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The Chronicles of Heaven's War: Hell Above the Skies

 

“The Chronicles of Heaven’s War:

Hell Above the Skies”

Shakespir Edition

Ava D. Dohn

Copyright 2017

Discover other books in this series by Ava D. Dohn:

The Chronicles of Heaven’s War: Sisters of the Bloodwind”

The Chronicles of Heaven’s War: Burning Phoenix”

The Chronicles of Heaven’s War: Blood Moon Rising”

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Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

  • * *

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS:

 

SECTION 16 WELCOME TO HELL

SECTION 17 INTO THE FRYING PAN

SECTION 18 PASSING THE TORCH

SECTION 19 GLORY RIDE

SECTION 20 DREAMS AND DESPAIR

UE

 

[ * ]

 

 

SECTION 16

 

WELCOME TO HELL

 

It all happened so fast. Everything was still a blur, Alba only now making sense of it. One moment she was standing near the opening exit door as the captain issued final commands to her two lieutenants when shouts from behind caught Alba’s attention. Looking over her shoulder, she stared into panic-stricken eyes, seeing several fingers pointing toward the nose of their troop-lighter.

Someone screamed, “The tug’s gone up…!!”

A blinding flash followed by a deafening, thunderous firestorm ripped past Alba, lifting her off her feet, flinging the woman into the searing smoke and flames. The tug pulling three lighters had been ripped asunder, sending its molten fuel cells into the middle glider, Alba’s. Instantly, the cramped troop-lighter was engulfed in a plasmatic inferno, tumbling from the sky. Hapless victims screeched in agony, consumed in the fire’s fury.

On first impact, Alba was slammed against a bulkhead, pinned there by a crush of bodies hurling against her. As acrid smoke choked life from the woman, she wailed in panic, “I’m dying!” and passed out. How Alba got out of the twisted wreckage, she was not sure, remembering only fire scorching her lungs as flames licked the side of her face. Her helmet’s blast visor eventually closed, providing some protection. Then the lighter crashed.

Alba came to, sprawled in the dirt, the smell of cordite stinging her nose, but the air was cool. She sucked in one intoxicating breath after another. This was like no abstract vision experienced in the Web of the Minds. She wasn’t dead! Suddenly remembering what happened, Alba staggered to her feet in search of other survivors.

Her eyes followed a trail of destruction from the ship’s point of impact and its skidding to where it rested in an unrecognizable, twisted heap. Wreckage lay strewn for three furlongs across the broken field. Machinery, weapons, and bodies lie scattered along the path where the lighter had tumbled and skidded, spewing its cargo helter-skelter. Alba concluded she was thrown from its ruptured hull shortly after crashing.

Smoke billowed from a distant fire off to the east. ‘It must be the tug.’ The two other lighters in its tow were lazily drifting off toward the south, behind the remainder of the landing force while rescue ships attempted to attach tether lines to the crippled crafts. She watched until they disappeared beyond the nearby forest. Alba fought back tears of helplessness, attempting to ignore a strangling constriction in her chest and throat, as despair of the moment enveloped her.

Cries for help shook Alba back to her senses. Focusing on her surroundings, the lieutenant reeled from what she beheld. This was no field where a lone ship had crashed. For as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but broken wreckage of ships and transports. Fires burned out of control, the black, choking smoke turning dawn into night. People lay trapped inside broken machines, begging for help as flames slowly ate them up, while others mutely awaited their fate from the roaring infernos.

The ground appeared to heave as though alive, the wounded blurring into one convulsing mass as they writhed upon the bloodied plain. Then there were the hundreds – or was it thousands – who lay silent, caring not for love or death. A charnel house of such proportion that words cannot describe unveiled itself before the woman. Bodies already ripped and torn beyond recognition were pitched into the air by continual missile and artillery barrages.

Alba watched in horror as two medics attempting to drag an injured soldier away from a burning wreck disappeared in red mist when a missile exploded near them. Yet, in the following moments, she witnessed dozens of similar events. It seemed to her that the entire world was turning red from all the clouds of bloody vapor.

A fellow soldier from the lighter limped toward her. Alba hobbled forward, only to trip over a disemboweled body, falling face down into its entrails. As she wretched uncontrollably, an approaching projectile ripped through the air, exploding only feet away, its concussion tearing away her helmet, rupturing her right eardrum and bursting tiny capillaries in her nose and eyes. She doubled up, clutching her head in agony. The fall had saved her, but the approaching soldier lie several yards away, little more than a pile of bloody pulp.

While she lay there groaning, two soldiers neared. One shouted to the other, “Over there! Over there!” In moments, she was being assisted to her feet.

“Are you alright, Lieutenant? Can you walk?” Alba recognized the voice to be that of a corporal from her lighter. Wincing, she painfully nodded her head.

“What do you want us to do?! Where should we go?!” The second person, a private, excitedly asked, her voice choking from rising panic.

Alba closed her eyes in thought, trying to recall instructions from her cadet training. ‘What to do… What to do…’ It seemed an eternity before her brain started working for her. Finally, opening her eyes, she asked, “Are there others still alive?”

The corporal answered, “Yes! They’re wanderin’…” Another projectile crackled overhead. The three dropped to the ground, hugging it close. After seeing it explode some distance away, the corporal continued, “They’re wandering around, doing what they can, waiting for orders.”

Alba crawled up onto her knees and, looking toward the forest, picked out a huge oak that had been splintered by a missile. Pointing toward the tree, she shouted above the continual din, “Go tell the others to make for that busted tree! Have them assist the walking wounded. Leave the rest. The medics will have to help them. We will go that way…” pointing northeast, away from the crash sight, “You go the other.” She motioned toward the burning lighter.

The corporal nodded and began to rise. Alba clutched his arm. “Don’t linger! You tell the others what to do and then get out of here! Understand?!”

“Yes, Lieutenant!” the corporal shouted back. He jumped up and, half crouching, ran toward the lighter.

As Alba and the private struggled to their feet, the lieutenant shouted, “Now stick close, you hear? Hang onto my belt if you have to. Got it?”

The near panicked private nodded her head.

“Good!” Alba shouted, making herself heard above the roar of an armored landing craft passing by overhead. She looked up wistfully. There just were not enough of such machines to satisfy the needs of the invaders. In the desperate days after war was declared and the invasion fleet assembled, every usable ship and barge had been commandeered for use in the landings. The lighters her regiment had assigned them were bulk cargo carriers, often used to carry horses and livestock. Their life support systems made them readily adaptable to transport troops.

Unarmed, un-powered – save for gravitation machines giving them gliding capabilities – the lighters were helpless in an attack. Command had calculated that with enough fighter support, and waiting until the third attack wave, of which Alba’s 9th Volunteer Regiment was part, it would be safe enough to attempt their use. Things did not go right…right at all.

First, the enemy was dug in, and in far greater numbers than anticipated. Second, fighter support was drawn off to intercept a large number of enemy bogies coming out of Memphis, the capital city of MueoPoros, Legion’s stronghold. The remaining fighter support missed the rendezvous point, getting confused by huge thunderstorms and smoky skies. The third attack wave was forced to go in unescorted.

Drifting into and through the atmosphere of MueoPoros had been uneventful, almost pleasant. Most of the PrasiaOdous Mountain Range, named for its orderly, tooth-like mountain peaks that stretched north to south for two hundred leagues, was covered in a dense cloudbank. A rapid-moving cold front had piled into the high peaks, trapping a moisture-laden low-pressure system, creating dozens of massive thunderstorms that unleashed sudden flooding downpours.

High Command had scores of landings planned along the invasion route. Only during their final briefing did Alba and her fellow junior officers discover their destination. It was along the eastern spur of PurooGlossa, the red granite mountains near the northern end of the mountain chain. Her regiment, consisting of six companies totaling just over three thousand infantry, with a scattering of mortar and engineer specialists, was assigned to the third wave invasion force, which included two more regiments, also from the 2nd Brigade, Winehardt’s Division. The brigade’s three other regiments, including two heavy armor and artillery, were to quickly follow in the fourth attack wave.

The descent to cloud level had been awe-inspiring. Through a little porthole, Alba watched, the sky filled with thousands of tiny dots spread from horizon to horizon. Her heart sang with triumphant joy, ‘How can our enemy stand against a force such as we have gathered here?’ As her taskforce drew closer, Alba became painfully aware that all of the dots were not theirs. Trails of black smoke and occasional red or white puffs revealed that the dragon was not caught sleeping. At times, she could recognize the distinct tailfins of Legion’s Depoues 49’s, his front line air-wing Marine fighters. Alba knew their own air-wing wasn’t up yet, and the Navy’s antiquated DTB’s and TKR-14’s would be hard-pressed to compete against those 49’s in heavy, planetary atmosphere.

The lieutenant had watched over a dozen blazing transports tumble into the bright, billowy clouds below. While her heart ached with the knowledge that hundreds of her fellow soldiers were going to their probable deaths, she was relieved that no enemy fighters had attacked her convoy. Her flotilla of thirty some odd ships, made up of tugs, lighters, and small armored personnel carriers had drifted peacefully into the darkening cloud cover, unaware of the seething monster waiting in the angry smoke and ash beneath those clouds.

Now, as Alba ran north along the crash sight, the wrath of the enemy’s killing machines was all too evident. She concentrated on her task at hand, trying hard to avoid focusing on the surrounding carnage, which was nearly impossible to do. There had already been countless dead and wounded scattered in the field before their lighter crashed. It had plowed a wide furrow through masses of bodies, killing, maiming and smashing. As the lieutenant stumbled along its jagged trail, the scope of destruction was overwhelming. It was nearly impossible to walk without hearing the squish of flesh being crushed under her boots.

Repeating phrases from the ‘Officer’s Code of Conduct Manual’ helped her stay focused. It also eased a churning stomach that was threatening another purge. “Let’s see… An officer’s duty is to see to the safety and well-being of those in the officer’s charge. An officer is to put her charges first, caring for their needs above her own. An officer is responsible for the success or failure of the mission.”

Alba searched the area for members of her company and, when finding someone, directed the person to the broken oak tree. Spying a small group of soldiers huddled together in the dirt, she hurried over, thinking they might be from her outfit. Leaning forward to speak, the lieutenant let out a gasp, turning away, crumpling on the ground in uncontrolled heaves.

A female soldier lay bleeding and broken, her horribly disfigured face contorted in agony. Everything below her waist had been crushed flat and then twisted in a crazy corkscrew. While two of her companions tenderly held the woman’s hands, a third was wiping her face with a damp, bloody rag. All the while she was begging, “Kill me! Please! Oh, God, please kill me! Let me die! Let me die!” The crippled lighter had crashed upon the woman, then, as it skidded, dragged her along under it, mercilessly letting her live.

“Lieutenant! Lieutenant!” The private accompanying Alba shouted, excitedly shaking her upper arm. “We gotta go! We can’t stay here!”

As another projectile hissed by overhead, Alba turned toward her infantry private, vomit still dripping from her mouth as tears streamed down her face. She caustically sputtered, “Welcome to Hell! Welcome to Hell…!”

 

  • * *

 

The Sophia was closing, but still some distance away when it released its fighters and heavies. Two of her three battle groups of fighters, totaling one-hundred twenty-eight, and four squadrons of heavies, sixty-six in all, had taken four long hours to reach MueoPoros. Then they were stalled another hour in a traffic pattern because of the congested space over the landing sites. It was four in the morning, Palace Time, a little after six on MueoPoros, when Sophia’s combat ships were given their targets and a ‘go’.

 

Terey’s voice sounded in Sirion’s headset. “Take the deck and cover our birds. I’ll keep the vultures away.”

“Copy… On deck.” Sirion cheerfully replied. “It’s pigeon time.”

Captain Tzuf, Terey’s second in command piped in. “Those pigeons can shoot, too. Don’t be a hero! We want our chicks all back in the nest today.”

Tzuf’s words were kind but stern. They helped rein in Sirion’s growing excitement. This was her first real combat in such a long time. It was easy to forget it might well be her last, especially if the girl were careless. “Copy, Captain…eyes all around! Got it!” Sirion ordered her two flights of TKR-14’s into the boiling clouds, leading in several dozen heavies that were going to attempt a ground attack on enemy positions.

In only minutes, Sirion’s command broke out from the bottom of the clouds. The panoramic vision stretching out beneath the tortured sky left her breathless, in awe. Smoke lay trapped within a vaulted ceiling of angry lightnings flashing in disgust upon the violence far below. Hiding the newborn sun, storms created an eternal gloom that chilled the bones. Hundreds of fires burned across the darkened horizon, while thousands upon thousands of flames shot into and through the air, making little blinding puffs on the violated and torn landscape when they fell back to the ground. Every now and then a giant fireball of white and crimson would erupt, sending thick, roiling mountains of burning ash heavenward.

To add to all this tumult were the seemingly endless masses of transports and escort vessels descending toward the smoldering terrain below and the noticeably smaller number ascending, now filled with wounded and dying. Sirion fought back tears and rising anger. Long ago she held an infantry line above Ashdod while her brothers and sisters fell around her to just such flames. She, too, had been carried from the field, burned and broken.

Ordering her two flights to break up into four teams of two, Sirion moved in to clear a path for the heavies. She and her wing plane dropped away and were soon releasing missiles into a series of mobile artillery batteries strung out along a winding river some miles west of the landing zone. When their missiles ran low, they switched to laser and solid projectile cannons.

The confusion the fighters wrought gave the heavies an advantage. They spread out into two wide V’s, releasing their deadly cargo of guided bombs and anti-tank missiles across the dense forest and newly cut roadways packed with the advancing enemy.

Sirion glanced back over her shoulder just before disappearing into the clouds. She shook her head. “Just too many of ‘em! Just too many of ‘em!”

It was when her covey of birds would break into the clear skies that Sirion expected the real challenge to begin. She was not disappointed. No sooner were the heavies free of the clouds than the enemy struck. The heavies, again flying in close formation, sent out torrents of green, blue, and red sheets of iron toward the intruders. Only the most determined of enemy fighters continued the attack against them. Others veered off for Sirion’s fighters.

“Take your wingman and mix it up!” Sirion shouted into her headset. “Draw ‘em into the clouds!”

Wingtip to wingtip, Sirion and her wing plane banked hard right and corkscrewed into a nearby thunderhead. Spiraling downward at increasing speed, the fighters passed through the heart of the convulsing storm. Blinding snow, giant hail and a torrential downpour rattled the ships, but it did shake the enemy off their tails. Arching upward, the two fighters just cleared the treetops, their exhausts snapping limbs off nearby stately old trees.

“Back through the ceiling!” Sirion shouted. “Put it right back through the ceiling!” Moments later, two ancient TKR-14’s, moving at well past the speed of sound, exploded out of the mist high above the thunderhead’s anvil top.

Enemy fighters were swarming the heavies, intent on preventing their escape into space. Sirion pushed her fighter into a steep left bank while pulling hard on the controls. With throttle full, she raced toward the enemy fighters, working the steering with one hand while setting the torpedo lock with the other.

“Missiles away!” Sirion shouted. In seconds, her fighter was passing just above the heavies, doing well over mach two, her wing ship only feet away on her left.

Sirion saw an orange flash in her rearview screen. One missile had hit its mark. The disintegrating enemy fighter spun wildly out of control toward the clouds below. Forcing her ship to its limits, Sirion’s 14 shot straight up, ascending thousands of feet before plunging upon the enemy. The captain lined up on another target and set the missile lock.

Just then the wing pilot shouted, “Bandits! Four o’clock! Bandits!”

Sirion craned her head to see. Coming in from her right and behind, three 49’s were closing fast, little sparks of fire coming out from under their wings.

“Split the barrel!” Sirion cried, at the same instant pushing forward and right to escape.

Sirion’s wing pilot rolled away to the left and up in a tight loop, while Sirion’s fighter turned upside down and plummeted several hundred feet before circling upward. This was one of Sirion’s own practiced maneuvers, intended to confuse her opponents and possibly allow her fighters to get behind the enemy. It did at least confuse the enemy. The extra seconds purchased Sirion time to get off a few rapid-fire rounds, but the 49’s were much too fast for her to establish a torpedo lock. In little more time than it took for her to blink, two of them had turned, securely locked on her tail.

The 14 was still arching upward. Sirion pressed the throttle while pulling out from the roll, pointing the nose of the fighter straight for space. The 49s needed outside oxygen to run their engines. Their working ceiling was about sixty-five thousand feet. They were currently at about forty thousand. Maybe she could out-run them.

As the fighters climbed, the 49s gradually gained on the 14, all the while firing short bursts from their machineguns. As blue streaks of metallic tracers zipped past the canopy, Sirion couldn’t help but wonder why no rockets were being fired, finally concluding they must be out. Still, at their rate of gain, it would be only a matter of seconds before they would be within killing range with their guns.

Sirion was counting the moments until her ship would be turned into a flaming cauldron of agony and death. There was little to do but continue to reach for the stars. If she tried to dive, she would be cut to ribbons as she arched into it. In desperation, she dead-dropped her two remaining missiles to decrease the fighter’s weight, but it did no noticeable good. Anytime now and it would be over.

A blinding light flashed across Sirion’s cockpit, but the shudder of disintegrating metal did not accompany it. In surprise and shock, the woman watched in a rearview flight screen while the lead 49’s wing separated and fell away. A second explosion ripped out its belly, sending shrapnel in every direction. As the remains of the fighter slowly drifted astern, the other 49 veered away and began circling the ruined fighter as it tumbled toward the planet’s surface.

Sirion blinked in total disbelief. Only seconds before she was waiting her own destruction. Now she was alone in the sky, streaking for safety. What had happened? There was no evidence of any rescuer. Had the 49 eaten its own bullets, flying into the dying projectiles? Or had a falling missile struck it, possibly ingesting it into the engine’s air intake? This was important news and needed to be presented to Fighter Command immediately.

Sirion made for the rendezvous point and impatiently waited until orders were given to return to the Sophia, which was within two hours’ distance and closing. Losses to the fighter battle groups were light, only four out of one-hundred twenty-eight. The heavies lost a total of six, but two of them had managed a safe harbor and were later returned to the carrier. The majority of pilots and crews of all ships involved were rescued. All in all, it had been a very successful mission, but it was just the first of many. In days to come, success wasn’t to be measured in the number of returning ships.

 

  • * *

 

Alba limped toward the shattered oak, a drenching downpour hindering her pace even more. Sticky, claylike goo stuck to her boots, making every movement a major effort. Rainwater had collected in bloody pools thick with mud. There was often no other choice than to slosh through the crimson muck as her little party trudged toward the distant tree.

At least the artillery barrage had decreased. Whatever the reason – the heavy rains, or counter attacks from the air fleet…whichever – it let Alba breathe a momentary sigh of relief.

As she struggled up the gentle rise toward the forest, Alba observed the many different styles of uniforms and armor found on the dead. Some wore kilts with or without leggings, bright colors of blue, green, or gold along with hard metallic armor, often just upper breastplates with shoulder protection. Occasionally she spotted full suits of plate, or chain-mail. Then there were the other extremes, similar to her uniform – dull green, gray or khaki shirts and trousers tucked into calf-high, leather-like boots, and soft-armor padded shell jackets, vests or full. Although most helmets contained blast shields, their appearance also varied according to each particular uniform.

Alba could not help but be amazed. Even the weapons differed so much – everything from pikes and crossbows to long range rifles and hand held rapid-fire machine guns. Then there were the swords…everywhere, swords. Most were derker blades. The woman had a powerful respect for such weapons. But to charge into a hail of iron and steel with a sword and shield? She just shook her head in wonder.

The jumble of bodies reminded Alba of toy jackstraws scattered about by a careless child. In her distraction, she slipped, landing face down in the sticky slop. The lieutenant froze where she crashed, face to face with a fallen comrade. Sheet lightning dancing beneath the clouds in pulsing, strobe-like rhythm, followed by continual rumbles of thunder, forever burned pictures of the moment into Alba’s mind.

The strikingly beautiful woman appeared as though sleeping on the broken ground in front of Alba, her eyes peacefully closed, a soft smile on her lips. The rain collected in droplets on her porcelain-white skin, running down in tiny rivulets from her nose and chin, splashing onto the sodden soil. Several locks of flaming red hair had fallen from under her ornate helm, swaddling her face and jaw in a tender caress, gracefully draping itself, fanlike, across her neck and shoulder.

Impulsively, Alba reached out to pull some strands of hair trapped in the woman’s mouth, startled at the cold feel of flesh as her fingers slid along the woman’s cheek. She reached up and tenderly stroked the woman’s forehead, so smooth and flawless, a lustrous work of art, so perfect, so cold and perfect…

How long Alba lay there, caught in that trance, she did not know. Her lifetime of feelings and memories fell away into nothingness as she pondered the depth and breadth of these innocent people thrown into this caldron of insanity. She had lived less than a hundred winters. What really were the years of this woman? Could the ages of time place a date on her birth? Had a million summers stirred her heart with delight – a billion, or more? Would distraught lovers mourn her loss, or were they, too, laying somewhere upon this field of destruction?

A finely woven chrysolite and gold chain hung from the woman’s neck, broken when she fell. Alba fumbled for the mud-covered locket still attached to the chain, so delicate and fragile. She struggled to her knees. All so carefully, she lifted the locket, desiring not to intrude upon any secrets hidden within, then, gently pulling the chain from around the woman’s neck placed them both into her opened hand.

Alba closed the woman’s fingers tight around the treasure and bent low, whispering in her ear, “There now…rest, my sister, until the sun shines from cloudless skies.” She sank back on her knees, consumed by her own celebration of grief.

“Lieutenant?!” the private cried.

Alba felt a trembling hand on her shoulder. She looked up to her right into frantic eyes, sadly nodded her head and struggled to rise.

A strong hand gripped her other arm. “We got ya, Commander! That’s a pretty fancy wound you’ve got. I’ll tend to it momentarily.”

Surprised, Alba twisted her head to see the person speaking. The soldier grinned and answered her unspoken question. “You tore up your leg dancin’, I suppose. It’s a wonder you can still walk. C’mon and let me help ya.” He pulled a small packet from his pocket and ripped it open with his teeth.

Alba attempted to ask what craziness he was chattering about but, before she could speak, he popped a small pill into her mouth.

“Swallow!” He commanded, pushing her jaw closed as he tilted her head back.

Instant anger blazed in Alba’s ocean blue eyes. “You…!” She began, while glancing at her leg. Her wild retort turned into an anxious gasp. From just behind the knee almost to the ankle, Alba could see an ugly gash in her flesh exposing tendon and bone. Her recent fall had started it bleeding again. Now she understood why it had been so difficult to walk, she thinking it just the slippery, broken ground.

The pain! It raced up her leg, along her spine and shoulders with a shudder, exploding in the back of her head, adding to the dull pain lingering in her ear. She let out a cry and almost collapsed.

“Gotcha!” The soldier who had given her the pill called, catching her with his arm. “I knew when you saw it, feelin’s would come a’callin’. You’ll be fine. That medicine will kick in soon. That should ease the pain without numbin’ the brain.” He caught her up under her arms. “Even if it hurts some now, we gotta go!” With that, he started assisting her up the hill.

Thirty minutes later, Alba was leaned against that shattered tree, the medic smiling. He patted her on the shoulder. “There ya go, Commander! Almost good as new! I didn’t have any real medical cloth to patch you up with, but the material was fairly clean… and I put some powdered crystalline sulfur in the wound.” He shrugged. “Best I could get.”

Alba thanked him.

He grinned and took from his pocket half a dozen sealed packets, each containing one capsule of painkiller. “Here ya go. I’d tell ya to rest a bit, but I don’t think it’d do me any good. So take one of these when it gets to hurtin’ too bad. I bound your leg up tight. It should stay together until you can get some real medical help.” The soldier handed the pills to Alba and bounded away down the slope. Alba raised her hand and called for the soldier to stop, but he was already gone.

It was years before she found out who the person was and what became of him. Like so many thousands of others, she eventually found his name inscribed on a monument in the Silent Tombs, honoring him for sacrifices made at the battle of PurooGlossa.

“Help me up, please…” Alba asked, reaching out for assistance. A little shaky, she stood. “Thank you.” The painkiller had eased the discomfort to a dull ache. She could still think clearly, or at least hoped that to be the case.

Lieutenant Alba scanned the assembled group. ‘Forty altogether, and less than two dozen fit for duty. Were these all who were left from the lighter, which carried over half of my company of five hundred?’ She peered into faces and saw none from her platoon. Besides the corporal and private, there was one…no two, who looked familiar, but she didn’t know their names. The woman groaned in her heart, nearly weeping.

Recalling the Officer’s Code, Alba struggled to regain control. Forcing a brave voice, she asked, “Who is from “Rock Company”, 9th Volunteer Regiment, 2nd Brigade, Winehardt’s Division?”

Five hands shot up. Two were the persons previously mentioned. Alba waited.

A soldier piped in, “The four of us are from Winehardt’s Division, 4th Brigade, Sixth Company. We lost track of our unit in the landing.”

Others began to chime in, telling the lieutenant what company and brigade they were from. At least everyone was from the same division. But what of Rock Company?

Alba shielded her eyes with her hand and peered longingly back across the open plain filled with the dead and injured, along with a scattering of shadowy apparitions drifting in and out of the misty gloom. She searched for life by the distant lighter, its blackened hull smoldering in the steady rain. No movement was to be seen near it. She swallowed hard, her throat constricting. All she could do was silently hope and pray that others had already made it to the wood.

“Are there any officers here?” Alba saw no hands, nor heard reply. “Sergeants?” Again no one responded. “Corporals?” Just one hand rose.

Alba thought fast. “What’s your name, Corporal?” she asked, trying to cover her own growing trepidation at the situation.

“Corporal KfirNoiz, Lieutenant.” came the corporal’s crisp reply. “Zeevit’s Platoon, Rock Company.”

“Well, Corporal Kfir…” Alba glanced once more around the group, putting her hands on her hips in an outward display of confidence, “you’re second in command.”

Alba pondered their options. They could wait there in hopes of joining up with new arrivals, eventually getting reunited with their proper companies, or move toward the sound of distant fighting, deeper into the forest. She studied the faces of those in her charge. Most if not all were new volunteers, never having experienced combat. What was needed at the moment was strong leadership and good decision-making. On both points the lieutenant felt quite inadequate. But what else was there for her to do? These recruits were looking to their officer for needed guidance and direction.

Alba decided they must move deeper into the woods. This land of the dead in which they huddled was no place to be, slowly strangling the heart and soul of any who lingered. Waving her arm toward the dark, foreboding forest, the lieutenant issued her first real order under combat. “Corporal, the hour is wasting away! There’s devil’s work needs yet to be done! Get the others up and we’ll be off.”

Another soldier nervously spoke up. “Lieutenant, we have no supplies. All has been lost. What are we to do?”

Alba was taken aback. It was true, almost none of her new hodgepodge platoon had any weapons, let along water, food, and other needed equipment.

‘Think fast! Be bold!’ Alba heard her mouth speak, but couldn’t believe she was the maker of the words that issued forth. “Our brothers and sisters have given us a bountiful harvest to satisfy all our needs. Gather from them the goods to fill your larders.” Her voice became subdued. “They will not offer complaint.”

At first the troops hesitated. “Go!” Alba shouted, limping toward a dead officer a little distance away. Upon seeing their commander ‘desecrate’ the slain, the others began to retrieve needed articles from the field.

It took little time to obtain all their supplies, the dead being so thick no one needed to go far to find necessary items. At last they were ready, weighed down with filled knapsacks, canteens of water, and packs of munitions. The weapons varied but for these rookies there was no desire for the toys of bygone wars. All carried some form of gun. Most were lightweight, short barrel, rapid fire, copied from some design once used in the Second Realm. ‘Grease-gun…maybe that’s the name’ she thought. ‘Whatever. They can spew forth a torrent of hot metal. Good for inexperienced soldiers.’

“Spread out and stay low! Keep a sharp eye!” Alba cautioned while motioning. “Corporal Kfir, take the rear. I’ll take point. Remember everyone, stay alert!”

Few moved. Alba paused, seeing fear and uncertainty in their faces. She must drive it from them before they were consumed by it. In apparent indignant anger, she scolded, “Who do you think you are?! Will you shame the fallen heroes in whose midst we now humbly stand? They have already surrendered all for us. It is now our duty to help carry the day for them!”

Stepping into the center of the group, Alba waved her arm toward the east. “This planet is the possession of our enemy.” Then, thumping her chest, she shouted, “We have come to take it from him! We, my friends -you and me - we are the predators, the panthers on the prowl! We have come to conquer and destroy, slaughter and pillage! Do not fear the monster, for we are the monster! We shall cast down our enemy and feast on his flesh! His blood we will drink in ruthless celebration!”

Clutching hold of a soldier by her shirt, Alba leaned in close, her lips curled back in an angry, impassioned grin, snarling, “Come, now! Let us go and murder our fellow man!”

“Are you with me?!” She shouted. With that, Alba spun around on her good leg, crouched, and began hobbling into the trees. Everyone dutifully followed, feeling somewhat braver and more willing to face the waiting evil lurking in the gloom.

 

  • * *

 

The war room aboard the carrier, TifaraTirza, was a beehive of activity. All four divisions of the military were officially represented: Army, Marines, Navy, and Special Forces. Officers and orderlies darted back and forth with messages or directives, while others worked at the big wall displays or the three-dimensional holograph floating above the floor in the middle of the room. It was mid-afternoon, Palace Time. Already High Command could see the invasion was stalling.

Field Marshal Trisha, commanding general of the army, and Commodore General Planetee, in charge of Marine command, stood quietly to the side, discussing the current situation on the ground. They were awaiting the admiral of the fleet, Gabrielle, whose flagship, the carrier Sophia was newly arrived. Communications told them the admiral would be present shortly. Centurion General SarahCnidus, Special Forces commander, sat alone in the nearby empty wardroom, her head resting on folded arms, napping. Special Forces had been busy on the planet over three days before the official invasion. The general slept little during that time.

A staff officer hurried through the door of the war room with a dispatch for General Trisha. The commander quickly read its contents then looked back at the officer. “Please find my people and tell them to gather in the wardroom.”

The officer acknowledged the general’s order and sped away. Trisha handed the note off to Planetee. “The admiral will not be pleased when she is informed of the situation. I do hope her day has been better than ours.”

Planetee agreed. “We must convince her to risk more of the fleet on ground engagement. Our air arm cannot fully deploy unless it has safe havens. As of now there are very few, and there won’t be for some time unless she will release more of her big ships to go in to serve as such.”

Trisha concurred. “I think Gabrielle will oblige us, if for no other reason than to protect her own space squadrons which have been taking a beating against the enemy’s advanced air wing.”

Dinner hour found the four supreme commanders of the Children’s Empire recently having emerged from private council and briefing other leading commanders and staff officers gathered in the TifaraTirza’s spacious wardroom. Gabrielle was busy explaining the overall military situation. “Legion has pushed a large army west from Memphis to counter our invasion. This was expected, but not with the rapidity with which it has been done. From our perspective, it is felt that he not only received advanced information of our attack…” She raised her hand, shaking her finger, “but also where many of our landings were to take place.”

A chill swept the room. The invasion had been kept highly secret. Only the top commanders in the military had any real advance knowledge of the army’s destination, and specific landing sites were revealed to the lower echelon officers only days before zero hour. For Legion to be able to set his army on the move en mass would mean he was aware of the invasion plans for at least a week or more. The leak had to have come from someone in the Empire’s governmental or military inner circle.

Gabrielle allowed little time for pause. “Fighting has been heavy and, although all primary bridgeheads have been successfully occupied, it has come at extreme cost to our combatants. In the northern landing zones, casualties within the first and second attack waves of veteran Marines and Army commandos have been twenty percent, the enemy being there in force early enough to be dug in and supported with heavy artillery and missile batteries. This has placed prohibitive expectations upon many of the green volunteer regiments, raising casualties among their ranks higher than anticipated. They have proved their mettle today, but at a cost above and beyond the call of duty. I marvel at the tenacity they display.” She slowly shook her head. “Still, I wonder how much more these brave soldiers can take before they collapse under their immeasurable burden.”

The admiral slumped forward, resting her hands on the table. “We have done somewhat better further south, but are still not within reach of our objectives. It is doubtful that our people will be able to occupy any of the desired targets before tomorrow at the earliest. This delay is hurting the deployment of the Army’s air wing because of the lack of secure, grounded flight depots, putting extra stress on the space fighting wing, which may be engaged at any minute with Asotos’ nearing fleets. While not yet located, we are fully aware they must be converging upon us. After all, if Legion is privy to our invasion plans, Asotos must surely be. As of yet, we do not know what’s become of Legion’s navy. We assume he sent it to rendezvous with the mother fleet – or fleets – advancing toward us.”

Seeing growing dismay on the faces of those present, the admiral attempted to change the mood. Standing erect, she motioned them, waving an opened palm and shaking her head. “Although a setback, this is by no means a defeat. We do not believe the enemy has had sufficient advance warning to thwart our overall objective.” She perked up. “In fact, this may well prove to work to our advantage!”

Again using her raised index finger for emphasis, Gabrielle explained, “A weakness of our enemy is his inflexibility. Asotos and his ranking lieutenants maintain a rigid command structure, not tolerating junior officers who make independent decisions. Every major issue must be presented to one’s superior and, depending on its importance, be passed up the ladder until reaching the proper authority. This form of over-lording is very inefficient time-wise and, I believe, helped lead to Asotos’ defeat in the Great War.”

The admiral began to pace, hands behind her back and head down. From time to time she would raise her arm and lift her head to make some point, and then quickly return to her subdued pacing. “The general population of MueoPoros is over eight million, slightly over half of that in uniform. Most of the others work to support the juggernaut Legion has created for his glory and protection. He has built a network of prosperous little city-states located strategically around the planet so as to best serve his needs. Although he has many followers, their individual loyalty is often based on what he has promised them and not on unswerving devotion.”

“Taking into consideration the enemy’s own inflexibility, obstinate pride, and belief that we are equally as narrow-minded and somewhat dimwitted, we intend to do what would be unthinkable to them. We will alter our own battle plan, forcing them to abandon whatever clandestine information they have received as being faulty or, even worse, outright fraudulent. He may well be momentarily paralyzed, waiting for the proper authority to make final decisions.”

“Will this be a costly maneuver?” Shaking her finger for emphasis, she cried, “Yes! I believe so. We have always known that the road to victory would run red with blood. If we are to come off victorious now, that road may well become a river.” She stopped and peered into discerning eyes. “It is better to die a free person than to live forever a slave.” She allowed a moment’s pause for the others to collect their thoughts.

“Be aware that the following decisions have been agreed to unanimously by your four respective commanders. Each of us will play whatever part is expected of them, no matter the cost or responsibility. We are all one body and, as such, will bleed if another is cut. We share equally in the sacrifice. It is expected that you will also do likewise, with unbiased and unreserved jubilance and energy.”

Everyone hearing solemnly agreed.

“Centurion General SarahCnidus has already transmitted messages to her WolfPack Marauders to ‘gather the crows’ and I have issued orders for all available ships to join us here. There is also to be a general shifting of the fleets toward our vicinity, greatly enlarging our current fighter squadron numbers. Hundreds of our gun sloops and corvettes are currently prowling the skies in search of Asotos’ fleet. When found, they will attempt to harass it in hopes of impeding its progress.” Gabrielle’s voice filled with wistful longing. “We pray those eyes will see things afar off…”

The admiral stood back, excitement growing on her face. “And now for the moment!” She resumed her pacing. “Our primary objective has not changed…will not! If we fail to secure the PrasiaOdous Mountain Range, our mission here will fail. If we fail here then, at best, the war will be extended until it becomes another futile guerrilla conflict which cannot be determined on the field. Such a stalemate will certainly lead to the imminent destruction of the bonding Web of the Universe and to the extinction of all life therein. No!” shaking her head, “We must take the mountain range!”

“Legion has to be fully trusting of the clandestine information he possesses, otherwise he would have never emptied his defenses around Memphis with the advancing horde of conscripts that are presently on the move against us. The unprecedented storms, with their flooding downpours and blinding fogs, have hindered our ability to land heavy armor to support our troops, but I believe it is worse for our enemy. His air arm cannot operate successfully under those clouds, mercifully limiting our people to the perils found on the ground.”

“The torrential rains have also washed out the newly built bridges and turned the enemy’s dirt roads into bogs. There are logjams that stretch for dozens of leagues away from the front lines, giving our attack squadrons easy targets…and plenty of them.” Gabrielle raised her hand in caution. “But, the storms will eventually end. And then… and then.”

The admiral winced as a vision of catastrophic doom flashed through her mind. Though lasting only an instant and going unnoticed by others, it ignited a distressing fire that pained woman’s heart well into the following day. Stretched out before her, Gabrielle could see a beautiful, blue cloudless sky filled with the black and gray Depoues 49s swooping down upon the hapless infantry openly exposed on the battle field. There, faces filled with terror looked up to see the huge black, overlapping double swastikas in the middle of bright red circles painted on the bottom of the wings of the ships as they tore apart the defenseless army with missiles or deadly strafing runs. As the ranks were decimated, the admiral saw the survivors throwing themselves upon the ground and quaking, hands clasping their heads, as the deafening screech of the fighters’ massive turbines signaled their returning.

Gabrielle shook her head to clear it of the dreaded sights. She quickly resumed her address. “We must act effectively before that happens. There is little time to waste and we will have to use the resources currently at our disposal. Everything must go into the pot.” She motioned. “Will you please follow me into the war room?”

High Command waited patiently for everyone to shuffle into the room and get situated. The admiral stood at a huge wall map, waving her hand to and fro as she revealed the new strategy.

“Four hundred leagues separate us from Legion’s capital city, Memphis. Taking the mountain range will be a threat to him, but not as great as when we stood outside his walls at the end of the Great War. It is likely that Legion knows more than our invasion plans. We have to assume he is aware of the reasons why we want the mountains. If he feels little threat toward his capital city – one, must I remind you, he stole through treachery and murder – if he feels little threat, the man will continue to throw his armies against us in hopes of driving us away from those mountains, forcing us to abandon MueoPoros.”

“Well, that’s about to change!” The admiral pointed a finger at a small outcropping of jagged hills about six leagues east of Memphis. “HerpetonMnema – the ‘sepulchre of creeping things’, more commonly translated ‘the spider’s lair’, or since the Great War, the ‘shadow of death’ – that is our next front.”

An audible groan of dismay echoed across the room. General DinChizki stepped forward, disquieted and concerned. Making no effort at formality, frowning, he exclaimed, “That is holy ground! The bones of countless brothers and sisters still remain scattered upon the fields of the slain in that tortured land, for Godenn and Legion forbid their retrieval after the armistice. Shall we desecrate their resting places with yet more blood and suffering?”

Gabrielle coldly replied, “This too is holy… a holy war! If need be, I will exhume all the dead who have died in all the wars and again clothe their bones in flesh and see their suffering all over again if that is what it takes to win.” She paused, softening her speech. “My brother, I also stood above the Valley of Shadow and watched as our kindred – both wounded and captives – were viciously raped and tortured to death. That day our own souls died along with the ones we had to abandon to the field. Shall we ever forget? Never! But they are gone from us and we still do live. We must do whatever is necessary to win. They would do the same with us if our places were exchanged.”

A tear fell from General Din’s cheek as he slumped a little, sadly nodding in agreement.

Gabrielle reassuringly added, “Should we have success, we will gather the bones of those we love and return them home. We shall bring to a finish what the enemy has refused us for these many decades. And we will make a great burning on the day their bones are brought to the Silent Tombs.”

The admiral turned back to the map. “Before dawn on the morrow, Memphis time, the sky east of that city will be filled with the First Fleet’s Second and Fourth Task Force battle groups. They will pave the way for the sappers and engineers who will precede the main invasion, which will begin by early afternoon. The first attack wave must be impressive – I’d say at least fifty thousand. All who are in the first attack wave are to be made up of veteran Marine and Army commando units.” She sadly shook her head. “It will nearly deplete us of our reserve veteran units.”

She faced her audience. “The details of these logistics will be revealed by your respective commanders. Let me tell you this: Volunteer and specialized regiments will comprise the remainder of the invasion force. They are to be drawn from our two existing corps and placed under the direction of General Tizrela, the field marshal’s leading staff officer. As you well know, her valor and wiles in battle are unquestioned.”

“The total infantry force that will be brought to bear in that location will eventually reach two hundred-fifty thousand. They will be supported by heavy, mechanized armor and mobile batteries, as well as several squadrons of our air wing. We will also bring the Navy’s big ships down on deck.” The admiral smiled while slowly nodding. “That should convince Legion he has been fooled as to the real intentions of his opponent.”

Gabrielle then added a grim and somber note. “Our real objective is – and will remain – the mountains.” She pointed toward the PrasiaOdous Mountains. “It is hoped that Legion will pull his support for his army there and focus his attention on the new invaders. We will do all we can to support both fronts, but remember this: the mountains must be won at any cost. If it proves necessary, we will sacrifice the Memphis invaders to secure the mountains.”

No one argued. It was obvious to all the importance of the mountain range. The admiral thanked everyone for their patience and then requested them not to waste any time in preparing for coming events. The respective commanders retired to various rooms to ready the parts they would play in the coming battle.

 

*

 

Fires burned bright late into the night. There was a continual rush of officers and aides coming and going as messages were sent and orders and requests were received. The first attack waves had long ago headed for their landing craft before the last of the meetings ended. Sometime during the night, Tizrela parted company with the others to join the leading elements of the invasion. Trisha accompanied her to the shuttle.

The field marshal patted her former staff officer on the shoulder. “I trust to your decision making and to your success. Chasileah and Jonathan have proved themselves stalwart officers. Neither will fail you.”

Tizrela thanked her commander. “You have been most generous with me, giving me your personal flagship and its accompanying task force. It’s a shame you put it at such great risk.”

Trisha frowned. “I have put you at great risk, my friend, for it is I who recommended you lead this diversion. Now listen, please. Don’t place yourself needlessly in harm’s way. My ships can be replaced, but the souls aboard are unique and precious.” She grinned. “Legion is sure to know that the Starlight is the field marshal’s flagship and that the frigate, IronStone, protects the cutter from harm. When he sees them over Memphis, he will more than likely be convinced the main invasion is there.”

At that moment, Chasileah and Jonathan hurried into the shuttle bay. Somewhat out of breath, they apologized for being late. Tizrela stopped them up short. She gave each a folded paper sealed with signature wax. “Here are your new orders. Wait until you’re aboard the Starlight before opening them.”

Tizrela reached out and embraced Chasileah, kissing her tenderly on the lips. She clasped the woman’s upper arms, smiling. “I can think of no officer better qualified to support me at this time. Your services will be invaluable.”

After another embrace, Chasileah softly replied, “Your servant girl is little deserving of the honor you’ve placed on her. May she have the strength to act in wisdom when the hour of test comes upon her.”

Tizrela laughed aloud. “We will talk more of this after you’ve read your orders. You may wish to rethink your thanks at that time.” She motioned them to board the shuttle.

A puzzled look crossed Chasileah’s face, but she asked no questions. Nodding acknowledgement of the command she, taking hold of Jonathan’s arm and leading the way, entered the sculler craft.

The field marshal stepped up to Tizrela, also giving her the customary warm embrace and kiss of departing companions. She looked into her lieutenant’s face and chokingly whispered, “Your people speak of one day never having to part the fields of the Crescent Moon. My people used to have a saying, too. ‘May the day soon come when your camel no longer journeys beyond my tent’…” She fought back a tear. “God’s speed…”

Tizrela offered a friendly salute, thanked Trisha for her kind words, and turned for the shuttle. The seal door in the shuttle chamber snapped closed with a hiss! and a clunk! Trisha found it difficult to leave and lingered outside the doors for some time before returning to her other officers.

 

  • * *

 

The burning sun was hidden behind a smothering, wind-driven dust cloud as a bruised and bloodied hand grasped the edge of the ravine. Another hand soon followed, digging broken and torn nails into the blistering, jagged rock of the cliff face. With an audible grunt, a dirt-covered, gaunt face popped above the edge, a knife firmly gripped in its teeth. A moment later, a filthy, bony little creature had managed to pull itself up and over the edge of the draw and was now laying prone on the stony surface, eyes wide, searching.

The creature lifted its head and scanned the area, looking like some wild animal sniffing the breeze. Slowly it began to rise, then instantly froze. A sound… Had it been seen? Too late!

A scoffing voice chided, “A herd of mating elephants falling off a cliff would have been quieter than your stompin’ around! Whatta you tryin’ to do, bring the whole flippin’ army down on your ass?!”

The creature angrily stood and let out with a spew of curses only fit to be left in the ancient Greek it used, the gist of it this: “What the hell did you expect of me, anyway?! And nobody’s gonna come down on my ass, cause I don’t friggin’ have one anymore… and no breasts either!” The creature looked down its shirt. “They’re as flat as those no good, damned wafers you call ‘food’! I’m half dead and still managin’ to keep up with the likes of you. What the hell did you expect?!”

An equally dirty and gaunt creature stepped out from behind an outcropping of rocks. It laughed aloud at the other creature’s ranting while silently musing on the vision of beauty it was seeing in its mind. At length, it interrupted, “Enough, Ishtar! We have two more leagues to hike before we meet up with Lieutenant Alynnou. No food until then. And we have precious little water to drink. Better spare your throat by keeping your breathing through your nose.”

Ishtar grunted and kicked at a small stone as she put her hands on her hips, sputtering, “My dear Colonel Treston, was it not your great sense of direction that put us in this fix, you and that damned, ‘We can follow the sun’ crap?!” She frantically waved her arm. “Where in Hell is it?! Where in Hell is anything?!”

Treston laughed. “I have traveled these hills on the darkest of nights and in blizzards of sand and snow. We have always been within a half league of the mark. Besides, I know exactly where we are.” He reached in a pocket and pulled out a small hand-held machine. “This thing tells me the exact spot that we’re at.”

Ishtar let out an angry screech and fumed, “You’re telling me we’re not lost?! Never have been?”

Treston smiled and nodded.

Again she screamed more words better left in ancient Greek, their mild translation: “You mean to tell me we’ve wandered all over this roach-infested wilderness because you wanted us to?! What kind of a friggin’ fiend are you?! What do you friggin’ take me for, some god-damned, friggin’ fool?!”

Treston stopped smiling. He put the machine back in his pocket and approached the distraught Ishtar. Lifting her chin with his hand until he could look into her eyes, he quietly explained, “My child, there is no one more precious to me than you. You are also my charge. Days are coming when you will look with wistful fondness on the pleasantries of these past six days.”

Ishtar wanted to make another fiery retort, but looking into Treston’s eyes, seeing his serious expression, she remained quiet.

Treston went on. “War has been declared by our king. Very soon now you will face an opponent set on your death. There will be no excuses accepted at that time, only steel and blood. It must be your enemy who bleeds.”

He walked toward the cliff edge. “Men have practiced at the art of war for months, sometimes years.” He turned and looked at the girl. “And in an instant – less than a heartbeat – have surrendered life without ever lifting their sword from its scabbard. Sometimes those slain are just victims of circumstance…a random missile, or a chance strike from a wild arrow. Other times it is because they were not alert to their surroundings.”

Treston returned to the girl. The grime of dirt and sweat could not cover the earnest concern showing in his face. “Rumors say that we – you and I – cannot die, that those who return from the Web of the Minds are immortal. This I have trouble believing. There is one fact that I do know, however: immortal or not, we still hurt and still bleed, and it can be crippling at times. Should you fall upon the field and the enemy find you, he will attempt a humiliating death for you. If he sees you do not die, how may he violate you to seek revenge for lovers of his you have killed?”

He shook his head. “No, no, my child. If power remains within me, I will not allow such a thing to happen. But if I cannot be there to assist you, then I must be satisfied with the thought that I have trained you well for your own self-preservation.” He took the girl’s hand and softly held it. “I owe you many things. If what I do brings your wrath, but saves your life, it will have been worth it.”

The expression on Treston’s face brought regret to the Ishtar’s heart. In her mind, she knew the tortures he had put her through were for her good, but her heart spoke to the girl’s selfish side. Too often she had listened to it, reasoning that she deserved better treatment, being unwilling to accept the sacrifices made in her behalf. For the first time in Ishtar’s life she started to see the bigger picture of love and care. Not that the selfish child within was gone, but it was slowly being put in check. Ishtar was beginning to understand that one day soon she would have to be as hard on herself, or more so, than Treston had been.

She reached up and gently tugged on Treston’s beard. A soft, toothy smile broke out across her face. “You are like the brother I never had. Please don’t be saddened by the antics of your little sister. I will grow up one day. With your help, I will. I promise.”

Treston smiled then quickly turned away, changing the subject. “We still have nearly three hours of rough terrain to cross before food will be ours. I think we’ve done enough hill-climbing for awhile. I’ll show you a much easier way for tired feet.”

With that, the two started along the cliff only to soon disappear up a ravine leading to the plateau high above.

 

*

 

The faded canvas softly flapped in the hot, arid breeze. Even though the dust storm made breathing difficult, it had shielded Alynnou from the blazing sun. It was late winter according to the calendar but, in this land, a person needed to rethink winter’s definition. Aside from the occasional blizzard that could dump several feet of ice-hard snow and drop temperatures to minus forty degrees on the Fahrenheit scale, this high desert paid little attention to seasons. Winter daytime often reached ninety, while the night might plunge to minus ten or so.

With the storm passed, the sun was again out in its blazing glory. Alynnou eyed the thermometer, its needle creeping past ninety-five. “Three more hours until sunset…” She moaned. “I sometimes wonder how much that child can take.” She gently touched her face. The injury from Treston’s striking blow with the truncheon still ached on cold nights, and was tender to the touch. The nasty scar that started just below her right eye and ended near the lower jaw was only beginning to fade.

Cadets were not permitted the use of a rejuvenation machine for non life-threatening injuries received during basic training. Command had felt it would help them be better prepared for real battlefield conditions where such medical equipment didn’t exist. After graduating officer training school, Alynnou hadn’t bothered getting additional medical treatment. She found it somewhat peculiar to feel that the scar had become a kind of badge of honor to her, something to be missed when it had faded away.

Movement in the distance caught the lieutenant’s attention. She shaded her eyes with her hand and squinted in that direction. Soon she could identify two people, one being assisted by the other. Alynnou grabbed an emergency survival kit from the back of the army half-deuce and hurried off to help. ‘No telling,’ she thought, ‘if Ishtar is hurt enough to get help from Treston, the child’s probably half dead.’

 

“Thank you, Lieutenant. That’s very kind of you.”

Treston’s courteous response shocked Alynnou. Was he injured or suffering heat stroke? She looked him over carefully. But other than the normal cuts and bruises and caked-on filth a person acquired from a six-day tramp in the wilderness, he appeared fine.

“You’re welcome… Sir” Alynnou finally managed. She then turned her full attention to Ishtar.

The girl was gulping the water given her…that is, the water making it into her mouth. The rest was splashing off her chin and down her shirt, sending muddy rivers dripping to the ground and onto the girl’s boots.

‘She looks far from dead to me.’ Alynnou thought. ‘Maybe she’s fooling the colonel into believing she’s hurt.’ She suspiciously eyed Ishtar, studying her for any sign of mischief. If the girl were faking injury, Treston would surely have noticed it. No, Ishtar appeared sincere and in relatively good health. The lieutenant then focused her attention on the colonel.

When Treston noticed he was being watched, he innocently offered, “Cadet Ishtar slipped and fell as we came up that distant ravine, twisting the ankle she sprained last week. I gave her a hand, not wanting the injury to delay her further training.”

Now Alynnou was really suspicious, but not of Ishtar. In her six weeks working for the colonel, she had not been on any long training missions like this last one. Most of the time, the lieutenant had served as a ‘camel jockey’ as Treston called it, driving the half-deuce out to some remote location and waiting for him and Ishtar to arrive. More often than not, it would be Treston arriving first, with the girl struggling in some time later. Never had he helped Ishtar, even when the child had twisted her ankle the first time.

‘It’s not my business, anyway.’ Alynnou thought. But there was some peculiarly strange tightness growing in her chest, one never felt before. She said nothing, but deep inside there was this tiny voice that wanted to ask the colonel what was going on. She looked back at Ishtar and felt as though she was seeing a fellow competitor seeking the same prize. What was wrong? In all the ages she had lived, Alynnou had never experienced these feelings.

Alynnou hesitated and then asked, “Would you like me to assist Cadet Ishtar?”

Treston smiled and thanked Alynnou, shaking his head. “That is very kind of you, but we’re fine. It would be a great help if you’d carry her backpack, though.”

The lieutenant nodded and reached for the pack the girl had dropped when given the water. Something wasn’t right inside her head. Only moments before, she had been concerned for Ishtar’s welfare, and now she had this growing desire to push the girl away and make her walk back alone. And that constriction in her chest? It had only intensified.

Confused by her increasing feelings of anger and frustration, Alynnou grabbed the pack, spun around, and made tracks for the half-deuce. “I’ll get some food going.” She shouted over her shoulder, not taking her eyes off a distant vehicle.

“Thank you!” Treston politely shouted back.

Alynnou was busy making a tent roof from the loose canvas covering the back of a vehicle, its inventor, Jebbson Garlock, called a ‘half-deuce’, or ‘one tonne truck’, capable of transporting twenty-one hundred pounds of cargo along with a driver and passenger. There was hot tea brewing on a small, portable stove, cold biscuits, cheese and sweet jam, and a stick or two of dried meat waiting for hungry appetites. The lieutenant had even set out a tiny basin filled with water, a pat of soft soap resting next to it.

Treston was expressing his deep appreciation for Alynnou’s extra efforts at providing them refreshment when everyone’s attention was drawn to an approaching cloud of dust moving along the winding trail leading back toward the base. Treston recommended that Ishtar grab some food, a suggestion that did not need repeating. He stepped into the road and waited for the approaching machine. A vehicle similar to theirs but smaller, called a ‘quarter-deuce’, slowly rolled to a stop, its brakes squealing in complaint.

Treston waved his arm, grinning, and called out, “Good afternoon, General. I didn’t expect to see you ‘til tomorrow’s drill. Hope you have good news to bring us. Too hot a day to travel all the way out here for bad.”

The general returned Treston’s salutation with some small talk then extricated himself from the cramped confines of the vehicle’s passenger seat. While patting his dusty shirt with his hand, the general complained, “That Garlock fellow should have been forced to ride in one of these contraptions awhile. Might have made ‘em a little more comfortable.” He looked into the sky and shook his head. “Hope I get the chance to tell him that, myself, one day. Hope he’s alright.”

Treston ushered the general over to the others. Ishtar had nearly choked on a biscuit when she recognized who arrived. She was standing rigidly at attention, Alynnou standing a few feet away doing the same.

Lieutenant Alynnou offered a smart salute. “General PalaHar! A surprise and pleasure, Sir!”

General PalaHar returned a polite salute and then told everyone to relax and eat the meal, saying he could wait a few minutes to deliver his information. After accepting some hot tea from Alynnou, he walked away motioning Treston to follow. For some time, the two talked quietly while Treston munched on his cheese and biscuit and the General sipped his tea. Eventually the men returned to the others.

Treston began, “Listen up now. The general has important news.” With that, he took hold of Ishtar’s arm and pulled her up close to PalaHar. “Cadet Ishtar of Ephesus, trained in all the fields of combat and leadership that good officers must be skilled in.”

PalaHar stared down at the girl and asked Treston, “Are you sure this is really Cadet Ishtar? She looks more like a half-starved rug rat to me.”

Ishtar winced.

Treston grinned, answering, “No, Sir. Not half-starved…toughened-in rug rat… and not a very pretty one, either.”

Ishtar’s face flushed red. She was too embarrassed to be angry, too scared to reply, too dumbfounded to cry.

General PalaHar cocked his head to the left. “You really think she’ll do? Looks kind of puny and weak to me.”

Without thinking, Ishtar blurted out, “Not weak, Sir! Not weak at all! Puny maybe…and half-starved.” She glanced at Treston.

The general laughed. “Spunky, too!”

His face changed expression. “Child… everyone…war has come to us all. As I speak, our fellow comrades are storming MueoPoros.” He waited a moment for the news to sink in. “The hour has arrived for us to play the part we have been prepared for.” He looked at Ishtar, sadness in his eyes. “My daughter, the time has passed for your training. I trust the good colonel has taught you well… Never the less, it will have to suffice.”

PalaHar pulled from his pocket pieces of embroidered cloth and handed them to the girl. “Congratulations, Captain Ishtar, on your graduation and promotion.”

Ishtar nearly fainted from shock. “I… I… I’m not ready to…”

“You’re as ready as you’ll ever be, Captain.” PalaHar snapped. “Orders from High Command…” He then addressed everyone. “The cruiser Brosh is pulling out from Oros in forty-eight hours, bound for MueoPoros. You’re all to be on it.” He took Ishtar’s trembling hand. “The colonel and lieutenant will be with you.”

Tears were running down the girl’s face. She whimpered, “I’m a child… a child! What can I do? What good am I?”

PalaHar reassured her. “You, my child, are the lightning that strikes on a clear day. Our mother did not deliver you to us at this dark hour by accident. You are our hope and our breath, the child destined to bring Legion to ruin.”

Ishtar began to weep. “I am a child…a frightened, little child…”

“What you are and what you may think you are, are two entirely different things.” The general gently gripped the girl’s shoulder. “We see you as you will be, and yet you are already what we see. Lowenah has already prepared you…readied you for future deeds. Long ago she prophesied your destiny. The power to accomplish that destiny is already inside you.” He pointed at her heart. “We are here with you to help that power wake. It will. It has.”

The general kissed the girl on the forehead, then thanking the others for their attention, dismissed himself and climbed into the little truck. The driver started the noisy motor. Soon there was only a tiny dust cloud to be seen in the distance.

No one spoke a word. Treston helped Alynnou gather things up and stow them in the truck. Ishtar sat cross-legged in the sand, numbly fingering the colored braids. When finished, Alynnou assisted the girl into the cab between her and Treston, started the motor, turned onto the road, and slowly drove away.

 

  • * *

 

Darla was hunched forward, staring at the crackling fire, her elbows resting on bent knees, cradling her head in cupped hands. Only moments before, her companion and guide had tossed the remaining logs on the fire, which was eagerly consuming its final feast of the night.

Shifting her gaze from the dancing flames, Darla scrutinized the creature seated on a fallen tree across the fire from where she sat. Finally the curiosity of the moment overcame her and she asked, “So, please, Phulakee, will you tell me the answers to the questions my heart has sought from you since the beginning of this journey?”

For the longest time, Phulakee remained silent. He sat back, puffing on a long-stemmed tube with a bowl at its end, releasing aromatic clouds of cherry-almond-smelling smoke into the late night sky. Finally, sitting forward, the Cherub pulled the pipe from his mouth and smiled. “Your friend, Jebbson, would often light up such a device with his special blend of this weed. It seemed to have such a calming effect on you. Does it do that now?”

Darla thought a moment before replying. “Yes, but I believe it’s because I think of him when I smell the sweet aroma. He always makes me feel at ease.” She shook her head. “Funny about these off-worlders… Maybe it’s them or possibly their strange ways…whatever… Mr. Garlock knows how to comfort my heart.” A wistful smile crossed her face. “I can hear his voice even now, singing gentle tunes in my ears.”

Phulakee shook the stem of his pipe toward Darla. “That’s because he is singing gentle tunes to you. You see, my child, you are nearing the moment when your mind will rejoin the conscious world of the living.”

Darla’s face mirrored the growing excitement in her eyes. She started to speak, but Phulakee waved for her to remain silent. “You have asked me many questions. Do you want answers?”

Darla grinned, nodding.

“That is what I shall do in our remaining time together.” Phulakee casually eyed the fire as if gauging its life and then turned his attention back to Darla. “Now be still and patient. Do not interrupt me, for I have my own style of storytelling. I know what is in your heart and I will seek to satisfy it best I can.”

“You know me as ‘Phulakee, the watcher’, but that is not my name from long ago. For I come from a time beyond measure, a time before words, or shapes, or sounds. Let me tell you of the waking days.”

“Before the waking days, the one you call ‘Mother’, ‘Yehowah’, ‘Lowenah’, and the many, many, other names that One is called – this Maker of worlds drifted in a void of nothingness, unaware of her surroundings. She spent those ages inventing an inner kingdom of living, thinking creatures. Gradually, Lowenah created the framework or blueprint of what would become all known life.”

“She devised a way to make living machines…’creatures’ is the most common definition, but still machines of sorts…that had the ability to develop thinking processes similar to hers. She continued to refine her inventions until they attained mental abilities and powers close to her own. These creatures came to be known as ‘Cherubs’. As your mother grew in knowledge, her Cherubs did also, enabling them to remain on a mental plane with her.”

“Of course, this was all done within her mind, a world of energy that is unknown to any mortals.” He shrugged. “Yet it is the mind of Lowenah that is the true reality, for it is the birthplace of all life, the same as your true reality is not your body, but your mind.”

Phulakee returned to his story. “I was created in what you might call the ‘early age of the pre-waking days’. The Cherub you know as ‘RosMismar’, the head watcher, is little older than I. In fact, he and I have shared many of what you might call ‘adventures’ together. Your mother gains much joy in inventing, especially in making living things and in great variety. Soon there were millions upon millions of us Cherubs, maybe billions upon billions, each of us different but still somewhat alike.”

Shaking his pipe, Phulakee warned, “Please pay close attention to me, for time doesn’t permit me to repeat my tales. If I do not fully explain certain things to you, it is because it’s not time for such matters to be revealed. For you it has been granted to see the face of God. This is only the beginning of your journey. Much more you will learn in future days.”

Darla promised to pay close attention and not interrupt.

“Good!” Phulakee continued. “There were no words or mental pictures in the pre-waking days. Communication was done by transmitting what you would call ‘feelings of thought’. Not the feelings that come from your heart, called emotions. No. They were feelings similar to what you call ‘senses’, smell, taste, touch, and many that you relate to romantic or sensual, but are really stimuli oriented. We sensed who we were communicating with, their personalities, likes and dislikes, developing what you might call relationships. Even without definitive sight or speech, our world was a joyous place, filled with stimulating and rewarding activities. ‘Never a dull moment,’ as your friend, Jebbson, would say.”

“Lowenah eventually began projecting her senses outward, into the void surrounding her. She reached out with her fingers, so to speak, seeking to find something or someone to touch with mind and spirit. Stretching her powers to their furthest reaches, she was able to detect nothing, living or otherwise.”

“We now have come to what may be called the ‘waking days’. Something awoke in Lowenah, something so strange and different, she was unable to share it with us. You see, my child, Lowenah didn’t fully understand it, herself. A new sense came to us, a troubling one – one that ceased when the first of your kind came into existence.” Phulakee sadly shook his head and looked into the blaze. “And it has returned and lingered all these days since the Rebellion.” Catching the reflection of the fire in Darla’s eyes, the Cherub pointed a long finger at her. “You, though, know and understand this sense of which I speak all too well. You call it ‘loneliness’.”

Darla’s mouth dropped open in wonder, but she remained silent. She then lowered her head and frowned at the thought of how disappointing it must have been for her mother to find no other living person to share all her joys with. Sure, the creatures she had invented pleased and amused her… but to find no one like herself, no one at all for that matter? Darla sadly sighed at the thought.

Phulakee slapped his knee. “Well, Lowenah didn’t give up. She was determined. Now, time as you and I know it today didn’t exist back then. We had no reason to measure or divide periods or orders into what is called ‘time’, seeing no Cherub ever needed rest, never got bored, or impatient – no, never.” He raised an eyebrow and stared accusatively. “We learned all about that from your kind – always in a hurry, wanting everything now, never wanting to wait. Had to invent years and seasons… ages just lasted too long for you people.” He grinned. “Lowenah likes it that way, too. Keeps her busy.”

“Eventually Lowenah discovered a way to transfer her energy outside her body, making it independent from her life force. In time, most of us Cherubs received independent energy bodies… looked much the same as hers. Once in those bodies, what you might call ‘sight’, ‘movement’, and ‘distance’ joined our senses, for now there were shapes and points of location to add to our information gathering. I only mention this so you will understand that we also continue to grow in wisdom and abilities. As new stimuli come in touch with our senses, we learn to adjust to it. Eventually that’s how speech came into existence. But that’s another story for another day.”

“When we Cherubs attained sufficient skill at using our new bodies, many were sent to search the void. To this day, the search continues. Still, no evidence has been discovered to indicate that anything exists beyond Lowenah and what she has created.”

“Your mother waited. More ages passed…thousands more than that of your young universe. Cherubs traveling at speeds far faster than you can comprehend streaked across the endless void only to report back that they had found nothing.”

Phulakee interrupted his story, seeing the curious look growing on Darla’s face. “My child, a Cherub like myself can travel back and forth across this galaxy a hundred million times in less than one beat of your heart. I can appear to be in many places all at the same time because I can digitalize time. Time is like a river. I can take little slices out of it, repackage the slices in a way so that a slow-moving brain like yours will not think of me as having left.”

He put his hand to his chin as if in thought. “Let’s say I was talking to you and nine other people all at the same time. I would make a circuit of all ten of you, repeating that circuit every one thousandth of a second or less, much less. To me, I would be traveling very slow, and would remember every detail of what was happening. To you… well, you would think I had never moved from my spot.”

“Although I have been assigned to remain here with you – and let me assure you, I have been faithful to my task – I could easily be carrying on private conversations with ten thousand of your kind, stretched all across this universe, all at the same moment.” He shook his head. “And the best part is none of you would be the wiser.” He laughed. “Oh, how little you people understand the power and abilities of Lowenah’s Cherubs.”

Phulakee continued with his account. “The Maker of all things became what would you say, impassioned. She wanted a companion, someone like herself to share her life with…her feelings and emotions, you might say. Although we look like your mother, our minds could never process the new emotions she was experiencing.” He shrugged. “We’re too literal, I suppose. Emotion requires a person to think in an abstract way. To us, emotions just don’t make sense.”

Phulakee picked up a stick and stirred the diminishing blaze. Sparks wafted in swirls into the lightening sky. “Lowenah desired companions to exist outside her mind. She enjoyed seeing her Cherubs scurry to and fro across the vast empty surrounds. In time, she added other machines or creatures to this void, shaping them differently to add variety to the things seen. She also gave to us similar powers to make different things, allowing us to draw off her immense energy. It was through this great inventing process that Lowenah eventually designed the shape chosen for her future companions.”

“Lowenah wanted to create a world where all the inventions of her mind could be shared with others. By this time, she had come to understand that we, the Cherubs, were unable to feel emotions, at least in the way she was. Indeed, she was only beginning to understand many of them, herself. After trying to create minds that could also feel emotions as deeply, but failing, Lowenah concluded the only way she would be successful was to replicate the exact pattern of her own mind. Trust me, this was no small undertaking.”

“When Lowenah shared her desire with RosMismar and me, we both told her that she was seeking to do the impossible. Nothing we could say convinced her to desist. I must admit, if tears as you know them had existed then, she would have cried a river of them. Time after time her experiments failed, but she never stopped trying. Well, you know the rest of this story. She did succeed, first for her children in this realm. And now you know why your mother had to personally give birth to all your brothers and sisters.”

Darla shook her head. She had no real idea, but was afraid to answer Phulakee, he saying she was to remain silent.

“Very well, then, let me explain.” Phulakee set his pipe down. “Your mother learned how to personally weave a copy of her mind into each of her children. It was done during the time of their early growth, while still in her womb. It took many of your ages of time for her to gain the expertise so as to create a foolproof, automatic process in which the fabric of the mind could gather itself to the DNA in the dividing cells of the newly conceived infants.”

He pointed at Darla. “You, my child, are the last offspring of Lowenah to have been made in the ways of old. Your brother, Zadar, came into existence through the same process as the children in the Realms Beneath. But I don’t have time to speak of that this night. Let me go on.”

Phulakee pointed at Darla’s feet and slowly moved his finger in the direction up past her knees to her thighs, belly, breasts, and face, speaking as he did. “Your body is a most wonderful machine, a gift of greater worth than all other possessions other than your mind, which is who you really are. Without it – the mind, I mean – you would be nothing at all, just a beautiful machine. Let me tell you a little about your body.”

“As I said, Lowenah wanted to create a universe where she could share all the feelings of her mind with others. Every day she was learning more about herself, and by replicating her own mind and giving it to her children, they could grow along with her. But what of the learning curve? Your mother is well aware of just how lengthy a process it is to merely think your way through feelings, let alone emotions. After watching the Cherubs all those many ages, she realized the confusion of abstract interpretation, so she created your body and a material universe to solve that problem.”

“First, allow me to explain. Your body is comprised of two distinct parts, both of which are mortal and can perish. Don’t confuse them with that of the mind, which, although being destructible, needs only to remain in harmony with Web of the Minds to continue to exist.” Phulakee nodded his head. “I shall return to that subject momentarily, but for now will continue on.”

“The first part of your body is what you can see. It is the most beautiful of all of Lowenah’s creations, encompassing ages of painstaking work on her part to make it just right. Every strand of your hair, every nerve ending, every cell is carefully crafted just so. In the end, Lowenah has masterfully produced two bodies that equally reflect her various qualities – mental and emotional.”

“The body you call ‘woman’ reflects or symbolizes the very essence of Lowenah’s form and heart. The soft, spherical features a woman possesses are representative of your mother’s true form, its radiant beauty.” Phulakee then asked, “Have you noticed how men tend to draw themselves close to a woman when allowed to share her company?”

Darla nodded, having observed this with others, although she felt men had not treated her in the same manner.

Phulakee asked another question. “Have you also noticed that when a man touches a woman, his hands invariably seek the spherical curves of her body? Also that a man’s eyes will first look at his sister’s curving form and then travel to her breasts and finally to her face?”

“Yes.” Darla replied, breaking her promised silence. Phulakee smiled.

“I know you have puzzled over this, for I have been with you many years.” Phulakee bent down and picked up his pipe. As he placed it to his lips, Darla watched a glow grow in the bowl. Soon, the distinct aroma of roasted cherry and almonds filled the damp morning air.

Phulakee closed his eyes and opened his mouth in a satisfied smile as smoke slowly drifted, circling about his head. Finally he opened his eyes, staring at Darla. “Cherubs have no such feelings as you people do. We are an ancient race created long before emotions ruled the universe. Not that we lack understanding of them, it is just that we share the part of Lowenah’s mind the way it existed in the days before she woke to such knowledge. Still, we do love and care, have joy and hate, anger and happiness, only in ways you cannot understand. We are fully satisfied in our hearts and have no desire to be like you.”

“As for the things previously mentioned, let this suffice: What you people call ‘sex’ and ‘romance’ are but expressions of joy one attains when being with Lowenah. The ecstasy of the dream-share as you experienced with Euroaquilo when he was made father to you is but a glimpse of emotional joy that will be shared by those who finally become truly immortal.” He pointed his finger at Darla. “And that is your final destiny. I have seen it. And that is why I am telling you these things this night.”

Darla was shocked into near disbelief. Phulakee motioned her silent, pointing toward the growing glow over the distant mountains. “Already you have been preserved for that day. Look and see. Your mind cannot leave your body. Your demon perished in its attempt to extract it from you. That is why I have traveled with you these many weeks, to keep your mind occupied while it waits for your body to mend, to keep you from becoming too lonely. Our love shared has been to keep your heart satisfied and reduce the pain over the loss of Euroaquilo. Now please allow me to return…”

“Your brother’s body was made in such a way so as to reflect Lowenah’s strength, power, and majesty. When you and your brother come together in your lovemaking dream-share, the two become one, reflecting the complete or total makeup of your mother.”

“Now, there is also a second part to the body Lowenah created for you – one you cannot see. It is like an aura that surrounds the material part of you. It is rich with emotional receptors, gathering stimuli for the heart, you might say. That’s another reason people are drawn close when they have feelings for each other, whether it be joyous companionship, such as between brothers, or the way you may desire the company of your sister or a lover. It is also the reason for the discomfort you sometimes have when in company of another. Few can mask the emotional signals dwelling within the spirit part of them.”

Phulakee sucked in another draft from his pipe, held it, then slowly let it escape, offering a satisfied sigh as he did. “Why have I told you all these things? One, to answer the nagging questions held long in your heart. The other because the hour of your testing has only begun. Your destiny lies beyond my vision, your mother’s vision. I have been sent to prepare you for that coming destiny.”

“You are the child of the darkness and the blood. Both are ominous and filled with sadness and despair. Before your journey is finished, much of what you love will have ceased to exist. Many lovers will be no more and your heart will break from secrets yet to be reveled. We cannot change your destiny or we risk the destruction of all life. Your demon is destroyed, but it has left its mark on you. Never will you be totally free of what it has done to your mind and heart. When Shiloh arrives, he will serve as a comfort and a cure. He will mend much of it for you. And he will return refreshment to your heart. Also in the Returning, when lost lovers and companions come back to you, there will be renewed happiness and joy beyond description.”

Phulakee again stirred the fire. “Still, it will not fully remove a great sadness that will live forever in your heart. It even dwells within Lowenah as I speak to you. When those secrets hidden in her heart are finally revealed, when you discover who you truly are, then you will understand what I speak. To your mother, peace of sorts will eventually come. It will be that knowledge that will bring consolation for the burden you must bear.”

Looking Darla in the face, Phulakee cautioned, “I must also warn you, the demon has left its mark upon your physical body. In its attempt to ensnare your mind, it redistributed its own matter – DNA, you might say – throughout your living organism. It failed, but left behind remnants of itself which have altered some of your own genes. Shiloh will have the power to produce a cure if that’s what you desire then.”

Darla’s face clouded with trepidation, remembering the grotesque appearance of the monster within. Phulakee reassured her, “Fear not, my child, your beauty still abounds, possibly even more so than before. The creator of that demon was and still is very handsome in appearance. Still, beauty can be terrifying to knowing victims, especially when being drawn to their demise by it. For now, such beauty will serve you in destiny’s quest. Those who love you will only love you more. Be at peace.”

“My child, everyone who survives this age or any who return from the Web of the Minds will carry a similar sadness. That is why some are already being called ‘Shadow-walkers’. Your satisfaction will come when you watch the innocence on your own children’s faces, when they sit, wide-eyed, as you tell them stories from days of yore, about yourself and other Dragonslayers. You will live life through them. You will see joy through them. You will see the wonder through their eyes and you will become fully satisfied with life.”

Phulakee’s final words suddenly sunk in. Darla’s eyes opened wide in question and excitement. She blurted out, “I will have babies?! Will I really have babies?!”

Phulakee said nothing, only smiling. At that instant, the sun broke over the crest of the distant mountains. But this day was different. The fire grew blinding until it pained the woman. She covered her eyes with her hand. The blinding heat surged through closed eyelids into her brain, overwhelming her senses, making her cry out in pain and bewilderment.

The agony quickly passed and a cool gray light filtered through Darla’s eyelids. The woman sensed she was no longer sitting on an old tree stump, but was lying against some sort of soft surface. Opening her eyes, she was shocked to see herself staring into the faces of two dear and excited companions.

Jebbson’s and Ilanit’s faces beamed with surprise and joy. Ilanit fell forward, wrapping her arms around Darla, crying, “Oh, my sister! My sister! I feared you forever gone. How long I have waited to see you live again.”

At long last, Ilanit released her embrace and backed away. Jebbson leaned forward, kissing Darla on the forehead. “Welcome back, star gazer. Did you find the answers you sought in the field of dreams?”

Darla was befuddled. Did Jebbson know of Phulakee and her journey across the lands of time with him? “How…how do you…did you…?”

Jebbson placed two fingers to her lips and whispered, “My cot has been at your side many days now. You have asked many questions. I assume your traveling companion provided many answers.”

Darla gave a weak smile. She had many more questions now that she had waked, but what little energy she had was quickly fleeing her. “Ardon? Is Ardon…”

“He will be here shortly.” Jebbson said reassuringly. “The good Captain Bedan is in search of him at this moment.”

Excitement grew in Darla’s voice, stealing away her remaining energy. “Bedan? Alive…? Al…”

Darla fell back into a dreamless sleep that lasted many more days. When she finally awoke, she remained weak and confused. Gradually her strength and senses returned.

It was near the end of her convalescing that Ardon took Darla from the Shikkeron to show her KruptoGinomai, meaning ‘land of secret, hidden birth’, the planet he had discovered in the Nebulan Cloud Bank. For hours the two strolled along ancient roads, past crystal fountains and wild gardens all built or delivered here by Ardon’s hands.

Darla suddenly interrupted Ardon as he explained something or other about one of his little gardens. In the new, raspy tone her voice had taken on, she asked, “Ardon, please tell me the truth. Am I ugly to your eyes?”

Ardon was surprised by the question, surprised to think that Darla feared she was ugly and also that she was concerned with what he thought. Haltingly, he replied, “Why, no. No! My Adaya, you are even more beautiful than I had remembered you to be.”

