the small indentation and pressed hard. A section of the wall pivoted open hanging on delicately balanced hinges that made the heavy section swing easily. Mahntra ducked through the wall into a heavily planted section of the inside gardens surrounding the palace, and swung the wall back into place. It secured itself with an almost inaudible “click” and was smooth once more to all but the most critical inspection.

Now that he was inside the grounds, he needed to make his way to the next entrance, this one leading down.

Glancing through the shadows of the lush growth of the gardens, he watched for guards marching along their routes. There were more than usual and these men were loyal to Tranthra’ Joh, not the Princess. If he were caught, it wouldn’t go well.

Seeing the break in the pattern, he moved as quickly as he could and still keep silent across the broad path to the shadows of the greenery against the palace itself. Then he slunk alongside until he came to the sheltered spot he was looking for.

Again he brushed his hands across the surface of the palace wall, finding the small indentation. Pressing hard, he heard the welcome “click” of the latch being opened, and the passageway opened.

He stepped into the dark hallway, feeling his way to pull the door shut again. He wanted to feel around and find the glow sphere he was sure was held in brackets somewhere just above his head, but he didn’t want to draw any attention to himself. Instead, he’d memorized the layout of the paths he wanted to take through the passages below the palace, and knew he could find his way mostly through feel alone. That didn’t help the suffocating feel of the darkness as it closed around him. He fought back the feeling and moved down the hall, keeping his right hand in contact with the wall of the passage so he’d know as soon as he came to the first intersection.

There. His hand lost touch of the wall. Here was the first turn he needed to take. Carefully he eased back until he found the wall again then moved directly to his side to find the other wall on the left. The left branch is what he needed to take. Finding the wall, he moved forward again, slowly, until he came to the corner, and turned. This time he moved forward with his left hand along the wall. The next turn wouldn’t be for a while, and he could feel from the pressure in his legs he was heading down, deeper below the palace. On track so far . . .

Finally he reached the next intersection and repeated the process, only this time taking the right intersection. And still down he moved, the air taking on a more musty smell the deeper he got. Faintly ahead he started to make out a dull glow. He was coming to his destination.

Slowing his walk, he crept forward. It would be disastrous for someone to find him here, especially if what he suspected were true.

The next turn to the right, the light grew brighter, so he could faintly see the corridor he was stepping through, but still he had a couple of more turns. He hoped he’d chosen his route carefully enough, staying to what he’d supposed would be unused corridors.

He moved ahead, around one corner, the hallway growing brighter again, and at the next corner, he stopped, taking a few deep breathes to calm himself.

Crouching so he wouldn’t be at eye level if someone were just happening to look in his direction, he eased his head around the corner to see what he could.

He was glad he’d been so careful. He was looking at the entrance to the cells below the palace. Guards were posted everywhere. This was extraordinary in and of itself. It’d been years since there were any prisoners held beneath the palace, and then only captured prisoners from the constant strife that had existed between cities. The criminal element of the city was held in separate cells, further out in the city. Why would there be guards posted here if the cells were empty?

Because they’re not empty!

Mahntra had come to see for himself. His fears were confirmed. If the cells were being guarded, that must mean that there were people in the cells that Tranthra’ Joh didn’t want anyone to see. Perhaps I know now where the missing nobles really are.

It could also mean that the Princess and his daughter are not really gone from the city. Could they be here too? Would Tranthra’ Joh really stoop that low in his grasping of power?

Mahntra was afraid of the answer. He knew what it was. I have to be sure, though.

He carefully looked back around the corner, crouching even lower so as not to be noticed. He didn’t draw back, but instead looked carefully around the areas he could see. Yes, the cells are filled. Squinting his eyes, and inwardly cursing his aging sight, he tried to see if there was anyone he could recognize. There . . . There . . . and yes! That’s Mourhas’ fi! All nobles who were supposed to be on a delicate mission for the city. The delicate matter is that they surely would stand in opposition to a takeover by Tranthra’ Joh.

Perhaps now it is time to enlist the aid of others.

As carefully as he came, he made his way out through the tunnels and back to his home. He made it back safe and unobserved. When he climbed into bed since it was deep in the night, but sleep was a long way from coming.

***

Sohorkon, separated from Siri’ Bhu, sat in his cell waiting for something . . . anything to happen. As soon as he’d been locked in he’d gone to the water basin and scrubbed his face and hands. There was only so much he could do to get clean. They at least could have allowed him to get a fresh change of clothing. He knew, though, his captors couldn’t take the chance someone else in the palace would see him or that he’d escape and cause them mischief.

That’s exactly what he’d do, too. Cause mischief. A great deal of it.

He’d been sitting in the cell for several hours when he heard the soft footpads of approach. They were eerily quiet compared to the noise booted soldiers would make walking through the deserted cells in this section.

Must be Pontu’ Gi, he thought. He was right. Between two guards was Siri’ Bhu. At least she’d been given fresh clothes and allowed to bathe. Of that he was glad. Her wound had badly needed cleaning.

Sohorkon watched her steps. She was still tired, but feeling better. Hopefully the doctors had been able to treat her wound so it would heal completely, as long as she was able to rest. He had a feeling they were going to get a lot of rest in this cell. Then a thought occurred. They couldn’t have allowed Siri to see any doctors. Yah’ Winn would need to keep their presence secret. The thought only increased his anger.

One Pontu’ Gi stood guard next to the barred door, knife drawn, while the other opened the cell and gestured for Siri to step inside. The door clanged shut behind her and Sohorkon helped her over to the cot he’d been sitting on. At least they’d put them together. That could be awkward when privacy was needed, but there was no privacy in the block anyway. The cells had no solid walls so guards could easily keep an eye on all prisoners. It was built that way for a reason. He’d helped design them.

“Come, sit.” Sohorkon helped her to settle gingerly on the cot. “Did you see a physician?”

“Of a sort, I suppose. One of the Pontu’ Gi seemed to know the cleaning and bandaging of wounds.”

“I was afraid of that.” Sohorkon said. “The least they could have done is have a decent doctor look at you.”

“It’s okay. The Pontu’ Gi seemed competent enough. He put some salve on it that helped with the pain, and I think it drives away infection too. It stung a little. I feel better now that they let me clean up.” She looked at Sohorkon with a smile of apology that he hadn’t been accorded the same treatment.

Siri glanced out of the cell toward the far end of the block.

“Theyre still there, I think,” Sohorkon said. “You can’t see them because they blend in when they want. I tried to listen and I don’t think they went far.”

“Oh,” was all she said then raised an eyebrow in a silent question.

“We’re going to be here a while. I helped design these cells. With my devious mind, I tried to think of all the possible ways someone could escape, and put in defenses against them all. Unless you can come up with a plan I didn’t think of, we’re here for the long haul.” That grated him most of all. He needed to get out.

 

Chapter 13

 

Mouhra’ Lah sat in the corner of her tower cell. It was richly appointed with silks and furs for her comfort. The cushioned flooring and the large pillows and draped windows all added to the appearance of opulence, but it still couldn’t hide what it really was. A prison!

She stood and paced around the small room. It was only large enough for her to take several steps one way, and then she turned back and strode the other way in her impatient agitation.

This room was never meant to be used this way! She thought as she paced. Mother had it built to house important visitors, giving them a grand view of the city! Now it’s a grand view of my failure.

When she’d first been brought here she noticed the changes that had been made. The door latch had been removed from the inside, and the door had been replaced by one of much sturdier build. The broad windows had been covered over with bars so no one could slip through, no matter how small. The glass over the windows had been thickened. Everything in the room that could break it had been removed. Even if she could find something to write a message on, she couldn’t break the glass to drop it to anyone below.

She truly was a prisoner -- a prisoner in a grand suite, but a prisoner just the same.

It had been two days, and in that time she’d been well treated. Regular meals had been brought, enough drink, and they’d even given her reading materials when she’d asked. There seemed to be a limit, however. They had denied her request for writing material, and nothing heavier than reading scrolls were allowed.

Her requests had simply been a test, to see what she would be given, hoping to find something she could smash the window with, and get a message out to someone. It hadn’t worked.

The most grating thing is that there hadn’t been any word. Any contact from Tranthra’ Joh as to what he was scheming. Pacing back and forth had given her all the time in the world to come up with many plans as to what Tranthra’ Joh could do to her City. None of it was good.

Then there was a jangling of keys in the lock of the door. She stood waiting until it swung open and a guard stepped in.

“You will come with me.”

***

Javin had moved over to drench his face in the trickling water coming into a bowl at one end of his cell. Occasionally he and Sauros would sit and talk. He'd found out all he could about where he was from Sauros. Still nothing made sense. Now he mostly just sat and pondered. Every once in a while he tried to focus on the crystal in his breast, trying to get it to do something -- anything that might help him retrieve his memory.

It was ridiculous to think that he hadn’t come from somewhere else, and that this was his home world, if indeed, this actually was a world. There were no others like him that anyone he’d met knew of, and he also had those flashes of memory that told him things he was sure were alien to this place.

The cell was cold and musty, but Javin was hoping the splash of water would waken him from the lethargy he felt himself slipping into. There was nothing for he and Sauros to do now but wait.

“Here now, step back from the bars!”

Javin swung around the water dripping from his hair and running down his face.

A detachment of guards were standing in front of Sauros’ cell, and he moved back, turning to eye Javin.

Here it comes, Javin thought, flashing Sauros a wry smile.

The guards opened the door and three men covered Sauros with drawn blades while two more turned Sauros around and began binding his hands behind his back with a chord.

No one spoke.

They moved Sauros out of the cell, and then came to stand in front of his. Javin pressed the water out of his hair with his hands and scrubbed his face, then shook his hands to rid them of the excess water. “Need to look my best, you know.”

The guard opening the cell door looked up at him a moment, then continued to open the door. Two men came in with a chord to bind him, while the other three waited outside the cell with Sauros.

He must have put up quite a fight to have them watch him this close. Javin allowed the chords to go around his wrists, but tried tensing his muscles, to make the chords a little loose when he relaxed. The guards knew what he was doing. They cinched them until the circulation was cut off, then he relaxed and let them finish. Might as well wait and see what happens.

With drawn knives against their throats and a stern warning to not try anything foolish, they were led back up through the palace to the audience chamber.

The doors were swung open and Javin and Sauros were ushered through. This time there were more guards surrounding the sides of the large chamber, and then a smaller group of guards were standing in front of the throne. Javin's eyes immediately focused on the stone archway sitting in the middle of the room. It was nearly the same as the one he'd seen in the temple --or whatever it was.

Javin continued to watch it carefully as they moved him forward. The closer he got, he began to notice the faint shimmer within the archway that he’d seen earlier. It was hard not to stare, but he knew he also needed to see what else was going on in the room. He needed to be able to put everything together, try to find a way to turn this audience into a way of escape.

Javin glanced at Sauros and noticed his eyes go wide and followed where he’d been staring. Mouhra’ Lah, the princess, was standing off to the side in another small group, and Sauros was fighting within himself, Javin could tell, not to bolt and fight to her side.

Saballa was standing directly at the foot of the dais, addressing Tranthra’ Joh in low tones, then turned to Javin and Sauros as they were moved up in front of the throne.

Sauros ignored Tranthra’ Joh and focused his eyes on Mouhra’ Lah. She, in turn, was gazing back at him, tears starting to streak her cheeks.

Javin glanced back over his shoulder to the archway, then back to Tranthra’ Joh.

“I see you’re interested in our little death machine,” Trantha’ Joh said.

“You don’t know what it is, I see,” Javin replied.

Saballa’s eyes narrowed at Javin and he took a half step forward.

“Pretty brave when I’m tied up,” Javin said to Saballa.

Saballa half-drew his knife before Tranthra’ Joh held up his hand.

“Not now, Saballa. We’ll let the machine have him . . . unless he decides to urge the Princess to cooperate.”

I see today is the day for the blackmail play, Javin thought, turning to stare at the archway again. There was something about it . . .

“You see,” Tranthra’ Joh continued, standing on the dais. “This little machine here will kill whoever steps through it. It might not look like much, but whoever steps through never returns.”

Tranthra stepped down and moved behind them to stand by the archway. He rested his hands on its side and focused his attention on the Princess.

“It makes a horrible noise when they step through. I’m sure there’s a great deal of pain. But of course, the choice is yours.”

The princess held up her chin, but looked directly at Sauros’ Bho, as if trying to communicate with him without words.

“If you agree to my . . . proposal,” Tranthra’ Joh continued, ignoring the play between the princess and Sauros, “then your prince, here will be set free. He’ll be able to return to his own country, and you’ll be assured he’ll be safe.”

Tranthra turned back to look at Sauros. “But if you don’t agree, right now, then I’ll have no choice but to have him step through.”

Javin noticed in the back of his brain there was no mention of him, though he had no doubt he would be put through the death machine also. Probably first to apply some extra leverage and show Tranthra’ Joh was serious. Something told him that might not be so bad. An idea was forming in the back of his mind. He stared hard at the archway. There was a subtle change occurring that apparently no one else was noticing. The crystal in his breast started to warm.

“No!” Sauros shouted and launched himself at Tranthra’ Joh, his arms still bound behind his back. They collided and Tranthra’ Joh was sent sprawling. Javin could tell that Sauros had tried to angle his collision in such a way as to push Tranthra’ Joh through the archway, but it hadn’t worked. Tranthra’ Joh had moved just enough. Sauros had nearly fallen through himself, but instead topped to the ground in front of the frame.

Javin snapped out of his thoughts and knew he’d better act quickly or his half-formed plan would be useless.

“Don’t do it!” Sauros yelled to Mouhra’ Lah as guards surrounded him with their long blades. “He’ll kill me anyway, he can’t let me go!”

The princess held out her arms but was forced back.

Saballa drew his knife and stepped forward while Tranthra’ Joh was climbing back to his feet with the help of two guards.

Javin was left to himself that moment. Sauros had been pushed back just in front of the arch. Saballa was intent on murder. Tranthra’ Joh didn’t appear in any mood to stop it.

Javin took two running steps and kicked out with his right leg, catching Saballa in the temple. Saballa went down. Javin hoped it was for good. He was just enough off balance with his arms bound he wasn’t able to put full force behind the kick. His guards came out of their stupor and drew their blades and rushed at him. He didn’t turn to face them. Instead, he called to the Princess.

“Stick to your guns! We’ll be back!”

Javin had landed in front of Sauros, who was staring down at him in surprise.

“Trust me,” Javin said and he pushed forward into Sauros’s bulk. Together they fell through the now shimmering arch.

***

Thunder filled the room and a great mournful howl, like the sound of a gale whipping through a deep canyon shrilled until it died off into silence. The room was still. Mouhra’ Lah stood shivering at the affect the sound had produced. Then shock set in. Sauros was gone!

Fresh tears gleamed at the corners of her eyes. She bit them back. Her eyes set on Tranthra’ Joh, who came forward, visibly shaken, but trying to compose himself in front of his men. She noticed with satisfaction two guards lifted Saballa to his feet and hauled him out of the room. She didn’t know if he was dead, but if so, it was no more than he deserved.

“Quite a show,” Tranthra’ Joh said. “In the end, it changes nothing.”

“On the contrary, it changes a great deal,” the princess answered. She gave him a stinging smile. “You no longer have any hold over me.” Though her heart was bursting she held fast to her duty and her anger. She needed to be strong for her city. Mourning could come later. Sauros had been killed over this! I can’t let his death be in vain.

“Again I refuse your proposal. And again, I demand you submit for arrest!” She turned to the guardsmen in the room. “Your leader is a traitor. I command you to take him into custody. I’m your princess. Don’t let him do this. Clemency is granted to all who obey me now.”

There was silence. For just a moment she thought they might obey, then she realized as Tranthra’ Joh’s smile spread across his face, these were all his men. Whatever he’d done to win them to him was stronger than anything she could give.

“You’re wrong, princess.” Tranthra’ Joh stepped forward and ran a caressing hand down her cheek. She flinched at his touch and he laughed. “I do have a hold over you. Even though your prince is gone,” he glanced back over to the arch that appeared just as inert as before, “Your sister . . .”

Mouhra lurched unsteady on her feet. Her guards grasped her arms and held her up. He can’t know where she is. She has to be safe!

“I see you realize my meaning. As soon as she is located, I will have no more need of you. Then she will have the honor of being my bride.”

Relief! He doesn’t know where she’s hidden. He might eventually find her given enough time.

“She will not accept you any more than I.” I’ve got to figure something out before he finds her! “Duty is strong in my family . . . at least my immediate family.”

“Oh? We’ll see. From what I remember, she’s young enough to be pliable. Especially when she knows it’s either marry me, or see her older sister die in a most horrible way.”

Mouhra’ Lah held her voice steady. “That will never happen.” Her heart, however, was shrinking. Too much was happening, and she had no control over any of it. Sauros, my love. She glared at the archway in the center of the room. I can’t let his death count for nothing!

Then she remembered Javin. Everything had happened so fast. Had he actually pushed them both through? But Saballa was going to kill Sauros, and he saved him, only to kill him with the death machine? That didn’t seem right. What had he said just before they went through? Stick to your guns! We’ll be back!

She didn’t know what the first meant, but “We’ll be back!” He must know something! That’s something to hold on to. Could one of the Mulda’ fi have control over the death machine? Javin seemed certain of it. But then again, Javin hadn’t been certain of anything before.

I must have hope!

Tranthra’ Joh stood watching her. Mouhra’ Lah stared back, head high and face composed.

“Take her back to the tower to think it over.” Then he spoke to her. “We’ll find your sister soon, and then we’ll see if you change your mind.”

***

It had taken Chahzuu two days to reach the lush valley floor. A couple of times he’d had to climb down steep cliffs, but his comfort in swinging among the tall trees of the jungle made it relatively easy for him to pass. Still it slowed him more than he wanted. The distance from the top of the ridge had been deceptive. His blood was moving with the prospect of doing something that could make a difference. His haste had made him slip once on the moist rock face with almost disastrous results. It was then he slowed for the next drop off, grinding his teeth at the delay, but also realizing he couldn’t help his people if he were severely injured.

The floor of the valley was even more lush than he was used to. Water stayed in open ponds, and in several places he had to wade across hip deep streams holding his scrip case above his head to keep it dry. This was totally new. Never had he seen so much open water, and never running water. As he stepped through the first, he started gasping. The water was warm, but it was swift, and the tug threatened to pull him along with it. Once he lost his footing and fell, just catching himself before he went under. It surprised him at how nervous he was.

In his home country, and while he’d been traveling, he’d always seen water strained out of the air each morning and condense into the small basins to drink, or from the larger basins his people had constructed to hold their daily water needs. Never had he seen it standing or flowing in such great quantities. Looking back along the valley wall, he could see off in the distance water actually cascading down the sides of some cliffs, running into the valley, collecting in the lowest space it could find. It was strange he hadn’t seen it from above. Now that he was on the lower level of the valley, he could.

The mystery faded from his mind as he continued to make his way to the overgrown mounds up ahead. A regular pathway, though heavily overgrown, provided a relatively easy direction to follow. Underneath, the ground was hard, like stone had been laid down earlier, and he was following a constructed thing; a road that had become overgrown with vegetation because no one had been on it in such a long time. It reminded him of the canyon where the grotto was. And where my dreams ended and the nightmares began.

Chahzuu cautiously approached one of the smaller mounds on one side of the path. This one was about twice his height, peaked at the top -- where he could follow its regular lines through the growth of foliage -- and appeared to be wide enough to be a dwelling of some sort. There were no visible entrances. He walked part way around and couldn't discern any difference from the front. Underneath the accumulated soil and foliage, he was sure lay something constructed by the ancients. It had to be so. But there were no records of any such places. At least not any clear ones, Chahzuu thought as he remembered the oldest records that had led him here.

After a closer study, he turned back onto the main path. Up ahead he could make out his destination rising above all the other mounds, and sitting in the middle of the gradually broadening way. It too was covered in lush foliage but it peaked nearly three times higher than any other mound around it. It was the largest structure Chahzuu had ever seen, easily as high as even the tallest of the jungle monarchs in his home country. Right at the top, he could faintly make out a dark opening, like a cave overhung with ferns and vines. That’s where I need to be. The thought of entering another dark cave made him shudder but he put his feet to the task and continued on his way.

It didn't take much longer to reach the base of the large mound. The water seemed to have spread off to the sides of the valley, and the place with the mounds -- he instinctively thought of it as a city -- was on slightly higher ground. The surface was that of placed, flat stones, with a cushion of the mulch and growth of the jungle floor.

He tilted his head back and looked up to the top of the mound. He could no longer see the cave opening as it sat back from a terrace near the top. A detail he hadn’t seen from further back. Straight ahead the side was steep but it was something he could easily climb. There must have been steps here at one time.

Chahzuu readjusted the shoulder strap of his scrip case and stepped forward onto the side of the mound. The climbing was hard. Loose dirt and bushes kept slipping with his weight, so progress was slow. He had to stop often to catch his breath, but he wanted to at least reach the terrace at the top of the mound before the Great Light burned out for the night. Being on the side of the mound, climbing in the misty dark, was not a thing he wanted to experience.

Finally, Chahzuu pulled his worn frame over the top of the terrace ledge. His breath was puffing like it hadn’t in the many years since his youth. He took his time, lying on his back, and watched the mists swirling high overhead, reflecting the beams of the setting Great Light. A slight breeze coursed over him and chilled his skin, just as the Great Light burned its last for the day, and surrendered to night.

The transitions from night to day, and day to night were always a thing of wonder for Chahzuu. It happened rapidly, but the last scintillating burst of light at the end of a day was always an awe-inspiring sight as the misty particles in the air reflected the last remaining bits of light, scattering it to all the face of the mother-ground. Then with the last bit of light gone, and nothing to reflect any more, the mists quickly shrouded the world and dropped lower, cooling, while at the same time covering and insulating the mother like a cool, soothing blanket.

Chahzuu knew, though, that this was merely illusion. With the descent of darkness came the few small predators that haunted the mists, unseen, and unseeing, they hunted by senses other than what a man possessed. One rarely had warning as one of these denizens of the mist came upon them in their hunting. Sometimes, though small, they could injure before a man could fight them off. There were no trees here for safety and he was alone. Chahzuu’s first duty was to find shelter.

The entrance to the mound was the logical choice, but he didn’t relish the idea of walking into a cave where he had no idea of what was inside. The last time he did that it didn’t turn out so well. In the back of his mind there was a sense of foreboding about this cave as well.

It wasn’t fear, really, but something deeper, more poignant nagging just at the back of his mind. It wasn’t something he could specifically describe. The feeling was a heavy. One that gave him concern, but not one that would step up and say, this is what I am, this is what I mean. Instead he just had the certainty that once he walked into the cave, something would happen, and it would mean either life or death.

How do I know all this? He gazed into the black depths of the opening. Then the crystal in his breast warmed. The feeling comes from the crystal. What does it mean? How is it connected with whatever’s in the cave? Or is it connected?

Standing out here wondering isn’t going to change what’s inside.

Chahzuu turned to look out through the darkening mists once again then took a deep breath, turned and started toward the opening. The crystal grew warmer the closer he approached, and just as he got even with the opening, something on the walls flickered, and a faint glow started coming up on the walls. This time there were no pinpoints of light like he'd experienced in the other cavern. This time there was just a subtle glow that seemed to emanate from the walls, but it was a light that wasn't visible at its source. It seemed to radiate without any visible effect until it reflected back off something . . . like his skin -- which took on an eery glow -- and the other wall, and the ceiling.

The illumination was just bright enough to faintly light the hallway leading into the mound. It was still dark, but every crevice, corner, and mark on the wall was clear and crisp. There were no shadows . . . anywhere. It was as if the air itself were energized with a light that illuminated without bathing or coloring anything.

The crystal continued to warm. The feeling he’d had before entering persisted. It didn’t grow any stronger, or slighter. It was still the sense that something profoundly important was going to happen, and it could mean his destruction . . . or not, and that each was equally acceptable to whatever awaited him inside.

Further down the hall was a branch in the corridor. He could go either way.

Which should he follow? Chahzuu shrugged and took the left. He went a short way and it curved to the left again, and he found another branch. A maze! I could get lost in here and never find what I need . . . Or never find my way back out, for that matter.

Chahzuu sat, thinking over the situation. With each maze, there is always a key. The key lay in finding the reason behind the maze.

So far the corridors, though dark, had seemed safe enough. He could sit and think a bit before feeling he had to move forward. There could be other pitfalls besides the maze if the builders wanted something hidden well enough.

And that’s the key!

What was hidden was an Article of Power! Something so precious that it had to be kept out of the hands of just anybody who could stumble into the mound and find it. But it was also meant to be found, wasn’t it?

Chahzuu stood and retraced his steps back to the opening. This time he thought through the old records. There was nothing in his memory that seemed to help. Then he went back over how he’d found the mound in the first place. It had been tied in with his thoughts about a certain thing, the old records regarding the Articles of Power . . . and the Crystal!

It was the crystal that led me here! And now it would have to be the crystal that takes me the rest of the way . . . I hope.

He faced down the corridor, slowing his breathing and closing his eyes, calming all his senses, he focused on the crystal’s warmth setting just above his heart. Three steps forward. Three more steps. There was no change in the smoldering glow. He opened his eyes and he was at the first intersection. Chahzuu shut his eyes again to help with his focus. Time for an experiment.

Slowly he rotated to his left and took three steps down the corridor. Was there any change? No . . . wait! just faintly, a flicker in the warmth. Well, not really in the warmth. He felt just a touch unsettled. Could it simply be a matter of not being confident about the path? Something his mind fabricated? Other than that slight feeling, there was nothing.

There’s only one way to check.

Chahzuu opened his eyes and moved back to the intersection, this time he kept his eyes open, focused inward, and turned to the right. He took three steps forward. Again the crystal’s warmth felt about the same. Was there something different in this direction? Barely. Just a slight confidence that he’d made the right choice. It was hardly there. It could easily be his own feelings.

It’s all I have.

He licked his lips and continued down the right corridor. If nothing else, I hope I’ve got a really good memory. Wait! I’ll mark the path I’ve been, and then I’ll be able to keep track.

His hand ducked down to his scabbard and pulled out his knife. I’ve been spooked too much by all this. I should have thought of this the first thing I found it was a maze.

He brought the knife up and pressed as hard as he dared against the wall, then scratched it down slowly, watching the result. There was no mark left. Again he tried with the same result.

Chahzuu tried to press harder, leaning onto it with both hands, threatening to splinter the hard obsidian. If he pressed any harder the knife could snap. There wasn’t so much as a scratch on the wall.

He brushed his hands over the surface. It looked like stone, but on closer inspection found it wasn’t. It was something harder than stone cut, or formed, to look like stone. To the touch, it felt like unique, some sort of solid mineral, or crystaline growth.

Too many mysteries, Chahzuu thought as he examined the point of his knife. It had worn where he’d pressed it against the wall. Whatever it was, it was harder than the obsidian of his blade. He put the knife back in his scrip case and again stood facing the interior of the mound.

Slight as the feelings are, I’ve got to trust them . . . and try to memorize the way back.

Chahzuu continued down the right branch. It went straight for a time, then curved hard to the left and doubled back, but there was no branch yet. He continued to focus his mind inward, thinking about the slight feeling of confidence. It hadn’t changed. The path continued forward, and though it was dark, there was still that same glowing eeriness that lighted his steps. He tried to keep track of how many paces, making a mental map in his mind of the maze, and where he was in relation to the opening. Just ahead was another intersection. Again a right and left choice at right angles. Chahzuu paused.

This is taking too long. If I hesitate each time I come to an intersection, I may never reach what I came for. Then the converse thought came to mind. But if I press forward too quickly, I may pass where I need to be, and become lost or worse, trigger some trap set to catch those who don’t have the key.

He stood, thinking.

The crystal and my knowledge of the old records brought me this far. And my first decision was based on the ‘feeling’ I had. Even to test, I need to remain consistant. So I’ll do the same for each, and force myself to trust my ‘feelings’ even if it’s just my imagination.

With that, Chahzuu decided to go left this time. His eyes remained open, but his thoughts continued to focus on his feelings and the crystal in his breast. The warmth didn’t change, but again came the slight nagging disquiet that he’d made the wrong choice. If he hadn’t been focusing, he never would have felt it.

Turning back, he continued past the intersection and went several careful strides down the right intersection. This time, again, he felt the ever so slight confidence he’d make the right choice.

Chahzuu took a deep breath and continued down the right corridor. It went for a time, and then turned again, this time to the right. Then right after the turn, he came to another intersection.

This time he chose the right corridor first. The slight feeling of confidence was there, but it seemed just a bit stronger. The crystal in his breast seemed just a bit warmer too.

Three right turns in a row, Chahzuu thought. How likely is that?

Just to make sure, he backtracked and tried the left corridor. This time the feeling of disquiet was there, only less, if that could be possible.

If I doubt the feelings and make mistakes, do I have the feelings taken away? If that were true, then the creators of the maze must be trying to teach as well as hide. Still, the feelings were so slight, Chahzuu couldn’t say with any certainty they weren’t just figments of his imagination. For all he really knew, it was a simple as moving about with trial and error until you found your way.

As soon as he thought that, he knew he was wrong. If the Article of Power were here, then the creators would certainly have put in strident protections.

I must not doubt, or I really could end up lost to my own fear . . . assuming I haven’t fallen prey to it already.

Chahzuu backed up and took the right corridor again. This time the distance wasn’t as great until the next intersection. It was the same, two choices at a right angle. One right and the other left.

They can’t have meant for each turn to be to the right. That’s too simple. Anyone who made a guess to follow each right branch would be able to navigate the maze. Chahzuu chose left. Then the feeling of disquiet came again. It was a little stronger than the last time, almost giving him the impression it was a reward for getting this far, and not doubting . . . too much.

Turning back, he took the right corridor for a few paces then stopped to assess his feelings. He shook his head as the confidence came, a touch greater, and the crystal burned just a measure warmer.

It’s enough to drive the sane crazy, and simple for a crazy to pass. Chahzuu chuckled as he continued down the corridor. Maybe that’s the intent. Who else but someone crazy would think of always turning right? And what would make a sane person doubt more than always turning a single way through a maze?

The next intersection Chahzuu went to the right without hesitating. The next beyond it, the same. Each time there was a gradual increase in the feeling of confidence and warmth from the crystal.

After several more turns, each to the right, the feelings were such that he didn’t doubt any longer. Instead he started thinking about what the creators of the maze were trying to teach.

It took him a while. More than he thought, given his initial impression of the size of the building. The light never changed so it was hard to gauge the amount of time he’d been walking. It was made harder because, though the feelings were much stronger, he still had to focus in order to make sense of them. He didn’t want to blindly continue down the right intersections just to have it change at the end.

Another thing he noticed was the fatigue in his leg muscles. It appeared that he’d slowly been ascending, going up. Yet the length of time he’d been walking surely would have brought him to the top of the structure by now. It didn’t seem to make any sense. And he’d long since given up trying to keep track mentally. The map he’d tried to keep in his mind had been sacrificed to focus his mental energies on his feelings and the warmth of the crystal.

The next turn, again to the right, Chahzuu could discern a slight blue, glowing line across the floor. It ran up the wall on either side and joined across the top of the corridor, as if it were a seam in the structure, or a break to a different part of the building.

Chahzuu slowed his approach. Nothing seemed to change in his feelings, and there was no reason not to proceed. He stepped right up to the line along the floor but didn’t break the plane it made. He put his hand close to the plane, though didn’t cross. There was no sensation, yet something told him this line was significant. If he crossed it, he would not be able to turn back. If he crossed it, and wasn’t supposed to, he’d be dead.

He’d long since given up trying to figure out how he just ‘knew’ things. It had to be the crystal. Chahzuu had enough experience with it now to know, and not have to know ‘how.’ Hopefully that would come later. It was enough to make him pause before the blue line.

I am here because I was guided, Chahzuu thought. It was more to reassure himself than anything.

He took a deep breath, then letting it out slowly, stepped over the line. A tingling filled him from the front to back as he moved across, as if he were being scanned. And as the crystal in his breast came even with the plane, it burned, a glow of comfort, as if he’d finally come home. But he knew he was far from it.

Now he knew how the creators of the maze would ultimately protect what was inside from the lucky or insane. If the traveler did not have a crystal, it was a final barrier. How long has it been there, waiting for someone to pass?

So much to learn, never adequate time. Chahzuu turned back to look at the barrier. It was glowing a faint red now. Barely visible even when you knew where to look for it. He turned back to his task. He must be very close now.

The hall up ahead seemed to be growing lighter just as it turned another corner. There were no more intersections. Chahzuu moved cautiously forward and eased his head around the corner. What he saw was a large chamber starting to fill with light. He’d made it!

Nothing seemed to be hindering his way, but he still, carefully, looked over the entire chamber over before moving. Just as he was about to step into the chamber a point of light flashed right in front of him. He jumped back and stared as the point grew, blinding with intensity. Inside the light coalesced the figure of a man.

His countenance and skin were of brilliant radiance as were his flowing robes. Chahzuu raised his hands to shield his eyes from the glare. His first thought was that it was Nemesis, come to challenge him again. That thought soon faded. Nemesis hadn’t had such radiance. Also this being didn’t look like him at all. He had a kindly, almost fatherly air about him. His eyes were a dark contrast to the luminescent form, and his head was void of any hair.

There was something else. Something familiar. It reminded him of when he was in another place . . . just after he’d been ‘drained.’

The being stood in the air in front of him. His feet were a slight width above the ground. Nothing was said as they regarded one another.

Chahzuu opened his mouth to speak then remembered he couldn’t anymore. Instead, he focused his thoughts.

Are you a Guardian?

There was no sound, but there was a caress in his mind, and a slight nod of the being’s head.

Are you here to help me?

This time there was no response. Chahzuu was surprised.

Why are you here?

The silence continued for a time as the being continued to regard him. Finally a voice inside his mind spoke, while the being in front of him blinked his eyes.

You don’t realize what you’re doing. You must turn back.

What? Chahzuu responded.

[_ What you seek is not what you think. It was placed here for a far larger purpose. Once retrieved – if you ‘can’ retrieve it -- can never be placed back. It is too dangerous to take now. _]

Chahzuu stared at the being. What is it for? There is an Article of Power here then.

There is. Its purpose is for . . . later. I can’t say. We are not sure ourselves. But the power is too dangerous for you to take. Especially now.

The flavor of the being’s thoughts told Chahzuu that they doubted he could handle whatever it was, and further, their greater worry was that it would fall to the hands of Nemesis. It was amazing how much could travel through even the barest hint of a thought. Such a rich texture of meaning without the cumbersome nature of words.

Why did you bring me here then?

We didn’t.

Chahzuu was confused. But the crystal. The light. I was guided here, was I not?

You were.

Then by whom?

Unknown. Perhaps by yourself, and your desire to help your people. Perhaps some other force we have not seen.

Underlying that thought seemed to be a shielded hope.

Chahzuu didn’t know what to make of it, so pressed on with what he ‘could’ understand. Helping his people.

Will you help me then?

What do you wish?

Now Chahzuu was starting to get frustrated.

If I’m not supposed to take the Article of Power then what should I do for my people? You do know what’s happened to them don’t you?

We see. The Guardian blinked at him again.

Then what should I do? Chahzuu let his thoughts carry the note of anger he was feeling. Why would they stop him, and then act as if they didn’t know what to do? It seemed that maybe these Guardians were not the all-knowing, benevolent deities he’d been raised to believe.

We are not ‘deities.’ We are simply . . . older.

Chahzuu was silent for a time, waiting for the being to answer the rest of his unspoken question.

We have told you all we can. We cannot become, there was a pause as the being seemed to be searching for the right expression. We are prevented from becoming ‘directly’ involved. Forces fighting the light you seek counter our efforts as we are trying to counter theirs.

Nemesis is with them . . . The others you’re trying to fight? The realization flashed in Chahzuu’s mind.

Yes.

Again, what should I do? How can I reclaim my people and put them back on the right path? If your enemies are helping Nemesis, then you must help me?

We are.

How! Tell me what I should do! At least give me more than simply telling me ‘not’ to do something. Give me a reason. Give me something better to do!

You already know. The being stared back with no expression. Seek out The One. The One of The Two.

And then what?

You will know.

Do ‘you’ know?

No.

Chahzuu stood gaping at the being. Then why was I brought here? You said yourself that you didn’t know why. Only that you thought it was too dangerous, and that it wasn’t the right time. Chahzuu was beginning to doubt the whole Guardian myth he was led to believe.

What if I still think I need to pursue this? To help my people? The Guardian wasn’t being any help at all. And the more he thought about it, the more he felt he needed to press on. It seemed the Guardian himself didn’t know other than what he’d said. Yes, he needed to find the other Pale One, but where should he look? And why shouldn’t he get the tools he hoped would help along the way?

Why is the Article of Power so dangerous?

Unknown. We don’t know why it was constructed?

Didn’t your people make it?

The Guardian hesitated. Yes. Or rather those who came before . . . then left.

More mysteries! Why don’t you tell me straight out what I need to know?

You are not yet . . . ready.

What?

There was no reply.

So. I’m on my own again?

I have said all I can.

What if I disagree? What if I still think that I need to take the Article of Power? And further, what if I still think I need to gather the others, and then use them to help my people? You don’t have a better idea do you?

The glowing being was silent.

You won’t try to stop me? There was a definite reason why he was here. It ‘would’ help his people, and the Guardian hadn’t given him a better plan.

Again the being remained silent.

Then move aside.

You must not do this! You don’t realize what you’re awakening? We are not even sure those who made the Articles knew what they were constructing. So much has been lost.

Stand aside. You don’t know any more than I do.

The Guardian held up his hands as if to prevent him from passing, then slowly he lowered them. In your ignorance you may destroy all. But in our ignorance, we may do the same. Who’s to say. You ‘were’ brought here.

Be aware though, that what you seek, you have no idea of, and what the Articles may do, may just destroy what you are hoping to save. We do not know. Still, taking it is far from accomplished.

Underlying that thought was another volume of meaning. There was something here they didn’t know, nor had they been able to solve. If they had been able to solve the problem in taking it, they might have already taken it for themselves.

Chahzuu looked at the being before him. The Guardian nodded then slowly started to fade, until all that was left was a bright point of light in the center of the air until that flickered out. The entry to the chamber beyond was open.

Chahzuu stepped forward. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. It looked to be a simple chamber about the size of the one he’d been in before. There was no source of light he could see, but the room was brilliantly lit, not with the small pinpoints of light like the other. This time there were no pedestals where what he was looking for was sitting out in the open.

Instead, across to the far side was a stone alter of sorts that was bare. It sat in front of a giant man-like statue that appeared to be made out of stone, but Chahzuu knew better than to assume that stone was all it was actually made of. It was twice as tall as Chahzuu and about three times as wide.

The eyes of the figure were made of a black crystal that seemed illuminated with a dark light, but Chahzuu couldn’t tell because the shade was so dark it might just be the light reflecting off their glossy surface.

He moved forward, trying to keep light on his feet and observe everything around him at the same time. His hunter’s senses were as alert as he could make them. The only thing he noticed was the eyes of the statue. They seemed to be watching, though Chahzuu was sure it was only an illusion.

Nothing happened as he approached the alter. He turned back to gaze around the room searching for some clue to what he was looking for. He didn’t know what an Article of Power looked like. The walls all around were smooth, apparently made of the same material as the maze. The alter in front of him reached up to about mid-thigh and was a squared off slab of the same material about a pace wide and half that deep. It was about a hand span thick and supported by two vertical slabs of about the same size. On the ground at the front of the alter was another slab placed apparently where a supplicant should kneel.

Chahzuu could see nothing else so shrugging his shoulders he knelt at the alter. Nothing happened. What now?

The crystal must have something to do with this. It has with everything else.

He looked around the chamber once again, just to make sure nothing had changed, then he bowed his head and focused his thoughts on what he was seeking, repeating over and over in his mind the children’s limerick that had started all this.

For several moments, all continued to be still, then Chahzuu noted a slight dimming in the light then he felt a small, growing vibration begin in the floor of the chamber. The vibration grew until the chamber seemed to resonate with it. He glanced at the statue behind the alter. Cracks appeared in the wall behind it. It was separating from the wall! Chunks of material started to fall away, and Chahzuu jumped back from the alter, afraid the statue was going to fall on him.

Instead the arms swung out then its head pulled free, the eyes focused on Chahzuu. The statue leaned forward, then turning its hips to free the rest of its body, it took one step over the alter in Chahzuu’s direction.

The crystal in Chahzuu’s breast burned with a fire he was sure would char his insides but he seemed unharmed. He didn’t have time to wonder as the stone giant raised its arms out straight and with a booming voice, “I am the guardian of what is here. Mulda’ fi, what do you seek?”

Chahzuu was shocked. Mulda’ fi? What does he mean? He knew the legends. Those were the Promised Ones sent by the Guardians as protection from the forces of evil.

He hadn’t been sent by the Guardians. And he certainly wasn’t Mulda’ fi.