“Even with these…?” Darla pointed toward her face as she opened her mouth in a wide smile. Phulakee had warned the girl about subtle physical changes the demon had made in her, but the strangest and most pronounced were to her eyes and upper teeth. Darla’s upper teeth were slightly longer now, their ends more pointed than normal. Most noticeable of all were the girl’s canine teeth. They protruded out of her gums above and in front of her other teeth, sweeping down her jaw into two points extending just below her other teeth. “What of these tusks? I look like some wolf-monster!”

And the color of Darla’s once emerald-green eyes was now an iridescent, radiant, deep blue with the iris changed to an almost serpentine shape. The woman was only now becoming used to the new way in which she saw things. She had commented to Jebbson, “At least I can find my way in darkness as easily as in the light.”

Ardon squeezed Darla’s hand and smiled. “You are the most beautiful woman I have ever made acquaintance with.” He paused, thinking of Tashi. “Well, one of the two most beautiful women I have ever made acquaintance with.” With his other hand, he stroked Darla’s new golden-blonde, silky hair. “On the outside, I am enchanted with what I see. On the inside, who you are, who you have become…” He hesitated. “My heart can find no words to describe my feelings.”

Darla lowered her head in sadness. “My Euroaquilo said that you love me. Did he speak truth to my ears?”

Ardon was taken aback. For the first time in his life, the man was faced with a question he feared to answer. He had on so many occasions avoided a reply to Tashi’s queries. This time he must reply, and truthfully. He felt embarrassed. Finally, half stuttering, he answered, “I have always loved you but didn’t understand it. I was cruel to you because I cared little for the feelings of others and could not comprehend my own. Do I love you now? More so than ever before, but I feel unworthy of even your touch. I have done so much evil to you. Can you ever forgive me?” Tears filled his eyes.

Darla didn’t look up. “Will you hold me tonight and comfort me as we walk this hour? I feel cold inside. My body was reborn, but my heart languishes in death from the loss of the man I loved so. Will you attempt to start a fire within it?”

Ardon drew Darla in with his arms, tears running down his cheeks. “I will do for my sister whatever I can. Her soul is one with mine from this day forward.”

Hand in hand, they slowly advanced along a flagstone path that wound its way up a forested hill and into an opened glen some distance beyond the rise. Ardon chose not to continue along that route, thinking the journey’s end was better left for another day. He directed Darla down a narrow dirt trail leading to grassy fields and bubbling streams. Few words were spoken. Still, both lingered in the fields, not wishing to return to the Shikkeron.

As the couple sat on a granite boulder, soaking in the surroundings, other eyes were carefully observing them. Two people stared out from the underbrush some distance away. Finally, one turned to the other, eyes glazed over as though possessed. A crackling voice hissed, “It says the demon is dead…no more…but it lies I say, it lies!”

The other equally possessed person argued, “I heard it say the creature is dead. I heard it come from its mouth, I did, I did. And I called out to my Master’s child and heard no reply. We stood by the child on the ship that day, when our Master came for it. Remember? Master’s child cried out to us…we waited. Then we heard it cry out no more.”

“Shut up, fool!” The first person sputtered. “If the Master hears of your complaints, he will return us to the nothingness from which we came. Master’s child still lives… must live. We were promised our own bodies if we delivered Master’s child.” They spat, “Stupid creature! I’m tired of living in this absurdity of flesh and filth! It speaks drivel and thinks of love! I seek for the day when I can destroy it and receive a body of my own.”

The second hissed back a warning. “Do be careful now! If our creatures discover how we really hate them, they may resist us, leaving us forever trapped in these contemptible houses. If Master’s child still lives, we must find others who will help in the child’s escape.” The possessed person wagged a finger, placing it to its lips then pointed to themself. “But we must not let them know how much we despise them, or they may not help us.”

The first nodded its head. “Careful we shall be.” As the person looked out across the field toward Darla and Ardon, it commented, “Keep a close eye on it. The Master’s lady gave it a token that will lead others to it. Keep a close eye. We’ll bide our time.”

 

  • * *

 

Jebbson squeezed his way through the half-closed door of the officers’ wardroom, Sergeant OidaMetra following directly. A fellow officer handed him a towel to wipe some of the fresh grease from his hands and face. It did little for the globs that were caked in the major’s long, curly, blonde locks.

Captain Bedan wrinkled up his face in mock disgust. “When I asked you to check out the engine room and inform me as to what you found, I didn’t expect you to bring your discoveries back with you! I certainly hope your arrival here is to deliver us good news and not because you’re looking for pleasant conversation.” He asked an orderly to bring the major and equally filthy sergeant something to drink.

As the orderly passed through the door, Oida stepped back to let him by. She winced in pain, lowering her hand to her hip. Jebbson turned to assist her, but she motioned him away.

“Your leg?” Bedan asked, concerned.

Oida nodded as the pain eased. “It’s alright, Sir, just caught it wrong. I keep forgetting it’s not fully healed.” She pointed toward Jebbson. “The doctor here says it will take months before it does. Says to live with it and grit my teeth.”

Bedan stared at Jebbson. “Is that so?”

Jebbson grinned. “Everybody’s gotta take a turn at cleaning the calf pens. Whatta ya gonna do, cry over it?”

Bedan puzzled a moment. Only Jebbson understood what he meant and Bedan didn’t want another lesson in old culture just now. He moved on to other matters. “So tell me why you’ve honor me with your visit.”

Still grinning, Jebbson explained, “Well, Captain, the crew has managed to reinstall the port cooling pump in the starboard compartment. We have both the number three and one boilers on line and the starboard engine has been cleaned and repaired to as good as new. The remainder of the needed repairs to the engine room should be finished in two or three weeks.”

Bedan was pleased. “Major, would you be so good as to relay my sincerest thanks to the crew for all the stalwart efforts they have displayed. If the other repairs are speeding along as quickly, I believe we may be ready for deep space in a month.”

Jebbson agreed but cautioned, “She’s been busted up pretty bad, Sir. Even with all our efforts, the Shikkeron will be sluggish and vulnerable. We can’t chance a fight. Major Ardon tells me there’s a safer way – a slow, safer way. Maybe it would be wise to give it some consideration.”

Bedan still stung from Darla’s implications as to the quality of his leadership. He wanted to prove his prowess and cunning. Ardon, a man with no naval experience, had saved the Shikkeron and its crew from destruction. Bedan wanted his turn. He could feel jealousy growing in his heart.

‘Be afraid of poor leaders.’ That’s what Darla had said. ‘Poor leaders…’ Was he a poor leader, or just a slow, clumsy one? A good leader didn’t allow his heart to rule the day. A good leader, if he was somewhat slow of wit, would seek sound advice from those in the know.

Bedan played with his empty cup. He finally looked up at Jebbson and calmly nodded. “Good idea, Major. I will make a note to gather all the senior officers before we depart to discuss our plans. Better a live dog…”

The orderly returned with some cold drinks. He addressed the room. “Mess will be in thirty minutes. The cook has found some fresh fruits and vegetables growing in the nearby fields. She promises a fine repast.”

Jebbson gulped his drink and hurried toward the door. “Clean hands and a washed face make a fine meal more tasty. See you in the mess.” He darted out of the room.

Bedan laughed out loud. He stood and took Oida’s hand. “Let me assist you, Sergeant. Seems our hero abandons us at the slightest hint of danger.”

Oida thanked the captain for his assistance. She limped through the door and down the hall toward the washrooms, Bedan holding her arm, chattering about some nonsensical adventure he was once on.

 

  • * *

 

The soaking rain sounded like a myriad of tiny waterfalls as it splashed onto sodden leaves and thick undergrowth. One huge drop fell from an overhanging branch and plopped to the ground directly in front of Alba’s eyes, hurling tiny missiles of muddy filth into them. She cursed under her breath, squeezing her eyelids tight in an attempt to regain sight.

For hours the lieutenant had been crawling through a swampy field filled with high grasses, wild brush, and scattered forest monarchs surrounded by smatterings of saplings and young trees. Crashing thunders were moving into the distance along with the storms’ lightning, ghostly pale flashes producing the only illumination across the no-man’s-land of battle.

Just a few yards separated her from the outer perimeter of the enemy’s batteries that had been constantly hammering away at the mountain off to the south. The battery’s two huge guns were well hidden and camouflaged, making it difficult to take out with air strikes. This was the second night of its incessant attacks on the invaders attempting to gain the heights of North Mountain, the furthest named point of their conquest. Alba and her team, ‘Mongrel Company’, as the group now called themselves, were determined to silence it.

A sudden lightning bolt exploded off to Alba’s right, instantly followed by an ear-splitting roll of thunder. The woman hugged the ground, spreading arms out flat while turning her face to the left to avoid drowning in the mud. A second flash of lightning ripped the blackness just as the lieutenant opened an eye. She froze! Less than six paces away she spied an enemy sentinel all but his painted face hidden from view.

The sentry sat neck deep in a brush-covered shell-hole, eyes searching. How he had missed seeing Alba was much of a surprise to her, there being scant cover where the woman lay. Any movement now and she would certainly be discovered. His warning would send a hail of iron and shot out from the enemy camp, killing and wounding many of her company.

Lightning from the renewed tempest began its wild dance in the storming sky. The sentry looked in the lieutenant’s direction. Alba paled, her heart pounding with anxiety. Two shocked faces froze in a staring gaze. The sentry’s mouth opened to shout a warning.

Thoughts of capture, torture, and death flashed through Alba’s mind as she lay there paralyzed with fear, followed by a surreal scene unfolding. Suddenly, a look of bewilderment flashed across the sentry’s face, and then an expressionless stare. The man’s eyes rolled back in their sockets. Alba watched in disbelief as the sentry’s head tilted forward and tumbled off his shoulders, landing with a ‘plop!’ in the thick goo.

A hand popped out of the brush behind the bleeding corpse, then a smiling face. A silent ‘thumbs up’ and a nod from the corporal indicated the ‘all clear’. Alba let out a sigh and sank into the mud, letting go her pent-up emotions. ‘That was the closest yet.’ she thought, and then frowned with displeasure. ‘I wet myself…’

The lightning’s fury paused, returning a protective cloak of darkness to the attackers. It was now or never. Alba jumped to her feet and ran toward the defensive perimeter, pulling the pin on a canister she held in her right hand. Her arm went back and then swooped up in a wide arch. As the canister parted her fingers, the lieutenant dove for the ground.

There was a ‘pop!’ and then the hiss from a blue-green, florescent signal flare as it lit up the night. ‘Ka-foosh! Ka-foosh! Ka-foosh!’ Instantly, three phosphorus bombs streaked high into the sky, turning darkness into blinding-white daylight. Then, as one eyewitness later described it, “All damnation broke loose!”

Alba was back on her feet and over the short perimeter wall, clearing it in a diving jump. Tucking her head under her body, she came down on her shoulder and tumbled to the left, stopping in a prone position, gun up and at the ready. The lieutenant watched in amazement, seeing several of the enemy combatants crumple over as blue, green, and red tracers converged on them from every direction. The enemy had been taken by total surprise and dozens were killed before any real defense could be mounted.

The flares died away and two more shot into the sky. On the other side of a log bunker, Alba saw three figures silhouetted against the light. Two went down, but the third got close enough to toss a knapsack-like package through a tiny window.

Ka-vroom!’ ‘Whoosh…!’ The entire roof of the bunker rose into the air and then disintegrated into thousands of pieces, propelling a deadly shower of stone, logs, and debris in every direction. One tree trunk about twelve feet long and two-and-a-half feet thick smashed into the muddy gravel only inches away from Alba, pummeling her with a barrage of stinging bark and rocks. The lieutenant rolled over onto her knees, and plunged under a parked gunn truck to avoid more missiles.

Huge broken chunks of cement and granite came crashing all around, hammering the truck. She feared it might be crushed flat, pinning her beneath it. “How can anyone survive this?!” Alba moaned, her heart pounding, burying her head in her arms.

After what felt like an eternity, the torrent of stone, wood, and iron ceased. Alba looked out through ash-filled rain. Fires were burning out of control all across the compound, but the ‘rat-tat-tat’ or ‘crack, crack’ of guns was still to be heard. She pulled herself out from under the gun truck, now little more than a pile of crumpled metal and saw a wide crater where the bunker had been. The remainder of the magazine/fuel dump lit up the sky, a relentless, driving downpour unable to quench the scorching flames.

Alba did not hear the defiant howls of an enemy warrior charging her right. His shadow alerted her to the danger. Spinning around with her weapon held high, she managed to ward off the blow of his artillery pike…an iron bar used to help in positioning the huge Howitzer-type cannons. The man’s momentum was not checked by her defense. He piled into the lieutenant, sending her tumbling backward over the crashed tree.

As the enemy’s upper body carried Alba across the log, she kicked up with her knees, driving them into his groin. Letting go the broken rifle, her left hand instinctively flew to the dagger-like survival knife strapped to her thigh, while her right hand clutched the soldier’s waist-belt as the two flipped over the log. The man came down on his back, shoulders first, losing his grip on the pike when he hit. Alba fell on top of him, her folded knees driving deep into his stomach on impact.

The soldier let out a groan as he searched for air to fill his lungs. Panic filled his eyes at seeing Alba’s hands with raised dagger. She let out a wild screech as she drove the weapon down toward the man’s face, lifting her body to add to the killing force, grunting while making the final thrust. The blade entered his skull between the eyes, the power behind it sending the point through the back of his head and into the ground. The man’s body went limp.

Alba sat there, legs spread, knees in the mud, staring in disbelief at the first person she had ever killed, but she had no time to ponder her feelings. Another moving shadow alerted the woman to more danger. With blinding speed, she whisked the lanner from its holster on her waist and, twisting to her right, sent a fireball of molten energy into the attacker’s face. A momentary scream of agony rent the night sky as plasmatic heat ate away the charging man’s flesh before consuming his brain. The shimmering firelight reflected off the dead man’s charred skull as he piled into Alba, knocking her flat, his body mass driving the lieutenant into the mud.

With one arm pinned behind her back and her legs still twisted around her first opponent, all of Alba’s struggles to extricate herself were to no avail. She helplessly watched shadows dance across the firelight and listened to the shouting and gun blasts, all the while wondering how the battle swayed. It seemed hours before the confusing noise of war quieted, and hours more before she heard the sound of others approaching.

Alba listened intently to the muffled talking of two soldiers as they cautiously approached the heap of tangled bodies. One motioned the other to halt and then stepped in closer to make examination. She could feel the body atop her being prodded and then saw the dark shape of a gun barrel being shoved into her face. A blinding flash from a pocket light made her blink and squint. The lieutenant squirmed to avoid the painful brightness burning her retinas.

The person with the light shouted over his shoulder, “I found her! She’s alive!”

It was Corporal Kfir. Soon, he and his companion were busy pushing the dead man away and assisting the lieutenant. She let out a cry of pain as they helped her sit, the contorted position she had been so long trapped in refusing to surrender without a fight.

Corporal Kfir pressed his face close to Alba’s. “Are you hurt, Commander? Are you gonna make it?” He sat down next to her, gently wrapping his hand around her forearm.

Alba blinked and looked blankly at the corporal, then turned to stare at the corpse lying on its back. The bejeweled dagger, picked up from a fallen comrade two days earlier, was buried to the hilt in the corpse’s head.

Guilt and remorse filled her face as her eyes darted back and forth between the corporal and the corpse. Over and over, the woman tried to form words, but nothing came. With one last gasp, Alba wailed, “Forgive me, Father!” She clutched hold of Kfir’s arm and buried her face in his shirt, weeping in grief. The corporal wrapped his other arm around the lieutenant and began to softly sing the woman a gentle lullaby.

 

Alba recalled little else until she heard the resounding reports of the two cannons her company had fought so hard to capture. While she was being tended, others had worked the big guns around and were now lobbing missiles onto enemy targets. A distant artillery unit had been taken by surprise. Its cannons were silenced before they could return a shot. After that, attention was turned toward the eastern river and the road that ran along its southern side. This engagement continued until near dawn, when the last of the missiles were exhausted.

The din and smoke helped Alba focus her attention on the task at hand. With corporal Kfir’s help, she managed to hobble into the medical bivouac. The medic left off her other duties and helped dress Alba’s leg, which had reopened in the firefight.

The woman attempted friendly conversation while hurriedly cleaning and rewrapping the wound. “Found some good medical supplies…enough to last until meeting up with the main body. Got hold of some fresh food, too. Chef’s cooking up a stew as I speak. Want me to get you some when it’s ready?”

“No, thank you.” Alba shook her head while swallowing down the bile in her throat, her queasy stomach churning in disgust at the thought of food.

The medic finished with the lieutenant and asked her leave to attend others. A moment later, corporal Kfir approached. “Commander, there’s someone needs to see you.”

He helped Alba up and the two trudged back across the compound to where the lieutenant entered the enemy camp. In the darkness, the lieutenant could make out the shapes of two people crouched on the ground, tending a wounded soldier.

Kfir stopped Alba and whispered in her good ear, “Stepped on a mine coming over the wall. Lost a leg and her innards are all tore up.” He shook his head. “Not gonna make it, Lieutenant. I’m sorry.”

Alba hurried forward, dropping to the ground beside the dying soldier. “Hold on! Hold on!” she cried in desperation, lifting the woman’s head and cradling it in her lap. “Help’s coming! Help’s coming soon!”

Someone held a glow stick near the woman’s face. Alba looked down into beautiful green eyes no longer able to identify who was speaking.

A smile grew on woman’s ashen face at hearing her lieutenant’s voice. With faltering breath, she wheezed, “I stayed close just like you told me. Never left your side…never did.” She shut her eyes. “Tired…need some rest…need some res…” The woman released a long sigh and her body relaxed.

Alba cried, “Private! Your name? What’s your name?!”

The soldier holding the glow stick shook her head. “Gone, Lieutenant. She’s gone.”

Alba sank forward, shaking her head in grief. While stroking the woman’s wavy hair, she sobbed over and over, “What’s your name, honey? Tell me…please! What’s your name…?”

 

  • * *

 

The exhausted soldiers peered off to the north, surprise and wonder filling their faces. All that day and late into the night, they had been taking a pounding from hidden gun emplacements some three leagues to the north. Now they watched as the missiles from those same cannons arched into the blackness and disappeared into the low storm clouds, only to drop on some enemy position further to the northeast.

A squeal of brakes diverted their attention to the narrow road behind them. A quarter-deuce skidded to a stop, scattering loose pebbles and splashing the standing soldiers.

A gruff-voiced female officer called out, “Who’s there?! And be smart about it!”

One of the soldiers stepped forward. “Sergeant Merna, Stocie’s Company, 8th Volunteer Regiment, 2nd Brigade, Winehardt’s Division.”

“Well, Sergeant Merna, Stocie’s Company, Winehardt’s Division, get your people up that hill!” The officer pointed toward a high peak about two-thirds up the mountain. “Take this with you and hang it out for the world to see. Morning’s coming and I want it there before then.”

The officer said something to her driver and pointed up the road. As they roared off, she shouted back over her shoulder, “We got the bastards on the run!”

“Know who that was?” someone asked.

Merna shook her head.

The person grinned. “That was General Winehardt in the flesh. I’d recognize that voice anywhere.”

Merna looked at the cloth in her hands. “What’s this?”

The person shrugged. “A signal flag or marker maybe? Who knows? Whatever it is, we’d better get on a hustle. Morning’s coming soon and we got a long hike.”

Merna ordered her squad up. “Come on! We finally got us a job to do. No more hidin’ behind these rocks.” With that, she crossed the road and started the climb for what would one day be called ‘Destiny’s Peak’.

 

  • * *

 

Alba’s company was preparing to disable the cannons now that the ammunition was exhausted. They were expecting an enemy counterattack at any moment, hoping the pickets would discover it soon enough for them to make escape with their fallen comrades. The lieutenant worked at keeping her mind busy by focusing attention on different tasks at hand. It was the best thing to do anyway, not just for her, but the others as well. She thought of the Officers Hand Book, ‘An alert officer is a prepared officer.’

Surveying the field of honor they now possessed, Alba saw the fires were mostly out including the crater where the magazine had been. The enemy dead were pretty much where they fell. Alba’s people were wrapped in corded blankets awaiting removal, if possible. Six dead, nine wounded – some seriously enough to be fatal without proper medical attention, and soon. Over a third of her people were casualties. Would anyone care about the sacrifices made here? Would anyone remember the valor of her troops?

Truth be said, winning the redoubt was not even officially recorded in the Annals of Engagements for the Battle of PurooGlossa. Little historical information can even be found regarding the battle, it being one of the smaller and less significant of the many that were fought across the PrasiaOdous Mountains in those early weeks of the war. Alba remembers, and those with her remember. For many, it was their baptism into fire, thus the most terrifying and, strangely, the most fondly remembered.

Alba looked into the early morning sky. The rain was over. A cold north breeze was scattering the clouds, hurrying them away to the south. The stationary warm front that had brought the rain was breaking up, bringing hope of drier weather. Even with that, it would still take days for mechanized ground forces to fully mobilize. The infantry and mounted cavalry were currently the only combat units able to affect the battle.

An excited picket came charging into the camp, splashing muddy water on those he passed. “Lieutenant! Lieutenant! We’ve got company!”

Alba tried to cover her growing panic. She hadn’t expected the enemy to attack from behind, a truly foolish notion and a lesson the woman would never forget. What few pickets were available had been sent forward to watch the perimeters to the north and east, where the main enemy body was located. Only two were assigned other sentry duty.

“How many of ‘em are there?” she asked, preparing to muster the remaining troops for one last stand.

“They’re ours, Lieutenant! Ours!” The sentry stopped, breathless. “Must be hundreds! I’d say hundreds!”

Just then, Alba spied another sentry escorting several soldiers leading what appeared to be mule-like riding animals. The party came to a halt in front of the lieutenant.

A jaunty little man wearing a broad-brimmed felt hat sporting a feather fastened on the side stepped up. Extending a hand, smiling, he offered a greeting. “Colonel Skorpizo, Fourth Mounted Grenadiers. It’s my pleasure to meet your acquaintance, Commander.” He grinned while grasping Alba’s hand. “That was some piece of work! Some piece of work! Snuck right in under our noses and took the prize. And in right good fashion, too! Good work, Commander. Good work!”

Alba was dumbstruck. She blurted out, “You were to take this?! I didn’t know. Honest! We saw that something needed being done.” She motioned toward the mountain. “Needed to help ‘em, if we could. Sorry.”

Skorpizo laughed. “Don’t be sorry, Commander. There’re plenty of prizes to go around. What we need are more officers like you, people willing to take matters into their own hands and not wait for bosses at the top. You freed us up to press the enemy. The whole regiment’s on the move because of you.”

“Than…thank you.” Alba stuttered.

Colonel Skorpizo glanced around at the destruction, noticing the dead corded up in blankets. “My regrets, Commander…I mean for ignoring your sacrifices made to take this place. Do you have many wounded?”

A tear grew in Alba’s eye as she sadly nodded. “Too many for us to care for, and some critical, needing real medical help.”

Skorpizo spoke in a hushed tone to an aide standing close by. The woman nodded and mounted her animal, quickly retreating from the camp. The colonel turned back to Alba. “Sergeant’s going for help. Some of my troops will assist you with the wounded and take you back to base.” He looked at the bloody bandage on her leg. “Get you some attention, too… A wound like that can fester up bad in this wet, make you useless to all of us.”

Alba graciously accepted the colonel’s offer. They spoke some added pleasantries and then he departed, heading off toward the northeast. By the time her little company moved out, the distant ‘boom!’ of artillery and the rattle of small arms fire echoed back across the redoubt.

With the two dozen grenadiers lending a hand, Mongrel Company began pulling out from the captured compound. At that moment, the sun broke over the horizon. Through a gap in the clouds, its golden light shone across the mountains to the southwest. Someone wildly shouted…then another, and another. Alba turned to see what the commotion was all about.

On a peak, some two-thirds up the mountain, a green and scarlet banner fluttered in the morning breeze.

A jubilant cry went up from a dozen mouths. “We took it! We took it!”

Then there was the sudden release of joyous emotion, laughter and tears, bear-hug embraces. Some sat down in the mud and wept uncontrollably. Resting against the shoulder of a standing mule, Alba placed a gentle hand on the wrapped remains of the dead private now secured across the animal’s back. She leaned in close, thanking the woman for her sacrifice. “We took it. With your help, we took the mountain…”

 

It was late afternoon by the time Alba’s company reached the busy valley road leading to the main army depot dug in at the base of the newly captured northern mountain. There was little to identify it as such other than countless cave-like openings cut into granite bluffs and the beehive of activity a large army makes when on the move. The digging was less than twenty hours old and already huge chambers had been cut deep into the rock, leaving few supplies above ground for enemy airships to attack.

Countless tonnes of stone were being torn from the ever-growing catacombs beneath the countryside. Laser drills literally pulverized the solid granite, turning it into paving-size gravel, which was exactly what was being done with it. Dust drifted into the cold breeze as giant dump machines tipped house-sized boxes filled with the gravel onto ever expanding roadways. As soon as one would empty its load, another machine with an equal sized supply would pull up to do the same.

And what of the enemy? Alba observed the sky filled with ships and craft of every description. Dozens of cargo sky-ships disgorged troops, trucks, and armor along with other needed materials to keep such a large military force going. Warships, some as big as cruisers, hovered high above, keeping a wary eye for uninvited guests. Then there were all the smaller ships – tenders, lighters, scullers, and other inter-space machines, not to mention all the various fighter craft…but no enemy intruders.

Alba was spellbound, staring at the surroundings. Only hours before, she felt her company the last survivors of an immense armada that had been nearly destroyed. Now she felt very small and insignificant. For as far as the eye could see, the hands of thousands upon thousands of volunteers just like Alba were at work, attempting to bring success to this ongoing battle. The lieutenant was ashamed of inner feelings she had secretly harbored since her ill-fated landing. This was no ‘one person’s war’, with a single hero or victim. All shared the same fate. All shared the same dangers.

Alba was exhausted and emotionally drained. Only two or three miles and she and her company could rest up a bit…only two or three long miles. Not only did her feet ache, her every stride sent a sharp pain racing up her leg from the bleeding wound. ‘So close yet so far away.’ With tired eyes aimlessly following the road, she slowly trudged on.

 

At first, the shaking was imperceptible and Alba gave it little attention. Then the grenadiers’ mules began balking and pulling at their reins. As the soldiers struggled to restrain the beasts from bolting, cursing and berating them for their unruly disposition, other eyes anxiously scanned the road ahead.

Like some legendary, fire-breathing beast rising from the depths of the underworld, a giant tracked, iron monster ascended from the dusty haze a short distance away. Roaring engines belched clouds of choking smoke as they pushed forty tonnes of steel over the crest of the hill. No sooner was the first one over the rise than another appeared, puffing and snorting as wildly.

Wide-eyed, Alba stared in disbelief. She had heard stories of these fabled denizens of war, but gave little credence to them, concluding they were tales told to impress and awe new recruits. Now she stood less than two furlongs away from the most fearsome beast her eyes ever saw, approaching at the speed of a racing horse. She nervously glanced around for a place of escape. There was none.

“I sure hope they’re ours.” Alba said to herself.

“Sure are!” Corporal Kfir replied, huge white teeth grinning from behind a grimy, mud-caked beard and face. “And those aren’t the biggest of ‘em, either.” He pointed toward the advancing machines. “See that big barrel sticking outta that turret? That’s what some call a ‘one-third cubit short rifle, 8 inch, Howitzer style’. It can throw up to six missiles a minute for better than two leagues and drop each one right on your toes.”

“How do you know all that stuff?” Alba asked, not able to remove her eyes from an ever-growing line of howling monsters.

Kfir nonchalantly replied, “Was a gunner’s mate on one like it in the Great War. Still buried in the tar swamps of KaraJewel, to the best of my knowledge.” He shook his head. “Things don’t float too good…”

Alba heard little of Corporal Kfir’s further accounting regarding the history and affairs of these tanks of war. Distracted by the deafening roar and overpowering sight of better than two dozen of these beasts rumbling toward and then past, she could do little more than numbly nod her head from time to time.

What little she did remember was that these tanks were not the largest of their kind, and that the history of such mobile, armored gunships was relatively new. Until the Two Hundred Years War, ground engagement weaponry had advanced little beyond the heavy cavalry and light artillery, combined with swords, crossbows, and spears of the infantry. It took the Great War to bring such machines to full maturity. But crafted one at a time, they were rare in the field. The recent arrival of the children from the Realms Below with their ideas of mass production and standardization of parts were filling the heavens with them now.

Colonel Skorpizo’s troopers’ hands were filled with keeping their animals reined in. They paid little heed to the tanks’ and armored, tracked transports’ passing. Alba’s troopers, though, waved and shouted to their advancing brethren. “Give ‘em hell!” some shouted. Others good-naturedly warned them to leave a few for the rest to have.

Alba watched one tank commander sitting atop her opened turret reach down and press her hand to her throat. The woman’s mouth moved as though she were talking but the lieutenant wondered to whom. As the commander’s tank lumbered by, the officer smiled and waved a salute to the lieutenant. She signaled and motioned back toward the base. Then she was gone down the dusty gravel road and beyond another rise, the shaking rumble rapidly following behind. Soon it was relatively quiet again, with only the occasional zip or roar of a lone lorry or personnel vehicle. Skorpizo’s grenadiers quickly regained control of their mules. With that success, Alba’s troops were again advancing down the road.

Mongrel Company had not gone far when Corporal Kfir drew the Alba’s attention to rapidly approaching machines skimming just above the rain-soaked, flooded fields. In moments, three squat, canvas-covered trucks sat quietly beside the tired soldiers, med-evac teams hurriedly scrambling to assist the wounded soldiers. In short order, all the company was packed aboard the machines, waving their thanks and appreciation to Skorpizo’s soldiers. The whine of turbines combined with the whirr of electromagnetic generators signaled the troops departure. Three trucks rose into the air by anti-gravitational inductors and noisily darted away, cross-country, just above the ground, toward the base.

Alba was too drained of energy to ask questions concerning these strange flying machines, why all trucks weren’t built this way, or why they even worked at all. She did perk up though, when an orderly began chatting about the war. Without invitation, the man went on with the latest gossip. The lieutenant intently listened to his news.

“Yep! There’s a big one goin’ on to the south of us. I hear the entire Second Army’s on the move. Tearing things up pretty good, too! They say we got the first toehold on the mountains, but it’s not the prize we were led to believe it was. Heard that we were just a decoy for the real fightin’.” He looked around at the wounded in the truck and shook his head. “Yep, we lost over fifteen thousand just gettin’ where we are… forty thousand wounded… and we have so little to show for it.”

The orderly reached up and tightened down a canvas flap to cut the cool breeze whistling into the compartment. He repeated, “Heard we were just a decoy…” then motioned, “The real battle’s off east of here. There’re stories told that we dropped most of the army off near Memphis…off in the Spider’s Lair.” He shuddered. “God awfulest place I ever was! Lost some close companions there.”

Alba perked up, disbelief showing on her face.

The orderly waved his hand, shaking his head. “True! True, I tell ya! Got the news from people over at High Command. Said that the field marshal took off to oversee the invasion. Also was told that we put our whole air wing down there. That’s why we got no help from ‘em here.”

A forlorn dismay began growing in Alba’s chest, constricting it with pain. She leaned back, eyes closed, head resting against the planked truck bed. It was all the woman could do to hold back her tears. All that death and suffering she and her companions had endured, and for what? For what!? She thought of the private dying in her arms, the enemy soldier with her dagger in his skull, the woman at the bridgehead. What had it all been for? Was this war any different than those her people had experienced at the hands of the rulers of her day? Were they, the common soldier, only worthless fodder used to indiscriminately feed the hunger of war? Worthless fodder to feed the glory of heartless leaders?

Holy War? All war is unholy and evil…evil in its very essence! It feeds on all, victor and slain, turning everyone it encounters into animals – vicious, snarling animals tearing at each other’s throats.

Her hands were now filled with blood. Could she ever wash it from them? Could she ever forget the look of helpless terror on her victim’s face, the sinking knife, the spurting blood, the smell…the sicky-sweet smell of death? She was a monster raised from the depths of the underworld to bring a finish to this madness. Yet it was only by madness that it could be brought to a finish. Oh, for the land of thoughtless dreams, a land of forgetfulness, a land with no feeling!

The whine of turbines quieted and then died away. Alba opened her eyes to see busy hands hurriedly moving the wounded to litters and whisking them away. A hand reached for Alba, beckoning her out. It was Corporal Kfir. “C’mon, Commander, let me assist you.”

An orderly excused himself and departed with a wounded soldier. Alba slowly nodded his leaving and crawled to the back of the truck, taking Kfir’s hand when getting down. She looked into the corporal’s face and sourly asked, “Was it worth it, Kfir? Was all this slaughter worth the goals achieved?”

Corporal Kfir looked away and raised his head to sniff the cool, damp air drifting up from some hidden natural cavern near the back of the excavation. He took a deep breath of the ancient breeze. Placing a hand on Alba’s shoulder while staring into her eyes, he answered, “LeKrinon…” He glanced toward the truck where the company’s dead still lay, then looked back at Alba. “Her name was LeKrinon. The name means ‘tiger-lily’. She came from the Dursbay Province region, a star system little known to most of us. The woman had adventured alone in the mountains for ages, her life a secret to all but a few. Only some months ago did she even hear about the terrible struggle her brothers and sisters had been waging all these years. I have been told that she was an Ancient, born in the age when the Tarezabarians departed for the stars.”

Kfir then asked a most startling question. “What would you give to have her back?”

“Anything!” Alba blurted out. “Anything at all!”

There was a long, sad pause before Kfir responded. “There are countless millions of LeKrinons awaiting a return. Without our help…our sacrifice…they will never see it. Thousands of my companions have died attempting what has been given us to accomplish. They trust their spirits to us. We control their destiny. It’s in our hands to bring them release from death. This war is not fought in vain.”

Alba felt ashamed. It was as if Kfir had read her mind and seen the very secrets of her heart. He smiled and nodded. “I see what troubles your heart by the look on your face. It’s easy to forget the reason for war when one experiences the ravages of it.” He shrugged, “Yet it is the howling beast clawing at our door in the night that makes the morning sun so much more beautiful.”

Alba bowed her head, asking in a near whisper, “Corporal Kfir, how old are you?”

Kfir grinned. “My, my…I’d have to think about that. Let’s see now. Our king was not yet born when I ran with the swans on Lagandow.” He added, “It was a star system that had long departed this galaxy before your planet sprouted life.” He rolled his eyes. “Oh, I don’t know…old, I guess…real old by your standards.”

With wondering eyes, Alba asked, “Then tell me, please, why do you…why LeKrinon…or any of you, for that matter, why are you willing to follow the likes of me, a child of a forgotten age? Blind and naked I came from my mother’s belly, and blind and naked I returned to the dust of the earth, only to awake here, in this place, still naked and blind. My days… no, my minutes are fewer than the years of your life. Why trust me with the souls of the living and the dead?”

Kfir blinked with surprise. “Can’t you feel it?”

“Feel what?” Alba asked, incredulous.

“Why the power, of course.” Kfir answered in an almost nonchalant way.

“Power!?” Alba almost laughed. “I haven’t the power to hold my bladder in a fight. What power do you speak of?”

A dark shadow crossed Kfir’s face. He spoke words in a hush that chilled Alba’s heart. “The power of a Shadow-walker. It flows around you…through you. We can all feel it.”

He took her hands in his. “It has been said that a Shadow-walker cannot die. It has also been told that a Cherub leads the way before a Shadow-walker, preventing any lasting harm from advancing upon them.”

Alba shook her head, her long golden tresses falling out from her helmet. “No! No! I am no such a thing! I bleed! See my wound!” She pointed at her leg.

It did no good. Kfir calmly replied, “I have seen others of your kind in battle. I know of what I speak. There is an instinct Mother placed in you at your rebirth…and the ring you wear only adds to your strength. I have seen no animal act with greater prowess, speed or power than your kind. You move without thinking, listen without hearing, talk without speaking. Wisdom is to follow a Shadow-walker.”

“What do you mean by your statement? When have I talked without speaking?”

Kfir’s reply was instant. “This last night… You called to me for aid, showed me your enemy, and then commanded the storm to distract him for me. And this was not the first time you have done such a thing. You even called out to that tank commander for assistance.”

Alba vehemently opposed Kfir’s explanation, but he refused to recant.

“You…you will one day lead immortal armies into the final conflagration. This is but a dress rehearsal for your future days.” He touched the side of her head, nodding. “These things you already know in your mind…” then gently placing a finger on her chest, admonished, “but your heart refuses to accept it. You know I speak with truth.”

There was nothing for Alba to do but remain silent. Kfir was not going to accept any of her argument. She said nothing.

“Here.” Kfir reached into the knapsack hanging from his shoulder. “You should keep this.”

A sickening chill ran up Alba’s back when she saw the dagger resting in Kfir’s hand. She wanted no part of it.

“Take it, Commander!” Kfir almost shoved it into Alba’s palm. “It has a Cherub in it that cries out for revenge. It deeply cared for the owner of this blade and expects you to exact payment for her death. The Cherub has selected you as the avenger of blood for your sister.” He cautioned, “Do not show disregard for the wishes of a Cherub! It can be a powerful ally, but a most disconcerting pest if ignored.”

Fearfully, and with care, Alba slid the dagger back into its sheath. Kfir took her arm, offering to find some medical help for her. They passed near their dead comrades, still in the bed of the truck. Alba reached out and touched the blanket covering LeKrinon’s corpse, whispering, “I will not let you down. I promise, I will not forget you…”

 

  • * *

 

It was late evening at the palace when Mihai convened her cabinet. She waited throughout the day for numerous reports of the situation on MueoPoros to be decoded, and had gathered select members of her council shortly after the dinner hour to discuss the findings. Among them were Paul, PalaHar, and three other members of the Council of Eighty. Now, at this late hour, Mihai’s official cabinet, made up of nineteen members, was gathered together.

The minutes were considered, along with progress reports of the battle as well as other military information from around the Empire deemed noteworthy. After certain specific comments were addressed, Mihai opened the floor to the other members of the cabinet. A growing frustration with some being excluded from receiving certain information was freely expressed.

After little debate, CrilenianTorpedee, a long-time associate of Mihai, but not one of the Eighty, rose to contend with her over the lack of information being shared with the majority of the cabinet. “You have tied our hands, my Lord. Terey was correct in her observation when she countered your reasoning before. How can we do our job with so little knowledge of the situation? We only hear of matters after they are accomplished…and then we’re expected to pick up the pieces and make do. You have tied our hands!”

Before Mihai could speak, Anna stood and asserted to Crilenian, “Our Lord has given to us what she can!” She placed her hands on the table and leaned forward. “Have you not listened to a thing? There is a spy in our midst!” The woman suspiciously scanned the room, stopping her penetrating gaze with Crilenian. “Maybe more than one…”

She then glanced at the others. “Were we not just informed of the fiasco on MueoPoros? How many lives did it cost us because there was a rat in the woodpile? Tell me!” She thumped her chest. “How many of our brothers and sisters died needlessly because of the murderer?!”

Crilenian shot back a fiery retort. “The queen of smooth words does not deserve a reply! She speaks what is good according to her own disposition, and shares the beds of those in need to satisfy her own desires. Tell me, what do you hear when your hapless lover dreams? Do you sell those secrets to others?”

“That’s enough!” Mihai exploded in anger. Her eyes ablaze, she stood to face Crilenian. “Anna is a trusted companion who has comforted me on many occasions! Do you also accuse me of harlotry? She has healed countless victims during this conflict, placing her soul on the line to care for the wounded. Her rape and torture at Joboa’ah by Godenn’s bodyguard, because she refused to leave her comrades, speaks to her loyalty. I will not tolerate any words spoken against her! None!”

Crilenian bowed his head. “My Lord, I have overstepped my authority and I regret the words as I expressed them. Forgive your lieutenant, please.”

He then raised his head and looked Mihai in the eye. “Long have I known my sister. Did I not also weep on the day of your attempted destruction? Did I not also seek revenge against those who perpetrated crimes against you? And did not I draw first blood in avenging your spirit, bringing down the house of BornakStanalious, Asotos’ confederate? I spoke out of place, but I do not speak untruths. The breeze carries warning of death hidden in fields of jasmine and lilies.” He sat down.

The fire had not yet ceased in Mihai’s eyes. She was about to unleash another retort when PalaHar stood and interrupted. “My Lord, if one silences the stormwind because it whistles cold and damp, then the refreshing rains of spring will fail to come. To the one in whose hand power resides there is also responsibility. Shall we lose the war here, then all the battles fought out there will have been in vain.”

Mihai stared at PalaHar, contemplating his riddles. The personal standard bearer of her mother, Ma-we, did not waste words. It was wise to contemplate the things he spoke. Little younger than Tolohe, this man had known the universe when Cherubs walked as men on this planet, they being his mentors. Although he was showing her deep respect by calling her ‘lord’, she was fully aware of how great he stood in their mother’s eyes. It had been said that he had discerned Asotos’ changed nature before Ma-we, warning her of his observations.

Mihai finally sat, requesting the others do so. She rested her hands on the table, bowing her head, releasing an audible sigh. After a lengthy silence, she addressed her cabinet. “I fully trust all of you. My heart can find no treachery in anyone in my presence. General PalaHar is correct. It is unwise for me to restrict any of you from expressing your feelings freely and openly to me, here or in private. But I do think that some things be better left to inner rooms and not in this place.”

She then asked Crilenian, “Do you have proof of things of which you speak?”

Crilenian slowly shook his head.

Mihai thought a moment before continuing. “From now on, should someone have need to reveal feelings of their heart, please do so privately with me, alone. I promise you will find a listening ear.”

Then Mihai addressed Crilenian’s question. “The Council of Eighty was the child of our mother, Lowenah. It was her choice as to who was invited, not mine. The others there serve witness to my words.” Her eyes wandered over her audience. “We were to act judiciously, trusting only to those with us that day in the upper chambers. ‘The innocent will understand. The guilty shall remain uninformed.’ Those were our mother’s words. I have obeyed our mother, and speak secrets only to those people.”

She leaned back, wiping a hand across her forehead. “You are heads of state and, as such, have different and diversified duties, many which are not directly related to this war. What you need to know to fulfill those duties is provided each and every one of you. I hold nothing pertinent back.” She eyed Crilenian. “Nothing!”

OfhieSanternano, another of Mihai’s councilors, not of the Eighty, motioned to speak. “I do not object to what our mother has requested, but still I wonder, if only the Eighty were informed of our battle plan, how did the enemy find it out soon enough to do us such damage? Asotos doesn’t move on feelings and guesses. Someone informed him, and with enough information to assure his acceptance of what was said. To me, that could only come from a person close to you or one of your top generals to make it believable. My Lord, there must be a leak somewhere.”

Anna motioned to speak. “Terey positioned herself in the heart of our fleet. She has many friends high up in the military.” She reached over and placed her hand on Mihai’s. “My sister, my Lord, I do not want to sound suspicious, but the woman has a vast storehouse of knowledge and connections, plus freedom of movement, being a flight commander. Just how easy would it be for a person in her position to gain secret knowledge of plans and then to deliver them to the enemy?”

Mihai frowned, a sour look growing on her face, while the reactions of others ranged from disgust at the idea to thoughtful consideration.

Anna defensively interjected, “I am sorry if I have offended, but I understood that we all must be alert to possibilities.” She shook her head. “I, too, find it hard to believe that our sister would do such a thing. Yet, what kind of a councilor would I be if I didn’t bring to your attention such a possibility? My Lord, have I done you wrong by making such a mention of someone you so dearly love?”

Mihai reassured Anna that she was not angry with her, although she wished the woman had spoken privately about the matter instead. But there was concern. “This is a serious issue that should be addressed. I don’t want to make a public scene regarding Terey. She has always been faithful and stalwart in her actions, and she claimed to have been personally invited to the Council of Eighty. Still, I think High Command needs to know what has been discussed here. Let them keep a good eye out for the moment.”

General PalaHar, who was thoroughly disgusted with Anna’s veiled accusations leveled at Terey, but did not reveal it, offered, “I leave tonight on the Brosh for MueoPoros. We will rendezvous with the Sophia to off-load supplies. It will be an easy thing for me to obtain an audience with the admiral of the fleet. By doing so, we will have informed those with need to know while not inflicting injury needlessly upon a fellow officer.”

Shaking his head, he added, “The wheel of a windmill does not turn by itself. And grapes do not become wine without mold. Both are moved to action by unseen forces that may be in our very presence. Do be careful to not judge the wheel or the grapes until you find the one who profits most from the results.”

Then turning to Mihai, PalaHar warned, “My Lord, one need not fear the wolf howling in the hills. It is the person sharing the dipped morsel in secured rooms who truly must be watched.” He glanced at Anna.

Anna’s gaze met his, one which, had Mihai seen it, would have sent chills up her spine. PalaHar gave no indication of having observed anything out of the ordinary.

Mihai was confused, trying to correlate PalaHar’s counsel with rekindled, troubling memories of past events. She thanked him, offering assurances it would be given serious consideration. ‘The spirit is willing.’ Little did Mihai realize at that time the price that was to be paid for following an impassioned heart rather than PalaHar’s cautious advice.

In short order, the meeting was adjourned for the evening, the hour being late. Members of the council quickly dispersed, leaving only Mihai, Anna, PalaHar and Paul in the room. Anna busied herself with personal duties while the other three made certain small talk. Finally, it was time for PalaHar to depart.

Paul took Mihai’s hand. “I do hope that you will not miss my company too much this night. I also have business in Oros, so have made arrangements to travel with General PalaHar. I shall promptly return on the morrow by sky ferry.” He leaned forward and kissed her on the lips. “Shall you permit me this absence?”

Mihai smiled and cupped his hand in hers. “I will be fine, Paul. There are many things I must address this eve. Several hours stand between me and my bed.” She nodded approvingly. “Enjoy the night. Lord PalaHar is a man filled with wisdom. Rare is the opportunity to make him one’s captive.”

Paul thanked Mihai, giving her another kiss in parting. He and PalaHar hurried off for the transport station in hopes of catching the last scheduled flight to Oros by stratoliner that night. Soon the room was quiet except for the ‘tick-tock’ of an ancient wall clock and the shuffling of papers as Anna rummaged through some of her notes.

There was but one window in the chamber, facing north. In the summer it looked upon a busy city, filled with the hustle of busy people. Beyond the city wall it revealed a world of rolling hills and tiny farms nestled between forests both ancient and new. Further beyond lay the low mountains, mineral springs and barren rock canyons with foaming waterfalls. It was now late winter and, even if it weren’t night, there would be little to view. Snowpack still blanketed the farms and mountains while, in the city, few ventured out except on business. It was what was called the ‘gray’ time of year, when the heart yearns for spring.

Mihai sauntered over and opened the curtain. A blustery wind blew the snow about, casting a pall over the city’s streetlights, their faint yellow glow penetrating the storm. She watched tiny cold flakes swirl as they were driven against the windowpane.

Closing the curtain and turning away, Mihai shuddered, wrapping herself in her arms and rubbing them with her hands. “I hope they will be safe.”

Anna stopped what she was doing and looked at Mihai, asking, “Who will be safe, my dear?”

Glancing toward the door, Mihai answered, “Paul and PalaHar. Stratoliners are usually grounded when it storms like this, but the general will not allow it tonight. I fear for their safety.”

With nearly silent steps, Anna walked around the table and up to Mihai. She gently rested a hand on her shoulder while softly stroking Mihai’s face with the other as she cooed a sweet refrain. “The heart grows cold from a love untold. The winter chill will the warm spirit kill. To escape storm’s wrath, one must seek love’s repast. Come, let my soul comfort yours tonight.”

While continuing to softly stroke Mihai’s face, Anna slid her other hand off Mihai’s shoulder, ever so slowly letting it drift across her breast. So gently and caringly it caressed her, eventually moving down across her belly and to her thigh. Like a tingling mist, Anna’s hand moved across Mihai’s body until it rested firmly on her buttocks. The woman now reached her other hand around Mihai’s back and drew her in close, placing a passionate kiss on her lips.

After a lengthy sensual embrace, Anna again crooned, “A troubled and lonely heart your man could not see. But I can feel your very breath inside of me. Come, my love, allow your servant girl to bring solace to your troubled heart. The day shall bring its own tribulations. Let this night bring you comfort and rest.”

Mihai, eyes half closed, her heart beating in hopeful anticipation, dreamily nodded her head. “Your touch upon my thighs is like a sultry summer day breathing upon a field of lillies. Oh, please give me more than your breath…” In silence, the two departed the chambers.

 

  • * *

 

The captain of the stratoliner refused to leave for Oros in the snowstorm. “I am responsible for the welfare of my crew and passengers, General. The Brosh will have to wait for you or you will have to catch up with it. I’m sorry.”

PalaHar grumbled aloud but let the matter go. Paul could little understand how easily the general had given in. As he and PalaHar strolled into the passenger lounge to wait for the storm to clear or for a sky ferry’s arrival in an hour, thoughts turned into questions.

“Why didn’t you order him to depart? He’s only a captain in that he pilots the ship. He’s not even in the military.”

PalaHar slouched down in his seat, unbuttoned his heavy leather coat, and tipped his hat forward over his eyes. After getting comfortable, he replied, “My friend, you must understand our ways. First, no person is superior to another – at least that’s the way we lived until the Rebellion – still do in the Children’s Empire. What are superior are the different positions of responsibility certain children must bear. That captain has been given title to command that ship. His duty is to the welfare of those who travel in it. I would be delinquent of moral and social graces if I were to commandeer the ship under current circumstances.”

He tipped his hat back so he could watch Paul’s reaction. “‘Designating authority’ – that’s what I call it. It is one of the oldest ideas of freedom and, I think, one of the most fundamental. It goes all the way back to the first of our kind, ‘ChrusionHoraios’, as he would be called in your old language – the ‘jewel beyond beauty’ or ‘beautiful jewels’. He is the one we call ‘Adelphos’ or, more appropriately, ‘Asotos’.”

To say that Paul was shocked would be an understatement. Asotos’ ancient name was never mentioned aloud among Lowenah’s loyal children for fear of hurting their mother. It was not mentioned among Asotos’ followers out of fear of reprisal. This was a grand revelation to a child born in the Realms Beneath and delivered to this place, Paul never having heard Asotos’ full name and its meaning.

Paul gasped, “You are telling me Asotos’ given name is ChrusionHoraios?”

PalaHar smiled, shaking his head. “No. No, I didn’t. I said that is how you would pronounce his name in your old language. Asotos was born in the days before there was a common tongue. Speech as we know it was invented only after his birth. The language of the runes is the origin of his name. Few have ever heard it uttered in the Rune language. Fewer still, have mastered saying it. A translation into our language, the language we, the children, invented and have for so long used…that is the way it is known today.”

He leaned toward Paul, keeping his voice low, although it wasn’t necessary, seeing most other waiting stratoliner passengers had long since abandoned the terminal. “The language of the runes is a written form of communication shared between our mother and her Cherubs. Before the coming of the children, there was no formal spoken language, just written – mental and musical, you might say. You know, harmonics and all. Not that the world of those days before the children was a quiet place.” PalaHar laughed. “It was far from silent.”

After pulling his hat from his head and placing it over his knee, PalaHar began reminiscing. “When I was a child, the towers of the outer wall were all that one could see from the palace atop the butte. Jungle-like forests filled all the inner lands. Those lands were the playgrounds of the children, only six of us. The ranges beyond belonged to the Cherubs and we were instructed by our mother not to pass beyond the gates for our safety.”

“I remember that I would often go near the outer gates at the coming of evening to wait for the Cherubs’ returning. Looking back upon it now, I believe mother put the Cherubs up to putting on a show for us.”

“The sun would sink beyond the western hills and soon their procession would begin. Dozens, hundreds, sometimes thousands of fiery, manlike Cherubs would parade through the gate, thumping, vrahooming, hooting, and what have you. On they would march, their torches blazing in the darkness, holding high what looked like tools for labor. Many toted baskets bursting with delightful treasures of dates, figs, or wild fruits. Others trudged along carrying or pulling cages filled with animals and fowl. All the while they were making music, the strangest, most beautiful music I ever heard.”

He laughed. “On they’d march. When one of us children got too close, a Cherub often would jump from the march and roar some unrecognized warning or threat, shaking his work tool in the air while sending flames and smoke into the sky. Off we’d run to hide behind a boulder or tree, our hearts beating with wild excitement. Oh, what fun it was!”

Paul yearned for other tales from old, but PalaHar returned to the subject of freedom and authority. “My friend, a person isn’t given authority unless he or she is qualified to handle it. Such positions are earned. They’re not entitlements. While it’s often true that many who receive command lack experience, they still have the fundamental qualifications to handle the job. Didn’t you, yourself, once write that a man needed to be tested out as to fitness first before receiving authority?”

Smiling, Paul agreed. “I was writing to our friend, Timothy.”

PalaHar continued, “If, then, authority is given only to those qualified, what would warrant the removal of the authority given?”

Paul considered the question before answering. “Only if they proved themselves irresponsible…”

“Yes.” PalaHar replied. “A person in authority must have the freedom to exercise given authority without threat of dismissal or reprimand, that is, unless they are irresponsible or derelect in their duties. Making a poor choice or wrong decision is not necessarily either of those two things.”

He glanced around the waiting room. Only two other people were there, some distance away and both appeared asleep. PalaHar spoke in a hush. “The girl, Ishtar, who I’m taking to MueoPoros, is such an example. I fear that her poor decision-making will cost my brothers and sisters dearly, yet it must be that way. The child has the abilities – fitness, you might say. Now she must develop those abilities in ways that only having authority can teach her. She must be allowed the freedom to make those mistakes.”

PalaHar folded his hands in his lap. “Now for the captain of the stratoliner, I could have overruled him and ordered the ship away. I have the rank to do that, but I would have been held accountable to the ones who gave him command in the first place. In reality, I have no authority over him because I didn’t assign him the job. If I had been the one who did, I’d still be under a moral obligation to justify my dismissal of his authority even if it were only temporary. You see, when you give to another authority you possess, even if you rank higher than that person, they become your superior in relationship to the authority given. You have to do things their way as long as they’re in charge.”

He slapped a hand on the chair arm. “Lowenah, the one you call ‘Yehowah’, has set the sterling example in this regard. She has surrendered her own authority in order for us to feel peace and joy in our lives. We choose our own course, but” shaking his finger, “we must be willing to accept the consequences of our actions.”

PalaHar’s lecture on authority was interrupted by the stratoliner captain’s approach. “If you please, General, the storm is easing here, and I have been informed that the skies over Oros are clear. We are de-icing the wings and warming the engines as I speak. Departure will be in about ten minutes.”

PalaHar thanked the captain, stood, and looked at his timepiece. “Well, that wasn’t bad…less than a forty minute delay.” He nodded to Paul. “You see, my friend, only forty minutes lost, but not really. There is still plenty of time to catch my ride out of Oros and we had a good talk.”

Paul replied. “Your way seems to work well. I’m afraid my people have much to learn about authority and time. Maybe we will one day grasp them.”

 

*

 

The flight to Oros was short. It was now three in the morning, Palace Time, and Paul was on his way back from Oros by sky ferry. PalaHar’s cautious warnings, revealed once they were aboard the stratoliner, disturbed Paul enough to make a change of plans. He had intended to visit the military base in the morning, wanting to see Apollonius and Hanna off to their new assignments. Both Marine officers, Apollonius was headed for the Fourth Fleet, to serve as a first lieutenant aboard the GoshStock, a cruiser doing duty somewhere in the Southern Ring.

And then there was Hanna. Oh, beautiful Hanna! Paul smiled from memories of her company after they were reunited in the First Realm. Hanna was just now graduated from Marine Officers’ School and was departing on the imperial frigate, Sharon, in support of the Second Fleet at Stargaton. Simeon had so much wanted to see her off, but was still on assignment at Tilgath on Pilneser on king’s business. Paul regretted letting his friends down, but he believed justified in his actions, this being war and all.

PalaHar had warned Paul, “The shadows are long at the king’s regency and that darkness hides an evil web.”

Paul had puzzled, asking, “How can Mihai be in such danger as you suggest when her throne room sits in the very palace of God? Indeed, doesn’t Lowenah watch over her precious daughter, always keeping an eye on the woman’s safety?”

PalaHar shook his head in disagreement. “Our king stands on her own. Lowenah cannot directly interfere. Remember the Prisoner Exchange? She was placed under oath to remain out of this confrontation and that she will do, I promise you. The Council of Eighty was her way of lending parting support. At least Mihai would have some trusted allies to lean on no matter what might happen.”

He sighed. “Problem is Mihai’s heart.”

Paul was troubled. “Her heart? Mihai’s not sick, is she? How could that be?”

After making some chiding remark about such a wise man as Paul being so thick in his reasoning, PalaHar explained, “There are few people who are more tender and compassionate than Mihai – Michael, as we have known her for so long. This rebellion has exhausted the woman, nearly broken her heart. Maybe it has. She’s tired, my friend, tired of the death, the suffering, the pain. She wants to forget.”

“Mihai’s mind wishes to pursue this war to its end and bring things to a finish while her heart seeks comfort from the storm and tribulations she has endured because of it.” PalaHar’s voice became grave. “There are those among us – whether enemy or ally, I dare not say – who seek her heart’s wishes. I don’t believe these people act with total selflessness. There is always a motive behind people’s actions when they attempt to sway others’ feelings or opinions, just as I am trying to persuade you right now.”

Paul grimaced, understanding what PalaHar meant. The art of persuasion? Oh yes, he had used it well in past times. Simple but effective it is and, if wielded with skill, persuasion can become a very powerful weapon.

Tapping Paul on the arm, PalaHar explained, “There are some close to Mihai who have long desired an end to hostilities through more peaceful means. They have not been willing to accept all the atrocities perpetrated by Asotos’ followers as being approved by him. Even after the Prisoner Exchange debacle and the butchery at Exothepobole, a few have not given up that belief.”

“The real reason Mother set up the Council of Eighty was to provide Mihai with a large group of people to choose from to establish a new council. There were eighty from our realm. Mihai knew the hundreds delivered from the realms beneath were beyond willing corruption or treason, inexperienced maybe, but not treasonous. That’s why those of your kind present at the Council were not included in the numbering of the Eighty. Alas, Mihai has decided not to use the wisdom of those councilors.”

“Through smooth and subtle speech and actions, our king has been persuaded to retain most of her original councilors – that is except those who were at the Council of Eighty. I respectfully resisted my current assignment, pointing out how Ishtar was already in good hands, but Mihai would have none of it. I do believe someone put a bug in her ear. Similar things have happened to others.”

“What of Terey?” Paul asked. “She stormed from the chamber. How can you say that was persuasion?”

“Terey was seduced into battle with Mihai.”

PalaHar’s blunt answer shocked Paul and he asked for explanation. “Terey was egged on by a person or persons to confront Mihai, the same as others are still being encouraged to do at present. Terey is hot-tempered and hurts easily. When wounded deeply enough, she will seek solace in other activities far away from the one who hurt her. Her claim of being invited to the Council of Eighty was true. I asked Mother, myself.”

“Then why didn’t she encourage Mihai to seek an audience with Lowenah and have the matter settled?” Paul asked, still unable to believe what he was hearing.

“Simple,” replied PalaHar, “someone had worked her feelings up to the boiling point…someone who, I believe, had lots of time to get under the girl’s skin and had good reason to do so.”

“Who?!” Paul was indignant.

“I am not at liberty to say, my friend.” PalaHar calmly replied. “You have wisdom. Use your reason and discerning powers. Terey was worked up and now I’m afraid she’s going to be used as a scapegoat to take the heat off others. That’s why I volunteered to deliver the council’s information to the admiral of the fleet. Gabrielle will listen to what I have to say.”

Paul felt helpless. “So what can I do?”

PalaHar smiled. “You can do more than most, me included. Mihai fell in love with you long ago. She loves you more than Jonathan, possibly more than any other man. Notice I said ‘man’. Her love for her feminine companions is great, especially for Anna. Just how much so, I’m not sure. You are possibly the only other person who can protect her from being consumed by that woman.”

Paul wondered, “Why fear Anna? Has she not cared for the needs of the king? Indeed, has it not been said that she seeks what is good for others at her own expense?”

PalaHar’s words were sour. “Anna seeks what is good for Anna! She has not changed her spots from the day of her birth. What is to her advantage is what the woman searches out. Her loving kindness is for show, used to disarm others and hide her secret intentions.”

“How do you know all these things?” quizzed Paul.

“You forget so much, my friend.” PalaHar shook his head in amusement. “I am older than Anna…not by much, but still older.” He went on to tell Paul of the early days.

“I was the sixth child born of Lowenah. Unlike in later days when she birthed many children in rapid succession every two or three years, I was born in a much different age when Mother was more carefree. ChrusionHoraios was the oldest of all the children. His life was already hundreds or possibly thousands of years in passing before the second child was born. That was Tolohe. She was given as a sort of consort to Chrusion, and was hundreds of years old by the time of my birth.”

“Next came Legion – that’s his name now at least – then Merimna, daughter of the cold, born on the first day of winter. Fifth was Medeba, the maker of mirth. Both she and Merimna died during the First Megiddo War, leading our inexperienced troops into battle. I was born next, followed by EthoHule, Ecbatana, Tizrela, and then Anna.”

“As Anna grew in stature and form, her beauty became overwhelming. Those hazel eyes could mesmerize any man, combined with her smooth, olive-brown skin and silky black hair. Who could resist her? Chrusion became impatient for her Coming of age celebration and, I was told, requested the girl be given to him when she was but twelve. That event, by the way, set the tradition for a girl’s twelfth year to be her Coming of age.”

“To sum things up, Anna fell deeply in love with Chrusion. In time, she became jealous of Tolohe’s consort position. Although never directly attempting any coup to dethrone Tolohe, Anna managed to wiggle her way next to Chrusion. Officially, Tolohe remained royal consort, but Anna sat the throne, you might say. At most important gatherings or celebrations, Anna was the woman of choice to grace Chrusion’s side. It has been said that the Canaanite temple dancers of your ancient world closely mimicked the seductive moves Anna privately pleasured upon Chrusion.”

“Over the ages, I have watched Anna deal with others. She is smooth and seductive in her approach. She has used her many charms, often to advance her own purpose…not that it’s been intentional. Some women are natural flirts and are just plain more sensual. There is no question about that with Anna. Still, I feel uneasy about her motives since the Rebellion.”

“Exactly where Anna’s heart is, I’m not sure. She did fight off Chrusion’s henchmen when he attempted Mihai’s murder, and she has supported our cause, at least in word. She is a healer and, as such, has placed herself at great risk many times in assisting the wounded. Still, she carries no weapon, refuses to, and she has never used the name ‘Asotos’ to the best of my knowledge.”

“My greatest concern has developed since the Prisoner Exchange. I can’t place a finger on it, but I feel something. I sought Anna’s company in a dream-share not long ago but she refused, citing some lame excuse. And I am not the only one she has declined…a surprise seeing there are so few men in comparison to women in the Empire. Indeed, as I think about it, Anna has been very selective regarding who she shares her secrets with. I have to wonder if Crilenian might not have hit on something tonight.”

PalaHar settled into deep thought. After some time lapsed, he urged Paul, “Make haste, my friend. Don’t leave Mihai alone for extended periods. If she suggests or requests your leave for any reason, find excuse. Learn to comfort her heart. Keep her satisfied so she finds no need to seek solace in Anna’s arms. I have some investigating to do. When I return from MueoPoros, we shall get together again. I should know more then. In the meantime, keep our girl safe.”

Paul protested. “How can I dictate to the king what is good and bad? And if I could, of what value is it in keeping her away from others?”

Surprised, PalaHar nearly fumed. “Use your senses, man! After seeing only a vision of Mihai’s true beauty, you chose not to take a wife but lived for the day when you would be with the woman you loved. Well, I tell you, Mihai did little different. She swooned over you for the longest time, having no desire for the comfort of anyone’s arms. Even now she misses you when you’re absent even for an hour. I see it in her eyes.”

He leaned toward Paul, grasping his arm. “Stick to that girl like glue and don’t let her out of your sight! You know what I mean. Don’t give Anna or others reason to share Mihai’s dreams. Especially, don’t give an Ancient that opportunity, unless it is one of the Eighty.”

Grinning, PalaHar added, “Use the ways of your kind, the way the males of your kind act with women, I mean. They’re possessive and jealous. You harbored those feelings, too. We both know it. Mihai is afraid of hurting you. She loves you so much, but is insecure about your love for her.” He again shook his head in mock bewilderment. “I can’t figure out why, but she is.”

“But what is to fear from a dream-share?” Paul asked innocently.

PalaHar shook Paul’s arm. “Everything, my friend, everything! You have heard it said that love’s real ecstasy is hidden in the dream-share. With the Ancients, the dream-share is much more like the blood-share.”

Paul’s eyes grew wide as PalaHar’s words sank in. He remembered Zadar’s explanation of the blood-share he and Darla had. The secrets it revealed were astounding.

PalaHar explained, “We – the Ancients – have developed our mind-sharing skills far beyond those of the other children. It is said among the Ancients, ‘The blood grape is for the child who has yet to learn the power of the mind’. From the child, Mihai, I have drawn memories that are secret even to her.”

Paul was incredulous. “There is no way a person can gain such control of another’s mind! I don’t believe it!”

“Not believing the day shall turn to night does not prevent it.” PalaHar countered. “Now listen, Paul, and listen well. To achieve the ecstasy of the mind, a person must release his or her willpower and surrender it to the other. The two minds can then mix in the dream-share, making it more real and sensual. It was a gift given us by Mother, allowing her mortal children to experience through the mind what no mortal could through the body.”

He sat back, releasing Paul’s arm. “This was a gift originally given to the men to share with their sisters. Although the women could impassion one another, their mind-share was less intense, similar to the way wives and concubines of your ancient kings comforted each other while waiting for the king’s attention. After the Rebellion, that all changed. Asotos gathered so many of the men to him that our sisters were left widowed, you might say. Out of compassion for her faithful daughters, Lowenah gave power of the dream-share to them so they could comfort each other with nearly the same passion of the mind as their brothers could give.”

“You see, my friend, Anna is an Ancient. She now has powers near equal to mine and other male Ancients, to give Mihai the ‘dream of dreams’ – supreme ecstasy. To attain that level of emotion, Mihai must surrender her heart and soul into Anna’s hands, relinquishing all caution and restraint to that woman. Anna, or anyone with those same abilities, is then free to search Mihai’s mind for whatever secrets are hidden there. The insidious thing is Mihai will never know it’s being done.”

Paul shuddered. “I have never given Mihai such an experience. She will tire of me in short order, and will seek love from others with those powers.”

PalaHar patted Paul’s arm, shaking his head. “Not necessarily. Remember, Mihai loves you beyond measure. Make her stay with you out of guilt if necessary. You also have those abilities within you the same as any Ancient. All children born from the Realms Beneath have that power gifted to them. Search your inner mind to find it…you will. Then practice it on Mihai. Soon, her craving will be for you and you, alone.”

PalaHar relaxed. “If all goes well, it will be many days before the passion of Mihai’s heart cools down. It may well be like a Coming of age celebration again for her. When a daughter of Lowenah celebrates coming of age, her craving for the man given her becomes overwhelming and her heart can see no other man. That craving can last several years if the man treats her right. ‘The honeymoon of the heart’, as some from your realm might call it, is often repeated when a woman falls in love with another man.”

The stratoliner began its final approach to the terminal. PalaHar concluded, “My friend, my world depends on your willingness to attempt my request. The children of your realm have been sent here to give us life. Some will battle with sword and spear. Others will fight the Dragon in different ways. Each is vital to our survival. The tools needed to accomplish your assignment were given you at your rebirth. Please don’t let us down. This war may well rest in your hands.”

 

The whine of reversing engines of the sky ferry brought Paul to his senses. He looked out the window upon the snow-covered terminal. For so long he had wondered what purpose he was to play in this world of such wise and innocent people. Now he was beginning to understand. His war was just as deadly in that the lives of people he loved and admired hung in the balance. What he was to do and how was still hazy in his mind, but he must do something.

He had been considered wise in his old world. Could that wisdom be sufficient for his success in this? Time would tell. Time!

Paul jumped from his seat, grabbing his coat, hurriedly putting it on as he raced for the exit. He smiled. After all, he did love Mihai beyond measure. Just how difficult could it be to express that love to her?

 

 

  • * *

 

 

SECTION 17

 

INTO THE FRYING PAN

 

A quaking jolt shook the command room. Lights flickered as dust drifted down from cracks in the wall. A two-inch square chunk of cement fell from the ceiling, landing with a ‘thump!’ on the terrain map Chasileah was perusing.

Jonathan jumped to his feet, exclaiming, “That one was close!”

Chasileah didn’t flinch. She continued studying the layout and position of the army.

Another concussive blast violently rocked the underground bomb-proof, nearly knocking people off their feet. Jonathan cried out, “Whoa, there! The next one’ll bring the roof down!”

Looking over her shoulder through the dust-choked air, Chasileah calmly reassured Jonathan, “That blast was over half a league away. The hard rock core of these hills makes the shock wave travel great distances. We could easily take a direct hit from a half-tonner.” She turned back to the map, mumbling, “Probably wouldn’t shake us as bad…”

Jonathan made his way over to Chasileah and tried to concentrate on the map, hoping it would help him ignore the continual rumble and shaking reverberating across the command room. For a quarter of an hour he watched as the major jotted notes on a scrap of paper, made calculations and, using some kind of protractor and scale, measured distances on the topographical battlefield. More than once she would casually brush away powdery chunks of concrete that fell from the ceiling.

“There!” Chasileah exclaimed standing up straight and stretching, smiling with satisfaction. “I think I’ve plotted a quick course to get us up to the front command post.”

“We’re going to the front command post?!” Jonathan asked nervously. “Isn’t this the front command post?”

The major stared at Jonathan in puzzlement. She finally grinned, questioning his bravery and gallantry with pretend surprise. Chasileah understood what her junior aide was going through. This was his first combat experience with modern warfare. To complicate matters more he, being a staff officer, hadn’t received as intensive a training as was afforded officers bound for combat duty. The boom of big guns and missiles could unnerve even hardened veterans. Jonathan was doing quite well, considering.

Chasileah patted Jonathan on the arm. “I have information that must be delivered to General Bortaiac. We dare not send any transmissions for fear the enemy will pick them up. Courier is the only way to deliver them. I personally know the general. He will accept these orders have come from the commander in charge.”

The woman drew Jonathan to the map. “Now take a look. The front command post is here, some two leagues west of our location. It’s on the south rim of the Spider’s Lair. We can take the tunnels most of the way, but reports indicate these areas must currently be traversed above ground and on foot – if we’re to make time, that is.”

Looking up at the wall clock, Chasileah explained, “It’s half past the morning watch hour. We must leave now in order to make the command post before sunrise.” She pointed to a small group of battle-ready soldiers. “The sergeant and her squad will accompany us.” Then, turning back to Jonathan, she commanded, “I still want you to be fully prepared. Suit up in battle gear and take one of those rapid-fire guns with you, too.”

Patting him on the arm, Chasileah added, “Not everyone out there are friendlies. If I say ‘shoot’, you shoot to kill! Got it?”

“Shoot to kill…” Jonathan nervously replied. “Shoot to kill…”

The two suited up, grabbed their weapons and prepared to leave. As they neared the door, a soldier in a grimy, disheveled uniform rushed in. “Major Chasileah? Is there a Major Chasileah here?”

Chasileah waved her down.

The out of breath courier handed her a crumpled envelope. “For you, Major… From headquarters…”

Chasileah tore open the envelope, removing a tattered paper on which someone had scrawled a message. As she read the contents, her face paled. For several seconds she stood there, numbly holding the scribbled note.

The soldier’s voice broke the silence. “Is there a reply, Major? Do you have a word of reply?”

As if shaken from some trance, Chasileah started, “No…no…oh, yes…thank Command for the courtesy of informing me.” She stuffed the note in her shirt.

The soldier saluted and left. Jonathan, seeing the distraught look on Chasileah’s face, asked if something was wrong.

Chasileah refitted her helmet, wiped a finger across an eye, and sternly replied, “I have other things more pressing to deal with. Time is no friend right now.” She motioned the others to follow. As she passed Jonathan, he heard her curse beneath her breath, “The Devil take us all sooner or later!”

 

*

 

Tunnels were not as friendly as the map made them appear. They were part of a labyrinth of stone and concrete arteries that connected underground depots, power stations, and staging areas. Built during the Great War while Mihai’s army held Memphis under siege, most of the complex had remained abandoned for over forty years. Legion’s military guard used some areas for storage and living quarters, but little else. After the Armistice, he had seen little strategic value to the area. Legion’s soldiers remained there only in case the Children’s Empire attempted a rescue of the remains of their fallen comrades.

Chasileah led her small contingent through dark, dank passageways, sometimes knee-deep in icy-cold, black liquid that stunk of mineral and organic waste. At other times they would find themselves stumbling over jagged, twisted debris where little of the original tunnel still existed. Occasionally the troop came to huge caverns, dimly lit and filled with the activities of war-weary fighters trying to escape the tumult of the battle above.

Then there was the smell…phew!…the smell! There were few working facilities for proper sanitation. What had not been looted years before was corroded and broken. All supplies needed were carried in. Hygiene was the responsibility of the individual soldier.

And there were thousands upon thousands of soldiers. Many sat in near total darkness, sleeping, eating, or just staring at nothing. As Chasileah’s group passed, the red glow of dim lights reflected off tired eyes watching them. In some places the people were packed in so close it reminded Jonathan of the rat-infested prison on Patmos that he had once called ‘home’ except, this time, the rats were really battle-weary soldiers hiding from the man-made storm outside.

On they trudged, skulking along one passageway after another. All the while, the shock of exploding missiles and bombs shook the reinforced walls of this claustrophobic prison. At times, the violent concussion of a near miss would knock members of the party to their knees or cause them to tumble over bodies of resting soldiers. The inevitable shower of dust and debris raining from above would quickly follow. Litter bearers hurried by with empty stretchers, returning laden with the injured.

Eventually they came to a large chamber filled with rusty machinery, the remains of huge power generating stations. The vaulted roof lay open to the night, giant holes no longer secreting this inner world from the star-filled sky. Chasileah stopped, staring up at the broken ceiling. Time passed without her moving.

Jonathan eventually tapped her on the arm. “Major, is something wrong?”

Chasileah turned, the dim light revealing a distressed face. She attempted a smile. “It’s all right. I’ll be fine. I knew we’d have to pass this way. I hoped time had dulled the memories.”

She called for her party to take a short break. Sitting down next to Jonathan, the major spoke of long-ago events. “Above us is a low mountain ridge with a rock-strewn valley below it. On a bitter-cold, early winter morning, I led my regiment down that ridge into what came to be called the ‘Battle of Bauglow’. It lasted the better part of a day and I lost eighty percent of those in my charge.”

Pointing up toward a fissure in a distant wall, Chasileah explained, “I managed to collect the remainder of my regiment in these ruins, dragging a badly wounded Zadar through there and to the floor below. For some reason, the enemy didn’t follow us. The next day reinforcements arrived. I was taken back to a hospital along with most of the survivors, and eventually to a rehabilitation center on EdenEsonbar.”

She sat silent for some time. “That was the end of the war for me. I was too broken up for combat duty. By the time I could get around, the Armistice was in place.”

Jonathan could see the pain in Chasileah’s eyes as she finished her account. “A military investigation concluded I was not at fault for the loss of my regiment.” She shook her head. “I think the wholesale slaughter at Memphis was so great, and so many officers were to blame for what happened, that we were all pardoned for our actions.” Her eyes met his. “I failed my regiment. I was not a good officer.” She hung her head. “And there is no absolution for that.”

A hand gently touched Chasileah’s arm. She looked up to see two empathetic eyes staring into hers. She interrupted Jonathan as he was beginning to offer consolation. “That way!” The major pointed. “Through that fissure…”

Chasileah stood, dusted herself off while ordering the others up. “We have to go topside for awhile. Keep your heads down and your weapons up. There may well be enemy snipers with night vision. We may even run into a hostile patrol.” She tugged on Jonathan’s sleeve. “Stay low and stay close. Got it?”

As Jonathan pushed his way through the broken crevasse into the cool, fresh night air, he wanted to sing out the joy of being free of the putrid world below. Remembering the major’s command, he quickly fought down an urge to do so as he hurried to catch up. Jonathan stumbled along the shadowy, rock-strewn parapet, ducking from side to side in an attempt to avoid the many soldiers stationed along the battlement.

Jonathan finally caught up with Chasileah near the Clamshell, a hollow depression about thirty rods across. Except for the occasional boulder or bomb crater, there was little shelter to be had from searching eyes.

The major motioned him forward. When he got near, she whispered, “The trail goes off to the left and around this stink hole, but we don’t have time for it. Watch me and do as I do. If you stop to enjoy the scenery, you may not be going home.” Without saying another word, she plunged into the darkness.

Jonathan watched Chasileah’s shadowy figure bound first to the right and then the left and, then while on a full run, fling herself forward, crash on her belly and disappear from sight. The next second, to his total surprise, blue and green tracers filled the sky from her machinegun. He was stunned into inaction.

A hand slapped him on the back, pushing him forward as the sergeant angrily snorted, “Get your ass going, or we’re all dead!”

Jonathan jumped into the open, running for his life. He tried to remember the way Chasileah dodged, but believed he managed to find every cesspool-like stink-hole and jagged rock in the shell. Now he understood the name ‘Clamshell’. True, it was a depression, but it smelled like rotten fish. He was afraid he’d be sick.

As Jonathan ran, he could see little puffs of dust dance around his feet. He couldn’t hear the bullets but knew full well that they were making the dust clouds. Then he saw the crater Chasileah was shooting from. In he dove beside her, bruising his shoulder and scraping his face.

The major gave him no time to consider his situation. “See that outcropping? Get your sights on it and let go!”

Jonathan squinted. All he could see was a black outline over a half mile away. “What? Where?”

“Over there!” Chasileah shouted. “Get your sights on those rocks and let go!”

How was it possible that they were being shot at from so far away? Jonathan didn’t dare argue. He pointed his rapid-fire rifle and started pulling on the trigger. In seconds, Chasileah was gone, running, dodging this way and that to avoid getting hit by enemy snipers.

As he shot away into the darkness, the sergeant slammed into his side while plunging into the crater. The woman, her face painted black, glared at him. She grabbed his rifle, pulling it toward her. “Get your damned gun on auto, fool!” She snapped back a lever on the rifle’s side and slapping the weapon into Jonathan’s hands, ordered, “Pull that trigger until the chamber’s empty. Then shove in another clip and do it all over again! Hear?!”

The sergeant took aim and opened up on the distant target, sending bright-colored tracers into the darkness. Over the next several minutes the remainder of the troop managed their way past the two, diving into the crater and then charging off into the night. All the while he and the sergeant kept firing.

After the last trooper passed them, the sergeant hit Jonathan on the back. “Get goin’ and don’t stop! We’re gonna roll up the fence!”

Jonathan ran with all his might, holding a very hot-barreled weapon. The sergeant had a hand on his back pushing him. “Faster, damn it! Faster! It’s not time to watch the scenery!”

So this was ‘watching the scenery’?! He tried to put on speed, but the sixty pounds of baggage he carried bogged him down. The sergeant sputtered, “Damned staff officers! Worse than the enemy! They’ll guarantee to get ya killed!”

After what felt an eternity, Jonathan saw a broken wall just beyond the Clamshell. He dove behind it, panting, thinking his heart was going to burst.

“Stop loafing and lend a hand!” The sergeant angrily chided. She drew a bead on the distant hill. “The others need our help!”

R-r-r-r-r-i-p!’ The sergeant emptied her clip. ‘Click-snap-click!’ Out popped the old clip and in went a new one. By this time, Jonathan was at the ready, lending his contribution to the melee. Gradually, starting with the soldier farthest away and ending with Chasileah, everyone made it to the safety of the wall.

Chasileah worked her way to the front of the waiting line and led them along another section of blistered and broken trench. The sergeant patted Jonathan on the arm, smiling, “Good job, Lieutenant. Sorry I was so rough on you, but I’ve found it’s the best way to get inexperienced personnel to do what’s necessary.” She coughed and winced, leaning toward her right, and then grinned.

Even in the dark, Jonathan could see the woman’s glistening-white teeth and sparkling eyes. He thanked her, asking, “Do you know me…who I am?”

“I know you’re an inexperienced soldier. That’s all I need to know.” The sergeant helped Jonathan up and directed him to go on. As they made their way along behind the others, she tried to answer some of his many questions.

One Jonathan asked was, “Why all those bright fires from our weapons? Didn’t that reveal where we were? It didn’t let us hide very well.”

As she squeezed her way past some ordnance boxes, the sergeant explained, “The enemy has night vision goggles or gun sights. They already knew where we were. By loading our guns with tracer bullets, it was hoped we might distract them and throw off their aim.” She coughed again. “I guess it worked well enough this time. Doesn’t always…”

A few minutes later, the little soldier band was shuffling along another dark, dank tunnel. The air was a little fresher, but just barely. Jonathan lost all track of time. Each turn in the tunnel looked like the last. Each shadowy figure resting on the floor looked like the last. After what felt like ages, the soldiers came to a ladder and climbed into the early morning darkness. Off they trudged along another confusing maze of trenches and bulwarks.

The sky was beginning its early glow in the east when Chasileah finally directed the party back down underground. It took another half hour to reach their destination. The sergeant offered to wait for her and Jonathan in a tiny recess not far from the command room. The major accepted the offer, thanking her and the others for their assistance. As Jonathan and Chasileah hurried forward, the squad sat down to wait their return. In only moments, most were fast asleep.

 

*

 

General Bortaiac listened intently while Chasileah relayed Tizrela’s battle plan. He studied the large table map as the major moved tiny figures and shapes around on it. The major would point to locations or move the figures across the map, all the while, informing the general of Command’s intent.

After pushing several pieces representing infantry and mobile armor, Chasileah stood back and examined the map. “If the army sweeps westward in this manner, we should be able to take the entire HerpetonMnema. If we fail to secure the north passage wall, and the army is forced to withdraw, it could suffer the same fate as before.”

General Bortaiac nodded, acknowledging the gravity of the matter. “Without those eastern positions in our hands, I don’t feel we can retain ours here. This continuous bombardment is taking a heavy toll. Some of my companies have suffered thirty percent casualties just staying the trenches. But what you’re asking of them will be far worse. If I move my people into the open across that plain…” He pointed to a spot on the map, “it will be a wholesale slaughter. We must silence the big guns pummeling us from those hills before we move out.”

Chasileah agreed. “The air wing is launching a massive blitz on those hills just prior to your advance. The Navy is pushing its 22nd Battle Group in for cover as soon as you move. They will provide continual ground support, and also attempt to keep the mosquitoes off your back.”

Sweeping her hand to the north along the map, the major continued, “To carry this second front, Army Command has been reorganized. As you know, most of the soldiers think Field Marshal Trisha is directing this mission. It helps keep the enemy blind to who really is. For that reason, General Tizrela will remain hidden in the background, but still giving the orders. General DinChizki is taking command on the ground and General Copeland has been given field command as his direct lieutenant.”

“Over the past three days, along here…” Chasileah pointed at a spot in the Northern sector, “a division has been moving forward to offer you support. It will advance along your northern flank. They’re mainly new, green recruits.” She shook her head. “It was the best we could do, what with most of our veterans tied down at PrasiaOdous.”

Then she offered some reassurance. “But I’ve been told its leadership is colorful and battle-ready. The division is new, a collection of random brigades and regiments recently gathered at MueoPoros. A fellow name of ‘Jackson’ leads it. Don’t know much about him, but I’ve been told he’s proved his battlefield leadership abilities while in the Second Realm. This Jackson has some other veteran soldiers with him from the Realms Below, plus there are several of our own qualified officers in the mix.”

She tapped a finger to the side of her face. “Oh, yes, I was to tell you that the corps name is no longer the ‘3^rd’^, but, thanks to General Copeland, is now Trafalgar Corps. …something about decisive victory and all that.”

The major leaned over the map, glancing this way and that. “Another division is working its way along the southern outer fortifications of Memphis. They’re taking a beating, but still advancing. As long as they hold their advance, Legion’s attention should remain off you for the moment.”

She stood back and looked the general in the eye. “You are the pivot on which this battle hinges. We have trusted the success of our mission to your abilities. If you fail, we fail. If we fail, we may lose the PrasiaOdous Mountain Range. Remember, please, we are all volunteers here. We have offered our lives to accomplish a task, and that is to win this war. Should it take the blood of all our souls to accomplish it, it is worth the price. Your duty is to, if possible, win the coming battle. If that’s not possible, then you must preserve as much of your war machine intact as you can, to prevent the loss of our current position.”

The general thanked Chasileah for the information she had delivered. He asked her some detailed questions, which she attempted to answer. When they were finished, the major bid her leave.

As she and Jonathan suited up, Chasileah made one more point with the general. “Sir, General Tizrela wishes to recommend that companies without adequate weapons be held in reserve.”

General Bortaiac didn’t understand. The major explained, “Some of your frontline regiments have veteran soldiers still equipped with crossbows – some even with lances. After the casualties we experienced at PurooGlossa, High Command has decided to refit and retrain these units as time affords. Meanwhile, we want to hold them out of harm’s way.”

The general shook his head in disapproval. “There are a lot of folks who are going to put up a big fuss, Major! I don’t know if I can make ‘em stand down in this coming storm!”

As Chasileah tied her vest off, she responded, and in not such a respectful way, “You’re a general! It’s your responsibility to maintain command. You have received your orders. Now make sure they’re carried out! If some resist, shoot them…in the leg of course! Still, it’s better to have an angry, wounded soldier putting up a fuss than to have a burning in the Silent Tombs.”

The shock on the general’s face quickly changed. A staff officer spoke with the same authority as his or her commander. Chasileah was only demonstrating the importance Tizrela placed on keeping the under-equipped soldiers out of harm’s way.

Bortaiac nodded his acceptance. “I’ll make sure the general’s orders are carried out, Major. Thank you for your willingness to risk the journey to personally deliver them.”

Jonathan followed Chasileah out of the command center and down the long corridor leading back to the tunnels. They had been there about two hours and the major wanted to return to headquarters before the advance began. When they neared the recess, Jonathan watched as the squad gathered to make the return trip.

“Where’s the sergeant?” Chasileah called out, as they approached. She stopped in front of a trooper at the edge of the group.

A grim-faced soldier, a little woman just over five feet tall and weighing a hundred pounds, looked down at the floor. “She’s…she’s not coming back with us, Major. I’m sorry.”

Chasileah looked into the woman’s face. She could tell something was greatly troubling her. “Tell me, please, what’s the problem?”

The woman continued to stare at the floor. “We were tired. I’m sorry, Major. We were so tired – hadn’t slept for two days. Didn’t know the sergeant was hit. Just thought she was resting.”

“What happened?” Chasileah’s voice carried her concern.

“Took a bullet under the armpit crossing the Clamshell, I think. Went through her lungs. I don’t think she even knew. She’s dead, Major.” The woman pointed off toward the dark recess. “Still where she went to sleep…” The woman looked Chasileah in the face, eyes pleading. “We didn’t know she was hurt.” She began to cry.

Chasileah surrendered to the moment. They could afford to be a little late. She wrapped her arms around the soldier and allowed her time to weep over the loss. After her tears slowed, the woman stepped back from the major and wiping her nose, thanked her for such kindness.

Chasileah asked. “Were you close?” The woman nodded as her tears began anew. “You stay here with the sergeant. Make sure she’s cared for.”

The woman squeezed the major’s hand, thanking her through teary eyes. She backed around and returned to the darkness, huddling next to the sergeant. As Chasileah’s party headed down the tunnel, they couldn’t help but hear soft sobs echoing in the distance.

 

  • * *

 

It was well past nightfall by the time Chasileah and Jonathan reached the rear command center. A wild battle was raging at the front by this time, with both sides suffering heavy losses. The major personally sought out the sergeant’s command officer to report the sad news. After wiring General Tizrela ‘mission accomplished’, there was little to do but wait for the shuttle that was to return them to the Starlight.

When the shuttle didn’t arrive at its scheduled time, Chasileah decided to leave the command center and seek out a space terminal. The two hopped an empty munitions truck headed for one some distance to the east behind a ridge of low hills. They watched the night sky as the lorry bounced and swayed, avoiding bomb craters and fallen trees. Jonathan was mesmerized by the constant fireworks off to the east. It was incomprehensible for him to accept there was a great battle going on. He shook his head in wonder.

A squadron of heavies from the air wing came roaring in overhead, just clearing the treetops. Their deafening noise hurt Jonathan’s ears, so he covered them until they passed. There were so many things about this war he didn’t understand. He turned to ask Chasileah a question and saw her staring into the night sky. He leaned back to do the same. It was cool and clear. Jonathan could see thousands of stars. And then he saw what looked like a falling star. Then he saw another. He sighed, “With such beauty above us, it’s hard to believe a battle is being fought so near.”

“Beauty?! What beauty?!” Chasileah angrily snapped.

Jonathan was shocked. “Why…why…all the stars. They’re so pretty. And the comets shooting this way and that. It’s so beautiful.”

Chasileah started with an acrid retort, but stopped up short. She thought about Jonathan’s lack of knowledge of modern warfare and apologized, then pointed toward the heavens and began to explain, “Those aren’t comets, my friend. Those are ships – burning ships falling through the atmosphere.”

“No!!” Jonathan was beside himself with confusion. “That’s not possible!”

Chasileah reassured him it certainly was. She attempted to explain commonly understood laws of physics for her people in a way Jonathan could grasp. The teachings of Aristotle were the foundation of science when he was being educated. Still, the major felt she helped him a little. At least he was willing to accept that those comets were really ships.

 

Jonathan woke to the lurching stop of the lorry. How long he had slept was unclear, but blackness still ruled the hour. Chasileah was up and over the side-rack before the machine’s engine died. Jonathan watched her talk with the driver then hurry off toward one of the terminal buildings dimly silhouetted against the night. He crawled out of the back, also thanked the driver and followed in her direction.

Two guards barred the door of the building. It took some convincing on Jonathan’s part before they allowed him in. Once inside, things were little better. It was a beehive of activity. To Jonathan’s untrained eye, everything appeared to be a mass of confusion. No one could provide him any information and, once again, armed guards were stationed at several of the entrances leading to other various rooms.

After jostling his way through the crowd, Jonathan finally found Chasileah. She was standing near a communications officer, in deep conversation. He wiggled up beside her just as the officer was explaining the current situation.

Still half listening in his headset, the man was telling Chasileah the latest news. “The first wave hit us about six hours ago. No one is sure where the enemy carriers are but, from the size of the first and second waves, we figure there’s at least three battle groups. Some broke off and went straight for the Starlight. Don’t know her state. She went off-line several hours ago and we haven’t heard from her since.”

Chasileah asked about the IronStone. The officer replied, “She’s heavily damaged, boilers are out, and there’s lots of casualties…may have to abandon ship. That’s all I know.”

Chasileah’s voice was growing frantic, but she managed to maintain control. “What of the general?”

The officer reassured her. “Oh, General DinChizki is fine, Major. He’s been here since this morning, preparing for our attack.”

“No! No! I mean General…” Chasileah caught her tongue. “The field marshal… What about the field marshal?”

The communications officer shook his head. “Don’t know, Major. If she was on the Starlight, it’s hard telling. We have taken heavy losses – two cruisers, three frigates, and over a dozen smaller fighting ships. We also lost some transports, I’m sad to say, but we kept ‘em away from our troop ships. None of ‘em were seriously damaged. But I have received no news of the fate of the Starlight.”

Fear, concern, and frustration filled Chasileah’s heart. She stood there, head down, opening and closing her fists. After a long pause, she asked the officer to notify her of more news. “Please send someone to me with information as soon as it arrives.” She motioned toward the exit. “I’ll be right outside waiting. It’s important.”

Chasileah lingered another moment, hoping beyond hope the communications officer would hear something more as she stood there. Eventually the major turned and walking as if in a dream world, made her way for the door.

Jonathan found her a distance away, standing near some parked gun trucks, arms wrapped around herself, staring into the sky. He approached, wanting to console her.

Chasileah spun on her heels, glaring at him through tear-filled eyes. “Why did you wish for this place?! The Field of the Minds is the shelter of solace and fortunate are the ones finding it!” She let go with a tirade of curses and oaths, damning her world, herself, and all living souls within it.

Jonathan tried to explain his concern for her welfare. He knew something had been troubling her all day, and now there was the uncertainty over Tizrela. He wanted to help.

Chasileah’s temper erupted. “Go away and leave me be, Lieutenant! There are times when your intrusions are not appropriate. I have need to be alone. Now go away!”

She stomped off some twenty paces into the darkness. Jonathan was stung by Chasileah’s rebuke, but understood. He stayed at a distance, keeping a constant watch.

In dismay, he watched as Chasileah reached for the sky and let out a wail. As her cries of grief increased, the woman fell to her knees, babbling incoherent words interrupted by uncontrolled weeping. Jonathan remained silent, his own tears flowing in remorse for his companion’s suffering.

Chasileah dropped forward, face to the ground as she began beating the gravel roadway with closed fists, pummeling her hands until blood flowed. She finally sat back, writhing in agony, pulling at her hair and clawing her face. In a sudden, choking gasp, the major lurched forward, convulsing in uncontrolled vomiting. After the sickness had passed, she collapsed, falling on her side. There were some whimpers as tremors racked her body, and then silence. Exhaustion had finally forced sleep upon the woman.

Gentle arms cradled the major as she was carried away and placed in the back seat of an open quarter-deuce. Jonathan stood vigil over his companion well into the next day. When the sun arrived in the morning, he read the tattered note that had fallen from her hand when she collapsed. It read[_:_]

 

I regret to inform you that General Drorli has been killed in action. He was directing construction at PrasiaOdous when the enemy overran his position. His loss is deeply felt by all

Tizrela.’

 

  • * *

 

‘Squadron Commander’- how bittersweet the title. Sirion had dreamed of leading a squadron of fighters against the enemy, dispensing revenge for her torture at Legion’s hands, but not this way.

First there was Captain Tzuf. His ship took a direct hit from a Depoues 49’s missile, dissolving in a white-heat explosion that scattered the TKR-17 across twenty square miles of MueoPoros’ high jungle. And now Major Terey, the squadron leader – she had been missing nearly forty-eight hours and was presumed lost.

Sirion mumbled, “I guess all it takes to be a squadron leader is to live long enough.” She turned to make her approach for the carrier deck.

‘Squadron! What squadron?’ she thought, and for good reason. In less than two weeks they had lost half their ships. Even with the four new TKF-14 replacements, the Moon Chasers’ active duty numbers were only at ten.

Sirion’s 14 limped onto the carrier’s flight deck, nearly missing the locking pads. “Gotcha, Major!” The voice over the intercom paused as a space-suited deck officer made a visual of Sirion’s ship.

A moment later the voice returned with disquieting news. “Hafta put you in isolation and check out those leaks. Sorry.”

Sirion would have stewed over the delay, but she was too tired. “Read you, tower…isolation.” She closed her eyes and drifted into a fitful sleep.

A voice blaring from the ship’s speakers woke Sirion with a start. “All set, Major. Nothing too serious. The mechanics’ crew will have you back up in ten hours. Enjoy the rest.”

Sirion complained, “I can’t wait ten hours! My squadron needs me. Do you have another ship I can use?”

“Negative, Major.” The voice calmly replied. “Group Commander Saleuo has called the Moon Chasers to stand down. Won’t need you or your scrap pile there for at least sixteen hours.”

The major unleashed a series of good-natured, not-so-veiled threats and curses. She knew the service crew chief was only funning with her, something often done to calm tense situations. A little humor was good therapy in these evil times. Still, Sirion was attached to her fighter. It was becoming a companion to her. She made one final threat. “If your hack n’ slash crew should scratch this fine new paint job, I’ll lock you in the target tug next time we have practice!”

A voice filled with mock despair begging for mercy filled the cabin. Everyone laughed.

Sirion popped the seals on the 14’s canopy. It lifted back on a hinged lever until resting upside down on the hull behind the pilot’s cabin. As she unbuckled her harness and disconnected her life support system, the voice again blared from the speaker. “Got a visitor, Patch. You’re to go to Medic Bay 4. Your party is waiting for you there.”

By this time, Sirion’s fighter had been removed from the isolation holding station and was moving into Refit Bay 6, four levels below the flight deck. As soon as the ship stopped moving, the major was out and running to catch an elevator for the medic bay, three decks below and amidships.

Sirion’s nose almost touched the elevator door as she anxiously waited its opening. With a click and hum of servos, its two leaves separated, sliding in opposite directions. The woman looked up and gasped, stumbling back, blinking in surprise. A wall of living flesh blocked the door.

“Hello!” An equally surprised Eutychus reached out to catch Sirion. “Didn’t expect to see you so soon!”

The two made quite a sight – Sirion, a demure little thing, tipping the scales at less than eight stones, while the man smiling down at her weighed over twice that plus two stone more. Broad shoulders and a height of over six and a half feet gave Eutychus an impressive appearance. He pulled Sirion from the elevator, swooping her up in his arms, crushing the girl in a loving bear hug, planting a big kiss on the woman’s lips.

Eutychus grinned from ear to ear. “I’ve missed you.”

Sirion, eyes wide with surprise, was speechless. She dangled six inches from the floor, her face an inch from her captor’s. Eventually regaining her senses, she replied, “I…I missed you, too.”

Two officers who had watched the show from a distance approached, asking if they could use the elevator or was it still occupied. Eutychus sheepishly set Sirion down, nodding the elevator was empty. Smiling, the officers passed them by and entered the machine. The doors closed, leaving the two momentarily alone.

Sirion stared up at Eutychus. “I haven’t seen you since my hospital stay in Palace City. You’ve changed. You’re different.” She looked him over. “Maybe the uniform, huh?” Then reaching up and touching the braid on his left shoulder, “Captain! Well, congratulations, Captain.”

Eutychus blushed, shaking his head. “Oh, it weren’t nothin’ important. They gave me that for saving some child from the bad guys out in the desert. Weren’t nothin’. Anybody could’ve done it. I just happened to be there.”

Sirion took his hand. “No. It was something. I remember it well. The songs you sang to me returned life to me. I nearly died, lying in the sand, hurting so.” She looked into his eyes. “I hope you will sing those songs to me again sometime, but under more pleasant circumstances.”

Blushing anew, Eutychus beamed a reply. “I’d love that. I’d love that.” Then he apologized, “I wanted to come see you, but my duties took me away but I did write. Every chance I got, I wrote you. You did get my letters, didn’t you?”

Sirion nodded, smiling, “Yes I did, and I read every one.” Then gently poking him in the belly, replied, “I’ve kept ‘em all, too. Even keep one with your picture in my fighter.”

They chatted a moment or two about little things. Then Sirion asked, “Why did you hide down here in the medic bay and not visit me while I waited for my ship to get out of isolation?”

“I wasn’t waiting for you in any medic bay!” he answered. “The field marshal has made the Sophia her current residence. We just finished setting up the army’s war room. I was told you were aboard, so I came searching to find you. That’s why I was here.”

Anxious curiosity filled Sirion’s face. She looked down the hall. “C’mon!” She yanked Eutychus’ arm, pulling him along the companionway. “Somebody’s waiting for me!”

Anticipation was running high when Sirion poked her head through the medic bay door. She scanned the room, looking for a familiar face. Over in the shadows she spied a woman sitting at a small table, her leg with a cast below the knee and wearing assorted bandages elsewhere on her body.

Sirion let out a cry. “Terey!” and hurried over to her.

Terey looked up in time to prepare for Sirion’s impassioned embrace.

Sirion held Terey, tears running down her face. “Oh my! Oh my! I thought you were gone. I had nearly given up. Oh my! Oh my!”

Eutychus remained by the passageway door, giving the two women time to renew the ritual of hope reborn, through an emotional interchange only understood and appreciated by that gender. His heart was warmed to see the joy on Sirion’s face as she cried over finding her sister still alive. Such reunions were good things and all too rare during these turbulent days. When the time was right, he intruded, only long enough to say his salutations and bid his leave, making arrangements to see Sirion later that day.

Eventually Sirion sat down across from Terey. Without waiting for the question, Terey explained what happened. “After we went in to drive the heavies from attacking the Memphis invasion fleet, my wing ship and I were put upon by fighters. We went low to escape, diving into the atmosphere. They got my wing ship and, before I could escape, put some solid rounds into mine. My cooling coils, communications, and life support systems failed. I had no choice but to drop to the surface of the planet and look for help.”

“Then my navigation system died, leaving me alone over unfamiliar terrain. The enemy hadn’t bothered to pursue me, probably thinking my ship was lost, considering the smoky tumble I was in. I finally settled down in a forest – where, I still don’t know.”

She rubbed her cast. “Fell out of the ship trying to escape, thinking it was on fire. The next day a small sculler carrying an engineering crew spotted me. Why they were so far afield, I don’t know. Anyway, they patched my leg up, offering to take me back to base. I refused, telling them I wanted to return my ship to base if possible. They examined it, had some tools to fix it up enough to fly, and the rest is history.”

Complaining, Terey went on. “Commander Saleuo ordered me to this medic bay to be checked out. Got a real good sprain and some scratches is all, but I’ve been put under house arrest for twenty-four hours. Haven’t even found out about my fighter yet.”

Sirion patted her on the arm. “Commander Saleuo did the right thing. You’re in no shape to fly.” She squeezed her hand, almost squealing with pleasure, “It’s so good to see you again!” Then she frowned, her voice filled with dismay. “We lost six more fighters from the Moon Chasers that day. I’ve heard that over thirty percent of all our ships engaged in the battle were lost.”

She then hung her head and spoke in a hush. “Reports are circulating that the Starlight was shot up and crashed, killing most on board. Heard that the field marshal’s chief of staff, General Tizrela, was killed.” She looked up, tears in her eyes. “It was like they knew where in the fleet to hit. They say several enemy squadrons headed right for the Starlight and the IronStone, like they knew where they were.”

Terey closed her eyes and slowly shook her head. She and Tizrela were never really close and, since the Rebellion, had often been at odds with each other. More than once, tempers had flared. Still, it was heartbreaking for Terey to think of such a wise and able leader being lost, and at such a critical time. All she could say was, “I’m sorry to hear the news.” Her eyes popped open and she asked, “What of Field Marshal Trisha? What’s been her fate?”

Sirion was quick to answer. “She wasn’t aboard. Or at least I don’t think she was.”

“How can you be so sure?” Terey squinted while asking the question. “We were told she was leading the main invasion.”

Sirion was taken aback. “Why… why… I didn’t know where she was supposed to be. All I know is that just before getting here, I met Eutychus. He’s one of Trisha’s staff officers. He said that the field marshal was using the Sophia as a base…just got done setting up a war room for her.”

The conversation was becoming rather loud, attracting the attention of others in the room. An attendant approached, inquiring if things were all right. After assuring her they were, she excused herself after asking they be more quiet. Others, though, had heard enough to draw their own conclusions. They slipped away, heading back to the communications bridge.

The two women changed the subject, bantering on about things more mundane and pleasant. After some time, Sirion said her goodbyes, kissed Terey on the lips, and headed for the officers’ lounge on deck four. Terey watched until Sirion passed through the medic bay doorway before hiding her face in folded arms and crying.

 

  • * *

 

Ishtar’s trepidation about command had rapidly worn off. She was enjoying her newfound authority, and the privileges that go with it. Like so many other people born in the Second Realm, her perceived power went to her head. It’s not that earthly men and women are inherently evil, though history tends to support that theory. Given opportunity, people will often act like their mentors. If the overlords act with rueful impunity, when put in the same position, their subjects will do the same.

The age of Ishtar’s being was one filled with violence and injustice. The arenas meted out cruel and inhuman punishments for the smallest of infractions, yet they were only a reflection of the common way of life faced by most non-citizens of the day. Forced rape, torture and slavery were accepted destinies of those accused of breaking the tiniest of laws – laws, may I add, that were often made up at the whim of the magistrate or officer in charge. Ishtar, herself, had been a victim of such wanton cruelty. In fact, the man who had watched her beaten into unconsciousness the day of her arrest so long ago was now her very companion and teacher.

Treston sadly shook his head. “I know, General PalaHar, I know. But I don’t have the heart for it. She’s been through so much.”

“Bah!” PalaHar frowned. He leaned forward in his chair. “You’re a colonel, and a darn good one. You were hand-picked for this job long ago. I recommended you myself.” He leaned back and kicked his swivel chair around to the side, put his hands on his head and closed his eyes. “I heard you pushed the child to her limits in officer training school – half killed her. What’s so hard about straightening Captain Ishtar out now?”

“Sir,” Treston stood, “I respectfully disagree with your assessment of my actions.”

PalaHar slowly spun around in his chair, opening his eyes. “Go on.”

“Sir,” Treston was obviously nervous. As an officer in the legions or for his governor when he lived in the Second Realm, his little contention with the general could get him whipped, imprisoned, or even fed to the lions. “I train all my students to prepare for battle. Lieutenant Alynnou still carries the scars from her training exercises, and well may for some time to come. I’m sure there’re others who would confess my brutalities to you if given the opportunity. With Ishtar, it was no different. I treated her as I did all my other students. Better to die among friends than in front of the enemy.”

PalaHar motioned for Treston to sit. “Calm down, Colonel Treston, calm down.” He rested his hands flat on the table. “This in not your old world, nor are you in Asotos’ camp. I am a general when needs be and a friend the rest of the time. You can speak freely and be at ease while we are squirreled away in this cabin. True, things become a little more formal when I’m in public. Then there’s a need to maintain such decorum. You never know when you may have to send them to their deaths.”

The general smiled. “I have no complaint with how you educate your students in the art of war. I also don’t think you’ve been too hard on Ishtar. Why, she never visited the camp hospital once the entire time I was on base.” He shook his head in question. “Did you really intend to give Lieutenant Alynnou a new face job, or were you trying to break her neck? I hear she needed over thirty stitches to be reassembled.”

Treston saw the twinkle in PalaHar’s eyes, but he didn’t smile. “I was heartsick when I saw the damage I’d done to the lieutenant. It was only worsened by the fact that I couldn’t let on about it. My only solace is that the lesson may one day save her life.”

PalaHar slapped the table. “And your getting our little girl straightened out may well save hers! And others…”

Treston sat silent for some time, pondering a solution. Finally PalaHar intruded. “Colonel, a queen bee is only queen as long as the workers permit it.” He let that sink in for a moment, then added, “You have a free hand to do as you see fit. Just remember, we rendezvous with the fleet in five days. You have until then to accomplish Operation Humility with that girl.”

He cleared his throat. “Ahem. Speaking to you as a general, I expect to see duty done. Do you understand me, Colonel?”

Treston swallowed hard. “Yes…yes, sir. I will make it my priority.”

PalaHar leaned forward, his hands supporting him, curling his lips into a Cheshire cat grin. “I have studied your military prowess, Colonel. How hard can it be for a man with your experience at handling soldiers to take on a little child like Ishtar?”

Treston did not find PalaHar’s comment at all humorous, but he did promise to do his best. He left the general’s cabin disheartened. It seemed like only yesterday he and Ishtar had been digging in the mud of that ancient cemetery, drawing ever closer. The demands of officer training school had pushed them apart. And now? He feared the child’s reaction to whatever discipline she might receive to correct this current situation could drive her away for good. Treston slowly labored his way back to his cabin, pondering his dilemma.

 

A soft rap on the door alerted the colonel to company. Without asking who it was, Treston told the person to enter. Lieutenant Alynnou slid the compartment door aside and stepped in with a small tray of food. “We missed you at dinner, Colonel… figured you being so busy. Thought you might enjoy a bite to eat.”

The colonel was surprised at Alynnou’s attentiveness, much the more so because of the way he had been treating her since their meeting at training camp some time ago. First, there was the terrible beating she took with the cudgel and then the rigors of basic training, itself. She had received no mercy from him during that time. Then after her appointment as his staff officer, he had been only business, never even making comment about her well-being. There was something about her he couldn’t understand.

The colonel sat there another moment before replying, studying her features. Her beauty was flawless, just like all the other women of this new and strange land – that is to say except for the jagged scar running down the side of her face. Yes, it would eventually heal, as did all injuries among this people, but it might still be many months before it would be gone completely. Even if such a thing were only temporary, there should still be the showing of resentment…or something.

Finally he motioned for the lieutenant to come in and sit, thanking her for such thoughtfulness. As Treston consumed the meal, Alynnou quietly sat watching him. Treston puzzled over the woman’s actions. She was the last person he expected to treat him this kindly, yet there she sat, appearing as though she was enjoying this private time with the colonel.

Curiosity finally got the better of him. He put down his knife and asked, “Lieutenant, please tell me, after all I have forced upon you, why do your treat me kindly?”

Alynnou’s face reddened and her ears burned hot from blushing. She stuttered through one flustering attempt after another to explain before blurting out, “I care about you in a way I don’t understand!”

Treston was beside himself with bewilderment. He puzzled the longest time before responding, all the while trying to maintain his military composure. Thoroughly confused, he asked, “Lieutenant, how old are you?”

Her reply was only the more confusing. She cocked her head in thought. “Let’s see… The sun rose over Dentianna’s Peak on the morning of my Coming of age. The Sea of MarNamma now covers the hills where I became a woman. That would be during the last age of Lagandow, before it died in fire and smoke.” She rolled her eyes back as though counting. “Oh, let’s see…that would have been five million millennia ago…give or take.”

Treston’s mouth fell open. To measure one’s life in ages of mountains and seas, or even star systems was beyond his comprehension. Finally, after collecting his thoughts, he replied, “Lieutenant, my days are the life of man plus six years, eighty six to be exact. A little over three have been spent in your world. My time is but the mist on the scales compared to yours. How can you possibly have anything but pity or contempt for the likes of me?”

“Sir? Contempt?” It was now Alynnou’s turn to become bewildered. “Why, I have nothing but the greatest respect for you and your kind.” She shook her head. “To have lived a life of sickness, misery and hardship, and carrying the burden of living it in a body flawed by the ravages of rebellion…and to know that all your hard work and diligent efforts still would not save you from death? Sir, I am the one who wonders why you have nothing but pity or contempt for me!”

She looked at her lap, shaking her head. “You have lived more in your lifetime than I have lived in all of mine. Every day for me was as the one before. I gave no thought to the future…little to the past.” Her head snapped up and she looked him in the eye. “Please don’t misunderstand. I have loved my life. I have never been bored with it, but…”

“But what, Lieutenant?” Treston was almost incredulous. “What about my life do you find so great?”

“Why, sir…” Alynnou lifted her arm in gesture, “you have lived your life to the top, experiencing emotions to the limit of your human abilities. You were tested as to fitness in ways that my people can only imagine. Sir, you have proved who you are.” She again shook her head. “I have yet to find out who I am…”

Treston’s mind turned to other concerns. He mumbled, “A person must find out who they are…”

Alynnou asked, “Sir?”

Treston looked up at the lieutenant and smiled. “Oh, sorry. What you just said made me think of an assignment I have. You gave me an idea on how to deal with it.” He thought a moment. “I have a small matter that needs addressing tonight, after which I may desire some assistance. Would you be willing to join me here in the morning, say at breakfast? I’ll try to find an orderly to deliver us some food at that time.”

Alynnou grinned. “It will be my pleasure, Colonel, and I will see to the meal, myself.”

Treston hurried the rest of dinner. When finished, Alynnou gathered up the utensils and said her goodnights. Treston stood and walked to the door. For but a moment, the two faced each other, standing only inches apart. The lieutenant was the colonel’s height, he not being an overly tall man. Time passed to the point of awkwardness.

Finally, Alynnou asked, “Sir, will you grant me one request?”

Treston smiled. “Whatever you wish…”

Alynnou leaned forward and kissed the colonel on the lips. It was now Treston’s turn to blush. “Goodnight, sir.” Alynnou turned and exited the door.

 

It was a most frustrating evening for Treston. His conversation with Ishtar lasted well past the midnight hour. The more he attempted to explain the conduct of an officer in the Children’s Empire, the more the girl dug in her heels to prove it otherwise. Many a time the girl would quote verbatim from the Officer’s Handbook, pointing out how she was clearly within her rights if not obligated in the way she handled matters.

Over and over, Treston called the girl’s attention to the fact the book was written long ago and for people of this realm, not her old one. He pointed out that she was in a full volunteer military. He also tried to help her understand that many of these enlisted soldiers had engaged in warfare long before their old nation was in existence. None of it did any good.

Ishtar was determined to push her authority as she saw fit. She argued, “Now look, Colonel Treston, I was appointed a captain by the high authorities…higher even than General PalaHar! I have been told I have all the qualities of leadership, and that title of ‘captain’ is just the beginning. Commanding general over a vast army is what I have been shown, with the angels themselves bowing down and submitting themselves to me. So now I’m trying to put into practice what is expected of me.”

Treston was becoming exasperated. He countered, “Great leaders stand upon the shoulders of those they lead. Without their full support, those leaders will fall. Study the history of our race and see the disasters repeated because leaders refused to show proper respect for the common man. These are an uncommon people, some having lived countless millions of years. We need to show them the respect they des…”

Ishtar cut him off. “It is not always the swift who finish the race nor the wise who attain the prize. Why were we gathered here other than to bring these people up to speed? Obviously, they have not accomplished what was expected of them. Now we must take the lead to set them straight. I believe that is my destiny, set out for me long ago.”

Treston’s temper flared. “Captain, your destiny is to disgrace Legion, an egomaniac, and bring down his house! By using one who is the least, unknowing, incompetent, brash, and foolish, his humiliation will be made complete.”

Ishtar began to fume, forgetting she was speaking to a superior officer. “I am to bring him to nothing! My abilities have been given me to do so, and I will! You speak senselessness!”

Treston was a colonel, having the authority to place Ishtar under arrest for insubordination, or he could discipline her in other ways. At first, he said nothing. He put his hands to his face, holding his chin in thought. Finally, he issued a carefully worded warning. “Learn well the lesson from your forbears’ cousin, Jehoiachin. It was prophesied of him that he would have a lasting household, but he refused to humble himself and lost everything, even seeing his sons slaughtered in front of his face. Do not think yourself so indispensable that the same could not happen to you. Why, at one time long ago, our king, Michael, said that if your people did not humble themselves, the very stones would be raised up as seed to complete prophecy.”

Ishtar glared at Treston, her icy stare cutting into his heart. She so much wanted to rebuke him for his past atrocities, real and imagined, that he had once committed against her and other innocents. She was about to unleash a barrage of insults when Lowenah’s words to her suddenly came to mind. ‘If you fail to fully mature, I will have wasted my efforts on a fool’s dream. I have assigned a harsh taskmaster to teach you. Will you grow above your reckless rebelliousness and learn to obey his voice?’

The girl fought down a desire to shout her insults. She sat silently, clutching the chair arms and glowering at Treston. Treston said nothing, waiting to see what direction Ishtar would take.

Finally the girl broke the silence. In an acid-filled voice, she asked, “Is there anything else you wish to discuss with me, Colonel?”

Treston slowly shook his head. “No, Captain Ishtar, I’m finished.”

Ishtar pushed herself forward in her chair, prepared to stand, and sourly requested, “Permission to leave, Colonel?”

Treston nodded. “Have a good night, Captain.”

Ishtar said nothing, but her body language more than told Treston just how disgusted she was with him. After she left, the colonel sat back in his chair, tired and disappointed. The child had five days to learn a very important lesson. Once with the fleet, there would be little time for more training. His heart ached because of her anger and scorn, but it mattered little at the moment. There was a job to dutifully carry out, and he would accomplish it. He had no choice.

 

*

 

Alynnou was away and busy with her assigned tasks as soon as she and Treston finished breakfast. By midmorning, everything was in place. Now to wait and see if Ishtar would be able to gain wisdom and understanding from the lesson the colonel was about to teach her.

Treston and Alynnou remained squirreled away most of the day with PalaHar, going over reports from MueoPoros. It was well into the dinner hour before the three concluded business and proceeded to the officers’ mess. They were just finishing their meal when Ishtar quietly made her way in, sitting alone at a table in a distant corner.

Alynnou noticed it first. She poked Treston’s arm and motioned. Ishtar’s normally natty uniform fit the girl awkwardly. A closer look revealed a crudely sewn tear alongside the right breast catching the sleeve up, making it about an inch shorter than the left sleeve. There was also a dark, greasy stain running from the armpit down to the bottom of the jacket. Alynnou commented that it must have caught in a machine while being cleaned.

A waiter ambled over to the captain and in short order a quiet but animated discussion ensued. Others in the mess hall could see Ishtar was not at all happy. Finally she motioned the man away, appearing very dissatisfied about something. After a rather lengthy delay, the waiter returned with a steaming bowl of soup or chowder, some bread and a chilled drink. Ishtar grumbled something and the waiter strolled away.

A sudden shriek, followed by coughing and spitting, shattered the relative quiet of the mess hall. The waiter hurried over to assist the girl, grim concern growing on his face. Ishtar let out with a tirade of complaints and insults, pointing and gesturing at the bowl. The waiter, attempting to apologize for whatever the problem was while gathering up the dish slipped, tipping its hot contents into the captain’s lap.

Ishtar screeched in pain and anger, “You oaf! What kind of a fool are you?!” looking around while pulling at her pants, demanding, “Don’t just stand there! Get something quick! I’m burning!”

Shocked and caught by surprise at the emergency, the waiter did the first thing that came to mind. Grabbing the glass of cold beverage, he threw its contents on Ishtar, splashing her from head to toe. A volley of vile threats and curses spewed from the girl’s mouth that do not bear repeating. She stood, threatening the waiter again, and stormed from the mess. He silently watched the captain depart. After she was far down the hall, the waiter turned toward the three observers and smiled.

The next morning, a very tired and distraught Captain Ishtar found herself on the duty roster to take charge of a cleaning detail. The third and fourth level storage and bilge rooms along with stock pens were included in her area.

Needless to say, the day was spent in frustration and futility. Tools and needed equipment mysteriously disappeared, slop buckets accidentally spilled, and animals got loose and rampaged through the hold. Just before lunch, an entire hopper filled with animal waste tipped over, dumping its smelly, gooey contents at Ishtar’s feet. The force knocked the girl down, and even with the diligent assistance of the work crew, the captain was covered in the slop.

 

“Captain Ishtar, I can find no excuse for your total ineptitude this day. I have no choice other than to put you on report. I will take this matter up with the general when time permits.” Treston sat at his desk examining the series of written complaints from the captain of the Brosh. “This is a ship of war, Captain, and as such must be prepared for action at all times.” He looked up at Ishtar. “Remember, Captain, we are at war.”

Ishtar began to whine about all the problems she suffered through that day, complaining about the duty and crew.

Treston curtly stopped her. “You are a captain in the Children’s Army! I do not want to hear about your difficulties with the enlisted personnel under your authority.” He stood and walked around the desk, stopping in front of Ishtar. Still looking at the paper, he sternly added, “I assigned you yeomanly duty today, a task usually given to an officer of much lesser rank. It was not my concern how you might accomplish your assignment. But it is my concern as to why you failed.”

He looked the girl in the eye. “As you well know, the officer in charge takes full responsibility for the success or failure of the mission. Every mission during wartime is essential to our overall success. You put us at risk today… albeit a very small one. Still, there is no excuse other than, say, incompetence or lack of leadership abilities.”

“I am an able officer!” Ishtar smartly replied. She wasn’t acting defiantly anymore, seeing the true metal of Treston’s leadership. There was no doubt in her mind now as to why he was a colonel. He was every bit an officer of rank, a man to be obeyed, respected and feared. She was beginning to regret the previous night’s confrontation.

Treston peered into her face and scornfully replied, “We shall see. We shall see.” He turned to walk back to his chair, continuing to speak as he did. “Take a night-duty crew back down to those stables and clean up the mess there.” He sat, tossing the paper to the table. “I expect you to be finished to take up your roster duties in the morning. Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir.” was Ishtar’s uncertain response.

Treston picked up another paper, studying it. “Good! Dismissed.”

Ishtar acknowledged the order and silently left the colonel’s office. She trudged down the hall, a growing feeling of hopelessness enveloping her. The night would be long and difficult, and the morning would not be easy without sleep this night. What she didn’t know was tomorrow would be a repeat of this day’s frustrations, concluded by another scorching lecture from the colonel. And there was yet to be another such day… and another…

 

  • * *

 

Legion angrily paced the private lounge deck on the AugustOne, Asotos’ battle carrier. It was by far the most powerful and well-armed ship in the First Realm. Besides mounting solid projectile, laser, and rail gun systems, there were over one hundred of the latest Endikos (‘Righteous Justice’) 23’s, the newest and most deadly fighters in Asotos’ naval arsenal. For added protection, over sixty warships and their tenders supported the AugustOne.

Asotos also took no chances with his personal security. In time of war, an additional one thousand soldiers were stationed aboard the ship. This was above his handpicked, five-hundred strong security force that was always with him. Armed guards were everywhere, including the galley. War was no time to take chances. One could never tell when a spy might sneak in.

The outer door leading to Asotos’ private cabins quietly opened. Legion spun around to see who was there. Captain Ilaniya slowly stepped through the doorway and approached Legion. “My Lord, Lord Baron Alithea is busy, but sends me to inform you that he will see you momentarily. In the meantime, may I provide you with some food or drink, or would you prefer some music? I can play for you the hart or the lute.”

Legion snarled, “I have not risked life and limb to travel the hazards of these skies, leaving my home defenseless against the demon hordes making an infestation of it, to be put off by the likes of a tramp like you! Play your music for the fool! I must see Alithea now!!”

Ilaniya apologized. “My Lord Legion, our Lord has given me this command as I have spoken to you. I cannot disobey it.” She clasped her hands and made a slight bow. “Allow me to provide you some entertainment while you wait upon our Lord.”

Legion began to fume. He was about to strike Ilaniya when he heard Asotos call out to him from deep within his hidden chambers. Taking a strand of Ilaniya’s hair and wrapping it under her chin, then lifting until the captain stood on her toes, he gave her a sinister growl. “You will entertain me, tonight! I will play the hart and you will sing my music. You know how I like my music played, so clean yourself for me.” He released his grip. Ilaniya settled back onto her feet. Grinning in her face, he hooted, “I have several men accompanying me who are also in great need of entertainment. They will expect a good show tonight.” He walked toward the opened door, whistling a little tune.

Legion strutted past the two guards standing besides the opening to Asotos’ inner office and stateroom. With a smile and a warm salutation, Asotos rose then hurried around his enormous, crescent-shaped desk. With outstretched arms, he cried, “My brother! My dear brother! How much I have wanted to see your face!”

Legion stopped some paces away, glowering, expressing his displeasure at Asotos’ slow advance upon the enemy. “Do not think me dimwitted like your monkeys who cannot think or speak intelligent matters. My face is insulted by such lack of respect shown to me since my stepping aboard this…this ship! Even your special toy, that woman you sent me for entertainment, had the audacity to heap further indignities upon me while I patiently waited your audience.”

He wagged his finger accusatively at Asotos. “I know your ways, Alithea, and have seen how your unfortunate lieutenants are treated. I believed you and I were above such things as that. Tell me if it’s not so…that you wait for my people to blunt the edge of our enemy’s sword and then you will come in for the kill at little loss to yourself. Don’t play games with me! Remember, ‘as goes Memphis, so goes the kingdom’.”

At first, Asotos appeared shocked. Gradually, a pretend look of hurt innocence filled his face. His shoulders slumped as he drew his hands together. Then his head bowed as he released a mournful sigh. “Oh, my dear brother, how much you do not understand. I have been advancing like a leopard upon its prey, but…” He paused. One of Legion’s earlier statements caught his attention. Addressing it might calm matters a little. Raising his eyes just enough to see Legion’s, he asked with curiosity, “In what way have you received insults?”

This was the opening Legion had been waiting for. Asotos would have to honor any request of his to mollify possible disgrace he may have suffered. Legion almost gasped, “The rudeness! Oh, for your merciful kindness, I do not see how you can tolerate that captain of yours! The simplest of requests she snidely dismisses, her tone so belittling, as if she were some queen on a throne. Has your loving kindness made her feel above you? Is she not playing with you as queen Vashti did with her king?”

Asotos attempted to pacify his brother’s hurt. “I have not seen this thing of which you speak. With me, the creature has been mild and subservient.” He quickly motioned Legion silent. “But, I do not question what you tell me. After all, we are both trustworthy men, are we not? Our word is our bond. Correct?”

Legion nodded. “Men of truth we are, my brother, and always shall be.” He quoted from an old proverb. “‘Though every man be found a liar, the words of the wise and just shall forever hold true’.”

Asotos smiled and then addressing the current issue, proposed, “I would not be a good judge to decide what discipline should be given a person who acts so disrespectfully toward such a distinguished and honorable man as you.” He began to amble back to his chair. “You know, my brother, it would be unthinkable on my part to pass sentence upon someone under such circumstances.” He stood by his chair and turned. “Remember our rules of ethical conduct. ‘Only at the mouth of two or more witnesses shall judgment be settled against an evildoer’. Do you have a second witness?”

Legion’s face reddened in anger. Again, Asotos quickly motioned him to wait before speaking. He stepped in front of an ornately carved, high-backed chair and seated himself like a judge overseeing a court.

When comfortable, he calmly continued, “As I said, in an official capacity there is little I can do other, say, than to speak about this matter with my captain. If a confession is forthcoming, then I can act officially. On the other hand, because she is a military officer, if the one seeing her act of misconduct were a superior officer, well, I believe some sort of military discipline could be administered.”

Legion confessed, “I feel it my duty to correct this Captain Ilaniya, so such an insubordinate attitude doesn’t spread among the junior officers.” His face took on a grave appearance. “My brother, I fear for your well-being if proper discipline isn’t administered quickly. I must leave as the shadow of Staleow’s moon passes across our fleets. That will be less than seven hours. If I miss that window, it will be another thirty-six before I can leave in secrecy. Let me take the captain with me back to Memphis, and there I shall carry out justice.”

Asotos shook his head. “We have much business to discuss. The fat one, your lieutenant, Godenn, is supposed to arrive here shortly. If you wish to see him, you must wait until this time tomorrow to do so. Besides, the captain belongs here with me. She belongs to me. If you are to serve judgment upon her, it will be done after we finish with business today, and before the fat one arrives tomorrow.”

Legion grumbled in exasperation, “My Lord, I must return quickly to Memphis! It is under siege from the east and west. Things are tenuous! Disaster could happen upon us at any moment!”

A tone of suspicion hung on Asotos’ next question. “Am I to understand that you appointed inept lieutenants to stand your line of defenses, and then have the boldness to leave them in charge just so you can go gallivanting across the galaxy?”

Legion fumed, defending his actions. “My officers are highly qualified men! I can trust them to do their duty. But my concerns are legitimate! First, you pulled from me my most trusted lieutenant, Godenn, and sent him on a f…” He thought better of what he was going to say and continued, “far distant operation that has proved inconclusive. You will also note I lost Salak, my number two officer, because of it. Second, the entire thrust of the Children’s Empire has been pushed upon MueoPoros. Your information proved faulty. My army was caught hundreds of kilometers from my base when the enemy’s real intentions were discovered. Needless to say, if it weren’t for my outstanding leadership, Memphis would surely have fallen weeks ago.”

Slapping his opened hands on the desk for effect, Asotos grinned as he countered, “Then a slight delay in your returning should be of little concern to you.”

Legion frowned, shaking his head. “Do you not understand, brother? If I faced a mortal enemy, my faith would be strong regarding the safety of Memphis. But that witch woman who gave you a hard time at the Prisoner Exchange leads the armies at my door. I have heard reports that her ship was driven from the skies, killing Tizrela, but she went unscathed and has now set up headquarters on the Sophia. I dare not abandon my home for long in the face of such an enemy.”

Asotos shrugged as he replied, “You tell me old news. It changes nothing of what I have said.” He then began to slowly wag his finger as he continued. “The witch woman is not immortal as you envision. She is not indestructible – lucky, maybe very lucky, but still very mortal. Remember, there were other survivors reported from the wreck of the Starlight.” He couldn’t help but take a jab at Legion. “It appears your navy pilots lack the ability or stomach to carry their job to a finish. They should have followed the Starlight down and made sure no one survived.”

Legion argued differently. Asotos silenced him. “I know your gods are mortal. Salak died, but not in vain. You may recall a certain man at the Prisoner Exchange, the one who took out two of the bodyguards. You know…the one who was shot with that bolt and got back up.”

Legion anxiously waited to hear more.

Reveling in his hidden knowledge, Asotos drew out the suspense. Resting his elbows on the desk, he very slowly rubbed his hands together, eyes looking up as if in thought. Holding the moment until Legion looked like he was about to burst, Asotos finally finished. “Well, reports have come to me saying that fellow to be on board the Shikkeron. I have also heard reports that searchers were unable to find any trace of the ship or crew after its collision with Salak’s ship.” He held up his hand, bringing its thumb and forefinger ever so close together. “Not even a piece that big was found. Brother, I can tell you this: whatever those creatures are that Erithia delivered into this realm, one thing is certain…they’re not immortal.”

This was news to Legion. Whether comforting or not, he chose not to say. After another argument or two, he finally surrendered to Asotos’ badgering and consented to remain there another day. “Good! Good!” Asotos exclaimed. “We shall all celebrate the anniversary of the throwing off of the shackles of slavery to Erithia and the awakening into the glorious freedom of the League of Brothers. It’s only two days from now.”

When Legion began protests anew, Asotos assuaged his discontent. “You have spoken of the time needed to assist my captain in purging her spirit of an insubordinate disposition. Now your concerns can be laid to rest. You will be able to carry on justice at your leisure. Not only that, but there will be officers arriving with whom you have not shared company for many days. You wouldn’t want to miss them, would you?”

Asotos stood and strolled around the table. Walking up to Legion, he grasped him by the upper arms and offered a cunning smile. “There is another important reason I desire to wait a little while before engaging our enemy. As you know, the demon horde has collected itself at MueoPoros to attempt your destruction, which will be impossible. What you may not yet know is that I am waiting for additional visitors before I slam the door of escape shut on them with my armadas.”

He paced back and forth in front of Legion, gesturing occasionally for added effect. “Our old associate, PalaHar, will soon join the enemy fleet and…” He turned, squinting, “and he’s bringing that little bitch-girl with him, the one who’s cost you so much sleep.”

Legion’s eyes grew wide with surprise. Asotos grinned. “That’s not all.” He began pacing anew. “My people have succeeded in convincing that usurper into leaving the security of Erithia’s palace. At this very moment, she’s hurrying to join Gabrielle on the Sophia, something she thinks is being done in secret. Indeed, I believe Gabrielle knows not of her journey.”

He put his arm around Legion’s shoulders, and the two began to pace the floor while Asotos continued on. “Your home fleet remained hidden until it attacked the enemy, yet it is the only one that has been discovered. The element of surprise belongs to us. We also have double the number of ships in our flotillas, with extra fighters and heavies. We will swoop in for the kill and take out that usurper’s entire command structure, after which we will dispense righteous justice upon those who have taunted us.”

Legion was pleased with the news and readily agreed to continue with Asotos’ fleet until after the celebration of the League’s independence. Asotos sent a guard to fetch Ilaniya, who, after questioning by Asotos, only defended her actions by apologizing for behaving inappropriately in any way, her fear of Legion being so great as to not want to risk increasing his wrath against her. She then departed for Legion’s private chambers.

After some casual jabber and strong drink, Legion left Asotos’ chambers to attend to other matters. On his way out, Asotos warned, “Now do be careful with my girl! I want her unbroken. No visible scars, you hear? She’s to dance and perform at my celebration. She can’t serve us if she can’t walk.”

Legion promised to be gentle, then hurried from the room.

 

Oh, for the best laid plans of mice and men! Asotos had at his disposal the power and ability to break the back of the Children’s Empire, and would have likely done so if he had listened to Legion’s urgent request to make haste. The delay he forced – to celebrate the anniversary of the creation of his kingdom – cost him dearly.

Unbeknown to him was the fact that Mihai’s people were not sitting back, waiting to be attacked. Commander General Sarah had dispatched her WolfPack Marauders on a search and destroy mission of Asotos’ ships. The delay also gave time for the newly re-commissioned Chisamore and its battle group to get up steam and make smoke for the advancing enemy armadas.

Admiral TaqaEsem had also gathered the Tarezabarian hunter-seekers, and was in hot pursuit of Godenn’s battle group, knowing that the bee would lead them to the honey.

By the time Asotos awoke from his drunken stupor following his celebration, he would discover that most of his armada was no longer hidden from the enemy. Although still forcing a major battle that proved costly to both sides, his being engaged in a running battle for the six days it took his fleets to reach attack positions reduced the advantage he originally had in numbers, leaving disabled and burning hulks scattered along the invasion route.

If it proved any consolation, Asotos’ coming attack would succeed in breaking the heart of the Children’s Empire, but not its back. Indeed, he only managed to weld its spirit into a more determined fighting machine, intent on bringing all that was his to nothing.

 

  • * *

 

Lowenah, with red, puffy eyes and a tear-stained face, sat silent on the bench in the middle of her garden courtyard, elbows on a stone table, head resting in hands, dejectedly staring blankly at one of the garden’s walls.

RosMismar quietly approached, humming some ancient tune that had no words, for it was a favorite tune of his before spoken words existed. Still, it had meaning and the melodious tone drifted across the air, sinking into Lowenah’s pained heart and aching eyes, easing her suffering. The Cherub came to a stop behind Lowenah and, while continuing to hum his tune, began to gently massage her shoulders.

Time passed. The sun began its journey to the west. RosMismar stopped his tune. “Have you not attained your very dreams, ZoeStethos? You wished to feel life in to the full, did you not?”

Lowenah reached up, clasping one of RosMismar’s hands. Wearing a half-smile, she replied, “Be careful what you wish for. You may well receive it…” She then asked him to sit with her a while.

She reached over and again took one of RosMismar’s hands and began to play with his fingers. “You know, if I could, I would abandon these worlds to their own destiny and seek the solace of my hidden lands. You and I could build anew a universe of living things, and those children would never fall into wickedness.”

RosMismar shook his head. “Our Zoe could not do such a thing! It would be impossible for her to give up this great experiment, especially when we stand so close to realizing its full accomplishment. Besides, you have changed so much since the age of my making, when I came into being, filled with knowledge and understanding, born without birthing, a babe fully grown, without childhood or innocence. No, the time of the Cherub is over. The future belongs to those who share not only your spirit and soul, but also your heart and feelings. There is no returning to the cocoon once you have spread your wings, no matter how cold and stormy the night may be.”

Lowenah’s head sank in sadness. “What am I to do then, when even my most cherished daughter ignores my loving counsel and abandons wisdom to the Fates? Even now she throws my counsel to the winds and seeks the emotions of her heart, listening to the prattle of the foolish while disregarding the speech of the Eighty, whose unwavering fealty is assured.”

RosMismar reminded Lowenah, “The heart cannot live if it is chained by the mind. Will it suffer because of its foolishness? Yes! Is it worth the price that is to be paid for such foolishness? Aboslutely! Remember your own words: ‘The heart is treacherous. Who can trust it?’ Did you not speak such truths to your children because of your own experiences? A foolish heart is not a wicked heart. Wickedness comes from the mind and heart working what is treacherous and deceitful.”

Lowenah sadly nodded in agreement, adding, “The soul that is in agony forgets the heart grows from pain. Far easier is it to run away than it is to face that tribulation, especially when I know the extent of suffering that is to come upon others because of my daughter’s failure to exercise wisdom.” A tremor of frustration shook her body. “Oh, why must my child act so?!”

Taking both of Lowenah’s hands firmly in his, RosMismar asked, “Zoe, do you not recall your own prophecy concerning your heart? For, by your own mouth, you spoke such foreknowledge. ‘Rachel will weep over the loss of her own children.’ Did you not cry on my shoulder when you came to understand the final days of this Rebellion, and uttered those words to me?”

“Yes! Yes I do remember, but it felt so far off then. My heart could handle the knowledge of that future day. But the storm sweeps down upon me now, and its anger only begins. With my darling Tizrela now dust, and soon others so close to me following her path, the pain, I fear, is too much for me to bear.”

“You must let the storm winds blow or you will have fought your wars all in vain!” RosMismar warned. He looked Lowenah in the eye. “Long ago you spoke of the need for Michael to suffer as yourself, for you said, ‘A mountain cannot rise from the sea until it has faced the violence of change. It must shed the ocean’s swaddling bands and confront, alone, the rage of fire and storm before its peak can cast its cooling shadow across a parched and desolate country’.”

He spoke with firmness. “Let the child grow! For, should the universe around her dissolve into nothing, it will be of little consequence if the girl succeeds. Tizrela and all the others will have a rebirth, planets and star systems will heal, innocence will again live in the hearts of those born in future days. Has she not been called the ‘Mountain of Yehowah’?”

Lowenah affirmed, “That is what she is one day to become.”

RosMismar squeezed her hands. “Then let her become that, no matter the cost to us now…”

Lowenah smiled through more tears as she offered, “You understand me so well. From the first of my heart’s stirrings, you have held me close. Let me, please, give to you the heart and soul like that of my children, and escape away with me to the hidden lands. There we will conceive new children who will never cause us pain and suffering.”

RosMismar laughed. “You speak so much with the heart, but you know what you say is impossible. Never would you abandon these children. This, I know. Besides, I have no desire to become like you and your children. I am very happy with who I am. I suffer not, but joy and peace are still my companions. What more could I want?”

Lowenah sat silent, deep in thought. The sun passed through a cloudless, late winter sky until the palace garden was hidden in shadow. When the evening thrush began its night song, she finally broke the silence.

To RosMismar, who had been humming his ancient tune while caressing her fingers and hands, she declared, “Then I shall make for me a man who will have your mind and spirit, and my heart and soul. To him I will give all things, for, in his wisdom, he will make justice and fairness abound. But in his passion for life and freedom, he will cause all creation to be refreshed and renewed. From him I will bring forth a new race of children that will bond all my creatures together. Those from the heavens, the earth, and my Cherubs shall all become one under his hand. And their blood will mix as in one person.”

“So, who is this fellow? Is he yet come or is the day of his birth still future?” RosMismar queried. He leaned close, gazing into Lowenah’s eyes, peering deep within them, studying all movement. Finally, he sat back. “I see you have chosen. Tell me, please, is he the same one born to stand your throne in future days?”

Lowenah said it was so.

RosMismar cautioned, “The boy is young and not tested as to fitness yet. Is it wise to put all hope in a young sapling?”

Lowenah sadly shook her head. “If he fails, all will be lost anyway, for I have seen into my own heart and know it cannot survive such a blow. Do remember I spoke of the matter long ago, for I said if Elijah does not come, I would strike all heaven and earth with complete destruction. He is my Elijah…” She bent her head down and closed her eyes. “The child must succeed or my heart will break and, in my madness, the universe and all that’s in it will perish…”

RosMismar reached out, gently squeezing Lowenah’s hand. “Then we shall all hope that he succeeds. But for now, you must find some rest from the woes pressing in upon you. Come away with me into forgotten lands that you have not visited since the day your firstborn was delivered into your arms. Refresh your soul in the things your servants have been doing. We have not been sleeping in your absence. Mountains of gold and jewels abound, and creatures, strange even to your eyes, we have made. Relax for the moment from your cares in this world and let your children carry out their duties. You can do nothing here, for you have sworn an oath to the wicked chieftain that you will not interfere in this world’s business for now. It will do you good to escape for a day.”

Lowenah protested, but RosMismar silenced her. “The Cherubs stand in their places, prepared to assist as they can. They live in the Eighty, the swords, and the souls of those you have chosen. They will not fail…never have…never will. They ever stand faithful watch over the boy, who, in his foolishness will need watching over… and disciplining. It is better that you not see some of his foolishness, I think. His love for you is strong, but his heart yearns for many things.”

Lowenah stood. RosMismar did the same. He took her by the arm as they started strolling along a narrow lane in the garden. As they walked along, Lowenah told him of her future plans. “When the boy has become a man in his wisdom and strength, when he has won his contest, I will give your spirit to him so that he will have a mind like yours.”

RosMismar thought a moment, then asked, “Are you sure you want such a man to rule over all things?”

Lowenah smiled, a gleam in her eye. “He already has my heart. I think the combination will serve him quite well.”

She looked toward a small pool, its bubbling waterfall agitating the surface. “I have worked on that child for over four millennia. Part of the reason I had Tolohe form my nation was to create a controlled environment to make my perfect child. When I saw great genetic potential outside my nation, I made sure to add it. And by doing that, I have tricked his father into watching over his soul. This I did many times.” She smiled. “I think I have been quite successful.”

RosMismar agreed, fully aware of what she was talking about. He then suggested, “Let us leave this world and its fate to the Cherubs. They will not allow any lasting harm to come to those loving you. When you return, refreshed and rested, you will see that your efforts have been well rewarded.”

Lowenah took hold of RosMismar’s hands, staring into his eyes. Evening darkness pressed upon the little garden hidden deep within the ancient palace walls. A mist rose up around the two, both quietly standing while peering into the sparkling pool, slowly fading into the mist, silently departing the world Lowenah had called ‘home’ for so long. It would be many years before her haunting voice was again to be heard echoing off those garden walls.

 

  • * *

 

Darla stood at a respectable distance, watching Ardon perform his personal little rituals around Tashi’s earthen grave. He finished with garlands of flowers he made the previous night. Done, the man paused, crouched down on one knee and placed his hand on the middle of the mound. Silence filled the small inner ring of tall shrubs that sat atop the tiny knoll in this strange world Ardon had long ago created.

Allowing him time, Darla quietly moved closer until she stood beside and just behind the man who was lost in secret memories. She patiently waited, hoping these parting moments would provide him opportunity for closure.

Finally, Ardon stirred, lifting his head, a subdued sadness echoing in his voice, lamenting his loss. “I think I loved her more than any other woman I’ve known, but I just never took the time to consider what love really is. When life is good to you, things like love, care…you know…relationships – you give them such little consideration.”

He very slowly shook his head while his finger played with the dirt. “She was always there for me, whether it was one year or ten thousand, I knew there would be a warm reception waiting me at her doorstep. I took it for granted, never thinking just how fleeting every moment of life really is. There are so many things I want to tell her now, things that didn’t mean much to me then, but now…but now…”

Darla reached down and placed her hand on Ardon’s shoulder. “The sun will shine again in forgotten places, and those we love will again sing songs to please our hearts. It is not them who we weep for, for they no longer weep. They live, and as long as we breathe, they will continue to live. Mourn not that Tashi is gone, for her spirit still burns in your heart. She journeys to lands beyond our touch, but they are lands to which we may yet go – lands sweet with sleep…beautiful, forgetful sleep.”

With a muffled grunt, Ardon rose, patting away dirt that clung to his pant legs. Looking around, studying this strange and exotic land of endless crystal caverns and shimmering green lakes, he sighed more regrets. “You know, Tashi continually teased to be taken to this secret planet, from the day of my telling her about it until after our return from the Prisoner Exchange. I was in no hurry, putting her off with, ‘of course, of course, I will take you soon, someday soon’.”

He turned and stared into Darla’s face. As he watched her, a feeling of guilt flooded his heart. All this day he had carried on about his loss and how difficult it was for him… but what of Darla? She had remained at his side, lending support and showing empathy, never once mentioning her personal devastation. Euroaquilo was gone, torn away from her while she stood helpless to prevent it. Hers had been a lonely life, and now the one man who showed her real affection was gone.

And what of the demon within? Yes, it was dead, but it had left its lasting marks. Ardon could not see into Darla’s eyes because of the dark glasses she now found it necessary to wear. Over these past weeks, her sensitivity to light increased. Jebbson had fashioned a pair of curved lenses from an old blast shield and inserted them into a metal frame that hid the woman’s eyes from the blinding daylight. When asked if it troubled her, she only laughed and said how easy it was to find her way in the darkness.

Ardon apologized. “My lady, Queen Adaya, forgive me please for being so rude. You have suffered so, and I cry over my own pain, accepting your consolation while ignoring your grief.”

Darla took hold of Ardon’s arm. “Grief is my sister, Sorrow is my brother, Death is my mistress, and Affliction my companion. Should I begin to weep over my lot, the oceans would flood and the moon would drown before my tears would end. I am numb. No longer do I feel cold or heat, love or hate, happiness or sadness, for I am as if dead to this world, my soul having long since departed its shores. My friend, there is no consolation to give, for I have no heart to grieve.”

Ardon was caught up speechless. How could he – a man who had more than once violated this girl’s heart – how could he console the inconsolable? He struggled to find something, anything to say in return. His face turned scarlet with shame and embarrassment. Darla attempted to ease his distress.

She touched a finger to his lips and smiled. “No, my Lord, I can hear what you speak. We have become one, have we not? Do I not understand your feelings of endearment you have for Tashi? For your soul has been opened to me and I have looked into secret rooms you dared not reveal to others. But from you I have kept my hidden things. My innermost thoughts and desires were mine, and mine alone. How could you know the depth of my feelings, my passions, my love? I trusted only one man with some of those secrets. All others, few though they were, remained outside my sealed vaults…seeing, hearing, feeling nothing.”

Ardon argued differently, pointing to his arrogance and pride as the stifling agents of Darla’s heart. She did not want to hear of it and quickly changed the subject, commenting on the beauty of inner lands and remarkable successes he had there, working by himself and in secret. He surrendered to her feelings and allowed her to banter on, realizing the charade helped ease her suffering.

Eventually the subject returned to the reason for their travels to the knoll. There were many other graves to visit this day and time was slipping away. Ardon sighed, “She did so much want to see this place. Well, at least she can rest here for the moment. May the hour again arrive that chances me the opportunity to guide her through the wonders found here.”

Darla agreed. After a long pause, she requested they pay parting visits upon the others. “Bedan has chosen the eleventh hour to leave. It is rapidly approaching and I still have need to stop at Emunah’s grave.” She pointed. “It’s beyond those trees.”

Ardon nodded. “Then we have little time to waste. Let me carry those flowers for you.”

When they reached the trees where Emunah’s grave lay just beyond, Darla asked for a moment to be alone. She took the flowers and hurried into the shaded grove. Ardon patiently waited, almost regretting they would soon abandon this world in search of another. He was growing fond of this woman who was still so much a stranger to him, desiring to learn more about her.

In time, Darla returned. She thanked Ardon for standing vigil with her. Taking his arm and gently pulling him down the path toward the Shikkeron, she gave him a gentle squeeze. As they walked, she expressed her appreciation for his company.

Looking into his face, Darla commented, “You have said that you love me. Euroaquilo said also that you care for me and that I could trust you. Can I trust you?”

Ardon did not hesitate. “Of course, you can trust me! Many things I may be, may have been – a braggart, egotist, even a foolish dreamer – but never have I betrayed a trust. And I do care for you!”

Darla smiled and asked, “If you love me and care for me, will you hold me through these winter nights and help my heart find the warmth of spring that it searches for?”

She stopped and, facing him, took his hands. “Will you help me find the key to the lock that chains me in my vaulted world? I fear the darkness, yet the day I have come to fear even more. Help me, please, find who I really am.”

Ardon took Darla in his arms and promised to do his best, pointing out his own inabilities at finding himself. She laughed. For the first time since Euroaquilo’s death, she laughed. They turned, arm in arm, and hurried toward the waiting Shikkeron and to whatever new adventures awaited them.

Back in the distance, hidden behind a grove of evergreens, a newly dug grave lay covered in moss and flowers. On the flowers lay a delicate gold chain with one glittering jewel hanging from it. If one looked closely, they could see a tiny light pulsing out a coded message, reaching nowhere, fated to die in this Nebulan world, where all communication signals drift into nothingness. And in the background, a person would have heard the ghostly voice of Phulakee as he snickered at deception lost.

 

  • * *

‘Doesn’t it ever stop raining in this place?’ Alba wondered, as she trudged toward camp headquarters. For the better parts of two weeks it had rained and drizzled. The temperatures clung in the low forties, preventing anything from drying out even when the sun managed a brief visit.

Privations were taking their toll on the soldiers, too. If she had been told that these people with perfect minds and bodies could get sick, she would have laughed in the face of the one telling it. But that was truly the case.

The ‘shakes’, as some called it, were growing common in this wet cold. It was what might be termed a flu-type illness brought on by battle fatigue, poor food and sanitation, and living in the never-ending mud. And then there was the dysentery, so prevalent that many just ignored it when possible and went about their duties. Every day the company would send a dozen or more soldiers back to the depot hospital to recuperate.

This was Alba’s second day after returning from the ‘Fortress’ – the name given the Army’s command center – located deep within the newly hewn mountain caves. Convalescing from her injury had taken nearly a month and, truth be said, she was much relieved when doctors gave her permission to return to Rock Company…that is, what was left of Rock Company. Of the five hundred who boarded transports that morning so long ago, there were fewer than one hundred answering roll call each day.

Alba had missed the company’s latest action by less than a week. She regretted the absence, feeling guilty for not having been there to support her fellow troop members.

The army had pushed north and east beyond the nameless river that took nearly a thousand lives to secure the fords. Marine airborne and Navy-based units dropped in behind the enemy while two army divisions advanced head-on against the river fortifications.

Winehardt’s Division was on the right flank of the attack. It made the river crossing with relative ease, finding little resistance. The other division stalled early, meeting one counterattack after another. General Winehardt finally ordered the 2nd Brigade to drive the enemy on its right. The Brigade’s 9th Volunteer Regiment, of which Rock Company was part, pushed in closest to the river and engaged an enemy dug in and supported by rocket, mortar, and heavy artillery companies.

There was a great deal of hand-to-hand combat, accompanied by intense tunnel fighting. It took three long days before the last of the resistance ended, most of the enemy dying where they fought. Rock Company had been fortunate, considering. They only had twenty-one casualties, four killed. Emerald Gold Company suffered ninety percent casualties, with all their officers and sergeants killed or missing in action.

Rock Company was now hunkered down in this dismal low country filled with swamps and sluggish, slime-choked streams. They were over ten leagues east of the river, with few supplies and no heavy weapons. The only way in was by transport or ground flyers, hover-type craft that floated above the fields by using anti-gravitational inductors. The weather had turned unseasonably cold, with occasional flakes of wet snow mixing in the eternal drizzle. Alba sighed, her breath forming misty clouds in the air. Pulling her slicker tight around her shoulders, she sloshed on toward the command tent.

“Come in Lieutenant! Please come in.” A rosy-cheeked Colonel XuraoOsteon stood to greet Alba. He politely bowed, afterward extending his hand to shake hers and motioned to his left. “Sergeant KfirNoiz. I think you have made his acquaintance.”

Sergeant Kfir?!” She eyed the man, who only smiled back. “Congratulations, Sergeant, on your promotion.”

Sergeant Kfir, standing in front of a cobbled-up, solid-fuel heating stove, thanked Alba, bowed his head in recognition and then extended his hand. “Thank you, Captain. I hope that means you’ll also be pleased having my company.”

Alba stared at Kfir, puzzled by his remarks. The colonel interrupted. “Ah…would you like to sit, Lieutenant?” He motioned toward a chunk of wood that was presently serving as a camp chair. Alba thanked him and sat down.

Colonel Xurao got right to business. “Lieutenant, as you well know, Rock Company has suffered horrific losses. Officially, your numbers are sitting at forty percent, but roll call is often less than twenty. That gives you, the company’s senior officer, fewer than one hundred available soldiers. In the past, Army Command would have combined your company with another or others to bring you back up to fighting strength.”

He paused and asked Kfir to put another piece of soggy peat into the stove, and waited until the task was finished. “As I said, normally we combine companies, but not anymore. You see, there are so many volunteer recruits entering the ranks, we are being flooded with patriotic, enthusiastic but inexperienced soldiers. Green troops suffer greater casualties in combat than veterans.” Alba concurred, remembering her own woeful experiences. “So now it has been decided to incorporate these new soldiers into the ranks of depleted companies.”

The colonel glanced at a small notebook resting on a short-legged, improvised table and then back at Alba. “Command believes – and I agree – that combining these green troops with veteran soldiers will provide added training to new troops and save lives. Over the next several days, Rock Company will begin absorbing these inexperienced recruits until you regain your full complement of five hundred enlisted personnel, plus officers.”

He glanced at the notebook again. “That brings us to officers. Until your return, Master Sergeant Kfir was directing Rock Company. He has done splendidly, and I have requested he be sent back to Oros to Officer Training School. Until he departs, I hope for you to use him as your unofficial second in command.” Alba nodded her approval.

“Good! Good!” The colonel grinned. “Now for you, unfortunately, there are few experienced officers to go around. So I’m afraid you will have to suffer new, green officers. ‘Twelve-week wonders’ we call them.” He reassured her, “They’re willing, but few have any battle experience. I think they’ll learn fast. You did. And you’ve become a darn right fine officer, too.”

Colonel Xurao reached into his rumpled coat pocket and pulled out a torn envelope, thrusting it toward Alba. “Here, take this! You will find it all in order and properly authorized.”

Alba pulled the contents from the envelope. They consisted of a braided chevron and two pins to place on her uniform, along with a letter from General Winehardt, promoting her to rank of captain. Alba gasped.