Mulda’ fi! What do you seek?” There was a sense of urgency in the giant’s voice.

Whether he was Mulda’ fi or not, Chahzuu knew what he was seeking. He wanted the Article of Power that was here. Then it occurred to him.

I can’t speak! I can’t answer!

Mulda’ fi, you must answer! You must answer now!”

The giant statue took a hulking step forward. Chahzuu backed out of his way.

“What do you seek?”

Chahzuu tried to focus on the crystal, still searing his breast with its burning heat. He tried to focus his thoughts and direct them at the giant continuing to move his way. I seek the First Article of Power. The power of creation!

The giant continued to move forward, seemingly unaffected by Chahzuu’s directed thoughts.

“What do you seek?” The giant swung an arm down, a blow that Chahzuu barely ducked and danced back to his left, away from the giant. If the sweeping blow had connected, Chahzuu would have been crushed. “What do you seek?” The giant moved after him.

Chahzuu glanced back to the doorway. It was covered in a haze of red. It looked as if the way out was blocked. He knew if he tried to pass through that doorway, whatever the haze was, it would kill him. If he didn’t find some way to answer the giant stone guardian, and fast, he would be just as dead.

He moved to one side of the chamber against the wall. As he neared it, he noticed the wall had started to glow in the same hazy red as had appeared across the doorway. Then the haze moved out from the wall in a vertical plane that advanced closer to him. Chahzuu moved away, to the other side, and noticed the same thing was happening with that wall, all the walls! The deadly haze was moving in, constricting him to a narrow path between he and the giant, who was slowly moving forward.

Chahzuu backed up as far as he could until he bumped up against the alter. He stumbled and fell to his knees on the slab facing the giant now standing directly above, hands raised, fists locked together for the final, killing blow.

Mulda’ fi! What do you seek?”

Chahzuu opened his mouth in desperation, but he could force nothing out but a rush of air as the thoughts behind the words he wanted to speak formed in his mind. I seek the Power of Creation!

The giant’s fisted hands began their downward fall.

 

Chapter 14

 

Javin could sense Sauros near, though he had no feeling. Their surroundings weren’t dark, but they weren’t light either. It was a grey nothingness they swam in. Along with sensing Sauros near, he could also sense what Sauros was feeling. He sensed no fear, which impressed Javin no end. He felt fear. There was a continual sensation of falling, or weightlessness, not one that was a rapid, like ‘I’m falling off a cliff’ type sensation. It was more of a ‘gently floating down to their destination’ feeling.

Javin had a hunch as to what their destination was . . . he hoped. If the portal was in fact what he thought it was, then it ‘should’ tie them back to the portal he’d seen in the temple. Now all he had to do was to figure a way to take them from this void to the point he wanted to be.

When he’d first seen the portal in the throne room, it had drawn to him in the same way the other had in the temple. He knew instinctively that they were tied together, and that somehow, stepping through one would, if done properly, allow them to step out of the other. The thing was, he hadn’t had any time to think about how it was done. Instead, to prevent Sauros, and especially him, from being on the sharp end of one of the knives that were being waved in their direction, he’d done the only thing he could think of. With the crystal burning in his breast, and his thoughts focused on the throne room portal, he had lunged forward and knocked Sauros and himself through. If he couldn’t find a way out, he knew that Tranthra’ Joh would have his wish, and the portal would become a death machine.

Sauros’ presence was still a strong fire burning somewhere just off to his left. He would have reached out to make physical contact, but he couldn’t even feel his own hand. It was as if they were both disembodied intelligences, and only the essence of who they were was being transported through this void to wherever it was that they were trying to get.

Javin focused his thoughts on the portal in the temple chamber. He visualized it just the way he remembered, and visualized the portal shimmering in the same way he saw the one in the throne room of the city do just before they went through.

There was a burning in the vicinity where his breast would have been, if he could really feel his breast then the void started to change. It grew darker, and felt more solid. The sense of movement increased and suddenly Javin found himself sprawling through the portal onto the dusty floor of the temple. Right after came Sauros, sprawling beside him. Their bonds had disappeared!

Javin stood slowly, shaking himself, and allowing his eyes to adjust to the dimly lit chamber. There still was that unknown source of light that couldn’t be picked out. It was just there. Javin turned to find Sauros getting to his feet, looking around.

“Welcome . . . home, I guess,” Javin said. “It’s as much a home to me as anyplace on your world.”

“The temple?” Sauros asked.

“Yep. Pretty smooth to get us here. I wish I could tell you I knew for sure how to work those things,” Javin said pointing to the now lifeless portal, “but I’d be lying. It was pretty much desperate luck we ended up here. At least it beat the alternative.”

“I agree,” Sauros said. “Though if we could use it once to travel from the throne room, perhaps we can use it to get back when we’re ready to rescue the princess.”

“That’d be a good idea,” Javin said, “but like I said, I’m not sure I can do it again. I think I know how to make them work, but can’t guarantee it. Then again, I’m not sure that just us jumping back into the lion’s den would really help the princess right now.”

“Lion’s?”

Javin grinned at the floating images in his memory again. “Large predator. Ate people like me for dinner.” He wanted to say that it reminded him of Sauros but didn’t think that’d go over well from the way he’d just described it.

“Oh,” Sauros replied. “I see. It’s just hard to think of the princess being held by Tranthra’ Joh and me not being help.”

“I think she’s safe for now. Tranthra’ Joh doesn’t have you for leverage any more.”

“That’s true, but that won’t last long. He’s resourceful enough to find another way. What I’m worried about is that his next idea won’t involve the need for keeping Mouhra’ Lah alive and healthy.”

“You’ve got a point,” Javin said. “Look. I can get us outside of this place, I think. If I get us back out into the jungle, do you think you can get your bearings enough to find your city? With a little help from your army, perhaps we’d have some leverage of our own.”

“Now that’s a good idea. And if nothing else, we can come back here and use the portal to get back inside the city?”

“I’ll buy that,” Javin said. “But I really want to be sure I can use these things before I risk sending a whole lot of your people through.”

“Yes,” Sauros said. “One thing at a time. But what does it have to do with buying anything?”

Javin tilted his head. “Buying? Oh yea. Just a figure of speech. Sorry. I was just agreeing with you.”

“If I had my doubts about you being from a different country, they are gone now.” Sauros started to walk around the chamber.

“Nice place huh?” Javin said. “It’s a little different than I remember. Look at the pedestals placed around. I could swear that they were in a different arrangement when I was here last.”

“Javin, come look.” Sauros had wandered over to another side of the chamber.

Javin quickly strode over. Sauros was standing over a small pedestal rising about as high as his hip. On it sat a spherical crystal, the same type as the one sitting right above Javin’s heart. The subtle glow it gave off made the grey veins seem alive, wriggling, but when scrutinized, they weren’t really moving at all.

“Now this is interesting.” Javin reached for it.

“Don’t!” Sauros said.

Javin looked at Sauros. His mouth was slightly open, his eyes intent on the crystal.

“Let me guess,” Javin said. “You’ve never seen it before, but somehow you know it’s yours?”

Sauros looked at Javin. “How did you know?”

“The same thing happened to me . . . twice in fact.”

“What?” Sauros had a hard time not keeping his eyes off the crystal.

“It’s a long story. Look. I think I know what you need to do with it, but I’m not sure I recommend it. I have one myself. I’m not sure where it came from, or whether it’s safe or not.” Javin recalled the flashback he’d had in the throne room where a stranger had come to him as a child and given the crystal to him in the first place. My lucky marble! That’s what I called it. Javin tried to focus his memory along that tenuous thread. Nothing else came.

He shook his head and looked at Sauros continuing to stare at the crystal, his hands hovering near as if afraid to touch it, though not wanting anyone else to touch it either.

“This is all really a confused mess. I don’t know anything about it. Maybe we should just leave it alone and leave. The sooner we get out into the jungle the sooner we can start to find your city and get help for the princess.”

Sauros nodded absently, but made no move to leave. Javin took a few steps away, looking at Sauros the whole time. He never moved, never even noticed what Javin had said.

“Okay. You sure about this?”

Sauros looked up. “What?”

“You sure that’s your crystal?”

“I . . . I’m sure, but I’ve never seen it before.”

Then a sudden thought struck Javin. He remembered the picture in the book shown to him by Siri’ Bhu just after the princess’s party had found him. The picture showed a human that looked very much like him. Another picture showed a chameleon man just like the one who’d saved him in the jungle. And another picture had shown a lion-man . . . like Sauros’ Bho!

“If you take that, you’ll be admitting you’re a Mulda’ fi.

“I’ll be doing what?”

Javin smiled. That got his attention.

“Let me tell you a little story. You’ve heard most of it, but not all.” Javin sat on a nearby block and told Sauros again of his first meeting with the princess and Siri’ Bhu. This time he told him everything, including them finding the crystal, where it was now, and how they’d dubbed him a Mulda’ fi because of it.

Sauros was quiet for a time. It looked to Javin like he was having a hard time believing any of it, but then Sauros’s eyes went back to the crystal. After another moment he looked at Javin again.

“I just can’t leave it. Tell me what I need to do.”

Javin pushed off the block and moved closer to the pedestal. “Take the crystal in your palm like this.” Javin cupped his hand in front of his breast. “Then slowly move it closer to your skin until it touches. Be prepared for something you’re not going to believe. It will merge with you. After that, what it'll do, and how it'll affect you -- or help you -- which I hope it's supposed to do, is anybody’s guess. Heaven knows, I haven’t been able to figure anything out about mine. Though I can’t say as I’d particularly part with it, now that I think about it.” Javin was surprised at the sudden possessive feeling then shrugged it off.

“Like I said, I don’t know how it might affect you, or whether it’s good. You might want to think about this first.”

“I have,” Sauros said. He reached down his hand and cupped the crystal like Javin had shown. With the other hand he smoothed the pelt of his chest, while inspecting the crystal. He looked at Javin then brought the crystal towards his breast. It began a subtle glowing that grew more intense the closer it got to his skin. Javin squinted against the glare then suddenly there was brilliant flash! When Javin could see again, Sauros was standing still, his eyes closed, scrunched as if he were in pain. The cavity of his chest was illuminated by the crystal within. There was no mark where it had entered.

It wasn’t long. Seconds really, Sauros blinked his eyes and shook his head. He looked down at the fading glow of his chest then looked at Javin. The strange look in Sauros’s eyes made Javin wonder, as if he were studying Javin like he’d never seen him before.

“What?”

Sauros continued to stare then realized what he was doing.

“Sorry.” His voice was different.

“You saw something.”

“Yes.” Sauros’ voice was quiet.

“Feel like talking about it?”

“Sometime.” He looked at Javin again. “Not now.”

“Okay.” Javin didn’t know what else to say. He could only imagine what had happened, especially when he remembered what had happened to him. Only this time, Javin had a sense that whatever Sauros saw must have involved him. Maybe he was just overreacting. The visions, or whatever they were, had a powerful effect on him too.

“Can you move okay?”

Sauros paused, taking deep breaths.

“I feel . . . great, actually. Better than I’ve felt in a long time.” He hesitated a moment then turned right to Javin. “Do you know how to control this?”

“Nope. Remember what I told you earlier? I don’t have a clue. It just helps sometimes. I haven’t figured out any rhyme or reason.”

“I understand,” Sauros said. He was silent a moment, his eyes distant. “I . . . I can feel her. I know she’s okay.” Relief loosened the tight lines of his face. “Do you think she feels me too?”

“Sorry.” Javin shrugged. He allowed a slight smile to creep to his lips. “If you figure it out, be sure and tell me.” His smile grew. “Us Mulda’ fi have to stick together.”

Sauros started at the title.

“Remember what I told you. Having the crystal seemed to dub me one. Now you’re in it too. Besides, I saw you in the book.”

Sauros fell silent again, finally nodding his head, though not necessarily in acceptance. Humoring me, I guess, Javin thought. Then Sauros spoke again.

“Javin, Why are you here?””

“Excuse me?” Javin asked.

“I can understand why I would want to help. I have Mouhra’ Lah. Why are you here?”

“What do you mean?” Javin laughed. “Don’t you remember? I pushed us through the portal. That’s why we’re both here.”

“No. Now that you’re free, there’s no reason why you need to continue. You can pursue your own search. That must be important to you.”

Javin looked at Sauros closely. He could see something else in his eyes. Something beyond the question he’d asked. Maybe it had something to do with what Sauros had seen in his vision. Come to think about it, Javin hadn’t really given it any thought. Why should I continue? He was silent for a long time before he spoke again.

“Because I made a promise.” The crystal warmed in his breast. “And no matter what I was before I came here, I know the type of person I want to be now.”

He looked around the chamber. “And honestly, I think that whatever is going on with your world, being in the thick of it is probably the only way for me to find out why I’m here. There seems to be a purpose in it, and running away, won’t find it for me.” Javin turned his gaze back at Sauros. “You’re part of it too. Take it from personal experience. It doesn’t seem to matter whether you want it or not. It chooses you.”

Sauros gave a brief nod, but there was a gleam in his eye. Something akin to approval . . .

“Then we must be about it,” Sauros said. “Shall we?” He gestured to the entryway of the chamber. “I believe you are the person who needs to navigate the maze. I’ve never seen it before.”

“All I need to do is remember backwards.” Javin clapped Sauros on the shoulder as they moved to the hall. “It’s something I’ve had a great deal of practice at lately. But I’ve got to warn you, I haven’t had a bit of success.”

“Is that supposed to reassure me?”

“Of course.”

They stepped into the dim corridor and the chamber’s glow slowly started to fade behind them. The portal in the middle of the room flashed bright once in the center, sending shadows dancing across the chamber walls, reflecting off the large blocks strewn about the floor, then it too, went dark.

***

Chahzuu opened his mouth in desperation, but he could force nothing out but a rush of air as the thoughts behind the words he wanted to speak formed in his mind. I seek the Power of Creation!

The giant’s fisted hands began their downward fall.

He closed his eyes, not wanting the see the blow that would crush his skull. Regret flashed through his mind. Even now, I have failed.

He waited, but the killing blow from the guardian never came. Chahzuu opened his eyes and found the slab he was kneeling on was glowing! He looked up and the giant slowly lowered his arms from where he’d checked his swing barely above Chahzuu’s skull.

That shouldn’t have been possible. Chahzuu knew enough not to question. Kneeling at the ‘alter’ was the key! It was that which had enabled his last desperate thought to make it through. That must have been it!

The guardian’s eyes flashed and though his stone jaws didn’t move, a sound emitted.

“You are right, Mulda’ fi.”

Why does he call me that? Chahzuu was well aware of the title, but never imagined it would apply to him. The Mulda’ fi were too important, too noble. Besides, he’d never given it any thought.

“You are, indeed, one of those foretold. You already know one of the others, I see.”

How does he know my thoughts? Then Chahzuu glanced down. The stone he was kneeling on still glowed.

“That is how,” the giant confirmed. “You are in the place of honor. Only a Mulda’ fi may kneel and survive.”

The crystal, Chahzuu thought. It must have something to do with the crystal. But he spoke of another. The only others I know of are the Pale Ones. And the only one I’ve met in any connection to the crystal was Nemesis! Chahzuu’s breath caught.

The stone guardian remained silent standing above him. It seemed his head tilted to one side, as if confused by whom he was thinking about.

Could it be the other? I hope it’s the other. It must be!

The giant continued to stand. Then a rumbling started. Chahzuu looked around. It didn’t come from the walls or ceiling of the chamber. It came from the guardian in front of him. The light in its jeweled eyes was slowly starting to fade.

Wait! Chahzuu shrieked in his mind. I’ve come to find the Article of Power. The Power of Creation. Where is it?

“Use it well, Mulda’ fi. There will come a day when you will be called to account for its use. Those who made it see all. They are waiting for the day.”

First I have to have it! Where is it? Wait!

The giant’s formed appeared to be riddled with cracks and the rumbling grew louder. The cracks spread and split. A brilliant light shone through the rents, blinding Chahzuu. He put his hands up to shield his eyes, but daresn’t move from where he was kneeling. It was his only means of communicating with the crumbling giant.

Wait! I have to know!

The giant didn’t answer, just continued to crumble, pieces now falling to the ground allowing the light inside to grow more brilliant, blinding. Chahzuu had to cover his eyes, and could only listen as the rumbling and shaking grew heavier.

Please! Don’t go. I have to have the Article!

No voice came through the rumbling and cracking, which finally shuddered to stillness. The light seemed to be dimming. Chahzuu chanced to open his eyes, and still had to squint for the brightness.

In front of him, sitting in the center of the remains of the giant, right about where his heart would have been, the rest of his body having crumbled away save for legs, and a small mount of its body sat a glaring object. Its glow was diminishing even as he looked at it. Now it was dim enough for Chahzuu to make out its shape. It was strange. He’d never seen anything like it. Sitting there with no visible means of holding it up, were two thin, glowing parallel spiral rods.

Chahzuu got up from kneeling and approached. The dimming continued until the spirals were now only a steady opaque milky-white color. He came to within a pace and just stared. The spirals were no more than the length of his longest finger, about as wide, combined, and seemed to be joined together by tiny little strands spaced evenly apart the complete length of the spirals. They seemed perfectly balanced, not sticking or attached to the remains of the guardian in any way.

Could this have been what provided its life? Chahzuu reached out and with a careful hand picked it up. There was no resistance. The object seemed solid, as if it would take a great force to destroy it, or even separate one spiral from the other.

For some reason this shape looks familiar, though I know I’ve never seen it before.

He held it up to examine more closely, only then noticing that the chamber was slowly growing darker. Chahzuu glanced to the doorway and saw that the barrier was now down, and the light continued to dim.

Guess that means I need to leave. He put the Article in his scrip case and moved to the doorway. Chahzuu took one last look back to the crumpled form of the guardian. Farewell my friend. You must have waited a long time. Then he moved back into the maze, retracing his steps to the outside.

 

Chahzuu stepped out onto the terrace of the tall mound and squinted as the Great Light burned his eyes.

All night! It didn’t seem that long at all. He reached into his scrip and his hand brushed against the first Article of Power. A tingling massed through his body as he let it go and took hold of a root to gnaw on. Small pools of water were gathered in catch basins around the top of the mound. After Chahzuu had slaked his thirst, he looked down at the covered city spread below. What was here? Why did the ancients abandon this place? He wondered whether it had been built solely to hold the Article of Power, or if there was another purpose.

There had to be another purpose to build an entire city here. What was it? Did they use the Article of Power in whatever it was they did? They must have, hadn’t they? What would they have used it for?

All these thoughts spun through his head until he caught himself. This does nothing to help my people. First, I need to rest. But even as he thought this, he breathed in and tilted his head to one side. I feel great already. He held himself stalk still, feeling through his body. Any signs of the fatigue he’d felt earlier were gone. Only a slight presence of the tingling he’d felt was there. And it, too, was fading.

Was it the Article? Could contact with the article do things like that? Or was it the crystal in his breast?

Too many questions and still I’m just standing here.

Chahzuu started down the rough side of the mound, carefully placing his feet. Where should he go from here? He let his thoughts wander back to the other records, trying to piece together where to start looking for either of the other Articles of Power. Were there only three? That’s what the records seemed to indicate, but who knew? They were so cryptic about everything. The first one he’d found from a simple child’s poem – and that as if by mere chance. How would he find the others?

Finally he stepped off the incline of the mound and onto the broad street of the ancient city. Looking up at the sky, then at the distant cliffs surrounding the valley, Chahzuu tried to decide how best to continue. Would it be best to try and cut across the valley and come out and intersect the path he had to follow to get back to his home country? Or would it be better to retrace his path to the original trail, and go from there?

Time is the most precious commodity right now. Chahzuu started to cut across the valley, but something in his breast made him come up short. A burning rose from within so swift it made him catch his breath. It wasn’t the normal, calming burning either, but one that caused him anxiety, a feeling of severe disquiet, like something he was doing, or about to do was terribly wrong.

What can this mean? Is there danger this way? Maybe I should retrace to where I came down, and then go from there. Chahzuu had grown used to following the feelings the crystal had given him through the maze. It only seemed natural to follow it again, though he wondered why. More than that, how? Then a thought occurred to him. He’d been led to the first Article of Power. Maybe this had something to do with it also. Had the crystal in his breast been somehow sensitized to helping him find the Articles? Or maybe tied in with their power now he was sure of their existence?

Or were the Guardians and their influence somehow coming through the crystal? He thought a moment. Were they trying to throw him off track, now that he had one Article? Or were they giving in, and finally seeing that he needed help?

Too many questions! The Guardians had told him that he would be on his own, so unless they were lying, he had to assume it wasn’t coming from them. That left the crystal being tied to the Articles of Power in some way. Or that the influence was coming from a completely different source.

That was frightening. There was so much he had to just take on faith and work out for himself.

But faith can be tested! Chahzuu turned and started off in the direction of his original path into the valley. He paid close attention to his feelings. Is this what I’m supposed to be doing? Is this the direction I should go? He continued that way for a short time, but there was no feeling one way or the other. Now what does this mean?

Chahzuu stopped and considered going back in the direction he’d been going earlier. He was tired of having so many things to try and figure out.

A tiny flash of heat burst through the crystal and smouldered warm in his breast. On an impulse he put his hand into his scrip and took hold of the Article inside. It was smooth and cool, but also seemed warm. How can that be? There was a power flowing through it he could feel, and although it felt cold on the surface, the power flowing through it brought warmth from its contact.

Okay. I can figure this out. Chahzuu thought. Maybe once you have one of the Articles, they attract each other. That didn’t make sense, though, because then just anyone who was lucky enough to stumble onto one of the Articles would be able to find the others.

The crystal! That must be the difference. Chahzuu remembered vividly how he had been able to pass through the maze, but more so, pass into the final chamber without being killed because of the crystal imbedded in his breast.

It’s also tied in with my thoughts! It had been his thoughts that had activated the crystal with revealing the Article of Power before. That’s got to be it!

Chahzuu focused his mind on the records, the oldest of them that mentioned the Articles of Power. He’d found the Power of Creation. Now the trick was deciphering the records enough to know where, or how, to look for the next Article.

Slowly, the smouldering in his breast warmed to fever pitch. He continued pondering over the records, willing to be lead either in his mind, or physically, or both if he was lucky enough.

The crystal continued with its warmth. His thoughts drifted through the ancient records. He started to see a pattern becoming clear. They could loosely be divided into three distinct areas: Those dealing with the power of creation, or mentioning creation; the next two were more terse and short in the records, but they still had two distinct divisions. The first of the remaining seemed to deal with emotional issues, matters of caring, concern, bravery, love, compassion, feeling! The last dealt with matters of intellect; that of learning, study, but it seemed the records spoke more than just of the simple learning, but the power of learning. They even seemed to hint of things deeper than that. Somewhere at a level that made it seem almost miraculous in scope. The power of knowledge, or of knowing! That’s what had seemed so ridiculous about the records and a seeming folly for all the preceding Chahkzaa until he came along. All three of these areas at once seemed to be treated almost lightly, frivolously in their simplicity, but at the same time hinted at tremendous power inherent in the simplest of things.

First I have to find them, Chahzuu reminded himself. Still he hadn’t felt any sense of direction. Perhaps if I just focused on one? Both sets of records dealing with the different Articles were still a bit hazy to him. One, though, dealing with matters of emotion, of feeling, was easier to recall. The records there seemed to focus almost exclusively on a strange being going through a series of heroic adventures.

The records never describe the being and he always just assumed it was one of the Pontu’ Gi, one of his people. He also assumed the story was fantasy, written to amuse the children, Now Chahzuu knew it meant a bit more, though many things in the story were incredible to comprehend. It talked of the hero flying through the air, of leaving their world, traveling to others, and meeting strange beasts and other peoples. It also told of him coming from a strange place, and arriving there just in time to put his people onto the path to their destiny.

That part had always confused Chahzuu. He wondered if it had anything to do with him; with his dreaming, his feelings of being the one that would either save, or destroy his people. But this story was different. Although in some respects it fit him, in most others it didn’t.

Then he remembered his experience with the Pale Ones of his dreams. Could one of them be the being talked about in the records? It seemed that if he put it together that way, maybe it could fit. Chahzuu knew if it was it had to be the good Pale One, not Nemesis. If so, that Pale One must be incredibly well traveled . . . Or was going to be. The stories in the records talked about most of the heroic adventures coming after he’d put the Punta’ Gi on their path of destiny.

So how do I fit in, then? He searched back over the dreams until he caught himself. My people first!

Chahzuu centered his thoughts on finding the next Article, the one dealing with the power of feeling.

The crystal continued to burn. Then he turned from one direction to the next, still concentrating, thinking of finding the Second Article of Power.

There! There was no question. He knew what direction he needed to head. It was past the city, through it actually, to the other side from where he’d come. It lead away from his people. The power of feeling is leading me to it through my feelings! It’s only right.

Chahzuu started off, settling into the long, steady gate that covered ground without affecting his strength. He longed for security of the tall trees. Moving there was so much easier. When I get out of this valley, they’ll be there. The thought of the trees, their beauty, their strength, the refuge they offered, gave him a sense of comfort, stability. Yes, they will always be there.

 

Chapter 15

 

Mouhra’ Lah stood when she heard a sound at the door. She moved back to the far side of the room as it swung open. Saballa swaggered in, saw where she was standing and motioned for the door to be closed.

“Good evening, Princess.”

She didn’t answer. He wasn’t worth answering. None of them were.

“Oh, I see, this is to be one of those types of conversations. I’m quite good at them, though. You see, I’ve had quite a bit of practice helping people learn how to talk, especially when they didn’t want to.

Mouhra’ Lah understood only too well his inference.

“You’ve come to torture me then? It won’t do any good.”

“I’m sorry you think so. I haven’t come for that. I just thought I’d come see if you’d come to your senses yet. You see, it’s only a matter of time until we find your sister. And when I’m sent to take her, I mean ‘invite’ her to come back to her city, I would hate for her to be harmed in any way.”

“The only way you would hate it is if someone wasn’t harmed by something you do.”

“Oh but you misunderstand me horribly.” Saballa put a dramatic hand over his heart. “I have only the best interests of our city in mind. I’m totally devoted to my beloved birthplace.”

Mouhra’ Lah laughed.

“It’s good to see you haven’t lost your sense of humor,” Saballa said. “But I afraid that will pass also. You see, I’ve spoken with several of our city’s leading citizens that we are . . . detaining. They have been most informative in their ideas as to the whereabouts of your sister.

They were only too happy to ‘talk’ after a time. And if you know what’s good for you . . . and her, you’ll talk to me now.”

Mouhra’ Lah stared at him. She made sure her eyes were level, her face bland. Don’t give him the satisfaction of knowing I’m scared to death, she thought. Saballa wouldn’t be here if he’d gotten the answers he needs. Dierni’ Lah is still safe. And maybe I am too. Tranthra’ Joh knows I won’t talk, even with torture, and he’ll keep Saballa reined in for now. I just need to figure something out before then.

“I see you haven’t seen reason yet.” Saballa, if anything looked . . . happy. “I may get to have my little ‘discussion’ with you yet. Rest assured, that when we do it my way, you’ll be begging to tell me anything I want to know.”

“You may go now,” Mouhra’ Lah pitched her voice to sound bored. “You weary me with your pathetic threats. Tranthra’ Joh should have found someone with more intelligence to serve him.” She allowed a wry smile to cross her face. “But then again, he wouldn’t want someone to serve who was smarter than he. That must explain it.”

She felt satisfaction as Saballa’s face colored and his claws splayed from his hands in anger. It was clear he was under orders to restrain himself. Even then he was fighting it.

“Guard! Open the door,” Mourha’ Lah raised her voice in command. “My audience with this pathetic man is finished. He is dismissed.”

Saballa uttered a guttural growl, but turned on his heel and left as the door swung open.

That went well, Mouhra’ Lah thought as she went back to the cushions lying on the floor where she slept. Now I’ve just got to figure out a way to get out of this cell and take back my city. She looked around the room. And when I do that, I’ll be ready to fly down from the tower by flapping my arms.

She sat, though, and focused her mind on the problem, just as she’d been doing ever since she’d been placed here. There has to be a way!

***

Javin stopped to wipe the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. “We’ve been traveling for days now, are you sure you have your bearings?”

“Yes, Javin.” Sauros paused to look back at him. There was no trail or identifying marks that Javin could see, but somehow Sauros continued to pick his way in what he thought was a straight line through the jungle.

“But how? You said yourself you’ve never been in this part of the world.”

“It is something I can’t explain.” Sauros furrowed his brow, as if concentrating, trying to find the right words, though he’d tried several times as they’d been traveling. Javin knew he still hadn’t been able to describe how, or what he was following.

“Trust me, my friend. I know we are headed in the right direction. It’s just something I feel.

“The crystal?” Javin finally asked. He’d had a suspicion almost from the beginning, but hadn’t wanted to bring it up. It was a bit of a sore spot for him in that he’d not been able to make it do anything for him, really. If Sauros was being guided by it, then he was a little . . . miffed?

“I think so. Like I said, I’m not able to explain other than I just know what direction we should travel. It’s like I can feel where my city is if I concentrate on it enough, and then I get this warm feeling, here.” Sauros rested a hand over his breast.

“Figures.” Javin said. “I guess I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

“A what?” Sauros stared at Javin. “And why should we look into its mouth. That strikes me as odd.”

“Trust me it’s no more odd than traipsing through the jungle following a nice, warm feeling.”

Javin could tell that Sauros was starting to bristle. “Look, I’m sorry. I trust you. I’m following aren’t I? I just wish I could figure out how to make my crystal give me some guidance -- any guidance, other than these stupid sayings and fluffy memories that keep poking up!”

Sauros nodded but stayed quiet. Javin was glad he understood. Or at least acted like it. Sauros always seemed to look at him funny when he thought Javin wasn’t looking. It was starting to get to him. What, really, was the crystal for, and why was he here? He wanted answers! He was sure he’d been dropped here from somewhere else, and thrown right into the thick of one of this planet’s hot spots. Was he supposed to save the day or something? If so, he hadn’t a clue how, or why he should bother.

The only way he’d ever find anything out was to stick with it. Besides, he really had thought about it since Sauros had asked him. He didn’t want to leave. He felt he could help. That he must help.

And that feeling made him wonder if it was really he, or the crystal. I’ll never win if I keep going through this double think all the time.

“Sorry Sauros. I know you don’t need my belly-aching. You’ve got enough problems.”

“Is your stomach sore? Do you need to rest?” A look of concern came over Sauros’ face.

“Ahhr! No, sorry. Just another one of those stupid frippery figures of speech that seem to pop into my mind. I must have had a real gift for stupid speech . . . wherever I came from. I wish I knew more of what I was like, but then when I think about it too much, I start to wonder whether I’d really like myself or not.”

“You can’t hide your character, no matter your words,” Sauros said. He came to stand beside Javin and rested a hand on his shoulder. “You are a noble man. You always have been. Simply being in another place, and even though you don’t have your memories, it still hasn’t changed who you are, here.” Sauros placed a gentle palm over Javin’s heart.

That’s ironic, Javin thought. Right over the crystal. Nonetheless, he knew what Sauros meant and it gave him a measure of comfort.

“It must be trying,” Sauros dropped his hand and moved over to sit on a large rock pushing up through the jungle cover. “To think that you’ve been placed here for some reason you don’t know, and wonder what you’ve been forced to leave behind.”

“Funny that,” Javin said. “I get the impression, sometimes, just before I drift off to sleep that I was saved. Like I was going to die and these . . . somethings pulled me out right before I was killed. So I guess I don’t have a right to complain. If I had a choice of being here or nowhere, I’d choose here. What I chafe at is not having a choice in any of this.”

“But you do have a choice.” Sauros said. “You’ve had a choice from the moment you first set foot on our world. You don’t even have to be here now, remember? You decided on your own.” Sauros stopped for a moment. “Are you wanting to go our separate ways?”

“No! Definitely not!” Javin snapped back before he even had to think. It was the right answer. And for once he knew it was him speaking and not the influence of any crystal.

“Sorry to complain. I just worry about the affect this crystal has on me. The point is, I don’t know whether the crystal is making me do things, or if I’m doing them because I really am a good guy. I just don’t know. It’s kind of . . . scary. I don’t want to get in a life or death situation – and I have a feeling we’re in for some of those – and freeze because I find out I’m really a coward.”

Sauros laughed. “That’s good!” He stood up and looked in the direction they needed to head. “I can tell you from my limited experience, the crystal has not made me braver than I have ever been. It too, concerns me. I worry it will affect me from what I need to be, but for now, I haven’t noticed that it has made me any worse . . . or better. For me, I’m hoping the crystal is more of a . . . I guess guide is the best word I can think of. Not in the fact that it tells me anything, or forces me in anything. Like right now, I could turn and walk in the opposite direction and it wouldn’t do anything to stop me or make me turn around. I feel I could abandon this whole thing and it wouldn’t do anything to make me turn back. Instead it seems more of a reference or a source. Nothing outside of myself or beyond what I already am has come through the crystal. And I already have a frame of reference. You don’t”

“You’ve got a point,” Javin said. Then he thought of something. “Tell me what you know about these legends of the Mulda’ fi?

“I only briefly saw the picture you referred too during my studies. After that, there’s not much I remember. I remember the glowing about their breasts – which I’m now assuming has something to do with the crystals.” Javin nodded. “But I also recall some stories I was told when I was but a cub.” Javin smiled at the reference, but didn’t say anything. “The stories always tell that the Mulda’ fi would be beings of great wisdom and power. I don’t know. Maybe the crystals do have something about them that help us with the ‘wisdom’ and ‘power’ part.

“I think of how I’m sure we’re heading in the right direction. I don’t know this part of the jungle, yes, but I do know the layout of much of the land we know of. I also know how the Great Light travels in the sky above us. There is also the bond I’ve always had for my home city. All these things seemed to have combined to help me know the path we have to travel. The closer we get, the stronger I feel the bond, and it is confirmed by my observations of the Great Light.”

“I see you’ve been thinking about this quite bit,” Javin said.

Sauros smiled. “I’ve been thinking about nothing else . . . except maybe Mouhra’ Lah. But even in thinking of her, I can feel her. In fact, that’s the part that makes me think the most about the crystal, and know it must not be intended for evil. Aside from the fact that the Mulda’ fi have always been told of as heros and adventurers, the bond I have with the Princess could never be a bad thing. The crystal helped me feel her. I know I must trust it. And so should you, my friend.”

Javin looked into his eyes. “You make a strong case. I believe you, really. I can sense truth in what you say, even from my own experiences with the crystal. It never has brought me harm, and has seemed to confirm what I want to do that seems to me to be the right thing.” Then Javin smiled. He knew his grin had a touch of mischief in it. “I guess you could say it’s not in my nature to think I might be unduly influenced by something, or more importantly someone who can pull the strings in a way I don’t have control of.”

“I think I know what you mean.” Sauros nodded his head. “You must work that out for yourself.” There was something in his tone of voice that told Javin he really did understand. That there was something that happened when he merged with the crystal that was similar to what Javin had only fleeting remembrances of.

A place of no contrast, nothing but white all around him, then strange voices. Were they in his head, or did they speak aloud? A test? That was the core of it! He hated to feel like he could be under someone else’s control without his say so. It would be enough to know that he was free to make his own decisions, regardless of the crystal. There wasn’t a decision he’d made to this point he would change, but the fact that there might be someone, someplace, manipulating him for their own ends -- that’s what he didn’t like.

“There was something when you merged. Something that happened to you. What was it like? I just have glimpses of a place all whited out, and then someone spoke to me, but I don’t remember anything they said. Did that happen to you?”

Sauros was silent for a time. Then he looked out into the jungle. “I think we better continue to move. It’ll be dark soon, and we need to find a tree large enough to keep us safe.”

Javin looked at him. He was a little irritated at his evasiveness. There was something he’d seen. And it had to do with him! Just a gut feel, but he knew it all the same.

“My friend. We will talk of it sometime. But now is not the time.” Sauros took a heavy breath. “You must trust me for now. I cannot tell you, but there will be a time. For now, I must understand it myself before I can explain.”

His voice was soft, almost pleading, or as much pleading as the powerful man was ever likely to do.

“Just know,” Sauros continued. “I value your friendship. And there is nothing there that changed my friendship from the day we first met. And I felt you were a good man then.” Sauros smiled. “Though describing you as a man is hard at times, since I continually look at you and wonder what the creator was thinking when he made you. He left you naked! Hardly a dignified bearing for a man.”

“Thank you so much,” Javin said. His mood lightened. “I’ll remember to ask him about it next time I speak with him.”

He stretched his arms high in the air. “All this deep thinking makes me stiff. Maybe we better shake it out, like you said.” Javin gestured for Sauros to preceed him.

“Shake it out?”

“Sorry, just another one of those human-type terms that keeps bubbling out.” They started to move through the thick cover.

“By the way, you mentioned you remember the tracking of the Great Light. Have you ever seen it without the mist covering it?”

“Never,” Sauros answered back over his shoulder.

“You mean you’ve never seen the sun for your world?”

“What is this ‘sun’ you are talking about?”

His answer confirmed something Javin had suspected. “I guess the ‘sun’ is the Great Light you refer to.”

“Oh,” Sauros grunted. “You have strange names for things. Why do you ask? Is there something I should know about it?”

“Not particularly, other than do you think anyone else has seen the Great Light without the mists covering it? Do they know what it really is?”

“I have never heard of such a thing. Is it important?”

“Only as a clue to what I think is going on with your world.” Javin’s mind was now tracking on another line of thought. “Remember the emblem on Tranthra’ Joh’s uniforms? The one on the breast? Have you ever seen it before?”

“No,” Sauros said. “Does it mean something?”

“It does. It means that someone like me is also on your world. It’s one of those things I know that I can’t explain. The crystal again.”

“Someone like you? You mean another hhyumahn?

“I think so, but I’m not sure human is completely the right term. I don’t know anything about him, but I have this sense that I know him. Like we’ve met before, or that we’re going to meet. And we’re going to be important to each other. I think his being here might be why I’ve been brought here too.”

Sauros stopped and turned back to Javin but didn’t say anything.

“That’s all I can tell you for now,” Javin said, shrugging.

Sauros nodded, accepting.

“You’re much more patient than I am, friend,” Javin smiled. “It’s coming from inside me, and I’m straining for every bit I can piece together.”

“It will come with time, Javin.” Again Javin could see something in Sauros’s eyes that told him he knew more about this than he was saying.

Javin took a deep, calming breath. “Okay. I guess the best thing is to continue to press on. Whether I finally learn anything or not doesn’t seem to change our strategy any.”

Sauros gave a quirky smile. “Shall we continue, then?”

Javin returned the smile. “By all means. After you.”

They continued through the dank foliage.

***

Mahntra’ Bhu had wandered around again, trying to talk with the families of those nobles who’d disappeared. Some seemed more willing to talk now that more time had passed, but most were still pretty close-mouthed. He didn’t learn anything new, and suspected he’d learned all he was going to. The only thing to do now, he’d decided a couple of days ago, was to try and stir things up a bit and see what rose to the top of the pot.

“Here we are,” he mumbled to himself. “It looks as if a few people are already here waiting. That’s good. I think I’m getting their attention.”

Mahntra took his position at the corner of the city’s most busy intersection. People stopped to listen. This was the third time in two days he’d stood here. The first time people were shocked when he started shouting out his message, but it’d had the desired affect.

“You all know me,” he began, raising his voice to be heard. “You all know of my service to this city.” He looked around and found, to his satisfaction that there were more people gathered here than on the previous two times. Apparently word had spread of his street corner meetings and people were waiting to hear. That also meant that his message was being carried to those he most wanted to hear.

“I ask you all a question. Has anyone seen the Princess lately? Has anyone seen many of her noble advisors? Where are they? Our city is in the throes of a succession crisis, and the princess now, of all times, should be visible, comforting her people.”

There were murmurs of agreement running through the crowd. This is working well, Mahntra thought.

“Instead, what have we seen? We’ve seen nothing but the Conservator, Tranthra’ Joh seeming to take the reins of power and issuing his own edicts and proclamations as if he were ruling! Why is that? Why has he not spoken out about where the princess is? I was denied an attempt to meet with him as is my right! All I am left to conclude is that all is not well with the voice of our city, and Tranthra’ Joh is concealing it!”

Out of the corner of his eye, Mahntra noticed guards moving forward through the crowd. Good. It seems my message has been heard. Now let’s see what happens if I turn it up a bit.

“Citizens, I hate to cry out to you like this, but someone must hear. Someone must cry out and try to break through the seemingly deaf ears of our Conservator. Where is the princess? Why won’t you tell us? Are you trying to seize the reins of power for yourself?

“You must answer us! You must let us see the princess! She will be our Queen, and will be our ruler! Not the likes of you, Tranthra’ Joh. Never!”

There were shouts of agreement from the crowd. “No! We want an answer! Where’s the princess?”

“Ho there, you rabble! Break this up!” Several guards moved up beside Mahntra’ Bhu, taking him by the arm on either side.