Colonel Xurao extended his hand as he grinned from ear to ear. “Let me be the first to congratulate you, Captain. You are now officially Company Commander of Rock Company.”

Alba sat, slowly shaking her head as tears welled up in her eyes. “Sir, I’m no officer, just a very little person lost in a very big and scary universe. What have I ever been but a mother and wife…just a lowly woman in a long-forgotten world? I’m no warrior. I even wet myself when I’m frightened. You must have the wrong person. It can’t be me!”

The colonel chuckled, leaning forward, speaking in a hush. “Few of us haven’t wet ourselves at least once. War isn’t normal and there’s no real preparation for what one encounters on the battlefield. But there are some who are natural leaders, natural warriors; it’s in their genes. I’ve learned of your past, Captain. They say you’re descended from the Heruls, the Princes of the Iron Sea. It has been said of your kindred that few were more fearsome in war and in peace.”

Alba shuddered. “The Heruls are my ancestors, but I do not feel their courageous blood flowing in my veins. I thought I left hatred and murder behind me when I departed my world in death. Now I find that the part of my family heritage I so much deplored in that life is the reason I’ve been delivered here.”

She stiffened up. “But I will do my duty. If there must be war, then I shall use my heritage to bring it with a vengeance. If there must be death, then I will dispense it with a passion! If I must rekindle the angry fires of my forefathers to gain courage, then I shall set my soul ablaze to attain it!!”

The colonel beamed. “Excellent! Excellent! I knew we had chosen well.” He then squinted and pointed a finger. “I see your kind, my dear Captain, as becoming the future leaders among us. It has been said by your own prophets it was to be the case. Rock Company is just the beginning for you. I think that, before this war ends, you will lead entire armies into battle as we sweep across the universe to rid the enemy from our sacred ground.”

Alba was appreciative the colonel didn’t continue with that line of conversation. He changed the subject to other matters concerning her responsibilities as company commander, the role that Rock Company was expected to play in the weeks ahead, and most interestingly, how things were going.

“We have attained all major strategic positions in the mountain range and are now pushing out beyond them to give ourselves some maneuvering space. There are natural and newly excavated caverns we’ve accessed, large enough to dock imperial frigates, and soon we’ll have room for the largest of battle cruisers. In time, there will be an entire city operating inside that mountain, independent of outside services, including food production.”

Alba asked, bewildered, “You mean this was our primary objective, not just a feint to distract the enemy from the real invasion?”

Xurao replied, “I don’t know if this was the primary objective or not, but I do know that we have no plans of leaving this place. Once established here, we will have a base of operations for the Navy to assist it in retaining control of Eden’s Gate. If we can hold that jump portal, we will eventually win this war.”

Alba only nodded, but inside her heart a cloud seemed to lift. Doing her duty to win this war was important, even if it was only sharing in a ploy. Still, to actually see her sacrifices and those of her company have a direct impact did make a difference in how she felt. For some reason, the weather was no longer quite so miserable, the camp conditions not quite so deplorable, and the skimpy food rations not quite so meager and tasteless. Maybe being made captain wasn’t going to be so bad. Anyway, she was here so she might as well make the best of it.

The colonel pointed to Alba’s new insignias. “Now do be careful, Captain, and don’t advertise your promotion. Headquarters’ new policy is for all field officers to remain inconspicuous. Your troops will know who you are, and the enemy doesn’t need to. What little confusion this will cause is considered a small price to pay for the lives it should save.” He frowned. “These new rules don’t set well with the old guard, but I think they’ll go along with them, even if it is grudgingly. This invasion proved that colorful uniforms and shiny helmets are not advantageous on the modern battlefield, and that parade-style tactics only get people killed. Nope, the age of crossbow and shield has come to an end. Your kind has seen to that.”

Alba shook her head in question. “How have my kind changed your style of butchering one another?”

Xurao was quick to reply. “Do you think my people haven’t been aware of machine guns and all the other sorts of murderous weapons the people of your old realm use? We were sailing the oceans of the sky before your former world existed. The most basic of our inventions rivals the greatest of yours. Still, we chose to live our lives simply, using our skills and time to create beauty in the things we made.”

He removed his helmet, setting it upside down on the tent floor. “This ‘romancing the arts’ – as you would call it – carried over into our combat. The protocol for making war was as important to both sides as winning or losing. Except for those whose minds had degenerated, like the Stasis people, it was important to practice war by a set of complex, unwritten rules.”

Alba was incredulous. “You mean your people played war like a game? May the best man win, as long as you did it by the rules?!”

Colonel Xurao vehemently shook his head, denying it so. “No! No, Captain, not in the way you imply. Just look at our history of war – something you have done, at least in officer training. Murder, treachery, and deceit have been the trademark of Asotos from the beginning of the Rebellion. He has also used poison, fire, and torture to attain his objectives, but…”

The colonel hesitated in thought, seeking the right words to express his views. “But on the field of battle, among the soldiers themselves, they…we formed a kind of arrangement, a code of conduct, so to speak. There was a general consensus about the way combat was to be fought, how the wounded were to be treated, the way prisoners were handled. It gave us all a sense of stability, a feeling that there was still a little sanity remaining in this insane universe.”

He looked at Sergeant Kfir, who made eye contact. The expressions on the two faces indicated camaraderie of thought, something that a mere glance could convey. He turned back to Alba. “As time passed after the start of the Rebellion, so the violence and denigration of war increased. More and more of Asotos’ followers lost the power from the Web of the Minds and were overcome with the Black Madness, a degenerative disease that slowly breaks down the fabric that makes up a person’s mind.”

“Each day, more of Asotos’ people succumb to that disease. A dark emptiness fills in the voids where the invisible DNA threads of this fabric once were. Sensations produced by love, kindness, justice, mercy, and so forth no longer provide stimulation for the brain to react upon. Hatred, fear, pain, and other feelings are eventually all the stimuli that remain. It’s a progressive disease working faster upon the lazy-minded and weak-willed than upon those of strong, self-willed disposition.”

“Asotos is very strong, and although he has long since lost any real love, he is a man of outstanding control. He has the power to keep his rabble in check. Indeed, he has succeeded in getting many to worship him. You see, when the hopelessness caused by the Black Madness overcomes a person, their need to believe in a divine being grows. Asotos has taken advantage of this situation and offered himself to his followers as a god to worship.” The colonel quickly added, “And others have turned to serving different gods of their own making. There is a pantheon of gods out there today.”

Alba asked in a mildly sardonic voice, “So are my kind to blame for this breakdown of troubled minds?”

The colonel was taken aback. He apologized, “I deserved that, and I’m sorry. My people knew the old ways were over. The last war taught us that. The butchery at Memphis taught us that. Still, our hearts refused to accept its demise. We wanted to ride into glorious battle, banners high, bugles blaring, swords waving. We wanted the war to be won our way.”

“Your people gave us a dose of reality that few were prepared for…still aren’t. You made us look in a mirror that revealed our tattered clothes and bodies of straw. You made the flower of the universe see he was no prince – just a bony scarecrow. My people do not want your ways, the ways we must take. We have no choice. We resist as best we can, knowing in our minds you speak truth.” He shook his head in sadness. “Just like your military fanatics of old who refused to give up the samurai in place of the gun, many of our veterans despise giving up the sword and crossbow.”

Xurao shrugged in mild resignation. “Your Copelands, Finhardts, Garlocks, and others have taken control of the reins of this world. They are unflinching, unmovable, and undaunted. They give us purpose, hope, and confidence, but they also give us someone to resent and blame for changing our world. That, Captain, is something I think your kind must accept.”

Alba leaned forward, asking, “Colonel Xurao, may I speak openly?”

The colonel grinned. “Certainly, Captain. You allowed me my little tantrum. Speak freely.”

“Thank you.” Alba began, “What your world was before the arrival of my kind, I have not been witness to, and what it will become, I can only dream. But let me set down for the record what I see and what I will do if power comes into my hand.”

“I see that the enemy must be destroyed not just defeated. I will pursue said enemy until he is no more. I will use whatever weapon is at my disposal to accomplish it. Colonel, when one seeks to kill the sewer rat, one must crawl into the sewer to do so. If I must sink to the level of my enemy to destroy my enemy, I will. And all who follow me shall sink into the bowels of that hell to do the same!”

The colonel stared into Alba’s eyes. A visible shudder ran across his shoulders. He finally offered an apprehensive smile. “Captain, were you not the wife of James, the human half-brother to the one we call ‘Michael’, our king?”

Alba confirmed it was so.

Xurao explained, “I heard he once said of you, ‘Her eyes are so deceptive, for they blaze with beauty unbounded, which really hides a destructive inferno’. It is really true, as I have witnessed, that your race is unmatched for its wild savagery in peace and in war!”

Alba smiled. “Thank you, Colonel. I will take all that you say as a compliment.”

The colonel stood, bowed again, and extended his hand in parting. He went on about some other matters and again thanked Alba for her time. Then recommending that she and Sergeant Kfir should prepare to receive the new recruits, Xurao dismissed them. After they left, he remained standing, staring at the canvas flap as it moved in the breeze. Finally, he spoke aloud, smiling. “Well, Captain, you have not disappointed me at all, not at all. With your kind at the head, we will win this awful war.”

 

Alba and the sergeant stood just outside the command tent. The drizzle was now a cold, steady rain with an occasional icy gust. Kfir pulled his coat snug, commenting, “This is an unpredictable planet, Captain. It was called ‘MueoPoros’, meaning ‘passage into the mysteries beyond’, long before Eden’s Gate had been discovered. One of the mysteries is the weather. To this day, no one fully understands the weather cycles here. It is a place where the rules of the universe don’t always apply.”

Alba looked at Kfir and matter-of-factly replied, “It’s near the vortex of the universe, a place where time and space don’t always agree with each other.”

Kfir’s face filled with disbelief. “No?! How do you know that? Not from one of your ancient prophets, I hope.”

Alba grinned. “When I was waiting the child’s arrival, I spent a great deal of time with General Drorli. He immersed himself in telling me about the great mysteries of your world…” Her face flushed a little. “as well as certain other mysteries.

Kfir nodded knowingly. “They say General Drorli was a great man, one of the best technical engineers in the Army.”

Surprised at his reply, Alba asked, “What do you mean was?”

Kfir was hesitant and apprehensive. He hadn’t personally known Drorli and had not realized Alba and the general were friends…close friends. He broke the news of his death to her as gently as possible.

Alba said nothing, peering off to the north, gazing into the sky, shading her eyes with her hand. “It looks like the storm will break soon. We’d better check on our troops.”

 

(Author’s note: Alba was but one of the daughters of the Heruls. She was in her seventieth year of life when promoted to captain. True to the colonel’s words, the woman continued to grow in stature and power, eventually becoming renowned, called the ‘Witch of Endor’ by her enemies, partly because Endor was the home of her birth, and partly because of her perceived or real supernatural powers. That name eventually spread among the people of the Children’s Empire.

That is why the name Alba is unfamiliar to the generation of your day. But who has not heard of Endor, the Enchantress? Her castle lair lies hidden in the Secret Mountains, somewhere in the PrasiaOdous mountain range on MueoPoros. Do not seek her face without her invitation, for her Cherubs guard the gates of her kingdom well.)

 

The second child of the Heruls was yet to bloody her sword, but the hour was drawing close for her metal to be tested.

 

 

  • * *

 

The 2nd Brigade’s 8th Volunteer Regiment had crossed the river at the southern-most line of attack, Stocie’s Company taking up the southern flanking position. The company had gone in first, crossing the river shortly after midnight. It had continued to push the point for the regiment and was now emplaced a mile forward, spread out along a series of hillocks for about six furlongs, north to south, with its southern platoon on another hill some three furlongs further to the south.

Casualties had been light so far – a few injuries from accidents crossing the river, minor wounds from distant snipers, and only one that was life-threatening, caused by a mine. In fact, Stocie’s Company was getting a reputation for being in the right place at the right time for staying out of trouble. It got the glory for raising the banner at Destiny’s Peak, an exhaustive though relatively safe undertaking, but had always managed to not be where the direct fighting was. Other companies in the regiment had nicknamed it ‘Stocie’s Country Club for the gifted and refined’.

Merna’s platoon was the one stationed furthest south. They were spread out in a crescent shape curving back toward the southwest, following the natural shape of the hill. Being on the southern most flank of the entire army, the captain had ordered the platoon forward on picket to alert the others if the enemy made a surprise attack.

Because of the threat from snipers, few in the platoon had moved around all day. They lay in the finger-numbing rain, with only their slickers to protect them. What little food there was to eat had been cold because no fires were permitted, and now their water was nearly gone. A break in the drizzle late in the afternoon was a pleasant relief. Soon night would fall, with its promise of obtaining fresh supplies or, even better, being relieved of picket duty.

Darkness was beginning to settle in when the Lieutenant MaydaIuem ordered Sergeant Merna to take part of her squad and refill the platoon’s canteens. She spoke just above a whisper, her breath turning to vapor. “There’ll be no replacements here tonight. Enemy’s on the move and we can’t afford to get caught shifting places. Now take and get us enough water to last another day. I’ll send others to see if we can get a few rations. Be careful, Sergeant! This is not a good place to be at the moment.”

Merna took twelve others with her, leaving the rest of the squad under the charge of her corporal. Ten, including the sergeant, were loaded down with canteens, while the remainder took automatic rifles. Few of the enlisted carried side arms except for daggers, knives, or the occasional short sword. Merna had debated whether to trudge off with her sergeant’s sword, a double-edged, broad derker blade about a long-cubit in length from tang to point. She put her hand on its hilt as she thought. A warm feeling of security flowed through her. She decided to carry it along.

Half crawling, half walking, the party struggled its way west, away from the platoon and toward one of the sluggish estuaries that crisscrossed the swampy wetlands. Thick patches of tall grasses with razor-sharp blades and nettle-like stings needed to be circumnavigated. Painful cuts and welt-like lesions became unavoidable. To add to the misery was the boggy soil. With every step, a boot would sink into the muck up past one’s ankle. It took over twenty minutes just to make it to the first slime-choked, little stream.

Merna stood knee-deep in the slop to fill her canteens, doing so to reach clear water. Her helmet lay back on the bank, if that’s what a person could call the goo that was supposedly solid ground. She quietly grumbled, “Too wet to walk on and not enough to sail on! I’ll sink outta sight if I stand here long enough!”

What the sergeant did not know was this was the rainy cycle for this region. Eventually the monsoon-like weather would end. It might be years until it came again. The river would become little more than a trickle to step across without getting wet feet. Most of the plant life would die off, leaving only scrub brush and tiny seeds waiting patiently for the next wet cycle. When the dry cycle became mature, a person might walk for hours or sometimes days and not find any water.

Merna was filling her fourth canteen when the sound of gunfire echoed across the plain. She jumped and bolted for the shore, or at least struggled to. By the time she crawled up the bank, the rattle of machine guns and ka-boom! of grenades filled the air. Merna threw down her canteens and yelled, “Go for it!” Off she went on a run, heedless of the obstacles hidden in the swamp.

She was the first to reach the platoon’s position; three others were just behind. By now, the fighting was going on to her right, further down the hill. Fires sputtered here and there, and the remnants of still-burning phosphorus bombs littered the area. Shapes darted in and out of the blackness, most going north. There were others scattered around the bivouac rummaging through packs and clothes on the dead.

Hearing a painful moan off in the darkness, Merna cautiously stepped forward, peering into the night. At that moment a ruptured fuel can ignited, sending a shower of flaming sparks into the air. The sergeant stared in horror, watching two of the enemy with the wounded lieutenant. One was pulling her shirt up over her head, throwing her arms back as he did. The other had driven his rifle bayonet into her groin and was in process of eviscerating the woman.

Merna went mad. All she could see was her little daughter shrieking for her mother. Growls of ravenous cats fighting over the child filled her ears. She remembered nothing more until she awoke at the base hospital several days later.

Eyewitness accounts of events were recorded in the official records kept by the historian for Stocie’s Company. Following are selected entries:

 

“- Upon seeing the cruelty being heaped upon Lieutenant MaydaIuem, Sergeant MernaEphesus wildly charged the enemy protagonists with her drawn sergeant’s sword. Witnesses attest that the sword not only shown the ghostly blue of a derker blade, but a strange, iridescent, white fire could be seen racing along the edges of the weapon.

“-The enemy was caught by surprise, and had no time to prepare their weapons. As the sergeant went in, she could be heard making the strangest of bone-chilling howls, accompanied by guttural curses uttered in an unknown language.

“-Stepping back to avoid the first blow, the man who was torturing the lieutenant lifted a hand in defense. The sergeant’s sword cleaved the man’s arm below the elbow and continued on to cut through his neck just under his chin. A great rush of misty blood enveloped the sergeant in a cloud of red, saturating her face, hair, and uniform. Before the dying enemy soldier could fall to the ground, Sergeant Merna charged her sword again, bringing it down on the man’s head with such force that it split his skull asunder from just above his nose. The blade, making sizzling and crackling noises, plunged on down through the man’s body, ripping open his chest and stomach cavities, from which his innards fell out.

“-In less than a heartbeat, the sergeant was on the other man, removing his head in one swift blow. A third enemy combatant who came rushing to the support of his comrades was cut down, losing an arm and a leg. The sergeant quickly disemboweled the man, leaving him to die in his agony. She turned and, still howling and uttering fearsome oaths, rushed into the night.

“-By this time the remainder of the sergeant’s water-gathering squad was up, joining the battle. Blue, green, and red of tracer bullets filled the night as the fighting increased. About this same time, other squads of Stocie’s Company arrived, driving the enemy back. In the darkness and confusion of battle, the sergeant was struck by stray bullets but continued in the fight, dispatching one enemy after another.

“- The evidence indicates that sergeant Merna single-handedly killed fourteen attackers. The number she wounded can only be guessed at. Most of the enemy were ripped asunder in her fierce counterattack.

“-It has been reported that some of the surviving enemy soldiers claimed a demon god had risen from the swamp to bring vengeance upon them for their failure to show the wetlands proper respect. Thus the rumor of a ghost warrior called the ‘Crimson Jackal’ has circulated within the Pseudes army. Shortly following this incident, our people began finding stone incense altars near many abandoned enemy encampments in the lowlands. They were sprinkled with blood and holding tiny wooden idols of two-legged jackals brandishing swords.

“-The attackers were eventually driven back, it not being a main thrust, but just a probe of our positions. It being extremely dark and the night filled with new storms of wind and rain, we could not assess the field until dawn.

“- When the numbers were tallied, Stocie’s Company suffered one hundred forty-two casualties, twenty-three being fatal. Most of the fatalities came from Lieutenant MaydaIuem’s platoon, she included.

“- Sergeant Merna was not discovered until morning light. She was found in a stupor, sitting slumped on the bloodied ground, the lieutenant’s upper body cradled in her arms. She was slowly shaking her head, making pitiful cries and muttering over and over, ‘Hilen… Hilen… Hilen…’”

 

  • * *

 

The irresistible force of a wall of ice hurtling down a mountain may well begin with a tiny wisp of a powdery cloud dancing above a trembling mass of frozen snow. When the thunderous sound of the unstoppable avalanche is finally heard, little remains other than to count the seconds to one’s sealed fate. The most cunning and experienced often fall prey to their own self-confidence, feeling beyond any possible threat as they journey beneath the danger in the shadowy valley far below.

Asotos’ prideful arrogance was deceiving him as he journeyed through that treacherous valley. He refused to look upon his enemy as worthy opponents, but instead belittled his adversaries, accusing them of being weak-minded and dullardly. He trusted in what he believed were his ‘superior abilities and wisdom’, disregarding his enemy as little more than a ‘tethered horse waiting to do its master’s bidding’. Little wispy clouds were shooting up everywhere, but he still played ‘Lord Royale’ aboard his private battleship in the blind seclusion of his own private world.

The lessons of the Prisoner Exchange were wasted on the League of Brothers’ chieftain. He scoffed at his humiliation at the hands of Trisha, placing blame on the witchery of Erithia – Lowenah. All too soon he would see that Lowenah’s little darlings were fast learners and growing rapidly. ‘Alba’ and ‘Merna’ were names unknown to him at the moment, the same as ‘Ishtar’, ‘Sarah’ and ‘Treston’. Paul and Jonathan were little toy puppets delivered to help Mihai wile away her lonely hours of absurdity. He ranted to his lieutenants about it.

“These creatures from the Realms Below are of the most inferior stock – stupid monkey children to serve as amusement for the intellectual and powerful. Only a fool would give these things any more consideration than that. Oh, the folly and indignity of having to see them polluting the very world I created!”

He would show them! In just a few days his armadas were to converge upon the main fleets above MueoPoros, and then… and then! Asotos eased himself back in his chair, musing how he would finalize his sweet revenge on those captives. That little bitch-woman from the Prisoner Exchange…he wondered how loud her screams would be as he examined her clear to her kidneys.

“Let the party begin!” He cried to his guests. “Tonight we celebrate the rape of the dawn!”

 

“Yes, my good man, mock the days of little beginnings. Have you forgotten that the greatest warrior begins life as a blind and ignorant babe?”

 

  • * *

 

The cruiser Brosh nestled into the fleet near the Sophia and locked into its same geosynchronous orbit. Ishtar had finally been called down from roster duty and although she was supposed to be readying to depart the Brosh, the girl was crumpled over a duffel bag, fast asleep. Orders filtered down to the crew to let her rest, thanking them for their assistance.

“Away the boat!” Treston called through the speaking tube to the tug’s pilot. Although he had been diligent with his lessons on electronics and communication systems, the colonel found his ability to understand the technology of this strange, modern world temporarily beyond his reach. He could grasp mechanical things like metal speaking tubes, easily remembering such terminology, and would often refer to such devices when the proper term occasioned to abandon him.

“Aye, Colonel!” came the pilot’s reply on the overhead. The pilot smiled to himself. He mused about the colonel’s frustration at all the new-fangled words he was supposed to know. How little the man understood about this place and just how well he really fit in. So many strange words and dialects existed among the children of this realm, even they often became confused over terminology.

It took well over an hour for the tug to carefully maneuver the constant stream of traffic as it closed the thirty-some leagues separating it from the Sophia. Then it waited in the queue for another hour until it managed to obtain a quay for its four barges. The tug pilot watched while a set of double-paneled doors snapped open in the side of the carrier, eventually spreading wide enough to permit all the barges to be pushed inside the one hangar.

The tug released its tethers when the last of the barges cleared the doors. It then backed away to a safe distance. “S-249 rigger tug clear. Standing down on delivery. It’s all yours, CON. You’ve got the package.”

“We read you, S-249er. CON has the package.” The communicator on the tug went silent. “Closing bay eight doors. Stand clear all ships.” The tug acknowledged and darted off to other duties.

Inside the hangar, large machines locked onto the still weightless barges and moved them to various securing pens. In only moments, the gravitational systems were active and air pressure was up. The time it took to unload a packed barge was reduced considerably when it could be done in a holding bay instead of through the barge’s portal.

Few Navy ships could accommodate transport vessels as large as 5,000 dry tonnes except those with exterior docking stations. Most newer carriers could, but not to the capacity of Sophia and her three sister ships: the R’oxanah, PorechoTherion, and the still unfinished CherutNassana.

These ‘flying cities’, as some called them, were to this Navy as the ship o’line was to the last of the great sailing navies in the Second Realm.

With the growing influence of the children from that realm, such romantic terms gradually grew in popularity, eventually supplanting many of the original words used to describe various Navy warships. Those flowery definitions are now found in all but official histories written today. For that reason, I have chosen to sprinkle them around in the text of this very unofficial documentary of the wars.

 

Treston and Alynnou were busy checking off the manifest of goods as they were being unloaded from a barge when Major GefenChanan approached. He extended his hand in salutation, grinning from ear to ear. “Well, hello, Colonel Treston. Did you and your girl…” He pretended to clear his throat. “…Captain Ishtar, have a pleasant journey?” Before Treston could answer, the major leaned close to Alynnou, hiding the side of his mouth as though telling her a secret, loudly whispering, “I’ve heard a lot of stories about the two of ‘em tramping all over the desert, all alone, you know. Said it was basic training and all that…”

Alynnou made a sour face while looking accusatively at Treston. “No need to tell me, Major. I was there. Had to tend to their needs and mend them up after they got all done playing. Never did ask them what they were really doing. Didn’t dare…”

Treston’s face reddened as he defended himself. “I…we were strictly business, I assure you!” The others just stared, a look of disbelief showing on their faces. “No! No! I’m serious…” Flustered, he huffed, “I’m a professional soldier! It’s my duty to do the best I can.” They smirked.

Treston fussed. “I mean it’s my duty to do my best to train and prepare our future officers for their coming responsibilities.”

Alynnou held up a hand and pointed toward her scar. “Yes, and if you don’t get it right away, he’ll take your head off!”

Treston was stopped-up speechless. Alynnou had been innocent in her statement, carrying the mirth of the moment, but Treston stung inside. Each day he found his feelings growing for his lieutenant and each time he looked at her injury, the more he berated himself for being so violent with her.

Major Gefen allowed Treston little time to feel remorse. Still grinning, he again extended his hand. “Welcome aboard, Colonel Treston. We’ve been anticipating your arrival. I have been requested to show you and the lieutenant here to your room. Dinner in the officers’ mess will be at seven, followed by a briefing session at eight-twenty.”

Treston choked out the question, “Room?! Did you say room…for the lieutenant and me?”

Major Gefen frowned. “I’m sorry, Colonel, but we are a little cramped right now. With the army making the Sophia its temporary headquarters, we’ve had to double up.” Then he reassured Treston. “Don’t worry, Sir. The cabin has a rather large bed…for a cabin, I mean. There should be plenty of room for two to sleep in it at once.”

Treston began to put up a fuss, attempting to offer reasons why such an arrangement was not possible. In surprise, Alynnou asked, “What’s wrong, Colonel Treston? I don’t snore.” She watched panic growing on his face. Her eyebrows rose. “Don’t worry, Sir, I won’t jump you in your sleep. I’ll even keep a gown on, if my appearance bothers you.”

“I…I…we…can’t…” Treston fumbled for words. Finally, he blurted out, “Major, do you have extra space in your cabin?”

Gefen shook his head. “Sorry, Sir, but my duty officer is bunked there. Let me reassure you, that cabin is already too small for her and me.”

Treston relaxed and smiled. “Then why don’t you have your duty officer and my lieutenant bunk together and I can share your room?”

Surprised, Major Gefen exclaimed, “Why that just wouldn’t do, Sir! People talk, you know. In this day and age, we have to be careful of our reputations!”

Lieutenant Alynnou broke in, a cloud growing on her face. “Sir, if my company bothers you so, then I will gladly use the floor, or maybe there’s a lounge I can find.”

Treston nearly shouted in desperation, waving his hands to stop her. “No! No! That’s not necessary at all! I…we… it can be worked out, Lieutenant. Maybe you should take the bed and I’ll find a lounge somewhere. I’ll…”

Treston could see the hurt on Alynnou’s face, but couldn’t understand the reason. His mind comprehended the culture of these people, but his heart still was chained to his days of long ago. He feared his growing desire and passion for his lieutenant, not wanting to damage their relationship.

Alynnou, though, could only see rejection. How ugly she looked to him, with the ghastly scar and all – or maybe it was her figure. He had been enamored with Ishtar, who was quite bosomy. Alynnou could not compete with a girl shaped like that.

“Hello, my sweet one!” A charming voice echoed from across the holding-bay. Everyone turned to see who was approaching.

Sirion came running up to Treston, arms spread. She almost leaped into his arms, hugging him tight and planting one giant kiss on his lips. She purred, “It’s been so many days since we have shared our dreams. I do hope you will have the time to reacquaint yourself with me while you’re here.”

Oh, for the Reaper of Death! He never arrives when you need him most!

Treston wished for death at that moment, or at least a deep, deep hole to crawl into. His faced flushed red as sweat beaded on his forehead. He would be the first to admit that he was used to romancing the ladies – at least in the old days, but these people were too much!

Treston stuttered his greetings, feeling very conspicuous and embarrassed. He wasn’t yet comfortable with such openness when it came to relationships. Certainly, these people must be viewing him as a womanizer or even worse! He began to attempt an explanation.

Sirion misunderstood what he intended. She squeezed his arm. “Don’t be so concerned, Love. I won’t demand all your time.” shaking her head, “Eutychus arrived the other day. He’s been willing to keep me company.” Then looking at Alynnou and seeing the expression on her face, she added, “You’ll have lots of time to spend with the lieutenant. Why, if you’re real busy, we don’t even need to spend a night together…just an hour or so.” She giggled, “It’ll be like old times again.”

Alynnou broke in, “He doesn’t want to spend the night with me. I’m ugly in his eyes.” She pointed at her scar. “Or maybe my breasts do not appeal to him.”

Treston cried, reaching out and clutching Alynnou’s arm. “You’re beautiful! The most beautiful woman I know! And your br…your br…” He flustered all up again.

“Then why won’t you share your bed with me?!” Alynnou demanded, hurt showing on her face.

“I…we…well…you see…you and I…” Treston was completely lost.

Sirion took hold of Alynnou’s arm. “What he’s trying to say is he cares enough about you that he’s afraid of ruining the relationship if he becomes impassioned over you. He thinks if he acts like a man and desires your flesh, you’ll become angry or hurt, feeling he only wants to satisfy his personal desires.”

Alynnou looked at Treston, not understanding, then replied, “I want him act like a man – not just any man, but the man I am finding such strange feelings for. There is little that would please me more than to have him express his passionate emotions for me.”

The frown returned to Alynnou’s face. “I have watched how he looks at that girl. He watches her breasts bounce as she skips about. I see the desire on his face. His eyes don’t watch my breasts when I walk, naked, in my off-duty hours. He turns away, and says nothing. Even when I have come close, so he can smell the scent of my desire, he says not a word other than to ask of my well-being.”

Sirion smiled. “My dear Lieutenant Alynnou, let me explain. The men of the Second Realm are a very peculiar lot. If they really care for a woman, they appear to ignore her, feeling that she will despise their uninvited attention. Truth be said, the good colonel here is by far one of the most timid of those men-creatures I’ve known. I spent months convincing him to let me share my dreams with him and, after we did, he feared I would hate him.”

Treston was shocked, exclaiming, “What…?”

Sirion cut him off. “If the good colonel has declined to look at your nakedness, then he is showing you great honor, for a man from the realms below does that out of respect for the woman’s privacy, it being their custom to cover themselves unless they are harlots or loose women. A decent woman wouldn’t flaunt her naked body in front of a man unless he was one with her.”

“But I want him to be one with me” Alynnou confessed, “…the same as he is one with you, for I see he has made you happy. I want him to look at me the same as he does that girl.”

Sirion slowly shook her head. “You don’t understand. The girl and Colonel Treston are bonded together at the heart. Lowenah has made them one in spirit. I have heard stories and desire to share my dreams with him to see if they are so. I have also been told that the girl belongs to no man until Shiloh comes. Then she will become a new creation. That’s what I’ve been told.”

Alynnou was curious. “I feel a pain in my heart such as I have never before encountered. When I think of the Colonel, my heart aches within me. Never have I suffered this way, although countless are the men I have made one with me. This man is different. I have become angry when I watch him with Ishtar.”

“It’s called ‘love’…” Surprised, Sirion and the others stared at Treston, waiting to hear more.

He finally continued, “Captain Ishtar and I journeyed back to the world of our birth. It was done, I believe, to help prepare Ishtar for future days. Yehowah –Lowenah – gave to us both wonderful gifts.” Treston pulled a pendant fastened to a gold chain from under his shirt. “This was the wedding gift I gave to my wife. After she died of the sickness, I carried it next to my heart for the rest of my life. It was buried in my grave after my death these two thousand years ago.”

Taking hold of the chain, he pulled it over his head. “I loved my wife in a way I have never loved any other woman…until today.” He paused then sighed. “Now I understand.”

Everyone was still, waiting on Treston. “When Ishtar and I returned from the realms below, Lowenah gifted us with treasures carried over from there to here. Most precious are these, for as I understand, never before has Lowenah done such a thing, to bring what is from one realm into the other. But it was not just these treasures alone that Lowenah gave us, for she spoke of things that were, and that are, and of things yet to come. She spoke to me words strange to my ears that only now do I begin to understand.”

“Lowenah asked me if I would be willing to discover the hearts of her children under my command. That I felt I had accomplished – at least at the time. I have attempted to do what she asked. But there were other words I heard that had no meaning to me…that is, until now. Let me please reveal to you what she said. I shall try to be concise and then you tell me if I have come to gain understanding of them.”

He shared Lowenah’s statements. “‘I am giving to you the child you have requested. She is older than you by many lifetimes of men and her wisdom is greater than yours. You hold not just her life in your hands. Her heart is gathered there as well, for she will fall in love with the man commanding her. Will you allow her into your soul? Will you let her see into your secret dreams? Will you give her the love that all my daughters need?’”

“Now, for my part, I believed these words to be little more than allegory. After much meditation, I concluded it to mean the world of your kind, the term ‘woman’ symbolizing you and your ways. With this understanding, I attempted to give myself over to learning more about your people and your culture. Alas, I believe this line of reasoning has proved itself false to me. My world is a small one and I am a little man.”

He reached out and took Alynnou’s hand. “I saw good qualities in you the day I beat you so. Maybe I fought you harder because I feared your loss on the field if you weren’t prepared for the contest. Or was it because, like a little boy with his first crush, I wanted you to remember me, even if it caused you grief and pain?”

Treston shrugged. “I asked the field marshal for you to assist me in my duties, saying in my heart, ‘she has such good officer potential, I can trust in her abilities’. And then I departed for the Second Realm with Ishtar. After my return, I was so absorbed in helping the girl, knowing how little time she had to learn her responsibilities and…probably because of my infatuation with her…I ignored you.”

Looking into Alynnou’s eyes, Treston expressed his growing feelings. “Often times, when we were together, I caught myself starting to call you ‘Doronea’. That was my wife’s name. It means ‘the giver of good things’.” He shook his head. “I hadn’t realized just how deep my love for her was.”

Alynnou let go Treston’s hand and touched his arm.

Treston smiled, continuing, “I guess I became afraid and refused to consider Lowenah’s words in any other way. My life has been one of loss and death. For thirty years, I served under the military dictatorship of my country. A brother, uncle, and two cousins I watched die beside me. My sister was murdered by her own husband, her beaten body thrown to the dogs outside the wall of her city. My sword has quenched its thirst with the blood of over seventy men, women and children. I have raped, tortured, and murdered my way across the empire of old. I am a man fit for nothing!”

“My desire has been to redeem myself in some small way. I wanted to focus my entire attention on accomplishing it through bringing our enemy to his finish. How could love and affection for any woman fulfill my needed destiny? Love would interfere with my goal: to rid my soul of its guilt over the evil of my wanton murder by the virtuous murder of our enemy. Ishtar was safe for my eyes to gaze upon because she was untouchable, out of reach, you might say.”

Sirion piped in. “Then what of me? I found you more than willing to adventure with me in my sheets of silk and satin. Was it because you found me untouchable or did you have no love for me?”

Treston apologized. “Oh, Sirion, how wonderful are your kisses, and to rest in your bosom a delight!” He gave a cautious glance toward Alynnou. She was taking no offense, just waiting to hear his reply. “You were my mentor, the teacher who guided me through this strange land when first I arrived. I love you with all my heart, my soul being torn apart when you were stolen away from me…from us. We have made an unshakable covenant and my desire has been to share the blood grape with you one day.”

He again looked at Alynnou, wondering what was going on in her mind, he singing sweet nothings to another woman. Seeing no change in her disposition, he continued. “Sirion, you have given me refreshment, but…but you are safe. I do not lead you into battle where I may have to dictate your life or death. You also do not demand more of me than I wish to give. We are ‘friends of the covenant’, such as by the custom of my day, a marriage of sorts. Still I feel no chains binding me nor do I have any binding you, other say than our promise of protective care and devotion.”

“But this woman is dangerous and I fear her.” Treston pointed at Alynnou. A look of shock crossed her face. He addressed her, “Do you think I haven’t felt your love, seen the way you linger in my presence for no reason at all? My entire body trembles when I see you wander the camp in your birthing apparel. I have not dared think about you for fear I might reach out and touch you and not be able to stop touching you.”

Lowenah’s words came to his mind. “As your mother spoke to me, so I have feared the question, ‘will you allow her into your soul?’ Yet, from day to day… no…from hour to hour, I find my heart being drawn into yours. And now I don’t know what to do, for I find myself gazing into forgotten feelings, not believing I could love this deeply again. Also I fear, for should I allow my heart to fall in love with this woman, will I be able to command her death should the need call for it, or will my selfishness take over?”

Alynnou’s voice was little more than a whisper. “Strange the music plays upon a heart so filled with wonder. The days of my virginity were but twelve years and two months, but I feel that my heart has yet to have a man. When I look at you, I find my childhood of innocence returned, and my soul seeks fulfillment for want of your love.”

She then addressed Treston’s fears of her death in battle. “Should the arrow cleave my soul, is it not but a fleeting moment before we shall be together again, for I would sleep in pleasant dreamlessness, satisfied of a returning. But each hour I wait upon your love is an eternity for my heart. It weighs heavy upon me, making me sick with unfulfilled desire. No, Colonel Treston, death is not the ultimate price to pay. It is the waiting to live that costs the most, waiting to find what lies beyond your dreams.”

Treston expressed his concerns. “I have journeyed the dark road of death and do not fear it for myself. I fear living…living from day to day, waiting for your return. If you love someone, the hours together are as the life of the butterfly, but the time apart is like the hopeless nights of winter while one waits upon the daybreak of spring.”

Alynnou countered. “Still, the spring comes. You have lived with loss, and to you, many years it has been. But listen, please, to me and hear what I speak.”

“The day of our torment, the day the souls of Lowenah’s daughters died in fire and anguish, has been over seventy of your lifetimes. Our husbandly owner, the keeper of our secrets, our souls and our hearts, abandoned us to the cold of life’s winter. Even now, he seeks our humiliation by revealing to all what we shared with him in private.”

A tear ran down Alynnou’s cheek. “We have been stripped naked in the public square, our private parts exposed for the entertainment of others. Our rape has been made complete by the actions taken against the weaker of our kind by the brutish monsters who were once our lovers.” She looked at Sirion. “Do you not realize that when my sister’s temple was desecrated by the men and beasts in Asotos’ camp, a part of my soul died inside me?”

She waved Treston silent. “It was promised to us by our mother that one day the men of your world would come to us, the daughters of the darkness, and give back to us what was stolen. It was said that we would become like young maidens again and, in the arms of those men, we would be reborn, forgetting the evil past. I and my sisters have longed for that day, desperately holding onto the hope promised. Many of my sisters have departed for the Field of the Minds attempting to hurry that time.”

The woman made confession of secrets untold. “For many long days, I did nothing but weep over my lost virginity, waiting for the promise of my rebirth. I allowed my sisters to carry the burden of sacrifice to bring it to fruition. Their blood, tears, and souls I allowed to be poured out on the field of battle for me, while I sat alone, selfishly crying over my loss. Their torn and mangled bodies I refused to look upon, forcing others to prepare them for the Silent Tombs. I finally ran away and hid myself in the northern mountains, seeking solace in my self-pity.”

“And then, one day, news reached my ears concerning the torture of Sirion at the hands of my former lover. I was also told about our brave young sister, Darla, the youngest of all womankind, and how she faced the Dragon at the Prisoner Exchange. I became ashamed in my heart and a loathing I felt for my own soul. I began to regret my life, wishing instead for the blade’s fury splitting me asunder, as it had already done to so many of my sisters.”

Treston attempted to offer reassuring words. In desperation, Alynnou silenced him. “Please, my Lord, allow the chaff to speak before it is swept from the threshing floor…”

“In my guilt, I asked myself, ‘Who am I but a tiny speck of a flea, nourishing my thirst from the richness of a fattened dog, thinking all along that I deserve to be fed because I exist?’ So I said to myself, ‘I shall help buy for others what my heart has for so long craved’. At that I offered my soul up to the gods of war, almost hoping to be placed in the front lines, facing a charging enemy.”

She shook her head. “But no! They said to me, ‘An officer is your destiny. You shall learn how to command and give orders and send others to their deaths.’ I said to myself, ‘Oh, for my wickedness!’ I believed the Cherubs were repaying me for my dereliction of responsibility. Here I was, a child born in the First Age when those Magistrates of Justice would still occasion their presence upon Lowenah’s children. And I had been more than blessed with an unduly amount of their attention. ‘How they must hate me now.’ I thought.”

“I cried out to my mother for forgiveness but felt no reply, only a soothing warmth that flowed like a river down my neck and into my back and heart. So I concluded that I was being given a chance to redeem myself by becoming valiant in battle. I would lead my people to glory, hoping in my heart to be killed while doing it. My death would absolve me of my sins and, if I gained a new life, I could start afresh. With renewed hope, I applied myself to the task assigned.”

Alynnou took Treston’s hand. “And then, that day we were sparring in the desert, I saw you. I knew at once you were a man not of this world. You were brutish and proud, like the sons of the Abyss. But I saw kindness in your eyes – a love for others and good things, like our mother. And then you challenged me to a contest.”

She leaned close, honesty showing in her eyes. “I was better than you, still am, for my skill is with the baton, and with the staff I have driven the lion away from my kill. My speed with it remains uncontested for, in the games, I have mastered all of Lowenah’s creatures with my cunning blows.”

Treston began to fuss, wondering, if that were the case, why she let him win.

Alynnou placed two fingers on his lips. “Shush. I will explain. I didn’t let you win. I did try to defeat you, but couldn’t. My mind was in such a tizzy over you. I had heard stories of men having already arrived from the Realms Below, but you were the first one I saw. As we fought for the ridge, my heart raced with hopeful desires. In my distraction, I let down my guard for just an instant. I remember little until I heard you call for water to be brought me.” She shyly lowered her head. “It was at the moment I felt a strange burning start in my heart.”

Alynnou quickly added, “You did teach me a good lesson, one I remember well. In combat, I must not allow my mind to drift. I must remain alert, constantly searching for my enemy’s weakness.” She frowned. “When I was called to be at your side, I believed Mother had forgiven me my wickedness. Not waiting to learn your ways, I pursued your company, anxiously wishing to gain for myself the promise.”

A gloominess of foreboding filled her face as she let go Treston’s hand, turning away. “The words our mother spoke to you must apply to another one yet to come. For only in selfishness have I acted, wishing to have my heart satisfied above my sisters. I am to pay the price of such wantonness, for now, not only do I see your righteous indignation chasing me away, but my heart burns with a fire I cannot understand and there will be no relief from my suffering it until the day of Shiloh, when he makes all things new.”

Treston was shocked. He reached for Alynnou, but Sirion stopped him. Holding her hand out, she motioned him to wait. She then grasped Alynnou’s arm and peered up into the woman’s tear-filled eyes. “Sister, stop! Who have you harmed other than yourself? Your sin is not against me or our other sisters.”

Sirion explained, “I am a child of this age, knowing little more than treachery and death. Still, I understand the tribulation of the heart with love lost. I, too, shared my dreams with the Serpent…and he stole from me my Coming of age. And I, too, dreamed of a rebirth through the love of this man.” She nodded her head toward Treston.

Sirion slowly shook her head in sadness. “His love satisfied my soul and I treasure my time with him. Even now, I so much want his intimate company. But he has not delivered my heart from the depths of my pain. He cannot…at least, not at this time.”

Surprised, Alynnou asked, “Have our mother’s words to us been mere riddles – a confection of sweet tales designed to salve our hearts until they heal on their own?” She was confused, so confused. “Is it my own sinning against my soul that has brought about this fire in my chest? I ache from morning to morning, and the ache only increases the more I am near this man. Is this the price I pay for my own wickedness?”

Sirion smiled. “No, no, my dear sister. Please permit your servant girl time to explain.” she scolded, “And don’t interrupt!”

Alynnou nodded.

“Good!” Sirion grinned. “First, allow me to tell you, my time with the colonel as his mentor was two years less thirty-days. He and I shared many secrets, many of which belong only to us. I have not shared a bed with him since my suffering at the hands of Godenn and Legion, and this I want to change. Still, it is not to mend my heart I seek his company, for this he could not do before and cannot do now.”

“Just so you know, my torture and abuse at the hands of Asotos and his henchmen tore apart my body but not my heart. Like you, that was done when he assaulted our sister, Mihai. Like you, I died that day. But unlike you, I carried the guilt of my sister’s attack long after the Rebellion started for, you see, I had shared the very bed of Asotos the night before he murdered the heart of our sister. I saw the darkness within his mind and refused to question it, seeking for myself the rapturous ecstasy he could give a woman.”

“My confessions to Lowenah did little to console my guilt, other than to inform me that others of my sisters and Lowenah, herself, felt responsible for Mihai’s ordeal. When offered the privilege of mentoring one of the sons from Below, I believed the same as you, that he would cure my heart. But I discovered just how little I understood the meaning of our mother’s promise.”

Sirion bent her head to the side in thought, wanting to use just the right words. “When I shared my sweet dreams with Treston, I enjoyed the ecstasy of sensual romance. Indeed, he tried so hard to make me happy. Still, he could not satisfy my soul. And it is good that he couldn’t, because I could not have returned to him what he would have needed.” Taking a finger and poking Alynnou on the chest, Sirion exclaimed, “But you can!”

“What?! How!?” Alynnou cried.

Sirion put her fingers to Alynnou’s mouth and waited for the woman to calm down. “In our dreams together, I saw a man troubled and forlorn over a woman he lost long ago. His own regrets over her death, and his normal feelings of guilt, thinking how poorly he had treated her while she lived, prevented him from opening his heart…something I could feel, but not understand…that is until this very hour.”

“You see, by our definition, the colonel here has given his love to me. At least that’s what all the children of this realm would say. And they would be correct in saying so. I, too, have given my complete love to him…all I have to give. But Mother saw in the children of the Lower Realms a depth of emotion that far exceeds any that you and I have experienced – that is, until now. I believe it is why our king keeps the man, Paul, so close to her, for she has experienced that depth of emotion from him.”

She softly stroked Alynnou’s arm. “Now, my dear, allow me still more. I’m almost finished. I believe you have been made a beacon of hope for your sisters and the words Treston said our mother uttered do apply to you. For I see a heart burning with a new feeling, a passion that is not yet possessed by the others. Mother was not telling us that we would be returned to our former selves. She was hinting at us attaining a new level of ecstasy, one far beyond our former selves.”

Sirion looked into Alynnou’s eyes with longing. “You, my fortunate one, have fallen in love. Already, your have become one with this man in spirit, and soon, I do know for a fact, shall become one with him in the flesh.”

Treston allowed no more time for either woman to speak. He blurted out to Alynnou, “What she says is true! Her words have been more precise and definitely more poetic than I could manage, but they are the same as I have said to you, here on this very spot.”

He excitedly added, “Lowenah said more to me the day of our returning. She said that I must learn to give gifts that are fitting the needs of my sisters.” With that, Treston took the golden pendant and slipped its chain over Alynnou’s head. “Only to a woman I loved as much as my wife, or possibly more, could I give this gift for I do love you very much.”

Alynnou could not help herself. She began to blubber, falling upon Treston’s neck, her tears running in streams onto his shirt. In a moment or two, she had regained her composure and stood up straight. Still, she couldn’t speak a word, only offer a shaky smile.

Then looking at Sirion, a sad frown grew on Alynnou’s face. “Not only have I stolen your dream of the heart, I have trampled on your desire to be with the colonel, thinking only of myself.”

Sirion gave a toothy smile. “That you have not done. For you see, Treston has already made a covenant with me and my requests he cannot reject.” She walked over and took Treston’s arm. “This night I shall take for my reward the man I am holding. The days are short and tomorrow I have to leave on another sortie. Should the arrow find me then, Treston will not carry the burden of neglect for me.”

She then took Alynnou, tenderly gripping her arms. “Tonight, prepare yourself for your new beginning and celebrate the following nights with this man to the full, until your Coming of age has been renewed. My soul and yours are one, are they not? We are sisters of the blood or soon will be.”

The women tenderly embraced and then each one did the same with Treston. They began to carry on some small talk.

After waiting patiently for such a long time, Major Gefen politely intruded. “Well, can I take it that we have the cabin issue settled?”

The others confirmed that it was so.

“Very well, then!” He smiled and tipped his head. “Allow me to show you to your room.”

Merrily chattering away, the tiny group happily followed the major. Just as they slipped into the elevator, the major raised his hand, extending his finger. “Remember, dinner is served promptly at nineteen hundred hours.”

 

  • * *

 

The Admiral of the Fleet, Gabrielle, was a most courteous host for General PalaHar. After lunching together, she had given him a tour of the main bridge, battle bridge, the two major hangar bays, and the forward armory and torpedo galleries. It was late afternoon by the time the two retired to the admiral’s private office and ready room.

PalaHar chewed on some mints and roasted fruit-nuts as he and Gabrielle conversed. After the official business of running a war was concluded, the general detailed his account of Mihai’s last council meeting, adding his insights and concerns regarding Anna’s veiled accusations against Terey being an enemy mole.

Gabrielle sat in thought, tapping her fingers on the highly polished teakwood table, her fingernails making a sharp clicking sound as she did so. PalaHar examined his long-time confederate and trusted companion. The war had hardened the woman. She never really smiled anymore. Indeed, there was always a serious, grave appearance about her. Still strikingly beautiful, the war had taken a powerful toll on the woman.

For nearly six thousand years, Gabrielle had carried the banner of the Children’s Empire. Until Mihai’s ascent to the throne, the admiral was the power in the land, and she was still the power behind the throne. Her service to the Empire and its constantly changing needs had ravaged her health. Chronic digestive illnesses troubled her, leaving her over two stone underweight. And the increasing headaches, especially bad since the Chisamore incident, sapped her of most of her mental communication powers.

The admiral raised her head, staring into PalaHar’s eyes, asking, “So tell me, please, how do I confront the evidence against Terey? I trust you fully, but I must tell you, Terey has become a person under suspicion, even among the flight crews.”

“But why?” PalaHar was surprised. “I, alone, have been commissioned to deliver to your ears and yours only the minutes of the king’s council meeting. I have told no one. In fact, I refused to send you specifics when asking for an audience with you, fearing unwelcome eyes or ears.”

Gabrielle sighed while placing a hand to her forehead. Pain was growing rapidly between her eyes. She motioned PalaHar to wait a moment while she downed a little powdery substance with some water. Setting the cup on the table, the admiral confided, “My brother, I am sick – so sick, I fear a stroke will soon take me. Still, I cannot afford to leave the bridge. Reports have come to me this very day that three more of Asotos’ fleets have been located near this sector. In only days, we will be engaged in another Day of Tears, I’m afraid.” She shook her head in helpless remorse. “I cannot afford to be sick at this time. I can not!”

PalaHar said nothing. This was no time to speak. Few were the confidants of the admiral in these troubled times. She needed to talk to someone, someone who would understand and empathize, someone who would keep things private. He asked, “What are you taking? Is it for the headaches?”

Nodding, Gabrielle answered, “It’s a concoction of toxic herbs. It makes me wretch once in awhile, and I won’t be able to eat for a day or two, but it should clear my head.”

“The odor on your breath tells me it’s from the strictnoisun plant.” PalaHar replied, warning, “Asotos has used a variant of it as a nerve agent.”

Gabrielle confirmed his suspicion, adding, “Few know of this weed and fewer still know the smell it leaves on your breath. And yes, I am aware of Asotos’ use of it. In fact, it was after my studies of his experiments I attempted it as a cure for my ills.”

PalaHar watched the admiral’s face. In only moments, her eyes cleared. The drug was already numbing the pain. Gabrielle would have an hour or so of reasonable comfort and then cramps, followed by bleeding from nasal and anal cavities, and then light paralysis in the hands and forearms. An overdose might hemorrhage her brain or constrict arteries, causing a heart attack as well as possibly interfering with involuntary breathing, suffocating her, should the woman become unconscious.

The general leaned forward and placed his hand over hers. “My dear one, ‘Daughter of the Hoarfrost’, ‘Keeper of the Crystal Skies’, there are other ways to deal with your disease. Allow me, please, a night to use my magic and see if your sickness is not reduced.”

Gabrielle’s composure was unchanged. Just a growing tear betrayed the admiral’s relief and appreciation for PalaHar’s offer. In a whisper, she replied, “Few are the men still alive who dare risk the despair dwelling in my mind. I once was called the ‘Princess of Fantasy’, the ‘Fulfiller of Dreams’. Now men fear I might seek them out for their attention. I have become like a leper – the walking dead – busying myself in the night to avoid lonely dreams.”

She frowned. “Only the youngest of all the children desires my attention. He makes my heart merry. But, alas, I have needed to surrender Zadar up to the daughter of earthling men. His last loving touch was many months ago.”

Placing her other hand over PalaHar’s, the admiral confided, “I have needs, too. But to the men of this world, I am no longer a woman. I am their untouchable leader.”

PalaHar’s affection was carried on his reply. “To me, you are still the ‘Queen of Fantasy’. Never has a woman pleasured me more. Were I to live but one day longer, I would consider my life satisfied if the previous night was shared in your arms. There is not another person like you. In my eyes, an eternity with you would be too little time.”

Gabrielle blushed and shyly replied, “Already your medicine is having a cure. My heart pains me less; I breathe easier, and the distress in my mind has diminished. A night with you will act as a great cure. But what would a week bring, or even a month?” She sighed again. “Well, we at least have a night…maybe two.”

PalaHar smiled. “Be patient but a moment and the coming evil battle will have passed. You and I shall then immerse our spirits in the mineral lakes of Diamond Ridge. I will sing you my ‘Ode to the Eagle and the Flying Hare’.” He grinned. “I just made it up on my trip here.” Then, closing his eyes he smiled and let out with an, “Mmmm… mmm… mmm. We’ll soak all day and dream all night. Whatcha’ say? Do I have a take on my offer?”

Gabrielle could only smile and nod. How wonderful it would be to rest from her duties! The vision of a week or two away from the front lifted her spirits. She tingled inside. A rush of newfound energy filled her head, nearly making her giddy. But the reality of the moment refused to give up the helm. It soon forced its attention back upon the woman. The vision of delights faded until all but its shadow was gone. Her concerns about Terey returned.

“So, you asked me about Terey.” Gabrielle said sadly. She went on to explain, “Terey and Sirion were in a medical bay, a few days ago – the same Sirion from the Prisoner Exchange – and were having a rather loud discussion about Tizrela’s demise. Terey went on about other commanders and where they should have been at the time of attack on the fleet when Tizrela died. Well, as I have gathered, there were two communications officers present, visiting an injured comrade, who overheard the things she said. They shared with others that information, as well as news of coded communiques coming from MueoPoros to someone on the Sophia.”

PalaHar’s face reddened in anger. Gabrielle silenced him. “I have seen to the discipline of those officers, but it does Terey little good. And, truth be said, evidence is stacking up against the woman. Her mysterious disappearance on the planet, not being able to give a specific location of the crash, or able to tell us the name of the unit or names of the engineers assisting her have not been helpful for her defense of innocence. And, besides that, there have been other reports reaching my ears concerning Mihai’s last meeting before you got here.”

Curious, PalaHar asked for details. Gabrielle was apprehensive, not desiring to cause unnecessary upset, but finally surrendered to his need to know.

First, she reassured him, “I trust you completely, and let me also say, there is no question in my mind of Terey’s honesty and loyalty. I, too, am aware of her invitation to the Council of Eighty but, unlike you, know the reason for her absence. And it wasn’t convalescing from her injuries while serving on the Chisamore.”

She instinctively glanced around the room, making sure there were no other people there. “Mother confided to me that she used Terey’s accident as an excuse to engage certain parties who shall remain nameless…” she winked, “so their absence at the Council of Eighty wouldn’t be brought into question. Mother concluded the issue over Terey’s acceptance into the Eighty would quickly be settled upon her return to Palace City. Then she and Mihai could have a private audience with Mother.”

“But alas, it didn’t transpire. Someone managed to get under Terey’s skin. You know how quickly she reacts to supposed insults. Someone got to her first – a person or persons she deeply trusted.” Gabrielle shrugged. “In the end, Terey went off in a huff and Mihai didn’t bother to consult with Mother, trusting instead in someone with smooth speech and winsome words.”

Gabrielle addressed the leaks. “I have no proof who’s responsible for the breech of information. If I did, let me assure you, I would force an official inquiry. Still, the damage is done. Only two days after the meeting, while Terey was missing, the gossip was already spreading through the fleet that Terey was under investigation for treason and you were coming to head up a committee to look into it.”

She repeated her trust in Terey, but then added, “It is better to cage the toothless snake than to risk a stampede in a herd. I removed Terey from active flight duty. Needless to say, the only reason she hasn’t bolted is because I ordered it. She is an obedient soldier, I must say. Never the less, I don’t know how long I can contain the brewing storm in the woman’s heart. Even now she takes her meals in her cabin, only leaving it for roster duty.”

PalaHar was cautious, knowing Terey all too well. “How can you be so sure she won’t slip out on you?”

“I secured her fighter, putting a standing guard over it twenty-four hours a day.” She answered, then, as she again tapped her finger on the table, explained, “That includes the computer system the pilot carries when flying. There is no way our girl would leave that behind. It has over four hundred years of her growing symbiotic relationships with the ships she’s captained recorded on it. No, she will not risk losing that.”

PalaHar cautioned, “Do be careful, for I fear our girl doing something unpredictable, even rash. I’m afraid she will not wait for exoneration, but seek some way to prove her innocence and loyalty.”

“What more do you suggest I do, General PalaHar?” Gabrielle queried. She leaned forward in her chair and placed a hand on his knee. “I won’t lock her in the brig, or even consign her to her cabin. She is innocent, and we both know it. My guilt already haunts me because I feel responsible for taking her aboard. I wanted her fighting skills and readily accepted her request. I should have forced the woman to work things out with Mihai.”

Folding her arms across her chest, Gabrielle, admiral of the fleet, shook her head, declaring resolutely, “Terey is a free woman and can come and go as she sees fit. I hold her fighter here, in abeyance – something I can do because it belongs to the Navy. If she were truly guilty of all the crimes implied against her, I still would not stop her flight. No, my dear brother, I will not make her a prisoner of the Children’s Empire. I owe her too much to act so wickedly against her.”

“Then allow me some time with the woman.” PalaHar requested, taking Gabrielle’s hand. “I can show her my support…yours also. It will also give me opportunity to see just how she’s taking things. Maybe I can fill her in on the last meeting.”

This met with Gabrielle’s approval, but she warned, “Don’t mention Anna’s name or any others for that matter. We have no proof. I’m afraid to stir the pot at the moment. Anna has a lot of loyal supporters in the fleet. If word got out of our criticism of her…well, I don’t need contention in the fleet at the moment.”

PalaHar nodded his reassurance, stating he would not mention any names or imply guilt. He was starting to explain more concerning his feelings regarding the matter when he was interrupted by a sharp rapping on the admiral’s door.

After being hailed by the admiral, a nattily dressed bridge officer hurried into the room, tipping her kepi in salute, excitedly declaring, “Admiral, we have an urgent message from the barkentine, GrizBokk. It has picked up an open channel signal from the RananAhot, requesting a guided escort to the fleet. The GrizBokk, along with the cutters Rhapahaddon and ShigGhen have answered the request and, unless otherwise ordered, shall meet up with the RananAhot and its support ships, and escort them here.”

Gabrielle was puzzled. “Isn’t the RananAhot the king’s ship?”

The bridge officer confirmed.

The admiral thanked the officer for delivering the message so promptly then approved the GrizBokk’s actions. After finding out the approximate time of arrival of the RananAhot, she politely dismissed the officer.

After the door was again closed, she whipped around in a near rage, fire blazing in her eyes. “Shit! Shit! Shit! That’s all we need now, our king and chief magistrate coming for a little visit, just as the entire enemy navy is preparing to drop in on us! What a fool thing to do! And to broadcast across a god-damned open channel?! What in Hell does she want?! To invite Asotos in for a cup of god-damned tea?!”

She slammed her fist on the table, then in frustration grasped her head with both hands. “Ohhhh! I’m dying…or wishing so!”

PalaHar stood and walked around and behind the admiral. He began to gently rub her shoulders while singing a soothing healing song. Gabrielle gradually relaxed, eventually dropping her hands into her lap and letting her head slump forward. After twenty minutes or so, PalaHar heard a deep, rhythmic breathing. His companion was almost asleep.

He bent down and cooed in her ear, “There are nearly seven hours before your mistress arrives. Let me, please, work what magic I can in the fleeting time that remains before her entrance. Should I succeed, you will be a much better host than at the moment.”

Gabrielle groggily nodded, moaning her pleasure at his touch. He helped the admiral up and, half-walking and half-carrying the woman, assisted her to her cabin.

 

  • * *

 

James stared out the portal of the ancient dreadnaught, newly renamed ‘Excalibur’, after its overhaul at the Crontiriny Navy Depot. He watched the painting crew finishing up the last touches of the new design emblazoned on the bow of the ship. Along with an ornate sword dripping blood, a giant skull and crossbones was affixed about a third of the way back along the ship’s side.

After puzzling over so many things, James had finally asked people in the know what was going on. First, he was a Marine officer and was supposed to be en route to the Fourth Fleet, to serve on the GoshStock. At the last minute, he had been transferred to the Excalibur just before leaving the Navy yard, no reasons given. Second, why the skull and crossbones?

Here’s what he was told: Someone high up requested he be placed in her command. All the person would tell him about his new assignment was that another battle group was being assembled, commandeering every available fighting ship and transport in the entire district. It was unofficially being called the “Dredges Battle Group” or “The Nazareth’s Miracle”. Commodore General Sarah had rushed its assembly as soon as its flagship, the Chisamore, pulled out of Crontiriny. It was also said that Commodore Nazareth was personally taking them into action immediately.

The skull and crossbones was the insignia of Special Forces. He found that out when an officer handed him one to sew on his sleeve. When he protested, telling her he was a Marine, she looked him in the eye and snarled, “Not anymore! Orders from the top!”

He later learned, to his chilling surprise, the motto adopted by the officers and enlisted of this elite fighting group: ‘There are no rules in war.’

The ship’s name? Well, that was also interesting. There were several people working on Major Garlock’s design team who were from the Second Realm. One such fellow, name of ‘Smythe’ – at least that’s what James recalled – oversaw the reconstruction of the hulks and derelicts being received at the Crontiriny Depot for salvage. He renamed this old ship ‘Excalibur’ after a magic weapon found in one of his people’s ancient fables.

It was the custom at that time for a ship to be renamed after being officially decommissioned, and then returned to service. It was generally up to the chief overseer of the reconstruction to choose the new name, if one was desired. For this reason, there came to exist many ships in this war that bore familiar names found in the Second Realm.

 

The eight-day journey from EdenEsonbar via the Teleohodos jump portal had not been accepted by James’ system. Something akin to what his people called ‘seasickness effect’ was common among inexperienced sojourners into the portal labyrinth network. Although the twist in time and space found along these mysterious channels was somewhat negated by gravity and other such machines on the ship, not all warp curriculum found here could be circumvented. It took time for the body to acclimatize; so, a form of seasickness often afflicted new and infrequent travelers.

For James, this had meant stomach cramps, lack of sleep, headaches, and the all-too-often simultaneous vomiting and diarrhea. There was little empathy to be had from the veterans aboard, either. One said to him, “Three or four more trips like this and you’ll feel fine!” She shrugged very casually, “And then, for some people, it takes a lot more.”

The Excalibur had exited the Hindly Page and joined up with the Dredges Battle Group. That was three days now, during which time little transpired until that morning. The Chisamore’s arrival created an air of excitement, a feeling that something was about to happen.

James began to see a flurry of activity from many of the smaller ships. Dozens of tiny fighting ships, all of them bearing the ensign of skull and crossbones and painted jet-black with blood-red underbellies, passed within sight, all headed for the front of the fleet. Many had grotesque, teeth-filled mouths or faces painted on them, along with names equally garish: ‘Hell’s Half Sister’, ‘Dark Lord’, ‘Slayer’s Song’, ‘Reaper’s Glory’, ‘No One’s Child’, ‘Only the Dead Surrender’, to name a few.

He asked a fellow officer, a veteran of the Great War, what might be going on.

She offered a grim smile. “We’re preparing to move out. Those are our WolfPack Marauders, the smaller patrol ships, mostly converted corvettes, howkers and ketches. Over there…” She pointed toward a distant ship. “That’s one of the new Gadfly class Marauders… has the size of a heavy and the fighting power of a large cutter, possibly even more.”

For several moments, the officer peered out the window as she leaned against the hull. As if startled from a dream, she bolted upright, sucking in a breath. Finally, she continued, “Those flight crews are among the most ferocious warriors in the Empire. Many are almost fanatical about their service. I think a few have a death wish, or something like it, the way they carry out their duties.”

She shuddered. “A close companion of mine is a torpedo’s mate onboard the Talon. The ship recently returned from a three month tour in the Trizentine. The things she told me, the combat fighting against the Stasis Pirates, and the way the enemy was dispatched made me sick just listening to it being described. But she spoke of it in such a matter of fact way.”

The officer shook her head in disbelief. “My companion is a good person. But to cut out your opponent’s heart and carry it around like a trophy? I just don’t know. It’s true that the woman was imprisoned and tortured for several months by the Stasis after taking her in one of their raids. Still, how far can vengeance be permitted to go before it is lust?”

James calmly replied, “My people patiently waited the day when vengeance would be handed over to us, to repay the betrayer of God and the murderer of our race. I understand that feeling of revenge. I think that the lust to kill one’s enemy is an acceptable part of vengeance.”

The officer stared at James. “You have the voice of a gentle man, but the tongue of your mother.”

James was shocked. “You know my mother?!”

The officer was incredulous. “Don’t we all!”

At that moment, an approaching line officer called out to James. “Message from the Chisamore! You’re to report there in half an hour. Better snap to it! A skiff’s already disembarked the Chisamore to get you.”

There was not time to continue the discussion, although James was burning up with questions about his mother. He was aware of her presence in this realm, but had not seen her in all the years he had been here. When he inquired about her of Lowenah, the only reply was that she was on some special assignment. How pleasant it would be to see her again. Her death in the Realms Below, so long ago, had pained him nearly as much as the death of his wife. Alba’s arrival here had been so refreshing to his spirit. And now his mother? If he could only see her for but a moment.

“Well, c’mon!” The line officer snorted. “You’ve got ten minutes to get your things together! And you still hafta report to the captain to get permission to leave.”

Excitement enveloped James as he became aware of what the officer was saying – saying it to him. He wondered what the fuss was about, but was cut off with a very curt reply. “Look, when the Commodore gives an order, you reply with a ‘Yes ma’am!’ or ‘Yes, Commander!’ Got it?!”

James nodded.

“Good! Now, get movin’! The Commodore has no tolerance for slackers!”

James took off in a mad hustle. He hurriedly packed his two duffels, rushed off to see the captain, requested permission to leave, then ran to the docking bay just as the Chisamore’s skiff arrived.

The crew aboard the skiff was equally as abrupt, urging him aboard without even a pleasant hello. No sooner had James boarded than a crewmember slammed the hatch and another threw back the throttle and began backing away from the Excalibur.

The return trip to the Chisamore was exciting, to say the least. For a man still thinking in the age of sail and horse, the speed they were traveling at was terrifying. No sooner would James see a tiny dot in the sky than it would explode into an object of gargantuan proportions as the skiff raced toward and then past it. Finally, he could take no more. Clenching his seat’s arms, he closed his eyes and waited for the sound of a crushing impact.

It only took another ten minutes to reach the Chisamore. James swore it took at least an hour. A huge belly door opened in the ship’s side allowing the skiff to enter. It settled down on the flight deck, the biggest the wide-eyed lieutenant had ever seen, but quite small by the day’s standards. The pilot killed the engine while work crews hooked up grappling cables. With a whirr and hum of servos, the little craft was whisked away to the hangar deck. In moments, it was nestled into a storage bay between two much larger vessels.

The pilot released the latch to the main side hatch, calling over her shoulder, “Be careful, Lieutenant James, I can assure your safety only to the door.”

James puzzled until the hatch opened, allowing a look outside. There was a flurry of activity just beyond the door. Work crews scurried about their duties. Gear and supplies were being secured or hurried off to holding bins. Ships were being tethered to the deck. All the while, mechanical crews and technicians were busy doing final checks of the various fighters.

There was little time given James to soak in his surroundings. No sooner had he touched the deck than he heard his name. Turning, he saw a female officer wearing white flared pants with a wide gray stripe going up the outside of each leg, a gray, double-breasted, Navy jacket over a starched, white blouse, and a black kepi with a shiny bill and headband. Her black, hard-soled boots made a clicking noise on the tiles as she stepped forward to offer greeting.

With a waved salute, she asked, “Lieutenant JamesBethsaida?”

James nodded.

“Captain XeniaOikia.” The woman said, while extending her hand. “The Commodore sent me to assist you with your things.” She looked at the duffle bags that one of the skiff’s crew had just deposited at James’ feet. “Are these all the things you have?”

Taking a look at the bags, he answered, “Yes.”

“Good!” The captain motioned two orderlies. “Please take these to the lieutenant’s quarters. We have other business which needs tending to.” Without any further formalities, the captain requested James follow her.

The man was surprised at the speed the captain made without breaking into a run. He was certainly close to doing so. They exited the hangar deck, traversed several corridors, and climbed several ladders. When they reached the fifth hatchway leading up to the next deck, he asked why they weren’t using the elevator.

Captain Xenia frowned. “Don’t work. Lots of things don’t work. Still have service crews fixing her up. Parts and pieces of this old tub are scattered across the Empire. Doin’ good to have engines.” She started up the ladder, calling back as she climbed. “Don’t laugh. We’re the Empire’s secret weapon!”

The captain said no more. In a few minutes, and several more corridors, and another ladder, James found himself standing on the command bridge. Captain Xenia told him to wait there while she went forward to where a large group of officers was standing.

James couldn’t see who was speaking, but he could hear enough to understand that these officers were captains of various other ships in the battle group. He could feel a growing energy as the battle plan was explained.

The essence of the plan was this: WolfPack Marauders were to advance in front of the main body, screening its movements. The battle group was to split, with the Chisamore leading one division, and the converted collier – now light carrier – CortneyBay would command the other. Each division was to act independently but in concert with the other, unless redirected by the commodore. The two divisions were to head east, Q-north on a parallel course, about four hours’ distance apart.

It was Commodore Nazareth’s opinion that the enemy would be within range of the Navy’s defenses at MueoPoros before Dredge’s Battle Group could offer support. By running an intercept course toward at least two of the enemy’s fleets, they might be able to engage the attacking fighters, either en route or returning from a sortie. Should that fail, they would turn their attention to the fleets, themselves, seeking their destruction.

James was later informed by another officer that their trump card was secrecy. Dredge’s Battle Group received its name from the word ‘dredge’ – ‘to dredge up from the bottom’ – and that’s exactly what this battle group was. Out of every corner of the Children’s Empire, all the old derelicts, decommissioned, and abandoned ships had been gathered to repair depots for refitting, oftentimes with what one officer from the Second Realm had called ‘chewing gum and baling wire’. When work was completed, Special Forces had moved them to strategic locations in the Empire. This clandestine activity had gone unnoticed by the inquisitive. Even the Navy and Army had paid scant attention to disappearing scrap iron.

Although the ‘Dredges’ – as all larger Special Forces ships eventually came to be called – lacked creature comforts to the point of being harsh, and their construction sometimes exposed the crews to added dangers, they became most deadly contenders. Captain Ilaniya observed just how fear-inspiring they were, stating, ‘The arrival of one red-bellied, black-hulled, skull and crossbones fighting ship caused more consternation among Asotos’ sailors than a dozen Regular Navy vessels.’

In a few days, the legend of the Dredge’s would begin.

 

Captain Xenia motioned James to join her and the other officers surrounding the large chart table. As he approached, the commodore was just finishing up the details of her planned strategy. The entire top of the table was a flat screen from which one could see an animated, three-dimensional picture of their projected destination. By use of a set of buttons on a movable pad, the commodore controlled the rotation and angle of the map. She could also zero in on a very specific area or expand the scene to encompass the entire Empire and beyond.

The commodore finally leaned over the screen, resting her weight on both hands. “Fellow commanders, there is no need to caution you about the danger or importance of our mission. The enemy is bent on driving us from MueoPoros – something we cannot permit. Already there are reports of five of Asotos’ fleets converging upon our forces there, leaving us sorely outnumbered. Our pitiable number of fighters will make little dent in the enemy’s thousands, but we do not depend solely upon them.”

She stood back and glanced at James. “At this very moment, there are over six hundred WolfPack Marauders within striking range of the enemy – two hundred of which are with us. Already there have been reports of attacks by them on enemy outriders and stragglers. Yet this is just the calm before the storm.”

She smiled. “Tomorrow at this time, the Wolf shall be unleashed. All Marauders, except for the ones in this battle group will have a free hand to do whatever damage possible to Asotos’ armadas. Let me assure you, the show should be quite impressive. Nearly half of those ships are of the new Mosquito and Gadfly class.”

There was an audible note of appreciation heard from the others. They knew well the power those machines packed.

Commodore Nazareth continued, “Not only will our ships be harassing the enemy, I have information that TaqaEsem’s Trizentine armada is closing on Asotos’ personal fleet and intends to passively engage when practicable. The Tarezabarians’ lumbering ships are no match for Asotos’, but just their presence will divert attention away from MueoPoros.”

She scanned the faces of the captains, leaning again on the table. “We will rig for silent running from here on out. I don’t want the enemy to know we are approaching. There will be no radio communication between ships, light code signals only. Your flagships will be in direct communication with you. They will also be the only ones to reply to any incoming signals. If you can’t keep up or have problems, you will be left behind. Sorry…”

“One more thing: You will notice that you all have sealed orders. Do not, do not open them until you receive the command from me!” The commodore wagged her finger. “You will not have to guess when that moment arrives.”

The commodore said a few more parting words concerning the need for surprise and then encapsulated their strategy. “Remember, our objective is to prevent the enemy from retaking the skies above MueoPoros. Whatever that may cost us, to turn their flank, is acceptable. But we are at war and this is but one battle. Once our objective is realized, we will not attempt the destruction of our foe. Asotos has many armadas at his disposal. Needless to say, he is not committing them all here.”

She reached out and put a hand on the shoulder of one of her captains. “Already we have emptied the territories of our naval forces to win this coming battle. Asotos will launch an offensive at any moment on our frontier colonies in hopes of confusing his true objective. We must allow the murder of those colonies, but we must not squander the hope of their eventual rescue, so it will be necessary to preserve intact whatever of our ships that we may.”

Commodore Nazareth looked the captain in the eye. “Surrender in defeat is left up to the decision of the commander of each ship. Remember the MoonDust and Exothepobole, if you choose to surrender. If that is not an option for you, keep in mind each ship of the line carries a thermostatic nuclear torpedo that can be used defensively, or… well, I think you understand. Do be cautious when using that weapon as a last resort.” She wagged her finger again. “It is much more effective if your enemy is close…real close!”

Slapping the captain on the back, Nazareth wished them well. “Good hunting and God’s speed.”

James watched the officers after they were dismissed. There was some small banter, many hugs and long embraces, but no tears or mournful goodbyes. He only saw resolute determination on each person’s face. They parted, each knowing this would be the last time to offer salutation to fellow comrades. The ancient ballad, ‘Red Ocean Red’, was on many a mind as the captains returned to their ships. Their hope was to be as stalwart and brave as Captain Schmalling, commanding her guns as her frigate, Sand Dancer, sank beneath the waves.

There came a brief moment when the commodore was quietly talking with Captain Xenia that James was able to study his new commander. She was medium build, average height and muscular, like a highly trained athlete. Although attractive – especially her rich brown eyes and satiny dark brown hair – what he noticed most was the woman’s attire.

Commodore Nazareth wore a black, double-breasted officer’s frock coat with ornate epaulettes and gold braiding sewn around its cuffs, collar, and lapels. It covered a flame-red blouse with a standing collar, tucked into form-fitting black britches half-hidden in shiny, black, knee-high boots. This was topped with a gold-braided cocked hat, embellished with a chrysolite cockade skull and crossbones. In fact, as James observed, that insignia was an integral part of her uniform, from the golden buttons on her coat and blouse collars to its burnt-gold belt buckle.

He suddenly caught the commodore’s attention when she noticed him staring. She stopped talking and turned toward him, keeping her eyes fixed on his. As she drew closer, her lips curled into a smile and a twinkle appeared in her eyes. James continued to stare, puzzled over his feelings. The nearer this stranger came, the more his heart fluttered with excitement. There was something peculiarly familiar about this person, but he just couldn’t put his finger on it.

A sudden chill raced down James’ back. Long-buried memories were clawing their way up from the hidden recesses of his mind. The woman’s face! Her face was so much like that of his youngest sister, Naomi! That smile the same she wore the last day he saw her alive. Could it be? Was it possible? No…no! It couldn’t. She was only seventeen when death came, the labor premature, the birth breach. Then, who was this person? An apparition from his past, sent to haunt his mind and heart?

“Hello, Lieutenant JamesBethsaida. I have long waited to make your acquaintance.” The commodore’s sweet cooing voice sent a shudder along James’ spine.

She extended her hand in greeting. “Your face is filled with consternation and your tongue has lost its speech. Tell me, my good officer – for I have been told that you are a good officer – what secrets does your heart conceal from me?”

James fumbled for something to say. He attempted to speak several times, searching for just the right words. Awkward with frustration, the man finally let go with a barrage of disjointed babble. “My Commander…er…Commodore Nazareth…I…er…well. I’m sorry…er Ma’am, but you have rekindled long-forgotten memories from ancient days…days now buried in dust and stone…days filled with joy and drowned in sadness.” He shook his head in a quandary. “Your appearance fills my heart with painful longing for someone… no, several someones over which my soul still aches.”

“Who?” The commodore whimsically queried, tilting her head to one side.

James was startled. “Why…why, my sister, Naomi! And…and the rest of my family.” A longing sadness echoed in his voice. “You do carry the smile and dancing eyes of my sister to the point of my nearly calling out to you in her name.”

The commodore nodded understandingly. “That has been said of me by others.” She stepped up close, her face only inches from his, asking, “Tell me, my good officer, do you also long for your mother?”

James said nothing. Tears welled up in his eyes as he nodded.

The commodore could contain herself no longer, wrapping her arms around James, letting out a joyous cry as she began to weep. “I have missed you so much, my son.”

 

  • * *

 

Red Ocean Red

 

An icy chill burned in her lungs as she hailed her crew below.

We’ve got the devil’s work to do. Quick! To your duties now!

Heave off the lines, tie hatches fast, for the northern tempest blows.

Buy us an hour’, the admiral asked, and that is what we’ll do.”

 

With siren blasts and signal flags, she heeled her ship to port,

And bid goodbye to the passing fleet,

As she steamed from Hammond’s Fort.

 

They found the straits all choked with ice as they passed out Cortney Bay.

And sleet froze to the mizzenmast, the wires, and the stays.

Full speed ahead!” the captain yelled. “Fear not the bitter sea!

Think of it as your mistress dear, and not your coming graves.”

 

Angry waves broke o’er the bow, swept ship from stem to stern.

Still on the ancient frigate charged, the captain showing no concern.

 

The screaming winds were gale force, pushing ice sheets six feet thick,

When the captain ordered, “Stations all!” as they raced into the breach.

With guns ablaze and torpedoes charged, they rammed a cutter through,

Then hard off to the starboard turned, and made for a dreadnaught, too.

 

Midst sheets of flame and iron shards, captain and crew fought on.

Til the decks were running red with blood,

And the fighting bridge was gone.

 

Put her on the ice!” The captain cried, as shells holed the waterline.

They won’t sink us without a fight, which has only now begun!”

With the ship stuck fast, they took their aim and let torpedoes go.

A shudder came from the boiler room, then shouts, “Fire down below!”

 

There was no call to “Abandon ship!” though all knew the end was nigh.

The crewmates bravely stood their posts, not fearing they soon would die.

 

When the fire reached the magazine, the ship was blown in two.

The stern sank fast into the sea, but the bow gun fired true.

Then the ice on which the frigate rest gave way in a shattered groan.

The proud ship slipped beneath the waves, and its fearless crew all drowned.

 

Upon the scarlet-colored ice, the captain’s body lay.

It drifted south, back through the straits and into Cortney Bay.

And on one chill and frigid morn, it passed the admiral by.

He gazed upon the frozen face and wailed a mournful sigh.

 

Tears rolled down the admiral’s cheeks as he cried out all forlorn.

Before his eyes a vision came, and along with it was borne

A smile broke on the captain’s face, and to the admiral said,

You asked us for an hour, Sir. We bought you two, instead…”

 

  • * *

 

 

 

SECTION 18

 

PASSING THE TORCH

 

The giant doors of the Sophia’s main bay slowly closed behind the RananAhot. In moments, the atmosphere had been reintroduced into the bay and work crews busied themselves securing the king’s ship in its hangar. No larger than a cutter, the RananAhot could easily shelter within the newer carriers of the fleet, a feature intentionally incorporated in its design. The ship’s size was deceiving and, although never seeing combat, it could have successfully taken on warships of frigate class.

A rather large contingent of officers and crew soon gathered to welcome their king aboard. Standing at the end of the long receiving line were Admiral Gabrielle and General PalaHar. This was an awkward moment for the admiral. She was disgusted with Mihai for her foolishness, but the crew and officers were bursting with joy at having their commander-in-chief pay them a visit. Gabrielle struggled to cover her true feelings.

Sensing Gabrielle’s frustration, PalaHar leaned toward her and whispered, “If there was ever a person who could muster people for a fight, it’s that girl! Her coming here at this time, although for possible dubious reasons, may serve the cause better than a dozen new battle cruisers. She just may have done us a great favor.”

Gabrielle stared ahead, saying nothing.

The forward ramp in the RananAhot’s belly opened. Two armed honor guards hurried down and stopped at the bottom, taking up their stations, one at each side of the lowered ramp. Mihai quickly followed, Paul walking close by her side, holding her hand. As the two exited the ship, Mihai would occasionally glance over at Paul, a telling smile breaking on her face.

Noticing, PalaHar again whispered to Gabrielle. “All is not lost, my dear. I see our friend has learned to use of some of his powers. If that is really so, our little girl may have lost her desire for her sister’s company.”

Following close behind Mihai and Paul was Anna. She appeared more like a dark shadow drifting along than a person. Gabrielle raised an eyebrow. “Doesn’t the mouse only brave the open when it’s in search of food? What cheese brings this little mouse out of her hiding hole?”

PalaHar frowned. “The north wind brings winter’s frost, but the hot southern breeze often precedes a coming tempest. I now begin to understand the reason for our king’s visit, and I don’t like the way the breeze blows.”

“We must keep a close eye.” Gabrielle warned. “I’m afraid there is mischief afoot. There is way too much cheese here to protect it all.” She scratched her chin in wonder. “Which flavor does our little mouse desire?”

Mihai and Paul were now at the bottom of the ramp. Cheers erupted as soon as Mihai’s feet touched the hangar deck. She was uncomfortable with all the fanfare – never did get used to it. Somehow it made her uneasy, being given such plaudits. She scanned the faces of well-wishers, so many she personally knew, many ages older than she. Some had shared with her their last crust of bread or the same bomb crater. The people’s king bashfully waved, smiling her salutations. It was this real humbleness of self that drew the crowds to the woman.

 

(Author’s note: History tends to corrupt the truth concerning people and events. Sometimes it deifies a person, making him or her so pure of character as to be untouchable. At other times, it does the opposite. One of Mihai’s greatest strengths was the deep and honest love she displayed. It has become the symbol you have used to define her…and deify her. But you do not have full understanding of the matter.

Mihai’s greatest attribute became her greatest weakness during the troubled times ahead. She saw herself as nothing, not understanding the other qualities of leadership she possessed. Too often she submitted her decision-making to the will of older ones, because she viewed them as wise beyond time. Mihai had many lessons yet to learn. One was: rare is the councilor who is not seeking some inner selfish desire when offering advice.)

 

Eventually, Mihai made her way along the well-wishers to the end of the line. Gabrielle and PalaHar politely bowed, offering their loyal salutations. PalaHar motioned Gabrielle to go first. She stepped forward and embraced Mihai, tenderly kissing her on the lips.

Gabrielle addressed her king with gracious words and deep respect. “My Lord, we find your visit most surprising. Please accept our hospitality, such as it is in these critical times.” She waved her arm around in a wide arch. “Consider this your palace during your stay.”

She politely chatted a moment and then turned her attention to Paul. After giving him an affectionate kiss, she took his hand. “It appears my lord has grown fond of her liege. Value the advice of PalaHar as you faithfully carry out your service for the Empire. Remember well the words of your father: ‘As one altered letter may change the meaning of an entire passage, so may one little act change all history’.” She gave him another gentle kiss.

Paul was shocked and surprised. He quietly asked, “You knew my father?!”

Gabrielle smiled. “Many are the things a Daughter of the Scrolls knows. Do not think your writings have carried down to this day by accident. Names and faces and words, I do not forget,” She pointed a finger in warning, “nor should you!”

Gabrielle eventually turned her attention to Anna, taking her hand and giving the councilor a kiss on each cheek, politely welcoming the woman aboard. “Your visit will prove a great refreshment to our many wounded. They know of your healing powers and will much appreciate your attention.”

Anna was caught by surprise, having failed to consider the reputation that preceded her, but she quickly masked her shock. Anna smiled and took Gabrielle’s hand. “Of course, Admiral, of course. It has been one of my most pressing concerns.” She then cocked her head to the side, looking at the floor. “I have been somewhat distracted by other matters…” squeezing Gabrielle’s hand, she voiced urgent concern, “matters that are most serious, I assure you.”

Gabrielle agreed. “Yes, I have heard whispers of some of these things. Let me assure you, I am looking into them.” She placed her hand over Anna’s. “Out here, all things are serious. The slightest misstep can be deadly serious…the slightest misstep!”

Those words stung Anna like a slap across her face. There was no mistaking Gabrielle’s statement and for whom it was intended.

PalaHar approached the women. Gabrielle changed the subject, mentioning the coming council meeting. She then concluded, “There is treason afoot. One can smell it. It makes the people nervous…jumpy, you might say. I will provide you an escort during your visit. I suggest you stick close to her. I wouldn’t desire you to be taken for some enemy spy slinking around one our darkened corridors.”

The icy flash in Gabrielle’s eyes told Anna not to refuse the admiral’s offer. She fumed inside, knowing well what was being intimated. Her hesitant reply was little more than a veiled threat. “Thank… thank you for your concern and consideration. I shall remember your kindness and seek a way to reward it.”

Gabrielle leaned close, the icy chill having spread to her speech. “I’m sure you will, my dear. I’m sure you will.”

After talking with some of the other visitors in Mihai’s party, Gabrielle and PalaHar exited the hangar bay. When far enough away from the crowd, PalaHar wryly commented, “You sure were diplomatic with our girl. If I were you, I’d sleep with a knife beside me.”

Gabrielle was in a sour mood, but tried to act nonchalant. “I don’t need a knife to protect me. I have you.”

“Not for long.” PalaHar replied. “I’ve got marching orders. Have to take Ishtar down tomorrow.”

Gabrielle froze in her tracks and whipped around. “What do you mean, marching orders?! Who gave you those orders?!”

“Just got ‘em now, while you were bantering with Anna.” PalaHar pulled a folded paper from his inner shirt. “See?” He opened the paper. The word ‘URGENT!’ was hand-written across the top. “Mihai handed it to me. Said it was important and asked I move with haste.”

Chewing her lip in anger, Gabrielle seethed. “You must know that Anna’s behind this! What does that conniving weasel have in mind? I want to clear this up with Mihai…and now!” She started back toward the RananAhot.

PalaHar stopped her, putting a hand on her arm. “No! Wait until tomorrow. I’ll stay until the meeting is finished…maybe a little longer. Let’s get this thing in the open for the whole council to hear. Maybe Anna will show her hand, or at least give us a clue as to what she’s up to.”

He drew her up close and cooed, “You are my patient, and I have needed medicine that both soothes and refreshes. Tonight we shall work on your cure. Tomorrow we shall face the dragon.”

Gabrielle stopped but did not relax. PalaHar argued, “My dear, the night swiftly runs to its end and tomorrow will gather itself to us despite our desires. For the moment, we are granted sweet interlude, with no promise of a future one. Let us use what we’ve been given, not wasting another second.”

Gabrielle let go a long, deep sigh, forcing down her frustration. After all, Mihai was king. A public confrontation with her chief officer would do no one any good. Her head slowly sank, while her eyes searched the floor as she pondered the reasons for her anger. PalaHar was right. This moment should not be wasted. Tonight all attention would be on the visiting king, leaving the admiral with time for herself.

The incensed warrior within began retreating as Gabrielle pondered the selfish indulgence those fleeting hours offered. Soon she could sense the wistful maiden from forgotten days returning. In a blush, she softly replied to PalaHar, “You are my wise and noble lord. To you, this night, do my heart and soul belong.”

Arm in arm, the two departed for her cabin.

 

Midmorning, the following day, saw Mihai’s council convened. The group was relatively small. Besides Mihai and her party of four, including Anna and Paul, there were the leading commanders: Admiral of the Fleet Gabrielle, General PalaHar, Commodore General Planetee, Centurion General Sarah, and Field Marshal Trisha. Other notable persons present were: General HoiOnarasis, Trisha’s immediate lieutenant; General BarkaiNofech, Trisha’s chief staff officer since Tizrela’s death; General NoazOhfehr, commanding general over all forces in the PrasiaOdous Campaign; and Admiral SujinKotoku, the Navy’s campaign commander at MueoPoros and Gabrielle’s second in command.

Among other officers and adjuncts present were Zadar, assistant to the staff; and Chasileah, direct assistant to Trisha. Terey had been invited to attend, she being a long time councilor of Mihai’s, but she declined. Jonathan had also been requested to come, but continuous air attacks at HerpetonMnema had prevented his making the trip.

It was a strained meeting, to say the least. With the stinging losses from the battle on MueoPoros, much of it caused – at least in the minds of the leading officers – by treasonous acts, Gabrielle and her fellow confederates confided few details of the ongoing activities. One concerned officer made the indirect request for only members from the Council of Eighty to remain. Mihai either ignored or refused to acknowledge it.

Things stayed relatively calm until the subject of Terey was introduced. Not all at the council were as supportive of her as Gabrielle and PalaHar. In fact, some who had at one time been on the receiving end of her temper felt such conduct alone brought the woman into question.

PalaHar was quick to come to Terey’s defense. “There have been few people who have sacrificed more for the Empire.” He scanned the room. “Tell me please, can any one of you confess to not being affected by this Rebellion? Our souls have been tested to the limit, and none of us have come away from this fight with a perfect record.”

He looked into Mihai’s face. “Our decisions – made in anger, fear, or just at the spur of the moment – have cost thousands of wasted lives. Should we judge our sister who has not harmed her fellow man in such a way? Her temper has only brought injury to herself…no others. Besides, there are far more serious matters we need to discuss than Terey’s t…”

Anna cut PalaHar off. “No! You’re wrong with this one, General! That woman’s temper and her flagrant disregard for our king have brought us to the edge of destruction. She is a threat to our whole cause…especially with such loose lips!”

Gabrielle stood, face red with anger. “No! You wait! The person who has brought us to the edge of destruction sat among us in our last great council meeting…may sit among us now. Terey could not have known our plans or movements, nor would she have spread lies about herself. Only a person close to the king would have such needed knowledge. The loose lips that kill do not belong to Terey!”

Mihai, still stinging from PalaHar’s allusion to her failures in past battles could not tolerate Gabrielle’s veiled accusations. She slammed her fist on the table. “Do you have proof to speak with such boldness, Admiral?! If you do, present it now! Who is the Judas among us?! Who has sold us to our enemy for a beggars’ field?! Speak now!”

Gabrielle’s frustration was growing, but she fought to maintain control. “My Lord, the smell of lead excites the nostrils and its taste is sweet to the palate. Death from its poison strikes slowly, first taking the mind and then the soul.”

“Do you have any proof?!” Mihai nearly shouted.

Gabrielle bowed her head. “Your own speech is the proof…” She sat and spoke no more.

Before Mihai could respond, Paul leaned over and whispered something in her ear. She paused a moment to calm down. “Very well. There will be no more talk of treason unless there is proof. I assure you, Terey is not on my list of candidates who might betray me or the Empire. Still, I think it wise to keep an eye on her until the matter is settled. There is still much business to attend to this morning and I don’t want any delay in carrying out my commands.”

She addressed PalaHar. “You are to take your leave immediately after this meeting. You know your orders. I want our girl on the ground and seeing action as soon as possible.”

PalaHar was puzzled. “But why, my Lord? Ishtar is but a child, her training still incomplete. What is the hurry to push her into battle? A few months, even a month, will be so beneficial for her.”

Mihai was curt. “General, we have wasted your expertise behind a desk for too long. Events are rapidly moving forward, drawing us all into a vortex from which there is no escape. I need you on the ground to bolster the troops and lend your wisdom.” She leaned forward. “And I feel it good to have our sword put to the test. It is time she came into her own.” She allowed for no more discussion and hurried on to other matters.

Mihai went around the room, taking time to give admonition and direction to each officer. She warmed up with Trisha, praising her for the many successes the Army had achieved on MueoPoros. Her changed tone continued to the point of becoming jovial with the remaining council members. She even took the time to direct attention to Zadar and Chasileah, asking them a few unimportant questions.

As soon as the meeting was finished, PalaHar and Gabrielle politely took their leave. PalaHar stretched his ‘immediately’ into a three hour ‘private conference’ with Gabrielle, in some secluded part of the ship. Meanwhile, Mihai and Anna arrived early at the shuttle, wanting to see PalaHar and Ishtar off. Their impatience grew as time dragged on.

The work crews had finished loading the passengers’ personal gear and were concluding with other business when Treston, Alynnou and Ishtar arrived. PalaHar had made an appearance only moments before and was off in a corner with Mihai, apparently getting a dressing-down for his tardiness. Treston just shook his head. “Some things never change…”

Anna came up to offer her best wishes to the three, giving each a gentle kiss on the cheek. Treston blushed, making Alynnou smile. Sirion hurried up at that moment, first hugging Anna and then Treston. She grinned, “Thought I was gonna miss you! You can’t leave without saying goodbye to your favorite girl!” She winked at Alynnou.

Alynnou nodded and told the others she had business to attend to. She gave Treston a gentle push. “You only have a minute. Don’t waste it.” She said goodbye to Sirion who took Treston’s hand and pulled him away to a quieter place, leaving Ishtar and Anna alone.

Anna beamed, putting her hands on the girl’s upper arms. “I have so much wanted to see our Victory Sword, and now we come face to face. It is such an honor to be here, so close to you.”

A toothy smile shown out of a face filled with awe. Here was one of the Empire’s greatest councilors! Never in her wildest dreams had Ishtar imagined receiving plaudits from a person of such renown! How quickly she forgot Lowenah, but not intentionally. Anna had a way with words that could cast a spell over a person’s mind and heart. Few could resist her, especially a young child like Ishtar.

Anna chatted on about things she had heard regarding the child, all the while gently massaging the girl’s arms. She prodded her with questions about her childhood, military training, the trip, and every other thing a young girl might have interest in. Anna hung on every word Ishtar spoke, contorting her face with smiles or frowns, cooing sweetly or echoing sympathetic, depending on what was said.

Glancing around to see the others still busy in conversation, Anna changed the subject. “Oh, my dear child, I almost forgot. Before I left EdenEsonbar, Lowenah gave me a little token for her princess…” She pointed. “That’s you.”

Ishtar giggled with pleasure and excitement. “For me?! Lowenah has something for me?”

“Shush! Lowenah doesn’t like to trumpet her gifts. You do know what I mean, don’t you?” Anna asked.

Ishtar nodded, grinning.

“Good!” She reached into her pocket and took out a tiny silver brooch much like the one Ishtar wore around her neck. “Let me help you.” With that, Anna reached up and removed an earring from the girl’s ear, took the new one, slipped its hook through her earlobe and, with a snap, locked it in place.

Anna stood back and smiled. “There, there, a gift from the ‘Maker of Worlds to match what you are wearing under your blouse.” She leaned close, pulling the girl’s hair over the brooch, and whispered, “Remember what I told you about how Lowenah feels when she gives gifts.”

Ishtar smiled, putting her finger to her lips.

With endearing words, Anna embraced the child, holding her tight for the longest time. Her action caught PalaHar’s attention, but Mihai was not finished with her lecture. By the time the general got free, Anna was busy with others and he didn’t want to make a public scene.

A small crowd gathered to see the party off. Slowly, one at a time, PalaHar, Treston, and Ishtar boarded, PalaHar being last. The shuttle taxied away from the hangar to the flight deck, people waving until it disappeared from sight. When, at last, the shuttle departed, Mihai excused herself. She thought it a good time to tackle her other concern. Best now to have that talk with Gabrielle.

 

*

 

Mihai was not prepared for the reception Gabrielle gave her. When she started in about showing more respect for her close associates, Gabrielle’s face reddened in anger. The admiral put her hand up to silence Mihai, turned, and sweeping her other hand across hidden tumblers, bolted the door.

Turning back to Mihai, Gabrielle, while attempting to control her hidden rage, addressed her king. “Our swords have been lifted in many a same battle. We have shared a common fate on more than one occasion. We are sisters of the blood. Have I not shared the wine from the tucklebow-berry with you? And have I not comforted you when no man was by your side? All these things I have done for you…not you for me.”

Gabrielle’s voice seethed, “Listen to me, woman of the mist, I am not some little dog begging for a scrap from your table! Cherubs were my mentors, my lovers, my servants. The seas are my slaves, for I alone have walked free in the depths of the Darkening Pits. Worlds you have not seen are where my feet have trod.”

Mihai refused to be intimidated. “There is but one king in this kingdom! By your own actions you acknowledged my position! I am only acting within the rights given me!”

“You’d have no rights at all if it weren’t for me!” Gabrielle snarled. “No man stands an island. The greatest warrior is only as good as those who support him. Your kingship is not absolute! It is bound by unbendable laws and supported by the will of the people. Step out of line and, poof! It will vanish.”

Mihai was aghast. Gabrielle gave her no time to reply. “You do not know who I am, little child of the dust. I am not like you nor am I of your kind. The grass did not yet grow on the hilltops when I was woven in my mother’s belly. My food was not of this world, but from the table of the gods I drank my fill. There is no lord over me but one, and he is yet a child. You I follow out of respect for our mother – out of her love for you and my love for her.”

Shaken but not humbled, Mihai searched for words to make retort. Gabrielle clutched hold of her arms and began to chant in speech both strange and terrifying. Suddenly, Gabrielle turned into a dark, ominous shape and grew before Mihai’s eyes. The screeching of a banshee storm arose, pummeling her ears, while boiling-hot and freezing-cold winds tore at her flesh. An explosion of violent lights of fiery reds and chilling greens shot into her eyes, stinging and blinding her. Then visions of terrible, unspeakable things erupted in her brain.

Out of this tempest of terror, a guttural voice boomed in her ears. “I come from a world beyond yours, from a time when there was no knowledge of good or evil! Do you think your brother invented his wicked torments given to you? No! For they are also a part of me! Do not toy with my daughter, for she is beyond you. Should you rouse my wrath, your bad dreams will not end quickly.”

With a rush, the vision passed. Mihai was ghostly pale and trembling from head to toe. She stared at Gabrielle, terror in her eyes. When her voice returned, Mihai begged in a choking whisper, “Let me go… please…”

Gabrielle released Mihai. Not saying a word, she unlocked the door and opened it. Mihai fled from the room.

As Gabrielle slowly closed the door, she sighed in sadness and exhaustion. There was no other woman she loved more, and her heart burned from distress at the agony she put her through. What could she have done differently? There was nothing. The Children’s Empire was held together by the most delicate of threads…love. Mihai had been made king to prove to Asotos that, not by great strength, power, or wisdom would the battle against him be won, for these qualities Mihai did not have in abundance.

The one quality the woman possessed beyond measure was love – a love that had even amazed Lowenah. If Gabrielle had succeeded in jarring Mihai back to her senses, if she had been able to sweep away the seeds of pride and self-glory, then there was a chance the Empire might come off victorious. Whatever the outcome, Gabrielle had done her best, even appealing to her father for help. The rest was up to Mihai.

The distraught and exhausted Gabrielle stumbled to her stateroom. As she neared her bed, the woman fell to her knees, crying out in agony. A mind-numbing, nauseous migraine swirled in her head. Retching, Gabrielle crashed to the floor and passed out.

 

*

 

Legion was in a very foul mood after his return to Memphis. The army had been pushed back to within twelve kilometers of the outer walls of the city. The PrasiaOdous Mountains were firmly in enemy hands, and the Spider’s Lair was beyond his grasp. He knew the enemy was stretched thin, but he didn’t know where, and was no longer sure what their true objective was. As far as he was concerned, Asotos had been responsible for these humiliating defeats. He took his anger out, though, on his immediate lieutenants. Several demotions and one public execution later, Legion was again focusing his attention on the next military move.

Surrounded by his leading lieutenants, he laid out the coming battle plan. “In two days, our navy will spearhead the largest offensive in the history of our glorious kingdom. Stargaton and Pilneser shall simultaneously come under assault with heavy bombardments, making it appear we intend to invade. Meanwhile, other forces will begin the invasion of the Trizentine and Candletoe.” He pointed his finger at the map where Candletoe was located and exclaimed, “We must regain our honor!”

Legion smugly stood back, hands clasped behind him. “We have four invasion fleets and three battle groups involved in these operations – sufficient, I would say, to sweep our oppressor from the skies, if its colonies don’t receive reinforcements…and…our loyal opponent will feel morally obligated to do that.”

“The only local source for them to draw from is MueoPoros. By the time they discover the truth, their ships will be scattered across the entire quadrant, and our hidden armadas will be hammering whatever is left behind.”

He drew his lieutenants’ attention back to the map, bringing up the MueoPoros star system. “Approximately twenty-four hours after the initial assault, three days from now, the Battle of the New Age will begin. Its intent is no less than to crush all ground forces on this planet and to destroy the enemy’s navy, and, more importantly, gain us Eden’s Gate. Once that portal is firmly in our grasp, we shall move to extinguish the evil horde from our deserved kingdom, forcing Erithea from her palace and back into the darkness from which she came.”

“The glorious hour for our release from the strangling bonds of this unclean rabble is not fraught without danger!” Legion lifted his hand high, shaking his finger. “But it is not a battle we will any longer have to fight alone. I have managed to convince Alithea of the overpowering superiority of enemy numbers that our brave soldiers have faced and he has promised to deliver ten added divisions for our defense.”

Legion waved his hand in conciliatory apology. “Please! Please, my brothers! This is no slight upon you or all our stalwart warriors standing the battle line against the pressing demon hordes. Our enemy outnumbers us four to one, yet we have checked their hand at every point. But to hold Memphis, we must have outside support. The ten additional divisions will help tip the scales. Although still heavily outnumbered, our superior fighting skills and undying fortitude will carry the day.”

 

(_]Author’s note: [_Legion was given to exaggerating his enemy’s number. Garlock and Copeland’s book, , coined the word ‘McClellanize’ to describe this situation, where a commanding officer would expand the size of the enemy until he or she was frozen into inactivity. McClellan was a famous general during an ancient war in the Second Realm in which Jebbson had played a part. A full explanation of the word’s meaning can be found in that book. This McClellanized frame of mind would have a profound effect on coming events.

The available records reveal that at the time of Legion’s council there were at his disposal close to four million active soldiers of all ranks, over a million and a half (fifteen divisions) in Memphis alone. At best, Mihai’s army on MueoPoros numbered one million six-hundred thousand able and ready for combat, with a total of less than three million personnel in the entire theater of the MueoPoros campaign. Surrounding Memphis on two major fronts were less than seven-hundred thousand, scattered in a crescent nearly thirty leagues across. In fact, the situation was so tenuous on the eve of the coming battle, Mihai’s four branch commanders were seriously considering abandoning Memphis’ southern siege line. Had Asotos delayed his attacks one more day, Legion would have found a retreating army unprepared for fighting.)

 

Legion detailed the battle plan. “You are all to establish your divisions in optimum attack positions. At the appointed moment, all commanders are to advance along their fronts using all available resources. Do remember to maintain a large enough reserve to hold your line in case the enemy should break through in a counterattack.”

He singled out two officers. “General KaTroue and General MerCennie are to deploy to the south of Memphis. Remember your assignment well. Alithea is depending on you. I have received reports that General PalaHar will be in the area.” He smiled. “I am also informed that we will be able to pinpoint his location at all times.”

Then frowning, Legion added, “It has also been brought to my attention there is a certain creature from the Realms Below who is accompanying the general. She is most valuable to us. It is believed by the fools of the Children’s Empire that this creature is some third sword of prophecy come to save them. This creature must be apprehended, alive, if possible! This task is imperative to your mission. Make sure General PalaHar is taken out of the picture – captured or killed. But bring me that creature!”

Legion returned to the battle strategy. “We will coordinate our attack to begin with the Navy’s assault on the evil aggressors hovering above us. At this moment, there are six full armadas – seven, if we count ours – speeding toward MueoPoros. Closely following them up are two huge invasion fleets that will deploy when our fighters have destroyed or driven off what remains of the enemy’s ships.”

“The battle shan’t take long, for our forces will unleash more fighters against the enemy than saw combat in the initial phase of the Holy Martyrs Campaign (Day of Tears).” He raised his hand again, pointing. “And, our glorious leader has promised to support us with several squadrons of Endikos 23’s – some from his own ship, AugustOne.”

Legion closed his eyes as he tipped his head back. He could see Gabrielle’s warships bursting apart or falling into the planet’s atmosphere and burning up. He saw Trisha’s army on the run, being torn apart on flank and front by his vast war machine. With a smile, he concluded, “It will take little time to finish off the remainder of our antagonists once we have destroyed them here. It should only be a matter of months before their entire empire falls into our hands.” He shrugged, “After all, most of them are women. What strength do they really have?”

Everyone laughed, followed by the usual bantering and question-taking on the part of Legion and his lieutenants. After the formal meeting ended, all present were invited to a feast in the castle dining hall.

 

(Author’s note: [_ ‘Castle Memphis’- a name given to the central fortifications built in the city after its capture by Legion - was truly noteworthy. It was constructed downward into the solid rock beneath the city, twenty levels, reaching a depth of one-hundred thirty meters. The dining hall was one hundred meters down, on the sixteenth level. Legion commanded his war from the depths of this citadel, a choice that would prove troubling in coming days.) _]

 

 

Legion’s dreams of conquest were already crumbling. The promised relief force was never as large as Asotos claimed. Instead of the million troopers, there were two hundred thousand at best, the rest having been diverted to other theaters of combat. Although unknown to Legion, even that number was no longer available. During the very hour of his council meeting, both of Asotos’ invasion fleets were being engaged.

As the Crimson Fleet tracked Godenn while he journeyed to rendezvous with Asotos, they stumbled into one of the invasion fleets that was closely following to the rear of Asotos’ armada. In short order, Sarah’s WolfPack Marauders located the second invasion fleet. For three days, they shadowed them. Finally, fearing they were about to be discovered, thus ruining the chance of surprise, TaqaEsem ordered a general attack.

Fighting raged for several hours, eventually ending in the withdrawal of both invasion fleets. Although suffering severe losses, TaqaEsem succeeded in damaging or destroying a large number of troop transports, producing heavy casualties within the relief force’s ranks. The WolfPack Marauders continued pursuit of the retreating enemy, increasing the destruction and effectively removing them, and their remaining fighters from the coming battle.

Although Asotos’ armada was within striking range of TaqaEsem, he refused to release his carrier fighters to assist. Not realizing that his whereabouts were no longer secret, he remained fearful of being discovered. His unique fighters would be a sure giveaway to his presence. Had he done so, though, things might have gone very differently. As would be proved later, the Crimson Fleet ships were no match for Asotos’ Endikos 23’s. They would have been forced to withdraw from combat, saving at least one of Asotos’ troop convoys.

The loss of the two fleets was kept secret from Legion. He continued preparing his attack plans, intent on certain victory and oblivious to the fact there was no further ground support coming.

 

The evening air was cool, carrying the smell of a coming freeze, when Legion exited his underground world to step out on the castle’s upper battlement. He peered off to the east and then to the south. All was peaceful from this vantage point. Distant hills sealed off the war from here, making it more sanitized and abstract…as if the violence of war really bothered him.

Already, he had reaped a bountiful harvest. His torture prison was full to bursting – a favorite place he visited often, to wile away the hours. Special inmates were given his personal attention, and the unique tools he had invented earned him an outstanding reputation. It would be such a pleasure to give them a try on that little bitch-creature who was troubling his sleep these many months! He managed her death once. Soon he would find out if he could again! This time it would not be as swift and painless…

A few more days and this rabble would no longer contaminate his planet. He could see the survivors wishing for the peace of their dead comrades. ‘There will be no mercy as I have shown in the past. This time I will not hold back my fury! This time I will not be kind!’

Legion’s anger quickly drifted away to thoughts of his encounter with Captain Ilaniya. He had worked the woman for the better part of a night, her intense pain and crippling agony severe. Yet the new tools he had brought along left no mark on Ilaniya’s flesh, and she was still able to dance for her master at his festival. He smiled. He was prepared for that little bitch-creature, wondering, ‘Just how long will her sanity survive my skilled searching and probing?’

“Bring me my dinner!” Legion shouted to a servant hiding in the shadows.

The man bowed nervously and scurried away.

Legion then walked to the outer wall and stared into the distance. Soon he was busy singing some silly little ditty while thinking about his coming successes.

 

  • * *

 

A shiver swept across Trisha’s shoulders, waking her from a fitful sleep. She rolled over to sit up, sliding her feet out of the bunk and onto the floor as she did. The quiet hum and distant vibrations of pulsing engines and machinery were still singing the ship’s lullaby. Looking over her shoulder and watching Zadar’s rhythmic breathing as he peacefully slept was also comforting. Still, there was a building trepidation that wouldn’t ease. Her neck and shoulders began to ache from the growing stress. Trisha rose, quietly gathered her uniform up and silently parted the cabin, passing a reassuring glance over her shoulder as she did.

It felt strangely refreshing to be hurrying down the darkened corridors naked. The experience of doing such a thing was new to the woman. Although it was common for the men and women of this realm, she had refrained from doing the same out of false modesty or guilt, she supposed, but that was mostly gone now.

Zadar had changed all that. He had made her feel free. The shame of sharing her beauty, of being a woman, or being a sexual creature was part of the past. When men or women looked with delight on her shapely form or naked flesh, she found pleasure in their stares. And then there was the tingle of the rushing air on all those tiny hairs that clothes crush and restrain. Oh, how titillating their movement as they resisted the breeze’s intrusion!

After entering the wardroom, the Army’s temporary headquarters aboard the Sophia, Trisha pulled on her green breeches. She picked up her blouse, but couldn’t bring herself to put it on. Placing it over the back of her chair, she sat, resting her elbows on the conference table.

What was wrong? Never had she felt this way before. When she closed her eyes, why, there were soldiers marching out from the gates of a walled city. Huge machines with gun turrets came rolling down the broadways, one after the other. And then there were the mounted soldiers riding giant, horned beasts, their skulls forming bony shields, and their hide covered with iron plates.

She shook her head, but the vision did not end. It twirled and spun around in front of Trisha’s eyes, maddening and frightening. Like some deathly shadow, the army from the city crawled ever forward, crushing everything in its path. Then she heard singing and laughter. At first, the words were muddled and confusing. Eventually they became clear. “To the south we shall go, to crush our evil foe. To the south we will strike. There we will send our might.”

At that moment, Centurion General Sarah stepped through the door. She was immaculately attired in her white dress uniform, a sword hanging at its side. Sarah was not comfortable with others seeing her flesh. Rarely did a person see skin above her lower thigh, and she always slept alone. Few were the men that she was truly comfortable with and fewer were the ones she trusted. Jebbson was sorely missed.

Sarah stopped and stared at Trisha, wide-eyed with wonder. Trisha reached for her blouse, apologizing for not wearing it. Sarah waved her off, telling her it was not a matter of concern to her, but that it was a surprise to find the field marshal awake.

Trisha released the blouse and asked Sarah to sit. She went on to tell her the reason for being there, that the disquiet of her waking dream delivered her to this place. “Never before have I seen things so vividly or heard speech so clearly in a dream, and yet I am not sleeping. Even now, while I look at you, I see the wild armies in my head.”

Sarah nodded in recognition. “I’m seeing vast armadas of warships tearing each other apart. Some are white with double crosses painted on their hulls. There are red ones like those of the Crimson Fleet. And then I see my own WolfPack Marauders. Debris and bodies float in the wasteland of cold space. Wreckage of every kind is all around me. Then I see the white ships fleeing and hear cheers and cries of victory.”

Anxious, Trisha asked, “What is happening to us?!”

Just then, Chasileah entered through the doorway, still hurriedly buttoning her uniform. “Yes, Commander?” She called out, stepping up to Trisha.

Trisha looked up at Chasileah. “What are you doing here?”

Surprised, Chasileah replied, “Why, you called for me to come.”

Trisha denied it. “I have just arrived from my quarters. I assure you, I didn’t call for you nor did I send someone to bring you.”

Chasileah disagreed. “Oh yes, you did! You summoned me in my dreams, telling me it was urgent, that you needed my assistance.”

“That’s impossible!” A disbelieving Trisha retorted. “I cannot come to you in your dreams! I cannot speak with my mind!”

Chasileah thought she understood. She asked, “So you do not believe you can speak with your mind?”

Trisha and Sarah responded that was so.

“Tell me then, please…” Chasileah began, “how did you pray in your elder days? Did you cry out to Lowenah with your voice or with your mind?”

“But that was to God!” An irritated Trisha replied, “With Lowenah, all things are possible.”

Chasileah waved her hand. “Don’t muddy the water with old clichés. Think! It would be one thing if Lowenah could only speak with you. But you could also speak with her. To do that, one must be equipped with the needed machinery to both receive and send messages with the mind.”

She pointed toward herself. “Most of Lowenah’s children have the power to speak to another without using the tongue. Some of the Ancients can call to others across great distances. It has been said of Gabrielle that she can communicate across star systems.”

Trisha and Sarah asked Chasileah to sit. They each described to her, in detail, the visions dancing in their heads. Chasileah listened carefully and asked many questions.

At length, she began to explain what she understood of the matter, first cautioning, “Do be careful to learn how to cloak your mental speech. You must learn how to tell the difference between private thought and open communication.” She took time helping them understand the differences and then practiced with them.

Chasileah addressed the general issue. “It has been said of you by our wise ones that your kind would receive power beyond normal and, in our hour of darkness and great need, you would rise up to rescue our souls from certain destruction. Now I do know for a fact that Mother has given to each of your kind special tools, like the rings you have, but there are also hidden tools you possess in your mind.”

She smiled. “I can see many things, but not to the extent that it has been given to you. Let me explain what these kinds of visions are. First, there are visions that come from the Cherubs or Mother. They are often prophetic and shown in riddles or symbols. I doubt the visions you two are having are from that source. What you are seeing are events as they take place, either in reality or in someone’s thoughts.”

Then to Sarah, Chasileah said, “You’re viewing the reality of things as they have been unfolding. Apparently, there is or has been a great battle fought. At the moment, our side has been victorious. This might not remain the case, seeing that you are watching it as it occurs. If you project your mind so as to focus on events, you should eventually be able to move around where you wish within the vision. If your power of insight is great enough, you will eventually pick out details, individual people, and even parts of their conversations.”

She cautioned, “Do be careful with your emotions. Anxious fear, anger, and boastful pride tend to blind a person to these visions, even blocking out mental communication. Asotos once was the greatest of all seers, but his wicked pride has clouded his abilities. Although still dangerously powerful, his strength has diminished.”

Chasileah attempted to explain how this ‘seeing with the mind’ works. “What is really happening in your brain is that very delicate sensory systems are reading the disturbances in the energy fields of the Universal Web.”

Observing a total lack of understanding on the part of her students, she offered an illustration. “You have seen the communications systems used to listen to voices from far away, right?”

They agreed.

“As you have learned through the teachings of our mathematics, all harmonics create vibrations of sorts that can be measured either by machine or mind. The way those machines work is to filter out unwanted vibrations traveling through space. By carefully adjusting the controls for the exact signal, the operator’s desires can be isolated and enhanced. Then, with amplification, the signal can be seen or heard. Sound and pictures are transmitted this way.”

Chasileah pointed toward her head. “To a lesser or greater degree, each of us has a similar kind of machine within us. Instead of using a physical control to adjust the filter, we use our thought processes to do it. If our in-gathering power…signal…is great enough, we can focus in on many things, even if they may be far away.”

She extended her hand, pointing first toward Sarah and then Trisha. “The mental powers Mother has given you are very great. Few are the children who can see beyond the walls of a ship like this. Even calling to me, so that I could clearly hear you, is something that only the most ancient of our wise ones are able to master.”

Sarah was being patiently polite, but desired to know more about her visions. “So, tell me, of what value are my waking dreams? Will they show me what I should do, or do they portend the future?”

Chasileah answered, “From what I gather, your visions are not from Mother. You merely see what is taking place…or has…depending on the time it has taken the signal to reach you. I do not know which waveform your mind has latched on to. There are several, and they move at different speeds across the universe. The one you are deciphering, I do not know. Another factor is the distance you are from what you are seeing. So, it may take minutes or hours…possibly even longer for the signal to reach your brain.”

“How does this help me?” Sarah asked. “Of what value is it for me to see something if I am unable to know when or where it is happening?”

Chasileah smiled. “You must hone your mental abilities. Concentrate on what you see and ask questions in your mind. Focus on the picture and ponder the sights, sounds, and even possible smells. The controls to manipulate the vision are all inside you. You are the one who must learn to steer the vision where your desire. Eventually, you’ll be able to denote when something happened and even pinpoint where.”

Sarah was stubborn, not wanting to believe she had such power.

She was told to stand. Chasileah walked around behind her and lifted her hands to Sarah’s temples. She began to gently rub them with her fingers. “Here, you do the same as I am doing. While you do, close your eyes and concentrate on your waking dream.”

Chasileah took Sarah’s hands and touched them to her temples. “Now close your eyes and think about what you’re seeing. Relax your mind and focus on the vision.”

As Sarah surrender to Chasileah’s commands, her vision became sharper. Gradually she could see more detail, to the point of identifying individual people and ships. She gasped with excitement.

Placing her hands on Sarah’s hips, Chasileah slowly rotated her in place.

“Stop! Stop!” Sarah cried. “I can see it so clearly now.”

Chasileah grinned. “That is the probable direction from which your vision is coming. The distance will be more difficult to discern.”

Sarah opened her eyes and turned to face Chasileah, beaming with excitement. “I can see! I can see so clearly!”

Satisfied with her teaching skills, Chasileah went on. “To achieve greater detail, or if you are searching the universe, find a quiet room, sit on the floor and relax your body. Reach out with your mind to explore the worlds around you. I have been told by some of the Ancients that, with training, persons can draw themselves into their visions and be swept along with them.”

Trisha spoke up, “So, Major, tell me, please, what do my visions reveal? If not from Lowenah and not the same as the Commodore’s here, what am I seeing?”

Chasileah apologized for her tardiness and then explained, “Because your visions are strangely abstract, most likely you are seeing into the mind of a very careless adversary. The person must be an Ancient for you to be receiving such a strong vision. From what you tell me, I would guess you’re having a visual interpretation of someone’s battle plan, either just implemented or about to be.”

Trisha was wide-eyed with excitement.

Chasileah placed a finger to her lips. “Remember my warning about controlling your thought processes! If you don’t learn which part of your mind is speaking, you may blabber your secrets across the universe just like this fool is doing!”

“So what does this mean for us?” Trisha asked, concerned. “If this is some battle plan, how can I decipher it? What is our enemy doing, or planning to do?”

Chasileah continued, “The mind will often send out signals in the form of signs or riddles, especially when the person sending the signal isn’t intending to. What you see is a mosaic of what the person is thinking, and the speed at which a mind thinks often creates a jumble of messages being transmitted all at once. In other words, all the things you see and hear are like the parts of a puzzle or, possibly puzzles. And not all of them may be pertinent to the subject…or they may be. For that reason, you must remember every detail. Each may be vital.

“Now, you say that an army is coming out from the gates of a city. There are many broadways or many roads exiting the city gate. There are soldiers afoot, on beasts, and in machines – a very large host. And they are singing out their direction of travel.”

Chasileah thought a moment. “One possibility is the enemy will advance upon you from the north, exiting a fortified city or camp. It is a major thrust intended to crush the opposition. And, because of the intensity of your vision, I’d say the person thinking these things is close, possibly on the planet’s surface, and that the strike will happen soon if it hasn’t started already.”

Trisha scratched the side of her head, pondering aloud. “There is but one major, walled city on MueoPoros.”

The realization of her own statement struck her hard. She jumped up, almost shouting. “They’re going to hit us in the south! In the south! Damn it! If he makes a major thrust in that direction, we’ll never be able to take the blow!”

Chasileah countered, “We have the battle plan. Just how soon it will come is still a mystery, but knowing it will give us time to prepare. Commander, because of your visions, we will not be taken by complete surprise.”

Sarah stopped them. “The ships I am seeing appear to be troop transports. If that is true, then Asotos must be sending reinforcements to MueoPoros.”

“Why?” Trisha asked. “Legion already outnumbers us over two to one. Plus, his armies are concentrated. If he released his forces in a general assault, we’d be hard pressed to hang on to our holdings in the west. Never mind our positions at Memphis.”

Chasileah was trying to put the two visions together. She asked Sarah, “How far away do you think the enemy fleet is?”

“Far beyond our scouts, I’d say. We know the location of Asotos’ armada. These must be further away. Also, I see only ships that appear to be from the Crimson Fleet and my own WolfPack Marauders. Wait!”

Sarah put her hands to her head and closed her eyes in concentration. “Those ships of mine are from Commodore StarFaggo’s battle wing, which hails out of Stargaton. Their journeys take them beyond the Frontier as far north as the Outer Corridor and east to EremiaPikros.”

Chasileah interrupted. “You say the other ships appear to be those of the Crimson Fleet? Isn’t its main body located on patrol in the Trizentine?”

“Yes, they are!” Sarah exclaimed then frowned. “But how do we know if the action I am seeing is related to Trisha’s vision?”

Chasileah thought a moment. She snapped her fingers and asked, “Can you follow the debris field caused by the fighting?”

Sarah bent her head in concentration. A look of surprise crossed her face. She began to shout. “It comes toward me! Straight as an arrow it flees to the south and west!”

“All right.” Chasileah rested her hands on the table as she leaned forward. “If the enemy is retreating in the same direction it has come from, then it likely is heading for us. Do we know the location of any other enemy battle groups?”

“Why, yes, we do.” Sarah thought about it. “There are two coming down the Channel.”

 

(Author’s note: The Channel is a broad expanse encompassing much of the sky Q-north to south in the EdenEsonbar Confluence. It reached far to the east beyond the Frontier. Before the Rebellion, it was a heavily traveled route because it was relatively free of space rocks and asteroids.)

 

The wheels turned in her mind, putting all the information together. “If I’m correct, those fleets I see are on the same course as the ships we are tracking.”

Chasileah cautioned. “We cannot be certain that MueoPoros is or was the intended destination of the invasion fleets, though it’s more than likely the case. Still…” She stood up. “May I make a suggestion, General?”

“Please.” Sarah replied.

“Well,” Chasileah began. “I think it likely your invasion fleets’ destination was MueoPoros. But the Channel is a very big place and includes many star systems besides this one. The Hindly Page jump portal near Stargaton is in it, as well as parts of the Outer Corridor and some Frontier star systems. You have seen two invasion fleets, but there likely are more and not necessarily headed for us.”

“My suggestion is to warn all the colonies in the eastern theater, from the Trizentine to Candletoe. If an attack comes, it will likely manifest itself within twenty-four to ninety-six hours. Some places, we were told at the Council of Eighty, were to be secretly reinforced. I believe that Stargaton is one such place. Advanced warning will better prepare our people, helping them repel such an attack. Other places not fortified can make preparations and set their own plans in order.”

Chasileah then addressed Trisha. “Commander, I think it’s possible that any major attack against us on the ground will coincide with Asotos’ grand plan.” She asked Sarah, “Commodore, has a time been calculated for when the enemy carriers will be within fighter range?”

“Yes.” Sarah answered. “As of twenty-two hundred hours, they were calculated to be a little less than three days out.”

Chasileah turned to Trisha. “Commander, I believe you have forty-eight to seventy-two hours before Legion unleashes his counter-offensive.”

The room suddenly seemed cooler, or was Trisha feeling more vulnerable, being naked? Whatever the case, she reached for her blouse and quickly put it on. As she hurried with its buttons, she began to issue commands.

“The hours are escaping us, Major. There is no time to waste. I want you to get to Memphis and personally deliver my orders to General DinChizki. Make it clear to him the gravity of the situation. I want him to quietly shift every available unit to the south. Emphasize his need for secrecy. Tell him what you must, but with the others keep mum about the possible attack. My orders will fill him in on what I expect.”

She pushed a button on the conference table. In a moment, an unseen voice filled the room. “Army Command Center.”

“This is Field Marshal Trisha of QaShaibJal. Please find General NoazOhfehr and have him report to the Army wardroom. Tell him the field marshal begs his forgiveness at disturbing his rest, but his presence here is necessary and to please come in haste. I also want you to ready an armed shuttle, accompanied by two escorts, to be at my immediate disposal.”

She paused in thought, adding, “And please send to the commodore general and the admiral of the fleet, requesting them to join me here.”

She found some paper and began writing down her orders, all the while filling Chasileah in on the battle plan. “General Din will buttress up his southern army with whatever reinforcements he can risk from the other divisions. The divisions in the south will need to dig in and prepare for the worst.” She frowned. “Having to carry a second front has drained us of our reserves of soldiers and equipment. Added to this, the constant air fighting has depleted our air arm.”

While tapping her pen on the table, Trisha bemoaned their weakened state. “General NoazOhfehr’s army is spread out across the plains and low hills to the east of the PrasiaOdous Mountains. I believe we can hold our own there, no matter what is thrown at us.” She shook her head. “Trouble is, until I know for sure where the blow will strike, I dare not risk lending any support to Memphis from that sector. It’s sad, but our army to the south of that city stands alone.”

Trisha handed Chasileah a folded paper. “I have no envelope, nor do I have wax for my seal ring and there is no time to obtain them. You are my surety and trust. General Din will listen to your voice.”

Taking another sheet of paper, Trisha began to write, saying, “Show this to the good general, that is, if you’re willing to do me a huge favor?”

“Whatever it is you ask of me, I shall faithfully attempt to accomplish.” came Chasileah’s crisp reply.

“Good!” Trisha sighed. “I am giving you a field commission of brigadier general.”

Chasileah was shocked speechless.

Trisha handed her the paper. “There exists some little support that can be provided to our southern troops, should the time come when all else fails. Approximately eight thousand mounted scouts, couriers, standard bearers, and the like are spread throughout the Memphis armies. Most of them are experienced veterans from the old school. If all else fails and our forces falter, we may be able to boost their fighting morale with a grand show of determined pageantry.”

Chasileah queried, “Are you asking for a battle charge into death and glory?”

Trisha shook her head, quietly answering, “No. I’m asking you to lead, as a last resort, a battle charge into death and slaughter. There will be no glory in it, for there is no glory in reckless destruction.” Her sadness grew. “I highly doubt it will succeed in driving off the enemy, but it might buy us some time and spur our forces back into the fight.”

With that, Trisha reached up and tore the insignia from her left sleeve, tears growing in her eyes. “Here, General. I’m sorry, but I have no other ensign to give you.”

Chasileah was deeply touched. “No greater gift could you give me. This I will wear with pride. I will not dishonor it.”

Trisha put a hand on her shoulder, offering a wistful smile before kissing her on the lips. “I want for you to return it to me if at all possible.”

General Noaz made his appearance at that moment. Trisha called him over and quickly brought him up to speed. He well understood the gravity of the situation. Giving Chasileah a tender kiss, Noaz promised, “If there is anything I am able to do, I will not hesitate to give it.” Then waxing romantic, “Should our world dissolve into dust and ruin, and death be our sealing fate, there awaits for us one more divine, where the rivers PisTeuo and Elpis mate.”

Chasileah interrupted and finished the verse. “So doth the fearless warrior speak, as he stands the battle line.”

Noaz grinned so sadly. “My dear sister, you have never failed us…”

Chasileah frowned and started to argue. Noaz put a finger to her lips and shook his head. “You have never failed us…or your soldiers. I have always admired my older sister. In peace and in war, you have led us with distinction.” He affectionately embraced her.

Just before Chasileah left, Trisha assigned Jonathan to her command as an aide-de-camp. “Now be off quickly, General.” Trisha took her hand. “May your services go un-required.”

Chasileah begged her leave, hurried to her cabin to retrieve some personal articles, which included an ancient golden helm, breastplate, mail, and other pieces of armor. To throw away one’s life in battle might not bring glory, but it could still be glorious. With luggage packed, and assistance from two orderlies, she made her way to the shuttle bay and departed to an unknown fate.

Meanwhile, Planetee arrived at the wardroom. In a few moments, Admiral SujinKotoku made an appearance, telling the others that the admiral of the fleet was indisposed and requested he take her place.

No one disputed Trisha and Sarah’s visions. Admiral Sujin immediately began preparing the Navy for Asotos’ coming offensive. He contacted the colonies, warning them of possible invasion and began consolidating his scattered forces at important strategic locations. Commodore General Planetee, conferring with the Navy, added support forces to the army on MueoPoros by pulling three Marine brigades from the navy ships, a Marine brigade comprised of approximately seventy-eight hundred soldiers each. These forces could not be consolidated on the battlefronts, but their added presence did help slow Legion’s advancing armies, especially to the south of Memphis.

The leadership concluded it unwise to remain together, risking a total command breakdown should the Sophia be destroyed in the ensuing battle. Sarah removed herself to one of her larger Special Forces vessels. Planetee transferred to the carrier, TifaraTirza, along with her staff officers. Trisha ordered her field commanders, along with General Barkai, her chief of staff, to MueoPoros’ surface.

Determined and resolute, the leaders of the Children’s Empire settled down for a fitful wait. The next move was up to the enemy.

 

(Author’s note: Truth be told, Gabrielle was found by a staff secretary, doubled up on the floor of her cabin. She had managed to assist the admiral into bed and called Sujin to inform him. Gabrielle was too sick to walk, her blinding headache making it impossible for her to move.

The history books do not mention Gabrielle’s illness, but I think it is imperative you should know. At the risk of receiving her rebuff, I shall break my silence and confess to the reader what I know about the matter.

There has been some historical criticism given to Gabrielle for her failure to act more decisively, especially with Mihai and Anna. There are also intermittent periods of time during the King’s War when the woman disappears from the record.

Let me assure you, Gabrielle was stalwart in her duties…and there was no other person better suited to carry the responsibilities than she.

Gabrielle could not shake her headaches. They persisted throughout the war. After a minor stroke disabled the admiral, shortly following the battle for MueoPoros, Gabrielle stopped taking the strictnoisun for her ills. She had two more strokes over the following six months, forcing her to command in absentia while she convalesced. The strokes left her right arm partially paralyzed and caused her to go blind in one eye, a condition from which she did not fully recover throughout the period of the war.

When the children of the Shadow Days grow beyond the traumas of that age, their testimony will prove that Gabrielle effectively carried out her duties. Her sickness and several war injuries did not affect her unparalleled leadership abilities.

In my personal examination of the facts, I have come to believe that it was Gabrielle who held the Empire together during its darkest hours. Never did her mind falter. She is notably the most outstanding military strategist in history.

As for questions raised concerning Anna and Mihai – issues that will be discussed at a later time – the student of history must consider the political ideology of the day. In the minds of the people, Mihai was ‘king absolute’. They would not have tolerated anyone short of Lowenah questioning her decisions and commands. Had Gabrielle publicly acted against Mihai’s will, she would have lost credibility as chief commander in the Empire, weakening her influence with the people.

Two positive things did come out of Gabrielle’s sickness. After the Battle of MueoPoros, Field Marshal Trisha transferred Zadar from her command to serve as Gabrielle’s personal adjunct. This was fortuitous. Under the admiral’s tutelage, Zadar grew in wisdom and leadership abilities, eventually becoming her second in command over the Navy. He has been credited with many of the decisive victories that led to Asotos being driven from the First Realm.

The second positive thing that came from Gabrielle’s sickness was the resurgence of technological invention. Gabrielle was an excellent fighter pilot. Her physical disabilities, including her loss of mental insight – visions in time and space – made her incapable of flying the TKR-17. Openly embracing Jebbson Garlock’s smart machine development and offering the Navy’s full support, she eventually helped in the production of the TKR-21. The TKR-21, better known as the ‘Baby Pearl’ was credited with ending the Endikos scourge. It was easy to manufacture and, more importantly, an average pilot could quickly master its controls.

The Baby Pearl changed the history of warfare and, later, interplanetary travel. The ships of your day still use many of the innovations incorporated in it. Its arrival on the scene coincided with the introduction of the ‘Planetee’, or ‘Crystal Bullet’, a subject for future discussion. The Baby Pearl is the fighter you will most often see in paintings of Mihai wearing her pilot’s uniform.

At the controls of the Baby Pearl, Gabrielle soon regained her reputation as a fighter ace. Near the end of the war, when Asotos’ armies were in full retreat, she led dozens of sorties against the enemy. The information I have revealed may help add meaning to Gabrielle’s statement, when commenting about this ship. ‘It has been my right arm, helping me see beyond the horizon.’)

 

*

 

About this same time, the last of Asotos’ MueoPoros attack fleets were discovered totally removing his element of surprise. Although he failed to understand it at the moment, his grand battle plan was rapidly unraveling. Rigid with pride, he refused to listen to his lieutenants when they requested he delay the invasion of Candletoe and pull their forces back from Stargaton to lend support at MueoPoros.

“We are the superior ones!” He shouted, slamming his fist on the table. “Our opponent swine are unworthy of my concern! If you do your jobs, we will destroy this rabble within a fortnight. Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter. Strike the sheep, and the shepherd will come out of hiding to protect the sheep.”

There was a lack of understanding among Asotos’ officers. “Look,” He exclaimed, exasperated with his dimwitted servants, “that usurper, Michael has come within our grasp should we act shrewdly! She doesn’t listen to the counsel of Erithia or her generals. Now she sits in the Sophia, basking in her ill-gotten glory, waiting for the surrender of MueoPoros.”

Asotos began to pace, waving his hands in gesture. “Gabrielle and Planetee are merciless warriors, not only with the enemy, but with their own people. If they were standing the head of the armies alone at MueoPoros, there would be little value to our striking other objectives. They’d just let their other companions be butchered while they held their forces in check, waiting. If that were the case, I would do as you have suggested. But I have managed to draw the rat out of hiding. Michael will not tolerate any harm coming to her subjects.”

“Now…” He became derogatory, “if my officers follow my orders, in less than a week there will be no more enemy navy to speak of.” His tenor changed to remorse. “I do not take to cruelty and unwarranted slaughter, but if we are to succeed that is what has been forced upon us. Michael’s heart is too big for a warrior. When reports come to her telling of the burning of villages and the murder and raping by the monster hordes…” He feigned a look of piety. “That’s what they accuse us of being…” He slammed his fist into an opened hand. “The miserable little tramp will be forced to come to her people’s assistance!”

Asotos stepped up to one of his lesser lieutenants, resting a gentle hand on the man’s shoulder, speaking with warmth and tenderness. “If we all will do our part, this terrible war will soon come to an end. Erithia will be forced to submit to our demands, for she has promised as much at the Prisoner Exchange. She will have to leave our worlds, which means abandoning the stolen palace. With it in our hands, all the wrongs committed against us can be righted. Life and health can be restored. We will again see the return of our dear companions who have died fighting to bring us to this righteous day.”

He looked around at his various officers, ignoring Captain Ilaniya who stood off in a distant corner. “My brothers!” Asotos cheered. “Let us be about our duties quickly! Our valor and diligence shall not go unrewarded. When we have Michael in our hands, Erithia will be forced to submit to our every demand. The war is almost over! Let us do our all to make that be the case!”

The officers parted ways, each hurrying off to his appointed duty. Asotos had not told them about the defeat of the two invasion battle groups, feeling it might hurt morale. Within a few hours, though, it would make little difference. There would be other concerns for his officers to face. The security of feeling they acted with stealth was going to be shattered when reports started coming in about rogue attacks by some new and strange little ships all painted black and red.

The sting of a bee can be painful, but little more. A swarm of angry hornets is a totally different matter. The unbendable Asotos would brush off these attacks as well as the loss of secrecy. He obstinately refused to alter his battle plans, feeling that Mihai would abandon MueoPoros when the other colonies were attacked. The pesky enemy swarm was to prove too much of a nuisance and, much to his surprise, Asotos would realize too late just how little military authority Mihai really possessed. Even if he had known all this in advance, he wouldn’t have changed a thing. He was committed to his plan. After all, he invented it, organized it, directed it. How could it fail if it had his full backing?

 

  • * *

 

Rock Company struggled up the frozen rise to the abandoned rifle pits. Alba looked back across the flat expanse to the dark shadows of the distant hills some five leagues away. She grumbled to herself about having to make the forced march, surrendering hard won ground to the night.

The army had pressed east, driving the enemy off the swampy plain and into those hills. Her company was within two miles of their objective when orders came for them to pull back to a series of hillocks a little over three leagues east of the river – a line of low hills and knolls that ran north to south for about twenty leagues. The southern-most part of these hills was where Merna’s company was overrun some weeks earlier.

As her company crawled into the rifle pits, orders went down the line to dig in. Disgruntled cries could be heard about the slogger – foot soldier – always being the most abused of the beasts of burden on the battlefield. A shout went up from one unhappy trooper. “Hey, Captain, do we get an extra ration of oats when we’re done?”

Alba, in no happy mood herself, called back, “A mule earns extra rations. How about gettin’ down the hill for a little picket duty?” She looked around at the others and asked, “Any more of you mules dissatisfied with your jobs?” No one answered. Alba ordered two more unfortunates to follow their comrade.

The work went on. By late morning Rock Company was hunkered down, preparing its midday meal. Alba stood on the rise staring to the east when Sergeant Kfir ambled up to her. He, too, stopped and gazed toward the far hills. “Just got news from Colonel Xurao at headquarters. Says we’re to dig in deep and stay low.”

He took a step forward, rubbing his hands to warm them. “Heard the whole line has been secured on these hills.” Scanning the gray, snowy sky, he mused, “Looks like this is our new front line, Capt’n. They say our old line’s been thinned way down. Only got a few skirmishers and Marine companies to make things look occupied.”

Alba huffed, “We lost twelve people pushing out that far. I was preparing for the next stage of battle to get those foothills. Now we’re back here on this god-awful knob, freezing our asses off. At least there was scrub shelter where we were and scrap wood to make some hidden fires.”

Kfir nodded in agreement. “Also heard tell the main army’s diggin’ in on the other side of the river. They’re choppin’ down the forest and corduroying the roads on this side of the river. Looks to me like the brass is either plannin’ for a big advance or a mighty hasty retreat.”

Sputtering sarcastically, Alba asked, “Why would anyone waste time corduroying the roads? Everything’s frozen! The ice must be at least four inches thick. Even our tanks can cross this sink hole with ease.”

Alba had good reason to be so sarcastic. For three days, northeast winds had hammered the army, stalling any advance. The temperature had dropped into the teens Fahrenheit, staying there. And this last night, when they withdrew back across the wind-swept plain, it hovered around zero. Right now the captain was more concerned about hypothermia and frostbite than fighting some battle.

She called down to her immediate lieutenant, “Have the people throw canvases over the rifle pits. Huddle up close and fire up the plasma heaters. Make sure everyone takes care to look out for each other. Keep checking for frostbite.”

Slapping her hands against her arms, Alba shared her concerns with Kfir. “If my kids don’t get warmer clothing, I’m afraid I’ll lose ‘em to this weather. What kind of freak storm is this anyway? It’s only early fall. Four days ago it was fifty degrees warmer than it is right now.”

Kfir, dancing as much as Alba was to keep warm, lifted his nose into the air as he scanned the ragged sky. He sucked in a breath then let it go, his reddened cheeks puffing out as he did. “I don’t claim to be an expert, but I’d say this freaky weather is gonna get freakier.”

“How so?” Alba’s concern was evident.

Kfir fell into his comfortable drawl. “Well Capt’n, I reckon there’s gonna be a draa-maa-tic change a comin’. In a day or so we’ll be swimming in mud, torrential rains and all.”

He looked down on the soldiers hurrying to set up the canvases, warning, “If I were them, I’d worry more ‘bout drownin’ in those holes than freezin’ to death.”

Kfir’s bit of weather forecasting didn’t lighten Alba’s spirits. “That’s really great! What do you suggest I do, tell my people not to worry, that in a day or two their frozen corpses will sink into the goo?”

The sergeant eyed the captain and then broke into a grin. “No, but I think it wise to have ‘em prepare for a flood.” He pointed across to the east and then at the encampment. “Your children need some rest. We’ve got time before whatever happens, happens. My suggestion is to keep a nose on the weather and when you notice a change get those kids of yours busy preparin’ for rain.”

He looked toward the river. “I think others feel the same way I do. That’s probably the reason the brass is havin’ those roads built. You know, Capt’n, if this ice goes south and we’re attacked, the enemy will have a hell of a time getting at us – us bein’ in the middle of a giant swamp and all.”

Pointing back toward the distant hills, Kfir continued, “The brass knows somethin’ and it ain’t lettin’ on to us what it is, but I’ll tell ya this: We were pulled out and made to do an all night march – not just our company, or even our brigade, but the whole damn line. Awful dangerous thing to do considerin’ the cold and storm. Could a’ got a lot of people hurt or killed. And in the rush, we left a ton of supplies behind.” Then shaking his head, he offered, “No ma’am, doin’ things like that just ain’t normal.”

He touched his finger to his head. “I figure it this way: Somebody believes the enemy is gonna’ make some kind of a major attack and real soon. They don’t want him to know we’ve pulled back to this place. That’s why they told us to dig in and stay low. That’s also why we were told to leave those gravity trucks for those stayin’ behind, knowin’ the weather is gonna’ warm up, so the troops holding the line there can get out when the ice’s gone.”

Alba didn’t ask for further explanation. She hurried down to the lieutenant. “I want you to send a squad back for munitions and supplies for the company. Take four of the half-deuces. Better to have too much stuff than not enough. Get all the munitions you can. When you’re done, come to my command tent.” She turned to Kfir and sent him down the line to notify the junior lieutenants of a meeting.

Walking back up the rise, Alba peered into the east. She thought about just how vulnerable they would be to an armored attack if the ice remained. It would take less than half an hour for fast tanks to cross the vast, flat expanse in front of her. She lowered her head. “I hope you’re right about the weather, Kfir… I hope you’re right.”

 

  • * *

 

Sirion sat on the cushion, staring into the mirror, soaking in all the attention Mihai was giving. She had been fawned over all morning. First there had been the sudsy bath the two had shared, Mihai scrubbing and fondling her like a mother does her little child. Now the king was busy with a comb, playing with Sirion’s hair.

The girl tipped her head back, resting it on Mihai’s naked breasts. Looking up into Mihai’s face, she cooed, “I love you, Mada. I love you so much.”

A rush of emotion swept through Mihai. It had been so many millennia since she had heard that name. When Sirion was but a babe, the child had begun calling her that, but stopped doing so after her coming of age.

Mihai stared into Sirion’s eyes. “Did you just hear yourself now? How many eons have passed since you sang that word in my ears?”

Sirion reached up and took hold of Mihai’s hand, smiling. “You’ve always been my Mada. I’ve never stopped saying it to you in my heart. I stopped speaking it because, I guess, big girls weren’t supposed to do those kind of childish things.” She looked back into the mirror. “I don’t want to be a big girl anymore.”

Mihai bent forward, wrapping her arms around Sirion, gently rocking her from side to side. “Do you want to know a secret?”

Sirion said nothing, waiting for Mihai to speak.

“I don’t want to be a big girl anymore, either.” They looked at each other through the mirror and began to giggle.

The two bantered on, talking about silly things, things that are viewed as of little worth in days of bliss, but become precious, nearly sacred, during times of great strife and turmoil.

Sirion stood and embraced Mihai. She gazed into the woman’s ocean blue eyes. “I was just fourteen when our world ended. I have lived so many different lives since then. You know what? It’s those first few years when you mothered me, nursed me, and cared for me that are still so clear in my mind. It was such a beautiful time in my life.”

Mihai kissed Sirion on the forehead. “You are my most precious gift, a child born to me by law, the first baby to nurse at my breasts, to drink the milk of life from me. You are my firstborn, heir to all that is mine.” She pushed Sirion’s nose. “Always have been and, no matter the future, always will be.”

Sirion snuggled close to Mihai, soaking in the warmth of her body. For a moment she could be the little child again, forgetting the ravages of this terrible Rebellion. For the longest time the two remained locked in their affectionate embrace, shutting out the world around them.

As the morning pressed on, Sirion and Mihai played in each other’s company, giving tickles and back rubs, and then there were the word games and guessing games. But, as all such things must come to an end, more serious business became subject matter.

Sirion tried to be judicious when the discussion of Terey came up. She didn’t want to quote what Terey had said when asked if she would allow Mihai a visit. “Terey has been very busy as of late, you know, with battle strategy and all. She hasn’t really had time for anyone. She only tolerates me because, like she says, I’m ‘quiet as a mouse’, not intruding in her business.”

“But did you tell her how much I want to see her, just how important it is that I spend some time with her?”

Sirion nodded. “Yes, Mada, I did. I will go to her this afternoon and ask her again if she will permit a visit.”

Mihai thanked Sirion, emphasizing her burning desire to speak with Terey.

At that moment, someone knocked on the stateroom door.

“Yes?” Mihai called out.

“It’s Admiral Gabrielle.”came the reply. “May I have a word with you?”

Mihai stiffened. She stood up, slipped on a night robe, and coolly answered, “You may enter.”

Gabrielle stepped into the room, noticed Sirion sitting on the bed and asked, “My Lord, may I speak with you in private, please?”

Mihai was curt and to the point. “Why? Is witchcraft served up only in private? No! I think you should tell me what’s on your mind where other ears and eyes can attest to the conversation.”

Mihai’s words struck Gabrielle like a fist. She had mustered all her strength just to leave her sick bed. Beads of sweat were running down her face and back from her sickening headache. There was little else to do, though. She must stay the course. Mihai was king and was to be treated as such.

Gabrielle glanced once more at Sirion, who felt like someone caught in the middle. “All right.” Gabrielle sighed. “My Lord, report has come to me that you have delivered your fighter to my ship, off-loading it last night, and that it is being readied for combat.”

Mihai was caustic. “Admiral, what I do with my possessions is my business. Am I your servant? I am readying my fighter should the need come to use it.”

Bowing her head in sadness, Gabrielle replied, “My Lord, this is my ship. I am commander of this Navy. You may rule the people, but I rule this fleet and control what is done with it. Your fighter is in trespass, you having received no permission to secure it here. I will not allow its use without my personal permission.”

Mihai’s face went red with rage, her body shaking with tremors as she fought down an urge to strike Gabrielle. Finally mastering her feelings, she angrily rebuked her. “You are Admiral for the moment! Do be careful, for you walk a very thin line! I shall do what I feel necessary and no underling will usurp my position!”

There was ever so small a sign of a tear in Gabrielle’s eye. She politely bowed. “My Lord, what the future brings it shall bring. As for now, your fighter remains in the hangar, locked down.” She bowed again and exited the door.

 

  • * *

 

The blatting squawk of the warning sirens and the glaring red flashing of emergency lights blasted Apollonius awake. A voice shouted on the overhead, “This in no drill! This is no drill! Battle stations! Battle stations!”

Apollonius hurried for his station, struggling to pull on his pants as he ran along corridors filled with sailors and Marines doing the same. Several had already put on their safety suits but a few were still naked, having been too far from their cabins to retrieve their clothes. He puzzled how anyone could find their post in all this bedlam. But soon enough he found himself at his own post directly below the ship’s battle bridge issuing orders to his platoon.

The cruiser, GoshStock, shuddered as its catapults shot fighters into space. Four times Apollonius felt the ship shake off the g-forces of those machines. In five minutes the GoshStock’s three fighter squadrons were on line, two speeding away to intercept enemy ships, the third circling nearby, protecting the fleet. The cruiser’s flight doors closed as the ship heeled hard to starboard, pulling away from the convoy and steaming toward the enemy invasion fleet.

Apollonius wasn’t sure when they first engaged in combat. Other than the whoosh of torpedoes being fired, or the occasional roar of the cruiser’s projectile cannons, there was little to indicate death was waiting so close at the door.

The most difficult thing for a Marine officer at these times was the waiting. There was nothing to do at the moment other than keep out of the way and let the sailors do their jobs. Apollonius stayed busy by running from one location to another, checking on the welfare of his Marines. His thirty-man platoon was scattered around the forward hull of the ship serving as fire and medical crews.

He was on an emergency ladder, having just sealed its hatch, when the GoshStock received its first blow, one of many that came in rapid succession nearly crippling the ship. The concussion of the missile tore the ladder away from the wall, sending Apollonius into opposite bulkhead, breaking his nose as he smashed to the floor, face down.

Struggling to his feet, Apollonius looked up to see the red decompression sign flashing its warning. Looking around, he found a fire suit and hustled to put it on. Twice more he was knocked to his knees from violent impacts against the outer hull. After several exhausting minutes, he managed to get to an emergency hatch leading down to the next deck. He was not prepared for the chaos awaiting him there.

The forward torpedo room located on this deck had received a direct hit from a plasma missile, tearing a hole in the hull the size of a deuce-and-a-half, killing everyone inside. A few seconds later, a charged torpedo in one of the tubes blew up, tearing away or buckling the two upper decks and rupturing the lower.

The bulkhead directly behind the torpedo room collapsed from the concussion, being flung across a narrow hallway into the next bulkhead, impacting it with such force the inner wall blew apart sending death and destruction into the crowded waiting station. Two fire-fighting crewmembers standing near it were riven to pieces, becoming deadly broken missiles of flesh and bone hurtling through the air. Apollonius looked down from the opened hatch upon shredded bodies of both living and dead.

The GoshStock’s outer energy field had been newly upgraded, making it more elastic. Like an invisible blanket, it covered the gaping hole in the hull, sealing the atmosphere inside. Powerful pumps rushed fresh air back into the torn chambers saving dozens of lives.

Apollonius worked his way down the twisted ladder and onto the ruined deck. Blood flowed in rivulets from the torn and broken bodies scattered about, gathering in dark red pools that lazily slopped one way and then the other as the ship lolled from side to side.

‘This must be a dream! I must be having a bad dream!’ Apollonius thought. He stopped to fight down a growing panic, counting aloud to fifteen in order to get control of his thoughts.

Apollonius forced himself to step away from the ladder only to fall to the floor, slipping in a lake of blood. With a great deal of effort he managed to get on his hands and knees, crawling back and forth through this charnel house of carnage and debris to assist the others.

What seemed like hours was really a matter of minutes. Emergency rescue crews converged on the scene. Apollonius looked up to see three of his Marines hurry in with medical kits. Recognizing their commanding officer, they rushed over.

He looked a sight, with a torn fire suit and covered in blood. It was difficult to tell them he was all right, especially when he tried to speak. Blood from his broken nose ran into his mouth, spattering his face shield with crimson slime. Finally getting his helmet off, Apollonius told them to help the others. Accepting a gauze bandage and holding it to his face, he worked his way to the exit hatch and up another emergency ladder to the deck above.

For the next two hours, Apollonius directed the rescue efforts of the members of his platoon. There were fires amidships that forced the evacuation of the main triage center. Bulkheads had collapsed and floors were buckled, trapping dozens to the whims of fate. Fires burned out of control, oxygen systems being ruptured, fueling ever-hungry flames. Everywhere he turned there was nothing but death and destruction facing him.

Somehow the ship stayed together. It had eventually been able to withdraw from the engagement, retreating to a safer distance. Early the next day they caught up with the convoy now making its way toward Desiah. There was little the captain could do but sidle up to a fire tug and follow along.

Apollonius couldn’t believe the good news. Everyone in his platoon had survived the battle. Over a dozen were injured, some seriously, but over all they had done quite well. Other Marine platoons had not been so fortunate. All together, twenty-four Marines and thirty-seven sailors had died and over one hundred were injured.

Damage to the GoshStock was extensive, it taking seven torpedo hits with better than a score of others from bombs or guns. Over half of the ship’s fighters never returned. It had not been a good day. If they made it to the Desiah star system, Apollonius wondered what they would find. If they made it there… That was the crew’s first concern. He went in search of his captain to receive new orders.

Some time the following day, Apollonius found his way back to his bunk. The officers’ quarters was a jumbled mess with the contents of drawers, shelves and anything else that wasn’t tied down scattered on the floor. He was exhausted but try as he might, sleep avoided him. Finally he got up and started gathering whatever belongings of his were strewn about.