“You’ll have your answers soon enough. Don’t listen to this old man. He’s just mad because he’s no longer Chief Keeper. Go on about your business now. It’s over. Go on!”

The people started to mill around, but they weren’t leaving. The other guards started to move forward, their hands on their weapons.

“Go on, my friends!” Mahntra’ Bhu jerked his hands away from the guards’ grip. “We will give time for Tranthra’ Joh to answer. Let us wait to hear. Go on now. Continue what you were doing, but wait for now. Wait and watch!”

The murmurs continued, but the crowd slowly started to disperse. Mahntra turned to the leader of the guard who was moving back to face him.

“Go home old man, and don’t do this again. We’ve orders to warn you this time, because of your long and loyal service to our city, but be warned, the princess is on an important errand for our city. She took her most trusted advisors with her. If you continue to stir things up, you’ll only endanger her and her escort, understand?”

“Oh, I understand,” Mahntra said. “Only too well.”

The guard looked at him, his eyes narrowing, but then decided to follow orders. “Go home.”

Mahntra inclined his head. “As you wish.”

Satisfied, the leader called his guard to order and marched them off. Mahntra watched them go then turned to leave himself. Now to wait for a while and see what rises.

“Wait, Keeper.”

Mahntra turned to see a small group of people moving toward him.

“Please. What do you think is happening?” There was a look of worry on the speaker’s face. It was reflected on the people following behind.

“I wish I knew,” Mahntra answered. “I really wish I knew.”

***

“Conservator, a word with you in private?”

“Yes, Chamberlain?” Tranthra’ Joh nodded to Saballa, waiving him away. Saballa snapped to attention, brought a fist to his breast in salute then stalked out.

“What is it?”

The chamberlain watched as Saballa left the room, then grasped his staff of office and moved closer to Tranthra’ Joh.

“It’s about the old Keeper.”

“Yes. What about him?”

“Are you aware of what he’s been doing?”

“You mean am I aware he’s been standing out on the street corner trying to incite the people because he hasn’t seen the princess in a while?”

“Oh. So you do know.”

“I make it my point to know those types of things. It’s what I’m supposed to do, is it not?”

“Quite,” the chamberlain was flustered. If Tranthra’ Joh knew these things, then why is he not doing something about it? Why wasn’t he trying to reassure the people?

“Is that all?”

“I’m afraid there’s more to it. I’ve been receiving ‘requests’ to meet with you. They are coming from some of the lessor nobles. They insist. Some have become quite belligerent. I’ve told them you are too busy to see them, but they persist. They are demanding to see the princess as well.”

“And what have you told them?”

“I have followed your instructions. I told them you are tied up with important matters of state, but would convey their request and inform them when they can be presented.”

“And they don’t like that?”

“Oh no, Conservator. They feel there is something going on that they should be informed of.” The chamberlain held his breath for a moment then spoke again. “I believe, sir that you need to meet with them and take them into your confidence. They will understand, as do I, when they learn that the princess is away on sensitive negotiations with neighboring cities.”

The chamberlain stiffened as Tranthra’ Joh stared at him like he was some insect. He’d never been this nervous around the queen, nor the princess. Even the old Keeper had respected him and his position, but this, Conservator scared him. He wasn’t sure he believed him any more. But what could he do about it?

The silence continued for quite some time before Tranthra’ Joh spoke again.

“You think I should do something about this?”

The chamberlain nodded. “Yes.”

“Rest assured, chamberlain. I will do something about this.”

The tone of his voice didn’t bode well for what his solution might be.

The chamberlain waited for Tranthra’ Joh to speak again.

“How are the people of the city reacting?” he asked.

Here it comes the chamberlain thought. I was hoping I wasn’t going to have to do this, but duty is duty.

“From my sources,” the chamberlain said, “the people’s attitude is one of concern. They don’t speak openly, but amongst themselves they wonder at what the old Keeper has been saying. They wonder where the Princess is, and why the Conservator hasn’t said anything to reassure them.

“I fear, sir, that if you don’t address it soon, there may be more than just talk happening. Some may start to resist your Conservatorship, asking for another to be appointed.”

“And how will they do that?” Tranthra’ Joh smiled at him but there was no humor in his eyes.

"They might ask to convene a group of nobles -- at least those minor nobles still here -- and have them act.”

“I see.” Tranthra’ Joh said. “Well, it won’t get that far, I assure you.” Again there was that look in his eye. Tranthra’ Joh then looked out into the chamber, apparently thinking. “You may go.”

The chamberlain bowed and left.

There is something wrong with the man, the chamberlain thought as he walked through the palace hall. He’s carrying on his duties, but there are some places where he’s definitely overstepped. It’s not right. And why has he not confided in me about the Princess and her progress? I should be kept informed.

 

Chapter 16

 

“Come in, honored Keeper.”

Mahntra’ Bhu bowed his head in courtesy and stepped into the noble’s home.

“This way please.”

Mahntra was lead through the finely appointed home filled with hangings, rich tapestries, and gilded vases filled with fresh florals towards the back, the private areas of the house. He watched his host as they walked. He was stiff, nervous. Why?

His question was answered when he was shown into the family’s gathering area. Instead of family, however, was grouped many other familiar faces. Faces of the noble’s families who’d turned up missing. Like the noble in front of him, they all appeared pensive.

“Please be seated. I see from the look in your eye, you’ve surmised why I asked you here.”

Mahntra took the offered seat and stared around the group. He remained silent, not sure what to say. But the need to speak was soon eliminated by his host, who, still standing, addressed the assemblage.

“Now that the Keeper is here, I think we may begin. I don’t think I need to mention to anyone here it would be best for all concerned we keep this little gathering to ourselves. While it is not against our law to meet together in whatever fashion we desire, I think you all understand the need to keep this private.

“Like many of you here, when I pushed to find out the whereabouts and well being of my father I was told by Tranthra’ Joh’s representative that I should keep my nose out of it. It was further inferred that if I continued to push, it wouldn’t be ‘healthy’ for me, or my family.”

Mahntra noted that several others in the group nodded as the young noble continued to speak.

"I wouldn't put it past Tranthra' Joh to do something foolish. Indeed, the way he has overstepped his authority already is quite audacious. It wouldn't take much to push him over the edge completely -- if he hasn't already passed it long ago."

There was a slight commotion as someone stepped in from the other side of the room. Mahntra gasped in surprise.

“The chamberlain!’ The words were out of his mouth before he realized it.

Others turned and murmurs of worry started to fill the room.

“Don’t worry my friends,” the young noble lifted his hands. “The chamberlain came to me! He has the same concerns we all do.”

"Whatever you may think of me," the chamberlain spoke loudly, his voice officious as it had always been, but out of place without his robes and staff. "None of you have ever known me to be disloyal to the Queen -- or the Princess. And certainly none of you doubt my love for our city!"

“No,” Mahntra’ Bhu rose and crossed the room, taking the chamberlain’s hand in a warm clasp. “My friend, though we’ve had our differences, you have never had a disloyal thought in your life. I know it.”

Visible relief filled the chamberlain’s eyes. “Thank you. I thought that if it got any worse, people would start to think I was working for Tranthra’ Joh rather than for our city!”

“Please, let us all sit and discuss this further,” the young noble gestured for Mahntra and the chamberlain to be seated.

“I think all of us, to one extent or another, have been pressing a bit to see what has happened. For myself, I was spurred on by the courageous words of the Keeper. It got me thinking. And then when the chamberlain approached me with his own concerns, his suggestions made sense.

“I think the time has come for the nobles to band together to call an accounting of the Conservator. It is within our right. After all, he is to have no real authority, only hold the city at the point of the Queen’s death until the Princess can marry and assume the throne. I have seen edicts and orders which clearly supersedes this authority, as well as the other things the chamberlain has reported to me which aren’t visible to the population at large.

“Did you know, for instance, that Tranthra’ Joh has subtly started increasing the size of the palace guard from his own retainers?”

“What!” “How can he?” “Does he think to get away with this?” The voices of the group rose.

“Is it true?” Mahntra turned to the chamberlain. Everyone became silent to hear.

“Yes. I’ve pulled the pay records and noticed the change in assignments. Also those who’ve been moved into the palace have started to receive an inordinate amount of pay for their duties.”

“Does that mean what I think it means?” one of the nobles asked.

The room fell silent. All eyes were on the chamberlain. Finally Mahntra broke the silence.

“I’m afraid it might.” He looked at all the faces in the room. “Let me tell you what I know to this point.”

Mahntra then related his foray into the dungeon below the palace. He also related his suspicion that if he was right, and he hoped he wasn’t, that they will find all the missing members of their families there.

“That’s not all of it, then,” the chamberlain interrupted. “I didn’t think to look in the dungeon, but I do know that there is someone being held in the tower. I’ve asked Tranthra’ Joh about it, but he’s told me it is an important emissary from another city. I was not to even think of going near it, or trying to learn who it was. He intimated that important negotiations were going on, and that the Princess would be most displeased if I interrupted them by poking into things that were none of my concern.”

“Could all of this be true?” another noble spoke up. “Could Tranthra’ Joh be telling the truth?”

“If that’s the case, then we very well might be jeopardizing our families,” still another said.

"True," Mahntra agreed. "I think it might be too early to move against Tranthra' Joh at this point. Even if the worst were true, acting now might still jeopardize the life of the Princess and your families. It's clear that Tranthra' Joh knows where they are -- and probably has control of them." He didn't finish the thought. It was clear from the faces in the group that everyone understood what he meant.

“What do we do then?” the host turned to Mahtra. “It seems we’re at an impasse.”

"It only seems that way," Mahntra said, rising to his feet. "We must plan first then act according to the plan. The first step is to see if we can learn who is in the tower and confirm the numbers in the dungeon are all your missing family members. Everyone here can be trusted to know what is going on, if Tranthra' Joh really is telling the truth -- which I personally doubt. But if we can find our people and set them free, then Tranthra's Joh's hold would be gone, and we can act without fear."

“How can we find out if the guard is so tight?” the chamberlain asked.

“That is the first problem we must solve. And we’ll certainly need your help,” Mahntra said.

The chamberlain looked nervous, but nodded. “I’ll do whatever I can.”

“It will be dangerous.”

The chamberlain swallowed. “I know. But it must be done.”

“It will be dangerous for all of us. We definitely must keep this to ourselves if we are to succeed.” Mahtra looked at all the nobles in the room. They nodded as he looked at each face, gauging their commitment.

Now we begin. Mahtra thought as he saw the resolve on all the faces.

***

Tranthra’ Joh uncovered a glow as he came into his chambers. It’d been a long day and he wasn’t thrilled with the progress -- or lack of progress, more like. He kicked off his boots and moved over to pour himself a drink. Suddenly the room seemed to dim. Tranthra turned. It was if the light were being sucked from the room. Then he noticed. A dark spot was gathering in the center of the room. Instantly he was on his knees, head bowed to the floor.

“You may rise.”

“Master.” Tranthra raised his head slowly, but didn’t get off his knees. “You have been gone such a long time.”

“Stand. Move closer,” Nemesis said.

Tranthra’ Joh complied, moving nearer to where Nemesis stood. He was dressed, as always in his dark uniform, the gem on his right breast seemed to blaze in counterpoint to the dark swirling focused around the center of his breast.

“I’ve been out finding good men to work with in gathering other cities. The time is very near. You’ll be happy to note everything has gone well with your sister city, “Sunzah’ Nu Geeza. All is in readiness.”

Tranthra’ Joh bowed his head, “That is good Master. I trust my man has performed well?” What Tranthra meant, but couldn’t say outright, I hope you remember your promises to me. I’m serving well too.

“Report.” Nemesis said.

Tranthra’ Joh hesitated for the briefest of instances, gathering his thoughts. How much should he tell him? He knows so much on his own. If he left anything out, would he know?

“Everything progresses well here . . . We disposed of Javin, as you commanded, and the Prince, but unfortunately we gained nothing from the Princess. She is proving most stubborn. But we expect success very soon.”

The look on Nemesis’s face made Tranthra’ Joh stop.

“You gained nothing? So you wasted an opportunity.”

“It couldn’t be avoided Master.”

“What else has gone wrong?”

Did he know?

“Master, the city seems unsettled. The people are demanding to see the Princess. It is taking just a bit longer than we’d planned. There is the old Keeper, one who has influence who’s been fomenting agitation –“

”You are letting an old man get to you? Perhaps I have chosen wrong and need to find another who can rule.”

“No Master. Everything is in hand. I bring it up merely to inform you.” Tranthra’s throat was starting to constrict. “I know exactly how to handle the city. We are very close to getting what we need from the Princess then we will be ready.”

“Don’t trifle with me! I know exactly what you need already. But first, you need a little more training, I think.”

Nemesis narrowed his eyes and Tranthra’s back stiffened as he saw the dark swirling centered on Nemesis’s chest began to increase.

Pain flashed through Tranthra’s body and darkness covered his mind. He couldn’t see, his mind blackened. Tremendous pressure seemed to turn him inside out, stripping his body and sinew. He opened his mouth to scream, but no sound would come. There was no air to gather in, there was nothing but the pain, the stripping, and the darkness so intense he thought he’d ceased to be.

Then air swirled into his lungs and he felt his mind open again as he collapsed to the floor, thankful to feel something tangible again. The pain echoed through his frame. He looked up. Nemesis was still seated on the chair with his eyes closed. He opened them slowly, and the swirling at his breast slowed.

“Now listen close. I’ll tell you where the Princess’ sister is. You will not fail me again.” His tone spoke of the certainty of his punishment, not the certainty of his success.”

“I’ll not fail Master.” Tranthra’ Joh gasped as he struggled to his feet.

“I know.” Nemesis said.

 

Chapter 17

 

“Keeper, you’ve finally arrived.”

Mahntra’ Bhu nodded as he was beckoned inside. “The rest are already here.”

Mahntra followed the noble to the room of their first meeting. All were there, waiting. Even the chamberlain had been able to slip out of the palace. Well, that was good, this meeting would be important.

“I’m sorry to be late, my friends. I wanted to make sure I was not followed. I find I continue to have shadows with me wherever I go.”

Looks of concern spread over several of the gathered nobles.

“Rest easy. I wasn’t followed here.” Mahntra seated himself and looked around the room. One or two were missing. He hoped it didn’t mean they’d lost heart.

“Let us begin, then,” Mahntra said. “What have we learned?”

He turned to the chamberlain first.

“I’ve not been able to get into the dungeon, nor have I been able to learn who is in the tower. It’s guarded too closely, and I fear I am beginning to be suspected . . . I’m sorry.”

“No. Don’t be sorry. We all realize you have the greatest risk.” Mahntra noted the chamberlain’s face colored. He really was sorry. Maybe he’d been wrong about the man all these years.

“I have learned something, however,” the chamberlain continued. “I don’t know how important it is, but I overheard Tranthra’ Joh giving instructions to Saballa to go and retrieve the Princess’ younger sister.”

“Dierni’ Lah!” Mahntra said. “I’d not even thought of her. Where is she? We must get to her before Tranthra’ Joh can, if only for her protection.”

“I’m sorry.” The chamberlain shook his head. “I definitely wasn’t supposed to hear, and I was almost caught. But I couldn’t hear where she was. Saballa left the palace immediately taking only a small group of men. I would think he’d want to take a larger force if he’s traveling outside the city.”

Mahntra wondered at that, too.

“Are there some guards we can trust to place outside the city, for when Saballa returns. Maybe we can take her then?” one of the noble’s ventured.

“It would be dangerous to the Princess. She might be harmed,” said another.

“But worth a try,” Mahntra said. “Sohlza’ Leh, you served in the forces for many years. You know of some who can be trusted?”

“I’ll lead them myself, Keeper,” the older noble answered.

“But be careful,” another noble admonished.

“You needn’t worry,” the older noble countered.

“It seems Tranthra’ Joh is moving things up,” Manhtra said to himself as much as anyone in the room.

“There are other things he’s doing as well,” the host noble said. “Several here have reported to me that questions they’ve been asking, have met with some questions of their own.”

Mahntra looked at the group. Two stood. One spoke. “While I was making yet another request to meet with Tranthra’ Joh, I perhaps made it too plain that I would take some action if my meeting were not granted. The only thing that did was give me an audience with Saballa, the head of the guard. He ‘questioned’ me quite closely.”

“He all but threatened me,” the other noble broke in. “It seems they are very serious about keeping us out. I was told that if I didn’t desist, I’d find I would have to be confined for my own safety, and the safety of those I was seeking.”

“That does it for me!” another noble in the group said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that Tranthra’ Joh is making his own grab for power. And he’s willing to go quite far to do it.”

“But what do we do?” said another. “Do we stir up the people to fight him, to have the blood of our own people spilled? We still don’t have conclusive evidence.”

“But we do have the law on our side,” Mahntra’ Bhu spoke out to calm them. “I agree that Tranthra’ Joh is doing something he doesn’t want anyone to know about. My personal feeling is that he’s trying to seize the throne, but as you said,” he nodded to the noble that’d spoken, “we don’t have conclusive proof in order to lead a revolt. And besides, I’m in no hurry to pit our countrymen against the armed guards Tranthra’ Joh has been able to amass. But what I do think we can do, which is perfectly legal, is resist any orders he gives. He is, after all, only the Conservator, and by law, as well as custom, he is supposed to only maintain the established order. Not change them in any way. That right belongs to the Queen, and her council of advisers, with the consent of the nobles.” Mahntra inclined his head to the group.

“So what do we do?” asked the noble who’d burst out with anger earlier.

“I think I see what you mean,” the chamberlain broke in. “And I support it whole heartedly. Tranthra’ Joh’s edicts can only work if the people follow. If he tries to use the force of the guard to enforce anything, then we can legally claim he is usurping his authority and push for him to be removed. There is legal weight behind our actions, and we don’t have to prove anything about Tranthra’ Joh’s motives. He becomes the one who has the burden of proof, which would be pretty hard for him to make any case that he isn’t changing anything, because it’s plain to all that he already has.”

“So what do we do?” the noble asked again. “How do we get the word out? Make the people see what they need to do.”

“That’s where all of you come in,” Mahntra said. “It’s a simple matter for each of you to discuss the matter with your households then talk discreetly with your neighbors. After that, ask them to do the same, spreading it on to their neighbors, and so on. Also ask them to report to you of any abuse of power, whether it comes from the guard, or other governmental bodies so we’ll be able to maintain records.”

“This is all perfectly legal, mind you,” the chamberlain spoke again. “There is no law to prevent you from speaking about your feelings of the government with your neighbors. You are not asking them to break the law in any way, and they will not have to break the law. In fact, by resisting any edicts issued by Tranthra’ Joh, they will be obeying our city’s law.”

“But you must be careful in how you say it,” Mahntra’ Bhu said. “Don’t tell them that a group of the nobles are getting together to plan how to oust Tranthra’ Joh. He could construe that to be treason.”

A gasp erupted from the nobles. “No! We’re not traitors!”

“That’s not what I said,” Mahntra’ Bhu calmed them. “But you don’t want to give fuel to any fire Tranthra’ Joh may instigate. After all, us meeting, talking about how to remove the Conservator, though it’s legal, could appear treasonous to some depending on how it’s told. Just tell your household and neighbors that a counsel of nobles has convened, since the Princess has not been around to consult in the matter.

“Tell them that the counsel determined that Tranthra’ Joh’s edicts are not legal, and that they are not bound to honor them, nor does the counsel encourage their obedience. Tell them further that you are anxious to hear from the Princess, and you encourage them to continue to obey the laws that were enacted prior to the Queen’s death. That’s all. No! There’s one more thing.” Mahntra held up one finger. “Tell them that since the counsel has tried to meet and consult with the Conservator, in the absence of the Princess, and since the Conservator has continued to refuse, that he is outstripping his authority in giving any edicts without the consultation and consent of the counsel.”

Many of the nobles nodded. That was concrete action they could take, and in an official capacity no less. Even though the counsel of nobles was ordinarily occupied, and run, by those nobles who’d disappeared, that same authority delved back upon the minor nobles in attendance, and hence, they were, in effect, the counsel of nobles for the city. They had official standing. And therefore could issue statements and render decisions of their own.

“Your declarations, as a council, actually will have more force of law behind it than anything Tranthra’ Joh can do. If he tries to do anything against you,” Mahntra said, warming to the idea that had just occurred to him. “Then the case could be made that he is the one committing treason.”

“Maybe we should make these statements as an official council proclamation, rather than just spread it from house to house,” the host noble said. Many others nodded their heads.

“That’s one thing you could do,” Mahntra agreed. “But let’s keep some perspective. If Tranthra’ Joh has the Princess and the others of your families under his control, he could get desperate enough to use them as leverage against you. I have no doubt that if he really is making a grab for power, he won’t hesitate. There must be a delicate balance in our strategy until we can insure the safety of your family leaders before we push too hard.”

There was silence as this sank in.

“I would counsel that we do the house to house method, and not appear to be outwardly threatening Tranthra’ Joh at this point. Still, we must try to get some of the answers we need. Like where the Princess is.

“There are some things I will try to do, and I know the chamberlain will continue his discreet efforts.”

The chamberlain nodded.

“We don’t want to lose your inside knowledge, my friend.” Mahntra went over to clasp the chamberlain’s hand. “And most of all, we don’t want to lose you.”

 

Chapter 18

 

Mouhra’ Lah stood as the latch of the door to her tower prison rattled with someone trying to get in. She’d been sitting idle for days now. She was going mad with tedium, but more with worry. There was nothing she could do. Before she had always been able, been free to act. Now, being shut up in the tower had taken her power. All she could do was wait and worry.

She stood as the guard entered, wary. He was new, one she’d never seen before. Tranthra’ Joh must be pulling these men from the outer areas, buying their loyalty. Surely none of the palace guard would have accepted him over me!

“Tranthra’ Joh has requested to see you.”

Mouhra’ Lah nodded then followed as the guard turned and gestured for her to proceed him through the door.

On their way down through the palace, Mouhra saw that the corridors were again abandoned, and she’d picked up two more guards that kept pace. She wouldn’t be able to break away, nor did she figure that calling out would do her any good. Tranthra’ Joh must have had all people move out of this part of the palace, at least during the time of her audience.

I can’t believe how fully he’s been able to take over. Isn’t there anyone who’s resisting this? Surely some of the people must have noticed that something is wrong, especially with all the nobles in the dungeon. Their families should be asking about them.

Mouhra and her escort arrived at the audience chamber. She didn’t recognize the two guards stationed there either. They swung the heavy doors aside and beckoned her to enter. Her escort stayed outside as she entered.

Tranthra’ Joh was again seated on the throne.

“Ah. I see you have kept yourself well,” he said. He looked her up and down in a possessive way that infuriated Mouhra’ Lah, but she held herself without expression. I’ll not give him the satisfaction!

“Oh, I see you’re still not speaking to me. Well, that’ll change when you hear my news.”

He looked at her again. Mouhra’ Lah continued to school her expression. This time she glanced around the room, noticing the changes he’d made, removing some art, replacing it with more martial pieces. Guards still surrounded the upper deck, constantly at attention, but she was sure that one false move and she’d have the bows drawn on her like earlier when Sauros and Javin was here.

That thought made her again relive the last scene in this room, where Javin and Sauros, her beloved, had gone through that horrible machine. Tranthra’ Joh believed them dead, but something in Mouhra’ Lah’s heart told them it wasn’t so. Javin was Mulda’ fi. Certainly if anyone knew of the operations of the ancient artifacts, Javin did. After all, he’d told her, in that strange way of his language, to wait. That wasn’t exactly what he’d said, but she was sure that was his meaning.

“Princess?” Tranthra’ Joh interrupted her thoughts. “I was saying that you might want to know that we’ve found your sister.”

Mouhra snapped her eyes back to Tranthra’ Joh. He couldn’t! They can’t have found her. Not this soon, at least.

“I see you’ve finally decided to pay me some attention.” Tranthra’ Joh smiled. “And if you don’t believe me, let me just say that we found Dierni’ Lah in a most unusual place. We never would have thought to look there . . . without help.”

Who would help him? Who could have helped him? I told no one but Siri’ Bhu.

“A most unlikely place indeed,” Tranthra continued. “Rest assured. She’ll not be harmed. I’ve just received word that she is now in custody and should be arriving shortly. Not too many days away, but just far enough. I commend you on your ingenuity.”

Maybe he’s still bluffing, hoping I’ll give him some clue. Something that will help him find out. Mouhra continued to carefully hold her features bland, expressionless.

“It’s no use, you know,” Tranthra said. “I don’t need to question you. I’m telling the truth. I just wanted you to know so you can be thinking about your options.

“They are exactly these: You may accept me as your husband then at the right time, proclaim me king of my fair city, or you may refuse. In which case, your darling little sister will have the privilege of being my new bride. And you, I’m afraid will have an unfortunate accident in a far country, trying to negotiate a treaty along with the Council of Nobles, who’ve escorted you there. It will be a sad day for our city. But many, along with your sister, will realize that strong leadership will be required to guide Putra’ Fi Sorro through such dark times back into the light.”

So that’s how he’s done it! He’s foisted some fable about my being off with the nobles in the dungeon to negotiate some fool treaty. But there surely will be some people who won’t believe it. A Princess would never be away from her city during a time such as this, when a succession was pending.

Then she realized she’d already played right into his hands. She had left the city, trying to find Sauros. But that was different. She wasn’t planning to be gone long, and she was hoping that people would realize she was gone and hold Tranthra’ Joh accountable. Then she would be able to come back with her Prince, and take up the reins, and reassure her people. Instead what she’d done is open the door for Tranthra’ Joh. It was working for him instead of against him.

What have I done? What could I have done? It was either stay and try to fend him off, or leave and try to find Sauros. Either way, since he already held Sauros, there would have been no way to change it.

But in my leaving I found Javin, a Mulda’ fi. Will it make any difference in the end?

Javin, Mouhra’ Lah pleaded in her thoughts. I hope you’re on your way back here. She just knew that he and Sauros were still alive. They had to be!

***

Javin and Sauros’ Bho stood looking over the edge of a deep, lush canyon. The lighted mist overhead made the air seem crisp, yet warm. The canyon was so deep and wide they could barely make out the bottom for the low lying mists, and the other side was hazy with the thick air. All they could tell was that the cliffs would be a hard climb. In between, across the canyon floor, the jungle would be thick and the trees tall and close together.

There was one spot, deep in the center of the canyon they thought they could make out a small bare spot, though they couldn’t be sure, as it was broken about with sharp rocks that must be massive in size.

“Across there?” Javin pointed.

“I’m afraid so,” Sauros answered.

Javin took a deep breath. “Okay. You first?”

“Thanks.” Sauros’s reply was anything but enthusiastic. “It’s the only way. I wish there were a faster path, but if there is I don’t know of it.”

“I know, I know,” Javin said. “I want to get back to help the Princess too.”

Sauros didn’t answer. Instead he stepped to the ledge then turned to use his hands in helping descend the cliff face. “Be careful, the rock is damp. Moss will have grown and made it slick.”

Javin and Sauros scaled down the cliff, moving as fast as they dared. It took a surprisingly little time to get past the worst of the cliffs, then they could move faster down the steep slope. The face was lined with lush growth, but not high, nor thick, as the slope must be continually shifting with the moist erosion. It was, however, steep, and they had to watch carefully to keep from tripping which would take them almost to the bottom without stopping.

That might not be so bad, Javin thought as his leg muscles began to ache with the strain of moving so rapidly down the slope. Looking at the sharp spines on some of the bushes made him change his mind. He wouldn’t make it to the bottom without severe injury. There were also just enough rocks that had broken off the cliff face to make any fall very serious indeed.

After a time they reached the rolling level at the bottom of the canyon. Javin could tell the width was an illusion. It was a lot wider than it looked from the top of the canyon. Still they should be able to cross it, if they hurried, in a day -- maybe a day and a half. It was hard to tell, now that they were starting to move among the tall trees that filled the bottom. It was so thick they couldn't see for more than twenty paces ahead.

“It’s a good thing you have a good sense direction,” Javin said. “It’d be awful easy to get lost down here.”

“Hsshhh! Someone’s here.”

Javin froze and noticed Sauros had done the same. How had he known? Javin couldn’t see anyone. He tried a different tact. Javin stilled him mind, sending it out, probing, like he’d instinctively done earlier before the Princess’s party had been attacked. Careless! I’ve let myself grow careless. He’d let the lush beauty of the surroundings lull him.

There is was! Javin could sense it easily. They were surrounded, though he still couldn’t see a thing. He moved closer to Sauros, and they stood back to back.

“What do you think?” Javin said. “Keep moving?”

“I think we’ll know soon enough,” Sauros answered. And Javin sensed it too. Movement from all sides, closing in on them.

Javin could feel Sauros tense.

“Wait. Let’s see what happens first.”

Sauros relaxed only slightly.

Movement came from all around. It was just a bit blurry at first then it cleared into the clean-limbed forms of many Pontu’ Gi, the Protectors, each holding a sharp tipped spear directed at them. They were naked save for a green and brown splotched loin cloth and a leather thong holding a long blade and a shorter dagger on either hip, along with the couched spears they were holding. They must have held their weapons behind their bodies until they were right on top of them.

“They blend in just like a chameleon,” Javin mumbled to himself. He remembered the first time he encountered one of this race. Though that one had saved him, he hadn’t had such good luck since.

“Look, we don’t mean any harm. We’re just passing through,” Javin spoke out, raising his hands.

Sauros tensed again, but made no movement. There was no answer from any of the beings surrounding them.

“I know you can understand what I’m saying,” Javin pressed. “We just want to pass through. We don’t want any trouble.”

“But trouble is what you found.” One of the beings stood forward slightly. Javin had a hard time picking him out at first.

“We haven’t done anything wrong. We mean no harm.”

The being moved a bit closer. He appeared a bit older. Now that he could see the men easier, he could tell they all appeared older. There was something about their scaly skin that had a duller sheen, a slightly faded appearance, and it wasn’t as smooth as the warriors he’d fought earlier.

“We will not allow any harm to come to us. You have no choice in the matter,” the being answered. He appeared to Javin to be studying him closely, like he was trying to decide something.

“I must look pretty strange to you people, but let me tell you, I’m . . . my friend and I, we’re okay, really. In fact, we know some of your people. One of them saved me in fact. You wouldn’t want to go and undue what he did, do you?”

The beings didn’t relax at all. Instead they edged closer, their spear points rising. Javin could tell Sauros was beginning to tense even more, preparing to fight. He reached a hand back and touched his arm.

“Wait. We need to survive this, remember. We have to help the Princess, and we can’t if we’re full of spear pricks.”

Then to the older man, who appeared to be taking the position as their leader. “What do you want with us?”

“We will see. You will come with us while we decide.”

“Look, if we come peacefully, will you give us a chance to talk? To give you our assurances we mean you no harm. We’ll even let your whole group here escort us out of your country if you want. We just need to get through to the other side, okay?”

“We make no bargains with such as you. We have been warned others may come. We know what must be done.”

The leader made a quick gesture, and the group sprang forward, but they weren’t impaled on the spears. Instead they were grasped and straps of thick vines bound their wrists. Listening to Javin’s earlier plea, Sauros didn’t fight, but his guttural growls told Javin he wasn’t happy about it. Javin wasn’t happy about it either, but it was better than being spit on the spot. There had to be something they could do to convince these people they meant them no harm. After all, one of them had shown some good sense and rescued him before.

They were marched through the jungle at a swift pace veering only slightly left from the direction they had been headed. The Punta’ Gi seemed to have the same ability, if not better than Sauros, to pick out a path through the jungle that Javin couldn’t see. It let them through the thick foliage without too much problem. Their swift movement didn’t allow for Javin to make many observations other than the brush swishing past his face, or the trees rising high above. The thickness of the jungle was even more than he’d observed from the rim of the canyon.

Javin tried to pay close attention to the old warriors surrounding him as they moved. They seemed a dignified people, as did the younger warriors he’d already met. He couldn’t help but think that these people weren’t vicious at all, just somehow, misguided. Sauros had told him that the legends said these people were supposed to be Protectors of some sort, but their actions, so far, had been absolutely opposite of what he, and surely others, had supposed.

Then Javin remembered his feeling in the throne room. Someone else was here on the planet; someone, like him who didn’t belong. The feeling persisted again, reinforced by the warming of the crystal in his breast. Nemesis! How he knew that name and could even put a face to it was amazing. Probably just part of those blocked memories, Javin thought. The strange part was what Javin remembered about the man’s face. It looked too much like me . . . only with a beard.

Javin ran a hand over the stubble growing longer on his face. He was growing a beard of his own. Though my hair isn’t as dark. And I don’t like beards.

He had no doubt, now, that Nemesis, if that’s what his name was, was probably behind this. But how? Then the thought came . . . He’s the reason I’m here.

Javin knew that with certainty the moment the thought entered his mind. The crystal’s burning had nothing to do with it. Along with that, Javin also knew that to get answers, he somehow needed to find and confront this Nemesis. And these people might be the key! He’s surely affected them in some way, maybe even visited them.

That’s it! That must be why that man looked at me funny. These others around me are being quite careful too. Javin noted the almost reverent way they treated him, as if they were worried he would get upset. They still needed to control him, to have him move to wherever it was they were taking them.

Though they still showed respect, they treated Sauros differently. I wouldn’t do anything but respect a man that huge and powerful looking either, but there was something different in their attitude towards him. Sauros must have noted it too. Every once in a while he would look back at Javin, a question in his eyes.

Javin nodded back, saying silently, Lets keep moving, see what happens. He hoped Sauros could tell by the look on his face what he meant.

After a few hours of travel, they arrived at what Javin recognized was the area of the giant rock structures they’d seen from above. Only at this level he could see the rocks were even more massive than he imagined. And there was a small clearing. It was clearly maintained because there was no difference from the level of the surrounding jungle. Only this area had bare ground, or just a felt covering of jungle grass. Javin and Sauros were taken to the center of the clearing and their guards moved back a couple of paces, their spears once again raised to at guard.

Their leader came and stood in front.

“You have trespassed into our land. We have been commanded by our Chaurvitoos, our Sovereign One, that all who come are to be put to death!”

A loud hoot echoed from all the throats of the old warriors around them.

“You have been brought to the sacred ground where the Chaurvitoos first came to us, to show him our obedience.”

Javin noticed the old man was watching him most carefully as he spoke, even as an answering hoot echoed around them again.

“Your Chaurvitoos looked like me didn’t he!”

Sauros turned a glare at Javin. He ignored it. He was trying to save their lives.

“His name is Nemesis, also. Did he tell you this?”

Silence greeted him, but he could see a hint confusion in the old leader’s eyes. This isn’t going so well, Javin thought.

“Did he also tell you he was one of the Mulda’ fi, a Promised One, and that he was here to set the Punta’ Gi, you, the Protectors on your path to destiny?”

There was a definite reaction from the older one this time, and others surrounding them began looking at each other, soft hoots going back and forth. Javin knew he’d barely hit it right. It was a long shot, but it was all he had.

“Look at me!” he snapped, giving his voice all the air of command he could muster. “I look like him! I am also a Chaurvitoos!”

The reaction grew, the hoots louder.

“My name is Javin, this other one here,” he nodded to Sauros, “is also a Mulda’ fi! If you kill us, you will be destroying part of your own destiny!”

“YahWinn? YahWinn?” Murmers came from all around them. The leader was clearly confused.

“The one who came to us, our Chaurvitoos also called himself YahWinn. Do not desecrate that sacred name!”

Javin was stunned. It was too close to be coincidence. Had their legends also included him coming to them? They must. His name was too close for it to be anything else. But Nemesis had perverted even that, getting here before he could.

If I find out who put me here, I swear I’ll kill them. The least they could have done is put me here with some notion of what I’m supposed to do and get me here on time!

“Even demons can speak truth to deceive. You will die!”

The leader made a sweeping gesture and the warriors turned and sprinted to the edges of the clearing. Javin and Sauros were still surrounded, cutting off any avenue of escape should they try to break and run.

“We should have fought when we had the chance,” Sauros said.

“I think you’re right. Sorry.” It sounded lame to Javin, but it’s all he could say as they watched two warriors at the edge of the clearing, about twenty paces in front of them raise their spears at the command of the old warrior. I hope whoever put me here is getting a kick out of all this, Javin thought.

Anger started to kindle up into a bright flame in his breast.

The two warriors hefted each spear, looking closely at them, as if gauging the distance.

The anger continued to build in Javin till it was a roaring flame, searing his soul. The crystal in his breast mirrored and amplified the burning.

The warriors took a couple of running steps toward them and flung their spears. As each point bore down, it was like watching in slow motion. The spears flew toward them centered directly over their hearts.

Javin’s anger erupted with molten force inside. NOOOOO!

***

Mahntra’ Bhu was wandering around the streets of the city, thinking. He noticed he still had his shadows, but now it didn’t matter. He was trying to decide what to do. It had been a while since the nobles had started acting, telling friends and neighbors their concerns, but there had continued to be more pressure, and some not so subtle threats by some of Tranthra’ Joh’s men. They’d been told that something definitely would happen to their missing family members if they didn’t stop what they were doing.

Some continued to persist. Others were dropping out, not having the stomach for what needed to be done. Mahntra was also concerned about his daughter. She was missing too, but none of the guard had come to visit him. He wondered about that. Maybe Tranthra’ Joh didn’t consider him a threat. After all, he’d stopped shouting his subversion from the street corners, and he didn’t have any official capacity any more.

That was another thing. Mahntra knew Tranthra’ Joh. Not personally, because he never could stand the man, but by reputation and by observation. He was not a subtle man, and what he was doing smacked of a very subtle plan to take power. Could it be there was someone behind the scenes telling Tranthra’ Joh what to do? If so, who?

This is all pointless debate. If I’m going to do something, I must do it! Then he caught himself. But I also need to know who my enemy really is if I’m to fight. The trouble was how could he find out? The chamberlain still hadn’t been able to access the dungeons. They were still heavily guarded. The occupant of the tower was also a mystery, but Mahntra could about guess who was being held. The Princess. Otherwise Tranthra’ Joh wouldn’t be enacting the measures he was. That’s why Dierni’ Lah had been sent for: To further control succession to the throne. Yes, this was all much too subtle for the likes of Tranthra’ Joh.

Now, should I continue with what I’ve been thinking?

Mahntra had come to the conclusion that he needed to press things again. With some of the nobles dropping out of the plan and the other going slow, he needed to do something. It had to come to a head before the Princess’ sister was brought back to the city. If she got in, and Tranthra did indeed have control over the princess and her sister, as well as the guard in the palace, he might be too well intrenched to stop without serious bloodshed.

I’ve got to stop this if I can.

Mahntra stopped at the location he’d chosen. It wasn’t a busy street corner, but still full of people. He was just outside the palace grounds below the balcony window of the audience chamber where he knew Tranthra’ Joh was holding court. He looked around, and noted his shadows had removed a safe distance away, thinking they hadn’t been noticed. Guards were located around the grounds, still far enough away that he could say what he needed to say before they reached him. And his path through to the building behind was unobstructed. He could make use of that escape route and get to his planned hiding place.

He wished he’d been able to talk this through with someone, even the chamberlain then realized he’d jeopardize not only himself, but whomever he’d confided in. It was something he had to do on his own and not have it tied with any of the nobles for the same reason. Doing so would prompt Tranthra’ Joh to begin using more force, and endanger those Mahntra knew he was holding.

He took a deep breath, once again looking around. His words had to be just right to make the points needed, but also short enough to allow him to say it, and get away.

“People of Putra’ Fi Sorro!” Pedestrians stopped in their tracks. The guard’s heads popped up down the way. “Where is the Princess? She who should rightfully rule? Why does Tranthra’ Joh supersede his authority, which he clearly has done? And why does he not tell us where the Princess is? Her people have a right to know!”

Mahntra noticed the guards starting to move in his direction. But he also noticed that people had stopped to listen.

“I’ll tell you why,” he continued. “It’s because Tranthra’ Joh doesn’t want the Princess to return. He likes things the way they are, with him in power. A power he doesn’t mean to let loose!”

The guards were moving faster now, getting closer. His shadows were also moving towards him.

“Tranthra’ Joh means to set himself up as our city’s first King! You all can see the signs yourself.”

The guards were almost too close now.

“You all have to decide. Do you want Tranthra’ Joh as a king? No?” Mahntra turned his face to the open window above. “Then tell us where our rightful ruler is!” He shook his fist at the window. “Give us the answers. We demand the Princess now!”

The guards were blocked by people intentionally moving into their path. So others are getting this too! Mahntra had just enough time to duck through that same crowd, and run in a most undignified manner for a former Keeper, through the building entrance to the secret way.

He’d made it. Mahntra hoped he’d be as lucky the next time. It was only a beginning.

***

Chahzuu peered through the lush foliage into the clearing. It backed up against the foot of a mountain thrust up from the jungle floor with its craggy top lost in the ever present mist shrouding the Great Light above. The jagged slope was filled with broken rock jutting up through the lush growth. There must have been great violence during its creation. It seemed to have pushed up through the level earth, breaking and rending the solid mass of rock beneath as it was the only mountain rising above the jungle for some distance. Why here? This is where the crystal had led him.