He discovered a short note scribbled on a cut piece of packing paper. It was from Alba, received only the week before. It said:

 

My dear sweet Apollo,

Hope this letter finds you well and in good spirits. I have been busy of late and have not kept up with my letter writing. Just wanted to let you know I am safe and well. Our arrival here was a little stormy, but things are better now. Sure is a beautiful place. Reminds me of the wilderness in the Sharon Mountains. I think you would enjoy exploring some of these ancient forests.

I made a new friend the other day, Corporal Kfir. He is really a lot of fun to be around, always is able to lift my spirits. We had some adventures together. He told me that I should make a good officer. I hope so. I want so much to play my part, hold up my end, if you know what I mean. I think you would like him, too.

It must be fun flying all over the universe. Have you made many friends? You’re good at it, you know. I miss you and your laughter. Hope to see you soon.

Love,

Alba’

 

Apollonius smiled. At least Alba was having a decent time of it.’ He leaned back on his cot, holding the letter close. Soon he was peacefully snoring away, dreaming of the forests of MueoPoros.

 

  • * *

 

A large portion of the Second Fleet had been siphoned off to support the First Fleet at MueoPoros. The Second Fleet’s commander, Admiral NikaoEimi, centered his remaining big warships around the Hindly Page Jump Portal, leaving Stargaton protected by a patchwork quilt of ancient dreadnaughts, carracks, barquentines and cutters, along with a jumble of converted tankers, freight liners, and howkers. The cruiser, PinChas, another relic from before the Great War, was Commodore ErdenGraach’s flagship over this ragtag fleet.

Although the commodore put up a brave fight, he was no match for the armada he opposed. After two hours of heavy combat in which he lost ninety percent of his fighter squadrons and all his heavies, what remained of his tattered battle group retreated into deep space leaving Stargaton to its own defenses.

With Erden’s ships removed from the fight, the assembled enemy armada was free to rain death and terror onto Stargaton’s surface. The Navy yards and Army depots at Mordem and other larger cities were blasted apart. Mordem itself was incinerated with plasma bombs, leaving it a smoldering pile of ruins.

Although no invasion had been planned at that time for Stargaton, the enemy armada intended to resume hostilities after it re-supplied its fighting ships from the freighter convoy which was some distance away from the battle zone. An urgent request from the MueoPoros invasion fleets forced a change of plan.

Asking for the armada’s two carriers to lend support left the commander without his major fighter groups. Fearing an attack from Admiral Nikao’s Hindly Page fleet should he find out the carriers had departed, the enemy commander removed his entire armada from the scene taking them all toward MueoPoros.

The enemy armada left in such haste it did not take the time to search the debris field for any survivors.

 

(Author’s note: Official policy on both sides was ‘take no prisoners’, and this policy was usually carried out by the enemy except in rare circumstances. Conversely, commanders in the Children’s Empire were provided the option to decide for themselves what to do. Many showed mercy and allowed for prisoners. Eventually several penal colonies were established where these prisoners of war set up homesteading for the remainder of hostilities.

The policy of ‘take no prisoners’ was later modified by the enemy for various reasons. A primary one was to provide more conscripts for the Army. As the war turned against them and their numbers began to thin, captured soldiers and civilian populations in occupied areas were turned into slave laborers, especially for farming. Often this meant being shipped deep into the heart of Asotos’ kingdom, far away from any hopes of rescue. Although usually treated harshly and half starved, this policy did inadvertently save millions of lives that would have otherwise been needlessly snuffed out.

MueoPoros was the one exception to this change of policy. Legion tolerated no prisoners unless they were to serve some particular purpose. Death by torture was meted out to countless thousands. Field Marshal Trisha soon tired of this disgraceful folly and began adopting some of Legion’s policies with her prisoners.

The Battle of SunLupeo, where she ordered captured combatants lashed to the bumpers of her advancing armor, was the first public notice given to Legion’s army that these creatures from the Lower Realms played at war much differently than their fellow sky children).

 

 

The imperial frigate, Sharon, crawled through the debris field, searching for survivors. It had only been several hours since the battle ended and the enemy armada had departed toward MueoPoros. Having not been scavenged, as was often the case, there was great hope from the crew for finding several comrades alive. Already Captain GilleRing was hearing reports confirming that hope.

Leftenant Hanna was aboard a sculler some four hundred leagues Q-north, west of the Sharon. The boat’s pilot had just finished attaching a hook to a third drifter pod and was preparing to return to the ship. Hanna was exhausted. Sweat poured down her face, soaking the clothing inside her rescue suit, as she called over her shoulder the ‘all clear’. Laboriously, the sculler turned to port making its way back to mother.

The sculler was an outstanding machine for search and rescue. Its forward airlock chamber allowed for the pickup of individuals directly from space. As was often the case in the kinds of space combat fought at the time, people would be expelled from ruptured holds into space with only their emergency suits keeping them alive.

They had managed to pack over thirty survivors into the tiny boat designed for only twelve passengers. Three recent arrivals along with two Marines were holed up in the airlock, there being no room in the main cabin for them. Friend and foe alike had been picked up midst the grumbles of a few that the wicked should be allowed their day of judgment. Hanna would have no part of it – she being in charge and responsible for the rescue mission, refused to decide the issue of life or death when the captain had given no such directive.

The half dozen hostiles were stripped and bound but otherwise were left unharmed. One sailor complained, “This rabble deserve nothing but death! The lost souls of the Web are already damned. Keeping their bodies alive is doing no one any good.”

Hanna glared at the sailor. “Did you ever question Lowenah or wonder if her ways were really correct? Did you ever once think she might be wrong regarding Asotos? It has been said that judgment comes when the heart turns wicked, yet how many of us have not had heartfelt thoughts that very well should have declared us wicked and removed our minds from the Web?” She thumped her chest. “I, for one, have railed against God many times, even calling down evil upon her in my foolishness. Yet I live… and for what good reason I do not know.”

She shook her head. “No! No, I dare not call down evil upon the head of another, especially one born of Lowenah. Let no man judge the soul of another. The wicked will die, of that you can be sure. We cannot stop it. I fight this war not to kill but to bring about a cleansing of this universe, to preserve it alive. I kill for only that reason. Do not harm your brother unless you must.”

It took an hour to make the trip back to the Sharon. By that time other scullers and rescue boats had come and gone. There were also several escape boats surrounding the ship, their crews waiting to board. It was another hour before Hanna’s sculler could offload its living cargo and return to the search. By the time they got underway, three more ships had joined the rescue mission.

Hanna felt so sad as her boat carefully navigated its cluttered surroundings. There were hundreds upon hundreds of bodies drifting amongst the wreckage and they had no way of retrieving them this day or possibly ever. What made it so heartrending was that each suited body had to be caught and checked to see if the person was alive. If not, they would tag it with a signal device and send it on its way. Hanna believed it was the longest day of her life.

By midnight, Palace Time, the Sharon pulled away from the battle zone, setting a course for Stargaton. The going was frustratingly slow, what with the several dozen smaller craft it had in tow. Designed with a maximum capacity rating of three hundred, the ship was packed with over sixteen hundred, as well as the four hundred more aboard the tethered boats. It took the ship two days to reach the planet.

Among the survivors aboard the Sharon were two hundred enemy prisoners, thirty-four having been collected by the crew on Hanna’s sculler. It was evidently clear that everyone did not share Hanna’s feelings regarding the enemy. Reports came to her ears about gunships ripping apart escape pods filled with enemy combatants. Most often though, when enemy survivors were found they were just released to the sky, allowing nature to do as it pleased with them.

It saddened Hanna to think of such cruelty. Still, it was far less than what was meted out by the enemy. Torture, rape and starvation were the fates of many captured by Asotos’ warriors. Some of his more debased servants would even cannibalize their captives, eating them alive in ritual sacrifices to some favorite god or gods. And taking prisoners for the festivals was always appreciated. Games like those found in ancient Rome were greatly enjoyed, especially in times of war, when there were lots of playthings for different wild beasts to amuse blood-thirsty crowds with.

Hanna said nothing about her personal feelings. Lowenah made it clear at the Council of Eighty that those supporting Asotos in this war were not to be viewed as her children. Whether prisoners were taken or not was left up to the commander in charge. Captain GilleRing had remained silent, thus allowing each boatman to decide. Hanna carried no guilt for what she had done. If others later did, I have not been informed.

 

(Author’s note: The King’s War eventually encompassed the better part of the inhabited galaxy. Space debris from the countless engagements covered such a vast expanse it took literally many hundreds of years to clean the skies of it. Even to this day bits and pieces of the war are discovered, either drifting aimlessly in space or lodged in some tiny asteroid. The battles over Stargaton lasted the better part of five years. Not only were bodies from this aforementioned conflagration not gathered up, but thousands more were added. It took well into King’s Millennia to remove the dead from their resting places.

Hanna’s personal recollections of the previously mentioned events and her eyewitness account of the aftermath from the destruction at Mordem make most interesting reading. Garlock and Copeland’s The King’s War, A History devotes a chapter to this woman’s riveting memoirs, revealing details that other historians have not covered.

One such detail was the enemy’s use of poison gas. It was the first and last time Asotos allowed its use, fearing further repercussions from the Army’s field marshal, Trisha. When reports reached her, she ordered that the city of AstusWaies, the second largest city on MueoPoros be – according to Copeland – Dresdenized! Three missiles with a combined energy of sixty megatons of high explosives were delivered to the city proper, exterminating most life within two leagues of the city.

Trisha promised to do the same with every other city in Asotos’ realm if he ever allowed the use of poison gas again. Although decrying such deadly force and promising to repay with like, Asotos passed an edict declaring the use of poisonous explosives illegal, making it a crime to use it in offensive campaigns.

Some critics have cited the extermination of AstusWaies as evidence of Trisha’s undue harshness and have wondered if she should not have been limited in her military policy making.

The former field marshal made reply concerning this issue. ‘When war is practiced, it is the responsibility of the military commanders to protect the welfare of those within their charge. Whatever the cost may be to the protagonist is inconsequential, should the action save the lives of those under your command. If death is not one’s wish, or if destruction is not to one’s liking, then war should not be chosen as a means to an end. What one sows, one shall reap.’

 

  • * *

 

Legion’s advance on his western front was announced by a fiery barrage of thousands of missiles raining down on the nearly abandoned outer defense perimeters. Alba shook her head. “The Marines and Special Forces always seem to catch it first. How will any survive such a bombardment?”

Sergeant Kfir calmly replied, “Capt’n, those people are better prepared to withstand that assault than any of us. You watch. When the attack finally comes, the enemy’ll be knocked back on their knees from the defense our fellows make.” He then took a deep breath. “Smell the rain, Capt’n? That warm breeze’s been pushin’ it all night. A couple more hours and we’ll be swimmin’ in it.”

A short time later, Alba looked up from her rifle pit, straining to locate what was making the roar across the plain in front of them. “The night’s so black, I can’t see a thing!” She complained. “Sounds like the whole damn flats are filled with advancing armor!”

Kfir reached over and touched Alba’s arm. “Not the bad guys, Capt’n, not yet… Wrong sound for the monster engines needed to drive those heavy armored tanks. And listen! The sound’s comin’ and goin’ this way and that. Relax a bit. In a little while you just might see a real show.”

For close to two hours Alba and Kfir watched the distant bombardment of their advance positions. Kfir explained that the soldiers out there knew what was coming and had been preparing the past three days for it. They had dug in deep, using metal sluice pipes, boulders, wood or whatever they could find to cover their bunkers. It would take a direct hit or possibly several to destroy such a place. When the enemy crossed down from those hills, there would still be plenty of hot metal coming out to greet them.

Just as the glimmer of daylight began to make its appearance, two more things happened. From the far side of the river, Alba heard the big guns open up. These were stationary cannons brought in the night before by giant sky train transports. Inventions of Jebbson Garlock based on weapons used in his old realm, these guns could pitch explosive shells weighing over one tonne better than twenty leagues, dropping them on targets in the distant foothills. Even at this distance from the river, the ground would shake when one of these guns let go.

As if the sky was becoming incensed at the braggarts down below with their puny display of power, it opened with a deafening cacophony of its own. Streaks of fire raced along the landscape, swiftly followed by mind-numbing explosions of thunder. Then the wind joined its voice to the chorus. Alba turned to watch the show, the tumultuous roar pounding in her good ear. Lightning flashed across the sky as galing winds swept the surrounding hills. Soldiers who had not secured their canvas shelters well were scurrying around, trying to rescue them from the angry tempest.

Suddenly, rain hit in stinging sheets mixed with hail, whipping and driving madly. Alba and Kfir squirmed into their shelter, but not before sustaining painful bruises from large chunks of ice. Alba shouted, “If this keeps up, we won’t need the enemy to finish us off!”

Kfir shouted back, “If this keeps up, there won’t be any enemy to finish us off! We’re at least hunkered down! They’re in the open, waiting orders to attack after the initial cloudburst, the rain eased back as the winds died down. Alba looked out through the downpour, searching the darkness to find the source of new sounds coming from the frozen flats to her front. Visibility was down to a half mile or less. Warm rain hitting the steaming ice created a ground fog that was also beginning to close in. Using special filtration binoculars helped Alba see a little further, but not much. She moaned, “We’re dead for sure now. They’ll be atop us before we can get out of our pits.”

Kfir was reassuring and upbeat. “Not to worry, Capt’n. I think this is hurtin’ them far worse than us. Just wait an’ see. Things are still in process. Watch the show. It’ll be awhile before our work starts. Things have ta’ happen first.”

“They’re coming!” Alba shouted, grabbing her assault rifle and starting to crawl out of the shelter.

Kfir got hold of her pant leg, yanking her back under the canvas. “Hold on, Capt’n! Hold on!” He shouted. “Don’t want ta hurt our buddies, do you?! Hold on!”

Alba’s heart was beating so hard she thought it was about to burst. She barely heard Kfir. He shouted twice more before she began to calm down. Alba eventually saw dark, motorized shapes loom out of the fog. She looked down to see Marine gravity trucks inching their way from the flats up the hillocks. As they slowly passed by, trying carefully to miss the army’s rifle pits, Alba could see many were filled with dead and wounded. She and Kfir ventured out of their shelter to get a better look.

One truck came up the hill straight for the captain. It turned and stopped next to her. The truck had better than a dozen wounded and dead. Only the driver and one medic appeared unscathed. A grizzled lieutenant asked for some food and medical supplies. Kfir hurried away, returning momentarily with two arms full of both.

The lieutenant thanked them. Then, looking back across the plain, he sighed, “They’re all yours now. Can’t hold ‘em any longer. They’re like flies.” He stared into Alba’s face, breaking into a garish grin. “We swatted a whole damn bunch of ‘em! There’s fewer of ‘em now.” Then he smiled. “You sure are pretty. I wish we’d met under more pleasant conditions.” He engaged the turbines and started off toward the river.

Alba was shocked speechless and was only able to nod her head in goodbye. In those few fleeting seconds, the lieutenant had made the captain forget the war, the dangers and the dying, and think of herself as the young, flirting maiden teasing boys in the summer moonlight.

Over the next half hour, Marine and Special Forces units trickled back across the wide flats. Each transport looked much the same as the one preceding it. Wounded and dead appeared to outnumber the uninjured. Alba could hardly believe her eyes at the horrific number of casualties. What amazed her most was the fact that these veterans of earlier wars had willingly suffered the battle, knowing full well what to expect. And, she knew, after some rest and regrouping, these same soldiers would willingly take up their next, equally dangerous assignment.

Occasionally Alba saw or heard a gunship or small transport flying overhead, either coming or going. Kfir explained that they were searching for any soldiers still holding out or escaping on the ice. “We’ll get most of ‘em back, Capt’n.” He said, nodding reassuringly, a tear in his eye. “We’ll get most of ‘em back…”

Kfir lifted his head as if sniffing the air. He pulled on Alba’s shirt. “Better get your children underground and fast, then do the same yourself.”

Alba shouted orders for everyone to lay flat in hiding and then crawled back into the shelter next to Kfir. She had no more than settled in before hearing the loud ‘whoosh!’ of missiles and the whistle of fast-moving aircraft.

There soon followed a bone-shaking explosion…then another, and another. Alba’s head began pounding from the incessant exploding of bombs and missiles as enemy planes swept up and down the army’s defensive line. Then came ‘rat-tat-tat!’ and ‘froosh! froosh!’ of shipboard solid-projectile guns from strafing aircraft. The insanity seemed to last forever. Alba buried her face in the cold mud, putting her arms over her head.

A few minutes passed before she recognized another more chilling sound. Cries and screams from torn and shattered wounded rose above the din, creating a surreal symphony in her head. How strange it felt, as time passed, that the woman was almost able to find a melody in the surrounding chaos.

A sudden urge came over Alba to crawl out of hiding and fight back, or run, or laugh, or do anything other than just lay on her belly, waiting to be blown to bits. She got up on her elbows and started for the opening. Kfir’s strong hand pulled her down, dragging her back in.

He shouted, “Not yet! Not yet! Give ‘em a minute, Captain! There’s a change in the air! We’re not dead yet!”

Alba struggled a bit, sputtering, “Let me go, Sergeant! Let me go! I can’t breathe in here! Gotta get some air!”

Kfir’s hand went to her coat collar, clutching it as he shook her, crying out as though in panic, “Now you wait a minute! Hear me! The weather’s changing any minute now! You wait here…” He sobbed. “I’m scared. Don’t leave me! Please!”

Kfir’s pretend pleas for help calmed Alba. She relaxed and put her arm around his shoulder, reassuring him. “I promise not to leave. I’ll stay with you. Don’t worry.”

This initial barrage from the enemy lasted the better part of only four minutes, but to those who survive such things, that time feels like hours or days. Alba kept her mind focused on Kfir. It was strange. Hearing her own soft, encouraging words soothed her, too. Eventually her heart’s pounding eased and she closed her eyes to rest.

 

Alba was jarred awake by the ferocious roar and ‘KaKow! KaKow! KaKow!’ of missiles and anti-aircraft guns. Her panicking eyes searched Kfir’s face. He smiled. “Told ya’ the weather was gonna’ change. Our people are startin’ to give ‘em a taste of their own medicine.”

The captain wiggled through the opening to get a better look. She poked her head up and searched the landscape. From hidden gun emplacements, for as far as her eyes could see, crimson streaks of tracer bullets and shooting flames of anti-missile missiles filled the sky. Out of the heavy ground fog behind her, she watched hundreds of spouts of fire reaching into the heavens, filling them with angry black clouds.

A brilliant flash caught her eye. She watched as parts of a fighter came tumbling out of the burning smoke. Alba jumped up, shouting, “They got the bastard! They got the lousy bastard!”

Kfir stepped up next to Alba, staring into the gray drizzle. Alba spun around, grabbing his coat, laughing, “Did you see that? We got the bastard!” She looked around, wild-eyed, grinning. “We’re making the whole goddamned world shake! Do you see what we’re doing?”

The sergeant smiled, giving his captain time to soak up her surroundings, letting her release some of her pent-up anxiety. Eventually he recommended they check on the others. Alba agreed, hurrying off to see about casualties in her company.

By this time, several others from Rock Company were scurrying around to search for and assist the wounded. The company was not yet up to full strength, having only about three hundred of the five hundred it was supposed to have. There were a few injuries – two that were life threatening. Otherwise the company had been spared the first air assault. Kfir knew there would be more.

Rock Company sat astride a ridge of hills, spread out in a series of rifle pits about a quarter mile wide. HillLander Company overlapped their line on the right about one hundred yards in front, contacting CraSandar’s Company, which passed off to the left. Both had received several direct hits, taking heavy losses. Alba watched, helpless, as dozens of bodies were dragged from trenches waiting removal, while scores of wounded were loaded in lories that labored back toward the river.

About this time, the last of the Marine holdouts were making their way from the flats. Wide-tracked, lightweight machines called ‘ducks’ – ‘sitting ducks’ by many who used them – crawled through the flooded fields of ice, oftentimes pulling improvised sleds filled with soldiers. A smattering of gravity trucks and other assorted vehicles able to cross the now very treacherous fields made their way to the slopes.

A few of the trucks were driven up the hill past the rise. There, they were filled with the wounded, Army and Marine, and sent on their way. Most of the other machines were parked at the base of the rise on the edge of the flats. In a flurry of activity, the remaining Marines began digging in around the trucks or dove into empty rifle pits.

Alba and Kfir turned toward new sounds. Coming over the rise behind them, lines of gravity and tracked gun-trucks worked their way forward. The tracked trucks, many with mounted field cannon or short-range missile systems, parked helter-skelter alone the eastern face of the hills. Alba saw hundreds of these machines, stretched out along the battle-line for as far as the eye could see.

The gravity gun-trucks slowly floated onto the flats, pulling out into the fog bank. Alba watched in wonder. When the machines turbines went dead, she asked Kfir, confused, “What are they doing? And…” Her eyes riveted on the vast number of machines. “Where did they all come from?”

“Captain,” Kfir smiled, “them corduroy roads are savin’ our bacon. I think a lot of ‘em came from the river during the night. I think others were dug in right here and camouflaged.” He scanned the falling rise to the west back toward the river. “And I bet there’s a lot more still hidin’ out there.”

Alba turned to stare at Kfir. “What of the…”

Kfir rested a hand on her shoulder. “‘Old Indian trick’…as I’ve heard some of your kind say.” He looked into the fog. “They’re comin’ to hit us…soon. With the motors dead on those machines, it’ll be real hard for the enemy to pick ‘em up on their radar. They’ll be right on top of ‘em before they know they’re there.”

“And…” He squeezed Alba’s shoulder, “you know all that racket we heard on the flats last night?”

Alba nodded, remembering how curious it seemed at the time.

“Well,” the sergeant started his drawl again, “I think our people put down a whole bunch a’ mines…thousands…darn, possibly hundreds a’ thousands. When them folks get in the right spot, you’re gonna’ see some mighty big fireworks.”

Kfir’s laid back talkin’ was comforting. He usually did it when he was relaxed. But why could he be so sure of what he was telling Alba?

When asked how he knew what was coming, and if he knew why the enemy would go right on and blunder into it anyway, he grinned, casually replying. “They’re not allowed to think for themselves. Boss at the top tells ‘em what to do. He says, ‘Go forward’ they go forward till he says, ‘Stop! Then they stop. Most of ‘em haven’t learned to study the battlefield.” He then turned his face to the east, lifting his head as if sniffing the air. “Besides, Capt’n, you can smell it.”

The steady rain increased its incessant rhythm, and the giant cannons beyond the river began their angry retorts anew. “Better get our kids back to hiding, Capt’n. Looks like another storm’s acomin’.”

Alba agreed. They hurried along their line, giving orders and checking to see they were obeyed. Finally, they too dove under cover, into three inches of muddy slop. Kfir turned to Alba, wearing a wry grin. “‘Least our skin should be soft and subtle by the time we’re done here…”

 

(Author’s note…General NoazOhfehr was well suited for the commanding general’s position at PrasiaOdous. His younger days in the Outer Ranges had toughened him to the privations dished out by this strange planet near the vortex of the universe. In fact, it was said by many close to him at this time that he reveled in the constant weather changes, especially enjoying the impossible blizzards winter would often dish up. It was his passion for using such deplorable conditions as part of his battle strategy that eventually earned him the name, ‘Winter Wolf’.

Noaz had a penchant for detail when things were slow. Those forced to put up with his incessant grumbling about orderliness and safety nicknamed him ‘Old Fussy’ – a name he actually took pride in. He has also been accused of being cautious to a fault, an attribute given to him for his methodical and deliberate use of the forces in his command.

On the surface it would appear that these deficiencies hindered Noaz’ ability to lead, causing the army under his command to suffer needlessly at times. If this were truly the case, it would bring into question Lowenah’s recommending him to be one of Field Marshal Trisha’s commanding generals.

I have studied Noaz’ battle strategy and battle reports, as well as interviewed dozens of his immediate lieutenants. Then, to satisfy my own curiosity, I have walked many fields of battle he directed. My conclusions are thus:

While it is true to say that Noaz was not particularly well known for his lightning strikes and blinding attacks, there is no evidence to show the army was seriously hindered by the general’s deliberate actions. In nearly every contest, Noaz out-thought and out-fought the enemy he faced, having an uncanny ability to seemingly know what his adversary was about to do.

As at the Battle of Silk Mountain, the attacks Legion implemented against the PrasiaOdous defenders at the beginning of Asotos’ MueoPoros campaign, Noaz pulled his forces back to a series of hillocks and knolls that stretched for several leagues in the middle of a vast flooded plain running parallel with a deep, sluggish river to its west. He moved over a hundred thousand troopers out of frontline defenses across fifteen miles of ice in blizzard conditions, and the enemy never found out until after they attacked, finding near empty trenches defended by a relatively small number of Marines and Special Forces. By the time the enemy had been able to regroup and renew their advance, the weather conditions had changed against them. Another plus was that, in its initial thrust, the enemy’s air arm had exhausted its fire power on empty targets, stalling its attacks on the second line until its planes had refueled and rearmed.

This kind of strategy became one of Noaz’ trademarks. Tricking an unsuspecting enemy into delivering its blow on abandoned entrenchments and then railing him before he could regather his strength became so commonplace the enemy eventually took to skulking out the lines before advancing. This cost them time and very often the edge in battle. As one captured officer was later heard to complain, “How can you fight a man who can hide an entire army up his ass?”

Keep in mind that General Noaz was responsible for defending the entire range of the PrasiaOdous that the Empire controlled. It stretched north to south for about two hundred leagues, one league equaling three nautical miles. He had at his disposal around a million combat soldiers to defend that line. The Silk Mountain region in the north was where Legion had collected his main taskforce – the distance, and rugged hills, limiting him to only minor incursions further south. Still, without full knowledge of the enemy’s plan, Noaz could little afford to abandon his other defenses to give further support to the four divisions holding the Silk.

It is with this preceding knowledge that we discover Noaz’ greatest strength: his willingness to take calculated risks to lend support, unasked for and unexpected. At the same moment Alba was watching the retreating Marines, General Noaz was quietly gathering together fifty thousand precious veteran soldiers, along with the needed transports, for a very important mission. He was also assembling over four hundred fighters, including ten full squadrons of his new VoshanShar flying tank-busters to join them.

It is true, the reduced air defense over the Silk cost Noaz’ troops hundreds of added casualties, as many critics have attested, but it saved countless more lives on other fronts.

 

  • * *

 

Legion’s assault in the predawn hours on Trisha’s southern siege lines ringing Memphis couldn’t have achieved better success. In less than half a day, Legion’s generals had pushed the entire line back, in some places by as much as four leagues. At LeninSolkie, his army had taken over six hundred prisoners without a shot. Two reinforcing companies from Xhosa Corps, Second Division, Rendell Brigade, First Regiment, got lost in the darkness and blundered into an advancing tank battalion. They were all brutally murdered, mutilated and scalped, their corpses discovered the following spring.

By noon, it appeared the entire southern line would collapse in a rout. And then Legion pulled his first major blunder of the battle. Seeing his eastern attack on HerpetonMnema fizzle and stall after its initial thrust, he became concerned a counterattack might trap his army. Before orders could reach his lieutenants in the field, that is what nearly happened. A counterattack by Trafalgar Corps’ Trobry Division,from the north and KozBi Division from the east nearly surrounded Legion’s corps, forcing it back toward Memphis. By midnight the following evening, General Copeland’s army had regained its former works, thus thwarting any further attempt at taking the Spider’s Lair.

In the early afternoon, shortly after his army in the east was being mauled by General Copeland’s counterattack, Legion called a temporary halt to his southern advance, even ordering the forward units to pull back to designated locations. It was eighteen hundred hours before he was prepared to order a renewed attack, having regrouped and reinforced his front lines with additional troops. This gave General DinChizki time to bring up his meager reinforcements and form a new defensive line.

 

 

PalaHar scanned the distant low hills to the north of the broad valley at his front. The valley plain was some two leagues wide at this point, slowly narrowing in width as it snaked north. Snow squalls being pushed by strong, northeasterly stormwinds blowing in over the Frushion Sea, a giant freshwater lake some ten leagues to the east and north of PalaHar’s position, were sweeping in bands of snow across the valley and hills, reducing visibility to nearly zero at times.

After watching another armored battalion disappear into driving snow, he turned to General DinChizki. “If they hadn’t stopped advancing, I’d be seeing their armor coming down that pass right now.”

DinChizki, with his heavy coat collar turned up to cut the bone-chilling wind, took his hand out of a pocket, pointing off to the north and then swept it around to the south. “If they take this valley, we can’t stop ‘em! Past these hills is nothing but flat expanse…only hospitals and supply terminals. The army will be cut in two. My western flank will be isolated, with no hope of reinforcements or escape.”

PalaHar then pointed to the north. “That’s the last of our armor going up the pass right now. I’d say you’ve put about a hundred tanks and possibly as many mobile cannons and missile carriers up there to stop ‘em. How are we elsewhere along the line? Have you moved reinforcements into those places, too?”

Din’s icy breath was whisked away as he answered, “I’ve moved everything forward. There’s nothing left. I even pulled all non-emergency personnel out of the hospitals and offices, gave them weapons and marched them toward the front.” He shook his head. “I’ve less than a hundred fighters. Those damn Depoues 49’s are giving us a beating. I lose three to their one. And to make matters worse, our three closest aerodromes were bombed this morning. Now what few fighters I do have are forced to fly to more distant bases to refuel and resupply.”

He looked into the dismal sky. “And we’re not going to get help from the Navy – ‘least not for awhile. They have problems of their own. Been informed they’re engaging several enemy fleets. Sounds to me like a battle almost as big as the Day of Tears.”

PalaHar agreed. “There’ll be no help from them. Can Copeland do anything for us?”

Din shook his head. “Legion’s armies went in all along Copeland’s front. Latest report is that they been stopped, but there’s one hell of a fight going on to hold ‘em.”

“Then we will have to defend ourselves.” PalaHar sighed. He looked at Din asking, “So there’s nothing left between us and them? No reserves?”

Dismayed, Din replied, “There’s General Chasileah’s brigade of horse soldiers, but they’re not for real fighting.”

PalaHar asked him what he meant.

Din explained, “The field marshal came up with some brainstorm idea of putting all the mounted couriers, scouts and honor guards into some kind of a last resort glitter brigade. When all else fails, they’re supposed to swoop down on the enemy, banners flying and horns blasting, and charge into glory to boost the morale of our defeated army. All I can see it doing is raising the number of our dead.”

PalaHar thought a while, rubbing his chin in a raised hand as he nodded to himself. After a moment, he called to Treston. “Colonel, warm up the autocar.”

Treston jumped to his duties while acknowledging the general and hurried off to fetch the machine.

PalaHar then addressed Din. “I need to go up the valley to get a better look. Can’t do any good here.” He scanned the surrounding countryside. It was only getting colder and the storm nastier. He warned, “You and I know our commander. Trisha isn’t some dandy. If she gave orders for Chasileah to set up a party brigade, then she’s got something going on in her brain making her do it. My suggestion is for you to station them right along here. If the enemy reaches this far down the valley, it won’t make any difference where our fancy horse-soldiers are hiding. Might as well have them die in a glory ride than have them butchered in their tents.”

General Din thanked PalaHar for his sage advice. The two men turned to go their separate ways. “God’s speed!” Din called out to the general as his autocar pulled away.

 

  • * ***

 

 

The 14 slammed hard into the Sophia’s flight deck. “Careful, Major!” A voice scolded. “We’ll get you to the hangar deck in short order… Won’t help trying to get there yourself.”

Sirion cussed under her breath as she reached across to the tear in the left sleeve of her flight suit. She could feel the jagged shard of metal skewered through her arm. It had missed the bone and artery. That was good news. At least, ‘shouldn’t take the medics long to stitch it up,’ she thought. “Sorry I messed up your paint job, Con. Think it needs to be redone anyway.”

“Thank you for the appraisal, Major. Will pass the information along.” The con replied. “Now, stay put. We’ll hook you in momentarily.” Although the con usually spoke unemotionally, the operators were most concerned about their pilots and flight crews. The banter from Sirion was reassuring, telling them she wasn’t in immediate danger or seriously wounded. When there wasn’t this little exchange, they would begin to worry.

Sirion waited around the hangar deck while the mechanics examined her ship. As one of them approached her, the woman saw a huge drop of blood fall from Sirion’s finger and plop on the deck. She looked up at the torn sleeve. “Major, I suggest you get that checked out.”

Sirion grumped, “It’s a scratch! How bad’s my plane?”

“Bad enough.” The mechanic answered, looking at the major’s sleeve. “Bad enough to give you plenty of time to get your arm checked out.”

Sirion went on about her need to get back into the fight. The mechanic stopped her. “I’m admiral of this crew. If I say your plane doesn’t fly, it won’t fly. Right now I’m saying your plane is out of service until I see a medical report telling me it can fly. Do you get my drift, Major?”

“Damn it! I need that ship!” Sirion fumed.

The mechanic said nothing. She turned to the other mechanics and called out. “It’s got a bad ding-floogle! Tag it out until I can get it fixed.” She turned back to Sirion, her arms folded across her chest. “It’s got a bad ding-floogle.”

Sirion threw up her hands in surrender. “You win! You win! I’ll go see the vet!” She shook her finger at the mechanic. “When I get back, you’d better have that ding-whatever fixed, or I’ll go talk to the other admiral.”

The mechanic smiled, “I’m sure we’ll find the needed parts to get it up and running.”

Level six, triage center was already filling up. Most of the injuries were from heavies, which always had high attrition rates. With crews of six to twelve, these slower-moving attack craft made easy targets. Burns, shrapnel and concussion wounds were common. In the current heavy, ship-to-ship fighting, losses were running thirty percent, with a twenty percent casualty rate among returning crews. Sirion looked around the room, the results of this morning’s sortie filling most available beds. And only the first attack wave had returned from its mission so far.

A medic and orderly hurried around the room, tagging the injured. The medic would make a hasty examination of the patient and then direct the orderly to note the types and seriousness of the injuries. The orderly would then scribe a series of marks on the person’s face, indicating where the patient was to go and the priority for treatment. As Sirion watched, she opened her flight suit and pulled it down below her wound.

The medic, Major SeleinaDorimia, finally worked her way around to Sirion. She saw the uniform and eyed Sirion with suspicion. “Take it off, Major!”

“What?!” Sirion asked, dumbfounded.

Major Seleina scowled. “I know your kind, Major. You rocket jockeys are all the same, thinking you can pull one over on the ol’ doc. Now take it off or I’ll give you some assistance!”

Sirion saw the look on the Seleina’s face and decided to obey without giving her further aggravation. She stood, dropping her suit to the floor. That wasn’t good enough. Sirion undid her under-shirt, girdle and under-drawers, letting them fall, too.

Seleina put her hands on each side of the major’s body, her fingers searching up and down Sirion’s entire torso. She bent over to check the girl’s hips and upper thighs. Suddenly she stopped, staring at Sirion’s belly, seeing a tiny, dark-purple bruise. Eventually she stood, squinting in disgust at her.

Sounding like a mother who has just caught her child in the cookie jar, Seleina asked, “So tell me, Major, just how long were you going to wait before saying something about that pain in your gut?”

Sirion’s face filled with mock innocence. “What pa…Ooh!” She was given a little poke by Seleina. “Ooh!” She grimaced. “I…I hadn’t noticed.”

“You’ve got a chunk of metal in your gut, and it’s got to come out!” The major was becoming angry. “Do you realize just how close you’ve come to killing yourself?” She wagged her finger at Sirion. “If you had let this go, it likely would have started you hemorrhaging, especially when you began playing acrobat out there! Major, your little trick is stupid! A little minor surgery should fix you up for now. Why, you’ll be flying again in twenty-four hours or so.”

Before Sirion could reply, Seleina told her orderly, “Put her down for priority treatment. Fighter pilots with minor injuries go to the top of the list. If this fool wants to get herself killed, we don’t want to hold her up!”

Seleina turned away, swiftly moving to another patient. Sirion felt sheepish. Half the room heard her dressing-down, and she was sure the gossip would make its rounds. After all, fighter pilots were always considered the pampered lot aboard a ship. The apparent special treatment and attention given them did create more than a little well-deserved jealousy among the crew, especially the common sailor.

To add insult to injury, the orderly whisked away Sirion’s clothes in one hand and scribbled some coded letters across her forehead. Without making any reply, the orderly grabbed Sirion’s arm and, half-dragging her, led her to the distribution room. There she sat naked for a half hour, waiting to be taken to surgery.

 

As she drifted into a deathlike sleep on the operating table, the last thing Sirion heard was the surgeon exclaiming to a helper, “Damned luckiest person I’ve seen! That thing’s the length of my hand, and it missed all her vital organs.”

 

  • * *

There had been a constant barrage of enemy missiles and artillery shells throughout the morning and into the afternoon. The Army’s defensives on what was to become called the ‘Silk Mountain Range’ took a steady beating, with mounting casualties. Occasionally a squadron or two of fighters would fly over to bomb and strafe. All of this was only a prelude to the punishing conflagration that was to follow.

About fourteen hundred hours – 3AM, Palace Time – Legion’s generals unleashed their full fury on the redoubts and hills east of the river. Heavy, motorized artillery was finally in place on the recently abandoned positions the Marines had so heroically defended the day before. Finally within range of the Silk lines, hundreds of batteries opened up, with telling effect. For thirty minutes the ground shook all around Alba as thousands of explosive projectiles fell along the ridge.

This time it seemed different to the captain. She listened to her own people giving it back to ‘em. All along the hills and from the fog bank behind the ‘ka-froom!’ ‘ka-froom!’ and ‘whoosh!’ ‘whoosh!’ of return fire somehow soothed her mind. And then there were the big guns across the river. Oh, how sweet the music when their voices entered the chorus! And beyond her sight were the new defense systems located within the rock chambers of the PrasiaOdous themselves.

The surface-to-surface missiles the defenders of PrasiaOdous used carried over five tonnes of high explosive shrapnel charges in cluster warheads. As many as two-hundred separate guided bombs could be carried in one missile. Another missile style contained thousands of tiny winged darts made from spent fuel rods used in fission generators (refer to the MoonDust incident). From exploding warheads scattering across the target range at supersonic speeds, these heavy, pencil-shaped bullets devastated anyone exposed in the open, even those in lightly armored vehicles.

Alba poked her head up to look around. Acrid smoke choked her as she viewed the destruction and carnage surrounding her. She shouted over her shoulder, “I’ve gotta check on my children!”

Kfir made no attempt to stop his captain. He crawled through the shelter’s opening, his eyes searching for Alba. The woman was already on the run for the nearest covered trench. Getting close, she flung herself down on her belly and slithered into it. Kfir watched, contemplating his own actions. In seconds, Alba dug her way out of the shelter, jumped up, and charged off to the next foxhole. Kfir took off in the other direction.

For twenty minutes, Alba ran from one location to another, checking on her soldier’s welfare, encouraging the wounded, consoling the dying. This bombardment was not being as kind to Rock Company as the earlier one had been. Casualties were steadily mounting. The only thing that Alba could see keeping anyone alive was the dismally gray, low-hanging, thick clouds. The enemy was being forced to drop their missiles indiscriminately instead of with the usual pinpoint precision.

Looking off to the west, Alba watched billowing smoke rising from across the river. The roar of big guns had decreased, but their destruction wouldn’t have created such black clouds. Ammo dumps or fuel depot? Maybe… Whatever caused the fires, there seemed to be a lot of them. There was no more time to contemplate the fate of her distant brothers. She returned to her personal quest.

Eventually Alba and Kfir joined up. The captain wanted to remove the wounded to the rear. She had already sent the medics out to assist them. Kfir disagreed. He pointed toward the west and shouted, “There’s no place to send ‘em, Captain! They’ve been dropping plasma bombs over there. Keep your people hidden for now. There’s no place any safer than here for the moment.”

Alba conceded to Kfir’s wisdom and sadly surrendered to the situation. The crackling of an approaching artillery missile drew their attention. Both dove for the ground. The explosion released a concussive wave that lifted Alba and Kfir, throwing them several yards through the air. They crashed hard in the rubble of the hill, but were not seriously hurt.

“We’ve gotta’ get underground!” Kfir shouted, tugging on Alba’s sleeve.

The two stumbled back to their rifle pit only to find it was now a blasted crater several feet deeper than before. Kfir shoved Alba in. “Lighting doesn’t strike twice in the same place, you know.” He dove in after her.

Alba scolded him. “Don’t give me any tales! I’ve studied your science enough to know that what you said isn’t true!”

Kfir smiled. “Well, it sounded reassuring and that’s what I need now…a little reassurance.”

There was nothing left of the rifle pit. Their supplies, weapons and, worst of all, blankets and canvas were gone. The incessant rain soaked them and, with nothing to stop the wind, they were chilled into the shakes. Kfir finally shouted for Alba to stay and he hustled away, only to return shortly with a cut piece of truck canvas and a handful of rations.

He wrapped the two of them up tight in the canvas and then extracted some dark candy from a ration pack. With a grin, he offered Alba a chunk. “This ain’t one of them palace eateries. Why it ain’t even the Palace stables, but it has its merits.”

Alba took a chomp of the candy then demanded incredulously, “Name me one!”

Kfir took a close look at the captain, carefully examining her muddied, bruised face, and smiled. “You know what? That officer fellow was right. You sure are pretty.” He wrinkled up his nose. “That is, if you can get past the stink. Whew! You need a bath real bad.”

Alba was shocked. Not at what Kfir had said, but the effect it had on her. It became so surreal to her. Bombs and missiles were raining down from the skies, return fire was deafening, hundreds of aircraft were duking it out high above and people were dying all around them. And suddenly Alba found herself flirting in a field of lilies, eating candy, and cuddling with a very wonderful companion. The war at that moment disappeared and, for some strange reason, never returned to what it had been before.

Alba’s fear of death or injury diminished. She started taking each moment as it came, finding joy in the one living flower she might see on a bleak and torn battlefield. Also, death in general took on another perspective. She cared as much about her children, but worried less about them.

Alba let out one uproarious laugh after another, and then leaned over and kissed Kfir on the lips. She grinned. “You know, an officer can get in lots of trouble fraternizing with the enlisted soldier. I can’t let that happen!” She slapped Kfir on the arm. “Damn the colonel! I’m making you 1st lieutenant!” She kissed him again.

 

The enemy’s main advance toward the Silk started in the late afternoon. Shortly after the rain stopped, the shelling and missiles eased off. The skies above the clouds were nearly empty, the enemy air wing either having exhausted their ammunition and fuel or been driven off. Kfir warned Alba about what he believed was coming next.

“Have ‘em get the troops up!” Alba shouted. She climbed out of the shell hole, racing north along the ridge while Kfir ran south.

Alba had just reached the north end of her line when she started hearing what sounded like dozens of tiny canisters exploding off in the distance. She peered into the ground fog still shrouding the ice but could see nothing. The popping continued to increase until it reached a crescendo of indistinguishable cracklings.

“Get your anti-armor guns up!” She continually shouted as she raced back down her line. “The tanks are in the mine field!”

Alba found an abandoned rifle as she ran, scooping it up without slowing. Throwing herself into her bomb crater, she found Kfir already there. He had scarfed up a rifle, plenty of ammunition, and a shoulder-fired anti-armor missile launcher.

Breathless, Alba asked, “What’s going on? It sounds like a million tanks are coming to be setting off all those mines.”

Kfir shook his head. “No, Capt’n. Those mines are bein’ set off by some sort of signal device. The muck under this ice isn’t frozen. The mines planted on the ice last night sank down into it. The hope was – is, I believe – that by blowing the ice sheet up just when the heavy armor gets to it, the armor will sink in and bog down into that muck. All this rain has made it just that much more likely.”

He pointed into the fog. “Big machines like heavy armor have to be tracked or on wheels. Anti-gravity machines, to carry such weight, require a lot of power. That’s why we use turbines in the anti-gravity trucks. By the time you added larger engines to provide power for anti-gravity engines, the armor would weigh twice what it does now and be much bigger in size…also a lot more vulnerable to attack.”

Alba didn’t necessarily understand everything Kfir said, but she comprehended enough. The heavy armor approaching across the ice sheet needed the ice as a road. If the road was knocked out from under them, they might stall out in the mud, sinking down, disabling them completely, or at least limiting their offensive capabilities. If the mines were a success, at best, the enemy would only have a new stationary gun emplacement line lending backup support to the advancing infantry instead of leading the charge.

When the crackling of exploding mines died down, the whine of hundreds of turbines filled the air. Then the entire line of waiting machines swept forward, toward the approaching enemy.

 

(Author’s note: The ensuing Battle of the Mist was the largest armored battle fought during the MueoPoros Campaign. Legion had assembled well over ten thousand mobile armor machines, tanks and heavy, motorized artillery on his western front. Motorized infantry from enclosed tracked personnel carriers to wheeled and gravity trucks numbered another twelve thousand vehicles.

Opposing them were four thousand tracked tanks and artillery cannons dug in along Silk Mountain. Another two thousand tanks and other tracked vehicles remained on the other side of the river, but because of field conditions did not see major combat at this time. Thus the Battle of the Mist was to be decided by two very different opposing combatants.

Leading the charge against the enemy’s heavy war machine were the lightly armored but fast and highly maneuverable gravity gun trucks, totaling close to three thousand. Added to this were the tracked light cavalry gun cars and a mish-mash of other assorted tracked machines, adding another twenty-five hundred to the mix. This seemingly ‘David vs. Goliath’ difference didn’t prove as advantageous to the enemy as one might expect.

Many gun trucks carried recoilless rifles that fired 1.5 inch sabotted bullets made from spent fuel rods. The velocity attained by these rapid-shooting guns – up to thirty rounds a minute – reached speeds up to five thousand feet per second. The two-pound bullets could penetrate up to four inches of the toughest armor. Other gun trucks carried smart missiles that would search for the most vulnerable locations to strike their targets.

Another factor was the broken ice. Many of the enemy tanks sank into the muck, thus limiting their movement. Although sabotted artillery bullets of much larger caliber were available to the enemy, most of the munitions they carried with them at the time were shrapnel charges for use against infantry. Without their mobility, the tanks were ‘sitting ducks’ so to speak. It was very difficult to ward off a determined attack from a fast moving pack of gravity gun trucks, which was the deployment strategy used by them in this battle.

[_ Legion’s surviving armor was later pummeled by several squadrons of VoshanShars -flying tank busters. By the end of the day, most of the enemy armor had been taken out of the offensive fighting. The lighter infantry fighting machines and their aerial support ships were forced to continue the attack without the aid of their real powerhouses. Once again, the battle would have to be decided by the slogger. _]

Ever since the time a person picked up a rock or block of wood and used it in a fight, weapons have played a significant role in combat. Throughout the history of war, the general rule has been: ‘The better the weapon, the better the chances of winning the conflict’.

The varieties of killing tools designed by the children of the First Realm are profound and limitless. And oftentimes you would find the most primitive being used alongside the most advanced. The reader must keep these facts in mind when machines of war are described in my account.

 

Please remember, too, that it is not this author’s intention to retell the King’s War. Countless books and eyewitness accounts already exist, detailing every aspect of that war. The war was a pivotal point in the history of all living things. To this day, interest has not waned in its telling. The purpose of these Chronicles is to bring to the reader’s attention little-known information and facts about some very important people who influence our daily lives.

When this author discusses battlefield strategy, weaponry, and other related matters, it is for the purpose of fleshing out events surrounding the person or persons in the account. The simple descriptions often used, like gravity truck, or tracked tank or armor help to conjure up visions of battle, providing the emotional state of affairs at the time being written about. Only when circumstances require specific detail does this author attempt it.

For the general reader, knowing that the Depoues 49’s were superior fighters at the time of the MueoPoros campaign and that the VoshanShars were a new form of anti-tank fighter will suffice. If a reader desires to know more, he or she need only search the nearest museum or library. There the reader can become immersed in all the detail one desires. I leave that up to the reader.

Knowing that Alba’s trial by fire involved more than hand-to-hand combat assists the reader in appreciating the helplessness she felt at seeing her children face death from unseen enemies and by unstoppable missiles. By understanding that the King’s War was fought both with highly advanced machines and with swords and crossbows, helps the reader grasp other emotions, like the ones Alba felt in the knife fight some months before.

Weapons, like the landscape, weather, time of day, and so forth provide the reader with better understanding of why people acted the way they did. The personalities of your kings and seers of today were fully exposed by the events of those times. That history forces them to stand naked before you, for it presents the stark facts regarding those people. Without proper understanding of surrounding events and situations, those stark facts may well become distorted to the point of deifying or demonizing the very individuals who sacrificed everything, so that you and I could attain to the life which we have now.)

 

The fighting on the ice had been raging for better than two hours. For most of that time the infantry along the hills could do little but wait. The last light of day was fading before the southerly breezes had chased the fog away. What wide-eyed Alba witnessed in that twilight burned into her brain, symbolizing forever for her the true meaning of total war.

Looking east, to the north and south for as far as she could see, lay a land filled with flaming or smoldering wreckage. In and out of the boiling smoke, tiny black toy-like machines raced, shooting off little red, orange, or green sparks. Every once in awhile, one of the little toys would burst into bright colors of cascading red and gold. It was all so confusing for, from this distance, Alba was unable to tell who was who.

There was one sight she understood all too well, though. Beyond the main fighting lay a black mass that drew ever closer. It looked like some thick, oily tide creeping across the landscape, but Alba knew what it really was. Out on the frozen and torn plain advanced Legion’s army, possibly half a million strong – maybe more. Its advance was being slowed, but it wasn’t being checked. It could be that heavy armor had stalled out there at five or six miles, but the approaching hordes paid that little heed.

As the darkness closed around her company, Alba watched as the approaching flood swirled around the burning and blasted hulks mired in the mud. The heavy clouds, so much a protecting friend during the day, were now creating an impenetrable wall of blackness. In only minutes, the dim world beyond the hills disappeared into a black void, with only the flashes of guns revealing the closing enemy.

Alba wondered aloud, “How can they keep advancing in this darkness?! I can’t even see my hand let alone anything else…”

Kfir calmly replied, “When they come close enough, the sky above us will be lit up like day. Then they’ll pour iron down on us like hail. ‘Least that’s what I expect they’ll do. Even if that doesn’t happen – but don’t count on that kind of good luck – they won’t stop. Can’t! The weather is still warming up. If they don’t take these hills by morning and are still out there on the ice, nothing will be moving but the foot soldiers and the gravity trucks.”

He shook his head, hopelessness filling his heart. “If you have any magic powers at your disposal, I suggest you use ‘em soon. At best, we will hold these hills – that is, those few of us still alive.”

“Maybe I could wish them away.” Alba replied sardonically. Her sarcasm grew. “Why don’t I just stand up and ask them to go home?” She poked him. “I got it! Why don’t I call out to the sky and tell it to cast a light down on the ice fields so we can see our enemy?!”

With that, Alba crawled out of the crater and looked toward the east. The sound of gunfire was getting closer. She thought it less than a mile. Already, surviving gun crews from disabled trucks were streaming back up the hills. Any moment and the enemy would release its phosphorous bombs overhead, blinding her people, while at the same time making them easy targets for the approaching infantry.

Alba called down to Kfir. “Have you ever seen someone spit into the wind? Watch my magic!” She laughed like a fool, spread her arms wide and peered up at the blackness. “Kro-ackk Kah-tubb-see-cam-a. Kra-rackke See-tomma-see-tow!”

Kfir cried out, “What have you done?! Only the offspring of the Cherubs can call out to their fathers in that tongue. Who has revealed to you the secrets of Lagandow?!”

If Kfir could have seen the total shock on Alba’s face, he would have known she had no idea what she had said. She cried back down to him, “They…they just popped into my head! No one told them to me!”

Lifting her face to the sky, Alba called out more strange words. “Suu-Conatee-Kofinnu Connatea-Konifee-Konifee-Konifee Trib-Sonna!”

A sudden, powerful gust of wind picked Alba up and pitched her down into the crater. With the roaring of a cyclone, the wind rose up and spread across the sky. As Alba and Kfir watched, spellbound, a jagged rift opened in the darkness high above the ice and began to spread north to south, revealing a shimmering-white, harvest-like moon. The entire plain lit up in brilliant twilight. In the meantime, the angry foreboding clouds sank low over the Silk, shrouding it in blackness.

The enemy army could be seen spread out across the wide fields of broken ice, plodding ever closer. The greatly reduced numbers of gun trucks were giving way, unable to hold against the tide of the massive onslaught.

Dumbfounded, Kfir blurted out, “They’re sittin’ ducks! Damn! They’re just plain sittin’ ducks!”

That must have been the collective mindset of most of the defenders. Without receiving orders, almost instantaneously thousands of cannons, missiles, and automatic guns opened up along the sixty-mile ridge of hills.

Aerial troop carriers and gunships flying low suddenly appeared like dark silhouettes against the bright sky. Antiaircraft cannons began to add their music to the chorus and drumbeat of war. Moments later, friendly gunships that had been standing at the ready across the river were blasting out of the darkness, guns ablaze.

Alba poked her head out of the crater and looked around in wonder, shouting, “The whole world’s on fire! Hell has come to us!” She then waved her fist, laughing and shouting, “Give it to ‘em! Give ‘em hell! Make ‘em burn! Make ‘em burn!”

Kfir pulled her back down and attempted to calm her. “Captain! Captain! They’re not stopped yet…and don’t count ‘em out! There’s too many of ‘em. Our fireworks will beat ‘em up, but you and me have to stop ‘em. They’re comin’…count on it. They’re comin’…”

 

  • * *

 

Tolohe rested quietly in the darkness of her private room. It had been a bad night for her, what with the disturbing reports about the battle and Mihai’s stubborn reaction to any wise counsel. The stress of the ages was gathering its final might against the woman. She lay there, knowing something was dreadfully wrong within her body.

Out of that darkness, a gentle voice whispered to Tolohe. “My daughter dearest, it is the hour. The glory that was yours must be surrendered up to another.”

Tolohe opened her eyes, focusing on someone she could only see. “Father, my most caring father, your wisdom has been my swaddling band and your knowledge my mentor. I have but one question for my sire and teacher.”

“Ask, my child, for has RosMismar ever denied you a favor?”

Tolohe’s eyes filled with tears. “No, my father, always have you been there for me in my hour of need. Still, my question pains me, for I fear the answer, yet I am driven to ask it.”

RosMismar smiled. “Your question need not be asked, for I shall answer it and many others that you do have.”

He stepped forward and sat next to Tolohe on the bed. Taking her hand, he began, “My child, you are dying. The stress you have carried during these evil times has ruined your immune system. Your cancer is fatal. Yet it will not be the cause of your death.”

Stroking Tolohe’s forehead, he continued, “Shiloh’s ring - the one you are steward over -will still be the gift you will give to your king, but it will be done after your rebirth. In that day, not only will the knowledge of good and bad be given you, but to the body of a Cherub will you attain.”

“Your sickness will continue to diminish your powers, and that I will not prevent, for by pain and suffering will the wise be filled with wisdom, empathy and understanding. You shall be ruler, third in line of power over all the universes to which the offspring of man should attain. The trust placed upon you will be great. The children of that age will not understand wisdom, because they have not learned it as you have. They will anger you at times. This will not be from wicked hearts, but because of foolishness on their part. You will need understanding beyond what is normal to curb your own hand of discipline.”

“And…” RosMismar patted Tolohe’s arm, “that child, Shiloh, the boy you have fallen in love with, he will not be an easy ruler over your people. You must learn how to check his hand, for his chosen way of rule will be by brute force if you do not stop him. Already, I foresee him falling in love with your wisdom and knowledge. If you learn how to understand his soul, you will teach him how to love your people and their ways. The ‘Voice of God’ I foresee him calling you, but only if you can gain the understanding of his ways.”

Tolohe began to weep. “I am all alone, my Lord, for I have no one to stand by my side in my hour of need. No man will come close to my soul, afraid of who I am or will become. And now I fear the world of my future dreams will not arrive, for even Michael has betrayed the glory given her. She walks down the very path of Chrusion, listening to the prattle of fools. Shall my sacrifices have all been in vain?”

RosMismar shook his head. “My child, your mother rests for now in fields far beyond the reach of pain and suffering. I have shielded her from all coming harm. Not because there is no hope… No, because the hope is assured! Michael will not fail in her tests, but she will cause a suffering to her mother that will deal her a lingering blow. This, your mother has seen from afar and to you has already revealed it.”

“The blow must come, for it will begin the cure for Michael’s sickness. Wisdom will grow out of the day of her loss. Your death will bring all the children life.” He leaned close, reassuring Tolohe. “Your sister loves you more than any other woman or man. She has forgotten it because of the spell cast upon her by the temptress. Your demise will open her eyes to the truth. Never again will she falter.”

“As for your loneliness for want of a man…” RosMismar grinned, “there exists a man even now who loves you, fearing not your power or sickness. He flirts with you in his heart, hinting at the excitement he finds in your lovemaking. I will send this man to you at the appointed hour – soon, I promise. He will comfort your mind, heart and soul. To him I will give the healing songs of my people and you shall have rest from all your hard labor.”

Tolohe sat up and, with RosMismar’s assistance, stood, smiling, for his touch had temporarily removed the ache from her bones. She asked, “So tell me, please, who of the children from the Lower Realms have you selected to give my power and glory to? I know you have chosen wisely, for the members of the Holy Order of the Seraphim are born by law from your own flesh. Still, with curiosity I have wondered who you would choose.”

RosMismar turned and strolled past the end of the bed, then faced Tolohe. “To the one who spoke in your presence, ‘Look, your servant girl’ I shall give it. Already she stands at the gate, waiting, for she knows the hour is near.”

Tolohe relaxed. “It is a good choice. I am pleased for I, too, would have chosen the woman. My father’s blood still flows strong in his daughter’s veins.”

“There is no other child of mine to which so much of my knowledge and wisdom has been given…and never shall there be.” RosMismar crossed his arms. “To you it has been granted to see eternity. When you reach destiny’s end, then I shall share with you all my secrets, for it has been promised me that my own flesh shall witness the works of her father.”

Tolohe bowed her head, thanking RosMismar. She pondered the depth of love she felt for him, feeling sad that he could not comprehend those emotions.

As if he understood her thoughts, he commented, “My child, you are the one who does not comprehend my feelings. I lack for nothing. It is true, if you should turn away from me as your brother did, I would not anguish over the matter for pain and loss I do not have to contend with as you do. But your love for me, although not gathered to me with your emotion, is still cherished. You see, I feel the good. It makes my heart rejoice. Badness cannot embitter me, though it may raise up my anger and move me to action.”

Tolohe came close to RosMismar, kissing him on the lips. She brushed a hand through his thick, wavy hair and gently stroked his beard. “Then may your daughter always provide you with the good to feel. I do love you so.”

She asked him one further question. “When is the hour of my passing glory?”

He touched her nose in the way he had done so many times before. “Tonight, my child, tonight…”

 

  • * *

 

Sirion hobbled toward the briefing room. It had not been many hours since her surgery and her bellyache made her nauseous. The surgeons had used a kind of organic worm to extract the sliver of metal from her. They had opened the wound just enough to attach the mouth of the worm around the object. Then by passing an energy charge through it, the worm slowly gathered itself around the metal, working its way along until completely encasing it. When finished, the surgeons simply pulled the worm from Sirion’s body.

What had been most difficult was getting permission to leave the post-operating room. She finally had received it by promising to be careful and to not fly for forty-eight hours. The doctor’s release, which did not mention the forty-eight hours, had been handed to the mechanics on the hangar deck. They promised to have her fighter ready shortly.

Once in the crowded briefing room, Sirion searched for a seat, finally finding one near the front. She didn’t notice Terey slink in and hide in a shadowy corner near the back. Sirion sat next to one of her flight commanders, chatting about unimportant matters. At times like this, mundane things took on major importance. Discussing how someone sewed a new patch on a torn uniform took attention away from the fact that many would not return from combat. If this was to be the last conversation one was to have with a certain companion, let it be pleasant and trivial.

Colonel Saleuo’s entrance ended the banter. He moved to the front of the room and addressed his squadron and flight commanders. “I will come right to the point. As I speak, 1st Fleet’s Ninth Battle Group is currently under heavy attack and taking severe losses. They are too far away for us to lend them any support and, without it – or someone’s – I doubt they will remain a fighting unit for long.”

He brought up a three-dimensional map and pointed to a location on it. “We are here, in the MueoPoros star system. We, my brothers, are at the center of the universe. All the world is gathering here.”

Taking a stick, the colonel pointed to various locations on the map. “These are the six known locations of Asotos’ armadas. Already there has been heavy action off to the east. Three days ago, the Crimson Fleet and several of the new Special Forces WolfPack ships engaged two enemy troop transport convoys. The fighting has been somewhat continuous in that region since that time.”

“Only a few hours ago, enemy fighter squadrons from an undisclosed enemy carrier task force engaged the Crimson Fleet.” Colonel Saleuo paused, searching for the right words. “Damage to the Crimson Fleet’s battle group under TaqaEsem has been extensive. And…and I’m sad to report to you that Admiral TaqaEsem was killed during the fighting.” The colonel turned toward the map, pretending to study it.

After a lengthy pause, the colonel cleared his throat and faced his officers. “As the new lieutenant commander over the three fighter wings on the Sophia, I wanted to personally meet with all my squadron leaders. As you know, the situation is critical. In only a few hours, the entire weight of Asotos’ navy will be upon us. We have two choices: to either wait until they come within range of the big ships and engage them in close, or to take them on before they are within striking distance.”

Colonel Saleuo pointed at locations on the map as he went on. “If we hang back in defense, the risk to our big ships increases greatly. That is the disadvantage. The advantage is that our pilots will be more rested because of the shorter flying time. Also, re-supply and refueling will not be an issue. And damaged craft will not have far to travel to get assistance, even being able to use the planet’s surface if necessary.”

“The second choice is less risky for the big ships. Forcing a contest at or beyond the outer perimeters will draw a substantial number of enemy fighters away from protecting their heavies and into combat with you. This will make them use up vital munitions and fuel on dogfights instead of strafing and missile runs on our big ships.”

“As you know, this second choice greatly increases the risk to our fighter crews and ships. It is also the choice we have made for the coming battle. My comrades, we are the fist at the end of the arm. The arm can still fight if the fist is broken, but the fist will fail if the arm is destroyed. The fist is expendable as long as it can preserve the arm.”

Saleuo cautioned, “I am not suggesting you throw away your lives or those in your squadrons needlessly. Life is precious, but there comes a time when the objective is more precious than the life attempting to attain it. All of you are experienced pilots and leaders, having fought in the earlier wars. You have lost many companions, more than you may wish to remember, but you have been spared. This day may become the day you join with your lost loved ones in the Web of the Minds. It is a reality I know you all accept. I thank you for such sacrifice.”

“Please understand, if we lose this battle, we lose MueoPoros. If we lose MueoPoros we lose Eden’s Gate. If we lose Eden’s Gate we lose the universe. If we lose the universe, there will not be a returning for our companions or a future for any of us who may survive the battles.”

He pointed at the map. “We are the first line of defense. We very well may be the last hope for the existence of this fleet. The enemy’s main thrust will be from the east and Q-North. Outriders are already tracking the gathering squadrons as they collect at these two points. They are four hours’ striking distance from us. The Sophia’s fighting wings will join up with the Q-North fighter battalion and head toward Candletoe.”

The colonel rested his hands on his hips. “We will not abandon the Sophia to the whims of war. Several flights of older fighters shall remain at the ready should need arise to defend the fleet proper. All of the T-4’s, DTB’s, and other such machines will stay here.” He pointed at Sirion. “The TKR-14’s from the Moon Chasers squadron shall be group leader, with Major Sirion ‘Patch’ Sandevar as group commander.”

Sirion was shocked. Her face reddened in surprise and embarrassment. It had been ages since anyone used her full given name, the one she received the day of her coming of age. ‘Little flower of the desert hills’ – that is what Lowenah had named her the day she was given to Chrusion as a gift in celebration. And to be made group commander was totally unexpected.

The Colonel finished. “I shall be leading StarBall One today. That’s the code name for the Sophia’s fighters going Q-North. Flight crews will muster on the hangar deck in thirty minutes and join up with the other squadrons in one hour. The Moon Chasers flight group will remain on alert, ready to scramble at a moment’s notice.” He looked at Sirion and raised a fist. “To victory or a quick death!”

The room erupted in applause and shouting. This was the moment everyone had been anticipating. Today the fate of worlds was to be decided. No more waiting. The Day of Tears had lasted many days – a battle spread out over millions of leagues. This contest would be decided in one – twenty-four hours – and history would be written for good or ill.

As Sirion stood, a pain gripped her belly. She looked down to see a red stain soaking through her white uniform. She quickly covered it with her hand. Patiently, the girl waited while the others began to shuffle out of the room.

Colonel Saleuo caught Sirion’s eye. He walked over to her. “I read you medical report, Patch. Are you sure you’re up to this task?”

“Yes, Sir!” Sirion was emphatic. She covered any discomfort and stood up razor-sharp straight, much to her agony. Saleuo returned her salutation and wished the major well. Sirion marched from the briefing room, gritting her teeth in pain.

As she exited the door, Saleuo’s eyes settled upon another person standing in the shadows. For a moment, he did not move. Finally, sad-faced, he nodded once then turned to leave. Terey smiled to herself. She had little time to prepare…

 

  • * *

 

After nightfall, Chesse’s Glitter Brigade made camp along the series of hills where Generals DinChizki and PalaHar had earlier viewed the northern valley. Near the southern end of their bivouac lay a large evergreen woodland. Midnight found Jonathan and Chasileah working their way further into that thick growth of hemlocks and long-needle pines.

Jonathan followed Chasileah along the hard-packed, snow-covered path. The night was cold and dark, but he could see enough to know that several feet had recently taken the same trail. Deeper and deeper they walked into seemingly endless forest, finally reaching an old wash that led them down into a small clearing. As he neared the opening, Jonathan noticed the dancing glow of a large blaze, which surprised him because of Chasileah’s order banning all fires. In moments, he was given an even bigger surprise.

As Chasileah pulled him into the firelight, Jonathan saw countless eyes staring at them in greeting. He looked around at hundreds of soldiers suited in burnished, metallic armor, chain mail and helms. Each man and woman rested palms on a drawn sword. The shimmering beauty of all the pageantry almost blinded Jonathan. He was about to ask what was going on when his eyes were drawn to the far end of the glade.

Snuggled under two giant hemlocks was a pitched tent woven in rich blues and purples braided with thick cords of golden rope. Two thin pillars supporting an awning that stretched above a purple and gold carpet were illuminated by a gentle glow coming from small windows in the tent. Now Jonathan was more bewildered than ever. Before he could ask any questions, Chasileah pulled him toward the fire, the crowd separating to allow them through.

Chasileah stopped, turning around with her back to the flames. All eyes were fixed on them as she addressed Jonathan. “You are a man from the Realms Below. Weak in the flesh but strong in the spirit your kind are. Today that will all change, for today all those who have joined you here in our world will begin growing in knowledge and wisdom to the point of excess. Your power will become greater than ours,” She bowed her head, “for you will go in increasing while we go on decreasing.”

Chasileah swept her arm in a wide arch. “We are the Children of Lagandow, the Keepers of the Promise, members of The Holy Order of the Seraphim.”

“Long ago, before the children of Lowenah were born, this universe was the playground of the Cherubs. It was the Cherubs who tended the star systems, planted much of the wild life we still are discovering in strange worlds, and protected the lands we now call ‘home’. It was Lowenah’s intention for them to remain as the Seraphs – or wings – caring for matters until her children became wise and strong enough to take charge of these worlds.

“As the fruitage of Mother’s belly increased and the numbers of children grew, the Cherubs slowly withdrew to a few planets in the galaxy. Most were hidden…still are. They are the planets connected by Mother’s trade routes. In time, the Cherubs disappeared from our lives. They became stories our mother and the more ancient children would tell us… stories of adventure and wonder.

“For us younger children of the First Age, the stories of Cherubs eventually became myth and fable. The ancient runes and a few whispered words were all that remained of this mysterious people. Then something happened that changed everything.”

Chasileah stepped up to Jonathan, taking his hands. “The Cherubs are a most beautiful and manly race. Their existence extents to the time before any material universe existed. Created within Lowenah’s mind and nurtured within her soul, the Cherubs were made in her exact likeness. Their wisdom and knowledge are beyond measure, Mother having given them all that was hers at the time of their making. But alas, Lowenah had not yet discovered who she really was, so her Cherubs never acquired emotions as we know them.

“Because their hearts do not rule their minds with fickle emotions, they have the ability to detect minor disturbances in the harmonics of the universe – disturbances that Lowenah’s tender heart can no longer search out. What may just not feel right to us can be mathematically broken down into basic harmonic strands by the Cherubs. It was this Cherubic ability that led to the birth of the Children of Lagandow.”

Jonathan started to interrupt with questions but Chasileah hushed him. “The Cherubs listened carefully to the minute disturbances of discord some of the children produced, deducing the mathematical possibilities of the danger posed. They believed that free will without laws could lead to a contaminated heart, because unfettered freedom gives opportunity for one to disregard principled love, the absolute equation. It wasn’t a matter of ‘if’ it could happen, but ‘when’. Without proper checks and balances, such an event, if not resisted, would cause the Web of the Universe to fray and finally disintegrate, destroying all life therein.

“The Cherubs voiced their concerns to Mother. Although she did not wish to agree with the conclusions they had reached, she, in her wisdom, permitted them to act – with discretion – to set up a future protectorate for days when they no longer guarded the universe.

“So it was that Lagandow came into being. As the children of the First Age grew in number, the Cherubs gathered individuals to their great educational center, secretly whisking them away aboard their shimmering, white ships. Each child taken was ‘perfectly harmonic’ as RosMismar, the chief over all the Cherubs would say. This term, ‘perfectly harmonic’, defined a child whose internal nature was so tuned with Lowenah’s qualities that it assured the child could never fall into the shadow of discord.”

Chasileah scanned the many faces in the crowd. All were resolute and determined. There was also a great sadness showing, as well as expressions of resigned failure. “For six thousand years, these children of the Cherubs defended the universe, but were unable to stop the Rebellion. Although it was known over two millennia ago that children from the Realms Below would arrive to help secure the heavens, still it pains us to think we have not succeeded.”

Tears grew in Chasileah’s eyes as she stepped back near the fire. “Time is fleeting and the hour draws ever closer. Suffice it to say this: When our training was complete, when all the chosen ones had passed through the fires of torment and despair, the Cherubs handed over to their new seed, their children by law, the golden wings or seraphs. These weapons represented the powers we were to use should the discord arise. Then the Cherubs departed, burning the Lagandow star system to ashes in symbol that their part in protecting all things had come to an end.

“Thus the First Age came to a close. Long ago it was. Most of Lowenah’s children were not yet born and grew up hearing only whimsical tales regarding the Cherubs. They eventually became little more than bedtime stories for the babes. Soon they were forgotten completely. And we, the few, the ones privileged to have lived among them, soon became sleepy, enjoying the rich life and prosperity our world offered. We forgot to watch and observe the harmonics for discord. We did not remember to teach and warn the others about the dangers of unfettered freedom.

“And so it came to be, among the very wisest and most ancient, the darkness grew and no heed was paid. Many of the women from our secret order even enjoyed the company of the men who were scheming hurtfulness in their hearts. The signs were there but we ignored them, forgetting the cautious warnings our mentors provided. When we awoke to the danger, it was too late. Murder was already afoot. War was now the only option available if we were to bring this evil to an end.

“The wars have come and gone. By fighting them we have gained time – time for Lowenah to prepare herself for the loss of her oldest child and his followers – time for you, the children of the Lower Realms to arrive – and time for Shiloh, whose lineage will make him the greatest of all the Seraphim.

“But we have paid the price for our foolishness. The many thousands of our kind who were here at the start of rebellion are now only several hundred. And after tomorrow’s contest we shall be little more than a shadow of the once great warrior nation that has fought to restrain our brother’s evil. No longer can the Children of Lagandow stand alone against the powers of Asotos and his henchmen.”

The wind above the trees picked up, whistling cold and hard. Along with it came showers of snow. Yet the flames in the hollow nary flickered. Chasileah’s voice became powerful as she called out. “We are the children by law! We have waited for your race, the children of the flesh for, in your re-creation, Lowenah has taken the blood of her Cherubs and mixed it with her own to produce your race. Each of you has been born here a Seraphim. By blood, you have the power of Lagandow.”

Chasileah’s arms shot skyward as she shouted, “Now you must take your place beside us! You must lift up the blade and take your rightful place in our midst as the true Sons of the Cherubs!”

Instantly, a chorus of voices filled the glade with a chanting. It continued to grow in intensity and with it the wind began to howl in symphonic harmony. The fire erupted with brightness and glory. At that, Chasileah turned and reached into the inferno. Jonathan panicked and started to jump forward, shouting, only to be stunned into silence as he watched her pull her arm, unscathed, from the flames.

In her hand was a shimmering blade in the shape of a two-handed saber. Burning colors of red, blue and gold raced along its blinding-white edge. Chasileah took the sword in her hands, and bowing while bending down on one knee, offered it to Jonathan.

“Here, my Lord.” She begged, “Take this seraph that has been forged by our fathers in secret places, and conclude with your servants a covenant so that you may share with us your power, so we may become one flesh with you.”

Jonathan was hesitant. He was in a near state of shock. Only a little while ago he had been bedding down his horse and thinking about the coming morrow. Now his mind raced with strange and wondrous things. Yet, as he thought, they weren’t so strange. In his heart he had known everything Chasileah told him was true. It was as if she had only reminded him of things long forgotten, things revealed to him as he slept in the Field of the Minds.

With caution and timidity, Jonathan slowly reached for the sword. It burned hot in his eyes, but was cool to the touch. He looked into Chasileah’s face. Tears ran down her cheeks while her lips quivered in trepidation and her fingers shook in little tremors. Fear – fear and disquiet showed in her appearance. If Jonathan refused to pass his power onto her through a covenant of the blood, then her race would pass into oblivion. Her race was dying, Tolohe’s sickness evidence of its final destiny. If they were to regain their former glory, it must come through this one man, this night. But Jonathan had free will. He could refuse Chasileah’s request, thus keeping the winning glory for his kind to treasure.

Jonathan began to weep. He set his sword aside, reached down, taking Chasileah’s hand and pulling her up. With his other hand, he stroked her hair. “Never have I loved a woman as I love you. Already my heart is one with yours. How could I ever deny you one thing, especially since we have shared our dreams, as is the custom of your people? You are my Lord. Lead me and I shall follow.”

Amid the continual chanting filled with shouts and joyous cries, Chasileah led Jonathan to the tent at the far end of the glade. Pulling back the heavy curtain, she entered, drawing Jonathan in by his hand. Moments later, a dozen fiery static flames settled down around the tent. The chanting increased in pitch and fervor until it sounded as if the entire wood was joining in.

The night storm howled above the trees while hundreds of voices called out to their fathers to listen to their pleas for redemption, allowing them to be reborn through this union of two seraphim, one from the old order, the other from the new. They again offered themselves as whole burnt offerings on the altar of war, requesting the strength to fulfill their vows as watchers and protectors. They cried out in the tongue of the Cherubs, “Let us become as one with our brothers from below, so we may end forever this threat upon ZoeStethos’ heart and regain our dignity.”

Eventually the sounds of passion coming from the tent joined in with the chorus of chants and songs. Finally, in rushing wails of ecstasy, the vocal gasps of orgasmic release reached a crescendo, passing away into silence. The chanting stopped as did the wind. Crackling of the giant fire was all that could be heard. Everyone waited, breathless. Had the Cherubs listened and accepted their request? Was there to be a future for the old order, or were they to pass into the shadows like the Cherubs did long ago?

The fire suddenly flared up, reaching to the tops of the trees. From deep within the blaze a voice spoke causing the trees to shake with its resonance. “It has come to pass!”

With that, the fire turned into a blinding inferno, filling the glade and racing far into the forest. A pillar of white light shot into the heavy clouds, reaching out with fingers of fearsome, silent lightning that cascaded around the globe and into the starry heavens.

Most witnessing the event did not comprehend what had happened and, until this writing, the truth has not been shared. Some people attributed it to the strange weather found on MueoPoros. Others likened it to what the people of the Lower Realms called ‘St. Elmo’s fire’. Among the Pseudes it was generally taken as an omen, some believing it to be good, others feeling the opposite. But to the members of the Holy Order of the Seraphim it meant a rebirth, a new life.

 

High above the planet, in a small room secreted away from all eyes, Tolohe rested on her bed. With a shudder, energy raced through her body, at once revitalizing her while at the same moment drawing away many of her secret powers. At long last the tumult subsided. Tolohe sighed with relief. She no longer felt the weight of the universe pressing down on her. Another person was to rise who would now carry that burden with renewed strength and energy.

Gradually, the woman relaxed, thousands of years of stress slowly draining from her body. Oh yes, there were many obstacles still facing her. And her loneliness remained. She closed her eyes to sleep. For the first time in ages, her mind let go and drifted off into the world of dreams. Tolohe now found herself in the arms of the man promised her. Soon – soon he would come, RosMismar had promised. When this battle for MueoPoros was finished, he would return.

 

  • * *

 

James softly knocked on the commander’s stateroom door. He was somewhat confused and apprehensive. A voice in his mind had summoned him from a deep sleep to report to Commodore Nazareth. Discovering that Nazareth was his mother had filled his heart with joy. Now his family was complete, or at least as complete as it was going to get at this time. Still, it troubled him. Mother was so much different than he remembered – not the quiet, gentle woman of bygone days. She was now a force to be reckoned with.

A charming voice called out to him. “Please come in.”

James opened the door. Much to his embarrassment, he found his mother hurrying around the room, naked. He attempted to politely turn his head away but could not, being so mesmerized by her beauty. How easy it was to forget that this woman appearing as little more than a teen gave birth to him so long ago. Being so caught up in the moment, James just dumbly stared at this flitting sprite.

Nazareth shot him a flirting glance. “You’re not that bad looking, yourself.” She stopped, staring back. “Well, come in and shut the door! I have things I wish to say to your ears alone.”

James entered the room, fumbling for the latch on the door. Nazareth had business to discuss with him but first saw a need to clear up other matters. She walked over to him and gently gripped his forearms. “Son, you and I no longer live in a world filled with silly inhibitions and petty rules. People don’t ever grow old here. They remain eternally young. You also know the customs of our old ways are buried in the past. One day you will have to accept making a covenant with me. That is a fact you have long known. It is the way of this people.”

She brushed his arm reassuringly. “Fear not, my darling. That isn’t the reason I called you to be with me.” She gave him a sly wink. “…another time, when you have finally learned to be a real lover.”

James’ mind reeled, first with the thought of sharing a bed with this beautiful woman because she was his mother and, then, when the reality of her comment sank in… ‘When you finally learn’. ‘When you finally learn’?! Wait a minute! She was accusing him of being a poor lover! That thought rankled him. He raised a hand to comment.

She stopped him, laughing. “Now that we have broken the ice, let’s be about our business.” At that, Nazareth went back to her chores. While she dressed, the commodore chatted with James.

First she asked, “Did you feel the disturbance of energy within yourself just a little while ago?”

James thought for a moment. “Yes…yes I did, but I thought it was you, for just after it happened, you summoned me.”

Nazareth shook her head, denying it so. “That wasn’t me. It was the power of the Cherubs flowing through your body. Today’s a new day. The children from the Realms Below take up their rightful positions as watchers over this universe. We now stand beside our brothers who have long held the reins of restraint against the evil surrounding us.” She put a finger to her lips. “We are part of a secret order called the ‘Seraphim’. None know of its existence except those who are members.”

She waved her arm and reached for her britches. “Enough of that. I will fill you in at a more appropriate time.”

James was curious. “How do you know these things? And why do you call yourself ‘Nazareth’ instead of ‘Mary’? Nazareth was our home.”

Nazareth snapped closed the last clasp on her britches, picked up the red blouse and sauntered with a swagger over to James. She asked, “Would Mary have acted this way, so bold and unabashed?”

James shook his head, replying she would not.

“That’s right!” Nazareth exclaimed. “’Mary’ was my given name…still is. Officially, I’m ‘MaryNazareth’, but I never use it anymore.” She walked away, slipping the blouse over her head and tucking it in. “Mary passed away some two thousand years ago. She’s gone, never to return. I’m Nazareth, trained for forty years by the Cherubs for this day. I am the coming storm of retribution, the Deathmaker.”

She stopped and introspectively studied the room while fondling a small, engraved button on her collar. “The power and wisdom of Tolohe joined itself to me this night. Once, so long ago, I offered to her all that was mine and now she has given to me all that was hers. I cannot betray such a trust. I will finish what she has started.”

Nazareth smiled at James. “And now I think I have answered your first question as well.”

James acknowledged it so and then asked, “Why have you called me to you at this time? You may know what you’re about, but I’m still caught in a muddle about what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Still fondling the button, Nazareth approached James. Looking down at the engraving on the button, she casually remarked, “Commodore General SarahCnidus chose this ensign for our WolfPack Marauders in symbol of the sea pirates that prowled our world while we slept in the Field of the Minds. After an in-depth study, I concluded it was also appropriate to use it on all our ships and uniforms. You see, in Asotos’ attempt to set up a world of many gods and religions, he invented gods that lived off the flesh of hapless victims.”

She stared into James’ eyes, hers filled with excitement. “High in the mountains of a land far to the north of our old home there lives a race of people who worship a god that revels in the death of others. It wears a crown of skulls removed from those unfortunate enough to fall across its path.”

“Not many years ago, a dictator in the Realms Below latched onto that god’s symbol of the skull and crossbones, giving it to a group of his elite lieutenants, called ‘SS’. The SS attempted to liquidate several races of people but especially our descendants through a holocaust of murder, torture, and imprisonment. Although led by a fanatic from the Second Realm, it was really Asotos and his henchmen who gave power to those madmen.”

She grinned. “I intend to return the favor to Asotos’ own people by using the very gods he invented, and I will show them the same kindness.”

Looking away, as if seeing far into the distance, Nazareth exclaimed, “Asotos’ world will one day quake with fear when a skull and crossbones ship appears on the horizon! The blood of our adversaries I shall paint on our hulls as a sign of greeting.”

James did not flinch. He calmly replied, “I would expect to hear little less from someone who has witnessed Asotos’ cruelty. It’s refreshing to speak with a person who sees this wicked villain for who he really is. Any who follow him deserve nothing but death! The way it’s delivered is of little importance. But this still doesn’t answer my question. What am I doing here?”

Nazareth pulled her frock coat on. “You, my dear, are to be my one companion on this long and lonely journey that we are embarking upon. You see, most of the children who have volunteered for Special Forces were born late in the Second Age. Their dander is easily raised, thus making them excellent warriors. There are few older ones among us, but none of the Seraphim.”

“Without your company, I would have no one to share my thoughts with. We must not reveal to anyone the order to which we belong. Only fellow members even know of its existence. All the children born from the Second Realm are Seraphim, or will soon be, and yet few of them are aware of whom they are. That’s what this night has all been about, the changing of the guard. Of the Seraphim from this realm, only a small number have survived until today. Most have perished in the many long wars of the past.”

She winked again. “I may need your dream shares sooner than you think, too.”

James ignored her last words, asking, “So what does a Seraphim do, magic tricks and all that stuff?”

Nazareth patted her frock coat and leaned forward, primping in the mirror. “Well yes, ‘magic’ you might say, but magic in ways you’ve never dreamed of. The power between Seraphim varies. Some have powerful mental abilities, being able to see and hear things afar off. Others are gifted with deep wisdom and discernment. Still others can control the elements. And others…well, others can do other things.”

When finished in the mirror, Nazareth walked over to James, cuddling close as she took his arm. James felt the softness of her breast through both uniforms. A heated tingle raced along his body, exciting him in places he was not prepared for.

Nazareth could sense James’ reaction. She said nothing, only smiled while stroking his arm. “Come with me. I have things to show you.”

The two quietly wandered down the corridors to the captain’s bridge. As they walked onto it, the night watch officer acknowledged them. Nazareth nodded and passed on to the bridge rail that looked down over the communication and battle bridges.

The bridge officer hurried over. “Commander?”

Nazareth tipped her head. “Lieutenant Commander, please clear the bridges for me. Take the crews to the main mess. I will call for you later.”

“Commodore?” quizzed the bridge officer.

Nazareth patted the woman’s shoulder. “I will not be long. When we are finished, I will send my adjunct to fetch you.”

The bridge office hesitated. Finally, she leaned over the bridge rail. “All personnel to the main mess, on the double!”

Shock and surprise filled the faces of the people but they dutifully obeyed and quickly cleared the bridges for the mess. Nazareth thanked the officer, reassuring her. “We won’t be long. Don’t worry. I will return this bridge to you as good as new…maybe better.”

James secured the doors and quickly searched the decks for stragglers. Nazareth called down to him, “They’re gone! Not to worry.” She waved him back up to her.

When James reached the captain’s bridge, he observed his mother with her head down, eyes closed, touching her temples with her fingers. She slowly turned to James. “The battle group’s commanders should be opening their orders now. It will not be long before our enemy discovers he has miscalculated his adversary. If the room is dark, do not assume it is empty.”

Nazareth took James’ arm. “Magic is as magic does. My son, I will show you something that you may call ‘magic’, but it is not. Long ago, the Cherubs used their power to help build this universe. I’m only going to tap into the residue that remains from those days. In other words, I have been given the tools that allow me access to that energy. Watch and learn.”

Spreading her arms forward and wide, Nazareth extended her fingers and dropped her head. Calling out in a strange, staccato language, she began a chant. “Calleck Callick Zamballie Awkti-awanah CosainBie Fininnie GuuSognnah GuuSognnah!”

James felt the hair rise up on the back of his neck and then on his head. He watched his mother’s hair float up until it stuck straight out. The air snapped and crackled as sparks shot around the bridge. Static fire jumped from James’ fingers to his legs while racing up and down his body.

Nazareth repeated her chant and, in rapid succession, repeated it twice more. A shudder raced along the hull of the Chisamore. It groaned as if in pain as lights flickered and dials spun wildly. Balls of fire ricocheted off the walls, ceilings, and deck-plates, screaming like wild beasts as they shot off in every direction. James watched in amazement as these burning missiles darted this way and that, sometimes missing him by only inches.

Suddenly, blinding, jagged flames exploded from Nazareth’s fingers. The captain’s bridge lit up in a blaze as static energy pummeled the inner hull. James watched, mesmerized, seeing his mother slowly rise into the air while her body began to glow like the sun.

The static fires continued to grow in intensity and glory, the noise becoming deafening. Then, in one final gasp, a giant energy blast erupted from Nazareth in a shattering roar. The force threw her into James, knocking them to the deck.

Regaining his senses, James struggled to stand, taking his mother’s hand to assist her. “Are you all right?!” He asked as he glanced around the bridge. All was now quiet. In fact, it looked liked nothing had happened.

Nazareth managed to get up, rubbing her hip where she had hit the deck hard. Looking around, she exclaimed, “Hadn’t expected that! I’ll have to be more careful next time.”

“Mother!” James cried. “What does this vision mean?! How am I to understand it?!”

Still looking around, Nazareth answered, “It wasn’t a vision. What you saw really happened.”

James wondered, “What does it mean then?”

Nazareth walked over and gripping the bridge rail, she cocked her head as if listening. Soon the commodore turned around, wearing a huge toothy grin. “It lives!”

“What?!” James cried. “What lives?”

Walking back to James, she looked up into his eyes. “I have given my spirit to this ship. It is no longer just a machine. It is a part of me. We are now one in mind and heart.”

“What?!” James was so confused.

Nazareth grinned, “Let what I have said suffice for now. Our need is to defeat the enemy. I have just increased our odds.”

She smoothed out James’ jacket and straightened out his lapel. “Now be a good darling and go tell the crew they may return to the bridge. After that, will you please gather my officers together in the war room? I’ll be there shortly.”

As James neared the exit, Nazareth cautioned, “Remember, keep this secret, just between you and me.”

 

In the wee hours of the morning, Commodore Nazareth met with her leading officers. She swept her hands to and fro across the map table, describing the battle plan. “Asotos has two armadas far to the east of our MueoPoros battle fleets. He has already unleashed most of his fighters and heavies on them, which are now less than three hours’ striking distance.

“Being overly cautious, the fool has forced his fighters to fly close to their fuel limit if he gets slowed down or stopped. His plan is to close the distance by following his fighters in, meeting up with them as they return. He has also held too few fighters in protective reserve, feeling confident that no one can touch him.”

Nazareth stood up. “Here’s our battle plan: We are too far away to hope to achieve an intercept with Asotos’ fighters. Our brothers on MueoPoros will have to deal with them on their own. The Dredges battle groups will reach the end of the CastenRill Asteroid Fields in about two hours. That will put us between Asotos’ armadas and his fighters. Once there, we will send most of our fighter squadrons to the west, while the heavies and the battle groups turn east.

“If things work well, the returning enemy fighters will be low on fuel and munitions. This should help reduce their fighting edge over our older and inferior fighters, tipping the scales in our favor. Meanwhile, we are going to plow right into Asotos, hitting him with everything we have.”

Nazareth swung her fist. “It will be a simple knock-down drag-out fight. The one who hits hardest wins!”

She raised her hand, extending a finger. “This is how it will work: Admiral ZabineaTizkertinah has gathered the remnants of TaqaEsem’s fleet and added it to hers, which is newly arrived from the Trizentine. Although our WolfPack Marauders have maintained a constant harassing of the enemy’s two troop transport armadas and supply convoys, the majority have pulled away and now add support to Admiral Tizkertinah.

“As I speak, the admiral is descending on Asotos’ companion armada which sits Q-north and slightly arrears of his. By the time we break clear the asteroid field, Tizkertinah’s ships should be fully engaged.

“About the same time the admiral becomes engaged, Dredges Battle Group II, which is running further off to our east, will emerge from the middle of CastenRill star system at the far end of its asteroid field. This will put the CortneyBay and its accompanying ships just to the east and Q-south of Asotos’ personal fleet. He will not be pleased. About twenty minutes later, the Chisamore, leading Dredges Battle Group I, will appear directly at his front.”

Nazareth began to slowly pace. “We will do one more thing that Asotos will not expect.” She turned in order to see the expression on her officers’ faces. “We are going in along with our remaining fighters and heavies.”

Although no one spoke, Nazareth could see the surprise and disquiet growing among her officers. She grinned. “And that is what I think you’ll see on Asotos’ face, too!

“Standard combat procedure is to send your smaller attack ships in to soften up the enemy. When they have accomplished their mission, you advance your battle fleet, holding back with your carriers, keeping them from harm’s way.”

“Well…” Nazareth shrugged. “We have no carriers.” She stamped her foot. “…unless you call this antique a carrier. By the standards of the day, we are little more than a hodge-podge battle fleet, more fit for the junkyard than a battle engagement.”

She shook her finger, “Look! The asteroid field will keep us hidden. When we pull out from it, Asotos will be taken by surprise. And I assure you that fool has no idea we are even here! He hasn’t bothered to shine a light into the dark room!”

“When we attack, hell-bent on his destruction, he will not know we are the main body. For us to act so boldly, he will conclude that our main body of dreadnaughts and carriers remain hidden in the asteroid fields while the expendable old junk is thrown at him. He will hold back, keeping in reserve much of his remaining strength for when the real power strikes.”

Nazareth’s energy and charisma were contagious. Her eyes grew wide with excitement as she continued on. “Asotos appears to his people as self-confident and stalwart. Let me tell you the truth: The man is a miscreant, braggart, and coward! He will willingly surrender your ass to protect his, but he will not risk his own, at all cost. By hitting him directly, we will help defeat his entire navy.”

“If we do it right, Asotos will pull his fleet away from the main battle, fearing our hidden forces. He will be so concerned about his personal welfare, he will leave his other armadas to their individual fates. Without their commander directing them, coordination among the armadas will break down, decreasing their effectiveness and reducing their advantage of superior numbers.”

Nazareth waved her hand. “Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter! In this case, the weasels will scatter.”

She finished on a grave note. “Our job is not to destroy Asotos’ armada. That is something I think we could not do anyway. We are to remain a distraction for him until this battle is decided. If that should cost all of us everything, it will have been a small price to pay for the salvation of the fleets around MueoPoros. Let us then be at our duties with diligence and vigor!”

As her officers hurried away to their stations, Nazareth took James’ hand. “Son, let us retire to the captain’s bridge. We shall face the future fates there, together…”

 

  • * *

 

 

SECTION 19

 

GLORY RIDE

 

 

The battle for the Silk Mountain Range had been raging through the night and well into the morning. Twice, the enemy had overrun the first line of defenses, forcing HillLander and CraSandar’s companies to withdraw to Rock Company’s line. Twice, with Rock Company’s assistance, along with a handful of Marines, they had retaken the entrenchments.

Hand-to-hand combat was intense. Alba’s rifle was shattered warding off the violent blow of an attacker, knocking her off her feet. She was saved when Kfir stove in the assailant’s skull with a broken drive shaft from a bombed-out truck. Many of the rifle pits were so filled with corpses of both friend and foe that the defenders had taken to stacking up bodies, using them as bulwarks against the constant barrage of iron and steel.

The din of battle was beyond sound. Alba could only remember the mind-numbing pain caused by the abstract roar. Screams of the dying, shouting, cursing and cries for mercy from those still fighting, along with rifle, automatic weapons, and cannon fire, mingled in a nonsensical, wild symphony. There was no way anyone could give or receive orders. Everything was in a total state of chaos. A person didn’t think of strategy. You just kept killing…killing the enemy before he killed you.

People got so caught up in the action, they often became oblivious to happenings around them – or even to them. One private standing next to Alba was so absorbed in the fighting, she didn’t realize her lower arm had been blown off until she couldn’t fire her gun. The woman blankly bent down, picked up her shattered arm, and stumbled toward the rear, only to be shot dead a moment later.

To add to the carnage, occasional artillery shells and missiles fell indiscriminately into the crowded defenses. Alba was knocked down once from being hit by torn body parts whirling through the air. Then it began raining again, turning the mud into thick goo, making it nearly impossible to stand.

For the third time, they were driven away from their frontline defenses. Alba and Kfir struggled up the slope, fighting as they went. The enemy pushed them to within twenty yards of their second defense line before being driven back down the hill. From her old defensive position, Alba could look away toward the river. What her eyes beheld was disheartening and foreboding.

Off to the west, fire and smoke darkened the rain-soaked landscape. The enemy had landed thousands of troopers behind the ridge of hills and had been advancing from the rear. Artillery from across the river was pummeling the flats as reinforcements were attempting to reach this side of the river to support the defenders of the Silk. Alba feared they would not succeed.

The only thing saving the defenders was the melting ice had turned to little more than broken chunks of slush. The enemy was pushing on without the use of most of the trucks and armor that had been dropped for them early that morning. Alba could see nothing moving out there except a few gravity trucks, and she was unable to tell whose side they were on. The enemy soldiers were little more than distant, dark shapes in hip deep water, moving toward her.

Alba dove into a rifle pit. She grabbed hold of what she thought was a dead soldier and started to push the corpse out of the way. The person groaned and opened her eyes. Alba stared in disbelief. The soldier had fallen dead asleep, exhausted from the fighting. Releasing the soldier, she crawled over next to Kfir.

Catching her breath as the fighting took a momentary lull, Alba lamented, “We’re low on munitions. Our people our worn out. We can’t take much more of this.” She looked back over her shoulder. “How can we take it from two directions? We’re stretched to our limit!”

Kfir countered, “They’re stretched to their limit. Remember, Capt’n, they pushed across the ice all night while we rested. They’ve been fighting uphill all morning. They’re not getting any supplies, either, and most of their personnel carriers are stuck in the mud.” He waved his arm behind him. “And those saps are sittin’ ducks for our gunships and rear guard. Besides, it won’t be long before our people cross the river and start pushin’ ‘em.”

Kfir patted Alba’s arm. “One more time, Capt’n, and we’ll drive ‘em off this hill!”

Alba stared Kfir in the eyes. She then looked up and down her lines. Her lieutenants were waiting for her to tell them what to do. A leader – that’s all they were looking for. She could see there was still plenty of fight left in them. Turning back to Kfir, Alba kissed him. “That’s in case we don’t make it…”

Alba jumped up, her dagger raised high in one hand and her lanner in the other, shouting, “Over the top! With me! Give ‘em hell!” She plunged forward and down the hill.

Hundreds of whooping, cheering soldiers scrambled out of their rifle pits and charged after her.

 

  • * *

 

Admiral NikaoEimi was becoming thoroughly distracted. He had been busy on the bridge of the capital ship, EndowCoreny, his flagship at Hindly Page. For some time, a disquieting, musical buzzing had been ringing in his right ear. He put his hand to his head and violently rubbed it. The disturbance only grew.

He must do something for distraction. “Bring up the maps!” he called to his officers. A three-dimensional view of the entire region flashed up before him. The admiral wandered around it, stopping from time to time to examine some specific spot. When his eyes focused on MueoPoros, the buzz suddenly stopped.

Puzzled, Nikao took a closer look. His eyes grew wide with excitement as if someone – or something – was conveying information to him. Standing up straight, the admiral began issuing orders. “Call up the fleet! On the double, I say! Tell my ships to get up steam in fifteen minutes. We’re pulling out for MueoPoros!”

The bridge crew stared in disbelief. What was left of the Second Fleet was supposed to be protecting the Hindly Page jump portal. Was the admiral preparing to abandon it to possible attack?

“Get to it!” The admiral shouted. “Tell the carrier, Oshra, and her task force to guard the portal. Everyone else will accompany us.”

In less than twenty minutes, the remainder of the Second Fleet was making smoke for MueoPoros, right on the heels of Asotos’ Stargaton attack force.

 

  • * *

 

Red emergency lights flashed along the corridors as blatting sirens called the crew of the Sophia to general quarters. “This is not a drill! This is not a drill! We are under attack! We are under attack!” a voice on the overhead called out.

By the time Sirion reached her fighter, many of the Moon Chasers were already being moved to the flight deck. She hobbled around her ship doing a quick visual check. As she came out from under it near the nose the chief mechanic approached, shaking her head. “Super-structure’s bad, Major Patch. That hit you took weakened the hull. It’s not really safe to take up.”

Sirion’s face flushed red in anger. “You or nobody else is going to keep me outta this! Do ya’ hear me?!” She reached for the lanner at her side.

The mechanic threw her hands up, backing off. “Hey! If you want ta kill yourself, go ahead!” She spewed. “Damn fool! Just tryin’ to help save your ass!” She turned and hurried away.

When Sirion was sure the mechanic was done interfering, she made her way to the fighter’s starboard ladder. Before she could take her first step, another person called out to her. “Major, stand down!”

Sirion spun around, her hand again falling to her lanner. She was met by another drawn lanner pointed directly at her face. Terey stepped forward. “You’re not on the roster today, Major. You’ve been pulled for medical reasons.

Sirion fumed, letting go with vile curses and oaths, finally spouting, “You have no right to deny me this glory! I have a duty! I’m supposed to lead this battle group! Colonel Saleuo assigned it to me!”

“You’ve been set up, Major.” Terey calmly retorted. “The good colonel made you group leader for the very reason you see here. I’m commandeering your ship. Now stand down or I’ll put you down!”

Tears began streaming down Sirion’s face. “Damn you! Damn you and everyone with you! You have no right! You hear me?! You have no right!”

Terey stepped forward and removed Sirion’s lanner from its holster, tucking it into her flight suit. “You’ve been out-voted, Major. Besides, it’s not your day to die.” Terey climbed the ladder, retracting it as soon as she was clear.

Sirion was beside herself in anguish and anger. “Damn you! Damn you!” She paused, then shouted, “The hull’s bad, you know! It’ll kill you!”

Terey looked down at the woman-child, someone she loved like a daughter. “The better for it…” She offhandedly replied.

As she buckled up, Terey again called down to Sirion. This time it was softer and had a ring of finality to it. “My 17 sits in the hangar and the admiral has my flight computer. You’re a big girl now. Take good care of it.”

With a sudden rush of air, the canopy began to close. Just before strapping on her headgear, Terey called down once more. “Good bye, SirionSandevar. May you fly on the wings of Cherubs.”

The 14’s engines fired up, whining turbines drowning out all other sounds. Ever so slowly, Terey inched the fighter forward onto the carriage ramp. An automatic tow-hook caught hold of the front wheel of the ship and pulled it toward the flight deck.

When Terey’s parting words sank in, Sirion burst into tears. “No! No!” she wailed, her cries of despair whisked away with the noise of the engines. “Must stop her!” Sirion had to act quickly, but how?

She hurried for the con as fast as her injury permitted. In her haste, Sirion nearly collided with Mihai as she rounded a corner. Mihai said nothing, her face crimson with anger. She took Sirion firmly by the shoulders, setting her aside.

Sirion tried to explain what was happening with Terey. Mihai wouldn’t listen, being filled with a fury of her own. Finally, Mihai hushed the girl. “I have business with the admiral. If you want to tag along, I’ll listen to your gripe when I’m done.” The two hustled away.

Anna and Paul were following close behind. Paul suddenly stopped, grabbing Anna’s arm. “We’ll wait here.” he called out to Mihai.

As she tugged against him, Anna eyed Paul angrily. “Let me go!”

Paul yanked Anna around, his cold stare sending a shiver down Anna’s spine. In a low voice, he snarled as he squeezed her arm, glowering, “You and I are staying here!”

Anna said nothing. Some unknown power blazed deep within this man. How could she have missed it? But there it was, in all its brutish strength. She’d better not rile him, not until she understood more about what was happening.

 

Mihai pushed her way past two guards and up the ladder to the captain’s bridge, Sirion attempting to keep up. She spotted Gabrielle standing near the navigation officer, closely examining the radar screen. Without waiting to be recognized, she stormed up to the admiral. “What gives you the right to deny me the use of my ship?!”

Gabrielle slowly turned around, tired eyes peering out of a pallid face. She calmly replied, “My Lord, we will soon be under attack. May I suggest you…”

“You may suggest nothing! I asked you a question, Admiral! Now speak up and give me an answer!”

Everyone on the captain’s bridge could not help but hear Mihai. They were stunned like rabbits cornered by a fox, frozen into concerned inactivity.

Gabrielle remained calm, responding, “My Lord, now is not the time. I will take this matter up with you…”

“You will not usurp my power and then put me off!” Mihai vehemently retorted, “Now release my ship! Or must I have you arrested for insubordination?!”

Gabrielle’s face flushed red, but she kept her demeanor. “My Lord, this is not the place to discuss this.” She walked past Mihai toward the back of the bridge.

Mihai stomped after her. Getting close, she grabbed Gabrielle’s shoulder and whirled her around, almost knocking her off her feet. “We’ll discuss it now! What gives you the right to play dandy over the king?!”

An angry fire flashed in Gabrielle’s eyes. Glancing around to see if others were close, she whispered defiantly, “The stewardship of Shiloh – Yehowahboam!” With that the admiral raised her right hand, sticking it in Mihai’s face.

A strange burning glow caught Mihai’s eye. When, finally, she recognized it to be the king’s ring, she let out a gasp.

Gabrielle gave Mihai no chance to recover, hissing, “You have no authority over me, for I am steward of the king! I protect his throne until he arrives to receive it. Already you have taken the life of your sister, for she travels to her doom because of the shame you and I have cast upon her. Now be silent, fool, before I silence you!”

Sirion, overhearing Gabrielle, darted forward. “No, my Lord! You must call Terey back! Make her stop this madness!”

Gabrielle refused. “How does one return the smoke to the fire when the wind has carried it away? Should I force her return, she would only perish from a broken heart. The die has been cast and she found no defenders. It is better this way. May it heap shame on the heads of all who betrayed her trust.” She eyed Mihai.

Mihai had only half heard what Gabrielle said, she being so dumbfounded overseeing the ring. When the admiral’s words finally sank in, she could do little more than lower her head in remorse.

Sirion didn’t quit, though, begging, “Please stop her! My Lord, you are the only one with the power to stop her.”

Gabrielle frowned in sadness. “No child, I am the one who has sent her to her death. I am most culpable, for I knew beyond doubt she is fully innocent. Her kind cannot be led astray. Yet I surrendered to the cries of complaint, seeking to pacify those taking issue with her. No. Of all people, I stand in contempt. I have betrayed my own kind.”

Sirion couldn’t understand what Gabrielle was all about, again protesting. Gabrielle reached out and pulled her in, holding the girl tight. “My little one, you are so young but so old. You do not know who you yet are or what your destiny will be. Be patient, for the secrets of the ages wait near your door. Terey’s Cherub has not abandoned her as I did. It guides her even now as I speak.”

Sirion peered up at Gabrielle through tear-filled eyes. “Who am I? For I ache with cold like the roots of ancient mountains, and I burn with uncertainty as hot as the sun. Should I die tomorrow, it would not be too soon, and should I live forever, it will not be long enough. What is wrong with me?”

Gabrielle turned her attention to Mihai, reaching out and placing a hand on the woman’s forearm, then calling to a still very confused officer, “Please take our lord to her cabin. Stay with her and attend her needs. The day has been harsh on her discipline and her soul needs to find relief from such tumult.”

The officer approached, asking hesitantly, “My Lord, may I assist you?”

Mihai appeared as if in a fog. She finally nodded, taking the man’s hand, he leading her down the ladder and from the bridge.

With her arm still cradling Sirion, Gabrielle turned her attention back to the girl. “Time is not a friend this day, my child. Stay with me and help me fight our enemy here, from this bridge.”

She studied Sirion’s face. Sure enough, this child was a Seraphim, although she knew not how. Gabrielle understood that the children from the Realms Below could become such by blood, but Sirion was not a child from the Lower Realms, nor was she an Ancient from the First Age. There was no doubt in her mind, though. The girl had been chosen by the Cherubs to be of the Holy Order.

Gabrielle smiled. “My child, there are many things I must tell you, but it cannot be at this moment. Let this do for now: You and Terey hold to a common trust. She and her kind now stand in the shadows, for the torch has passed. Your journey is just beginning. Where it will take you is beyond my vision. Your kind shall stand next to Shiloh and will redeem us for our foolishness during ages past. If it’s important to you, you give me hope – hope of a new dawning.”

Sirion understood nothing of what Gabrielle said, but she felt a flutter in her heart that both chilled and refreshed her. It was as if she had arrived home after a long journey. Something changed inside her that day at the Prisoner Exchange. Eutychus sang a healing song in her ears and it renewed her broken body. But as she had walked away from Legion, someone else began singing a song in her heart.

She smiled to herself with sudden understanding. On that day, which now seemed so long ago, a piece of her soul parted company and had been traveling in a world beyond the universe. It was now returned, bubbling over with tales to tell of strange adventures and secrets learned. Looking at Gabrielle with growing discernment, Sirion knew the witching woman was to teach her what those things meant.

Sirion hugged Gabrielle. “Thank you for letting me remain here with you.”

Gabrielle took Sirion’s hand and began issuing orders, preparing the Sophia for the coming assault.

 

  • * *

 

General Noaz studied the distant battle from high up in an observation room in the PrasiaOdous Mountains. One of his staff officers stepped up to him, reporting, “It’s rough going on those hills east of the river. The enemy keeps pressing our defenses but so far they’re still holding. General Winehardt’s Division has been taking a real beating. She says they’re hanging on…thinks they can stay the course, especially with a little added support.”

Noaz asked, “How are we doing on this side of the river?”

The officer replied, “The enemy hasn’t attempted any landings on this side, and it doesn’t look like they will try it now. Their troop carriers took a mauling landing their people on the flooded flats behind those hills. We’re already putting troops across the river to thwart an enemy attack on the rear of those hills (the Silk). We’ve also got armor advancing down the corduroyed roads.”

“So, do my generals think we can hold ‘em with what we have?” Noaz asked, still scanning the horizon with his field glasses.

The officer replied in the affirmative. “They say they can, but it sure would help if we sent in those marine and veteran reserves.”

Noaz said it was not to be. “I’ve been in communication with Commodore General Planetee. She and I concur that those troopers are needed elsewhere.” He lowered his glasses and looked at the officer. “I want you to get down to General RhomPhaia’s division headquarters and tell her to put everyone she can into those hills. Tell her to use the gunships, if necessary, to transport soldiers and supplies over there. Tell her to empty this side of the river of its combatants, if that’s what it takes to keep those hills.”

He glanced toward the river. “Sometimes all it takes in situations like this are a few hundred fresh troops to turn the tide.”

The officer acknowledged the general and departed. Noaz then turned to another staff officer. “Has General LuoMagos finished preparations for operation Simple Help?”

The staff officer answered, “Yes, sir. But he informs me that he has only enough transport ships to ferry twenty thousand soldiers at a time, fifteen thousand if they take their anti-armor weapons.”

General Noaz nodded. “Then tell him the first wave of fifteen thousand should depart immediately. Tell him to put them down here.” He pointed to a location on the map, somewhere south of Memphis. “That’s where we’re collapsing. Tell him to make haste. There’s no time to lose. I will send in all the air support available to cover his attack.”

The general thought a moment then snapped his fingers. “The frigate Gorsbee is preparing to depart. Tell General LuoMagos to have it ferry an additional regiment of Marines over before it joins the fleet.”

“Yes, sir!” The officer hurried out the door.

General Noaz lifted his glasses toward the river. Smoke hung heavy over the landscape. He muttered under his breath, “I’ve done all I can. The rest is up to you…”

 

  • * *

 

Jonathan watched the battered army units trickle past. The number had been steadily increasing all morning. He figured there must be close to six thousand hiding along the ridges just behind Chasileah’s line of cavalry.

It was fascinating to watch these soldiers as they appeared like ghosts coming out of the whipping snow. He would first see them, struggling into view, barely able to carry their weapons – if they still were carrying any. Then they would see the cavalry with the troopers standing next to their mounts. The soldiers’ eyes would open wide in wonder and, without a word they would walk past, stopping just behind the second long line of horses.

Chasileah had managed to gather ninety-two hundred willing combatants, all veterans, to join her in one final ride into glory. Few believed they would survive the mounted charge into the armored tanks and mobile artillery, not to mention the ZoonKeras, which were reportedly advancing down the valley.

 

 

[(_]Author’s note[: A ZoonKeras is a huge horned animal with the front lobe of its skull fanned out in the shape of a large shield. Peaceful by nature, the animal is easily trained to do common tasks such as pulling or carrying heavy loads. In time of war, it was used to carry ordnance teams with rapid-fire large caliber guns or rockets. Weighing twice that of an adult bull elephant and having a bony head one-third the length of its body, it could be quite a formidable foe._]

By the time of the King’s War, few ZoonKeras were used for combat. Because they were native to MueoPoros, thus easily available to Legion, and his people already comfortable with their use, Legion maintained a large force of these animals.

Common battle attire for these beasts was plaited chain-mail draped over them to just below their knees, heavy frontal breastplates of steel and massive eye shields. Towers were fastened to the animals’ backs, creating mobile fighting platforms. In a charging attack, where as many as a hundred of these fast moving animals would come thundering down on the enemy, the resistance often melted away before them.)

 

Chasileah’s two battle lines faced north, stretching east and west along the hills and into the broad valley for over five miles. Hearing that this was to be a glory charge, the vast majority of soldiers in this impromptu brigade were dressed in the polished armor of bygone wars, now used primarily as pageantry attire.

All carried swords, mostly some form of derker blade. There were also lances, axes, hammers, and maces aplenty as well as side arms. More than a few had some sort of solid-projectile weapon slung over their shoulders, while others brandished lightweight hand-fired antitank missiles. Still, to Jonathan’s eyes this was to be an old-fashioned mounted charge, engaging the enemy at arm’s length. He rested his hand on his new saber, double-checking its safe keeping.

No one spoke a word. During the morning, the officers had received their orders. Now everyone waited. Earlier Jonathan asked Chasileah how she would know the proper time was arrived. Her answer was simple yet perplexing. “You will know it for a certainty. We do not ride alone this day. Our mentors keep watch. They have brought this storm. When it is right with your heart, you will mount up for war.”

He wondered, “How are you so sure these are not just squalls from the nearby sea?”

Chasileah calmly replied, “The wind is wrong for that. And look, the air is not bitter, but the snow is so dry it cannot stick to us or the horses. Plus, can’t you feel it? The peace, I mean. Whenever Seraphim stand at the edge of death, peace surrounds their hearts. Our fathers are telling us not to fear. Whatever our destiny, whatever the outcome, we are living up to our oath, which pleases our fathers.”

Now Jonathan quietly waited, Chasileah standing less than three paces away, staring into the storm. Off to the north, the distinct rumble of big guns could be heard. The enemy was driving down the valley at an ever increasing pace. It would not be long before they would push onto the broad plain below.

 

  • * *

 

Treston swerved back and forth avoiding other traffic as he pushed forward along the congested roadway. The entire army was in a retreat, approaching a rout. PalaHar was anxious to get back to the command center after hearing of General DinChizki sustaining a major concussion in a bombing raid, also being informed that most of the general’s staff had been killed.

Things were chaotic on the road. A few armored units were struggling north against a reckless tide of men and machines retreating south. Leadership was almost nonexistent, what with the constant shelling and strafing. If something wasn’t done soon, all would be lost.

Slamming the quarter-deuce into all-wheel drive, Treston abandoned the road, attempting to make his way through the debris-filled fields. Alynnou sat in the front next to Treston, grimly watching for dangers ahead, shouting out as she saw them. PalaHar sat behind Treston, giving direction when necessary.

Ishtar sat beside PalaHar, sickly-faced and panic-stricken. Just that morning, for the first time in her life, she had become the perpetrator of death, causing it in a most gruesome way. It wasn’t like anything she imagined. Their camp was overrun by a commando unit bent on capturing the general and his staff. How they knew he was there was a mystery.

Ishtar froze, her automatic rifle in hand as a commando charged her. It was Alynnou’s shouting that spurred the girl to action. She pulled the trigger. The rifle went off in one long ‘blu-u-urrp!’ emptying the bullet clip. Ishtar watched in horror as her attacker’s head disappeared in a crimson cloud, the man’s body crashing into the girl, knocking her to the ground, spattering blood and gore all over Ishtar’s face and uniform, the evidence of that collision still visible as the auto bounced through the field.

It felt like ages before Treston reached the wide valley plain. Hidden in a massive whiteout stood the hills to the south from which PalaHar and DinChizki had discussed the ensuing battle.

PalaHar tapped Treston on the shoulder and pointed toward the hills. “See there, about two miles? We’ll set our command post up there.”

Treston pressed the accelerator to gain speed for an uphill climb. The bank was too steep, forcing him to stop and back down to level ground. He searched for another way to go. Spotting a narrow ravine that cut its way up through the impassable grade, he shoved the machine into gear and let go the clutch. They had moved little more than thirty feet when a mortar round exploded near them, flipping the quarter-deuce over, throwing Treston from the machine.

 

Treston picked himself up and limped back toward the autocar. He had been thrown twenty feet, but was only bruised and shaken. Alynnou appeared to be all right as she hustled around to offer help. PalaHar was holding his arm but, other than that, seemed to be unhurt. Ishtar was another story. The girl was on the ground screaming in pain, her knees doubled up under her with both hands gripping her head, rocking back and forth in agony.

Treston shouted to Alynnou. “Check on the general!” as he hurried over to Ishtar. Getting close, Treston could instantly see something was terribly wrong. The snow was covered in blood, with more dripping from the girl’s face. Bending down, he took a close look pulling Ishtar’s hands away from her head. A chunk of jagged metal had smashed into the left side of Ishtar’s face, severing an ear, ripping away a large chunk of her scalp and crushing her jaw.

Ishtar began to gag. Treston reached into her mouth, pulling out several broken teeth along with pieces of torn flesh. He tried to speak reassuringly to her, but Ishtar was already going into shock. “She has to be carried!” He shouted over his shoulder.

“I can’t help you!” Alynnou shouted back as she busied herself assisting PalaHar who was injured worse than Treston had believed.

With a grunt, he picked up the now unconscious Ishtar, putting her over his shoulder. “Up that ravine!” he shouted, leading the way.

Missiles of every sort rained down on the retreating army. Treston concluded it would only be a matter of time before they were hit and killed. His mind raced back to another day when things appeared as hopeless. It was a day not so different from this one, except the wild men from the north were attacking with spears and swords. He remembered the flaming bags of oil as they smashed all around, incinerating many of his men. What was it he did to keep from panicking that day? Treston pondered a moment. ‘Oh, yes’ now he remembered. His mother’s lullaby! That was it!

Treston began to belt out the little song. “Listen my little child and here me sing a love song for only your ears. The winter winds howl and darkness creeps close, but the hearth fire makes it cozy in here.”

He sang the second verse. “A man went a walking to the song a bird. He wandered far and lost sight of his home. He fell into danger from a trove of old trolls, who tried to frighten him clear to his bones.”

As he continued to sing, Treston could feel his muscles relax. Reaching the last verse, he belted out the words. “So my child, please listen and learn from me, please, from the Lord of Distress do not quail. When you see him out walking to the song of a bird, keep your distance from him and prevail.”

He was soon up the rise, Alynnou close behind, she assisting the general. Treston began the lullaby again. At least it kept his spirits up. He was hoping it was doing the same for the others.

They had managed about a fourth of a mile when Alynnou shouted for Treston to stop. He lay the unconscious Ishtar down in the snow and went over to the general. PalaHar’s breathing was shallow and raspy. Speaking through pale lips, the general apologized, “I’m sorry, Colonel, but I just can’t keep up.”

Treston smiled. “That’s all right, Sir. Just lay back and rest.” He pulled at PalaHar’s coat. “Let me take a look-see.”

Alynnou watched over Treston’s shoulder as he lifted the general’s shirt. Several ugly puncture wounds covered his chest. Alynnou quickly turned away, pretending to busy herself with other things. Tears ran down her cheeks as she hummed Treston’s little song.

PalaHar could see the concern on Treston’s face. “I guess we’ve had a rough day today, right, Colonel?”

Treston nodded, attempting to return the general’s smile. “The weather’s been hotter than expected, Sir. We’ll rest here a bit. Maybe I can get us some help.”

He started to get up, but PalaHar grabbed his leg. “Colonel, get the child to safety…” Then looking at Alynnou, whose back was still to him, he requested, “Take care of my girl for me. She’s too precious to lose, you know.”

“Yes, Sir. I’ll take care of ‘em. Won’t leave ‘em behind.”

Treston looked up to see the first of the enemy armor entering the valley floor. “General…?” He saw PalaHar close his eyes and let out a breath. “Yes, Sir, I’ll take care of ‘em.”

Shaking Alynnou’s arm, Treston shouted, “We’ve gotta go!” He went back to Ishtar, picked her up and began to leave. Turning around, he found Alynnou cradling the general in her arms. She looked at Treston and shook her head. “I can’t leave him! I won’t leave him!”

Treston became desperate. “We can’t carry them both! We gotta go! Now!”

“You take the girl…” Alynnou turned back to the general. “I can’t leave him here! You go…”

For the first time in his life, Treston disobeyed his own counsel, ‘What good will it do, staying to help a companion if you both die? There are times when you have to leave the others behind.’

Walking back, Treston lay Ishtar down beside PalaHar. He sat on one knee and took Alynnou’s arm, peering into her troubled face. “We shall face the dragon together.” He drew his sidearm, checking it, and then smiled. “God’s will…”

 

  • * *

 

Asotos was livid. He had been toasting his officers, celebrating his nearing victory against Gabrielle’s MueoPoros Fleet, and with good reason. After all, he had already destroyed TaqaEsem’s Crimson Fleet, emptying this quadrant of any enemy except some strange little nuisance ships. In his arrogance, he had not only ordered the majority of his fighters away, including the new Endikos 23’s. His support armada to Q-north did the same.

Just as they finished downing the first glass of victory brandy, an excited bridge officer burst into the hall. “Glorious II is under attack!” The officer halted, making a formal salute. “Admiral AuThades reports that a large force of fighters and heavies has overrun his outer defenses, taking out several of his patrol ships! He adds that what appears to be a Crimson Fleet battle group is closing just behind the fighters!”

Asotos dumbly stared at the officer, brandy dribbling from the corner of his mouth. “Impossible!” He snorted, and then angrily accused, “What kind of a fool are you?! Such a practical joke warrants death!”

“No joke! No joke, my Lord!” The nervous officer answered. “Communications requested a repeat of the admiral’s message. He personally replied, adding that his flagship was already engaged with little ships that look like heavies but carry the punch of small barkentines. The admiral said the situation is tenuous!”

Asotos went into a rage, whipping his half-empty glass at Captain Ilaniya, smashing her in the face just below her right eye. “Get your ass busy and clean up this mess!” He reached for a brandy bottle, taking it by the neck and smashing it on the table. He shook the jagged edges at her. “When you’re done here, report to the bridge! And don’t dawdle!”

Blood was already streaming down Ilaniya’s face and her eye was quickly swelling shut. She dared not make comment. “Yes. Yes, my Lord. I’m sorry, my Lord.”

“You’re damn right you’re sorry, you little shit worm! Now get your ass busy or I’ll give you a night with the dogs!” Asotos turned to his officers and politely told them to go to the bridge.

He led the group from the hall, still carrying the broken brandy bottle. Ilaniya hurried with the cleanup, quickly dressed her wound and left for the bridge. Asotos called his violent attacks on the captain his ‘venting games’, explaining that it would not be conducive for morale to treat his men this way. Later, when they were alone, if she had been silent and well behaved, he might apologize for hurting her.

Ilaniya reached the bridge just as reports of another large battle group off to Asotos’ west reached his ears. “Impossible!” Asotos shouted. “Impossible!”

The navigation officer confirmed it to be so, pointing to the viewing screen. “These bogies appear to be several squadrons of fighters, spread out in a five-finger formation. These are heavies…or what look like heavies. They may be the same kind of ships Admiral AuThades has reported.” He pointed to another location not far from the fighters. “Those are big ships – cruisers, frigates and brigs or cutters. They’re not slowing down, but are coming right in behind the fighters.”

“Scramble the fighters!” Asotos shouted.

“We already have, my Lord.” The bridge officer replied. “They’re on the flight deck, waiting your orders.”

Asotos patted the officer on the shoulder. “You’re a good man…a good man. You deserve a reward.” He pointed toward Captain Ilaniya. “She will serve you tonight.”

The officer blushed with gratitude for Asotos’ recognition. Ilaniya showed no emotion. She bowed, somewhat relieved with the knowledge she would not be serving the dogs that night. Asotos would not renege on a promise announced in public. The captain was sure of that.

Asotos ordered the fighters off then pulled several of his smaller taskforce ships out of line, having them add support. About five minutes later, the navigation officer cried out, “Bogies! We have bogies to the east!”

 

  • * *

 

The fighters Asotos sent to attack Gabrielle’s MueoPoros Fleet sliced through Terey’s collection of obsolete machines like a whirlwind in a wheat field. In ten minutes, half of them had been shot to pieces or driven off. But Terey and her squadron of 14’s were not so quickly intimidated.

It didn’t take long for the enemy to realize they were up against no ordinary commander. Pushing her ships to the limit, Terey’s squadron tore into the heavies, ignoring the enemy fighters. By the third pass, the telling effect of the 14’s solid projectile antitank guns had decimated forty percent of Asotos’ first wave of heavies.

Although the TKR-14 was of an older design, it was still a very deadly weapon in the hands of an experienced pilot. Slower and smaller than the Endikos 23’s, it still was a force to be reckoned with. Heavy armor and massive firepower made it formidable. It could out-maneuver outturn the 23’s in close combat. While Terey concentrated most of her fighters on the heavies, the twenty-four 14’s engaged in this battle took out six of Asotos’ 23’s.

Terey banked her ship hard to port, leading her fighters toward the second wave of incoming heavies. The majority of enemy fighters went in hot pursuit just as Terey anticipated they would. This gave an opening to the three squadrons of the much slower, ancient DTB’s and XTT-4’s. Although no match for any modern fighter, these ships could easily terrorize the slow, unprotected heavies.

When within range, the pilots of the DTB’s dove on the heavies, flying with a wild madness into the defensive fire of the enemy bombers. As the DTB’s distracted the enemy gunners, the XTT-4’s lumbered to within missile range and, continuing through scathing return fire, blasted away at the enemy with their two inch belly cannons.

An XTT closed in on a lead heavy just as the heavy’s upper cannons opened up on it. In an explosive burst, the XTT’s copilot and navigator were killed and the pilot seriously wounded. Smoke started pouring into the pilot’s cabin and the starboard engine ruptured, spewing molten liquid along the fuselage. The pilot veered away from the attack while she called into her headset, “We have a checkmate!”

The crew of another XTT watched as the ship’s port engine flared white-hot and the machine careened toward another oncoming heavy. At six thousand yards, the ancient fighter locked down its cannon as it spun in toward the heavy. A horrific, blinding fireball lit up the sky when the two ships collided head on.

Under the ferocious assault of these relics of bygone wars, the remaining heavies in the first wave faltered. They dropped their ordnance and attempted to retreat. The DTB’s put up a chase, wrecking four more heavies before being driven off by newly arrived fighters. Of the thirty-eight DTB’s and XTT’s in these three squadrons, only eight returned to their carriers. Over two-thirds of the fighting crews failed to survive the mission. The heroic actions of these brave crews saved hundreds of lives by preventing the first wave of over thirty heavy bombers from reaching the main fleet.

Terey’s squadron of 14’s was being quickly whittled down. Each time they made another dive on the heavies, one or more of Terey’s fighters would be taken out of action. Running low on fuel, she called for another pass. With her eight remaining 14’s, the major went in with a high-speed frontal attack, the squadron flaming two more heavies.

As she cleared the last heavy, a tail-gunner got a lucky hit on the aft section of Terey’s fighter, severing control systems and rupturing a thermohydrogen canister. Unable to control the side thrusters and leaking coolant, the commander wagged her wings, telling the remaining 14’s they were on their own. She slowly drifted off to the east, Q-north.

Reconsidering her death wish, Terey struggled with the controls to bring the ship around and return to fleet. It was at that moment that two Endikos 23’s spotted her. They swooped in, firing their 20mm cannons at the 14. Unable to out-maneuver them, Terey’s ship took several hits. Terey suddenly felt a sharp pain in her lower back. Sparks flew from her gages on the console. The Endikos did not pursue the chase. They were either called away or had run out of munitions. They roared past the 14, swerved to port and vanished into space.

With her ship’s fuel nearly gone and engines overheating, Terey set her sights on a large rogue asteroid some five minutes’ distance. If she was lucky…real lucky…she just might be able to set her fighter down there. Then, when conditions permitted, she could send out a distress signal.

 

  • * *

 

“Fighters away, Commodore!” An officer on the battle bridge called up to Nazareth.

The commodore thanked the officer and shouted to her helmsman, “Bring us to port, on the double!” She waited as the Chisamore groaned hard off to the left. When it was finally facing west, Nazareth gave orders to her bridge officers. “Take us in fast! The jig’s up and speed’s our business now! Sound quarters and ready all guns!”

“Code red the battle group!” Nazareth ordered her navigation officer. “Tell ‘em to stay packed in close! We’re going for the fox…” She paused in thought, adding, “And tell ‘em to make noise, lots of noise. I want those bastards to remember this day, that the sons of Damnation do not go quietly into the night!”

Nazareth shouted down to the battle bridge, “Ready the cluster torpedoes and charge the rail gun! We’ll give ‘em something they won’t forget!”

The quizzical look on James’ face prompted his mother to explain. “Before the Chisamore was refitted, it was pretty much stripped of its weaponry. By the time it was pulled off the demolition list, little remained but the torpedo launchers and a few antiquated bubble turrets on the outer hull. I was desperate to find needed armament, so I went to RadapNasi to secretly meet with our king’s chief technical advisor, a certain Major Garlock.”

“It was fortuitous for me because it just so happened that the commander of Special Forces, Commodore General SarahCnidus, was present with the major, expediting the reequipping of the Chisamore.”

Nazareth paused and glanced around the various bridges to make sure everything was going as directed. “Major Garlock informed me that he had little to offer at the time. We finally settled on a few more missile launchers and turret cannons. I also procured our scrap-yard fighters that day. Then the major mentioned some older rail guns that were being warehoused. I was told that a ship the size of the Chisamore should easily support two such machines, especially with the new engines that were being installed.”

“Three weeks later, the rail guns were delivered and quickly emplaced. I have only fired them a few times, testing out their capabilities. I found out that once fired it takes over twenty minutes to recharge the system. Another thing was all the reinforcing needed for the superstructure to support a rail gun and all its hardware. For this reason, it was decided to mount them side by side and rigidly fixed, facing forward. It was quicker reinforcing just one part of the ship’s hull. And with them fix-mounted, they require less space.”

She explained their one weakness. “We are forced to be pointed directly at our target when we shoot the guns.” Then Nazareth smiled. “But with a mendelevium charged projectile, we can punch a hole the size of a house through any ship afloat! Some of the Tarezabarians have rail guns, but we’re the only ship I know of that has two facing forward. We pack a double-barreled surprise in our nose!”

The commodore then wagged her finger. “At twenty thousand yards, it only takes three seconds for our little friends to reach their targets. And killing range is over forty leagues.”

The navigation officer called out, “Twelve minutes and closing, Commander!”

Nazareth looked toward the bow. “Combined, our two battle groups are outnumbered, two to one. It is possible that Battle Group II’s fighters will knock some of the stuffing out of the enemy, and our WolfPack Marauders may inflict no little damage. But it falls upon us, the big ships of Battle Group I, to carry the day. The future of the Empire may well hinge on our success.”

She drummed her fingers on the captain’s rail, musing, “Now what was that poem General Copeland told me? Part of it went something like ‘Into the valley of death rode the six hundred.” She turned, smiling – the first time James had seen any doubt showing in his mother’s face. “‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’…that was it. Well, maybe there’ll be a poem in what we do today.”

Again facing forward, Nazareth lowered her head. “Now for my part…” She closed her eyes and began concentrating on a far off location.

 

  • * *

 

As Asotos watched the viewing screen, observers saw him wince and bring his hand to his head. A look of dismay and bewilderment flashed across his face. He politely excused himself, telling his officers he would be just a moment.

When reaching the privacy of an inner room, Asotos clutched his head and swore out curses. “You evil worm! Be off with you and depart, Bitchmaster of Darkness!” Asotos believed Lowenah was playing games in his head. He assumed no other person had the power to press his mind like Erithia except for Tolohe, and he believed her to be too incapacitated to do such a thing. He mentally screamed out to his adversary, “You promised to stay out of this! How dare you renege on your oath!”

Silence, wonderful silence…and then the voice spoke again, laughing, “I am not who you believe me to be. I am the wind that chases dreams, the maker of death, the maiden mother of lords and kings. I am hungry. My children desire fresh meat. We have come for our evening meal.” The laughter became wild and maniacal.

Then the voice began a little song, playing over and over in Asotos’ head the entire time Nazareth engaged him in battle. It went something like this:

 

Where the river crosses time and space,

And witches’ caldrons brew,

Resides a golden jackal’s lair

And a pit reserved for you.

I ride upon a midnight fleece

Of fire, beasts and hounds.

Upon your flesh my gorgons yearn to feast

Until your cherished manhood drowns.”

 

Asotos unleashed a volley of sacred oaths and curses against the laughing voice, then stormed back to the captain’s bridge.

The ensuing series of engagements which historians call ‘The Battle of Gorgon Pass’ were most significant in that they are credited for encouraging Asotos to abandon the frontline oversight of his military forces. Supporting evidence for this viewpoint is that shortly after the battle, Asotos feigned need to return to his capital city, AgathosChrusos. From there, long into the war, he issued orders and received his lieutenants.

 

  • * *

 

Although Terey’s command managed to blunt Asotos’ strike force, his second and third waves of heavies as well as several squadrons of fighters dealt a blow to the MueoPoros Star System fleets. And Asotos’ ships were only one small part of a much larger attack expedition.

Lieutenant Commander Saleuo’s StarBall One, comprised of one hundred ninety-two fighters and sixty-eight heavies drawn from the Sophia and its accompanying taskforce, joined up with another four hundred twenty-nine fighters and one hundred sixteen heavies from the remainder of the First Fleet to strike at two enemy armadas off to Q-north and west.

To the south and west, another armada approached. Ships from the Fourth Fleet intercepted them, engaging in a ship o’line firefight, space style. Besides Nazareth’s and Tizkertinah’s battle groups, it was the only action on this day where big ships slugged it out against each other. Such engagements are often remembered most romantically – big guns against big guns – but a personal account written by then Midshipman RaniEleeo paints a much more realistic picture.

 

(Author’s note: The author has inserted this account to maintain the timeline of events as they took place.

Midshipman RaniEleeo was a runner aboard the imperial battle cruiser, Ennolia, the heaviest class of non-carrier battleship used by the Children’s Empire in the King’s War. It was the flagship for Taskforce Eight, Fourth Fleet, assigned to the carrier, ThrombolActron. As a runner, Midshipman Rani had opportunity to witness the fighting from several locations aboard the Ennolia. Thus, her account is of great value. It is presented here, in part.)

 

– “We were fourth in line, behind the frigate, CjaDiec, in a classic horseshoe formation, the ThrombolActron in the center. Our captain had drawn us up close, to within three leagues of the carrier, leaving us little maneuvering space. This also limited the enemy’s ability to get past our flank and attack the carrier. The cutters and barquentines were in the vanguard, dropping back toward us as the fleet drifted to starboard to engage the enemy.

“At one hundred leagues from the enemy fleet, spikers began falling on us. ‘Spikers’ was a nickname for a small, long-range missile designed to disable energy shields and disrupt low frequency communication by the use of high electron shrapnel bursts. This barrage continued until we reached some thirty leagues distance – a long time, considering our slow, ponderous speed.

“Although the taskforce received little damage from these missiles, it was still quite nerve-racking because of the screeching sound they made when exploding and noticeable shudder of the hull from their concussion. You also had to worry about larger missiles being hidden in a spiker storm. They are very hard to detect when thousands of spikers are creating such a cosmic disturbance.

“About this time, my commanding officer ordered me to go amidships to do a damage control check. The captain was a stickler for continual visual reports. My assignment was no easy task. When our ship was at general quarters, the elevators did not work, each deck being mechanically sealed from the next. Also, when the yellow lights were on, all automatic hatches were closed leaving only the manually operated emergency hatches.

“After struggling aft to the damage control room, I was sent to reconnoiter the outer portside bulkheads. This took me along the exterior hull of the ship, down into the bellows and up to the mid-gun emplacements. A considerable part of my job was to inspect the condition between the outer and inner hull, a most dangerous and lonely place during combat.

“The center hull of my ship was over six hundred long cubits in length, with three cylinder shaped outriders, each over one hundred forty long cubits. The center hull had seven decks at its high point. To inspect my assigned area under battle conditions, considering the countless hatches, cramped passageways, and narrow ladders, took twenty minutes. Another runner was assigned to my same area, but following my route from the opposite direction.

“Being a runner during a firefight was the most terrifying assignment I ever had. Most of the time I was alone and often in the dark, feeling my way along some corridor. High power energy blasts – very common – often knocked out lighting and signal communications to various parts of the ship – the reason for the runners.

“And then there was the ever-present danger of being injured or killed by an outer hull concussion blast. Ennolia had several double bulkheads, having hatches in each bulkhead. Many hatches were built with tiny portals, permitting a person to make a visible examination of the next chamber before opening the hatch. On more than one occasion, I barely missed death when the chamber ahead or behind me took a concussive hit.

“One time, I closed the hatch and it had just automatically locked when a missile exploded off the hull. Our energy field contained the hit but, being flexible as all energy fields are, the outer hull popped in and back out about a handbreadth, sending thousands of deadly metal shards across the passageway. The concussion alone could kill. Before combat was finished that day, I was bleeding from my nose, ears, and eyes from less pronounced hits, and that was with my emergency fire suit.

“At the height of the battle – which lasted better than two hours – we were being hit so often the ship was in a continuous state of pitch and yaw. Shudders ran through the hull, sounding like a mother wailing her dead. The only way I could continue to carry out my assigned tasks was remembering that no place was really safe in a fight like this.

“Near the beginning of my third run, I came down an emergency ladder from the fourth deck level into a large maintenance locker. The room was lit up by only flashing red emergency lights, but I could see that fire or extreme heat had engulfed the place. What I first thought to be some kind of dark paint covered the floor and walls. Finding the room empty except for odd piles of litter, and unable to identify any immediate threat to the ship, I stumbled my way into an adjacent chamber through a hatch that went down to the next level and along a narrow corridor leading back to the aft torpedo room.

“Upon reaching the torpedo room, I was warned not to go up to the next level. A fiery explosion in a maintenance locker had killed an entire work crew, the blast causing a dangerous ammonia leak. They said no one had dared to go into the area since, fearing the caustic gasses. I dumbly nodded my head, thanking them for the warning. After checking their damage status, I hurried out of the torpedo room, running along the corridor until coming to a small drop-sink. There I promptly puked my innards out thinking about the locker.

- “As the battle continued, more areas of the ship became untenable. Fissures, holes, and seam ruptures were taxing the air pressure in some places, forcing the ventilation systems to be shut down here and there. It was the runner’s job to identify these locations, marking them as a warning.

“This meant that I often had to test a chamber for leaks. Although our suits were able to protect us, with all the crawling around and through places we did, there was always the chance that our suits could also rupture. One small leak in a vacuum-filled chamber often killed by fogging the brain through oxygen starvation.

- “By now, there were dozens of injured strewn along the corridors and in the galleries and mess halls. There were often no medics in these areas because the ship was sealed off. Many times the wounded were left to fend for themselves because the depleted crews were fully needed at their stations. I saw many of those with minor injuries tending to the needs of the more seriously wounded. This may sound cruel and careless to some, but under those conditions we had no choice.

“As bad as it was to see all the suffering and dying, it became almost impossible for me to leave a crowded hallway and enter an empty part of the ship. Singing songs or talking to a pretend companion helped a little. At times, I found myself crawling along from one bulkhead to another, sobbing, too afraid to stand.

- “The enemy also hit us with scorchers. These were armor-piercing missiles laden with highly flammable jelly-like chemicals and huge canisters of oxygen. The objective was to breach the hull of the ship with the armor-piercing warhead, releasing the flaming agent and then the oxygen to feed the fire. My ship was struck once with a scorcher. It incinerated an entire deck between the end and center bulkheads, two levels below me. I have no idea how many people were there, but no one survived. The heat was so intense, I burned my hands opening a bulkhead door to escape one of the outer hull chambers, and I was two levels up from the blaze.

- “I was relieved of my duty at nineteen hundred hours, about four hours after the battle began, and was too exhausted to remove my fire suit, which by now was little more than tatters and shreds. Crawling into a corner of the damage control room, I fell into such a deep sleep, twice medic crews attempted to remove me thinking I was possibly dead.

“Some twelve hours later I was waked by a flag officer telling me to report to sickbay. There I had my wounds tended to and was given a bite to eat and received some sedatives for my nerves. Despite this, I went into the shakes and cried uncontrollably for three days.

- “By the standards of the day, this battle had been successful in that it forced the enemy to abandon its attack on MueoPoros. But, oh, at what a price! My ship, the Ennolia, suffered extensive damage, with thirty-one killed and one hundred forty-seven wounded. This was out of a crew of sixteen-hundred. And we fared better than many.

“The frigate, CjaDiec, took losses of fifty percent, with over one hundred killed in action. Several of the smaller ships were destroyed, with major loss of life. Twenty-five percent of all fighters and sixty percent of the heavies never returned to their mother ships. All together, our task force of twenty-two ships lost seven hundred ninety-two killed and over four thousand wounded, a full twenty-five percent of people engaged in this battle.”

 

RaniEleeo continued to serve aboard the Ennolia throughout the King’s War, eventually becoming senior deck officer for damage control. The Ennolia remained a front-line fighting ship for well into the first decade of the war, eventually being relegated to convoy escort, and when refitted during the second half of the war, was converted into a heavily armed troop ship.

[_ With the invention of the Planetee bullet, energy defense shields could no longer be counted on to protect warships. New warships - the first were the Wolkker Class -were designed with hulls made from a molecular composite derived from polymers and titanium, these hulls necessitating being made from sixteen to twenty-eight inches thick in order to protect against the new offensive weapons. _]

New fighting ships became much smaller and their conventional shapes redesigned from the bulbous cylinder to squat and angular. Older ships were sometimes plated, having new skins put over their hulls. It was an expensive and time-consuming job reserved for more important ships like the carriers. The major part of the older Navy vessels like the Ennolia were not upgraded, eventually relegating them to second line defense and escort.

By the time the war ended, Garlock and his inventive team had developed a method of construction where the ship’s entire infrastructure was grown, test tube-style, into its respective shape. This became the standard practice for shipbuilding, and is still the standard used today. Because of the ease of repair – ‘re-growth’ or ‘self healing’ as some like to call it – and upgradeability, many of those first ships, now in converted form, are still being used to this day.

I inserted the above information to explain the demise of ship o’line combat. Fighters dominated the contest after the advent of the Planetee. The day of the big torpedo or missile was ended. A ship the size of a cutter could now pack enough of a punch to knock out the biggest warship. With the introduction of the Baby Pearl – a test tube fighter – production exploded. Near the end of the war, commanders would wield fighter squadrons like cavalry, advancing hundreds at a time into battle.

Senior Deck Officer Rani concludes with the long-term effects of her combat experiences aboard the Ennolia. (Note: Rani’s personal accounts of life aboard the Ennolia were first printed some seven millennia after the war. The following information, she recently provided me for this book.)

 

This universe has greatly changed since my stint aboard the Ennolia. My companions have all returned to me from the Field of the Minds and the world has rested in peace from war for these hundred millennia. My children of many generations enjoy a sweet innocence of life that I no longer can remember. Did the war change me? Have I gotten over its ill effects?

I forget the number of centuries that nightmares haunted me or crying spells would overcome me for no reason. For the longest time, I suffered fits of melancholy and depression. Happily, I can say that that period in my life is far behind me, but I do still vividly recall my experiences during the war.

I was a seasoned veteran before the King’s War. Maybe it was the cumulative effect of the battles that just presented themselves after I left the Ennolia, but I think not. A battlefield, where death and destruction surrounds you, is soon left behind with only your memories of the conflict. Eventually, trees and grasses even change the landscape. Aboard a ship there is no such escape.

A room filled with unspeakable carnage may be cleaned and repainted, but it still remains as an everyday reminder of what happened there. You have to walk decks that ran red with blood, eat at tables upon which the dying had been placed. Everywhere you go aboard the ship, you find reminders of each terrible conflict – a dent in the wall, a torn piece of carpet. Nowhere can you escape the reminders except when you close your eyes in the solitude of your cabin.

Ah, but there is another curse… To this day, confined spaces are uncomfortable and empty rooms disquieting. I seek solitude for my mind’s sake, but my heart cries out in dread when I’m alone. So I have learned to find seclusion in a crowd. You can often see me sitting quietly while all around me are throngs of people. I satisfy my heart, for it hears and sees the others while my mind tunes the world out and hears only its own inner thoughts.

Did the war change me? Yes, but I feel it has been for the better. I think about life more, about little things, about friends and lovers. The smell of a campfire on a summer day floods my heart with a joy the likes of which I never felt before the war. Something as small as a gentle touch I fondly savor, realizing just how precious and fleeting it is. My life is so much more focused now and I delight in each day as being something special.

Do I regret my experiences? Does a mother regret the birth of a child? I say not, for the pains I suffered in the war are like those I have suffered in childbirth. Life is precious and when one has sacrificed something to attain that life, its preciousness is better understood and appreciated. As I would not exchange my children to forget my labor pains, I would never wish to surrender my memories of the war for the innocence of life.

I am a better, wiser, kinder person today because, I believe, of the things I witnessed and suffered. One day I will forget all the pain the war delivered upon me, but I hope and pray it is not at the expense of who it has helped me become. Better to suffer forever the evils of the war than to forget its gifts.

Let me sum up my feelings about my experiences of the war: I wept the day the Ennolia was decommissioned and sent to the salvage yard. Each year, on the anniversary of that event, my heart remembers and tears come. I feel like part of my soul was taken from me when the Ennolia was broken up for scrap.”)

 

  • * *

 

With the help of some nearby soldiers, Treston and Alynnou managed to work their way about fifty rods further up the hill to the cover of a small depression. The group rolled a few boulders together to form a broken bulwark and then all hunkered down behind them.

Alynnou was busy tending the severely wounded PalaHar and a now semi-conscious Ishtar who cried out in a state of delusion from time to time. Treston stayed forward with the others, watching for the enemy. All along this part of the rise little pockets of retreating soldiers were gathered, throwing up defensive walls with whatever they could find. There was no more running for them. They had decided this was the place to make their last stand.

More enemy armor was entering the far north end of the valley, spreading out to the east and west to make room for the others coming in behind. Their advance from there was hesitant, the ominous, blinding snow storm further down the valley making them apprehensive. There was no way for the enemy to tell just what lay ahead of them, the relentless tempest hiding any secrets the hills might be keeping.

This didn’t mean the fighting had eased. Mobile artillery kept up a continual barrage on the new defensive positions Treston and the others held, occasionally sending a rogue missile into the whirling storm. And, as the valley continued to fill with more soldiers and machines, the tracked armor pushed further into it. To the defenders, it appeared there must be countless thousands of enemy soldiers pressing ever closer.

Every now and then, Treston saw a giant plume of snow and dirt blow into the gray sky. There were at least a few defensive batteries and tracked tanks hiding behind the blanket of snow, warning the enemy that all was not well on the ridges above them. As heavily massed as the enemy now was, there were casualties from every other random missile strike.

About this time, several commando gunships appeared over the distant hills way up the valley. Treston puzzled as the machines came in low over their people and settled down close to where PalaHar’s command car sat in a twisted pile. Amid tracer bullets and mortar fire, two dozen commandos jumped from the waiting machines. Several returned fire, setting up a perimeter, while the others searched the field.

From Treston’s vantage point, he watched curiously as the enemy scurried here and there as if hunting for something. Eventually, he noticed people pointing off toward the ravine. Most of the commandos hurried toward it, while the others boarded the gunships. Engines whined as the machines lifted into the air. They flitted to and fro to avoid the return weapons fire, waiting to be given directions from the men on the ground.

Much to Treston’s dismay, it took little time for the commandos to traverse the ravine and reach the upper ridge. They threw themselves down on their bellies and began crawling through the snow, their white clothing making them nearly invisible. Treston cursed to himself. He never expected the enemy would make a house call. It was obvious to him that they knew who they were looking for and where to find them.

Treston shouted to the other soldiers with him, “Get that girl and the general outta here! I’ll hold ‘em long as I can! Now get!”

As the others hurried back to Alynnou, Treston grabbed another soldier’s sniper rifle and slowly took aim. ‘Ka·Kow!’ The heavy caliber bullet sped three hundred yards, slamming through the helmet of the most distant commando. ‘Ka·Kow!’ ‘Ka·Kow!’ Two more commandos lay motionless in the snow.

Treston was a good shot and he knew, given time, he could whittle the enemy down to a manageable number. But time he didn’t have. These men were no amateurs. Not only were they advancing fast, the leader realized full well that Treston was picking off his back element. The forward commandos stopped and began laying down a sheet of fire while the others continued to crawl forward.

Treston could do nothing but duck behind the boulders as bullets whizzed and ricocheted in every direction. He grudgingly slithered back to the small thicket where Alynnou had been nursing their wounded companions. Suddenly he heard a cry and looked up the hill in time to see Alynnou crash face down in the snow. At that same moment, the whine of turbines became more distinct.

Panic gripped Treston. Throwing caution to the wind, he bolted up the hill to Alynnou, diving down next to her, bullets spraying all around him. Half a dozen soldiers seeing what was happening rushed over to help. They started laying down a defensive fire, forcing the commandos to take cover.

Treston rolled Alynnou over. Blood spurted onto his face and coat. A bullet had severed an artery in the lieutenant’s neck and she was rapidly bleeding to death.

Treston groaned aloud and started to whimper, “No! No! You can’t do this! You can’t die on me after I’ve waited so long for you!” Through his tears he searched for the wound, pressing it with his fingers when he found it.

Behind them he could hear the engines of a gunship as it started its approach. He guessed it mattered little now. In a few seconds they would all be bleeding in the snow.

Everything went a blur after that. Treston didn’t know if he was seeing a vision or whatever. A blinding afternoon sun broke across the upper hills while the valley to the north remained shrouded in gloom. The storm suddenly disappeared, revealing the secrets of the mountain.

Treston’s face was next to Alynnou’s as he lay over her to protect her from the flying bullets when the world fell silent. Even the whining gunship’s engines seemed to fade away. Looking back toward the enemy, Treston was dumbstruck to see the commandos up on their knees like statues, staring up the hill. He turned and raised his eyes to see what things were all about and gasped.

Along the upper ridge, east and west for as far as the eye could see, stood an army of mounted cavalry, sunlight glittering off helms and armor, giving the riders more of an appearance of gods sitting the mountains than simple soldiers. Hundreds of tall guidons of every color filled the sky, each carrying a precious name either of a battle, war, the living or the dead.

Treston stared, transfixed, as a lone horse and rider stepped out to the front of the long battle line. From this distance, he could see the person to be a woman, brown-skinned with silver-white hair flowing out from under her golden helm. She raised high a sword and shouted words strange to his ears. In amazement, he watched as the thousands with her lifted their weapons and drummed them in unison against shields and armor.

The crashing of metal against metal multiplied by thousands upon thousands sent shockwaves reverberating down the hills and across the valley. Threatening black clouds hurrying up from the south joined in with jagged lightnings and rolling thunders, filling the air as if with angry voices. “To war! To war we shall go! To the world’s ending and beyond shall all men be driven!”

Treston’s ears also picked up an increasing low drone of ‘thuump, thuump, thuump’, as the enemy gunship drifted closer. A sudden ‘krisss-thuunk’ followed by an earsplitting explosion momentarily drowned out the musical chorus coming from up the hill. One soldier hidden in tall grasses somewhere beyond Treston had been eyeing the commandos instead of the upper sights. That person’s rocket, unseen by most observers, slammed into the gunship, sending it crashing to the ground in flames.

Enemy combatants down on the broad valley plain, transfixed on the sights above were shaken back to their senses at seeing their gunship downed. Many thinking that a lightning bolt destroyed it began shouting, “The Cherubs fight against us! Flee! Flee for your lives! The gods’ fury has been waked against us! Flee from before their faces, or we will surely die!”

To add to the enemy’s growing hysteria, at that instant, hundreds of trumpets rang out the battle charge. As if one solid mass of flesh and iron, over nine thousand mounted troopers, sun glinting off their armor, bolted forward.

Slow at first, just above a trot, the cavalry advanced, its pace picking up until the horses were at a full gallop. It had been ages since Treston witnessed such a spectacle and only one other time in his life was it this grand. Long before the horses passed him by, the very ground was quaking from the pounding hoofs.

 

Jonathan recalled Chasileah’s warning. ‘Once we begin to move, speed will become our friend. It will be a race against time to the valley floor. Our survival may well depend how well we can mix it up with the enemy. At least it will be harder for the gunships to go after us once there.’

His horse bounding along at a hard run, Jonathan’s heart raced with excitement as he watched Chasileah. Some half-a-dozen yards ahead of him, she brandished her sword high calling out strange and wonderful words that filled him with both joy and dread.

A battle cry! All around him, Jonathan was hearing the growing battle cries of the advancing horde. Some people were shouting, making wild yipping noises, other calling oaths and curses, and still others sang songs of victory or jubilee. It wasn’t long before he, too, was caught up in the spirit of that moment and joined his voice to the raucous tumult, the fear of death or harm whisked away on the passing breeze. The more he sang out, the more he yearned for the coming battle. Soon he found himself bent forward urging his mount to go faster, ever faster…

 

The enemy commandos retreated back down the ravine, wildly signaling the other gunships. Glancing over his shoulder, Treston saw the last one disappear over the edge of the ridge. Still pressing his fingers against Alynnou’s severed artery, Treston lowered his face close to hers, speaking softly, “Just stay with me a little while more. It’ll be all right. I’ll get us some help soon…real soon.”

As the gunships lifted off from the field, the first of Chasileah’s cavalry bounded past some so close that Treston was pummeled with clods of frozen dirt. On they came, making the snow dance in tune with the beating hooves. Eventually, the quaking faded away as the last of the gallant knights sped toward their probable doom.

A new disturbance filled Treston’s ears. Following on the tails of the cavalry, thousands of infantry were storming down the hills. For as far as Treston could see, the snow-covered land was alive with running soldiers. He watched in amazement while mostly leaderless mobs raced toward the valley floor. There was no captain over these soldiers, just the wild excitement driving the people on. What had been a tired and defeated army only hours before was now an unstoppable avalanche of humanity bent on one objective – destroying the enemy.

The excitement was contagious. Treston had to shout orders for the soldiers with him to stay. Even with threats peppered with colorful curses he nearly lost them to the moment. Finally, after calming them, they started to search for materials to make litters with. In the meantime, Treston stayed with Alynnou, attempting to keep her alive.