The clearing was several spans across. He could see it’d been kept free of growth by carefully placed pavings surrounding an entryway cut into the rock face of the slope. This was a place the ancients had built.

Chahzuu looked around then moved over until he could see directly into the entry. It was small, barely big enough to fit through. And it was dark. Too dark for him to make out anything inside.

His travels had brought him here swiftly. He’d been surprised that it wasn’t further from the other Article of Power. Then again, he’d been traveling night and day, stopping only for brief rests.

What awaited him inside? Chahzuu knew whoever left the Articles also left protections. Only those who were meant to find them would.

He should probably stop now and get some rest, but the urgency of his mission forbade it. He gazed around.

There wasn’t any discernable threat. So he stepped into the clearing and ghosted over to the entrance.

Chahzuu ducked his head inside, trying to let his eyes grow accustomed to the dark. Something kept his eyes from focusing. It seemed darker than it should be. Still, nothing happened. He couldn’t sense any danger, so he stepped inside.

Immediately, he was shrouded in darkness so total he couldn’t even see the entryway when he looked back. It was as if he’d been transported to another place far away.

The crystal in his breast turned ice cold and fear crept upon him in a way it’d never come before. His legs trembled and his breath fluttered.

Chahzuu clenched his fists, willing his body under control, and continued to look about. Somewhere there had to be light. But there wasn’t. It was complete, absolute darkness. This was more than just a cave.

Chahzuu didn’t know how long he stood. It seemed long, not daring to move. He could just turn back, retrace the single step he’d made into this place. Something told him it wouldn’t work. He craned his neck, trying in vain to see . . . anything.

A sudden flash of brilliant light blinded him. He raised his hands to cover his eyes. Then he was again bathed in total darkness. Everything was exactly as it was before . . . except the crystal. It wasn’t cold anymore. It wasn’t . . . anything. It wasn’t there! No sensation of it at all. It had been extracted from him in that flash of an instant. Loneliness filled him. His breast felt empty, hollow.

Chahzuu hadn’t noticed its constant warming presence in his body until he felt its absence right above his heart. But why take it? Was it again the key to getting into the place where the Article lay? If so, then he’d passed hadn’t he? He’d had a crystal. Shouldn’t that be the sign to let him pass and obtain the Second Article?

The darkness remained and Chahzuu stood, waiting. There was nothing else. Then the darkness changed. It wasn’t that he could see, but the texture felt different. The darkness took form and substance, closing in, enveloping him.

Icy fingers of fear again started to slip around his heart, chilling his soul to the point he shivered. Not from cold, but from a fear that started to overwhelm. Again he clenched his fists, focusing his mind against it. Still it came, uncontrolled and uncontrollable.

The darkness continued to coalesce with increasing force. A constriction started to press in from all sides. Pushing, squeezing in an ever relentless pressure.

The Void! It’s here! How? Has it overrun this place? Chahzuu sensed intelligence behind the dark, the mass nothing of constantly building pressure.

Malevolence. Darkness of soul. Of thought. Evil! Ever building. Ever growing. Consuming. Hungry!

I must escape! Even as Chahzuu thought this, the pressure grew, and evil oozed inside.

Despair! Hopelessness! There is no succor, no salvation!

It can’t be! Chahzuu continued to fight.

But it is! You can’t stop it! The malevolence answered, mocking as the pressure grew more intense.

Chahzuu’s body spasmed, being crushed, but still fixed in a standing position, the pressure holding him upright.

I will die. Chahzuu felt his will caving.

Yes, you will die! You will cease to be!

 

Chapter 19

 

Mahntra’ Bhu stood at the bottom of the palace rampart, watching closely the balcony from which Trantra’ Joh had announced he would speak to the people. The disguise he wore was a precaution. Just the same, the woman’s clothing made his mouth quirk in humor. They might figure he would appear again in disguise, but it less likely they would look for him dressed as a woman.

Would Tranthra’ Joh finally say something to the populace about the Princess? And if so, would Mahntra be able to take advantage of the gathering of people to press for more? He’d situated himself in the middle of the crowd, doing his best to act and appear anonymous. How did a woman act anonymous anyway?

He looked around. No one seemed to be paying him much attention. Everyone was talking amongst themselves and watching for Tranthra’ Joh to make his appearance. The guards at posts around the palace were stationed as normal.

Then a voiced command erupted above the din of the watchers, and all the guards snapped to attention at their posts. All eyes turned to the balcony, and Tranthra’ Joh, flanked by the chamberlain, strode out and looked down at the assemblage.

Mahntra noted the possessive gleam in Tranthra’ Joh’s eyes even at a distance. It was an almost fatherly pride that made Mahntra’ Bhu’s stomach turn. The others didn’t seem to notice. They waited to hear what was so special that it needed a proclamation from the palace.

Tranthra’ Joh raised his hands as if trying to calm the crowd even though there was no need. Mahntra smiled at the arrogance.

“Citizens of Putra’ Fi Sorro, I have called you here to make an announcement, and offer some explanation, as best I can.”

Here it comes, Mahntra thought. Now I get to see how much of an affect we’ve had.

“You all know the Princess has not been seen by her people for a while. There is good reason for that. And she wishes me to offer her assurances that everything is well.”

Right to the heart of it, Mahntra thought. I wonder if the people will believe what comes next?

“She has gone off to a far city, in the service of each of you, her loyal subjects, in order to affect treaties which will bring peace to our city for many years to come. Assisting her in these efforts are the Council of Nobles, and sufficient of her personal guard to insure her safety.”

Mahntra stopped watching Tranthra’ Joh to watch the listeners. They appeared to be paying close attention to Tranthra’ Joh, but their faces bespoke their concern. There were even a few murmurs about Tranthra’ Joh taking every advantage while the Princess was away; remarks that gave Mahntra small encouragement. The people were uncertain as to whether they should trust his words. With good reason, Mahntra mused.

“The Princess is safe, and she has sent word of the partial success of her labors. She asks for your continued patience for just a while longer.”

The murmurs around Mahntra started to grow. They were, indeed, suspicious. “She shouldn’t be gone now,” someone spoke a little louder. “Not with a succession. She should be here!” It was loud enough so all around could hear, but Mahntra couldn’t place who’d said it.

“Her work is of upmost importance,” Tranthra continued. “In fact, the histories will always refer to this day as being one of the greatest in our city’s past, and pivotal to its future.

“For the work your Princess has done,” Tranthra raised his arms again for dramatic affect, “and is doing even now, is without precedent for as long as the histories have been kept!”

The people around Mahntra looked at one another. What is he talking about?

“The Princess, unfortunately, has not been able to return as yet, but to reassure you, she has sent something back that will astound you!”

From other balconies ringing the palace, trumpeters stepped forward blaring out a crescendoing fanfare. When they died down all eyes turned back to Tranthra’ Joh.

“Behold. Prophecy fulfilled!”

The wide portals opened on the rampart of the palace grounds wall and out marched a rank of the strangest creatures Mahntra had ever seen. They were all sleek with a scaly skin of greenish hue. The strange part was the color seemed to keep subtly changing as they marched out and stood at attention in front of the awe filled assemblage. Their clothing was sparse, just green leather breeches, an open breasted, sleeveless tunic of the same material and harness straps going up over their shoulders holding an odd assortment of small weapons. In one hand each warrior held a short hafted spear with an elongated point, and the other hand held a long blade knife as if they were ready to lunge into battle any instant.

“The Pontu’ Gi!”

A collective gasp went up from the crowd. Mahntra gasped himself. The legends! But how?

“The Princess found the legendary Protectors, and sent them here to watch over her city while she’s gone.”

More rumbles of noise continued from those around Mahntra. Something is wrong. This is not how it’s supposed to be!

Mahntra was well aware of the legends and until now, hadn't thought of them -- especially the ones concerning the Pontu’ Gi. He must think on this, must weigh it all together.

There was still no doubt in his mind that the Princess had nothing to do with this. But how had Tranthra’ Joh found the Protectors?

“My people. Now you see that our Princess is alive and well. She is still looking out for your best interests, and asks that you cooperate with those she has designated to govern until she returns. What she is working on is critical not only to our city, but to our whole world. That is why the Pontu’ Gi have been sent.

“There are some who have been sowing discontent among the people. They do so not out of malice, but out of ignorance. Please, those of you who have been part of this. Desist. The safety of the Princess and the Council of Nobles is at stake. Indeed the safety of everything we hold dear. You can see now that your fears are groundless. The Princess is doing her duty. Unusual times require unusual measures. The Princess knows her people are up to the challenge!”

Oh that was slick. Mahntra thought. He didn’t believe a word of it.

***

Chahzuu’s body spasmed, being crushed, but still fixed in a standing position. The pressure held him upright.

I will die. Chahzuu felt his will caving.

Yes, you will die! You will cease to be!

But I can’t. My people.

They are lost. You’ve failed!

Anger stirred Chahzuu’s soul. The pressure was killing him, but it hadn’t killed him yet. There must be a way. The Guardians had said there was a chance.

There is no chance . . . the voice echoed in the bottom of his mind.

Chahzuu ignored the voice. Ignored the pain. He put out of his mind that he was soon to be crushed by the void that had somehow found him.

But it hadn’t found him. He’d simply stepped through the doorway into the chamber. He’d been transported to it. It hadn’t found him.

Then he remembered the test he’d had to pass in finding the first Article of Power. Is this another test? Something I can survive if I pass?

The thought brought hope back into Chahzuu’s mind. It has to be! And there’s a way out.

The pain was growing worse, and Chahzuu knew he had to find the solution fast or he’d black out and then it’d be too late.

Think back to the old records! They had to have the solution. These Articles are all tied with the older records.

Chahzuu grit his teeth, trying to blank his mind from the pain, the pressure, trying to recall the key to this . . .

Unless it really is the void. Maybe it has invaded even the place of the Guardians now.

It didn’t matter! He had to find a way. Real or no, it would still kill him. And if there were no way, he would be just as dead whether he tried or not! He focused his mind until something brushed his consciousness.

 

Dark night, dark fright

Chased away all the light.

Make me scared

Make me fright

When the demon speaks

 

Again it’s a childrens’ rhyme! Chahzuu grasped hold of it in his mind and poured his heart into understanding it, making it show what he needed to do.

 

Dark night, dark fright

Chased away all the light

Don’t be scared

Don’t be fright

Light’s inside of you

 

Dark night, dark fright

Chased away all the light

Can’t be scared

Can’t be fright

Make the light shine through

 

Dark night, dark fright

Runs away from your light

Won’t be scared

Won’t be fright

Gone the demon creeps

 

Children’s nursery rhymes everyone would remember. The ancients wanted us to remember, to have them be part of us. What better way than to learn them as children – for when we would need them most!

Chahzuu began to focus. “Light’s inside of you . . . Runs away from your light . . . Gone the demon creeps.”

That’s the key! But how do I find the light inside? What is it?

Chahzuu shut his eyes, though with the darkness it didn’t make any difference. It helped him concentrate. He focused on the center of his breast, his heart, trying to picture a light flickering there, giving him purpose, courage, reassurance.

He did have a purpose after all. His people! They needed him. What more purpose could he have? Courage? Courage was irrelevant. He had to do this! There was no worrying about fear, no worrying about danger. He had to succeed for the sake of his people.

Chahzuu could picture just a flicker of light sparking from the purpose of his heart. In his mind, he fanned it, nurtured it, making it grow.

The dark crushing him seemed to recoil just an instant, then came back with a vengeance, but he wouldn’t let go, couldn’t let the spark be snuffed out. He focused his mind even more on his purpose, blotting out all else.

A warmth began to rise in Chahzuu’s breast. It’s still there. The crystal!

The light began to grow, to flame up inside. Then directly ahead he saw a faint spark of light, even through his closed eyes. Maybe he just saw it in his mind, but he was sure it was real. Chahzuu opened his eyes and saw it. He focused on it, as well as keeping the light fixed in his heart. It continued to grow, pushing back the dark. The pain and pressure was still there, but it was lifting, slowly, fighting every step of the way.

The light and warmth grew inside until he was burning, welcoming the return of the crystal’s comforting presence. He didn’t know which he had missed most, the inward calming of the crystal, or its light and warmth. Now he knew he’d never miss either of them as long as he could control his fears and keep his heart focused.

Such hard lessons! But he knew he’d need them all when he finally had to face Nemesis.

The darkness continued to fade as the scintillation of the point of light ahead and the light from within continued to grow. They seemed to pulse in unison, as if they were joined.

Chahzuu knew they were joined. The Articles of Power and the crystal. They were tied together. And he was tied with them now. For he knew it was none other than the Second Article of Power spreading the light, pushing the darkness back.

The pressure released him and the darkness fled with a final wailing sound in the back of his mind. Had it really been the void?

He collapsed to the floor gasping in deep breaths realizing his lungs were starved for air that had been pressed out. There was no hurry now. He needed to regain his strength before forcing himself to stand and gather the Second Article.

Light continued to grow along with the steady pulsing in Chahzuu’s breast. It was comforting, warming, and Chahzuu basked in the sense of peace it brought.

If only this could last, he thought, knowing this was just the beginning of what he needed to do. If there were some way to carry this peace with him, no matter the situation, then he’d be stronger, more able to do what he must.

Then he realized he could. Maybe not to the extent he felt it now, but he could keep that kernel of peace and comfort with him. It wouldn’t have to come from anywhere but from within. That’s what the children’s rhyme was teaching!

His purpose would provide the peace, calm and strength he needed. As long as he stayed focused on his purpose, he would be at peace . . . At least within himself. And that would be enough. The Power of Purpose: That’s what this article magnifies.

Chahzuu struggled to his feet, seeing that the chamber was now fully lit, again from a source of light he couldn’t see other than the strange glow that seemed to float on the air.

Then there was the Article. It was sitting on a pedestal in the middle of the room. It wasn’t a large room and Chahzuu turned back and could see the entrance to the chamber just behind. Just a pace back.

The Second Article had a simple subdued glow now, but Chahzuu could sense the energy flaming inside. He moved up slowly, watching all around. He didn’t want to be surprised ever again. As if I have any control over it, he thought. A small grin formed on his face as he stared down at the Article.

It was shaped like an odd fruit. It had the same opaque crystalline shine, the glow coming from within, as did the crystal in his breast and the first Article inside his scrip pouch.

The Article was plump and rounded at the top then gradually narrowed as it neared the bottom where it seemed impossibly balanced on the pedestal. The shape reminded him of something he should know.

Then it hit him. A heart! The shape resembled that of a heart. As a hunter he’d seen many hearts in the animals that were his prey, and he also knew from his teachers the general shape of the heart he had within himself!

It made an odd sort of sense, especially as he remembered how he’d passed the test.

But how to use it? That would come later. For now, he had to gather it, then find the final Article.

Chahzuu stood over the article, looking down to see if there was any reason he should not just reach out and pick it up. He walked around it, observing from all sides. On the back there was a small vertical indentation shaped as if something should fit inside it.

Then it struck him. The first Article was shaped like that! They were made to be joined. What would that do?

Chahzuu reached out a hand and gently took hold of the Article. He lifted it and held it up, turning it all around. Should he try to put them together?

He shuddered. It came of a sudden, and he had nothing to do with it. Joining the two creates incredible power. It will destroy any who joins them before they are ready.

That thought, Chahzuu was certain, came from the crystal. Surely the crystal and all the Articles were connected. He didn’t need any further proof. Nor did he need any convincing to wait, to understand the Articles more before he tried to put them together. But he was certain that before this was all through, he might very well need to put them all together.

Another rush of apprehension almost overwhelmed him. He shook involuntarily and almost dropped the Second Article.

Maybe the Guardian who’d warned him was right. The power he’d felt would result from the joined Articles was incomprehensible. It was also seductive. What could a person do with control over that much power? If they fell into the wrong hands it was indescribable the damage that could be done. Especially if they fell to Nemesis! Another shudder made him stumble.

I should put them back! But that would never work. He didn’t know how to put the protections back in place. And if he tried to hide them in new places, there was no guarantee they still wouldn’t be found by the wrong person. Even someone who was ignorant as to what they were could destroy the world.

Focus! Remember the lesson you just learned!

Chahzuu took a deep breath and looked at the Article one last time before carefully placing it in his scrip, wrapping it with an old cloth to make sure it wouldn’t join with the first, even by accident.

I’ve started the path. Now I must finish it.

Chahzuu turned and strode out of the ancient’s chamber into the light. The day was nearly past and he still had to figure what direction to go for the third and final Article.

He stood at the entrance, glancing around the small clearing, trying to sense any pull. There wasn’t any. He breathed deeply, trying to calm his mind, forcing it to be open just as he’d done to find the second Article.

Still nothing.

What’s wrong?

Chahzuu tried again, this time breathing deeply, calming his mind as best he could. Again, there was nothing. No pull. No indication of a direction he needed to travel, no matter how slight.

Now what?

Chahzuu stood helpless as the mist shrouded Great Light hung bright overhead.

***

“Nooo!” Javin’s anger flared and the shout was ripped from his lips. Suddenly the spear stopped mid air just inches from his heart. It hung there in mid air. Javin only now noticed a burning is his chest, the crystal flaming with power.

“It’s about time this thing was good for something,” Javin said. He concentrated again and flexed his muscles, amplified by the power he felt still coursing through the crystal, the bonds holding him broke and he moved forward.

A harsh order was given and another spear was cast in his direction. Javin noticed it and with a furrowed brow, that spear also stopped mid air, inches above his heart, then fell. Gasps came from the gathered Pontu’ Gi as Javin stopped and stared.

He turned to release Sauros, but found he’d watched Javin and had released himself in the same way. Javin looked at Sauros’ breast and saw a subdued glow come from the pelted cavity. Then he looked at his own bare breast and noticed the same red glow.

“How did we do that?” Javin asked as Sauros moved up beside him and they turned to look at the still gaping Pontu’ Gi.

Sauros didn’t answer, but glanced at Javin’s breast then down at his own.

Javin thought through what he’d done. The power to stop the spears had come through the crystal, but not from it. With shock, he realized the power had somehow come from him! His desperate need to stop the spear had made a thrust of power surge from inside! The crystal had simply taken hold and amplified it, creating a shield the spears couldn’t pierce.

Now this is going to take some serious thinking . . . but not now.

Sauros was looking at him.

“Shall we?” He gestured to the group of Pontu’ Gi.

Sauros inclined his head.

They moved over to the stunned group. They made no move to try another volley, nor did they run.

“Look, we don’t mean you any harm. Will you talk with us now? As you can see, we can’t be hurt.” Javin wasn’t sure it was a lie, but didn’t want them to know. Hopefully it was more than a bluff.

Javin looked at their leader. He wasn’t holding a weapon so Javin moved closer, both he and Sauros maintained their shields.

The leader looked at Javin closely, his head tilted, wondering. He took several deep breaths before answering.

“We are in your hands.” He held his hands out in a supplicating fashion that Javin took to mean they agreed. It surprised him.

This shouldn’t be so easy. Why are they giving up? What’s the catch?

“Okay,” Javin said and he thought real hard, still not sure he could do this, but the shield around him disappeared. It was a relief he could still do it without it being a matter of life and death. Now he was relatively sure he could make the shield again if needed. But what else would he be able to do? Again, now wasn’t the time to figure it out.

Sauros eyed all the Pontu’ Gi warily, still maintaining his shield. Javin saw a faint glow outlining his profile. He stayed close to Javin watching especially those still holding weapons. Javin had no doubt he would jump in front of him the instant they showed any move toward hostility. Great. Javin would do the talking then while Sauros watched.

“Why did you try to kill us? How did you even know we were going through your . . . territory?” Javin said without preamble.

The leader hesitated a moment. “We were commanded to kill any who should come after . . .” He acted like he didn’t know how to finish. Then he spoke again. “We knew you were in our lands just as we always know.”

“What?” Javin said. “How do you always know? Have others come before?”

“Very few,” the leader said. “But others have come. Our lands have been forbidden to any except the Pontu’ Gi. We were to remain here until the time came for us to fulfill our destiny.

“Whenever others have come into our lands we know they have come. We know it here.” The leader gently touched the side of his head. “And we feel it here.” He laid a hand over his breast. “We felt you most strongly . . . Just like the Chaurvitoos.” The leader glanced around at his warriors. Some nodded. “You look like the Other too. Are you from him?” The leader looked confused, worried. “Your powers feel like him though . . . different. Are you testing our obedience?”

“What other?” Javin asked, afraid he already knew the answer.

“One who looks and feels like you. Though he knew his place. He announced himself as Chaurvitoos and Mulda’ fi. He appeared in the center of our village before we felt his coming. How did he do this? Can you do this too? If so, why have you come as others, trespassing? Our lands are forbidden to all but our Chaurvitoos, and Mulda’ fi.

“The Chaurvitoos told us our time was now. He fulfilled the Proving and our young warriors have gone with him.”

Javin was confused. “Wait a minute. This Other you’re talking about. You said he looked like me?”

“Yes. Very much.” The leader scrutinized him. “His pelt was of a darker color, but you look the same. You feel the same too . . . but . . . different.”

“You feel me? How? What’s it like?”

“I don’t understand,” the leader said. “You do not feel?”

“I guess not.”

There were murmurs around the group.

“Yet you have the Power,” the leader said. “How can you do this without being able to feel?”

Javin ignored the question. He knew it wouldn’t be something he could explain, and he didn’t have the time or the patience to explain even if he could.

“Let’s go back to this Other. What did he do here? Why did he come? Did he give you a name?”

The leader looked a little surprised. Like Javin should know. Especially if he was one of these Mulda’ fi everybody kept insisting he was.

“The Other said to call him YahWinn.”

Javin gaped. He’s even stealing my name! Why? What has all this got to do with me?

The leader continued. “He said he came to place us on the path of destiny. But you should know this . . .” There was a silence while Javin thought.

“Where did he go? What is this destiny you people are supposed to fulfill?”

“ This is strange. You should know all. You have the Power. Perhaps you are an enemy. Perhaps you are an enemy of the Other -- our Chaurvitoos.”

“Yes. I’m his enemy,” Javin said. “But he’s your enemy too.”

Again murmurs went around the group. Sauros emitted a low growl that got their attention.

“Look,” Javin said. “I think there’s been a big mistake here. You people don’t realize who you’re dealing with. This Other isn’t who he says.”

“Who is he then? He showed he was Chaurvitoos, and did the Proving. You have not.” The last was spoken in a plaintive tone. “You have only come as a stranger. Perhaps the Other was right to have us try and kill you. You are trying to deceive us. Take us from our path.”

Javin noticed that the warriors were starting to bristle again. Sauros continued to watch, his shield still in place. They weren’t in any danger . . . yet.

“You say this Other proved himself? How? Show me.”

The leader looked at the others then shrugged his shoulders. “Follow.”

The leader started off. Sauros looked at Javin. “Have them all go ahead so we can keep an eye on them.”

Sauros nodded then gestured for the warriors to all preceed them. They looked to the leader who’d stopped, watching.

“Do it.” he said.

This still worries me, Javin thought. They haven’t tried anything. Why?

They walked through the clearing and around the base of a huge rock that was as big as a house. It was away from the village, which was good because they didn’t want anyone else to be able to sneak up from behind.

Around the far side of the boulder was a cavern that looked like it’d been hollowed. It was big enough to hold all the assembled group underneath standing straight and tall with plenty of room to spare. The leader motioned to the back.

“Have your warriors move aside. Over there would be good.” Javin pointed to the far side of the clearing so he and Sauros could both watch them as they moved into the overhang.

“Do so!” The leader snapped and the warriors jogged over to where had been indicated. They still held their weapons, but they weren’t threatening at all. Just curious.

Maybe they think they have us right where they want us. Or maybe this Other did something to put a little scare in them. They think I can do the same. They did talk about a Power.

“Here is what proves one as Mulda’ fi.” The leader stepped into the cavity with them.

At the back wall of the cavern was a statue carved out from the stone. Javin gasped. The closer he got the more surprised he became. Sauros had much the same reaction.

“How is this done?” Sauros asked, turning to Javin.

Javin could only shake his head as he gaped.

That’s me! That statue looks just like me!

Then a burning started in his breast, the closer he came. But that wasn’t all. There was a glow coming from the statue too. Right over its breast.

Javin continued to move closer, the searing in his breast rising. Sauros stopped to watch. The leader was staring. On the statue the light over the breast grew the closure Javin drew to it.

“You are Mulda’ fi and Chaurvitoos too! How can this be?” the leader’s voice was hushed. “Why would the Other command us to kill any others? Perhaps he didn’t know you were coming.”

“Oh, I think he knew,” Javin said, still keeping his eyes on the statue. His naked, full-sized image was etched into stone. He scratched the bearded stubble on his chin. This image was clean shaven, the way he preferred.

“This Other had hair on his face?” Javin turned to the leader.

“Yes. It caused us confusion at first. The Other said it just happens that the Proving had some differences is all. After all he was wearing clothing and the image on the Proving doesn’t. Then he showed us the sign.” The leader pointed to the still glowing breast on the image.

Javin came back from under the overhang and came to stand beside Sauros. “I’ve got an idea. I’ll watch while you go in and have a look.”

Sauros looked at him a moment then nodded. Javin watched the image closely the closer Sauros came. It began to glow over the breast just as it had when Javin approached. Sauros grunted then turned back to Javin, his hand above his breast.

“You felt this too?” Sauros asked.

“It’s the crystal.” Javin answered. “It’s got to be tied in some way.”

“It makes sense,” Sauros said moving back out of the overhang. “But how can it look like you? You said before you are new to this world. And who is this Other they keep referring too? His name sounded like yours.”

“An imposter, believe me.” Javin said. “I can’t tell you how I know, but there is another here like me. We’ve met before . . . I think. He’s not one of the good guys. In fact, I think he’s behind the trouble that’s being stirred up around here. Maybe I’ve been sent here to get him off your backs.”

“Off our backs?” Sauros said.

“Just another stupid figure of speech from where I come from . . . Wherever that is. It means I need to find him and stop him.”

At this point the leader moved up. Javin and Sauros turned to stare at him. He held his hands up as he moved forward.

“I’ve been listening to you speak. I saw this other is also a Mulda’ fi, though he doesn’t look anything like the Proving. Please help us. Why have you come? Why did the Other not tell us of you? Why did he want no others to leave here?”

“I think you’ve been deceived.” Javin said. “The Other is not a good man. He is trying to harm your world.”

The leader’s eyes grew wide. “But he proved himself! He knew he was Chaurvitoos and also a Mulda’ fi!”

“I can’t answer your questions, but I know what this Other is like. He is not honest. He even stole my name.” Javin hesitated a moment. “My name’s really Javin, by the way. Javin Cox.” He held out his hand to the leader.

The leader stared at his hand until Javin reached over and grasped his hand. It was limp and cool.

“That’s how we greet friends where I come from.”

“YahWinn. That is truly your name?”

“Well, you’re not saying it quite right, but yes. Try it again. ‘Javin’.”

“Yah’Vin. Jah’Vin.”

“That’s it. And what’s your name? Are you the leader here?”

“I’m called Preegha. And I’m but one of the leaders.” He looked back over his shoulder to the warriors still standing at some distance.

“It’s okay. They can come over.” Javin gestured for them all to come closer. “Let ‘em come,” he said to Sauros.

Sauros nodded but only relaxed his stance slightly, still keeping a close eye on everyone. His shielding had long since been dropped.

“I’m the Sarhzaa, a Chieftan of my people. I deal with the civil matters of my people.”

Javin noted the differentiation. “There’s another leader here?” He looked at the warriors moving closer, trying to pick out another that might hold leadership.

“No. Not here. Our Chahkzaa . . . has gone.” The Sarhzaa hesitated a moment, looking for help from his warriors as if he was at a loss as to what to say. One of the warriors moved closer, shrugging his shoulders. “If Chahzuu were here, he’d know what to do,” he said.

“This is Luuhzzho, my second.”

Luuhzzho held out his hands waste high, right palm up, left down then inclined his head in a nod. Javin looked closely and repeated the gesture making sure to use the same palm up and same palm down as Luuhzzho had used. He nodded then smiled. “That’s your greeting?”

“Of friends, yes.”

“Ah, good.” Javin carefully reached his hand out and Luuhzzho took it. It was plain he’d watched the Sarhzhaa. The shake was a bit firmer this time, but the hand was still cool to the touch.

“Our Chahkzaa left just a short time before the Other came. No one knew where he’d gone until the Other came and told us he’d given his life bringing Chaurvitoo knowledge of his people.”

“What is a Chahkzaa?” Javin asked. The word didn’t translate well, but he had some slight intimation of possible meanings.

“The Chahkzaa is our spiritual leader. A teacher, record keeper, and in Chahzuu’s case, some say prophet. The elders who were teaching him said he had the gift of Dreaming. He’s been Chahkzaa for a very long time.”

Javin thought a moment then asked. "Did any of your people ever leave this valley -- your land here?"

“Not until the Chaurvitoos came and took all our young warriors to fulfill their destiny, no. Only Chahzuu has ever left. And he only once . . . to bring the Other.”

Something about this sounded familiar to Javin. Then it clicked.

“He’s not dead!” Javin said. “At least not the last time I saw him. He saved my life.”

“You saw him? Where? How was he? Why hasn’t he come back?” Preehga sounded anxious.

“Hold on. I saw him in the jungle a long ways from here. Where, exactly, I can’t tell you. And I didn’t exactly get a chance to talk with him. When I tried to speak to him, he bound off through the trees like nobody’s business.”

“Luuhzzho cocked his head to one side. “Business?”

“He has funny speech at times, I know,” Sauros’ Bho said, moving closer, apparently satisfied now no one was going to attack. “But listen beyond his funny words. There is wisdom and truth there besides.”

“Thanks a lot.” Javin said.

The other warriors started moving closer now, but not threatening. They were starting to become comfortable.

“You trust us now?” It was a strange question to ask, but seemed right considering their apparent actions.

“Yes.” Preegha said without hesitation. He looked to his second, then the other warriors. “You feel as if we should trust you. Both of you.” He nodded to Sauros.

“Oh.” Was all Javin could think of saying. There they go with this ‘feeling’ bit again.

“Now I know the difference in your feeling from the Other. You feel better, stronger . . . more . . . good than the other,” the Sarhzaa said. He then made a supplicating gesture, both hands down low, palms out and down, then bowed low at the waist. The others immediately followed suite.

“Jah’Vin,” Preehga looked up. “Have we made a mistake in trusting the Other? This man claiming to be Chaurvitoos and Mulda’ fi?

“Yes.” Javin was certain. There was silence as his words sank in.

“Then are you the one who was promised us? Are you the one to lead us?”

Javin waited a long time. Then in a very quiet voice, he said. “I don’t know.”

***

Mouhra’ Lah sat on the soft cushions of her cell. For all the rich appointments of the tower room, there was nothing in it she could use to aid her in escaping. She’d looked futilely many times. No writing materials were allowed, and the glass covered windows were too thick for her to break and call for help. That wouldn’t have done any good anyway because she was high enough up no one would be able to hear, much less understand, anything she could shout.

Tranthra’ Joh seemed to be having his way. And when her sister got here, for now Mouhra’ Lah was beginning to believe he actually had found Dierni’ Lah, she would be even more powerless. She knew Dierni would never be able to stand by and watch as they tortured her.

Mouhra knew Dierni should be able to withstand anything for the good of her city, but that. That was just too much. Her sister was too young, just 15 cycles. At that age, she’d have done anything to prevent harm to any member of her family no matter what!

And then there were the new guards.

In just the last day her normal guard had been changed to one of the Pontu’ Gi, a Protector. Then she had noticed they were walking in patrols around the streets.

It dawned on her what Tranthra’ Joh was doing. He was using the prophecies of the Protectors to further deceive her people.

And it probably is working, Mouhra thought. Legends are powerful things. Especially live ones. It may get to a point where the people look to Tranthra’ Joh enough that he won’t need me . . . or Dierni.

Mouhra knew what that meant. She also knew that if she went along with Tranthra’ Joh, it would only be a matter of time before she had a mysterious accident anyway. Just like her mother.

The only thing that kept her from doing anything desperate right now was the thought of Dierni in the hands of Saballa. She had no illusions that Saballa wouldn’t hesitate to use torture. Indeed, he’d probably relish it.

Plan after plan had come through her mind. Nothing seemed to have any chance of success. Even if she agreed to Tranthra’ Joh’s ‘proposal,’ she was sure Dierni would never be free. How else could Tranthra be sure she continued to cooperate . . . at least until he’s finished with me.

All Dierni would ever be is a tool. At least she’d be alive!

If she had the heart, she’d just continue to refuse. It would be excruciating to be tortured, probably killed, but then she wouldn’t have to worry about it any more. She wouldn’t have the burden. By then, Tranthra’ could concoct some story and claim the throne anyway. After all, didn’t he have the Pontu’ Gi behind him[_?_]

Mouhra had no doubt that is what Tranthra’ Joh was working towards anyway.

There had to be another way; a way that wouldn’t cause harm to Dierni. She knew she wouldn’t be able to stand seeing her baby sister be hurt. She would sooner die herself. And she’d thought of that, but rejected it. Even if she were took her own life, it would still leave her sister in the hands of Tranthra’ Joh and Saballa. There would be no one to protect her.

That left the final, most desperate plan. She could agree to the wedding, then somehow, either just before or after the wedding kill Tranthra’ Joh. That was the only way. But she also had to find a way to get rid of Saballa at the same time. No doubt Saballa would continue the scheme even if Tranthra’ Joh were dead.

Indeed, he might see it as an opportunity for himself. It could be something he’s planning anyway.

Saballa is much more subtle than Tranthra’ Joh. That’s what was so surprising about this whole mess. It seemed too intricate a plan for anything Tranthra’ Joh would do. He was never known for subtlety. Instead he was a war leader known for his charging into any situation no matter how foolhardy.

Was it Saballa’s plan from the beginning? There had to be someone behind it, orchestrating it.

The fact remained. She had only the thin thread of being able, somehow, to kill Tranthra and Saballa.

But how?

She hadn’t an inkling.

 

Chapter 20

 

Mahntra had been watching the Pontu’ Gi for a few days now. Although it was too soon to judge, he knew their purpose wasn’t being fulfilled as the prophecies had foretold. He also had a feeling time was running out, and if he were going to do something, it’d better be now.

The disguise had come off, and he was again, making his way to the street corner. Not the palace. Today he needed to attract as much attention as he could, then escape. He knew what would happen to him if he were captured.

Some stared at him as he passed through the city. Some wanted to talk with him, ask his opinion of the Protectors. All he would say is “come and hear.”

By the time he got to the corner, he’d brought a sizeable crowd with him.

“Citizens of Putra’ Fi Sorro!”

By the time he’d spoken, all the people had stopped. Did they sense it too?

“The Pontu’ Gi’s true purpose is being perverted by Tranthra’ Joh.”

No point in mincing words.

“The Princess would never turn such a wonderful, legendary people over to the likes of the Conservator. I should know. I know the Princess, and I know Tranthra’ Joh. I also know that the Princess had nothing to do with this! Tranthra’ Joh is making his own grab for power, and I will not sit by and watch it happen. Neither should any of you!” Mahntra pointed to all the people surrounding him.

“The Pontu’ Gi are to protect all peoples, all cities, during a Time of Trouble, not be a private police force for one man. Look around. See what has happened since the Pontu’ Gi have come. Have they been used to any noble purpose? No. All they have done is enforce Tranthra’ Joh’s new edicts! Edicts which he has no authority to issue. He is the Conservator! He is surpassing his authority. And I can prove it!”

The people started pressing in.

“How do you know? But the legends? What is going on?” and one in particular came right up to him. “What can we do?” It was plain he believed what Mahntra was saying.

“Watch. Watch and wait. See if what I’ve already said isn’t true. Then I’ll pass the word of what I think we should do.”

Mahntra was surprised at the reaction. He’d thought the people might be more enamored with what Tranthra’ Joh had been able to produce; that he’d have to speak more to sway the people, if he even could sway the people. Perhaps Tranthra’s new enforced restrictions were having a good affect in convincing the people there was more to the story. They were ready to listen, living legends or not.

And Mahntra didn’t have a plan. That’s what they needed. He’d been foolish to come out here and speak without one. Well, he’d fix that right now.

“Guards. Guards are coming!” someone in the crowd shouted.

“I’ll be back,” Mahntra said. “We’ll talk again.”

Mahntra slipped through the crowd. People parted way, some reaching out to touch his shoulder. “We’ll be waiting.” said one. Then Mahntra moved through the hidden routes he’d memorized back to his place of hiding.

***

Javin felt much better now he was dressed. He and Sauros had been able to obtain clothing from the Pontu’ Gi replacing the tatters of a uniform Sauros had been wearing and the loin cloth Javin had fashioned. Now they both wore the same type of leather breeches and vest with soft soled leather boots laced up their calves. It’d been hard to find anything to fit Sauros, but the Pontu’ Gi women had been quick with their needles. Javin’s bare chest and arms didn’t bother him at all when compared with being almost naked. The material was made of dark tanned leather with a hint of greenish-blue. Javin had smiled when told it was made from the hide of Birta’ Fah, the great blue lizard.

He’d kept the backpack he’d fashioned, but was glad to burn the loincloth. He felt almost human now. Though with his memory still gone he was surprised he would recognize how a human was supposed to feel.

After everything, Javin and Sauros had been warmly welcomed by the Pontu’ Gi village. It was amazing. Javin didn’t think he’d have been able to trust that quickly if the situations were reversed. When he’d asked Preegha, he’d been told it had something to do with their feeling; that and having been proven by the statue.

Javin asked if they’d trusted the Other, Yah’ Winn, the same. Preegha had said nothing then changed the subject.

Javin still didn’t understand, but again, there wasn’t time to sit and work things out. They had work to do, a city to save, a princess to rescue, all the stuff any hero was expected to do.

He was glad whatever happened to his memory, his sense of humor hadn’t gone with it. It was the only thing keeping him sane -- if he was sane. He didn’t have anything to measure against.

In leaving the Pontu’ Gi’s land, they’d decided quickly to press on to Sauros’ city. Four of the Elders had asked to come. Preegha the Sahrzaa had left Luuhzho, his second, to watch over the village, then detailed off three more Elders to come with him. Two looked old, but capable of fighting if needed. The last had been Muusthaa, the Mohrta Mohr or Warrior’s Warrior. Preegha had explained he was responsible for the all the training of their young warriors.

Javin had looked him over and was surprised. He didn’t seem like much, but then again, he supposed looks could be deceiving. Muustha had smiled back, shrugging his shoulders as if he could feel what Javin was thinking. Heck, maybe he could. Then Javin saw a spark of amusement in his eyes. And Javin remembered that warriors, the best warriors, were seldom large and bulky.

He was smart, this one.

The young warriors, Preegha had gone on to explain, would listen to their old teacher, even when they wouldn’t listen to their Sahrzaa.

They’d moved quickly through the jungle, carefully approaching Sunzah’ Nu Geeza. It had taken twelve agonizing days for Sauros, who kept prodding them on to a faster pace. Now they sat hidden by dense foliage looking out at the city from their vantage point. Already they’d avoided several sweeping patrols. Sauros told Javin it wasn’t normal practice to send out as many patrols unless the city was on alert. They had a good idea the alert had something to do with Nemesis and the Pontu’ Gi.

They watched for a time, neither one speaking. Javin didn’t want to interrupt his friend’s thoughts. It must be hard, thinking of his city being in the hands of an enemy they didn’t understand. The beauty of Sunzah’ Nu Geeza had distracted Javin. It was about as different from Putra’ Fi Sorro as it could be. Where Putra’ Fi Sorro had been built upon a level plain carved out of the jungle, Sunzah’ Nu Geeza looked like it had been carved out of white rock gradually climbing up the side of a hill, accented with lush greenery, tall trees, and bright pennants flowing in the breeze. It had an excellent vantage, looking out over all the surrounding terrain, with the jungle cut back to reveal a lush green sward of ground reaching far out to all sides. It made them stay far enough away, to remain hidden in the dense jungle, that details of the city’s structure were almost lost in the haze of humid air.

That wasn’t all. In what Javin recognized must have been an engineering masterpiece, the large city was surrounded by a spectacular waterway, preventing any approach to the city save for the two roads on either side. The waterway was wide enough that it would take several minutes for a boat to make it across and longer to swim. The defensive walls of the city rose directly from the water, preventing any ground on which an enemy could gain a foothold.

Javin’s thoughts were interrupted as Preegha silently moved up beside him and Sauros. It was hard to see him as he blended in with the foliage. The Pontu’ Gi had taken to traveling nearly naked so their blending would act to best advantage. They wore only a loin cloth. The only gear they carried was a long belt knife strapped to their thighs in a scabbard, and a scrip for various items of personal gear looped over their shoulders, all made out of a splotchy, tanned leather that blended in with the jungle almost as well as the they did themselves. It’d been odd to know they were walking beside or in front and barely be able to catch a glimpse, even though you knew they were right there. They moved so silently the sounds of the jungle drowned out their whispery movements. Javin thought he and Sauros by comparison made a total cacophony of noise that could be heard for miles.

These Pontu’ Gi were just as Javin had remembered the other; the one who’d saved him from the Birta’ Fah. Chahzuu, their Chahkzaa.

The Pontu’ Gi seemed lost without him. They’d acted sure when Javin and Sauros had been captured, zealously keeping the commands of Yah’ Winn, their Mulda’ fi. Now they were uncertain. They acted as if they wanted to believe Javin, but without their prophet, they seemed unsure what to believe.

“We feel our young brethren inside your city.” Preegha said. “We must get them out.”

“Can they feel you?” Sauros asked.

Javin knew what he was worried about. If they could feel their brethren inside the city, then those inside could feel their Elders. A trap could be set.

“They cannot,” Preegha said. “We won’t allow knowledge of us until we meet face to face.”

“How can you do that?” Javin asked.

Preegha stared. “You cannot?”

Javin shook his head. Never enough time for answers, he thought.

Sauros looked back and forth between them. “Good. They won’t know we’re here.”

They had planned on their way to Sunzha’ Nu Geeza. The Elders had agreed if their warriors were in the city, it would be best to take them home until they knew what was right. Preegha had kept staring at Javin, as if expecting him to take charge of his people . . . to guide them. There was no way Javin was going to do that. He didn’t have the slightest idea what should be done with these people. He didn’t know any of their prophecies . . . except that he seemed the focus of most of them.

“How do we get inside?” Javin asked.

“There is a way I can get us inside. When we do, I think we all should stay together until we know the situation.” Sauros turned to Preegha. “I must seek out a friend there. We must know what is going on before we seek to contact even my father. It will be difficult as strange as Javin looks. Maybe you can teach him to fade?”

Preegha grunted. “He is Mulda’ fi. He does not know how already?”

“This is going to be a long day,” Javin said.

“How can the day be longer than it is? Do you hold back time too?” Preegha stared at Javin in obvious wonder.

There was a moment of silence. Sauros stared at Javin.

“Forget I said anything,” Javin said, his voice dead pan. Then he turned to Sauros. “You’re assuming trouble?”

Sauros looked at Preegha, then at Javin and smiled. “With Javin Cox, I’ve come to know there’ll be trouble.”

They moved far around the city, still careful to avoid patrols. If anything, the patrols had increased. It helped to have the Pontu’ Gi. They seemed to be able to sense the patrols then avoid them. Especially the Pontu’ Gi patrols. That was a new twist, sending them out. With their silence and blending ability, they’d never be seen until it was too late.

Javin had a nagging worry in the back of his mind. He didn’t say anything because it wouldn’t have done them any good. If the Elders could block the other Pontu’ Gi from feeling their presence, what was stopping the Pontu’ Gi patrols from doing the same?

“We’re here,” Sauros whispered. They stood in front of a thick stand of trees. Sauros was caressing one of the trees like it was a cherished pet.

“Do all cities have the same type of secret entrance?” Javin asked.

“They took you into Putra’ Fi Sorro by the secret way, too?” Sauros seemed surprised, but then his eyes cleared and he shook his head. “Of course they would have. They didn’t want anyone to see you . . . or the Princess . . . any more than they wanted anyone to see me.” Sauros’ eyes kept scanning, looking for any signs of detection. “I don’t know if all cities use this same secret way. I hope not, but I wouldn’t be surprised.”

Javin tilted his head. “It wouldn’t be that secret then, would it? Anyone would be able to find the trees and get through.”

“It’s not that the way is secret. And it wouldn’t be simple.” Sauros patted the trunk of the tree he’d been stroking. “These trees are so strong they can’t be cut. Many have tried. They are trained to respond only to a certain song. And only when sung by someone they know. I’m lucky. I know the song . . . and they know me.” Sauros smiled with affection at the stand of trees. “Besides,” he continued. “There are several stands around that look just like this. All trained the same way. With surprises for anyone they don’t recognize. Unpleasant surprises.”

Javin backed away from the trees.

“It’s best we get started,” Sauros said. He turned to the trees, resting both hands on the nearest trunks. His voice started low, almost whispering, then grew to a soft keening. Pitch and timber varied to a certain pattern that Javin tried to pick up. It would have been complicated for anyone to learn something like that, much less know a bunch of trees would recognize your voice and do what you were asking.

Is that what Sauros is doing? Javin wondered. Telling the trees what he wants them to do?

Soon the trees began to wriggle, starting high in the branches. Then the trunks began to quiver and vibrate, started to bend, flex and form a shape like he’d seen before, creating an opening to the center of the stand.

Preegha stared in wonder. The other Pontu’ Gi held watch around the perimeter, but they, too, were fascinated, darting glances back from where they were standing, then out into the jungle, sending their feelings out to detect any intruders.

“It’s a wonder they don’t have this watched,” Javin said to Sauros as he stopped his song. His hands still rested on the trunks and he was smiling at the trees.

“Only my family knows this stand of trees.”

With a last pat, he turned to the Pontu’ Gi on the perimeter. “Come, we must hurry.”

Javin ducked through and down the stairs he knew would be there. At the bottom he waited in the small room, lit again by a glowing ball set on a stanchion.

“The entrance has closed,” Sauros said. He was the last to descend the steps. “Now, this way. There will be several branches all leading to different places. I must guide us.”

Javin moved aside. They moved up a narrow, damp hallway. Occasional lights lit the way. Branches to the passage veered off every so often. In one small room that branched out into several other passages, Sauros hesitated a moment, going into the openings of each passage and studying some slight markings on the walls. It was only a series of dots and circles grouped inside a small raised square high on the wall. It wasn’t language. Code.

“This way,” Sauros said, and started off again.

After a while, and many branching turns, Javin was thoroughly lost. He’d never be able to retrace his path. It’d been even more circuitous than at Puntra’ Fi Sorro.

Maybe it didn’t have to be that way. Maybe Sauros was taking them on a varying path so that the Pontu’ Gi would be confused too. Maybe he didn’t entirely trust the Elders of the Pontu’ Gi. Javin thought about it. He’d probably have done the same.

What about him? Did Sauros trust him?

Then Javin noticed a difference in their traveling. The passage was inclining steeply upwards. They must be coming near the surface inside the city. Sauros slowed his pace then stopped. Javin was bringing up the rear at this point, and Sauros called them all together.

“We have reached our destination. Wait here while I go and check to see if the way is clear.”

And protect the entry mechanism’s secret, I’ll bet. Javin understood, but he wondered just the same. Shrug it off. You’d do the same.

Sauros came back. “It’s still light out. We must wait until dark to move. The place we must go is near.” He looked at Javin. “I don’t know what to do with you. If you are seen, it would certainly draw attention.”

“I know.” Javin had been thinking the same thing. But he saw something in Sauros’ eyes. Apology?

“Would you wait here for a time after we’ve left? I could gather some coverings that would hide your appearance then come back for you.”

You don’t have to ask my permission, Javin thought. “Sounds like a plan. Go ahead. I think you don’t have to worry about the Pontu’ Gi. They’ll just blend in.” Javin smiled at the joke, but the others only stared. After a second’s hesitation, Sauros nodded.

They waited maybe an hour then Sauros moved off again. When he came back he beckoned the Pontu’ Gi to follow.

“I won’t be long,” he said to Javin and smiled.

“Good luck.” Javin said then Sauros ducked up the hall with the Pontu’ Gi.

Javin settled down to wait . . . And wait . . . And wait.

He didn’t know how long it’d been, but he knew for sure it’d been too long. What’s happened? Javin wondered while he sat. He got up occasionally and paced, trying to keep the dampness from making his limbs stiff. He was getting thirsty too -- and hungry. Had they been discovered? Had the younger Pontu’ Gi in the city been waiting for them? Had the Elders somehow communicated with them through their feelings and tipped them off? Maybe they’d been set up from the moment the Elders figured they couldn’t kill them. This could all be part of a trap. Javin thought they’d given in much too easily.

One thing was sure. Javin couldn’t just sit there and wait. They’d be coming for him if they were found out.

He couldn’t go back. He’d be lost for centuries back that way. The only way was ahead and hope he could figure out how to get out into the city. From there he’d have to take his chances.

Javin strode up to the front of the hall where it came to a dead end. It was dimmer than further back down the hall. He almost missed a slight seam in one side of the wall. It had to be part of the doorway mechanism. The only problem was how to make it work.

He ran his fingers down the seam looking closely in the dim light, trying to determine where the catch mechanism was. Nothing. He brushed his hands across the top searching for any irregularity, any indentation he could press. Still nothing.

He stood back from the wall, squinting.

A low rumbling vibration started and the seam widened. Javin stepped back as a section of wall swung inward. A huge silouette stood in the dark opening then moved forward.

Javin instinctively went to a defensive stance, then breathed a sigh of relief as the image came into the dim light and resolved itself as Sauros.

“Sorry to be so long,” he said. “It took longer than I thought to convince my friend the Pontu’ Gi with me were not enemies. Here, put these on.” He tossed Javin a bundle of dark cloth. It was a long flowing cloak with a hood to pull forward, covering his face. “This should keep you covered until we make it to my friend’s home.”

“Is everything okay?” Javin had noted Sauros’ pensive mood.

“No. It’s not,” Sauros said. “My city is under siege and its people don’t even know.”

“I’m sorry,” was all Javin could think to say.

“Thanks, my friend. Now we’re here to fix it!”

Javin smiled. “That we are.” Javin clapped his friend on the arm. “Let’s go.”

They stepped through the opening into dark, dense shrubbery blocking the passage way from the sight of others. The passageway had come up through the wall of a building set just off one of the broad streets of the city. Sauros reached up and touched a seemingly invisible spot on the wall. The slab of heavily balanced stone swung shut. There was a soft click as the catch took hold and Javin was relieved his friend hadn’t tried to hide it. He knew it was silly, but it meant his friend trusted him.

“Come,” Sauros said. Javin followed through the shrubs along the building. They had to crouch low and move as stealthily as they had through the jungle near the city. They crept for several minutes until there was a thinning. Sauros paused, gesturing for Javin to stay behind while he moved up. Then he heard a quiet, “come.”

Javin stepped out. Just past the shrubbery was a walk and across that a broad avenue. No one was present.

“There.” Sauros pointed at a dwelling across the avenue. “That is my friend’s home. Let’s go.” They ghosted across the avenue and up a short path to the door. Javin noted the size of the structure. The front was not taller than the other buildings, but something about it indicated a sense of some depth. It would be a large home. Well appointed, from the detail he made out from the doorway.

Sauros tapped on the door three times, waited, then tapped three more times. The door immediately swung open. In it was framed another lion man, almost as big as Sauros but Javin could tell he was much older. When he caught sight of Javin’s face under the hood, his eyes widened. He looked at Sauros, then back at Javin who chuckled inwardly. And I thought you looked strange to me!

“Come in,” the man said. “Hurry.”

They stepped through and the man quickly shut the door behind. “This way.” They moved deeper into the home.

Javin noted the floor was a slate tile, the walls a smooth earth color plaster covered here and there with rich colored tapestries and hangings of wildly colored floral works. Every so often there was a painted picture, even a portrait of a female. His wife? Javin wondered. It was strange. He hadn’t considered that these people would have art such as what he was used to.

And just what am I used to?

Javin shook his head. He should have remembered he saw similar in the palace at Putra’ Fi’ Sorro, but he’d been a little distracted then.

“He lives alone,” Sauros said under his breath as they followed their host. “He was my father’s chamberlain for many years, since retired five years ago. Still, he’s been my family’s eyes and ears out in the city since.”

Javin nodded.

“Please, sit,” their host said as they moved into a large open room sunken down two steps from the main level of the rest of the home. The room was richly appointed, filled with cushions and chairs. At one side sat the four Pontu’ Gi Elders. Javin had a knack of picking them out now, even though they were using their blending ability. He felt like telling them to ease off but realized it must be a natural response to their nervousness. Maybe they couldn’t control it.

Javin found a chair on the far side of the room and sat next to a low burning fireplace. He stretched out his hands rubbing them together. Although it was warm out, the passageway had been damp and cool. His host brought him over a goblet full of spiced fruit drink. “Here,” he said, then looked over to Sauros for the introductions.

Javin got back to his feet.

“Dahken’ Zho,” Sauros said, gesturing to their host. “Meet my friend, Javin Cox.”

Dahken raised his right fist and placed his over his left breast and bowed. “I’m honored to meet a friend of my Prince.”

Javin repeated the salute and while bowing said, “Thank you for your hospitality. This is only the second place on your world I have been welcome . . . and grateful for it.”

He stretched out his hand. Dahken looked at it, and while glancing at Sauros extended his own hand. Javin took hold in a firm clasp and shook it. “I’m pleased to meet you.”

“It’s a greeting where he’s from,” Sauros said.

“Oh, yes.” Dahken said. “Come, sit. We’ve much to discuss.” He spoke to Sauros, but encompassed them all with a gesture.

“My Prince, I must tell you as I said when you first arrived there is trouble in the city. It was only a few cycles ago things began to change.”

From there Dahken went on to relate how he’d heard rumors. Rumors he’d since confirmed with his contacts in the palace. A strange being (and he had looked at Javin) had come with the Pontu’ Gi. He claimed to be Mulda’ fi. The Keeper had backed him up. He went on to explain that since that time the king had not been seen outside the private audience room. It is rumored he is ill, though he’s sent proclamations and orders out allowing the Pontu’ Gi and others from Putra’ Fi Sorro to take command of the city defenses as well as the palace guard.

Javin kept watch on Sauros as the report continued. His face was somber, nodding with each point Dahken related. At the end, Dahken turned to Javin. “Do you know this Mulda’ fi? I have not seen him, but from his description, he must be the same type of being as you.”

“I . . .” Javin wasn’t sure what to say. “I know of him . . . I think we’ve met.” Flashes of standing in front of the one who called himself Nemesis came to the forefront of his memory. Still he didn’t know whether it was the past . . . or the future . . . he’d been seeing. “He’s not who he says he is. And he’s definitely not a friend.”

“Mmm.” Dahken nodded his head. “I’d gathered as much. Many of the nobles have too, but they’ve not spoken out. The King is still the King.”

“Thank you, Dahken,” Sauros said. “Is there anything else?”

“Yes. There’s one more thing, my Prince. I just heard a few days ago that your brother, Sohorken had been seen within the city. He was being escorted to the palace. Since that time, no one has seen nor heard from him. No official word has been made of his arrival.”

Javin saw Sauros’ jaw clench.

“I assume,” Dahken continued, “that he’s in the palace with your father. That there’s been no mention made of his arrival causes me great concern.”

“Me too,” Sauros said. “But now that I’m here,” he looked at Javin then to the Pontu’ Gi Elders, “now that we’re here, we’re going to do something about it.”

“You have a plan?” Javin asked.

“Something like the beginnings of one,” Sauros said. “It will of necessity have to be quite flexible, but it will be the best we can do. Much depends on how things flow from where we begin.”

“We’re listening,” Javin said.

“First, I need to have some idea of the powers of our main enemy. Javin, do you know of what Yah’ Winn can do?”

“I’m not sure.” Javin was silent a moment, thinking, trying to pull something, anything out of his memory. Nothing came.

“I don’t have any idea. But leave him to me. If he shows up, I want him!” Javin knew that Nemesis was the nexus, the heart of all that was happening here. Not only was he the cause, he was also a source of the answers Javin was looking for.

Sauros glanced over to the Pontu’ Gi Elders. They were watching intently. Dahken had taken a seat.

“First, we will wait until tomorrow night. All of us should sleep as long and as deep as possible. We’ll need the rest. Going at night provides for more cover, but also will keep the innocent out of harm’s way.”

“You expect fighting?” Javin leaned forward in his chair. “You’re the Prince.”

“The people holding the palace are not my people. They will resist anything that threatens to remove them . . . especially me!

“I am counting on you, Preegha,” Sauros looked at the Elder, “to stop your people from fighting us.”

“They will listen,” he said. “Still we must wait to reveal ourselves until we are facing them. If we allow them to know of our presence too soon, it will confuse them and alert our enemies.”

Javin was surprised to hear Preegha characterize Nemesis’ followers as enemies. He didn’t know how, but they were making progress.

“We will all stay together until we reach the palace. It’s important that we secure the palace first then move out into the city from there.”

Preegha nodded. Sauros looked at Javin. “Let’s do it,” Javin said.

Sauros nodded then looked at Dahken. “Can you discreetly go out to the nobles we know we can count on. I don’t want them to mobilize. I want them to keep their people out of the way. I think the relieved guard remaining in the city will still be loyal once they see me with the king. I’m not sure of the soldiers from Putra’ Fi Sorro. What I want is to have the Pontu’ Gi quell any resistance from them so our peoples, the people of Putra’ Fi Sorro and Sunzha’ Nu Geeza don’t have any cause to fight each other.”

“I understand,” Dahken said. “It will be hard for them to stay back, but I think once they understand the situation, they’ll obey. Especially if they know you are here . . . and the king will be himself again.”

“Can your warriors do that?” Sauros again turned to the Elders. “I don’t want them to kill, but if they have to they must, to protect the people of my city from those who’ve come to try and take it over. Do you understand?”

“We understand, Mulda’ fi. It is our role. We will protect your city.”

Javin was taken aback by the formal use the title. But Sauros had proven himself to these people. And there was something else. When Preegha had said it was their role, a flashing surge of warmth had spread through his bosom. The crystal again, confirming something important was happening. He wasn’t quite sure what, but it had just begun.

 

Chapter 21

 

Javin scratched the stubble from his face with the sharp edge of his knife. He looked in the mirror and nodded. Shaving wasn’t necessary, as Sauros thought he was hairless as it was, but anything he could do to make him look different than Nemesis he was all for. Shaving was the first thing he’d done when they’d finally been accepted by the Pontu’ Gi. They had been amazed once the beard had been cleaned off. His resemblance to the Pontu’ Gi’s Proving Stone was even closer than before. Javin couldn’t explain it and right now explaining things like that were pretty far down the list.

He’d been able to sleep, though not long. He’d lain awake thinking through all that had happened, and all that had yet to be done. Mouhra’ Lah was captive, Siri had been killed protecting him, Sauros might lose his father, and his kingdom. This whole world had been ripped from its normal course by something from outside. And he was involved because of Nemesis . . . and he looks just like me!

Javin splashed water on his face then took up a towel and dried himself off. It was late in the morning. He didn’t know what to do until night fell and they could finally be about their business.

He wandered from his room into the gathering area they’d met in the night before. The Elders were nowhere to be seen. Probably in their rooms feeling around or something. Javin shook his head and made his way into the adjoining room. An assortment of breads and fruits had been spread on a table. There was drink in the pitcher and goblets off to the side. Javin poured a drink then took up an empty plate and filled it. He sat down to eat and looked up as he heard footsteps coming from the larger room.

Sauros strode in.

“Morning,” Javin said. “Sleep well?”

Sauros looked only slightly more rested. He must have stayed up, worrying. That’s what Javin would have done.

“The food looks good,” Sauros said as he took up a plate and started filling it.

“Hits the spot with me.”

Sauros looked at Javin, his eyebrows furrowed in confusing.

“It’s really good,” Javin said. “Another stupid saying.”

“Oh,” Sauros said, smiling. The humor crossing his face seemed to make the rest of him relax as well.

“Dahken has gone out to start contacting the nobles. I don’t expect him back before we leave.”

“Think we’ll be able to pull it off?” Sauros gave Javin a blank stare.

“I mean, do you think we’ll be successful?”

“We have to be. There is nothing else that is acceptable.”

Javin smiled. “That’s the spirit!”

Sauros laughed. “Did your own people have as hard a time understanding you as I do?”

“I don’t know since I can’t remember. Remember? Chances are I’ll be equally confusing where ever I end up.”

“Of that I can believe.”

Silence fell between them for a time. Javin didn’t know what to say, but he knew what he felt. He was nervous. They were walking into this almost blind. The way the city was on alert they’d be extremely lucky to get into the palace, much less get all the way to Sauros’ father. After that, it was anybody’s guess.

 

“Come, the way is clear.” Sauros motioned for them to step out of the doorway of the house and move across the avenue. The shrubbery swallowed them quickly and they crouched through the path they’d traced only the night before, back to the passage. Javin gathered the cloak tight about him, keeping it from catching on the shrubbery as they moved through.

Javin had gone back to his room shortly after breakfast, as had Sauros. There wasn’t much to say. Sauros was too rapt in his concentration and worry, and Javin was thinking about his role in all this. One thing was certain, if they ran into Nemesis, Javin would handle him. That was his role, no matter what else he was supposed to do. Then maybe he’d get some answers.

The passageway swung open and the Pontu’ Gi Elders ducked inside, followed by Javin. Sauros came through and it clicked shut behind. “This way.”

They followed Sauros down. Javin left the cloak in a pile where he could find it later if necessary. They’d decided it would be better for Javin to be seen the way he was. It would cause confusion, especially to those who were following the man calling himself Yah’ Winn. Even a moment’s hesitation could swing the fight in their favor.

They traveled a distance down several branching corridors, going deeper into the hillside all the time then Sauros stopped.

“From here we move up under the palace.”

Javin was heartened that their way was more direct this time. One path led spiraling up on a steep angle and Sauros didn’t hesitate to stop and read any of the markings. He knew right where he was going.

A feeling of exhilaration filled Javin. For the first time since he’d been on this world he was doing something proactive rather than reactive. They were doing something. Starting to set things right. Offense was finally on the field. Javin stopped short. Offense? Defense? He knew the concepts but not where they came from. Javin shook his head and kept going. One of these days I’m going to figure out where all this is coming from!

“Here we are,” Sauros announced in a whisper. “Through that opening are the lower dungeons. There is only one way up through the palace. Preegha, send the Elders up through. They must gather your warriors. If they’re with any of the other guard, leave them for us. We can’t risk any alarm being raised until we’ve been able to secure the king. If they know we’re here, that’s the first thing our enemies will do.”

Sauros would have a hard decision if they held the king. Would he choose his city, or his father? They could still make the plan work just by virtue of the proof they could present. And if the Pontu’ Gi would switch sides. Sauros could call on the forces loyal to him in the city, and they would follow. But that would almost certainly mean death for the king, and possibly many of his own people.

Preegha silently touched the three who were with him and they each folded their arms across their chests, bowed their head, and faded from view as they turned and moved through the opening.

“It is done,” Preegha said. “Once they have contacted all they can in the palace, they will spread through the city with the same intent. Those whom they contact will not betray us until they know it is time.”

Javin was about to ask how they’d know it was time, then caught himself. They’d feel it, he thought with a wry grin.

Preegha was to stay with them, to call in his warriors if they came against some with the other guard. That’s when Javin and Sauros knew they’d have to fight. The guard should be confused with the Pontu’ Gi switching sides. Whatever happened, they’d have to keep it quiet or everything would fall apart.

“Let’s go,” Sauros said.

They moved to the opening and hesitated. They could hear some voices. Sauros stiffened then moved ahead. He didn’t stay to the wall like they’d planned. He moved directly into the large open room filled with empty cells moving faster than caution would dictate. What had he heard?

Javin followed closely, barely being able to make out the outline of Preegha as he moved beside. “Our warriors in here have been contacted. They’ve left with the Elders. There are no others except those in cells.”

Javin nodded, relieved. Sauros continued to move through the room, ignoring Preegha’s words. He went up a small flight of steps and down one aisle of cells. That’s where the voices had come from. They’d fallen silent. They must have heard Preegha, or maybe noticed their guards had disappeared.

“Sohorken?” Sauros said in a low voice. There was silence then a hissed whisper.

“Sauros!”

“I’m here. Where’s the key?” Sauros darted forward with Javin close on his heels. He stopped and shuddered, his eyes blurring with sudden moisture.

“Siri!” His mouth went dry. “You’re alive!”

“Javin?”

Javin could see Siri standing up in the cell, hand over her mouth, eyes wide. “Is it really you?”

“How . . .”

“Not now,” Sauros snapped. “The keys, Sohorkon!”

“The guards had them. They’ve gone. I don’t know why.”

“These will open the door,” Preegha materialized right next to Sauros as he was looking at the lock. “My warriors left them so they wouldn’t make noise as they moved. They’ve gone to help bring back the rest.”

The reunion was short but sweet. Sohorkon quickly outlined the fact that there were few guards not Pontu’ Gi in the palace. He’d seen none of the regular palace retainers except for the Keeper.

Javin had carefully taken Siri in a hug, mindful of her bandages, tears streaming down his cheeks.

“I thought they’d killed you!”

Siri giggled with her relief at being rescued.

“Hshhh!” Sauros quieted them all. “We still have much to do.” He was still clasping wrists with his brother. Relief was plain on his face as he cautioned them. “At least we have more to help in the struggle.”

“Yes,” Sohorkon said. “But this time we stick together!”

Sauros nodded. “Together!

“We’ll go through the back ways as much as possible. Remember, anyone not Pontu’ Gi is an enemy,” Sohorkon nodded agreement and spoke.

“They follow Yah’ Winn. These men are not friends of any city. They are not loyal to anyone but their own ambition.”

Sauros looked at them all, and pointedly to Preegha. “If they resist then, don’t hold back! That simplifies things. Can you get that word to your people?”

“It is done, Mulda’ fi. All are close enough,” Preegha said.

I definitely need to learn how to do that, Javin thought to himself.

They started off again, this time getting back to moving quietly. The first hall off the dungeon was unoccupied. They reached a branching corridor and followed it. It too was vacant. They picked up the pace. The longer it took to secure the king, the less chance they’d be successful.

They came to another branch and Sauros slowed. He turned back to the group. Sohorkon stayed just off his shoulder. Javin was amazed at how much they looked alike, though Sauros was clearly older and larger but not by much.

“We have to go into the main palace corridor now. I’m certain we’ll run into guards here.” He pulled his long dagger out of its sheath. Javin did the same. Preegha merely nodded. Siri clasped Javin’s shoulder. He patted her hand. “Stay behind me,” he said as Sauros opened the door and they all stepped out, moving as quickly as Siri could move.

The corridor was long, wide and sloping up. It was filled with tapestries and small statuettes situated in alcoves and wide spaces as richly appointed palace should. Sauros and Sohorkon were sure footed, knowing exactly their destination. Javin kept flicking his eyes down the side corridors as they passed. It wouldn’t do for anyone to catch a glimpse of them off to the side and raise the alarm. If anyone saw them, they’d have to be subdued.

They neared a corner, and as they rounded it, came upon a small detachment of five guards. They looked stunned, but drew their blades. Javin barely glimpsed as Preegha faded from view and became a blur of movement.

Javin gently made sure Siri was behind him and moved forward. “What do you here?” he said in an authoritative tone.

The guards looked puzzled. They were dressed in a black uniform with a sunburst emblem on their breast. Two of them paused and put a fist to their breast in salute, the other three just stared. It was enough.

One at the back collapsed. That’s where Preegha went! Sauros and Sohorkon moved forward with him.

As one they lunged, each taking a guard. Sohorkon swung a heavy fist and caught his across the jaw. Sauros had turned the pommel of his dagger and drove it into the chin of another and he collapsed. Javin ducked under a slashing blade and came up with an uppercut blow that laid his guard out. The remaining guard opened his mouth to cry out, but was hit from behind, again by Preegha. All five guards lay on the floor.

Javin looked around. No one else was coming. Siri moved up. “I know these men. They are attached to Tranthra’ Joh.”

“I can see he’s keeping it in the family, then,” Javin said.

Sauros looked blankly at him, then reached down and grabbed two of the unconscious guards by the uniforms. He began dragging them off into a side corridor. “We need to hide them for as long as possible.”

“We don’t have anything to tie them up, or gag them,” Sohorkon said, as he grabbed two more and began following his brother. Preegha shrugged and grabbed the final guard and followed.

“We don’t have time anyway,” Sauros said. They should be out for a while. Long enough . . . I hope.

“Come!”

They started up the corridor again. As soon as another passage they could follow opened up, they took it. It was smaller, steeper, and completely vacant. “A servant’s way,” Siri guessed in Javin’s ear.

They went up two levels then slowed again.

“We’re almost there,” Sauros turned. “This is where they will have the most guards. We may have to use more than the blunt ends.”

Sohorkon hefted the long blade he’d acquired. Preegha stood passively. Javin nodded.

“Ready?”

He pushed the door open slightly and peered through. He turned back and nodded. The door swung open and again they were into the broad corridor. This one was more opulent with décor. Small stanchions held vases with flowers and ferns, most drooping from lack of care.

It’s amazing what you pick out, Javin thought. Looks like Yah’ Winn and his people aren’t much for nice and pretty.

They moved as quickly as they could up the broad corridor. The far end terminated in a smaller doorway guarded by a larger detachment of soldiers. Two, seeing them ducked immediately through the door and the rest, Javin made out about seven, drew their long blades.

“The entrance to our father’s private chambers,” Sauros said in low tones. “The Pontu’ Gi’s sudden departure must have alerted them. At least there’s no way for them to get past us to gather more soldiers.”

“What counts is what’s on the other side of that door,” Sohorkon said.

“And the only way to get there,” Sauros answered, “Is through them.” A mirthless smiled crossed his face as he drew his long dagger. Sohorkon followed suit and moved to stand beside his brother

Out of the corner of Javin’s eyes, he saw the blurred movement of Preegha as he again faded from sight. Then he drew his dagger from its scabbard in one hand and hefted a long blade he’d appropriated from one of the guards in his other hand. Siri, thankfully, hung back. She seemed to know the best way to help was to stay out of the way so they wouldn’t worry.

“Come,” Sohorkon taunted the guards, “let’s end this!”

They all moved forward, pressing to meet the advancing guard. A loud shout rang from one of the guards as he sprang forward toward Sohorkon, his blade arching in a powerful cut. Sohorkon ducked under and swung a left fist into the man’s gut. He bent low and Sohorkon followed through with the flat of the blade into the back of the guard’s head. He was down.

The rest became a blur of movement, blades clanging, gnarled curses, grunts of pain. Javin was surprised at his fighting ability.

Without any memory, his bodily instinct took over. Three attackers sprang toward him and his blades wove a web of defense. The attackers fanned out, trying to encircle him and rush him from different sides. Javin’s leg snapped out high, taking one man in the temple and he slumped to the floor. Javin’s senses seemed hyper-alert for any opening.

Another lunged forward, point ready to bury itself into Javin’s breast. At the last instant he deflected it with a flick of his shorter blade in his right hand then caught the guard’s extended arm in a vice, and snapped it with an upthrust of the knee, followed with a head-butt to finish the second.

Behind him the final guard tried a mighty slash to Javin’s exposed back. With an instinct he didn’t know he had, Javin felt it coming, and ducked, swinging his left arm back and around as he pivoted, opening the guard up with his longer blade.

The guard’s eyes flashed wide in shock, as Javin followed through with his right hand driving the dagger hilt deep in the man’s chest. He would have been dead anyway from the first cut, Javin thought, watching with a numbness as the guard fell to the floor.

He looked around. Two guards were still pressing Sohorkon, who’d maneuvered to fight with his back to the wall. Javin leapt forward and Sohorkon, seeing his movement, shouted, fixing the guard’s attention. Javin struck one from behind with the pommel of his dagger. And Sohorkon pressed with a flurry of cuts ending with his blade buried in the guard’s neck.

Javin turned to find Sauros dispatching the only guard left standing. He paused a second to glance at Javin and Sohorkon, making sure they were okay, then both he and Sohorkon sprang for the door and were through.

Javin motioned Siri to follow then darted after.

They sprinted through what Javin thought must be a private audience room. It was vacant. Sauros and Sohorkon were already moving toward a smaller door on the far side, pulling it open.

I wish they’d wait, Javin thought. There’s no telling what’s on the other side of these doors. He glanced back. Siri had come into the room. He jerked his head to the smaller door then went through himself, blades at the ready. What he saw upon first entering made him pull up short.

Three lion-men were lying on the floor. Two were dressed in black uniforms, the third in what looked like ceremonial robes. “Their Keeper,” Siri murmured to him as she caught up.

Preegha was standing to one side of the downed men. So this is where he went. Javin thought. A good thing too.

Sauros was kneeling at his father’s bedside, Sohorkon standing over, a hand resting on his shoulder. Javin and Siri moved up. He nodded once at Preegha. “Well done.”

Preegha smiled and nodded back.

“Is he alright?” Siri asked, moving up to Sohorkon’s side.

“He’s not worse, but he’s still pretty weak.”

Javin came closer. He didn’t know what to say. He could see the pain in Sauros’ face. His father’s hand was clenched in his, his other covering it, talking in low tones.

“I’m here now, father. I’m here.”

“Sauros? My son, is that you?”

“It is, father. Sohorkon’s here too. We’re both here.”

“That’s good. My sons, you’re both here?”

“Yes, father. We’re both here,” Sauros consoled.

Javin turned back to the door. He didn’t want to rush them, but they needed to decide what they were going to do, or they’d have visitors with reinforcements.

“I . . . It’s so hard to think. To keep my thoughts straight,” the king said. “There’s something happening. It isn’t right. You have to help me.”

Javin could see the cloudy old eyes of the king gaze up at Sauros.

“There are people trying to take over the city,” Sauros said. He tried to keep his voice level. “We came to get you out of their control. They’ve been giving you something to make you sick. Can you remember what they’ve given you?”

“I don’t . . . remember . . . In my drink? My food?”

The king’s words were starting to get a little stronger. Javin could tell a bit of fire was returning behind his eyes, like he was struggling, fighting to bring himself back to where he could serve his people, fulfill his duty.

“What . . . is happening?” he struggled to rise, but Sauros pushed him back gently.

“Yah’ Winn is false. He’s not really Mulda’ fi,” Sohorkon said. “The Pontu’ Gi were duped too. And our Keeper . . . I don’t know if he’s been fooled, or a willing part.” Sohorkon said the last to Sauros as well as his father. He glanced over to the man still lying in a heap on the floor.

“We had to fight our way in,” Sauros continued the explanation. “It won’t be long before they come back with more guards. It’s almost daylight, we need to get you out of here and get you into hiding. Then Sohorkon and I can go out among the people in your name and have them cast these intruders out from within our walls.”

Javin had watched as the king’s eyes followed back and forth between Sohorkon and Sauros. His breathing grew more heavy and his eyes wider, the flame behind them growing, though it was obvious his body was still very weak.

“I’ll not go into hiding,” the king said, suppressing a cough. “I’ll not leave to you my duty!”

“But father . . .” Sohorkon said. Sauros glanced at him and shook his head slightly.

“What can we do for you, father?” Sauros said. There was pain in his eyes. He helped him sit up.

“Bring my clothes. You must help me to the balcony, both of you. I must speak to the people. I will not leave anyone in my city that does not belong!”

Sohorkon sprang to get clothing. Sauros helped his father stand. It was plain he was supporting almost all his weight.

“We don’t have much time,” Javin said. “I’m surprised we haven’t had visitors already.”

“We must do this,” Sauros said. “Father is right. As soon as the people see us all together, and my father tells them the Pontu’ Gi should leave, they will believe. It will be best. The people need to hear it from him.”

And for your father’s sake, he needs to say it, Javin thought. You’re a good son, Sauros.

Javin turned to Preegha. “Will your warriors lay down their arms? Will they listen to the king? Or will they fight?”

Preegha hesitated, his eyes closed. “The Elders have found them . . . They have listened . . . They will obey us. Not necessarily the king. I must be on the balcony, as should you, Jah’Vinn.”

“He’s right,” Sauros said. He’d listened to the exchange while Sohorkon had come back and began helping his father dress. “You’re the true Mulda’ fi. You must be there.”

Javin was stunned. Sauros looked at him, his eyes intense. He knows something! Does everyone know who I am but me? He couldn’t say anything, only nod. It was enough. Sauros went back to helping his father dress.

Then Javin’s mind kicked back into gear. He didn’t like the idea of playing Mulda’ fi, but there it was. He was stuck. If they needed him to stand there on the balcony, he’d do it. Anger started to well up inside. No one asked him if he wanted to be Mulda’ fi. No one asked him if he wanted a crystal put over his heart . . . maybe to control him.

He’d get to the bottom of it . . . later. What mattered now was his friends needed his help. Whatever he could do, he would. The anger began to subside.

“Preegha,” he snapped. Preegha bolted upright. “Go and stand guard until they finish. I don’t want any surprises.” Preegha slammed a fist to his chest in salute and moved, fading from view at the same time. “Where is this balcony we need to stand on?”

“It is through the room we came from, back out into the corridor and down a short way. There is a curtained alcove with doors opening onto a balcony looking over the central square. It is used in festival times and for important announcements,” Sohorkon answered. He turned to look at Sauros. Sauros smiled back and nodded. Javin looked at Siri. She was beaming.

Now what have I done? Javin thought.

The king was dressed now and stood upright, facing Javin.

“Who are you? You look like the other, but are different. You came with Sauros?” The king was now assuming his royal mantle. It was difficult, Javin could tell, but his sheer force of will pushed him through whatever haze had been there before, though he still needed physical support from his sons. Javin could tell why his sons loved him. He also could see where Sauros got his inner strength.

“Father, this is Javin Cox,” his full name sounded odd coming from Sauros’s mouth. “He is truly Mulda’ fi. I have seen it.” Javin didn’t know whether he meant the Proving or another place. “He has saved me from our enemies once already, and his being here will help convince the Pontu’ Gi, to leave us, to go back to a peaceful way.”

The king stared at him a long time.

“Come, the light approaches.” Sauros finally said. Only now did Javin realize how much time had passed.

They moved through the room. As they neared the door, Preegha faded back into sight. “There is no one coming. The palace feels empty of our enemies. I feel confusion. Our young ones turned on those they could isolate. I cannot feel any others.” He spoke to Javin, not to Sauros. That made him uncomfortable. Sauros seemed to accept it.

“Do you feel the other?” Javin asked. He didn’t say who he meant. He didn’t need to.

“He is not here.”

Javin didn’t know whether to be glad or disappointed. Looks like our appointment has been delayed a bit. “What now of warriors?”

“They are ready to do whatever must be done.”

Javin got the point. There was still a whole lot they didn’t know. Could they risk the king standing out in the open? That wasn’t his decision. He turned to the king, addressing him directly.

“If you stand out in the open there will be danger. We don’t know where the other guards have gone. It worries me they haven’t come after us. Nemesis certainly left better instructions to keep you under wraps.”

The small group blanched at the name Javin had used. Nemesis. It means something to them! “That is the real name of your enemy . . . and mine. Now I’m adding to this myth thing. I should know better, being so dramatic.

“My people must hear from me,” the king was adamant. “There is always danger, even walking down the hall.”

Sauros snorted, remembering, no doubt, the string of bodies they’d left laying in that hall.

“My people must hear from me now.” There was no arguing with the king’s tone, nor did Javin really object. It was the right thing to do. The sooner the people knew, the better, and the king would be in even more danger the longer it went.

Preegha swung the door aside and moved through. Javin followed, leaving Siri to follow behind the brothers and their father. They moved quickly through the audience room and paused at the next door, the one leading out of the chambers into the hallway.

Javin glanced at Preegha.

“The way is clear.” He opened the door and ghosted through, his outline fuzzy. Javin followed with his eyes and made the faint form of Preegha continuing down the hall to take up station and watch. Javin turned and gestured for Sauros to bring his father through.

“Down that way,” Sauros pointed. “It’s not far.”

“Preegha says we’re all clear. He’ll keep in front togive warning. Can anyone get to us from behind?”

“There’s only one cross corridor from where the balcony is. Nothing until then,” Sohorkon said from the other side as they started helping their father down the hall. The king didn’t speak. Javin could tell it was taking everything he had just to remain conscious.

“What about where we came in? The servant’s way.”

“That is beyond where the balcony lay.”

“Good. No one can sneak up on us then until we get on the balcony. I still don’t like that we all have to be out there. We need someone to keep watch. The bad guys have been silent far too long. They’re going to make an appearance sooner or later. And I don’t think I’m going to the like it when they do.”

“I’ll watch,” Siri blurted. “I don’t have to be on the balcony.”

Javin stared at her.

“Here we are,” Sauros said. They moved to stand beside a curtained entryway. To Javin it looked like the opening onto an elaborate hallway, but as they moved through the curtains, it opened into a small room. At the far side was a set of double doors paned with glass to let light through. Beyond was a small flight of steps leading up on the balcony. The early morning light was streaming through the panes, glinting on the floor in kaleidoscope patterns. It was muted because of the ever present mist shrouding the source of light, but the water molecules also acted to amplify light in darker areas, giving the whole scene a muted glow Javin thought unnatural. It never failed to amaze, but also remind of the utter strangeness of the place he was in.

I’m the stranger here, he thought.

“There’s no time to argue,” Siri said. She moved aside for Preegha to get past and stand near the steps where they were all waiting.

“No one is in the palace, Mulda’ fi,” Preegha said. “I still cannot feel those of Yah Winn.” Javin looked at Siri, nodded then turned to the others. “Let’s go.”

They left Siri in the small room and went up the stairs, Javin and Preegha leading. On the balcony Javin looked down over the broad square. It was filled with people. How did they know?

He looked at Preegha, but he looked as confused as Javin felt.

The people below noticed them and there was a sudden hush as the king moved up to stand at the front of the balcony. Javin moved aside and let Sauros and Sohorkon take up station on either side of their father. He continued to scan the crowd, vigilant for any sign of danger . . . and wondering.

“It must have been Dahken,” Sauros murmered to him. “If we did not return before light, he was going to scout around and see if he could learn what trouble we’d gotten into.”

“I see he brought a crowd to help,” Javin answered. Then his heart had a jolt. Directly below the balcony, but facing the crowd, a phalanx of Pontu’ Gi materialized. The crowd started back in shock.

“My people,” the king cried. His voice was weak, but it carried. “Be calm. You must hear me.”

Javin stepped back and looked across to the other side of the balcony where Preegha stood. His eyes were closed in intense concentration. Javin looked back down off the balcony. The Pontu’ Gi held still. One or two turned back, looking into the balcony, looking at Preegha.

“We . . .” the king faltered a bit. The people started to push forward, they could tell something was wrong.

“Dahken!” Sauros called. A man below waived, Javin finally recognized him. “What of the guards?”

“They fled the city,” Dahken yelled back. “They are all gone. The gate was abandoned and the Pontu’ Gi disappeared . . . until now.” He looked pointedly at the gathering in front of him. “I brought as many as I could. I knew you’d need help.”

Javin started to tense. The guards gone? Nemesis wouldn’t give up without a fight. But Preegha had said he wasn’t here. There is something else . . .

A sudden feeling of nervous determination, tinged with fear tickled at Javin’s mind. He knew at once that feeling wasn’t coming from him. He was sensing it from someone else. The crystal over his heart grew warm. He looked for the source just as the emotion spiked. He tried to throw up a defensive shield praying it wasn’t too late, not knowing how or where the threat was coming from.

It was too late. He heard a swish and thunk! Saw an arrow sprout from the middle of the king’s chest.

Sauros screamed in anger and started looking around the gathering. Javin too, only he had the focus of the emotion. There! The shooter.

A man was sprinting down the avenue toward the gate, cross-bow discarded, no effort at all at stealth. Javin had never seen such a weapon here on this world, though he recognized it. Knew what it was. One of Nemesis’ men for sure.

The people in the square shouted almost as one with horror. They started to move towards the Pontu’ Gi.

It wasn’t them, Javin thought. The people don’t realize!

The Pontu’ Gi whipped their blades up in defense, they started to waiver and fade from view, and the people stopped, eyeing them, beginning an angry murmur.

“There he is!” Javin shouted and pointed. “Down the avenue!” Sauros didn’t look. He was too wrapped up in lowering his father gently down, Sohorkon on the other side.

The crowd ignored Javin, they were still edging toward the Pontu’ Gi. They didn’t believe the Pontu’ Gi weren’t the cause. To them they were strangers, outlanders who came in and took over the city, the palace, everything. If the king was killed, it must be the strangers!

“Dahken!” Javin called. “It’s not them. It’s not the Pontu’ Gi!”

He couldn’t see Dahken anywhere. Where had he gone?

The people continued to move forward, some drawing blades of their own. There were more than enough to overwhelm the Pontu’ Gi, but at what cost to both sides. This had to stop!

Javin looked to Preegha. His eyes were still closed, clenched in concentration. Javin moved over and shook him. His eyes snapped open.

“I cannot reach them, Mulda’ fi. Their minds are too set. They will defend themselves!”

“Can’t you call to them? Use your voice?”

“If they won’t make place for my touch, they will not make place for my words.” Preegha turned an expectant stare at Javin.

“They won’t listen to me! I’m a stranger to all of them. Even if I look like the Other, your warriors certainly don’t trust him now after the way he abandoned them. And if the city people know I’m Mulda’ fi, they sure don’t look like they care right now.” He glanced again at Sauros. He paid no attention to anything but his father. Javin could tell he would have another fight on his hands if he tried to take him from his father’s side. Sohorkon too.

Javin’s mind raced. How could he stop this bloodbath? The people were moving closer, gathering their courage to rush the Pontu’ Gi. It would happen any second. Where had Dahken gone? He might have helped!

 

Chapter 22

 

Chahzuu sat on the ground. His eyes were closed, his senses completely open, trying to solve the riddle. He’d sat that way for three days now, save for when he’d had to get up into the trees at night. Even then, except for the short, fitful sleep he allowed himself, he was running the puzzle over in his mind.

The first day he had tried to see if the crystal in his breast would guide him as it had before. He’d start traveling one way, hoping to feel something, then another direction to see if there was any difference. It was all the same no matter which direction he attempted. Nothing came that would give him any indication which way the third Article of Power lay. If it even exists, he’d thought in frustration. Yet he knew better. He’d already found two, and he knew, according to the old records, there was another, the one that was supposed to be the most powerful of all.

Could it be joined with the first two? The first two had clearly had been designed to fit together. It made sense the third would as well. When he’d studied them, he could tell they probably would. There was a space for a third though he couldn’t determine what shape it would take. He’d gone so far as to pull the two out several times. He could easily see how they’d fit. As he’d started to place them together a terrible dread had filled him. Each time he’d time he’d considered it the feeling grew more intense. The last time he’d tried he was almost physically overcome by the feeling.

Trust the crystal, he’d finally decided. It has guided me true to this point. Even though it seems to have abandoned the search, it still protects.

Even with the two Articles joined, without the third, he’d had a hint that they would be so powerful, just the two of them, that he wouldn’t be able to contain it. He’d be destroyed. He didn’t know how to use them, but still felt compelled to find them. Once again, he knew from where the wisdom came.

What awesome power would they produce when all three Articles were joined together?

And what would Chahzuu do with them once he found them all? He wasn’t certain, but he hoped it would give him the edge over Nemesis. Perhaps if he learned how to control the power, he could destroy that dark one.

A sudden flash of apprehension flashed over him. He clutched at his heart. The crystal in his breast turned cold, painful.

What is this? He clenched his fists against the sensation. Cannot the dark one be destroyed? Or is there a reason why he shouldn’t? Nothing came in answer to his thoughts, but until he consciously forced his mind away from trying to destroy Nemesis, the feeling didn’t go away.

His breathing continued to be labored for quite a while after. Then he remembered a snippet of what he’d been told when in the realm of the Guardians. ‘It rests with the two. Two of the One – One of the Two. One of the blood yet Two of the spirit.’

Both Pale Ones were linked. How he didn’t know, much less why. Obviously it was critical. Chahzuu pounded the ground returning back to the central question in his search.

How can I find it? Chahzuu was growing more frustrated as time passed. I must! I’m a Chahkzaa. I must find a way to lead my people to their true calling, not allow them to be ruled by this dark one.

Chahzuu didn’t know when he’d started referring to Nemesis as “dark one” but it seemed to fit. It wasn’t that his skin was dark. It was as pale as could be. It was his soul that was dark, reflecting the absence light and good in his countenance. He still shuddered at the way he’d felt when he first came in contact with the being. Then he remembered the difference from when he came in contact with the other . . . in the jungle. He should have known it then, should have stayed with that Pale One, or maybe even brought him along to gather the crystal.

That is not to be. Don’t worry about what cannot be changed. You have a task! Do it! Chahzuu mentally growled at himself again. His mind had started to wander down all the mysteries that had surfaced. They were all important, all necessary to be solved, but the most important was right in front of him. It must be solved before any of the others could be approached.

And so Chahzuu continued to sit. He’d run through all the records he could in his mind. It did no good. Even the children’s ditties didn’t jar anything as they’d done before. There had to be some connection. The Third Article was the most important. Therefore it would be hidden the best. Could it be the records hinting at where it could be found were lost?

There has to be a way! Chahzuu fumed inwardly. He didn’t feel the hard ground under him, didn’t feel the heat of the air surrounding him. He quieted his mind and tried to focus on his puzzle. Still his mind buzzed.

He could go back to his country to gather his records and contact whoever was still there, tell them his fears and perhaps try to gather his people back. Yet without the Third Article he knew he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t face Nemesis without some sort of power backing him. And he’d lose valuable time.

The records wouldn’t help him anyway. What he needed to know was either lost, or already in his memory. Chahzuu had a feeling the answer was obvious, right in front of him. If only he could reach into his mind where it lay and grasp it. That feeling had persisting more than a day now, and was nigh to driving him mad.

Stop it! He mentally chastised himself. Why is my mind wandering so? It was as if he were back to being a youngling again, where his mind was undisciplined and thought of whatever fancy came into it.

He caught himself. A youngling? It had been years since his mind had been so undisciplined. He hadn’t had a problem in focusing his thoughts in years. Now he couldn’t focus his mind at all.

Why? Is there a reason? Could my mind be trying to lead me in the right direction? The crystal in his breast began to warm. Chahzuu grew excited. Perhaps the answer would come if instead of focusing his mind, he set it free?

That’s it! Chahzuu jumped to his feet.

This time it wasn’t a song, but a game. A strange one that all the adults had often wondered about and quit playing as soon as they got some growth. It was very popular with the children, the younger ones that is. Maybe it was simply because it didn’t make any sense, or maybe to them and their childlike mind, it made all the sense in the world. It didn’t even have set name. It was referred to by several names, and everyone played it, though no one knew where it had ever originated. Now Chahzuu knew its purpose if not the origin.

It was called the nonsense game, or the brain game, or most of the time simply nothing or the nowhere game.

The game was deceptively simple. The game was to just sit there and think of nothing and then after a time you would think of a place. A place that didn’t exist. The sillier the better. It was popular for the children to have a contest to see who could come up with the silliest place.

Chahzuu remembered the draw that game held for him when he was younger. As he grew, however, he’d lost patience and went to other interests. Now the draw came back to him stronger than he’d ever remembered feeling – except for one time when he was really young.

That memory now surfaced with an intensity that brought things into sharp focus. The crystal in his breast responded with flaming heat.

One day, he’d been strangely drawn to play the game. He was getting older, so he resisted it a bit, but the draw was too strong. He’d thought it strange then, but being young, didn’t worry about his motivations.

He’d found an isolated place where he wouldn’t be disturbed, which again struck him as being odd, since the object of the game was to play it with a friend and see who could come up with the silliest place no matter the distractions at hand.

As he sat, he’d calmed his mind as usual, but this time was different. Something had come over him, calming his mind to a point he felt he could sit there for hours and not think of a thing. As an adult, he knew that was virtually impossible, to sit and think of nothing. But right then, as like with now, something pushed him, pushed his mind to be able to quiet itself enough to really focus, without effort, and narrow in on nothing.

He remembered during that time he had reveled in the feeling of just sitting there, perfectly calm, perfectly quiet in mind and body. Then slowly an image of a place came to his mind. It was a wondrous place. Not because of its beauty and color, but because of its total lack of . . . everything. Like it was a no-place a place that couldn’t possibly exist but that was part of every-place, meaning it touched every existing location there was.

Chahzuu remembered feeling utter amazement with his young mind that such a place could be. It was as if he only had to picture himself being there, and he would be there. That it was a shortcut to getting anywhere he wanted to get. If he just stepped into that place, then he could then decide to travel clear across his valley, and with one step, he’d step out on the other side where he had decided to be.

His young mind hadn’t doubted that place was real. It was something he couldn’t describe. And indeed Chahzuu had never spoken of it to anyone. It was as if he ever told anyone it would taint the experience he wanted to keep only for himself.

As time had gone by, he’d let the feeling of that place – of that experience -- fade. Now it was back with a power and conviction that convinced him afresh the place truly was real.

Now Chahzuu knew the place of the Third Article, and the power behind it.

The First Article was the Power of Creation. The Second was the Power of Purpose. And now he understood, and the records started to make sense referring to the Third Article. It was the power of the mind! More specifically, the Power of Knowing!

There must be more to our minds than I’d ever thought. He desperately wanted to take time to ponder over what this all meant. How these all could be such powerful forces. It was beyond his small comprehension, but there was not time.

Chahzuu knew what he needed to do. He needed to enter that place he’d seen as a child. It would take him to the Third Article of Power. From there it was only a step away back to wherever he wanted to be. He’d by arriving wherever his people were and bring them back to their true path.

As he thought that, he felt a tie, a tendril of feeling connect with his people. The crystal in his breast warmed, and he found he could sense his people, even over the long distance.

He closed his eyes and focused on the feeling, trying to sort it out, bring it in clearer. There was something happening! Something disastrous, though he couldn’t make out what it was. His breath caught and his eyes shot open. He had to get to them! To stop it!

The only way there was through the no-place. He must start now!

Chahzuu again sat on the ground. It would be dark soon. He didn’t care. If everything worked right, he wouldn’t be there – he wouldn’t be anywhere – when darkness fell.

He took several deep breaths, trying to force his mind to calm. It was hard forcing back the fleeting feeling of his young warriors’ apprehension. It took everything he had, but he recalled the feeling he’d had as a child, and let it wash over, bringing him quiet, bringing his mind stillness.

Then his entire body washed through with that calm he remembered. His breast warmed as the crystal reacted to the effect on his body, his mind, seeming to amplify the effect.

It grew quieter, calmer, easing down into the utter quiet he’d felt so long ago. Utter peace, utter contentment. It was almost shattered when a flicker of his mind flashed back to his warriors. They were in trouble! He fought it back. This is why it’s so hard for adults, Chahzuu thought, and a faint smile crossed his face.

The calm deepened and he just sat there reveling in the feeling as he had when he was young. Time didn’t matter. Time didn’t exist. Nothing existed but him, just sitting there doing, thinking of nothing.

He didn’t know how long he sat there, he didn’t care about time, but of a sudden he knew it was time to seek the no-place. And as soon as he thought about it, it swam into his awareness, and he knew all he had to do was mentally move into that place and he’d be there.

Without opening his eyes, Chahzuu did just that. He thought and moved. He didn’t feel any different, at the same time everything felt different. It didn’t make any sense, but then when a place can’t be described with any words he knew, it shouldn’t concern him he couldn’t describe how that place felt. It felt like he was nowhere but close to everywhere all at the same time.

His mind was still utterly calm, still utterly at peace. He opened his eyes.

Chahzuu’s mind seized. He was still sitting. He was indeed in his [_ no- place. ] That was certain. He recognized it. He _felt it. But standing above, staring down, eyes wide in evident shock, stood Nemesis!

***

“HOLD!!!” Sauros’ voice rang out. It wasn’t loud, but Javin could hear it in his mind as well as with his ears. He jerked around from the scene below to find that Sauros had suddenly stood, took in what was about to happen, and yelled out. It must be the crystal, Javin thought as Sauros turned to look at him with surprise in his eyes.

The people below had stopped and they too were staring up into the balcony in awe. They must have felt the same thing. Javin tried an experiment.

Can you hear me? He thought, and tried to direct it to Sauros. Sauros, in turn, flinched then stared at Javin. Yes? The thought came back. How?

Javin smiled and touched above his breast where the crystal was warming. Sauros nodded. This is getting more interesting all the time.

I’ll say, Javin thought back, then turned to the people below. Sauros’ people had stopped their advance, but the Pontu’ Gi still had their weapons raised. It appeared that the mental interchange after Sauros’ initial call had only transpired between him and Javin. Preegha was still looking at Sauros. Sauros turned to him.

“Call your warriors down.” It was a command.

Javin held his breath, but Preegha merely nodded, not taking offense. Then the other Elders materialized between the warriors and the people. The people gasped and moved back as one, but the Elders ignored them. Preegha called out and the warriors turned back to look at him. They lowered their weapons. The threat was gone. The younglings would listen.

He’d felt the touch Preegha had with the Elders and the young warriors, and started to have an inkling of how such a thing could have been done. It was as if the command to lower their weapons was as much mental and emotional as it was verbal. Javin knew this new ability in himself stemmed from the crystal, but it was more like the crystal merely helped him find the ability within himself. Now he knew how, he was sure he could do it again.

Preegha turned to Javin. His head tilted to the side as if wondering at Javin’s touch in his mind. Had he felt when he’d tried to listen in?

“My warriors are now yours,” he said to Javin.

Javin’s mouth dropped open and he heard a chuckle from Sauros. He also felt Sauros’ touch in his mind and how he’d felt Javin’s shock.

Preegha must have felt it too, for a smile touched his lips.

“You are truly Mulda’ fi. I can feel you even stronger now. I recognize the goodness in you.” Then his voice grew bitter. “Our people have been deceived. Misused for something they never were intended. They are to protect not enslave!” The last he spoke with vehemence that Javin now could feel. This was a whole new spectrum in communication. He knew he’d never be able to lie to these people. How Nemesis had done it, he hadn’t a clue. But lying to anyone was the furthest thing from his mind right now.

Preegha then turned to Sauros. “Forgive my people. We were wrong to follow that Other. No more! How may we make amends?” There was sincerity of feeling behind his words that there was no mistaking he meant it.

Sauros didn’t answer. Instead he turned and knelt back down by his father. It was plain he was gone. Javin didn’t need to have the mental and emotional connection to know of Sauros’ grief. Sohorkon looked over to his brother. “What do we do now?”

Javin felt a flash of anger surge up in Sauros that was barely under control. He was silent a moment then he took his father’s hand and raised it to his heart. Sauros bowed his head briefly. Javin could feel all anger continuing to surge, mixed in with a cacophony of all other emotions. Shock, outrage, hurt, confusion . . . fear. Then when Sauros raised his head, the mix of emotion Javin felt was coalescing to resolve.

“We will finish this business!” Sauros said. “We will rid ourselves of the cause of it all.” He stood and turned to Javin.

“I am with you, Javin. My people are also yours! We must rid our world of this Nemesis who is trying to take your place!”

Javin was shocked again, but the crystal in his breast was burning with a flashing heat. This is right. This is what I have to do!

 

Chapter 23

 

Chahzuu tried to spring to his feet and move somewhere beyond the reach of the creature standing above him. It was too late. A dark swirl had started centering Nemesis’ breast. Chahzuu couldn’t move. The same field that had captured him before had him now.

He tried to struggle, to draw on the energy of his own crystal. He felt something start to give as fire burned in his chest. Chahzuu opened his eyes and stared up at Nemesis who was looking back down in surprise.

“You’re pathetic attempts won’t work. I don’t know how you’ve done it, but this time I’ll finish what I started!”

The flexibility in the field Chahzuu had started to feel disappeared and he felt it constricting tighter around him while the swirling in Nemesis’ breast grew to a dark burnished red, giving his face a demonic glow.

Nemesis stepped forward and put a finger to his temple. It was plain he wanted to drain him again. This time Chahzuu was prepared. The crystal fired until he thought he’d be consumed and Chahzuu, not quite sure what he was doing, threw up a block.

Nemesis clenched his eyes in concentration. Chahzuu felt him battering against his shield. He prodded, pushed then felt him gathering to smash at his block.

The blow came; a powerful mental hammer that battered time and again. Chahzuu’s mind was reeling but the block held. Chahzuu looked up at Nemesis and allowed a smile to cross his face.

Fury reflected in Nemesis’ countenance. The swirling at his breast increased and grew to a deep crimson. Chahzuu could feel the anger, could feel the frustration. And there was something else. Fear!

“There’s more than one way to get around the crystal you’ve somehow brought back to life . . . along with yourself. I’ll just have to remove it, physically. Then you’ll be as open as before. You don’t have to be alive to be drained, you know. The brain works for just long enough after the rest of the body has ceased.” A sadistic smile crossed his features. “For now, though, let’s see what you’ve brought me.”

Nemesis leaned down and removed the script pouch he had draped over his shoulder. Alarm flashed through Chahzuu and Nemesis must have sensed it because he looked at Chahzuu and smiled again.

“Ah. Something important I see. Well, once again, you’ve dropped it into my lap. I won’t mind seeing you again if this turns out to be something good. Don’t count on a third time. I rarely repeat mistakes.”

He up-ended the pouch and the two Articles of Power dropped into his hand. Nemesis hefted them then looked at Chahzuu. It was plain he felt the power just as Chahzuu had.

“Important indeed. What are they?”

Chahzuu remained silent. He couldn’t speak even if he wanted to. That was Nemesis’ fault too. Instead Chahzuu focused his hate and anger, and directed it, trying to make it into a mental blow.

“Trying to hurt me with your mind?” Nemesis shook his head. “You’ll never be that strong I’m afraid. As for these, don’t worry. I have all your memories, remember. All I have to do is search them, then I’ll know everything you know about these little items here. First, let me take you to a more comfortable place.”

Nemesis raised his hand and there was a flash!

Chahzuu found himself lying on a slab in a subtly lit room. It was a room of the ancients. He’d been in enough of them now to recognize his surroundings. He couldn’t move his head, but his eyes panned as much as they could. The walls were smooth stone. The light seemed to flow out of them illuminating the rest of the room. The roof was darkened with those tiny pinpricks of twinkling light. Nemesis was standing over him, the Articles still in his hand.

“I don’t suppose I can wring from you how you found your way into the Passage, but I’ll know soon enough. Now to see what these little pretties are.”

Chahzuu watched with trepidation as Nemesis closed his eyes, trying to focus on what used to be his memories. He could only hope that when he’d been drained any memory or thought of the Articles of Power had been so subsumed, so fragmented that Nemesis wouldn’t be able to make sense of them.

Nemesis continued to stand with his eyes closed. Chahzuu tried battering at the shield in the same way he’d observed Nemesis battering at his. They were too strong. Nothing he did gave way.

“It’s no use. I’ve tied you too tight,” Nemesis spoke, finally opening his eyes. He looked down at Chahzuu. There was something in his eyes that he couldn’t read.

“I can’t seem to make sense out of these items here,” he hefted them. “Once the crystal is removed, I’m sure it’ll become clear. Your recent memories will tell me everything you know about them.”

Nemesis hesitated a bit then mumbled, as if speaking to himself. “Maybe these are why my masters were so anxious to secure this place.”

Chahzuu was astonished. Nemesis had masters? Who were they? What did they want with his world? If they were Nemesis’ masters, then they must have even greater powers.

And Chahzuu couldn’t be sure, but when Nemesis mentioned his masters, he sensed a brief flash of fear.

This doesn’t bode well, Chahzuu thought. Why aren’t the Guardians doing something about this? Then he remembered the ‘Nothingness’ the Guardians were fighting to hold back. Are we truly on our own? How can we fight those more powerful than even Nemesis?

 

Chapter 24

 

Javin, Sauros, Sohorkon, and Siri sat around a table in the private chambers of the Palace. Preegha stood behind Javin like an honor guard. It made him nervous. The rest of the Elders were with the young warriors in another part of the Palace. There had been no fighting between the people of the city and the Pontu’ Gi, but there was no sense taking chances since the people were still furious over the assassination of their king.

Dahken’ Zho stood behind Siri. He’d finally been found after the trouble was over. He’d chased after the man who’d fired the arrow when Javin shouted.

They’d fought and Dahken had been wounded pretty badly and left lying in the main avenue as the man made his escape. But he’d learned what they needed to know. It was one of Tranthra’ Joh’s men.

From Preegha they’d also learned that half the young warriors had been taken by the false Mulda’ fi to another city. They all knew which city that was.

The funeral for his father had been postponed over the protests of the people. Mouhra’ Lah was still a captive of Tranthra’ Joh. And with Nemesis surely in possession of Putra’ Fi Sorro, they couldn’t wait.

Sauros was almost beside himself with grief and worry. As soon as the city had been brought under control, they’d sat down to plan. It was hard for Sauros to stay seated. He was ready to move out now!

Dahken would take over the provisional reigns of government. Sauros had already signed the necessary orders and met with the nobles to get their agreement. He’d also explained he needed to be gone from the city to bring his father’s murderer to justice. It would have been better Javin thought, to say nothing, but as he thought it through, Javin realized Nemesis would know they were coming anyway. The assassin had seen them and escaped. No surprise this time.

The plan called for them to split into two, then three groups.

First, Preegha and two of the Pontu’ Gi Elders would accompany Javin, Sauros and Siri. They would start off now, arrive at Putra’ Fi Sorro, and slip inside through one of the secret ways.

Then Preegha and the two Elders would split off and contact their warriors inside the city, and open the gates for Sohorkon.

Sohorkon was to come with Muustha, the Pontu’ Gi warriors’ former trainer, along with the Pontu’ Gi and an army from Sunzah’ Nu Geeza. They’d travel separately and wait out in the jungle for the gates to open. Then they’d come in, creating a diversion such that Tranthra’ Joh and Nemesis hopefully wouldn’t notice Javin, Sauros and Siri sneaking around inside the palace rescuing the Princess.

Everything was set. The sooner they left, the less time their enemies would have to prepare.

“Are we ready, then?” Javin asked.

“More than ready,” Sauros said. Javin felt his friend’s determination. Sauros was going to rescue Mouhra’ Lah even if he had to tear the city apart with his bare hands.

***

Mouhra’ Lah was ushered into the audience chamber. She’d been surprised when the door swung open and one of the Pontu’ Gi had gestured for her to follow. It had been many days. She was beginning to hope Tranthra’ Joh really didn’t know where her sister was, and just bluffing.

As soon as she entered the room, she knew her hope and been vain. On the throne sat Tranthra’ Joh. Down off the dais stood Dierni’ Lah. She was facing the door and when Mouhra’ Lah came in, her face brightened, then she looked at the man next to her and winced. Saballa had grasped her arm in a vice-like grip. Mouhra could tell she wanted to run to her side. Mouhra’ Lah wanted to do the same, but knew she couldn’t.

They had her! The wicked gleam in Saballa’s eyes told her everything she needed to know. Leverage. They were going to use Dierni’ Lah to get what they wanted. And Mouhra’ Lah couldn’t refuse. She loved her sister. She was all she had left. Even Sauros was gone. If he were alive, surely he’d have come back by now. He’d have done something.

She was taken to a position right in front of the throne, forced to look up at her uncle’s gloating face. There was something in his expression. He didn’t look as smug as she thought he would. He looked worried. Anxious, though trying to mask it with bravado. Why should he be worried? Is this something I can use?

“I see you’ve realized your new situation,” Tranthra’ Joh said. Mouhra’ Lah tried not to look at her sister. Instead she concentrated on Tranthra’ Joh. It seemed to make him even more nervous.

“I see that you’ve stooped to new lows to get what you want. Such a powerful man shouldn’t have to prove it by pushing defenseless women around.”

Mouhra’ Lah was gratified by the look of fury that passed over her uncle’s face. Small consolation.

“Harsh words from my new bride,” he said. “Unless you’ve decided to watch as Saballa exercises some of his special skills on your baby sister?” His face took on a more normal expression. Cruel. He enjoyed it. It was familiar.

“Mouhra, no!”

“Hush!” Saballa clamped a rough hand over her sister’s mouth and drew his dagger, holding it to her throat.

“Don’t harm her!” Mouhra blurted. She moved to help, but the Pontu’ Gi stepped in her way. Though there was no contact, it was clear she wouldn’t be allowed to get past.

Saballa smiled again, putting the knife even closer. Dierni’s eyes grew wide as she watched the blade.

Mouhra turned back to Tranthra’ Joh. She gritted her teeth and remained silent, thinking. She looked back at the frightened expression of her sister, the knife, Saballa’s eager hand holding it.

“You win. I’ll do it, but I need assurance my sister will be free to go to another city and live.”

“All in good time, my dear,” Tranthra said. His words were oily, his confidence restored. “For now, I’ll draft the proclamation and have it brought by your cell for signature. Then there’ll be the matter of your official appearance and announcement. A nice touch, don’t you think?”

He glanced at Saballa and smiled. “Dierni’ Lah will be held to make sure you say and do the right things until the wedding is over. Then we’ll see about moving her.”

Mouhra knew he was lying. Neither she nor her sister would likely survive the next few months. By agreeing at least it bought time. She hoped it would be enough for her to figure out another way.

“Take her back to the cell. We’ve got what we need . . . for now.” Tranthra’ Joh waved his hand in her direction and the Pontu’ Gi guard stood back for her to proceed.

Mouhra’ Lah looked at her sister. She saw fear as Saballa still held her. She tried to smile, to say something to lift her spirits, but nothing came. Hold on, dear sister, as long as you can. She didn’t say anything, though. There was little good it would do. Only encourage Saballa to be more cruel. Her sister was strong. She’d know. She had to!

On the way back, Mouhra’s mind swirled. Anger. Fear. Finally, determination. That’s what her mother would expect of her and her sister!

A plan flowed into her mind. It was the only plan of the many she’d considered that had even a hint of success. I’ve got to kill Tranthra’ Joh! I don’t know how or when, but sooner or later, even after the wedding, he’ll let his guard down. I’ll play along; not too much. Just enough to have him think I’m dispirited, giving up; just enough to lull him. Then I’ll strike! I can do that! No matter what, I must protect the city! Then what happens to me doesn’t matter!

There was a snag, though. Saballa! First I need to get Dierni away from him. Even if I kill Tranthra’ Joh, Dierni isn’t safe until Saballa is out of the way. Saballa will have ambitions of his own.

She had to get rid of them both. How? Despair threatened her determination. Then she caught herself. I’ll find a way. I have to!

 

Chapter 25

 

Javin descended the steps to the underground tunnels of Putra’ Fi Sorro. They’d come down through a different stand of the strange, bending trees than they’d been brought down before. This one, Siri’ Bhu had explained, was kept only for the royal family . . . and the Keeper. Javin had listened to her high pitched keening, and watched as Sauros paced back and forth, eager to be through. The tunnels looked the same as all the others. Siri moved quickly, knowing the way. She, too, was anxious to find the Princess.

Before they’d come to the city, Javin had taken the opportunity to speak with Sauros alone. They’d wandered out from camp a bit and spoken quietly. They’d decided not to use the power of their crystals unless it was absolutely necessary. Javin had thought, and Sauros had agreed, that perhaps Nemesis would sense their presence, like Javin had been able to sense Nemesis when he’d first been brought before Tranthra’ Joh, and especially if they used their crystals.

At the bottom of the steps, Sauros looked at Javin.

Javin stilled himself and felt out, careful to keep from drawing on the crystal. “He’s not here, but no sense advertising.” He knew Sauros was aching to make a mental connection with the Princess. To reassure her help was coming, and also to locate her. Siri thought she knew where she would be held, though not certain. Javin had no doubt Sauros could locate her, so strong were his feelings, Javin could feel the emotional echo even without the crystal. They both knew why he couldn’t. Even if they couldn’t sense Nemesis, it didn’t mean the Pontu’ Gi in the city wouldn’t be able to sense them.

Siri looked at Sauros questioning. “Let’s go,” he said. And Siri nodded, leading the way.

They moved fast, but also silently. It was good they did. Tranthra’ Joh, knew they were coming. At one large branching of the tunnels a detachment of guards were waiting, wearing the black uniforms marking them as Tranthra’ Joh’s men. Javin had been nervous they’d have to fight others of the city who were on the side of the Princess, though Javin didn’t think those who would wear Tranthra’ Joh’s uniform would be innocent; especially those down here in the tunnels. Tranthra’ Joh might know they were coming, but he didn’t know when or how.

Javin moved up with Sauros and Preegha. Siri moved to the back. There was no way through. Seven guards, all heavily armed. Javin was armed too, with one long blade that felt good in his hands when he’d hefted it. Sauros and the Elders were similarly armed, though Sauros had added a shorter dagger as well. Carefully they drew their blades. Javin touched Preegha on the shoulder and pointed to the far side of the branching. He nodded. Preegha then turned to his two fellow Elders and they faded from view. Javin looked at Sauros, who nodded as if to say “whenever you’re ready.”

They bolted out from their tunnel without a sound. If they shouted it might alert guards further up the tunnels. No one could be allowed to escape and raise warning.

The fighting was furious, but the guards were taken by surprise. The addition of being hit from behind by the Pontu’ Gi Elders made the fight one sided. Javin moved with a grace that continued to astonish him. He had no recollection of any training in the fighting arts, though his body moved smoothly, by instinct, from one movement to another. Slash, parry, thrust, punch; like he’d trained all his life. Sauros noted it too, staring with awe.

Javin had accounted for two of the guards before Sauros had even joined the fight. It was over quickly. Javin was relieved they hadn’t had to kill. He’d do what he had to, but he didn’t relish killing. All the guards were unconscious. Their blades had hardly crossed so surprising and swift had been their attack.

Preegha and the Elders faded back into view. He came up to Javin.

“Never have I seen such fighting.”

Sauros continued to stare.

Javin was uncomfortable . . . and ignored the compliment. “Let’s truss these guards up so they can’t go anywhere until this is over.” He was glad they didn’t pursue the subject.

With strips from their own uniforms, the guards were made secure and dragged over to what Siri said would be a little used corridor. Then they were on their way.

After a short while the tunnel grew lighter and another branching led into a larger, brightly lit room. They hesitated at the entrance, crouching back out of site while they peered in. Javin immediately recognized it was the dungeon where he and Sauros had been held. The cells were even more full. A gasp escaped Siri’s lips before she could cover her mouth.

They held their breath, but no one had heard. No alarm was raised. Javin scanned the room critically and matched it with what he remembered of the layout. All his senses were alert; his mind crisp.

He felt a stirring that this was something he’d done before, like he was used to this type of activity. He’d been a warrior . . . a special type. Javin about growled aloud. He couldn’t remember anything else. The feeling was gone. Nothing he could do about it now. He was a might busy. Javin grit his teeth and motioned for them to move back into the tunnel where they could plan.

Javin turned to Preegha. “Can you feel any of your people?”

Preegha turned to the other Elders. They nodded. “We can. But they are not here -- in this lower area. They must be up in the city. Something is wrong. There is wrongness in their feeling I cannot explain.”

Javin waited a minute, but Preegha said nothing else. They’d just have to deal with whatever it was.

“Looks like we’ll have to do this the hard way then,” Javin said. “Can you and the Elders move over and take out the far guards?” Javin had noted three at the main steps leading out of the dungeon. There could have been more he hadn’t been able to see. The view had been blocked by people in the cells. Preegha nodded. “Those guards will probably have the keys.” Javin’s mind was buzzing through a plan. “Get them. I think I have an idea that may just create a little more confusion for our enemies.

“Sauros and I will stay to the near side and slide along the wall to keep any guards from slipping out the side way. Javin remembered the room had one other branching tunnel that had to be cut off. Then Javin turned to Siri. “I noticed there were quiet a few people in the cells. Any you recognize?”

"I recognize them all. They are nobles of the city. Why --?" she started to question then caught herself. She knew very well why they'd been locked up.

Javin nodded. “Do they know you? Will they listen to you?”

Siri thought a moment, then, “Yes, I think they will, given the circumstances.”

“Good,” Javin said. “Here’s what we’ll do. First we need to secure the room. No one escapes to give warning.” He looked at them all. “Then we’ll meet back in front of those cells.

“Siri, you wait just a bit for us to start then walk out like you own the place. Don’t worry about making any noise. You’re going to be a distraction. Head right for the cells. If you get there and you haven’t seen any commotion, go ahead and start talking with them. The guards will see you. Ignore them. Preegha and the Elders will keep them from reaching you.” Javin looked at Preegha with meaning.

“After we meet at the cells, I’ll explain from there. Everyone ready?” Javin looked at them all. “Then let’s go.”

They moved back to the tunnel entranc, then Javin touched Preegha. The Elders faded. Sauros moved up by Javin. He didn’t say anything, just smiled, as if to say, thanks. Then he ghosted to the side of the tunnel and slipped along the face of the wall. Javin followed, knowing that Siri would wait then come out as instructed.

Javin kept close to Sauros. They hadn’t run into anyone yet, but Javin had a feeling. He kept listening to hear sounds of conflict coming from the Elders. If they were lucky, they’d be able to put the three guards down without much fuss, get the keys and head back for the cell. The only real unknown was where they were heading. There was that large branching tunnel. Where it led, he didn’t know. Tranthra’ Joh was expecting them to show up sometime. It’d be smart for him to guard every access. It’d divide his forces, but Javin would have done it too.

Sauros paused and Javin could tell his back was tensed. He moved up quietly and peered around his bulk. Javin tensed too. A short way down the branching tunnel was a detachment of five guards. They were faced the other way, seeming relaxed. Then the noise of fighting erupted near the stairs. The guards wheeled. Their commander told off three to see what was happening, and the other two stayed.

Great. Javin thought. How’re we going to handle this? One group would be hard enough as outnumbered as they were, but if they got into two groups . . .

The three guards were starting up the tunnel. Javin didn’t hesitate. He stepped out from Sauros and moved to the center of the corridor.

“I think you guys are looking for me.”

The guards stopped, staring, as if trying to figure out what sort of creature he was. That’s all Javin needed. He sprang to the attack using the advantage of confusion. The first guard went down from a jumping snap kick that took him in jaw. Javin landed and just caught the blur of Sauros sprinting down the hall at the two remaining guards who’d been startled by the commotion. The second guard Javin faced started to draw his blade. Javin already was stepping forward swinging an open handed blow, cupping across his ear. He, too, crumpled. The third guard had his blade drawn and was swinging in an arch that would take him in the neck if it connected. Javin ducked under the swing, reached up to pull the extended arm around, pulling the guard off balance. Javin straitened behind the guard and with his other hand pulled his head in the opposite direction. The snap was distinct. The third guard fell.

Before he’d dropped, Javin was on his way down the hall to help Sauros.

Sauros stood over the body of one guard and was pressing the other who’d backed up against the wall, trying to ease by and escape. Javin moved to one side, hugging the corridor wall, while the guard, fighting desperately against the cuts and slashes of Sauros’ assault broke free and ran up the hall towards Javin. He made three steps and Javin stepped out, punching straight to the side of the guard’s head, connecting with his temple. The guard’s momentum carried him forward one more step and he, too, collapsed. Javin turned to Sauros with a smile.

“All in a day’s work, ey?”

Sauros nodded, a wry grin crossing his face. He moved forward as Javin knelt down to tie the guard up with his uniform. Sauros didn’t need to tie the other up. He wouldn’t be saying anything to anyone.

Sauros made his way over to the other crumpled forms Javin had dispatched.

Before long, they were standing in front of the cells, the noble’s eyes wide at seeing their rescuers. Siri tried to calm them, but they didn’t seem inclined. Javin ignored them and turned to Preegha and the Elders.

“The rest is just as we planned. See if you can gather your people on your way to the main gate. Hopefully most of them will be on the defensive wall anyway. Make sure you get that gate open and signal Sohorkon, no matter what you have to do.

“Once the gate is open, gather your people into one place and have them stand down. They can’t be part of this fight. Sohorkon will create a diversion while we get the Princess out of the palace. Then we can get her before the people and calm things down. If it works right, we can get this all done before Tranthra’ Joh and Nemesis know they’ve lost.”

“You must know, Mulda’ fi,” Preegha said, hesitating before moving off. “Our warriors still don’t feel as they should. Our connection to them is very tenuous.”

“Will it help if you get closer?”

“Unknown. We will try.”

“Is there anything else you can do?”

“Unknown.”

“Great. Do your best.”

Preegha still hesitated.

“What?” Javin asked.

“Do you feel the other? We think it is his influence acting on our warriors, but we can’t see how it is done. Can you?”

Javin was dumbfounded. He’d almost forgotten what he was supposed to be feeling for with all the excitement. He realized as he stilled his senses that he’d been alert, just under the surface of his consciousness, for any feel of his enemy. He tried to feel out to the Pontu’ Gi.

There was nothing. Javin could feel the cool presence of Preegha and the Elders. He could feel Siri’s nervousness as she kept glancing at him, then the nobles. He could feel Sauros’ anxiousness. There was nothing of the warriors . . . or Nemesis.

“Nemesis isn’t here. As for your warriors . . . I’m afraid you’ll have to just figure it out. I’m still new at this.”

Preegha nodded, placed the keys to the cells into Javin’s hand then turned to his companions. They faded from view as they began to move away.

Javin turned back to Siri’ Bhu. He handed her the keys. “Open the cells.”

While she was working on the locks, Javin raised his voice.

“Okay. We’re letting you out. I think you all know that the guys in the black uniforms are not good. You also know that Tranthra’ Joh is their boss. Chances are he’s the person that put you here, right?”

There were murmurs of agreement, though Javin could see they still weren’t sure about him. He could also tell they recognized Sauros. They knew he was the Princess’ betrothed, but from another city. Siri, they knew. Most of them looked at her.

"Listen to him!" Siri said. "Tranthra' Joh has taken the Princess prisoner. I was with her when she was taken. They left me for dead. I escaped and brought these --" she gestured to Sauros and Javin, "-- to help. They are both [_ Mulda’ fi -- _] Promised Ones of legend. You must trust them and do as they say!”

When Siri mentioned that both Javin and Sauros were Mulda’ fi, Sauros snapped his head around to look at her. Siri couldn’t have known about the crystal, nor the testing in the Pontu’ Gi’s land. Javin smiled. About time someone shared the heat.

The crowd of nobles in the cell gasped at Siri’s statement. There was silence. Javin could see many didn’t believe.

Great! Javin thought. They kept glancing at he and Sauros, though there wasn’t any who were going to argue about getting out of their cells.

Still Siri pressed on, earnestly trying to convince.

“They’re here to rescue the Princess. Do any of you know where she’s being held?”

The mention of the Princess seemed to snap them back. “In the tower!” someone in the back said. “I heard one of the guards mention about the prisoner in the tower. It has to be her! Can you get her?”

“That’s just as I thought,” Siri said to Javin.

Sauros moved up. “What are we waiting for? Let’s go!” He turned to Siri. “Lead us there, now!”

“Wait!” Javin said. “This’ll only take a second, and it’ll buy us more time.” He turned to the nobles as they started to move out of the cells.

“Go out and start telling everyone you meet what happened to you. Go out into the street and make all kinds of noise! Tell them that Tranthra’ Joh is a traitor and start gathering the people to move against him! The Pontu’ Gi will be out of your way soon. You heard me talking to their leaders. Don’t fight with them.

“You! Javin grabbed a couple of nobles. “Grab a bunch of people and head for the main gate. See that it gets opened. We have a force from Sunzah’ Nu Geeza waiting to help. They won’t hurt anyone of the city. They’re here to help you take out Tranthra’ Joh’s people.”

They stared at Javin like he was crazy, then they looked at Sauros. They knew the army outside the gate was from his city.

“Do it!” Siri snapped. “They are telling the truth! If you value the life of the Princess, you will do as they say!”

The two nobles looked at each other, then the Keeper. They nodded to Javin . . . and to Sauros. One grabbed another of the nobles and said, “Come with us. You know the guard at the gate, don’t you?”

“If they’re still there,” the noble answered, and they made their way out of the cell, making room for those behind to pass through. Javin was stunned there were so many.

“Javin!” Sauros pleaded.

“Go Siri!” Javin answered, and before his voice’s echo died they were moving up the stairs. Javin’s mind was churning. He hoped the Elders had success in gathering their warriors. It worried him that there was something wrong to their connection.

They didn’t pause when they got to the top of the steps. Other of the freed nobles had already gone through the doorway. If there were any guard there, there’d have been problems getting through. The nobles must have taken care of them, or set them off the carry a warning. It would work to their advantage either way. It’d alert Tranthra’ Joh, yes, but it would only be that the nobles had somehow gotten free. If their luck was holding, Tranthra’ Joh would think only about rounding the nobles up before word got out.

Then again, Javin’s mind ran on to yet another possibility. It might make Tranthra’ Joh panic and have him go right for the Princess as a hostage to save his own neck.

“Don’t spare the horses!” he said to Siri’ Bhu.

“What?” she said, turning back.

“Go! Go!” Sauros said. “Just take us to the Princess the most direct route you can. We’ll clear the way if necessary.”

“Okay,” Siri said. She had to run to keep ahead of Sauros. As it was, he was right on her heels.

She sprinted down the main hallway then suddenly veered through a corridor to the right, followed that for a time, then turned into a branching corridor to the left. It sloped up a short ramp leading to a landing. She came to an abrupt halt. Sauros didn’t hesitate. He continued up the ramp. Javin came around the corner and saw why. Five guards were blocking the way at the top of the landing. None of them moved, but had pulled their blades to meet Sauros’ charge.

Javin whipped his blade from his scabbard and ran forward. Sauros met them first and wove a web of steel protection while engaging two guards. One was down before Javin met the others with similar intensity. He felt out for Sauros and recognized his grim determination. Sauros had to reach the princess.

Again, Javin’s body went on automatic. He almost relaxed as it went through the fighting motions he still didn’t know where they came from. It was as if his mind was a detached observer, seeing his body going through instinctual motions, now feeling where everyone was on the floor of conflict, feeling their intentions before they acted.

This is something new, Javin thought even as his body continued to fight. I’ve only just started noticing this. He wondered if Sauros could feel it as well.

Two of Javin’s attackers were down and the last was looking nervous. Sauros was holding his own against the last one facing him. It appeared that he wanted to break and run. Sauros was covering too close that he daresen’t try to even escape. We’ve got to hurry, Javin thought. He felt for Siri. She was just behind, moving up. As soon as they could, she’d lead them again without any wasted time.

Sauros made three quick moves in succession and his second opponent went down, lifeless. Javin wasn’t far behind. A swipe with the blade to draw off balance and then a snap kick to the stomach followed with a fisted punch to the nose. He felt cartilage crush and the guard slumped.

Siri jumped between and they were on their way again, this time ducking through a doorway to the right of the landing. It was the base of the tower. Narrow steps wound around the inside leading up. Javin could feel Siri’s exhaustion as she pressed forward, taking the steps two at a time. She didn’t complain; just kept pushing herself upward.

***

Preegha led the way through the palace. Something was wrong, he could feel it. The Elders behind him had the same disruptive sense. When they’d come out of the dungeons their sense of where their warriors were had suddenly become disrupted. It was disorienting.

They’d stopped briefly, trying to feel their way but it was no use. Then knowing they couldn’t just stand there, Preegha had picked a direction, hoping it would lead them to the outside of the palace and started off as fast as he dared. It was small comfort that at least he could still feel his brothers next to him.

They’d all taken to the fading defense. He could sense his skin, muscles and blood all adjusting to the different surroundings. They were moving so fast it was taking a toll on their bodies’ energy. Yet they needed to open the gate, and couldn’t afford to be stopped by anyone. The Mulda’ fi were counting on them. They had to succeed!

Preegha turned a corner then a wave of pain hit him. He reeled against one of the other Elders. He couldn’t even tell who it was. Something in his mind flashed an alarm. There was a spinning in his mind and in his belly.

They all had to a stop, their vision blurred, and they had to come out of the fading. Low laughter came from the far end of the hall. Preegha strained his eyes and saw a group of black uniformed men moving forward.

“Come,” he commanded his brothers, and turned to go back the way they’d come. Another group of guards were coming up from behind, blades drawn, cutting off their only avenue of escape.

The disorientation, the spinning in his mind, grew. He turned back to the first group. They continued to move closer. Through the haze in his mind . . . and his eyes, he could see one of them held something out in his hand. It was a crystal pyramid about the size of his fist glowing red and pulsing in time with the waves of nausea that swept over him. It was physical; it was mental; affecting everything, especially his feeling, turning it every which way. Preegha tried to concentrate, tried to bring his senses together, to fight back . . . somehow. The Mulda’ fi needed them!

“See. It works just as Yah’ Winn said,” the one holding the crystal said to another. Preegha could faintly make sense of what they were saying. He heard then had to concentrate to assign meaning to the words.

“Yah’ Winn is false!” Preegha struggled to get the words out. He had to convince them. To make them see. “The real Mulda’ fi is with us. He will help you. You must let us go!”

“What’s this?” another said. He moved forward, motioning for the one with the crystal to come with him. “Who’s this Mulda’ fi you’re talking about?”

Preegha had to really struggle to focus as the crystal neared him. Pain started to gather in the back of his eyes, pressure pushing outward. He heard a groan from one of the other Elders.

“Jah’Vinn!” Preegha gasped as he finally spit out the name.

“Javin?” The sound echoed along with the blood pulsing at Preegha’s temples in beat with the searing pain. “Javin is here?” It was the man holding the crystal who spoke. There was something in his tone.

Preegha couldn’t think clearly. They had to believe. The pain! He couldn’t stand it. His mind felt like it would explode from within. Everything was growing dark. In desperation he continued. “You must trust him. The other . . . you follow . . . That one is evil. You must see!”

“Where is he? Tell us now!”

Then the other voice. “Is he inside? Nemesis must know!”

Preegha heard the voices and the words slid into his mind painfully. Nemesis! They know he is evil and serve him anyway!

“Answer me!”

Preegha reeled with the pain.

“Answer now or forfeit your life right here!”

Preegha bit down on his lip and sank to his knees. If I die, so be it!

Nothing happened. His head swam, darkness boiling in his mind. He couldn’t see. The pain seared and pulsed. He struggled to hang on to consciousness.

“I’ll secure these. You take the men and go find Javin! I must get word to Nemesis!

“When you find Javin, don’t waste time. Kill him! With your own hands if necessary, but make sure he’s dead this time!”

Preegha struggled to hang on, to stand up and fight. I must warn the Mulda’ fi! The pain was too intense. As the last bit of his strength fled, the darkness overwhelmed him.

***

Chahzuu strained at his bonds. He was strapped to a table. Nemesis stood above, glaring down. A dark swirling covered his breast. The invisible hold on Chahzuu’s limbs had been released. He’d tried to draw on his own crystal’s strength to escape, but it seemed blocked. He could force it, he knew, but to do that he’d have to let down the shield he’d thrown up to keep Nemesis from draining the memories he wanted. He couldn’t risk it.

He looked around and knew he’d been transported to another of the chambers used/built by the ancients. This one had all manner of equipment inside. Items he didn’t recognize were stacked on tables. Others were piled against a far wall. The two Articles of Power sat on a small stand moved up to the table where he lay. He could see them easily, sitting right off from his left shoulder next to where Nemesis stood.

Chahzuu longed to break free, grab them and escape into realms Nemesis wouldn't find him. Now he knew how to get to those realms -- where ever they were -- he realized he could travel to and from. That's how Nemesis must travel, he realized. It'd been sheer accident that he'd been caught. It must have been! There was no other way to explain it.

“You’ve interrupted some important business, you know.” Nemesis smiled when he spoke, though there was no humor or goodness in the expression. “Even now, I’m being called back by that sniveling beast I left in charge. Well . . .” He paused, glancing over to the Articles. “He’ll just have to wait. I think these are just what I’ve come for. No sense bothering my masters if I can get the information from you.” He hesitated a moment. Chahzuu noticed the dark swirling at his breast quickened. “You might as well tell me what I want to know. It’ll go a lot easier for you if you do. I’ll learn what I want, anyway.”

Chahzuu remained silent, again testing the strength of the straps while drawing on the crystal to strengthen his mental shield.

How could I have been so foolish? He thought. I should have found another way. Everything I feared is coming to pass . . . and worse!

Nemesis laughed. “It won’t do you any good.” He leaned forward and started attaching small rounded crystals to different points of Chahzuu’s body.

Chahzuu lifted his head and saw another, larger pyramidal crystal sitting on a small stand on the other side of Nemesis. It was glowing red. As the smaller crystals were placed on his body, they took on the same glow, as if connected. They were.

“This won’t draw out the information, but the trauma it causes will anchor the information I want into the forefront of your mind. Then when I physically remove the crystal,” Nemesis pulled a gleaming blade from its sheath and laid it on Chahzuu’s chest, “I can more easily draw it out from your mind. Plus, it’s so much more enjoyable to watch you writhing in pain as I ask the questions. I warned you, you know.” Nemesis pursed his lips. “I don’t have time to enjoy this like I normally would, so I’m afraid it’s going to be a bit rough . . .”

Nemesis continued his work while Chahzuu prepared to seal his mind. I can’t let this happen!

 

Chapter 26

 

Siri led them up a long flight of steps. They moved as quickly as they could. She had said there was a small ante room at the top of the steps that led to the tower’s main suite. It was supposed to be a room for visiting dignitaries. Tranthra’ Joh had obviously converted it to a tower prison. It was high enough that no one could hear if the Princess called out the windows, and secluded enough that no one in the palace was likely to go wandering there just out of curiosity.

There was also no doubt that a guard would be posted. Javin could feel the strain of the muscles in his calves and thighs the more they climbed. Still, at Sauros’ urging they didn’t pause for a rest.

At long last, with Javin’s muscles crying out, they arrived at the top. Siri abruptly stopped. She held her arm out to keep them both back then came back down a few steps to talk quietly.

“Through that door is the ante room. There is no window in the door so you’ll be going in blind.”

Sauros looked at Javin. “Any time you’re ready!”

“Wait. Let’s at least catch our breath.”

Sauros nodded assent, though he was clearly impatient. Siri sat down on the steps beside Javin. Her breathing wasn’t as loud, but even more labored than Javin’s. To his amazement, Sauros didn’t seem to be breathing heavily at all.

“Is this the only way up or down?” Javin asked.

“Yes,” Siri said through gasps of air. “No one will be able to slip away and give warning.”

“We know they’ll be expecting us,” Javin said to Sauros. “Tranthra’ Joh’s man in your city got away to bring back warning even if they aren’t sure of our specific movements. If Tranthra’ Joh is even a little smart, he’ll assume someone is coming for the Princess.” Javin took a few deep breaths trying to calm his diaphram. “She’s his biggest bargaining chip. He’d be foolish not to have her well secured. We just have to hope he hasn’t thought to move her yet.

“If they’re any kind of military guard, they’ll have one, more likely two, stationed on either side of the entry then two or more directly in front of the door to the Princess’ room.

“They’re blind, too. If we can’t see in, they can’t see out. The two on either side of the door will be there to catch us from behind.”

Sauros nodded with impatience, but he was listening.

“We’ll burst through the door,” Javin said, pushing his hand out in front of him. “Then you curl right, and I’ll curl left, taking whoever is stationed at the sides. That way they can’t get us from behind, and it cuts off anyone who can slip behind us to get out a warning.”

Again Sauros nodded.

“Then we take out whoever else is in the room. They can’t get away, so we don’t need to be reckless,” he looked at Sauros meaningfully. “We’ll draw before we go inside. Hopefully there won’t be more than nine or ten each.” The last Javin said with a grin.

Sauros grinned back, but it was a reflex. Javin could feel his anxiety to reach the Princess. It was growing stronger the longer they waited. Boy is he tense! Javin thought, then rose to his feet.

“Okay. You ready?”

“Yes!” Sauros drew his blade and moved back up the steps.

“Stay here and wait for the noise to die down,” Javin said to Siri. She nodded and he moved up the steps. His legs were stiff and felt like they’d fall off, but he didn’t think he could hold Sauros back any longer.

“Now!” Sauros said as soon as Javin got beside him on the small landing in front of the door.

Sauros burst through the door and curled as they’d talked. Javin was startled, but moved right after, curling on his side at the same time locating the door on the other side of the room.

Javin looked and came up blank. No one was there at the side as he’d predicted. He glanced back to the main door and saw no one stationed there. Sauros moved over beside him. “No one’s here.”

“I don’t see anyone,” Javin answered, hardly believing Tranthra’ Joh would leave the Princess unguarded. It didn’t bode well. Had they moved her? Had she ever been here? Are we too late?

Javin clamped down on that thought before it could be perceived by his friend.

“Mouhra’ Lah!” Sauros moved over to the door to the main suite. It had a small window he peered through.

“Sauros?” a tiny voice echoed out. “Sauros! I’d given up hope!”

Javin was flooded with relief. “Siri, come on up.” He turned back to see Sauros straining at the door, trying to force it open. It was locked, and there was no guard here to confiscate the key from. They’d found the princess, but from the looks of the door they’d not be able to get her out. Maybe that’s why there weren’t any guards posted.

Siri struggled up the steps. It was clear she felt the toll of the swift climb to the tower. Javin met her and helped her into the room. She looked around and her eyes grew wide in surprise. “No one?”

Javin ignored the question. “Can you open the door? There’s no key.”

Siri stared at Sauros still struggling with the door. She shook her head. “I don’t know of any other way than using the key.

Sauros had stopped for just long enough to hear Siri’s response. With a growl, he turned back to the door. Javin felt something in his breast. His crystal was warming.

“Mouhra! Move back from the door!” he shouted.

“Do it!” Javin snapped. “Quickly!”

Javin felt the anger and strength surging within Sauros.

“I’m back,” came the faint voice on the other side of the door.

Just then the crystal in Javin’s chest flared with intensity. Sauros stood in front of the door, his eyes closed then suddenly his hands came up and drove into the door. It burst inward from its hinges, splintering with the force of Sauros’ blow.

Javin was staggered by the backwash of power.

Sauros stood there, staring at his fists. They were unharmed.

“Sauros?” Mouhra’ Lah called from inside.

“Mouhra!” Sauros bounded into the room, kicking aside the remains of the door. Javin looked at Siri, shrugged then followed.

Inside, Sauros had folded Mouhra’ Lah into a tender embrace inside his massive arms. It was hard to believe such a powerful man could hold a woman so tenderly.

Mouhra’ Lah, for her sake, had grasped him tightly and looked for all the world like she’d never let go. Her head was against his breast and she was murmuring things that Javin politely didn’t hear. He heard Siri stepping into the room, carefully picking her way around the remains of the door. Mouhra opened her eyes and caught sight of her.

“Siri?” Her eyes grew wide and her face beamed. “Siri! I thought you were dead!”

She left Sauros’ embrace and jumped into the arms of the diminutive Keeper. “How did you?—

“I’m sorry,” Javin interrupted, and indeed he was. “We’ve got to get moving.” He looked at Sauros, who nodded and sheepishly wiped the tears that filled his eyes.

What a big softie, Javin thought, smiling.

“We’ve pressed our luck too much already. Once you’re safe, we can have a little longer reunion.”

“Wait!” the Princess said. She moved back to Sauros, who draped a protective arm about her shoulders. She looked up at him. “My sister, Dierni’ Lah is here. Tranthra is holding her as well.” She started to say something else then stopped. “I can’t leave without her!”

Javin’s breath stuck in his throat. A sister?

Sauros looked at Javin.

“We’ll get her. Where is she?”

“I’m not sure, but I think I know where they’d keep her. Come, I’ll show you.”

“We already came up through the dungeons,” Javin said, thinking that’s where the Princess would lead.

“No, that’s not where. Come.” She grabbed Sauros by the hand and pulled him out the door.

Siri moved after. Javin shook his head and followed. Oh well, in for a penny . . . He cringed as the thought sprang unbidden to his mind. Why do I keep doing that?

***

Sohorkon was getting nervous. He stood just within the confines of the jungle cover looking out at the main road to Putra’ Fi Sorro. It was long since the gate should have been opened and his men streaming through. Instead, the gate was locked tight . . . With an inordinate number of guards along the wall.

This is bad! he thought. I have to get in! His brother was there. The Princess and her sister were there. He turned and called up his second and Muustha, the Pontu’ Gi, and began to issue orders.

 

Chapter 27

 

Javin moved with the small group through the unbelievably deserted halls of the palace. Mouhra was trying to take them through what she thought would be the more unused parts, but this wasn’t feeling right. They should have run into somebody by now. They’d had more problems getting to the tower, and it was supposed to be out of the way.

It wasn’t right. No matter what, there should be guards around. Unless . . .

Unless all the guards have been called to repel Sohorkon getting into the city. If the Elders had been successful, the gates would have been thrown open, and Sohorkon’s army inside the city by now.

Maybe that’s what it was. Maybe his plan was working better than he thought.

Right, he thought. I haven’t heard a thing. If they were in the city, I’d have heard something . . . or at the least, felt something.

Then he caught himself. That’s what he really meant. He was learning to rely more on his feelings. He didn’t know if that was good or bad. Right now, though, he had to go with his gut barring any other evidence.

The problem was his gut was telling him something was very wrong. It was going way too smooth.

***

Mahntra' Bhu was standing in the courtyard of the city's main gate. He'd decided to come out of hiding regardless of the danger. He’d heard news he had to see for himself. One of his contacts had told him the missing nobles had been released from the dungeons. Tranthra' Joh had been holding them just as he thought! His source also said they were released by Siri, his daughter, and Sauros' Bho, the Princess' betrothed, from Sunzha' Nu Geeza -- along with another strange being. Mulda’ fi they’d said!

Mulda’ fi . . . Mahntra could scarce believe what he’d heard. His contact had never led him astray. Was it possible?

Right then he’d come out of hiding and started wandering through the streets. In the main avenue, he saw anxiety in a detachment of black uniformed guards heading for the palace. Mahntra tensed when the leader glanced his way. What would they do? He was trapped!

Then they passed by, paying him no mind. They seemed intent on some urgent errand, eyeing the people as if they thought they’d be attacked any second.

It was while he was looking after the soldiers with relief that he glimpsed two of the missing nobles together with a small group of their armed retainers slip out a side street, purposely avoiding the guards, he thought. They had looked after the guards then headed back the other way towards the city’s main gate.

What could they be doing? Mahntra followed. He needed information. It didn’t take long.

Mahntra watched from a distance as the two nobles approached the Captain of the Guard. They started arguing. The Captain called up some of his own guards.

Now I better get involved, Mahntra thought, and hurried over to intervene.

“What is the problem, sirs?”

The Captain looked at him. “This is none of your concern!” Mahntra noted he wasn’t from the city. It was one of those brought from outside.

“Mahntra’ Bhu,” one of the nobles spoke to him. “We have demanded the guard open the gate. We have some people we wish to allow in.”

“My orders are to seal the gate. No one is allowed in or out. No exceptions.” The Captain again glared at Mahntra. “My orders come from the Conservator himself. No one but he may countermand them.”

Just then there was a pounding at the solid wood gate. It was a dull thumping, and muffled cries were heard. “Let me in! I have urgent news for Tranthra’ Joh!”

The Captain looked up to his men stationed on the wall overlooking the gate.

“One man, sir,” one of the guards called down.

“Pass him through.” He looked at the three guardsmen he’d called over. “Take him into custody the moment he gets in.”

“What about us?” one of the nobles said. Why can’t you open the gate for us?”

The guard Captain ignored them and started walking over to his men as they held the stranger under bared blades.

“That’s Sohorkon’ Bho,” Mahntra whispered to the nobles. “Why is he here? Is it true that Sauros released you from the dungeon? I have to know!”

“Yes. It’s true,” one of the nobles said. He turned to the other. “We’ve got to get the gate open. Sohorkon is the one we’ve been waiting for.” The other noble nodded. “Get the men ready.”

“What are you doing?” Mahntra grasped the other noble’s arm.

“Your daughter told us! Look, we don’t have time to explain. We must get the gate open!”

“Ready,” the other noble came up with the soldiers close behind.

“You’ll just have to trust us . . . Trust your daughter.”

“Okay,” the first noble said to his men. “Fan out and cover the guards. Don’t worry about those on the wall for now. Try not to kill any, but do what you have to do!”

The guards looked nervous, drew their blades and moved. “It’s a good thing there’s not too many here. I hope everything’s going okay back at the palace. That’s where that last group was headed,” the second noble said.

“Can’t worry about that now,” the first said. “We need to do our part. Come, let’s start taking back our city.”

“I’ll help!” Mahntra said, making a quick decision. He didn’t know what was happening, but he did trust his daughter.

They moved over to where the guard Captain was tersely questioning the stranger.

“Sohorkon’ Bho?” one of the nobles asked.

“Yes?” the stranger stared at the noble.

“We were sent to help you.”

“Here now!” the guard Captain said as the other noble swung a fist and caught one of his guards across the jaw. The first noble drew his blade and engaged another guard. Sohorkon took that instant to snatch back the blade that’d been taken from him by another surprised guard, and swung his fist at the same time, connecting with a dull thud to the side of the guard’s head. He crumpled.

Mahntra moved now, stepping in close to the final guard just as he was raising his blade to hack at the unprotected back of one of the nobles. He knocked into the guard, diverting his aim. The guard then turned and swung at Mahntra. He felt the blade slice through his clothing and strafed his ribs. It fouled the guard just enough, though, for Sohorkon, jumping to his aid, to clang the guard on the side of the head with the pommel of his blade. He fell, and Sohorkon turned to catch Mahntra as he started to collapse in surprise. The other guards were down.

“Get the gate open!” Sohorkon hissed. Signal with a red banner. Waive it high just above the gate. Keep waiving it until you see people coming from the jungle. Make sure they get in.”

Mahntra could hear sounds of fighting die down and noticed one of the nobles calling to his men to help open the gate. There were no more guards around to stop them.

His ribs felt icy cold. Strangely he didn’t hurt, just shocked his legs wouldn’t hold him up any more.

“I’m too old for this,” Mahntra said to Sohorkon. “My daughter . . . You know my daughter? Her name is Siri.”

“The Keeper? Yes I know her. She’s here, you know,” Sohorkon said with a smile. “She brought us here to help.”

“Help?” Mahtra’s mouth was going dry. “I wasn’t hurt so bad, was I?”

“Just a scratch.”

Mahntra knew Sohorkon was lying, but it didn’t matter. “Help me up, please. My legs seem to have lost their strength. I’m not used to fighting, you know.”

“Wait,” Sohorkon said. “You’re bleeding. We need to stop it first.”

Mahntra heard tearing sounds and realized it was his robe that was being torn. Such a nice robe, he thought. Oh well, he wouldn’t need it if he bled to death. Now where did that come from? I’m not going to die! There’s too much to do. He waited patiently, even fighting back the flinching as he felt his ribs being wrapped. The two nobles were standing over him now, offering encouraging words.

“Have Sohorkon’s people come through yet?” Mahntra asked. “What are they going to do?” He trusted his daughter, but wanted to be sure. His people would be helpless in this confused state.

“They’re almost here,” Sohorkon said. “Don’t worry. We’re here to help you take back your city from Tranthra’ Joh. We won’t be fighting anyone who isn’t in a black uniform. Will your people understand? We just want to create enough of a stir to draw all Tranthra’ Joh’s attention so your daughter, my brother . . . and a friend can get the Princess out, away from harm.

Once she’s safe, we’ll provide protection while she’s out speaking to the people about Tranthra’ Joh’s treason.”

“A good plan,” Mahntra said. He looked up at the nobles. Relief crossed their faces as the realized that the former Keeper supported what was going on. It seemed they were barely trusting, though they hadn’t known how else to serve. “You’re good men,” he said to the nobles. Then he looked back to Sohorkon. “Are you done binding me up? I need to speak with the people. We need to convince them to help.”

“That’ll be good,” Sohorkon said. “Be careful. The wound is pretty deep. I think I’ve stopped the bleeding. I’m no doctor – as your daughter can attest.”

Mahntra caught his breath. “My daughter! Is she hurt?”

“She was,” Sohorkon said smiling. He wouldn’t smile if she was bad off, Mahntra thought. “She was stabbed by one of Tranthra’ Joh’s minions and left for dead when they captured the princess. I found her and bound her up, just like I did you. I’m pleased to say she has almost fully recovered. Just like you will, but don’t push it.”

“You’re sure.” Mahntra started to struggle to his feet.

“Very sure. We have to get moving if we’re going to help her stay that way.”

“Yes,” Mahntra said, allowing the nobles to reach down and help him up. It hurt like the devil. He grit down on his teeth and only breathed hard for a moment before looking around. “Someone shout to get the crowd’s attention. I need to speak with them. I’m afraid I can’t speak very loud without groaning.”

One of the nobles immediately raised his voice and shouted for the gathered crowd to come in closer, the Keeper wanted to speak with them. Mahntra almost protested, saying he wasn’t really the Keeper anymore. That would be sorted out later. He couldn’t waste time with foolish clarifications. If they listened to him like a respected Keeper, all the better.

He waited as the sizeable crowd came closer. Some looked out the open gate and cried a warning. An invading army was coming! The crowd seemed hesitant, not sure what to do. Some started to run.

“Wait!” Mahntra cried. The effort made his side hurt. “Don’t be alarmed. They’ve come to help! They won’t harm any of the people of the city. You must listen!”

“Listen to the Keeper,” one of the nobles cried. “He’ll tell you what to do. Listen!”

Mahntra took a deep breath, flinching in pain. “Tranthra’ Joh and his soldiers have the princess captive in the tower. These two here,” he gestured to the nobles. “You know them. Tranthra’ Joh siezed them illegally and held them captive in the dungeons, all the while telling us that they were away with the Princess on a secret mission. It was a lie! He was saying that to keep us ignorant while he seized control.

“Note that he brought in only his own guards to run the palace. All the Princess’ former guards were sent out of the city. Then Tranthra’ Joh brought in the Pontu’ Gi, and placed them solely under his command.

“He has issued illegal proclamations. You’ve all seen it. You know I’m right!”

“Is it really true?” a voice called from the back of the crowd.

“Yes,” one of the nobles spoke up. “We were taken while in the palace complaining that Tranthra’ Joh was overstepping his authority. We wanted to see the Princess, talk with her. When Tranthra’ Joh couldn’t dissuade us, we were taken and placed in the dungeon.”

The other noble spoke up. “Many of you must have heard by now all the nobles have been freed. They are gathering the people, telling them, just as we’re telling you. It’s all true. The Princess has been held. There is a rescue effort going on even as we speak. We need your help!”

Shouts of indignation filled the crowd. “What do we do? For the Princess! How can we help?”

Mahntra raised his hands for quiet then turned to Sohorkon. “Do as he says.”

Sohorkon stepped forward. “My people are here to help only. We will fight only Tranthra Joh’s men. Come with us.” He turned just as the first of his small army was coming through the gate. He saw his second in command. “Over here, the rest of you hold there!” Then he turned back to the people. “We need to create a distraction while my brother . . . and his daughter –“ he gestured to Mahntra – “try to free the Princess. If we run into any of Tranthra’ Joh’s soldiers, we need to get them to lay down their weapons. If they don’t . . .” He paused and looked over the people staring at him, “then we’ll have to make them.”

“Right! Yes!” Came voices from the crowd.

“If we run into any Pontu’ Gi. Don’t move against them. Wait for their brothers who’ve come with me to convince them to lay down their arms. They are victims just as much as you. Their fellow warriors have come with me to bring them back.” Just then, Mahntra noticed a larger group of the Pontu’ Gi come through the gate. Their lithe, quiet steps were a dangerous contrast to the louder marching soldiers of Sunzha’ Nu Geeza. The crowd breathed a hushed gasp of exclamation. “Wait!” Sohorkon held up his hands. “They are allies! They were in my city too. Once they knew they were being misled they joined us. They want to help!”

The crowd still seemed nervous. Sohorkon was asking a great deal of them, to trust their city to such as had been on the side of Tranthra’ Joh. The nobles looked at Mahntra, who was looking at Sohorkon. “It’s true,” Sohorkon told him. Mahntra hesitated then nodded. His daughter had trusted this man. If the nobles hadn’t confirmed it, he wouldn’t believe himself. I sure hope Siri is right, he thought.

“What are we waiting for?” Mahntra said, louder for the benefit of the crowd. “Let’s get moving.”

 

Chapter 28

 

Mahntra was shaking and his legs were still wobbly. With the help of one of the noble’s guards, he actually led the large procession. Sohorkon and the nobles stayed at his side as they moved up the main avenue. They were followed first by the gathered people of the city, then the army that’d come into the gate. So far there hadn’t been any problems. They’d not seen a single soldier in black. Mahntra had been relieved at first, but when he mentioned it to Sohorkon, he’d been advised otherwise.

“If they aren’t out in the city, then where are they?” Sohorkon had asked. Mahntra took his meaning. They must be at the palace. If that was the case, the affect they were hoping to have wasn’t working. And that left most of the guard right where they hoped they wouldn’t be . . . With Siri and the Princess.

Mahntra hoped Siri remembered the passages in the palace. The Princess would know them also as long as they were able to reach her. Mahntra hoped they had.

At a major intersection, Sohorkon stopped abruptly at his side. Then Mahntra saw why. Coming from a cross street was a large group of armed citizens. They spied them and bristled, some visibly gripping their blades tighter, watching them closely. It was clear they were trying to decide if they were friend or foe. From the looks they were getting, it was the latter. Then Mahntra realized the people would not recognized Sohorkon, his army, or the Pontu’ Gi with them.

“Hold a moment,” Mahntra said to Sohorkon. He tapped the noble closest to him on the arm. “Come with me.” They moved out a bit from their own group, and watched the others. “Let them see we are with this group, not captives.”

“Ho there!” a man stepped out from the mob. Mahntra held his breath. His eyes were a bit blurry, but he thought . . . yes! It was Mier’ Shu, another noble that’d been missing.

“Come,” Mahntra called. “We have to talk.”

The man recognized him and his companion. The noble with Mahntra moved forward to greet him. “We’re on the way to the palace. These are from the gates the Mulda’ fi said would be there.”

Mier’ Shu looked at Mahntra.

“Yes,” he confirmed, “we’re on the way to the palace.”

“As are we. Shall we join forces?”

“Definitely!”

Mier’ Shu returned back to his people, telling them to fall in with Mahntra’s group, and they were on their way again.

After a time, Mahntra began to think. This is going too well. They were passing the final cross street before coming onto the grand plaza at the main palace entrance. He strained his eyes to see if there would be any further obstacles. The plaza seemed deserted.

Sohorkon must have had the same thoughts. Just then one of the Pontu’ Gi moved forward to whisper to him.

“Hold!” Sohorkon’s voice sounded loud enough to reach the whole group. Mahntra started to turn to ask him why they were stopping, when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a shimmering of movement in the square.

The shimmering stilled into a large formation of Pontu’ Gi blocking their way. They were holding short staves made of a crystalline material that glowed red. Then another shimmering caught his eye from the buildings on either side. The roofs and windows were filled with more Pontu’ Gi. They were holding the same object two handed across their breasts. Weapons! Mahntra felt a sinking in the pit of his stomach.

“Something is wrong with them,” the Pontu’ Gi leader was saying to Sohorkon. “We cannot touch them. They are . . . blocked.” The warrior seemed confused, and Mahntra thought he saw signs of the man being in pain. His eyes were squinched, jaw tense, and his words were clipped.

With a single movement, the formation of blocking Pontu’ Gi flashed their weapons forward, pointing them at the gathered crowd. The Pontu’ Gi in the buildings pointed the staffs down, gripping them tighter, leaning forward. The red glow of the weapons seemed to darken. A strange hum started to fill the air, but it was a noise Mahntra felt more than heard.

Mahntra looked back over his people. They were staring, wide eyed, all around. They started to fidget.

Sohorkon came to him.

“We have to get through!”

“We will!” Mahntra said. “Will your people stand with us . . . The Pontu’ Gi too?”

“They will,” Sohorkon said with conviction, though his eyes also held concern. It was one thing for a warrior to fight, but city people?

“This is our city!” Mahntra said.

“My warriors will fight!” The Pontu’ Gi leader said, his voice hissing strangely. “We must be free!” He shook his head as if trying to shake something off.

Again Mahntra looked back over his people. Those closest to him had heard. They looked nervous, but determined.

He took a deep breath. It would be a slaughter -- on both sides. Would they get through? He eyed the strange weapons. He could see concern in Sohorkon’s eyes.

Even if any of us get through, will we be in time?

“Move your warriors up,” Mahntra said. “We will all fight together!”

***

Chahzuu strained his body in a spasm where every single muscle contracted to the point of tearing. His back arched as much as the restraining straps would allow. Agony coursed through every cell. His mouth was wide open in a soundless scream.

The pain stopped and Nemesis leaned over. “What are these?” He held up the two Articles of Power. Chahzuu didn’t answer. He couldn’t. That wasn’t important. Nemesis was just asking to get the answers to creep across Chahzuu’s mind.

“It’s so much easier after you’re dead if the information is right there at the front,” he said, and touched the pyramid/crystal again.

Pain danced through Chahzuu’s body like lightning, frying every nerve ending, and cauterizing them with acid. Again his back arched, the straps stretched and his mouth opened in silent gasping.

Chahzuu tried to order his thoughts, to focus on anything but what Nemesis wanted. He tried to bury the information so deep, it would never be found.

Another wave of pain hit. Fresh fire engulfed his mind, ripping tendril by tendril; shredding, then discarding.

“What are these used for? What is their purpose?” Nemesis chuckled. “You know it doesn’t matter. The thoughts will rise sooner or later. It just depends on the amount of pain you want to bear.”

Nemesis turned, and another wave hit, this one even greater if that were possible. Chahzuu felt muscles tearing, and wondered if his skin were ripping too.

“Save the agony. You’re going to die anyway. Just let go your thoughts just a little, and this will end. I’ll remove your crystal quickly so I can suck what I need out of your puny mind.”

Never! Chahzuu thought. But in the end he knew Nemesis was right. He’d won . . . again.

There has to be a way! It was hard to think, to try and avoid the thoughts Nemesis was trying to raise up, and think of a way out at the same time. I just can’t.

Another wave hit. This time Chahzuu clenched his teeth, and felt one break. The pain was barely noticeable compared to the other pain wracking his body and mind.

“How did you find them?” Nemesis droned. “Think, animal! What are they? How are they used? Where did they come from?” Again Chahzuu heard Nemesis’ low laughter as another wave shattered his mind, piercing down through his body, leaving it flailing now with weakness.

“It shouldn’t be long now,” Nemsis said.

I can’t let him win! I won’t! Chahzuu knew he was getting tired of trying to find another thought, trying to find a way to escape. I can’t give up! Can’t reveal anything! He tried to force his mind to go blank. Think of nothing! My Place!

“Oh no you don’t,” Nemesis said, slapping him hard across the face. “You can’t escape through the Passage. I won’t allow it!”

Chahzuu felt the restricting bonds of the Power on him again.

“The Guardians failed miserably when they sent you to try and stop me.” Another shattering wave of pain seared his senses. He couldn’t even strain against the straps now, being held in place by Nemesis’ power. “You and that other pathetic fool don’t stand a chance!”

The Other! Chahzuu thought. The other Pale One! I must . . .

Pain lanced through his tortured body as he was trying to ignore it . . . trying to focus his mind . . . searching . . . calling . . .

***

“There. At the end of the hall is the door,” Mouhra’ Lah said to Javin. They’d traveled through some pretty tight passages to get here unseen, still Javin didn’t like it. Like the corridor in front of him, all the other ways they’d passed had been vacant.

From the tower they’d traveled clear to the other side of the palace. Sure Mouhra and Siri had led them mostly through corridors only the most intimate and trusted servants would use, but some times they’d traveled right through the heart of the palace. They hadn’t seen another person.

“We can’t have been that lucky,” he said to Sauros. “Something’s up.”

“Up?” Sauros answered, raising his eyebrows. “Oh, I see. You don’t trust our luck to be this good.”

“That’s what I said. And I still haven’t heard anything from the city . . .” He didn’t need to say any more.

“There’s nowhere to go but forward,” Sauros said. We cannot fight something that we don’t know exists. And if there is a trap laid, do you plan to do any different?”

“Nope,” Javin said. “Yet being ready is half the game.”

“Why are you talking of games? This is a serious matter,” Mouhra’ Lah said.

“Don’t worry, love,” Sauros said. “It is just ‘Javin’ talk. You’ll get used to it.”

Javin turned a smile to Sauros. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” Sauros returned the smile. “Shall we go?”

“After you.”

Sauros darted down the hall on the balls of his feet. Javin ghosted after. Siri and Mourha’ Lah followed at a slower pace. When Sauros and Javin reached the doorway they took up position close to the wall on either side. Sauros reached over and tried the lever. The door swung open.

“Open?” Javin was confused

Sauros nodded. “This is very strange.”

Mouhra’ Lah ignored them both and went inside. “Dierni, are you here?”

“Mouhra? Is that you?” came a muffled voice from inside.

“Sauros, come quickly.”

Sauros followed Mouhra’ Lah inside with Javin right behind. He saw Mouhra’ Lah across the large room working to untie a bound form who’d been tied to her cot. Sauros moved over and started tearing at the knots.

“ This is getting worse all the time,” Javin mumbled as he stayed in the center of the room, watching. There was no other furniture, just the cot and a large, empty room. Then he heard a familiar laugh. He spun to see many -- too many -- black clad guards moving into the room with drawn blades. Saballa stepped in behind.

Javin heard a low growl at his side as he drew his blade. Sauros was beside him, blade in hand. Thankfully there were no Pontu’ Gi Javin could see or feel. That must mean something.

Saballa strode out to the side.

“You did just as we desired. Now you’re all in one easy package.” Saballa’s eyes gleamed with an evil fire. “My orders were quite explicit.” He gestured for his guards to move forward.

Javin chanced a quick glance behind. Siri had moved over to help Mouhra’ Lah with her sister’s bonds, and now all three were standing watching defiantly, though they realized it was hopeless.

Then to top it off, Javin started to feel a nagging itch in the back of his mind. It started with a little flash of pain then grew, piercing with an intense shock then vanished. He looked at Sauros. He didn’t seem affected.

It hit him again. The itching, like a thought was trying to push itself into his mind, then a flash of searing pain. His vision blurred, his eyes watering. What is this?

The surge came again just as he was focusing. Someone was trying to contact him.

Nemesis? Javin wondered. It could be, but it didn’t feel right. Not like . . . him. Javin looked around the room as the soldiers tried to come around to flank them and separate them from the women. Sauros and he backed then moved them all to a far corner of the room, feinting occasionally with their blades to keep the guards from rushing while they moved. All the while Javin kept half his mind alert, searching for what was barging in on his mind. There it is again! This time the pain almost made Javin stumble as they moved back. Sauros looked at him. Javin shook his head. “Don’t worry.”

Now they couldn’t be encircled, and only seven or eight of the twenty or so guards could come at them at a time. “Better odds,” Sauros said. “Shields?”

Javin knew the shields would protect them, but not the women. He wished they’d been able to figure out how to encompass more than just themselves in the shielding. Maybe there was a way, but his mind was divided enough as it was. Again! The pain hit. This time the message started to make its way into a form he could understand . . . just out of reach.

Like a whole lot of everything else! Javin cursed under his breath.

“Shields.” he agreed, keeping a close eye on the casually advancing guards. At least protecting themselves they’d be able to inflict much more damage on the guards facing them. That little bit would add to the protection of the women.

Javin concentrated and felt the warming in his breast as the crystal responded with the sheathing of safety wrapped next to his skin. Sauros had done the same. He could feel the other’s anticipation.

If the guard decided to rush in one group, they might take out quite a few, but there were others who’d get through to the women.

They’d still want the women alive wouldn’t they? He looked at Saballa for any clue. There was none. In fact, even if he’d been commanded to kill him and Sauros and take the women alive, Javin wouldn’t trust him.

Saballa’s eyes had a gleam that looked as if he didn’t care about his orders. They showed a thirst for death that would be quenched today no matter what.

Saballa smiled. “Take your time, animal. The end result is the same. You’ll be dead. It’s not perfect, but at least your dissection will prove a slight diversion.”

“Come get me,” Javin said, then smiled. “Oh, I forgot. You only fight defenseless women.” He remembered how good it had felt when his fist connected with Saballa’s jaw in the throne room. “Well, I’ll get around to you . . . again!”

Javin watched as Saballa shook with rage. “Take them!”

The guards eased forward. They weren’t eager to charge.

Javin raised his blade ready to let his reflexes take over. He calmed his mind, searching for some way out. Then the pain struck again. It lanced through the back of his skull and made his eyes feel like they’d pop out of his head.

“Did you feel that?” Javin asked Sauros.

“Feel what?”

Javin focused, trying to identify it. It was getting more coherant. It felt . . . familiar. The Pontu’ Gi? It felt like a Pontu’ Gi would feel, only . . . Not the group. Just one. One particular Pontu’ Gi . . .

A guard lashed out with his blade and Javin raised his to block, countered with a sweeping jab that the guard danced away from, and wasn’t quick enough. Javin had pinked his side. Another darted in just as the other moved back, taking his swing that Javin had to duck to avoid. He felt the air swish above his head, felt as Sauros took the swipe off his blade and flicked back. There was a grunt of satisfaction as Javin heard the sound of a blade slipping through flesh and the guard staggered, falling back against his fellows.

“Enough play!” Saballa shouted. “Take them! Take them now!”

“Here they come,” Javin said as he saw the guards prepare for a concerted rush.

 

Chapter 29

 

The rush came just as Javin’s mind lanced with pain. It was stronger, and it was calling to him. Someone was trying to talk with him. And that someone was in pain.

I don’t have time for this! Javin danced to the side of a viscous slash and cut a back stroke then forestroke, followed with a jab with his left hand, connecting on the chin of a third, pushing them all back. Sauros had done much the same with those pushing toward him. The first push had been sent back.

At least they weren’t trying to get around them to the women. They were trying to kill them first. That was good. They were shielded. They could take some hits and not be hurt. It wouldn’t take Saballa long to see this, though, and he would change their tactics.

His eyes went bleary as another shock of pain came through, this time the message became clearer even as he staggered under its intensity.

It wasn't words, but a desperate plea. Finding him . . . primal, direct into his mind, and now he understood the danger -- instinctively.

And that’s how he reacted . . . instinctively.

***

The guards started forward again. This time many more came at once. Sauros raised his blade to the guard position then he glanced at Javin. Something was wrong. He stood slack, his eyes were scrunched tight as if he was in pain, and his head tilted back.

Then his mouth opened wide in an unnatural rictus. A sound came out that stopped the guards in their tracks; a sound so intense the walls and floor began to shake. The guards in front began to fade from view, and Sauros saw their eyes open wide in surprise as the violent shaking grew in intensity. His crystal seared to a white heat just before he felt them all vanish!

***

Nemesis stood over Chahzuu as he pumped another surge of painful energy through his body. It was getting close now. Even though Chahzuu had fallen unconscious the pain was still registering, as well as the questions . . . in his subconscious. It would make it so much easier.

Then to his surprise he saw Chahzuu stir. He wasn’t unconscious after all. And there was something else. Chahzuu’s eyes opened and met his. Defiance glinted back. Then Nemesis felt it; a surge of power from somewhere; enormous power. Seeking, looking . . . for him!

No! This can’t be happening! He grabbed at the Articles holding them to his breast, and grasped Chahzuu’s neck with his other hand, squeezing. He’s the focus! It has to be broken. But who . . .?

A blinding arc of searing white energy flashed through the chamber. Nemesis and Chahzuu were gone. Everything else remained.

 

Chapter 30

 

Javin’s mind snapped. Something in it opened up, became free, and he felt a surge of strength. He didn’t know what he did. He just did what he had to do . . . whatever it was.

At once he was floating on the void, like when he and Sauros had passed through the portal. But he wasn’t alone. He’d pulled others.

Sauros was there, Siri, Mouhra’ Lah and her sister. And still others. Who? The power still flowed through him in a way he didn’t understand. He felt as if he had all the time in the world to seek, to learn, to discern. Still the answers to what he most wanted seemed just out of reach. It was like he could reach out and grasp them, but his arms wouldn’t extend. He couldn’t feel his arms, couldn’t feel his body, yet he knew he was still whole.

Then he recognized the others. There was the strange Pontu’ Gi who’d rescued him. The other Pontu’ Gi had called him Chahzuu. Though they’d never spoken he could feel it was him. He was the one who’s call he’d felt! Now the pain was gone, and touching his mind, he could sense . . . relief! There was also a determination that came without words. Javin knew what it was. It had been part of the earlier message that had filtered into his mind and was finally coalescing into meaning.

Nemesis ! He felt the other then, and it shocked him. It was that familiar feeling he’d felt in the throne room, the presence of the evil one who’d tried to imitate him, but there was something else -- a sense of more familiarity than he was comfortable with. A sense of oneness. A sense of . . . kinship?

As he was feeling this, he could also feel Nemesis start to build his own power, sensed him readying himself to strike back!

No! Javin shouted in his mind, and everything resolved itself. The grey vanished and washed through with wavering colors, assembling themselves into a pattern inside the throne room of Puntra’ Fi Sorro.

Javin wasn’t surprised that he’d brought them here, but he didn’t know how he’d done it and doubted he could do it again.

Javin felt the solid floor beneath his feet and heard the exclamation of Tranthra’ Joh sitting on the throne.

“Where! How!” he sputtered.

Javin hid a smile then exhaustion overtook him and it was all he could do to remain standing. He looked around to find everyone else standing in shock at their sudden appearance.

Tranthra’ Joh was sitting behind a row of four guardsmen on the main level of the floor between Javin’s group and Tranthra’ Joh. Sauros still stood to his side. Siri, Mouhra’ Lah and Dierni’ Lah were huddled together in the place they’d been standing just before Javin transported them. They moved closer, their eyes wide, though not panicked. In front of Javin stood a startled Saballa. I didn’t feel him. Javin’s thoughts flashed through his mind quicker than movement. It’s just as well. Saballa had fear plainly written across his face, visibly trembling and gasping with shock.

Then Javin felt danger and whirled to find Nemesis standing to one side up on the small balcony that ringed the throne room. There were no archers this time, just Nemesis. A smile moved across his face, his breast a churning cauldron of black and red. His right hand started to glow and Javin felt the power building as Nemesis raised it, palm up toward him . . .”

“No!” Javin heard the shout, saw the bolt flash from Nemesis’ hand toward him, but it was blocked, by another bolt.

Javin spun further and saw where the bolt came from.

It had come from the other Pontu’ Gi – Chahzuu -- his first rescuer in this place. Chahzuu stood, his eyes glinting, his breast a white hot swirling, and his palms glowing as well. Javin noted two small crystal forms laying on the floor several paces in front of him as if they’d fallen there. They’re important! Javin’s mind registered that in an instant, but he couldn’t get to them just now. For the life of him, he didn’t know why they were important. His eyes were diverted back to a jerky movement from the man. He thrust his palms at Nemesis and another bolt shot out. Nemesis, eyes wide in shock, raised his hands in a warding, and the white stream of pure power spread around Nemesis, charring the walls behind, but he was untouched.

“You’re no match for me, animal!” And Nemesis launched another bolt, this one directly at his attacker.

“Guards take them!” He heard Tranthra’ Joh order, finally shaken from his stupor. Guards who’d frozen in shock snapped to action.

There were another four guards at the doorway on the other end of the room. They moved towards Javin. Out of the corner of his eye, Javin, with relief, saw his rescuer deflect the bolt thrown at him and delivered another back. He’ll watch our backs!

“Guard Mouhra!” he heard Sauros snarl as he turned to face the four guards in front of Tranthra’ Joh. They’d all drawn their blades and were moving forward. “I want this Malthrap for myself!”

Javin knew the word. It was a large, disgusting rodent, though he hadn’t seen one since being here on this world. The image floated in his mind and he just had time to smile in irony before he lifted his own blade, motioning for the women to stand behind, between him and Sauros and all the guards that faced them.

“This is going to be fun.” He said to no one. Fatigue made his blade seem heavy. He tried to raise a shield to protect himself, but couldn’t. He was drained from what it took to bring them all here. I guess I’ll have to do this the old fashioned way, he thought, and stole a glance at Saballa.

Saballa’s blade flashed from his scabbard but he made no move to come in at Javin from the side. That would have been a good move, to try and encircle him as much as possible. Instead, Saballa moved back, motioning the guards to come at Javin while he moved behind, shouting them on.

Again Javin smiled. “Ever the coward, Saballa. Don’t worry. I’ll get to you.”

The first guard lunged forward, jabbing a thrust straight forward. Javin barely parried it and swung in a counter strike. He was too slow, missing the guard who danced back out of range just as another of the four pressed forward in a swinging cut.

Javin ducked, hearing the clang of blades from behind, knowing Sauros was facing four of his own. Sauros, at least, could raise a shield. He felt for him but couldn’t sense a thing. He was so drained all vestiges of power within were gone. I won’t survive a prolonged fight, he thought.

Javin stood upright and swung to block yet another blade coming down and countered, this time quick enough to draw a line of blood along the guard’s forearm.

Next, two came forward at once, a third held back, then moved behind. The fourth held his bleeding arm, waiting for an opening. Javin parried the first thrust, moved his blade to block the next swing then snapped out his right leg to catch the third in the diaphragm. It didn’t have the force he’d like, but it was all he had. Anger started to build.

Time to stop playing around! Javin gathered his little remaining strength, still hearing the sounds of conflict behind, and hearing the roars of power being thrown back and forth between the Pontu’ Gi and Nemesis. He leapt forward, his blade thrusting, weaving and cutting, driving the four guards back. They weren’t fast enough. One went down with a stab to the throat. The next was sliced across his stomach. He fell, clutching the wound. The third tried to turn and run, but Javin caught him a blow to the back of the head. The fourth, the one he’d wounded, did run, and Javin let him go. He hoped they’d be finished before he could come back with help.

Javin nearly staggered, then felt movement and jerked to the side, narrowly missing being stabbed by Saballa’s blade. The coward had snuck around behind and was trying to get him in the back. Javin felt the blade slice through the skin of his chest as he turned away leaving only a long, thin cut.

He reached out and caught Saballa’s extended arm, jerking him forward. Saballa swept out with a knee as he was pulled forward, knocking Javin to the ground. Javin’s strength was so spent he let go his hold, expecting Saballa fall on him and finish the job. As he looked up, all he could see was Saballa’s backside as he fled the room.

Javin tried to struggle to his feet, and couldn’t. He felt arms helping him as Siri and Dierni’ Lah came into bleared view. He cranked his neck and saw Sauros was now fighting Tranthra’ Joh. Sauros had been quick and cut off Tranthra’s escape behind the throne. He was now fighting like a caged animal. Javin had no doubt Tranthra’ Joh was filled with terror. It was only right Sauros should face him.

His main concern now was Nemesis. What could he do? He could barely stand without help. He gripped Siri’s hand then turned to watch the Pontu’ Gi still blocking and hurling energy bolts. Javin could tell by the color of his skin, the look of his eyes, and the fading glow at his breast that he was being worn down. Conversely, Nemesis was occupied, but the red/black swirling at his breast was just as bright as ever. The bolts now mostly came from Nemesis, with the Pontu’ Gi struggling to block and deflect those sent at him and others.

He had protected them well. How long could he hold out? Javin watched closely, trying to see where he could help. Javin staggered to the center of the room, away from the bolts lest he be caught in the backwash. Siri and Dierni moved with him. He kept glancing at the doorway, expecting someone to come at any moment. Mouhra’ Lah stood watching Sauros, rooted where she was. Occasionally she would spare a glance around the room as if she, too, were trying to find a way to help.

“Bolt the door,” Javin said to Siri. She nodded and grabbed Dierni to help her. Then Javin turned back to the Pontu’ Gi and Nemesis. The last bolt seemed to get through and Chahzuu groaned with pain as his flesh was seared. He chanced a glance at Javin. Time seemed to stop as their eyes met.

The look was one of understanding, of friendship, though they’d not been together other than just the once. The look conveyed feelings: comradery, loyalty, hope . . . Then the Pontu’ Gi’s expression changed. It was instantaneous, but stretched in Javin’s mind as endless. He saw surprise, worry, and . . . panic, as if something were happening. Something neither one of them could prevent. Then he saw the look of decision in the Pontu’ Gi’s eyes and his face hardened. His eyes burned into Javin, imploring . . . but for what!

Then Javin watched in horror as the Pontu’ Gi raised himself to full height, closed his eyes, squinting them in concentration, and dropped his shield!

“No!” Javin shouted and tried to stagger forward, but his mind faltered as he felt a powerful mental surge spinning out from the Pontu’ Gi. Not at him, but to somewhere else outside of the palace. Then a bolt took the Pontu’ Gi square in the breast and blew him backward with powerful force.

Javin watched as his scorched body came to a rest many paces across the floor. He stared at his lifeless form in tired shock and heard a hollow laugh behind him. He turned to see Nemesis’ glowing palms rising . . .

Javin could do nothing as Nemesis threw both hands forward sending an immense beam of searing light straight at him. Everything seemed to slow. He had time to wonder in that instant if his body would be burned as bad as Chahzuu’s.

He saw a blur of movement from the corner of his eye, heard a shout from behind and felt heat as the beam struck -- but not him.

Mouhra’ Lah had leaped in front of the lancing energy and took the powerful beam herself to protect him. He caught her as the force thrust her into him, and he held fast, looking into her eyes, seeing the pain, the surprise then the light in her eyes fading . . .

“Save . . . my . . . people,” she whispered as she slumped on Javin and he layed her gently to the floor.

Anger boiled and Javin staggered to his feet to face his enemy. The smirk on Nemesis face only added to Javin’s anger. He tried to call up energy, to draw on the crystal. None came. He tried to nurse the anger, tried to pull out any reserves he had. Still nothing; he was truly spent.

Nemesis’ smile grew wider, and Javin clenched his teeth, forcing himself to his full height to face Nemesis directly and hold his head high.

Javin watched Nemesis’ eyes dance with glee as his palms again started to glow one last time . . .

***

Mahntra’ Bhu stood beside Sohorkon’ Bho and the Pontu’ Gi leader, Preegha. On his other side stood the two nobles who’d been freed from the dungeons. At their backs stood their combined army, ready to rush forward overwhelm the Pontu’ Gi and move on to the palace.

The Pontu’ Gi army blocked the way, and ringed them from the buildings on each side. Their weapons were raised, glowing with destructive menace. It was as if they were waiting for a signal before commensing to reign destruction upon them. Mahntra knew many would die today.

“Ready!” Sohorkon called out, raising his hand high. The soldiers tensed, the citizens grasped their makeshift weapons more firmly. Mahntra held his breath. He heard a humming growing in intensity. The people looked around. They heard it too. Sohorkon still held his hand aloft. When he brought it down they’d all charge into the face of the Pontu’ Gi and whatever strange weapons they were holding.

That’s it! Mahntra thought. The sound is coming from the weapons. He watched as the crystalline lances the Pontu’ Gi held turned a deeper red as if building up in power. The warriors held them up, pointing them toward his army.

Mahntra looked at Sohorkon. His face was set. He knew what he was doing commanding these soldiers. Any second his arm would drop . . .

Then from behind in their ranks came a piercing scream. Mahntra turned. Another stab of red lightning flew from one of the strange lances held by a Pontu’ Gi in a side building and hit one of the nobles at his side square in the breast. Mahntra shouted in surprise, watching the noble pitch backward. A burned scorch of what used to be his chest was now a bleeding wound.

More cries erupted from their makeshift army, as more red lightning rained down. They were being decimated! They had to move now! He looked at Sohorkon, still holding his hand aloft, eyes steeled to what was happening . . .

Then Mahntra’s eyes suddenly bleared and a complete hush that fell over the square. Something, a wave of powerful energy, ripped across Mahntra’s mind. It passed through as if searching, though not meant for him. He stiffened with immobility for just an instant. Then he was released.

All around were gasps of surprise. People shook their heads in wonder. Then all the Pontu’ Gi collapsed, crumpling to the ground as if dead. On both sides the warriors fell. Their strange lances clattered to the ground turning an inert milky-white color.

Mahntra watched as Sohorkon knelt and felt the throat of the Pontu’ Gi leader who’d collapsed at his side. “He’s still alive,” he said to Mahntra. “What happened?”

“I don’t know,” Mahntra said. “But it appears our way is clear.”

Sohorkon nodded and turned to the gathered soldiers and citizens. “Hear me!”

The murmuring ceased and all eyes fell on Sohorkon. “We don’t know what’s happened, but we can’t allow it to stop what we’ve begun. Move forward and keep a sharp eye!”

Mahntra cast a last glance at the fallen noble and moved with Sohorkon towards the open gates of the palace. They moved fast, avoiding the fallen bodies of the Pontu’ Gi. At one point, he stopped, curious, and touched one of the strange lances held earlier by their enemies. It had a slight buzzing feeling. There wasn’t a sound, just a tingling.

“Leave it,” Sohorkon had said. “We don’t understand them. They could go off and cause more damage than they could possibly be worth.”

Mahntra nodded and they continued on as rapidly as they dared. It was odd that the doors to the palace were wide open. He didn’t question. Perhaps they’d been left open to entice them into the trap. Little did their enemies realize they didn’t need any enticement. Then Mahntra wondered again at the fortuitous event that had caused all the Pontu’ Gi to collapse. Is it another trap? He wondered. What would it accomplish? Mahntra guessed they’d find out soon enough.

Moving through the palace, Mahntra guided them. They encountered only a few guards here and there; nothing that stopped their progress. Usually when they were seen the guards either ran the other way or stopped and surrendered.

At a certain point, Mahntra stopped and turned to Sohorkon. “There’s two ways to go from here. Take your men and follow this hall. It will turn to the left and continue for a bit until it comes to large double doors at its end. Those are the doors to the main audience chamber. That’s where Tranthra’ Joh most likely is if he’s still here. He could also be barricaded in. I“ll take my people and go a different route that will enter into the audience room from behind. When you reach the door, if it’s locked, start pounding for all you’re worth. It will create a distraction. That should allow us to take the room then let you in.”

Sohorkon looked at him a moment and Mahntra thought he was about to object, then nodded. Mahntra was relieved. If there was going to be fighting Mahntra would rather it be his people that fought than an invading army. It was going to be tough as it was to restore peace after this was all over. From the look Sohorkon gave he could see he understood.

“Hurry. I’m starting to worry that we haven’t had as much resistance as I expected. I think something’s wrong. Pray that we’re not already too late!”

Mahntra nodded and yelled at his people to follow. He lead them at speed down the intersecting hall to the small, little used corridor that would lead to the back entrance of the throne room. It too, may be locked, but he knew the secret to the latch where he didn’t need a key. As he was running, he mulled over what Sohorkon had said. He had been hoping that things were just going well, that their plan was working as it should. Now his thoughts were troubled. What would Tranthra’ Joh do if he thought he was trapped? Mahntra almost stumbled as the thought reached its logical conclusion.

He held the princess! He would do anything to save himself!

There were also others that Sohorkon and the nobles had talked about. They were already in the palace -- to try and save the princess before Tranthra’ Joh suspected. Yet the evidence of the waiting Pontu’ Gi indicated Tranthra’ Joh had been expecting them.

Mahntra speeded his way, becoming more worried with each step. Would they make it in time?

 

Chapter 31

 

Javin stared death in the eye. His anger boiled. It rankled that he wasn’t close enough to at least spit in Nemesis’ eye before he was taken down. Nemesis eyes widened with unholy glee, the rictus smile still on his face as his glowing palms moved forward . . .

Then another beam speared out, flashing out of the corner of Javin’s eye accompanied by a roar of rage.

Sauros! Javin thought. He must have seen Mouhra go down!

There was a blinding flash, and Javin raised a hand to protect his eyes from the glare. When he could lower it, he looked where Nemesis had been standing. The only thing left was a scorch mark on the wall . . . and a faint outline where Nemesis had been standing.

Javin turned to see Sauros standing over a fallen Tranthra’ Joh, blood pooling at his feet. Sauros stood still for a moment, arm raised, pointing to where he’d sent the flashing bolt. Then he came to himself, dropped his arm and rushed down the steps to cradle Mouhra’ Lah in his arms. There were muffled sobs and Javin wanted to say something . . . Nothing came. Nothing ever would, that could make up for Sauros’ loss. Mouhra had died saving him!

Javin was jolted by a pounding coming from the doors, and Dierni’ Lah, realizing what had happened let out a little cry and rushed over to Sauros’ side. It must have been her screaming Javin had heard. Siri’ Bhu just stood by the doors they’d bolted, staring into nothingness, tears congealing in her eyes.

Again there was nothing Javin could say. They’d won. But at such a cost!

They all ignored the continued pounding at the doors, then the curtains behind the throne parted and a group of men darted through, led by an older man, distinguished looking, but wounded.

“Siri?” the older man said hesitating as his eyes fell on the Keeper. “Is that you, my daughter?”

“Daddy!” Siri bolted forward and Javin lowered the blade he’d raised to defend himself and the others again.

Siri ran into his arms and they stumbled until Siri backed away, holding the older man at arm’s length. “You’re hurt!”

“Not now,” the man said. He looked at Javin, at Siri. Then his eyes went down to the huddled form of Sauros, still quietly sobbing over his fallen love. Dierni was kneeling beside them.

“He’s a friend, father; a real Mulda’ fi.”

Javin didn’t much feel like a Promised One right then. He let the blade he’d been holding clang to the floor and he strode over to kneel beside Sauros and rested a hand on his shoulder. This shouldn’t have happened! It should have been me!

“Open the doors!” The older man gestured to two of the men he’d brought with him. “We’ve taken the palace, those outside are with us.” He spoke this to no one in particular then followed Siri to stand over the huddled forms.

The gaurds swung open the doors, and a group of soldiers moved in, quickly taking up positions, then catching themselves, turning to their leader. What was happening? They caught the subdued spirit of the room.

Sohorkon strode in followed by two guards escorting another between them.

“We caught this one on our way here,” Sohorkon said to Javin as he rose. There was a look of concern on his face as he saw his brother then glanced back up to Javin. “The palace is secure. My men are going through, taking everyone in black uniforms. This one, though, I thought you’d want. I know who he is.” Sohorkon gestured to the grimacing man the guards held between them. Saballa!

“Indeed I do.” Javin eyed Saballa coldly. “Let him go.”

Sohorkon’s eyes grew wide until he understood what Javin meant. “Block the door,” Sohorkon commanded, “Make a ring so he can’t get away until it’s finished.”

“I give you a chance,” Javin whispered. “I give you more than you deserve, but if you don’t take it, you’re life is ended where you stand!”

Sohorkon nodded to the two guards and they thrust Saballa into the center of the room where Javin was waiting, forming a ring that excluded the still huddled forms of Sauros and those around him. For now, they were ignored by all the others . . . except Javin. This is for them! he thought. It wasn’t enough, but it was all he had.

“Come. Let’s see if you can fight or just shout orders.”

A wild look came across Saballa’s face. Javin could tell he was terrified. Javin moved closer, then Saballa suddenly darted forward, his hand sweeping down to pick up the blade Javin had let fall earlier.

It’s an act!

Javin knew it the moment Saballa came up, thrusting, and barely missed being spit on the blade. The back swing caught him, though, and he felt an icy hot slice skim across his right shoulder.

Saballa danced back out of the way, gloating. Sohorkon started to move forward but Javin held up his hand. A blade was offered. He ignored it. This would be done with his bare hands.

“Come. Your little surprises are at an end. If you win, you walk. If you don’t, you’ll never walk again.”

Javin continued to circle towards Saballa. Again a sweep of the blade came in. Javin leaned back out of reach, snapping out his left foot, catching Saballa on the wrist. There was a crack, and the blade slipped from his fingers. Saballa clutched his broken wrist. Another step and Javin swept out his right foot sweeping Saballa’s knee inward with another crack. Saballa fell hissing in pain. He reached into his boot, pulling another, smaller blade, holding it out in a pathetic defense. Javin would have smiled if he weren’t so weary of it all.

I’m not an animal who plays with his prey! he thought, though he admitted he was tempted.

Javin’s left hand was a blur of movement and he caught Saballa’s knife hand, holding it, slowly twisting it until the blade fell, then he released it and caught Saballa a backhand across the temple with such force it made Javin’s knuckles go numb.

Saballa rocked with the blow. His eyes were bleary, senseless. Javin stepped closer and put one hand on his chin, the other on the top of his head, and gave a sharp twist! Javin felt the neck snap as Saballa’s lifeless body slumped to the floor.

Silence.

Sohorkon moved up, placing a hand on Javin’s shoulder. Vaguely he felt someone putting a dressing to where he’d been sliced by his own blade. He ignored it. Something . . . someone was trying to say something to him. He cocked his head to one side, listening, but there was no sound.

“Pale One . . . “ It sounded in his mind . . .

Javin left Sohorkon standing and pushed through the guards to Chahzuu’s heaped form sprawled on the floor.

I thought he was dead! Javin cradled him, lifting his head slightly so he could gaze down into the creature’s filmy eyes.

Chahzuu opened his mouth as if to speak. Nothing came. Instead a frail voice sounded in Javin’s mind.

You alive? We won?”

“We won,” Javin said back, not sure what ‘winning’ really was.

Chahzuu nodded, then a wave of pain wracked his body and he tensed. Javin tried to soothe, but he could feel the fierce pain that suffused his friend? Protector? Javin wasn’t sure what the relationship was. There was a definite connection, though. He felt it.

Then Chahzuu reached up and placed a hand flat across Javin’s breast. A warmth started, swelling, and he saw a soft light glowing inside Chahzuu’s breast.

Javin felt a flood of memories, experiences, knowledge, joy, pain, sorrow, regret, and last of all . . . contentment? He realized all that remained in Chahzuu had been given to him, and beyond him to the rest of his people. And he understood. Without words . . . He knew . . . Knew all that Chahzuu had known . . . and so did his people. Such was the power of his final passing.

He held him a moment longer knowing life had fled . . . Then a glow started from the lifeless breast, spreading until all of Chahzuu’s body was covered in a golden glow. Javin wasn’t alarmed. He was calm. The light was warm, comforting.

Then Chahzuu’s body faded leaving only Javin’s arms holding empty air.

There was a small gasp from those who’d come to stand over him They’d seen it too. Javin ignored them and stood. He moved over to where Sauros was still kneeling. He rested a hand on his friend’s shoulder, and this time Sauros looked up. There were tear streaks on his cheeks, his eyes were red. No words passed between them. None were needed. None would suffice.

Silence, again. Then,

“Look,” Javin said. He’d sensed something. Sauros had felt it too. Mouhra’ Lah’s body was starting to glow! Like Chahzuu’s, it grew, spreading brighter, and the warmth spread all around, comforting, calming.

She never had a crystal! Javin thought.

The glow faded, and with it Mouhra’ Lah’s body. No one knew where it went. No one questioned. It just felt right.

Javin looked around. Everyone was just staring, wondering what to do next. He went to Sohorkon’ Bho.

“I’m sorry,” Sohorkon said as Javin approached. He could see the pain in his eyes for his brother’s loss. Felt the sense of failure. “The gate didn’t open and I realized something had gone wrong. We had to fight our way in then we were blocked by the Pontu’ Gi right here at the palace. Even our Pontu’ Gi couldn’t reach them. They seemed in some sort of trance. They had strange weapons that hurled . . . lightning. We would have been decimated, but suddenly they just crumpled . . . all of them, even the ones with us. They’re not dead. I don’t know what happened.”

Javin looked over to where Chahzuu had lain. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Consider it a gift.” Javin now understood what had happened.

There was a small commotion at the doors and Javin craned his neck to see. He felt them coming. “Let them through,” he said. The way parted for Preegha and the other Elders he’d brought with him. They came up and stood in front of Javin, touching fists to their breast, bowing their heads. They staggered slightly as if just waking from a dream.

Javin knew what the dream was. He’d felt it go out to all the Pontu’ Gi, just as Chahzuu was giving it to him while cradling him him in his arms at the end. Preegha turned to where Chahzuu had lain. He looked back at Javin. Javin nodded. He knew what they were feeling. He felt it too.

Chahzuu had finally resolved his dreams. In the moment his people were about to shed the blood of the people they were destined to protect, he’d sent out a sweeping blunt to each of their minds, causing them to fall unconscious rather than shed blood. But in that instant, Chahzuu had been forced to lower his guard letting Nemesis through.

He’d given his life to protect his people, and his world. This time his death had meaning!

“Sohorkon?” a weak voice sounded from over where Sauros was still kneeling. “Is that you?”

“Dierni’ Lah?”

Javin watched as Sohorkon’s face brightened and he moved and swept Mouhra’ Lah’s sister in his arms. “Are you okay? Are you hurt?”

Javin watched as Sauros stared, getting to his feet, his face a look of wonder.

“You know each other?” Sauros asked.

Sohorkon looked sheepish, but held his arm around Dierni’s shoulder as he faced his brother. “Yes,” he said in a soft voice. “Actually we’ve known each other since the first time I came here with a detachment of diplomats.” He turned to look at Dierni and smiled.

Siri’ Bhu moved up with her father, and they looked as incredulous as Sauros. Javin came closer.

“We actually met . . . and fell in love . . .” Dierni stammered, taking up the story, “before you met my sister. We talked about getting married, but when it was announced that you and Mouhra’ Lah were betrothed, we decided to wait; to not take away anything from you . . . or her.”

“Yours was more important anyway,” Sohorkon continued. “You’re the crown prince, and she was to be queen. We decided that once you’d married, and the official alliance forged, we would get married quietly.”

There was silence for a time then Sauros spoke. It was low, almost a whisper, but still powerful.

“The alliance between our cities must continue.” All eyes were on him. “Sohorkon, you and Dierni should get married and make it happen. Both our cities must be reassured. Both have lost leaders in assassination. They need something joyous to celebrate. Along with the mourning, they need the hope you two must bring. Then you must both do your best to bring others into the alliance, as it was planned.”

“But what about you?” Sohorkon blurted. “You are the eldest. It’s you who should lead!”

“No.” Sauros waived a hand. “I cannot. I have something else . . . You must do this. I ask you to do this.”

Javin watched between them, until Sohorkon finally nodded his head. He could see the relief pass through Sauros. Javin moved up, looking carefully at him, feeling out. “What now then, my friend?”

Sauros turned to him, and stared. It reminded Javin of the stare he’d received just after Sauros had recieved the crystal into his breast. Javin was about to ask again, to press him this time then something else caught his mind. He looked around the room, rushing to the last spot he’d seen them. He moved people aside, not caring about the angry murmurs.

“Where are they? Did anyone see them?”

“See what?” Sauros asked.

“They’re gone!” Javin felt a pit in his stomach. “The Articles of Power.” Javin knew now what those items he’d noticed on the floor were, compliments of Chahzuu’s memories. “They’re gone!” Then Javin felt the pit widen as the certain realization struck him.

Nemesis isn’t dead!

 

Chapter 32

 

Javin and Sauros stood almost in the center of the strangely lit room. The level they were on was down two landings from where they’d entered the ancient chamber. In front of them stood a tall arching portal like the one they’d fallen through in the throne room of Putra’ Fi Sorro. It was a shimmering glossy black that Javin felt was an opening to somewhere. And all around them sat the large rectangular slabs of stone arranged in an order that was different than Javin remembered. When they’d both been here last there’d been a pedestal, where sat the crystal now imbedded in Sauros’ breast. It wasn’t there any longer.

Though the arrangement of the slabs was different, Javin knew, somehow, they felt right. Like some sort of symmetry had been reached. The slabs, the temple, the view of the night sky, the portals, and even the crystals in their breasts. All of them linked. Javin had felt they were, and Sauros had agreed when they’d spoken of it.

There wasn’t any evidence the slabs had been scraped along the floor, but Sauros had noted it too. Along with his agreeing that they now, somehow, seemed in proper order, like some sort of matrix had reach equilibrium.

Looking up at the dark ceiling, dotted with tiny twinkling lights, Javin broke the silence.

“Now there’s a sight you don’t see on this world – if it is a world.” Javin still hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that this place was somehow not real; artificial. He had a number of clues that made him think of it that way. For one, the world was just too small; only seven cities, eight if you counted the Pontu’ Gi, in the whole place. Then there was the fact that there were two distinct species of humanoids. For them to have evolved naturally this close together without much knowledge between the two should have been virtually impossible. Then there was the fact that their history only went back a thousand years. It seemed that the cities sprang up as if they’d been put here fully built and populated. The histories just start.

Then there were all the legends and such. It wasn’t like normal religions, mysterious and incomprehensible. Instead they hinted at some sort of plan that was being followed . . . A plan that would end sometime in the not too distant future. The weirdest part was that they seemed to include Javin! How could they have known unless there were other entities in the background, pulling the strings?

Javin knew that’s exactly what was happening. From the memories he’d gotten from Chahzuu, and from the teachings of Siri and Mahntra’ Bhu, he knew more about the Guardians, and their legends, but more importantly, he knew the immense Dark the Guardians had shown Chahzuu was coming this way. Javin wasn’t sure he entirely believed. One way or another, these Guardians had wrapped him up in it too. Even little snippets were coming back to him of his first? meeting with the Guardians. Little flashes of being in a place all white, hearing voices in his mind, not seeing a soul. Being sent on a test! Nothing else. He still couldn’t bring back memories of any former life, though from thoughts that kept poking into his mind, he was sure there was another life he’d lived, somewhere . . . out there. He had to fight to keep his hand from lifting to try and touch the stars.

Javin knew he came from out there. Knew they were stars. Knew they had worlds circling them. It was knowledge this world never had. The shrouding mist never let up. They’d never seen the bare sky. Never seen the naked sun in its bright glory.

He’d tried to explain it to the others, but they’d only nodded without real comprehension. It was only now that he’d really had time to think on all these things. Think and look at a star filled night sky and wonder where the answers could be found.

Find them he would!

That’s why he’d come back here to the ancient city, the ancient temple. Sauros had come too. He’d said there was nothing now to hold him, and if it was all the same to Javin, he’d like to help him learn the answers. Javin suspected there was something more to it. Sauros hadn’t said anything, and Javin didn’t feel it was time yet to start prying. It was something Sauros said he’d tell him sometime. He’d wait.

They’d left several weeks ago, taking that long to reach the ancient city again. Yet they’d come almost straight to it, like they were both homing in on some signal it was sending. They’d both realized it was the crystals. They didn’t even need to speak about which direction to travel. Instinctively they’d both known.

Javin had stopped being amazed. Now he just got angry. He didn’t like being some pawn in a game he didn’t know anything about. Especially since the game had such high stakes.

Sohorkon and Dierni’ Lah had been married. Siri’ Bhu continued to serve as the Chief Keeper for Putra’ Fi Sorro, and Mahntra’ Bhu had been asked to assume the same position in Sunzah’ Nu Geeza, since the old Keeper had proven himself an ambitious traitor. The Pontu’ Gi had graciously accepted Javin’s suggestion that they work now with Sohorkon and Dierni, and help them keep peace between all the cities. They’d realized now, that was their true role, the role they were destined to play. And they would fulfill it. They, along with Javin, knew the fight wasn’t over. The Articles of Power had vanished. Only one person could have taken them.

Nemesis.

Javin knew they’d meet again. They had to.

That’s why he’d decided to come back here to the temple.

Javin lowered his gaze from the star filled ceiling and set it on the tall rounded portal. The entrance was still that shimmering glossy black. It was now a doorway. He’d used it before. This time he didn’t know where it’d take him. He hadn’t any destination in mind. Yet he didn’t think that mattered. Somehow, with the questions he had in his mind, he just knew he’d get to where he needed to be.

He was sure that impression came from the crystal warming in his breast. Then he thought again on the arrangement of the slabs. Maybe they were oriented to provide some sort of coordinates for the portal. Strange. They didn’t look like any circuitry he was familiar with. Javin shrugged. He couldn’t really remember any circuitry anyway, except for the stupid flashes of his hidden memory.

It was time to start finding answers!

“Well, no sense delaying. I’m ready to go through.” He turned to Sauros to say his farewells.

“I’m ready as well,” Sauros said as he met Javin’s eyes. “I’m going.”

Javin wasn’t ready for this; wasn’t expecting it. This was Sauros’ world, his people. He shouldn’t leave them at a time like this.

It must have shown on Javin’s face, and he knew Sauros felt it, because Sauros held up a hand to forestall any argument.

“I told you, there’s nothing here for me now. I’m going with you. Wherever you end up, I know you’ll face the Evil again -- the Evil that took Mouhra’ Lah. It must be stopped. That is my purpose now. I can’t fight it any more than you can.”

Again, Javin could tell there was something more Sauros wasn’t saying. When he said the word Evil it encompassed more than just Nemesis, but larger; expanded, yet something specific. Does Sauros know of the approaching Dark?_] He’d never said anything to anyone about it. How could he explain something like that? The [_Pontu’ Gi knew from Chahzuu’s memories. That’s how Javin knew. How would Sauros have known? Unless . . .

Javin thought a moment, then instead of arguing, took a deep breath and let it out slowly, looking at his large friend.

“Shall we go, then?” Javin gestured to the shimmering portal.

“We shall.”

Together they turned and stepped into the inky blackness. It enveloped them and they were gone.

A crack of thunder pounded through the chamber and the portal cleared as if anyone could now walk through it and simply end up on the other side.

It sat for a time. Suddenly the chamber fell into darkness . . . Then came the sound of shifting slabs of stone.

 

And so the adventure continues . . .

 

The End (of this Chapter)

 

 

If you’d like to be notified when the next installment is ready, email [email protected]. Your email will never be shared.

 

 

Dear Reader:

 

Thanks for spending time with this book. If you liked it, please review it for others. Be sure to check out other works by this author.

 

About the Author:

 

Axl Briar was born and raised in Southwestern Utah, keeping horses, cows and other assorted pets. He is the third of 6 children and survived childhood only by utilizing an active imagination. His hobbies include reading and travel. During one international trip he and his wife were detained as suspected terrorists. They live in a high mountain valley, population 145.

 


The Promised Ones; Guardian War 1

"A compelling and well-paced story that made me eager for the next volume." "I was hooked from the start and can't wait until the next installment. I hope the author is a fast writer." Javin Cox was dead . . . or at least he should be. The last thing he remembered was touching off a Suitcase Nuke strapped to his back, hoping to take out an enemy compound of “Toads” who’d invaded earth and decimated all her cities. His Special Operations team had survived the initial invasion and were fighting a guerrilla war -- a last ditch effort to buy earth time to regroup. Javin had hit the ‘det’ switch, felt the blast, saw nothing but white . . . everywhere. And then he heard voices, talking about him as if he weren’t there. Until he’s swallowed up in a dark tunnel and realizes he’s moving incredibly fast. Javin awakens on a jungle planet, naked, no memory of who he is or where he came from, and facing a giant green lizard who wants him for dinner. From one scrape to the next, Javin crosses this odd landscape finding he can speak the language like a native and knows things; things about science and technology, that are far beyond this planet or its people. But that’s not all. The natives seem to know him too. You see, they think he’s Mulda’ fi, a Promised One, who has been sent to save their world from evil domination. There are pictures, legends, even statues of him all around . . . and Javin is sure he’s never been here before! It also turns out he has an enemy, who looks just like him, with powers he can’t even begin to imagine. Or maybe he can, if he can just get his “lucky marble” – which turns out to be much more than it seems – to work. Javin's special ancestry makes him the ‘One’ (or maybe One of Two) who can save all the races in the galaxy from being snuffed out. The problem is he knows nothing about it. And the Guardians, who are supposed to watch over things, can’t tell him anything because they’ve got problems of their own.

  • Author: Axl Briar
  • Published: 2017-06-25 01:20:18
  • Words: 114069
The Promised Ones; Guardian War 1 The Promised Ones; Guardian War 1