 

The plain below was a cauldron of confusion and dismay. Enemy infantry was scrambling back up the valley in a full rout. Weapons were cast aside in a mad dash north. If a soldier was unfortunate enough to stumble, he was often crushed by the unrelenting flood of escapees. To add to this bedlam, many truck drivers – even armored tank crews – abandoned their machines in order to escape in haste.

Then there were the mobile artillery crews who attempted flight with their big guns, running over hapless victims on foot, smashing through stalled trucks or often being smashed themselves. The roads out of the valley became choked with men and machines. Soon nothing moved, except those on foot.

Not everyone was trapped in hopeless retreat. Legion’s home-guard veterans and other more elite volunteer battalions held their ground, with some of their armor going on the offensive. All across the valley, tracked artillery began seeking targets. As Chasileah’s cavalry closed in, they found the air exploding with chunks of iron and shrapnel.

Also, beyond the low hills to the north where the valley turned off to the west, Legion’s generals were advancing a new line of assault. They were pressing their infantry up the rises, having them leave the roads and make their way over the hills to the valley beyond. Leading this new army were scores of the ZoonKeras cavalry. Further up the valley, several squadrons of gunships were hurrying forward to assist in stopping this troublesome intrusion on Legion’s advance.

 

The Glitter Brigade swept past the skirmishers and into the enemy’s main body. Already there had been huge holes blasted in the line of cavalry, one missile often taking out several horses and riders with every strike. Jonathan could see that speed was their friend, for the deadly hail of shells diminished after they had pressed the enemy line.

Jonathan followed Chasileah, dodging this way and that, avoiding the advancing machines as they pushed back the infantry. Riding near her, Jonathan’s eyes darted to his right in time to see a gun crew of a tracked howitzer throwing the bolt closed on their cannon. The crew chief was following them in his sights while his gunnery mate was pulling the lanyard.

With blurring speed, Jonathan saw another rider dive upon the gun, swinging his derker sword toward the cannon. Never had Jonathan witnessed the full might of a derker blade and he did not understand the fondness with which the Old Guard spoke concerning these relics of ancient wars. That quickly changed.

With a grunt, the rider drove the blade of his sword halfway through the six-inch barrel just as the gun fired. In a horrific explosion, the entire upper deck of the gun carriage rose into the sky, disintegrating into countless pieces, killing the gun crew as well as the nameless rider. The sword spun through the air, landing near Jonathan. He stared in disbelief, for the weapon carried not even a blemish or a bend.

There was no time to ponder the moment. Jonathan spurred his mount, chasing after Chasileah. They were up near the north end of the valley now, having passed through the main melee, going full tilt toward a mortar crew. Jonathan was slowly catching up, whipping his horse to do so. Suddenly, he felt himself being lifted from the saddle and pitched into a cloud of black smoke, crashing face down in the trampled snow.

Rolling over with a groan, Jonathan stared blankly at the sky. Regaining his senses, he stood searching his surroundings. Several feet away his horse lay dying, kicking at its own entrails with its one remaining leg. He scanned the field around him looking for Chasileah. Stumbling through the acrid smoke, Jonathan started calling out her name.

Some twenty yards in front, Jonathan spied another horse torn and ruined like his own. It lay on its rider, pinning the motionless person to the ground. Letting out a mournful cry, he ran forward only to be stopped by wild snorting off to his right. A giant ZoonKeras was charging the fallen rider, paying no heed as it ran over friend and foe alike.

Screaming curses at the top of his lungs, Jonathan dove toward the beast, his sword having never fallen from his hand. As he raced to cut off the animal from its intended victim, a brilliant-white flame began dancing along the edge of the blade. Jonathan felt a surge of renewed energy race through his body.

As he drew near, Jonathan realized that he could never stop the animal in time. He did the only thing possible. In desperation, he flung himself at the passing beast, sweeping his sword down across the animal’s front leg just before crashing to the ground. The sword stroke caught the ZoonKeras below its knee, slicing through flesh and bone, cutting the animal’s lower leg right off.

Bellowing in pain, the beast tumbled to its left, crashing to the ground on its side, just missing Jonathan. It heeled over and on its back, crushing the gun crew in their gondola. The ZoonKeras then rolled onto its belly, struggling to stand.

In the blink of an eye, Jonathan was on his feet. He took his scorching blade and thrust it through the plated armor, sinking it into the animal all the way to the sword’s hilt. Pulling it out, he began hacking at the beast’s head, cutting off a horn and chopping away its eye protection. Then, in one final thrust, he drove the sword’s point through the animal’s eye and into its brain. The ZoonKeras bellowed in pain and died.

Leaving his sword in his panic to get to Chasileah, Jonathan ran over to his cherished companion, dropping down next to her. The woman lay prone on her back, crushed under the horse from her hips down. Being very gentle, Jonathan brushed away the dirt from her eyes and mouth. As he stroked her cheek, thinking the woman dead, Chasileah’s eyes fluttered and half opened.

In a labored whisper, Chasileah begged Jonathan, “Leave me go, for I am dead. I depart for worlds unseen. Your kind are to lead the Order now. I shall pass on to my rest.”

The world raged in chaos around him. Heroes were born and heroes died. Fire, torment and destruction filled the air with their anger and fury. Gunships had entered the battle as well as newly arrived infantry. On the other side, Chasileah’s cavalry was regrouping here and there to swoop back upon the enemy. The surge of defenders had reached the valley plain, engaging in heavy hand-to-hand combat. And the tracked armor was returning from its flight to the south, adding the noise of their guns to the fray. Yet Jonathan remembers nothing concerning those moments but the hopeless ache in his heart.

One eyewitness later wrote concerning the battle: ‘Are there any words found to describe what I saw? I doubt it. Imagine eighty thousand people as well as tracked armor, mobile guns, and wild beasts, all attempting to destroy one another and confined to a space little more than five miles wide and three deep. Now picture yourself standing in the middle of all this, trying to keep your head on your shoulders while endeavoring to remove the head off your enemy. Life or death was meted out that day, more by the luck of the draw than by wisdom or skill.’

None of this mattered to Jonathan. He cradled Chasileah’s head in his arms, weeping, “No! No! You cannot go and leave me alone! Through death I have come down to this day, waiting my entire life for someone to love as I love you. You cannot abandon me to this world to journey its empty roads without you! You are the only shining light I have found in this Hell above the skies. Do not make me live another death…”

Unbeknownst to him, his words carried a peculiar musical tone. Paying it little heed, he repeated what had been said. Then he repeated it again. Chasileah groaned in pain, opened an eye and then relaxed, releasing a long sigh. Jonathan thought her dead.

He was near to bursting into a wailing lament when he noticed her breath on the chill breeze. His hands began shaking with excitement as he anxiously waited for each following breath. After seeing it a dozen or more times, Jonathan began a new little tune, letting his heart lead him along.

After a few bars, another sound intruded upon Jonathan’s ears. ‘Screechity clickity screech’‘Screechity clickity screech’ He glanced over his shoulder, dismay filling his heart. Less than fifty yards away and closing, a tracked tank rumbled directly toward them.

The tank commander ordered his driver forward, telling his machine gunner not to waste any ammunition on the wounded. “Run ‘em over!” He shouted and began laughing.

Jonathan bent down, huddling over Chasileah as he folded his arms around her. He whispered, “We shall ride the comets together…” and then started his little song anew.

A sudden, blinding explosion shook the ground. Seconds later, heavy pieces of iron and steel rained down around the couple. Jonathan looked up to see what happened. There, some one hundred yards away, a funny-looking, twin-engine aircraft hovered above the field, the pilot’s arm extended giving a thumbs up.

Noaz’ cavalry had arrived. The VoshanShar tank-busters came in first, tearing up the enemy gunships and mobile armor on the ground. Just behind them came dozens of Marine gunships, cutting the road for the Marine troopships. Soon hundreds of fresh, eager, veteran soldiers were on the ground, mixing it up with any enemy still trying to hold the field.

The VoshanShars eventually darted off to the north on other business. Far up the road, thousands of prisoners waited to be marched off to Memphis, there to be brutalized and eventually murdered. Screaming out of the sky, the tank-busters blasted away at anything moving on the roads, ripping tanks and trucks to pieces and scattering soldiers in every direction. On seeing their approach, guards holding the prisoners fled in panic. In a short while, air Marine units swooped in, securing the prisoners’ safety.

The enemy stampeded for the hills to the north, ignoring the two people huddled on the ground. Jonathan held Chasileah tight, still singing his little song:

 

Live my dear one, live for me. Live for summer, live for spring.

The willow sings by the bubbling brook, while the dragonfly dances in tune.

Stay with me ‘til the summer is high, stay ‘til the willy-wag croons.”

 

  • * *

 

The 14 did not manage a gentle landing. It slammed into the agate and ice asteroid with enough force to rip away a wing and crush a large portion of the superstructure.

Terey was just coming to her senses, not knowing how long she had been unconscious. Examining the cockpit controls was difficult in the darkness. Only a few panel lights worked and they were dim at best. What she did see was not encouraging. Life support systems were down. The air was cooling quickly and what little fresh oxygen remained was coming from her torn flight suit. She leaned her head back to think.

As she sat there, quietly listening to the sounds a machine makes while its cools after hard use, another more disquieting noise could be heard. Sure enough, her compartment was leaking its life-sustaining air. Just how fast it was happening, she could not tell. With her suit damaged, the visor in the flight helmet was fogging up. ‘No need keeping it on anyway’. Terey reached for the button on the left side of her helmet that opened the visor. Nothing happened. Curious… She glanced over and groaned in dismay.

Terey’s left arm had not moved. Looking closely, the woman could see in the dim light that it was crushed between the hull and some sort of jumbled machinery. There wasn’t any pain though and, as she thought about it, Terey realized there was no sensation at all. In fact, there was no feeling on the entire left side of her body from the neck down.

Fear gripped the woman. Not a morbid fear, but the fear that comes when a person loses control of a situation. Had that sharp pain in her lower back been the cause? Was it something that happened during the crash? Terey reached across to her left and, with her right hand, opened her visor. Then she proceeded to examine herself for injuries.

Pulling the glove off with her teeth, Terey managed to get her hand free to search for cuts and broken bones. As she slid her hand across her flight suit, she felt something warm and sticky. Lifting her hand to her face, she saw that it was smeared with blood. It took little time for her to find the cause of the bleeding.

Opening the upper flap of the suit, Terey slid her hand in under her shirt. She let go a resigned sigh. Some jagged, dagger-like shard had pierced the back of the seat and plunged through Terey’s chest. Its sharp point protruded about an inch out of her body, exiting just left of her heart. There was no question in her mind it was a mortal wound.

The sense of hopelessness and dismay was short-lived. Terey’s blood loss was rapid and unconsciousness quickly approaching. Just before her world drifted into blackness, she noticed a brilliant, golden light. The slow rotation of the asteroid had brought the star system’s sun into view.

As it gradually rose above the broken cliffs, to Terey’s oxygen-starved brain the distant ball appeared like the sunrise over the hills near the home of her birth. A smile broke across the woman’s face as she reached out to touch the elusive dream. “Thank you…” She called out in a whisper, speaking to someone only she could see.

Terey’s hand slid down the fighter’s canopy, leaving a trail of crimson on the glass. Before dropping, lifeless, into her lap, it hit against the button activating the distress signal.

 

  • * *

 

Nazareth’s battle plan worked better than expected. Although costly in terms of lives lost, it managed to completely remove two of Asotos’ largest armadas from attacking the MueoPoros defenders. It also prevented Asotos from being present to direct the battle and using his mental powers as he had planned.

The ninety-something fighter attack force Nazareth sent against Asotos’ returning fighters proved themselves devastating. Just as she had calculated, the enemy exhausted its ordnance and fuel supplies on the lengthy combat it faced from the First Fleet’s defenses. Terey’s fighter squadrons, although not a surprise, had fought with ferocity beyond expectation. When finally engaging the fleet and not finding the anticipated number of support ships from the other armadas, Asotos’ fighters were forced to provide added support to the heavies, depleting extra fuel and munitions.

They had been told there would be no resistance on the return journey. Believing this, many of the fighters exhausted their missiles on earlier targets and their guns were empty. Asotos’ fleet was also supposed to be closing the distance between them, cutting their return time. For this reason, the squadron leaders hadn’t bothered to fly in a way to conserve fuel. The radar blips they saw on their viewers were at first taken for the approaching armada. When they realized their mistake, there was no time to regroup into a better defensive formation.

DTB’s were frontline fighters for Nazareth. Many of her ships were relics worthy of museums. XTT’s made up better than a third of her entire fighting force, with T4’s and T6’s composing another third. If the Endikos 23’s had been sufficiently fueled and armed, it would have been a turkey shoot for them. As it turned out, it was the single biggest defeat for the 23’s before the introduction of the Baby Pearl.

Dropping on the enemy in their half ‘V’ flying goose formation of four fighters each, Nazareth’s ships avoided the returning heavies, fearing their powerful defensive cannons. Instead, they went for the much superior Endikos 23 squadrons. At first, the 23’s took the upper hand, shooting several of Nazareth’s fighters to pieces. Soon, though, the tables turned.

Not able to drive Nazareth’s nuisance ships away and dangerously low on fuel, the 23’s were forced to fall out and flee for home. What few 23’s still had loaded weapons used them in an attempt to chase the opposing fighters away. Nazareth’s fighters refused to be driven off though. When the enemy’s guns went empty, they turned tail and fled, with the nuisance ships in hot pursuit.

With full fuel tanks and magazines, the ancient fighters lumbered along after the much faster 23’s. Eventually, one and then another Endikos 23 would fall behind, engines flaming out. Drifting helplessly in space, it now became Nazareth’s turn to have a turkey shoot, which was what happened to the first few enemy ships that ran out of fuel. Then the squadron leader issued other orders.

As the DTB’s and T4’s continued chasing the enemy fighters, the T6’s and XTT’s began gathering up the disabled enemy ships. If an enemy pilot surrendered and jettisoned his remaining ordnance, the old, big T6’s would take them in tow. By the end of battle that day, Nazareth had added forty-four new fighters and sixteen heavies to her oddball navy. Thirty-one of those fighters were Endikos 23’s, mostly from Asotos’ personal carrier, AugustOne.

Nazareth’s Dredges Battle Group I fought a heated contest, suffering terrible losses, but the new, mystery Navy earned its reputation that day. Closing fast, the Chisamore delivered a shot from the port rail gun into a first-rate cutter (an imperial cutter would be the same class fighting ship for the Children’s Empire). The mendelevium bullet entered the cutter just below the bridge. Traveling lengthwise through the ship, it exploded about amidships, blowing the cutter in two.

With Nazareth at the helm of the Chisamore, the battle group dove into the middle of Asotos’ armada. The commodore gripped the captain’s rail, eyes closed, watching the battle play out inside her mind. She could see each of her ships, the enemy’s and what they were attempting, and she could hear the orders being issued by all commanders on both sides.

Throughout the entire combat, the commodore stood the bridge. James watched spellbound as his mother directed the war without speaking a word. Suddenly, a gunnery officer would shout out a directive or the bridge captain would order, “Engines full!” or “Hard to port!” On and on it went like this for the entire battle.

Not everyone felt comfortable seeing the commodore leading the battle in such a peculiar way. And then there were the ghostly green and white energy shrouds that drifted up and down her body at times. From toe to head, back to her toes they would go, making eerie, crackling noises. And there were other things happening – even more disquieting things…

Nazareth and the Chisamore were as if one in mind and spirit. When the ship took a strike or was damaged in some other way, the commodore would moan or cry out in pain. At times, the ship heaved to port or starboard or changed course with such force, the gravity machines could not maintain equilibrium, pitching the crew this way and that. And it happened without the captain giving any orders to the helm.

When another ship in their battle group was severely damaged or destroyed, Nazareth would begin a wailing that could last several minutes. She writhed in agony when the cutter AbBram was torpedoed, killing all on board. Bloody sweat ran in rivers down her face while capillaries ruptured in her ears and nose. Still, the commodore held the bridge, her clairvoyant leadership having a telling effect on the enemy.

Right at the beginning of the attack, the Chisamore crippled the AugustOne. Punching its way through the armada’s outer defenses by taking out the enemy cutter, it blasted through the flaming debris field straight for Asotos’ flagship. It closed to within two thousand yards before firing its starboard rail gun. The Chisamore passed the AugustOne at such close range that some of the crew on the lower decks sustained injuries from the rail gun’s concussive blasts. But the damage delivered to the enemy proved catastrophic.

The upper port engine pod on the AugustOne was ripped from its mountings and drifted away to the stern of the ship, and the lower port engine pod was put out of operation for the remainder of the contest. Asotos was so unnerved by the bold strike on his ship that, along with the music dancing in his head, he surrendered any control of the battle around him, leaving the fight up to each individual captain.

 

But it was not only Nazareth and the Chisamore that earned the Dredges their reputation that day. Typical of the bravery, sacrifice, and ferocity of the captains and crews of other ships was the account of the marauder, Hell’s Half Sister. During the combat, a missile strike ruptured its radioactive core, instantly killing the engine room crew. The first mate quickly checked the damage and then read the gages to the captain.

Displaying no emotion, she reported, “The rads are past redline and rising.”

Resting her hand on the forward control panel, Captain SusannaTerezz sighed. “There’s nothing else for it. Can you man the engine room?”

The first mate nodded, “With a radiation suit, I can give you about five minutes. I don’t think anyone can survive past that time in there. I’ll also need a helper.”

The communications officer stepped up. “I’ll go. You do what you need to do, Captain. We’re all with you.”

Captain Susanna thanked them, and they hurried away. She ordered the gunnery mate to arm all the warheads. “We’re going for the cherry!”

When the engines were up, Hell’s Half Sister banked hard to its port and down. “Engines full!” the captain shouted.

The last thing Nazareth heard in her mind was the cry from the captain, “We’ve got ya, you bastard!”

Hell’s Half Sister tore into the forward hull of the enemy battle cruiser, DikaioSune (Righteousness), killing its captain and all the bridge officers as well as the upper hangar deck crews. The leaking radioactive core split apart, spilling death and destruction throughout the ship, forcing its abandonment. It was several months before the radiation spill was contained and cleaned up and several more before the ship could see action again.

As the battle of Gorgon Pass raged on, Nazareth’s agony and suffering visibly increased. James began to wonder if his mother was going to survive the day.

 

  • * *

 

The entire time the Gorsbee was offloading its cargo of Marines and supplies, the head medical officer had been begging Captain Buetra Sega to assist in taking the wounded back to PrasiaOdous. “There are insufficient facilities here to care for all the critical needs patients. If you don’t help, many will die!”

The captain argued, “My orders are to join the fleet, which is also under attack and in desperate need of help. You will have to care for these people yourself.” He turned to his bridge officer. “When the Marines have departed, secure the ship for takeoff.”

Frantic, the medical officer clutched hold of the captain’s shirt and snarled, “You’ll be responsible for the murder of these people! And I’ll make sure the world knows what you’ve done here!”

The captain’s face flushed red. He shook his hand at the medical officer. “Major! I’ll…” He paused, looking around at his crew.

From all eyes came the message ‘we must help our brothers’.

There comes a time in an officer’s life when orders must be disobeyed. The captain glanced down at his hard-won braids and then sighed, “Do as you see fit, Major. I’ll be in my cabin when you’re ready.”

 

  • * *

 

Treston slipped in the snow, skinning his knee on a rock. At his cry, the litter bearers stopped. Seeing his hand hadn’t fallen from Alynnou’s wound, he smiled, staggering back to his feet.

“We’re good.” He said, nodding them forward.

The six soldiers struggled under their heavy loads. Five were women, the majority being of relatively small stature. Still, no one complained. It was ‘one foot after another’ according to one of the women.

The battle on the valley plain was at its height now. There was a mind-numbing din of rockets and bombs mixed with the growl of machines and the whine of gunships. Black smoke billowed heavenward, spreading out in a thick blanket under the low-hanging clouds. The storm still threatened but was holding off.

Treston was well aware of just how lucky he was. Alynnou and the others with them weren’t the only ones needing medical attention. The walking wounded were returning from the fight, slowly making their way up the hills. Treston’s little party passed many who had surrendered to the day and now lay motionless in the snow.

Guilt began to fill Treston’s heart. How was it fair on his part to hoard all this help when so many others were in such need? He broke down and wept, cursing his selfishness after they passed by a woman sitting in the snow by herself, rocking back and forth, cradling her intestines in her hands.

“Stop!” He cried, looking back at the woman. “We must help her!”

The litter bearer replied, feeling the situation hopeless, “She’s gonna die, Sir. No help for her.”

Treston’s temper flared. “Then let her die in our company and not alone!” He ordered them to set the litters down and do what they could to assist the wounded soldier.

After getting one of the litter bearers to care for Alynnou, Treston limped over and sat down next to the woman, gently holding her in his arms. She looked up, face pale and teeth chattering. The fear in hers eyes was all too evident. Just above a whisper, she begged, “Water… please. I’m so thirsty…so thirsty.”

Someone produced a canteen and quickly poured a cup, handing it to Treston. He helped her take a sip. Her shakes were so violent, very little water got into her mouth. The woman leaned her head onto Treston’s chest, thanked him and expired. Treston, a veteran of many battles, could not drive the memory of this woman from his mind. For weeks afterward he would wake up weeping, seeing her as she said those last words.

No one spoke. Somebody found a discarded coat and wrapped the woman up snug. They then returned to their own wounded and got on their way. It was hard going, what with the slippery snow and rocky terrain. Gradually, the little party climbed to the top of the rise and started down the other side toward the crowded valley below.

They hadn’t gone much further when a Marine troopship landed nearby. Three-dozen Marines piled out and hurried north. When the ship was empty, two of the crew jumped to the ground and started toward Treston’s party. Waving his arms, the person in the lead motioned them aboard. They hurried over and quickly hauled their wounded charges into the machine’s belly.

Treston stayed with Alynnou, administering aid. The others ran back with the empty litters, picking up more wounded. When the ship was full, the two crewmembers crawled in and the pilot lifted off. In less than five minutes, the troopship settled down beside the Gorsbee.

 

“That’s it!” The major shouted, just after Alynnou and the others were put aboard. She put her hand on Treston’s shoulder, frowning. “There’s no room, Colonel. She’s in good hands. You’ve done what you could.”

Treston began to argue, but the major hushed him. “Sir, your destiny lies on the other side of those hills. We need you there.” The major turned away, telling the ship’s crew to seal the door.

There was little the colonel could do. His mind reeled with thoughts from events of that day. He dumbly stood there as the Gorsbee lifted into the air, staring at it until it vanished beyond the valley.

He was suddenly jolted alert by a slap on his back. “Why, Colonel Treston, it is so very, very good to see you!”

Treston whipped around, staring in disbelief. It was Major GefenChanan, dressed neatly in all his Navy finery. He finally managed to stutter, “Ma… Ma… Major Gefen! What a surprise!”

The major looked Treston up and down and nodded. “Looks like you’ve been busy today, Colonel.”

Treston sadly replied. “Alynnou…”

“Yes, yes, I know.” Gefen smiled, patting Treston on the shoulder. “She’s in good hands, good hands. They’ll have her fixed up in no time. I spoke to the surgeon who examined her when you arrived. That’s how I knew you were here. She says you did all the right things, the right things.”

“Now, about your needs…” Gefen took Treston by the arm, leading him across the muddy road toward a Quonset-style building. “You’re probably wondering why I’m here. Well, you see, I’m not…well…at least not right now supposed to be. Two days ago, my duty officer and I came down here to help set up a new supply depot. The Army relies chiefly on the Navy to provide the transportation it needs. I wanted to make sure everything went smoothly, being well aware of the nearing battle.” He squeezed the colonel’s arm. “It saves lives you know, saves lives.”

Major Gefen held open the door of the Quonset, inviting Treston to enter first. The outrush of heat gave him a friendly greeting, beckoning to him. He was surprised to see that the humble room was both an office and living quarters. A clattering to his left drew Treston’s attention to a person busily working over a tiny cook stove.

Gefen stepped inside, followed Treston’s stare, and grinned. “Dear Colonel Treston, I’d like you to make the acquaintance of my duty officer.” The person turned around. “Colonel…Captain AzrielaChasya.”

Captain Azriela took a towel, wiped her hands and walked toward Treston. Extending her hand in greeting, she welcomed the colonel. “I’ve been expecting you, Colonel Treston from the Realms Below. Please take your ease while I finish with your meal.”

The major reached to take Treston’s coat. “Yes, yes, my friend.” He assisted with the removal of the coat and then pointed to another corner. “There’s a basin of water and soap. Sorry the water’s cold. Wash the grime off your face. That’ll have to do for now. The bath will come later.”

With that, Major Gefen, with coat in hand, opened the door. “I’ll tend to your garment. Not to worry. I’ll return it to you shortly.”

Azriela ordered Gefen to halt. She walked to the door, stood up on her toes and kissed him on the lips. “You didn’t think you could get away that easy, did you?”

Gefen grinned and winked. “Just checking the weather, Captain. Just checking the weather.” He hurried out the door and down the muddy street.

Treston was amazed at the contrast between Gefen and Azriela. Gefen was dressed natty to a fault, his uniform spotless, and not a strand of his dark, wavy hair or neatly trimmed beard out of place. Azriela was just the opposite. She wore – it appeared more like she had slept in – an oversized set of gray Navy work fatigues with an old flop hat that covered a ragamuffin, short haircut crudely shorn just below the ears. This was topped off by a pair of black leather combat boots laced high over her baggy pantaloons.

After Treston washed up, Azriela invited him to sit at the small table. She placed a steaming tin cup of tea and a hard biscuit in front of him. “The rest will be up soon, Colonel. I fixed an egg and some boxed stuff. It’s all that’s left. We sent everything else up north.”

Treston thanked her and munched on the biscuit while sipping the hot tea. He was starved, having not eaten since the night before, but he remained polite, entertaining his food with the same care as he would at a fancy brunch.

In an attempt at conversation, Treston mentioned her and Gefen’s current situation. “So I hear you’re stuck here because the transport never came back for you.”

Azriela paused what she was doing, then, without a word finished preparing Treston’s meal. When she delivered it, the captain sat down across from him. Treston was embarrassed, realizing he had intruded into something very private. He tried to apologize.

Azriela waved her hand. “No, Colonel, it’s all right.” She lowered her head a moment in thought. “That’s what the major has been telling everyone. It’s not true. He brought me here intentionally, to keep me out of the fight.” She pointed toward the sky. “You know…the one up there.”

“Colonel, I’m one of the younger of Mother’s children, being born less than two centuries prior to the Rebellion. Oh yes, I was a loyal child, but I never joined the military until well into the Great War. The Navy appealed to me because of the excitement of traveling to far distant places – something I had done very little of. I was assigned to the new battle cruiser, KataPino.”

“We were only two weeks out, still doing our shakedown cruise, when orders came for us to join the fleet. We were soon in action. Our contribution to the war effort was not long lasted. The Day of Tears was my first and last engagement of the war…and it haunts my dreams to this day.”

Azriela stood and went to the stove, returning with a cup of tea. She sat and took a sip before continuing. “There wasn’t much left of the KataPino by the end of the fighting on the second day. Half of our crew of nine hundred was down, with over a hundred dead. The ship was a bloody mess from one end to the other. Our weapons systems were out along with navigation, communications, and much of the life support. Still, the captain managed to hold us together as we limped away from the battle.”

“About the time of the second watch, our ship hit a drifter mine, caving in our forward hull and rupturing several bulkheads. A series of explosions ripped the ship apart in only minutes. How I survived, I really don’t know. All I recall is Gefen grabbing me and dragging me into a drifter-pod. I remember seeing the ship dissolve in white and red flames as we floated away from it.”

“The major – he was a leftenant then – and I were the only people in a pod designed for twelve. It was fortuitous for us because of the length of time we spent there before being rescued.” Azriela put her hand to her head. “There were no other survivors, Colonel.”

She looked Treston in the eyes. “I stayed in the Navy. Why? I don’t know. I guess it’s the only home I have anymore or at least where I feel at home. The major has taken care of me since that time. He’s even turned down other, more glamorous commissions for my sake.”

Looking toward the door, the captain sighed, “He knows my nerves go to hell in confined spaces when we engage in combat. He managed to get us sent here because of what was coming.” A distraught woman peered into Treston’s face. “He’s my Cherub, Colonel. He protects my soul.”

Azriela sat silent for some time. Treston allowed her the moment. What she later said surprised him. “The major likes you – I mean a whole lot. He was so impressed with the way you treated Lieutenant Alynnou and Major Sirion. He couldn’t stop talking about it for days. He said, ‘I hope those other blokes from down below are as good a’ chaps as this one.’ He doesn’t have many close friends, you know. Keeps ‘em away by all his cheeriness and fussy appearance.”

Treston wanted to ask for more information, but thought better of it – didn’t want to pry. He thanked Azriela for telling him and then allowed the conversation to drift where it wanted.

By the time Major Gefen had returned, things were much more upbeat. Treston was busy describing a certain stick game he played as a child when the door opened. Behind a cloud of wet snowflakes, Gefen entered, stomping his feet as he did.

He grinned. “Well, Colonel, good news! Your coat is fine.” He handed Treston his coat. “And I have procured transportation for you. A lorry going north with supplies will be leaving just after midnight. The driver says she has room for one more rider. Why, you’ll even be able to sit in the cab. Yes sir, in the cab.”

Glancing at the stove, Gefen added, “I see the water’s up for your bath. We’ll get you fixed up right away and then you can bunk in here for a few winks. We’ll make sure you’re up in plenty of time for your ride.”

Treston thanked the both of them. In short order, the colonel was drifting off into a dreamless sleep.

 

  • * *

 

The medical officer had loaded well over two thousand wounded aboard the Gorsbee. All the galleys, cabins, and corridors were filled, making any sort of travel about the ship difficult. Captain Beutra Sega watched the navigation screen as they skimmed low over the landscape. He didn’t like traveling this way, especially during war. A rogue missile or enemy fighter could be devastating. Still, it kept them below the radar, unlike conditions in the upper atmosphere.

The communications officer called the captain over. “We are getting a lot of chatter from Memphis. It appears that Legion is running his campaign from his fortress.”

The captain angrily sputtered. “He controls everything his people do! Puppet master – that’s what he is. If you could knock him out of the game, his whole army would fall apart…” He paused, as if struck by something. “Gunnery!” The captain shouted down to his battle bridge.

The battle bridge officer hurried over, answering up to the captain, “Yes, sir?!”

“Send our babies out to protect mother and ready all torpedo tubes with armor-piercing plasma missiles.” He added, “And prepare a second round of them but make them static-hellfire, got it?”

The battle bridge officer acknowledged and hurried away to carry out her duties.

The captain grinned. “Let’s see what that fortress is really made of… Being below his radar, we may be able to sneak in right on top of his before he knows we’re there. With all the warring above, he won’t be expecting a ship like ours arriving on his doorstep.”

With a groan, the Gorsbee veered toward the north, on another against orders mission.

 

  • * *

 

The contest for Silk Mountain was not yet settled, but it was evident to High Command that the battle was going in their favor, the 9th regiment line of defenses pushing the enemy back to the edge of the flooded plain. Alba was in command of the 9th at the moment, the colonel having just been taken from the field, wounded. The major and other captains were also either dead or wounded, leaving her the highest-ranking regimental officer.

With added reinforcements, Alba had in her charge just over eighteen hundred remaining officers and enlisted, two hundred of which were displaced Marines. Half the regiment was down. The dead were lying scattered across the landscape. And now snow was beginning to fall.

Sitting up on the ridge in the colonel’s old headquarters, Alba issued new orders and tended to needed business. She had only lieutenants and sergeants commanding the troops. Sometimes a corporal would be directing what remained of several platoons. Kfir assisted the captain as best he could. A bullet had shattered his lower left arm, but he refused to leave the field, accepting the little medical care available before going back to his duties.

About this time, the communications operator reported a message newly arrived from General Winehardt sent through the brigade commander. It read, ‘Press the enemy into the swamp and drive them’.

Alba groaned. “We cannot do such a thing! Kfir, if I order my people forward, half will die from the cold and wet. In good conscience, I can’t do such a thing!”

Kfir agreed, cautioning, “This is a direct order. If you disobey, you could be brought up on charges for insubordination.”

Alba scowled. “So what will they do to me, shoot me? No, I don’t think they would do me the favor!” She snapped her fingers, adding sarcastically, “I have it! They’d make me stay here and suffer. The bastards! I’m so afraid…”

She finally decided on a reply. “Corporal, send this message to the good general: ‘We shall advance when practicable.’”

The corporal hesitated, finally replying, “Yes…yes, ma’am. Yes, Captain.” He hurriedly sent the communique.

About three minutes later there came a reply. Alba took the scribbled note and slumped in relief. The note read, ‘Advance when practicable’. Alba got up and exited the tattered command tent to look over the hastily constructed battlement. Tears welled up in her eyes as she scanned the bloodied hills. Kfir quietly stood next to her staring into the distance.

He finally tapped the captain on the shoulder and pointed. “See there? I think the sky shall determine the future fighting this day. The sun is setting and there is a heavy snow advancing from the west. Maybe the Cherubs have become tired of the slaughter and need a rest.”

Alba began to cry on Kfir’s chest.

 

  • * *

 

Legion was picking himself up from the floor when the emergency generator kicked in. Even at sixteen levels below the surface, he could tell that Fortress Memphis had been dealt a telling blow. The walls were cracked and chunks of plaster were scattered everywhere. He coughed from the heavy dust because the ventilation systems were also down.

Shaken but unhurt, he called to his lieutenants to find out the seriousness of the moment. As the reports came back to him, it was evident the attack was neither random nor light. Exits were all blocked above the eighth level, elevators didn’t work, and the ventilation systems were damaged. To top it off, all communication with the outside was destroyed.

Legion cursed and swore. “Those lazy miners didn’t finish the emergency tunnels on time! I will peel their skin from them for this!” He angrily shouted at one of his officers, “Get your people up there and clear those passages before my dogs get hungry or you’ll provide them dinner!”

It took three days for Legion to reach the surface. By that time, the battle for MueoPoros had been fully decided.

 

(Author’s note: Although not part of a formal agreement of war, it was generally considered inappropriate to make a direct attack on the capital city of one’s opponent. Legion’s official complaint about it to the Children’s Empire finally crossed the field marshal’s desk, Mihai’s council deciding that they should make a response to it. Her reply to Legion was forthright and blunt: ‘If you desire no further harm should come upon your holdings, then I suggest your immediate, unconditional surrender.’)

 

 

  • * *

 

The medical rescue team almost overlooked the jumbled bodies. It was early evening and already quite dark, especially with the steady snow and heavily overcast sky. By chance, someone shone a light on Jonathan just as he shivered from the cold. In moments they had pulled Chasileah out from under her dead horse and had her placed on a litter under a thermal blanket.

Jonathan refused any medical help other than to be assisted up and have some of his cuts checked. He demanded to remain with Chasileah, holding her hand as she was hurried toward a waiting lorry.

Although the main battle had moved over the northern hills, there was still the occasional firefight to be seen and the random missile to avoid. It took twenty grueling minutes for the litter bearers to reach the lorry.

Jonathan was dismayed. “Couldn’t you have brought an airship?”

One of the medical rescue personnel smiled and replied, “Sir, they’re waiting down the valley. We didn’t dare bring ‘em up here in these conditions.”

She offered a hand to Jonathan, helping him into the back of the truck. Jonathan immediately crouched over Chasileah and started another little song. The medics watched a moment, then, looking at each other, smiled their approval.

The airship landed far to the south of the battle. Rescue crews quickly transferred Chasileah to an emergency triage center. As the medics brought her in, one of them said to the medical officer, “We found her! We found the general!” then, directing attention to Jonathan, added, “He was keeping her safe.”

Jonathan refused to release Chasileah’s hand. The medical officer scowled, but said nothing. He asked Jonathan to assist him with removing Chasileah’s armor and cutting away her clothing. “You’ll have to let go if you wish to have the surgeon examine her.”

After a quick examination, the surgeon shook his head. “Her pelvis is crushed, both legs have multiple fractures, and she suffers more internal injuries than I’d like to guess. I don’t understand how this child still lives.”

One of the medics answered, “He sang to her.”

The surgeon eyed Jonathan suspiciously. “You sang to her?”

“I’m…I’m sorry. Did I do something wrong?” Jonathan asked, his lips quivering with concern.

Laughing at Jonathan’s perceived dilemma, the surgeon shook his head. “No. You did everything right. I couldn’t have saved her with all my skills. You did, though, with your healing song.”

Now Jonathan became perplexed. “Healing song?”

“Another time, another time…” The surgeon motioned to a nurse. “Help this man with the general. I want her on the next flight back to PrasiaOdous. Make sure he’s permitted to stay with her – my orders!” The surgeon hurried off to help another wounded soldier.

Within an hour, Jonathan and Chasileah were being whisked away on a small transport, along with another six dozen other seriously injured soldiers. Jonathan recognized a few to be from the Glitter Brigade because of the pieces of armor they still wore. He found it hard to believe just how mangled and maimed a body could be and still live. For many of these people, it would be years before their injuries would fully heal, that is if they survived to heal. Three people died in transit to PrasiaOdous.

 

  • * *

 

Asotos eventually pulled his armada back until he reached the CastenRill Asteroid Fields. The Dredges main battle groups chose not to follow them in, feeling they had already accomplished their objectives. Admiral Tizkertinah’s Crimson Fleet, in confederacy with Sarah’s WolfPack Marauders, held their own against Admiral AuThades and his armada, Glorious II. By the end of the day, both sides withdrew, surrendering the field to the salvage ships.

After the orders were given to disengage, Nazareth collapsed on the deck, becoming delusional before sinking into a semiconscious state that lasted several days. Her body, acting like some sort of energy conductor, took a beating. Besides losing several inches of hair to singeing, the flesh was badly burned on her hands and feet. For weeks afterward, the commodore walked with a pronounced limp.

 

 

(Author’s note: Nazareth had succeeded in doing what was considered to be the impossible. Even Gabrielle at the height of her power never attempted such a thing. But the cost of her success was extreme. Chronic migraines lingered with her for months, and watching so much injury and death filled even her waking hours with nightmarish visions. Then there were the invisible physical pains, shingle-like, that plagued her from time to time.

These maladies did not deter this feisty woman from reaching out with her mind on other occasions when need dictated. Throughout the long King’s War, Nazareth repeatedly returned to the captain’s bridge to become one with the Chisamore. She so dominated the contest when doing this that, as time wore on, just the arrival of the Chisamore on the scene would often send the enemy fleeing in panic.)

 

James carried his mother to her cabin. After dressing her injuries and tending to her needs, he dismissed the attendants. Sitting down next to her, he reached out and gently stroked the woman’s arm. For hours he buried himself in thought. What kind of a world was this place anyway? What was his responsibility to the people here and to his mother? Was he delivered to these worlds in anticipation of this day?

Surrendering his personal reservations, James leaned close to his mother and whispered, “I won’t leave you…”

 

  • * *

 

“Colonel Treston…Colonel Treston…” Gefen gently tapped Treston on the shoulder. “I’m terribly sorry, but it’s time.”

Treston rubbed his sleepy eyes, nodding his understanding. He rolled over and swung his legs off the bed, resting his feet on the floor. When his eyes were able to focus, he noticed that his uniform was folded neatly over a chair, the tear in the pants carefully mended.

Azriela politely busied herself at a tiny counter beside the stove while Treston dressed, recognizing the colonel’s bashfulness at being seen naked. “They say we’re pushing them. They say the enemy advance has stalled all across the line and that the worst is over.”

Gefen piped in, “Yes, yes indeed. And we gave ‘em a good thrashing upstairs, too.” pointing toward the sky. “The fleet’s still in control of Eden’s Gate and this star system.” He laughed. “Legion’s not driving us off this planet! No sir, he’s not driving us from here!”

Azriela waited until Treston was done buckling his trousers before setting a hot cup of tea on the table for him. “I’m sorry we have nothing stronger, Colonel, but all the hard liquor was sent north.”

Gefen interrupted, shaking his head. “Not quite! Not quite! Here you go, Colonel.” With that, the major pulled a tiny metal flask from his pocket. He opened it and poured a small amount into the cup, rubbing his finger around the neck of the flask and licking it. “Mustn’t waste it, you know. Way too precious…”

Treston thanked him for the special drink, took a sip and smacked his lips. Gefen reached over and stuffed the flask into Treston’s coat pocket. Waving his hand to ward off the colonel’s refusal, he reassured him, “Take it my friend, please. In a day or two we’ll be back aboard the Sophia. There’s lots of that stuff there. You don’t know when you’ll be home. Gotta keep your strength up for that girl of yours.”

Azriela picked up a large over-the-shoulder bag and a metal vacuum flask. “Take these with you, Colonel Treston from the Realms Below. There’s hot drink and plenty of grub to keep you going. I also put in some writing paper and leads so you can keep in touch.”

There was a screeching of brakes outside the Quonset door. The major jumped up. “That’s your ride, Colonel. Mustn’t keep those lorry drivers waiting, you know. They’ll off and leave you in a snap!” He snapped his fingers. “In a snap!”

Gefen embraced the colonel and Azriela kissed him on the cheek. They stood in the door as he hurried for the waiting lorry, shouting their goodbyes through the falling snow. Treston waved back and crawled into the cab of the truck, sitting beside another passenger. The driver offered her salutations, jammed the machine into gear and started away.

They had just turned a corner and traveled a few hundred feet when the air raid sirens sounded. The driver yelled, “Out! Get out of the truck!”

Treston and the others crawled under the lorry only seconds before missiles came crashing down. Dozens of explosions shook the compound, sending mushroom clouds of fire and sparks into the sky, close enough at times to bounce the wheels of the lorry off the ground. When the rain of destruction stopped, much of the area was a burning shambles.

Treston crawled out from under the truck’s carriage. He was unhurt as well as the driver and her other passenger. Looking back down the street from where they had come, he saw the entire skyline ablaze. He cried aloud and hurried away through the confusion to check on his friends.

Slipping several times in the freezing mud, Treston struggled his way back down the street. The entire area was a raging inferno. Shouting out Gefen’s and Azriela’s names, he started heading toward the blazing Quonset hut. A burly firefighter reached out, grabbing his coat. “Can’t go there, Sir! It’s hellfire! Won’t stop burning for hours…”

In a panic, Treston asked about his friends. The firefighter shook his head. “Nobody made it, Sir.”

Treston turned and stared blankly at the flames, remembering the sweet kindness displayed to him only minutes before. A numb emptiness swept over the man along with an ache as bad as the one he had felt for Alynnou when he thought she was dying. Reaching into his pocket, he felt something hard. It was the flask. ‘Mustn’t waste it, you know. Way too precious…’

The colonel was given no more time to grieve. The driver finally caught up with him. She glanced at the fire, knowing full well what it meant. Then turning to him, eyes wide in excitement, she shouted frantically, “Colonel! We gotta go! We gotta go now!” She waved her hand in the direction of the lorry. “My truck’s full of ordnance. If it goes up, it’ll take half this compound! We gotta git now!”

Treston stared at the driver, then back at the fire. He heard the haunting voice of the medical officer speaking ever so faintly in his head. “Your destiny lies on the other side of those hills. We need you there…”

There was nothing to be done here. Why, when the fire burned out, there would only be hopeless memories remaining. His fingers tightened around the flask. He forced a smile. “Thank you, old chap. I’ll not waste it.”

He turned and hurried off, following the driver up the street.

 

  • * *

 

The snow did not let up in intensity all through the dark hours. By dawn the next day, it still shrouded the plain to the east with invisibility. During that night the enemy pulled back, leaving the Silk to its defenders. When morning light arrived, nothing moved beyond Alba’s defensive positions.

General Winehardt withdrew her orders to press the enemy, only sending out motorized gun crews to act as pickets. An eerie quiet settled down on the defenders, as exhausted soldiers fell into deathlike sleep. Falling snow, although not as heavy as on the plain, covered the living and the dead, creating a world of countless white mounds littering the hills. A halt was called to collecting the deceased because the litter bearers could not tell them apart from those sleeping.

When morning light arrived, Kfir repeated his earlier comment concerning the Cherubs. Alba asked him why they would be so concerned with the lives of people following Asotos. His answer was both simple and telling.

Pointing to the east, he explained, “When the Rebellion began, our world fell into confusion. Many people followed Asotos out of foolishness and misunderstanding. Being the liar and purveyor of misinformation that he is, Asotos seduced many thousands to his side. Once trapped under his control – and often riddled with guilt – many of the children secretly lamented their actions but believed it a hopeless dream to ever be forgiven by Mother.

“A large number continue with Asotos today not because they believe in him or because they have any hope of a returning in this life or the next. The powerful survival instincts Mother created in her children keep driving them on. Unless a person becomes mentally distraught, the will to live prevents that one from carrying out a death wish.”

Alba countered, asking, “How can you be so sure? Have any ever returned to a state of repentance? It has even been said that Lowenah told her children at the Council of Eighty that Asotos’ followers were no longer children of hers. If she has disowned them, what hope is there for even one returning?”

Kfir was polite but sharp. “Your own people were disowned by Mother…and on more than one occasion. What do you say? In her soft heartedness, she gathered you back over and over again.”

Stung, Alba retorted, “My ancestors sought forgiveness for their wicked fornications of false worship.”

Kfir snapped back, “My people were not offered the olive branch!”

Unable to make reply, Alba became silent. Kfir went on to explain, “The issue of who has the right to rule our people still remains unanswered. Force of arms or leadership through strength will not settle it. This war is not being fought to prove who has the right to rule. We fight to preserve the universe. Only when the universe is secure can the issue of sovereign rule be settled.”

“It will be the ending of this age before the coming Day of Judgment. Many more of your lifetimes will pass before it arrives. Only when the core of life – the Web of the Minds – is forever safe can Mother risk concluding the matter. We fight now not to destroy the wicked but to secure the future.”

Alba asked, confused, “Should I conclude that your mother’s disowning her rebel children is only symbolic of her current feelings? Of what value is it if one understands this disowning to be of such little import?”

Kfir answered, “Little one, you have much to learn. Disowning a child who has no care or love for a parent is not a punishment, unless it deprives that child of some reward. Mother has taken nothing away from any of her children except her motherly devotion. In this case, such a disowning will only move the hearts of wayward children, not the wickedly rebellious.”

He took Alba’s hand. “When I heard about Mother’s declaration, my heart lifted with hope. Should only one of my brothers or sisters return from following Asotos, I will rejoice more than over a thousand of my brothers…” He let go of Alba’s hand and swept his arm in a wide arch over the torn and bloodied hills. “I will rejoice more than over a thousand of my brothers returning from the Field of the Minds.”

Alba was perplexed. “But will your mother just forgive any one returning to her? And if she does not, then what hope is there for the person?”

Kfir smiled. “I believe she will do such a thing.” He sighed. “I’m made in her image. I would.”

Taking Alba’s hand again, he revealed something new to her ears. “Just as a child may be disowned by one parent and not the other, I perceive that life of itself doesn’t hinge alone on what Mother does with her children.”

“Do you seek to screw up my mind with all your riddles,” Alba chided, “or am I supposed to read the wind for my answers?”

Kfir laughed. “Reading the wind has become one of your better skills, although I doubt you understand what I mean by that either.

“Listen and learn. The Cherubs are our fathers in ways you do not yet understand. They do not choose right and wrong through a heart such as you and I have. They are also the masters over the Web of the Minds. Mother does not question the decisions they make regarding life and death for they see in ways she no longer can.

“My heart believes that the Cherubs have brought this snow so that the slaughter will ease, not just for our sake, but for the sake of others who fight against us. They can see eternity and measure events and happenings by a clock system we cannot understand. It lifts my spirits to think that they may see possibilities for some of our enemy. Mother has the ability to forgive. The Cherubs have the ability to preserve.”

 

It became busy for a time. Officers came and went, issuing status reports and seeking new orders. Kfir assisted as best he could, still refusing any further medical aid. Gradually the camp came to life and the soldiers slowly resumed their duties.

About midmorning, Alba heard a loud commotion outside the tent. She stepped into the falling snow just as three Marines came into the redoubt, driving a bound and shackled enemy soldier before them.

Stopping in front of their captain, a Marine reported, “Found him hiding in a rubbish pile, Ma’am.”

The soldier was tall and muscular with shorn hair and stubble growing on his normally clean-shaven face. There were cuts and bruises on his hands and face and his uniform was little more than rags. The man’s gaunt appearance indicated he had not eaten or slept for many long hours.

Instantly recognizing the man to be the same person who had caved in the skulls of several troopers in her company during the desperate hand-to-hand combat the previous day, Alba angrily asked, “Why does he live?! And why have you wasted my time with the likes of him?!”

The lead Marine stuttered in surprise, “Why… I… we…”

Alba whipped out her sidearm, ordering the man to his knees. “You no good bastard!” She pointed the weapon at his head.

The man dropped to his knees, staring down at the dirty snow. There was no expression of regret or fear on the man’s face, no defiance or hatred. He just waited for her to pull the trigger, appearing almost desirous to see his finish coming.

Alba slowly squeezed her finger on the weapon’s trigger. Her anger at the memory of this man murdering so many of her children boiled up in her breast. Most were women, small and weak in comparison to this giant. He crushed their skulls as if smashing melons. He deserved nothing! Nothing at all!

The weapon began shaking in her hand as tears streamed down her face. Her children…her little children…

Kfir stood near, saying nothing. Alba was commander and as such could choose life or death for whomever she wanted. She would have to decide and she would have to live with that decision.

Gradually Kfir’s earlier words began to sink in. Whose children were these people anyway? Power of life and death was no mark of wisdom nor did it prove who was wicked or righteous. Her children… If they were her children, then who was this man? Was he not at one time their brother? What was he then to her? She was repulsed at the thought. Still…

She lowered the weapon.

Exhausted from her inner struggle, Alba quietly ordered, “Take him to the mess and give him some food. Then get him some aid for his injuries. Stay with him and keep him bound, but don’t hurt him. And find him a blanket so he doesn’t freeze.”

The Marine acknowledged his orders and, with the others’ help, pulled the prisoner to his feet. The man was so surprised, he was speechless. He quietly shuffled away with the Marines.

Alba was positive she saw a tear trickle down the man’s face as he departed.

 

  • * *

 

Jonathan quietly sat beside Chasileah, occasionally singing or humming some little tune that would pop into his mind. Surgeons had determined that her internal bleeding was stopped and that under present circumstances there was little more they could do for her other than keep her fluids up.

Earlier, when Jonathan asked about her condition, a doctor had told him, “I’m quite sure she will live, but she won’t walk for a long time, maybe years. I don’t know. There are healing machines that might fix her up in a few weeks or months, but they’re sparse at best and we have none here. The general’s spine is severed. Nerves grow very slowly. I don’t know.” She patted Jonathan on the arm and smiled reassuringly. “But she lives.”

Jonathan looked across the cavernous room. It was one of PrasiaOdous’ hangars turned into a hospital ward, caring for thousands of wounded. The far end was curtained off for the surgeons’ use. Hundreds lay on mats or blankets waiting for help while an ever growing throng of hundreds more remained huddled along the hangar’s tunnel entrance.

Seeing such a need, Jonathan began taking short breaks away from Chasileah who was sleeping soundly. He offered assistance to others, fetching water or a little food. Sometimes he would just chat for a moment. It required hundreds of orderlies just to provide necessities for this vast number of people, there being no time left to linger in friendly conversation. Spending time with other patients made Jonathan feel useful. ‘At least I’m of some real value here.’

He then thought about his dismal performance on the battlefield, chiding himself for forgetting his wonderful sword. He gained solace in the thought that Chasileah lived. It mattered little her physical condition or the length of her convalescence. She lived.

Returning to his companion’s side after a lengthy absence, Jonathan began another little song, falling to sleep while singing it. Sometime later he was waked by a tap on the shoulder.

“Major… Major…” An orderly whispered. “A word with you, Major.”

Jonathan struggled from his sleep, nodding as he sat. After checking on Chasileah’s well being, he got up and followed the orderly. In short order, he found himself facing General Noaz.

“Please sit.” Noaz offered as he walked to the other side of his desk and took a chair, then got right down to business. “Major Jonathan, I want to thank you for saving Chesse’s life. You don’t know how much it means to me. Second, I want to ask your assistance.”

Jonathan was perplexed. Noaz continued, “This mountain is filled with the injured and dying. At the moment there must be close to forty thousand needing extensive care, and that number is growing. We knew the battle for MueoPoros was going to be costly but I don’t think anyone was prepared mentally to pay the piper, so to speak.” Jonathan did not understand what to ‘pay the piper’ meant, but said nothing.

“Major Jonathan, I have spoken with Field Marshal Trisha and she approves, with your permission, that you should stay here for an extended time and do your healing thing on these people.”

Jonathan became quite adamant, describing his total lack of understanding regarding what the general was talking about, declaring there must be some confusion over what he was really doing.

Noaz was polite but to the point. “Your kind are a strange and wonderful lot. Look, I don’t know much about healing songs, only that some of the Ancients have those powers. How you came by them is beyond my understanding, but those in the know say you have them…and have been using them on the wounded. They tell me that just your presence around the people lifts their spirits and sooths them physically and mentally.”

“Last time I talked with Chesse – before the war started – she said that you were a good egg, but quite dense when it came to the ways of this world. If she says you’re a good egg, then you’re a good egg. I trust her. You certainly fit the dense part.”

Jonathan was flustered and somewhat put off by what Chasileah had told the general, and it showed in his question. “Sir…” he replied, fidgeting with discomfort, “Sir…what’s a ‘gue·dag’?”

General Noaz roared with laughter to the point of tears. It was all he could do to ask, “So, will you help me?”

Jonathan was beyond confusion by this time, but he realized that the general was very serious in his request. “Sir, if that is truly what you desire of me, then I shall attempt to do as you wish.”

“Good! Good!” Noaz exclaimed, still chuckling, wiping his fingers across his eyes, squeezing away tears.

Getting up from his chair, Noaz came around his desk and took Jonathan’s hand. His face became grave. “We need you here during this dark hour. You, alone, saved Chesse and with your continued help, she’ll be walking sooner than anyone thinks. You can do the same for others.”

Jonathan stared at Noaz. “Continued help?”

Noaz grinned. “Of course! Did you think I’d separate you two? No, Major, not at all. You’ll be put up in the officers’ quarters. I have set aside a decent sized room so that Chesse can have her medical needs cared for. When she’s up and about, there’ll be plenty of duties for her to tend to…duties she won’t need legs for. In the meantime, you will have her to take care of.”

Patting Jonathan on the shoulder, Noaz concluded, “Major Jonathan, go get cleaned up.” He called out the door for someone. “Lieutenant KittleBaclin will take care of your needs. She will also assist you with the general. You are to dine with me at my table in the officers’ mess at nineteen hundred hours. Again, thank you for your help.”

The lieutenant was introduced and Jonathan saluted his goodbye, going away with her. He hurried his shower, trying to act nonchalant about the lieutenant’s presence as she patiently waited for him to finish. It was doubly difficult when she insisted on helping him towel down. It became more awkward when he went for his clothes only to discover they had been taken to be cleaned and mended.

The long walk to his cabin was such an embarrassment for him. Lieutenant Kittle – she preferred to be called Kittee – puzzled when he demanded to cover himself with a towel before leaving the common shower. And she puzzled more when he refused her entry to his cabin after she offered to help him dress. Like a good officer, Kittee asked what the major wanted her to do.

Jonathan called out from behind his closed door, “Go check on Chasileah and keep her company until I call you.” The lieutenant shrugged and departed.

Jonathan checked out his new cabin. Lying over a chair was a clean, new Army officer’s uniform with a major’s insignia braided into it. Everything was prepared for him, just like General Noaz had said it would be. There was even a special hospital bed for Chasileah. Jonathan frowned when he noticed that Lieutenant Kittee’s things had been delivered to the room. His frown turned to consternation when he realized there was only one other bed there.

He thought for a moment, pondering his dilemma. What dilemma? Was his pious opinion any different than those of the Christian missionaries he had read about – the same ones who traveled from one land to another, demanding everyone ‘follow the Lord’ as they did or they would burn in some kind of Hell?

After all, he was now in a foreign land – not by his own volition – but invited there to become part of its citizenry. He needed to stop acting pious and overly righteous. His old culture and ways were in his past. He had no right to imply guilt upon a people who were not guilty. He determined to try to fit in to his new home and become one with these people.

Jonathan dressed, examining himself in the mirror while trimming his beard and nails. He liked the new clothes, but wondered about the ones he had been wearing before. A knock came on the door. Opening it, he saw an orderly holding his cleaned and pressed uniform.

“Do you know where my other things are?” Jonathan asked, half expecting to be told ‘no’.

The orderly was chipper. “They’re in your locker, Sir.” She hurried away.

Jonathan thanked the woman and closed the door. He walked to the locker to put the clothes away and was shocked at what he saw after opening it, the shock turning to wonder as he studied the beautifully engraved handle of his Cherub sword.

 

  • * *

 

Rising smoke from smoldering fires produced sickly clouds of dismal gray that hung above the battlefield like funeral shrouds. From the hills above, Treston could see the entire valley of death that the freshly fallen snow was attempting to disguise. The war had moved beyond the ridge and only an occasional distant rumble of cannon fire reminded him of continued fighting.

Traffic snarled when they had reached a bottleneck in the valley just to the south of where it broke into the broad plain. Treston took the opportunity to excuse himself and, thanking the driver for the ride, started his journey back to where his heart was leading him. He brushed aside his yearnings to revisit the battlefield as that of being a good officer.

A good officer not only studies the terrain for battle, he or she will return afterward to examine how it affected the battle’s outcome – at least it was what Treston concluded regarding the burning in his heart – that is, until he found his feet retracing his steps from the previous day, for it took him not only on a soldier’s journey to rediscover the field, but on one that helped with the discovery of himself.

Treston’s heart took him over the rise of hills and down toward the valley below. The winter storm had changed the landscape by laying a thick blanket of snow over it. But this did not deter the colonel in his quest. His heart knew where to lead him.

He soon found himself kneeling beside the woman who had died in his arms. Pulling the snow-covered coat away from her face, Treston stared at her for some time. She appeared as if peacefully sleeping, showing no sign of the agony suffered not many hours before. Porcelain white was her skin, made that much more pale framed by her dark, auburn hair.

Who was she? He was torn with curiosity. Pulling the coat open, Treston searched the woman’s bloody jacket, hoping to find some telltale bit of information concerning her. In one pocket he found a small locket neatly wrapped in yellowed paper.

The paper had writing on it in a script unfamiliar to Treston, but the ancient locket was more touching. Pushing the button, the cover snapped open displaying a crystal-encased picture of the woman when she was but a child, hugging Lowenah. On the inside cover was a name written in the same script found on the paper. Feeling guilty at first, the colonel rewrapped the locket and stuffed it in his pocket.

Searching further, Treston found the woman’s identification tag, with her name and picture. “Contorie…ContorieDamalis.” He said aloud.

After pinning the tag to the woman’s collar, Treston gently and caringly pulled the coat up to her neck. He stood, and spoke as if the woman were only sleeping. “Well, Contorie, allow me, please, this little memento of your acquaintance. May we meet again during more peaceful times and under more pleasant circumstances.” Treston slowly turned away and again took up the trail.

There seemed to be no hurry in the colonel’s gait as he descended toward the valley plain. He felt more like a man on a raft viewing the after-effects of a storm-tossed sea. The flotsam and jetsam of war surrounded him, so much of it now hidden under foaming waves of snow. Then there were hundreds of rescuers roving to and fro over this quieted expanse, searching for survivors. All the while, the wreckage of humanity silently drifted under the surface, patiently waiting to be gathered home.

It was almost peaceful here this day. Few people trod the upper hills where he walked, having been scoured for wounded long before the battle moved out of the valley. The dead were very patient. None had complained about being left behind. Treston nodded. That was the way with patient people, always being put last. The noisy ones seemed to get the attention. ‘The squeaky wheel gets the grease’ or something like that.

There was also the occasional gunshot that disturbed the quiet. Treston concluded it to be the demise of a dying horse or possibly an enemy combatant found alive on the field. The colonel didn’t question High Command’s decisions. Indeed, at the time, he gave them little attention, thinking them quite reasonable.

 

(Author’s note: Issued as ‘General Order #7’ by Field Marshal Trisha and supported by Admiral of the Fleet Gabrielle, Commodore General Planetee and Centurion General Sarah, it could be summed up thusly:

The taking of prisoners was to be the decision of the commanding officer in the field. If he or she chose to make no dictation, the choice would fall upon the lieutenants. If they gave no directives, then it would continue to fall on more junior officers on down until reaching the individual soldier. Never was an enemy captive to be tortured. A bullet to the brain was not considered torture, one to the stomach was.

Once officially a prisoner, certain rules of conduct applied. A prisoner of war was not to be starved, beaten, or intentionally deprived of shelter or medical supplies. On the other hand, no soldier of the Children’s Empire was to suffer harm, lack of medical care, food, or shelter, for the primary benefit of prisoners.

As long as prisoners conducted themselves peacefully, and in accordance with the standing rules dictated by their captors, they would be allowed the freedom to care for their own medical, household, and hygienic needs.

The final part of Order #7 gave the prisoners’ overseers decision-making abilities to conclude what, if any, punishments were to be meted out to prisoners in violation of established rules. In these cases, should any such punishment decided upon be that of death, or become the cause of death of an official prisoner, then a proper inquiry concerning the matter was mandated.

Order #7 has received more criticism than any other rule set down by High Command. Needless to say, it comes from armchair historians who have never had the opportunity to see their close companions tortured, mutilated, and butchered at the hands of an enemy who scoffed at any rules of conduct.

It had been reported that at the Council of Eighty, Lowenah intimated that every enemy combatant deserved no less than death. And there was many a soldier serving at that time who made sure no prisoners were taken on their watch, feeling that Order #7 was in contradiction to her words.)

 

Treston eventually made his way to the pile of rocks he and the little group of soldiers had collected together for their defense. Searching the ground nearby, he found the sniper rifle where it was thrown when he ran to help Alynnou. A thorough examination convinced him it was undamaged. Digging in the snow, he also found two full clips of bullets and a shoulder belt with several dozen more in it.

The rifle was one that had come from Major Garlock’s design team. It was no frills in appearance and deadly crude in efficiency. Treston thought just how fortuitous it had been that the major spent most of his time before the war designing and experimenting with his toys.

Although weapons of similar nature existed long ago, they had been ornately handcrafted for individuals, not for ninety-day armies. If Garlock had waited for official permission to start designing his weapons, little more than spears and knives would have been made at his mass production factories by the time the war started. Without Garlock’s wonder weapons, the army on MueoPoros would have certainly failed in its attempt to take and hold its positions.

Hefting the rifle and sighting through its scope, Treston smiled, “You take care of me and I’ll take care of you.” He paused, thinking. “What shall I call you? Better, what name shall I give to you? I’ve got it. You shall be called ‘ContorieAnasao – the song maiden lives again’.” Throwing the rifle over his shoulder by its strap, Treston began to whistle as he trudged toward the valley floor.

On his journey, he passed by the three dead commandos that ContorieAnasao – affectionately called ‘Contorie’ later on – had dispatched and on down the ravine to the twisted wreck of PalaHar’s command car. There, Treston paused to ponder the moment.

Why did the commandos focus on this one area? Drumming his fingers on his bearded chin, the colonel leaned against the command car, recreating the previous morning in his mind. After much pondering, he concluded that a homing device of some kind had been planted in this machine or on one of the people. He doubted it was the machine because they had borrowed it from General DinChizki. He couldn’t believe it was in or on any of their clothing. Had that been the case, the gunships would have come directly at them on the hill.

Treston reflected on events earlier that same day. The commandos who overran the camp went straight for Ishtar. Why? She was a stranger to most people. Only a handful even knew who she was.

He then thought about something he noticed the first night his little company arrived on MueoPoros. They were all sitting around a glowing campfire, sharing some good times. Ishtar, being the chatterbox she was, took over the show telling silly little stories from her childhood in ancient Ephesus, wildly gesturing as she did. PalaHar watched her closely, curiosity growing on his face.

He finally asked her, “Child, I see that you have two different jeweled pins in your ears. Tell me, did you lose the one and replace it?”

Ishtar reached up to her left ear, grinning in the way people do when they possess a secret reserved for no other person. “Nooo…this is a gift…well, sorta a gift…from a very special friend.”

PalaHar then asked, “May I see this sorta gift?”

Hesitant at first, Ishtar finally said ‘yes’. When she tried to remove it, it was stuck in place. After a few attempts, PalaHar told her not to bother and dropped the matter. Treston began to think it might have been a matter better to have been remembered.

Snapping his fingers, Treston jumped up. “That’s it!” He shouted. “That’s why they came here first!”

He wildly searched the area looking for a very important something that remained here when his group fled up the ravine – Ishtar’s ear. Finding nothing, the colonel again wondered a moment. Then looking back up the hill, he spied the fallen gunship. It was possible…just maybe possible…

Retracing his steps, Treston hurried back up the ravine to the charred and broken gunship. It was a gruesome sight, the dead in every stage of disrepair, but the colonel began digging into the mess in hopes of finding proof for his assumption. After a lengthy effort, he was richly rewarded.

Rummaging through a torn coat belonging to a sergeant, Treston found a bloodied rag and a tiny hand-held device with a pointer dial and several lights. Inside the rag, he found part of an ear with a jeweled pin locked into it. Treston sat down and started playing with the device. Pushing a large green button activated a bright red light. Rotating the pointer toward and then away from the ear changed the blinking of the light.

There was no longer a question in his mind as to how they had been tracked. Now he wondered as to who might have done this. Ishtar was almost never alone, always surrounded by trustworthy people. And the pin wasn’t noticed until landing on MueoPoros. Whoever gave her the pin, inserting it in her ear and locking it so securely knew it would have to be cut out to remove it.

Treston had many questions to ponder. He wanted to see Ishtar as soon as possible, but it would likely do little good for awhile anyway. She was badly hurt and might be unable to help for some time. The girl could still be in danger, though, especially if this was an inside job, which Treston thought it to be. He decided to sit tight on his information until he could find one of the Eighty. That was the safest thing to do.

Having no desire to keep such a gruesome trophy, Treston removed the pin from the ear. Placing both the tracking device and pin in a clean rag, he tucked the rag deep into his coat pocket.

What was he to do? Should he go back over the hill and attempt a ride to PrasiaOdous or should he continue to follow a still restless heart? He chose the way of his heart and proceeded back down the ravine to the valley floor.

Treston retraced his steps and soon found himself back at the wrecked command car. Pulling a torn seat cushion from it, he took his lunch, pouring hot drink from the vacuum flask and removing still fresh biscuits from the bag. He allowed his mind to drift back to the cozy little room he shared with Geffen and Azriela and smiled at the biscuit in his hand, filled with butter and jam. “Thank you, my friends, thank you so much.”

His years of being a professional warrior gave Treston the ability to block out things he didn’t want to remember at the moment. This allowed him the pleasure of reminiscing over the good times with companions long since departed. He smacked his lips, thanking the two for a wonderful meal.

Before finishing his lunch, the sky had cleared and a warm gentle breeze began blowing up from the south. Even with all the devastation and carnage surrounding him, the day took on a freshness that lifted his spirits. Treston wrapped up the remaining food – a very generous amount worth several more meals – and packed the vacuum flask into the bag beside it. With the bag over one shoulder and Contorie over his other, he began anew his heart’s journey.

 

Through the course of the afternoon, the colonel rambled this way and that over the torn and jumbled field of battle as he continued to make his way north. Occasionally he would come across a small group of rescuers rummaging around broken machines in their quest to find remaining survivors or he would see work crews already scavenging parts for other equipment. No one bothered him. They were too busy tending to their own duties, having no time to show interest in the wanderings of a stranger.

Treston eventually entered a part of the field where the action had been the heaviest. He felt more like a child making his way through a labyrinth of burned out hulks and twisted mountains of steel. His eyes beheld the bodies of horses and men stacked like cordwood in heaps. And there were the strangest of giant beasts with horns and plated armor. The colonel could only marvel at the glorious amount of murder and destruction contained in such a tiny place on this vast planet.

Off to his side, Treston noted the sunlight glinting off some object half-buried in the snow. As he walked toward it, the sparkling colors would change from gold to blue to red to green, back to gold. Coming to the spot where the sun had been playing, he noticed the point of some sort of sharp-edged weapon. Curious, the colonel reached down and dug it from the snow. The weapon was a broad sword about one and a half long cubits total in length.

Treston watched, transfixed, as some kind of strange fire inside the metal rippled up and down the blade. The beauty of the weapon drew Treston to it. When he held it by the grip, it was as if he found himself transported back in time to when his wife handed him a finely engraved sword she had hand-crafted especially for him. Its heft was light and well balanced, as if it were an extension of his own arm.

An unsettling noise behind him exploded in Treston’s mind. He was so absorbed in his discovery, he stopped paying heed to the fact that this place was still very much a battlefield and there was no guarantee that all the enemy were removed from it. Chills ran up and down his spine as he waited to hear the sound again. Then he chose not to linger in doubt. Spinning around while lifting the sword high with both hands, Treston readied himself to strike at any possible attacker.

Much to his relief and disquiet, Treston saw a man dressed in armor like those in Chasileah’s Glitter Brigade. It was disturbing to him to think that a man leading a horse had been able to sneak up to within a few paces and him totally oblivious to them. He was relieved to see that the man appeared to be an ally. But then relief was replaced by shock.

The man grinned. “Welcome, TrestonOikos-phulaxHegemon. I have been expecting you…”

Treston lowered the sword. Puzzled and bewildered, he asked, “Who are you?”

The man only smiled.

‘Oikos-phulaxHegemon’ – ‘keeper of the governor’s house or estate’? Only a person from his day would know such a thing. Yet all the people from this world were alive then. So what did the man mean by his reference to Treston’s former days?

The colonel stared at the man, studying him closely. There was a familiarity about him, but Treston couldn’t recall anything specific. “Who are you?”

The man crouched in a squatting position and with his finger played in the snow. “The firelight of days gone by will light the path of times to come. We walk upon a jagged sky in search of all the reasons why.”

You…!” Treston’s mind erupted with distant memories – memories of a long forgotten night in a lost and forgotten wild land. “Have you also come from the worlds beyond to be brought to this place with me? Your name, oh brother of mine, what is your name?”

The man said nothing.

Treston’s mind reeled. He was barely out of his teens at the time. The night was bitter cold and he was struggling to stay alive. His fellow soldiers had abandoned him on the field while retreating from the Gauls who went in hot pursuit. In the darkness, he managed to hide as those of the enemy who remained behind butchered the wounded and mutilated the dead. Eventually he had crawled off into the foreboding forest.

Further and further into the winter evergreen wood he meandered until he no longer heard the shouts and cries from the distant field. Then on he went some more. About the time he reached the point of exhaustion and feeling that death was coming soon, Treston noticed a golden fire blazing a little way off. Using the last of his strength, he managed his way there. Seeing a man dressed like a soldier of the emperor, Treston called out for help.

There was little else to remember. The man did not speak. There was a cony roasting over the fire and a flask of wine nearby. Motioning for Treston to eat and drink, the man patiently waited, watching the boy as he consumed the food. When finished, the man tended the boy’s wounds and covered him with an animal fur. Then the man got up and crossed to the other side of the fire.

There was little else to remember except…except the riddling rhyme.

 

The firelight of days gone by, will light the path of times to come.

We walk upon a jagged sky, in search of all the reasons why.’

 

But there were other verses. Now Treston remembered, finishing the riddle aloud.

 

A maiden born in coming days, shall fire your heart, your soul to save.

And by your brutal strength of might, you’ll bring her harm then do her right.

 

Although a queen she will come to be, and sons from her the king will see,

Upon a bed of hemlock down to make your son, the maiden’s bound.

 

And she will build a mountain high, a Fortress Memphis in the sky.

Upon those hills will your children play, and you shall watch them many days.”

 

“And then you walked away. And I never saw you again.” Treston asked anew, “Who are you?!”

Dropping the reins of the horse, the man stepped forward, pointing to the sword. “Its name is Ysuah, meaning ‘deliverance’. It was the possession of VanGoddawin, one of the mighty Seraphim of old.” The man directed Treston’s attention to a body laying a little way off. “It is yours now. He would want it that way.”

The man turned away and walked back to the horse. “This is SastelloPhantasma, ‘Wind Spirit’, one of the KaminosKtisis from the secret lands of LathraNesion. Bred and raised by the Cherubs, there is not another animal in the kingdom of men greater than this beast. SastelloPhantasma shall serve you well on your future journeys.”

Leaving the horse, the man went to the body of VanGoddawin and removed his bejeweled sword belt, handing it to Treston. “Go now, Treston from the Realms Below. Many things have become your possessions this day but you must remember to guard the living flesh that is still in your charge. My daughters, Ishtar and Alynnou, must be kept safe by your hand.”

The man raised his arm. “Journey to the north to find the army. Stay with it a fortnight and then return to my daughters. Search out this good land for into your hand as an inheritance it is being given. Your children will one day establish a great tower where you do stand. And a city to you, their father, and to my two daughters they will build. And they will call this place ‘AionEirene’ – ‘Eternal Peace’.”

Then the man cautioned, “The counsel of the wise is not always wisdom. The good may act wickedly. There comes a time when only the heart can shine a light in a dark place. Your journey is filled with perils. Now is the time to seek the firelight of ages gone by. It will guide your feet across the jagged sky.”

Treston thanked the man. He opened his long overcoat and slipped the belt around his waist, glancing down to fasten the buckle. “Tell me, please, what is your na…”

Treston looked up to see that the man was gone. He searched in every direction but there was no one. His hands began to tremble with excitement and wonder. The words the man had spoken suddenly rushed in upon his mind like waters from a bursting dam. It was all too overwhelming for him.

Treston sat down in the snow and wept…

 

  • * *

 

There was no celebrating aboard the Sophia when reports were received that enemy armadas had withdrawn from the field. This day had been too exhausting and far too costly. The carrier itself suffered greatly enough that damage control had not fully assessed the ship’s condition four hours after the battle. Already the medical bays and emergency triage stations were filled with the dying and injured, with nearby morgues set up to handle the dead.

The fighters and heavies having returned were only precursors of the bad news to come. Casualties among the heavy bomber crews of ten to twelve were running as high as sixty percent. Many fighters were so badly shot up that pilots were forced to abandon them to the Navy tugs while they were transported by scullers back to the carrier. Then there was the sad news coming in from around the fleet and down on MueoPoros.

 

Mihai sat alone in Terey’s cabin. She had wandered here shortly after the briefing in the command room where news arrived from the rescue team concerning Terey. There were no words Mihai could find to describe the gut-wrenching ache in her belly and choking constriction in her throat she had since it was reported that Terey was dead. For over an hour she had lingered, staring at the floor, hands hugging her knees.

In time, Mihai’s eyes began to drift around the room noticing some of Terey’s valued mementos. They stopped when seeing a picture on the wall just above a tiny writing desk. She rose and walked over, bending close to examine it.

It was an old picture, taken many centuries ago and encased in crystal to preserve it. In the background was an ancient Coriveon fighter, the kind used during the Megiddo Wars. Terey and Mihai stood in front, wearing grimy flight suits, greasy dirt on their grinning faces, hugging for the picture. Mihai reached up and removed it from the wall, staring at it as a lonely emptiness grew in her heart.

Terey was an Ancient, born shortly after the beginning of the First Age. She had been one of the great advocates for Universal Convergence and was influential in the creation of the Council Directorate, an organization made up of Ancients who acted as purveyors and teachers of Common Law – the principles of life handed down by the Ones Who Came Before, the Cherubs. The leaders of the Council Directorate were influential in the creation of the Twenty-four Elders, Lowenah’s personal council. Several of the permanent members came from the Council Directorate.

Mihai still understood little about the Council Directorate, it being a secret organization. She did know that long before his open rebellion, Asotos spoke disapprovingly of the organization, calling it ‘a society in question’. Although never publicly discrediting it, he unofficially removed its members from his personal council. What Mihai did not know was that all members of the Council Directorate were also the Children of Lagandow – the Holy Order of the Seraphim.

Sometime after Mihai’s coming of age, Terey and certain other Ancients befriended her, showering her with more than the ordinary attention. She remembered how motherly they became after Ma-we gave the Lower Realms to her. It was almost overwhelming to share close company with people like Tolohe, Planetee and Terey. To this day, she did not fully understand why they took to her so.

Feelings of guilt began to build in the back of Mihai’s head and, like a bomb, exploded down her neck and into her chest. Why had she treated Terey so coldly that day at her council meeting? Deep inside her soul, Mihai knew it had nothing to do with Terey not being part of the Council of Eighty. No, something else nagged her the same way it had nagged her about PalaHar except she knew he was at Ma-we’s council that day. Something was not quite right in her head. She felt all screwed up like there was someone playing games in her mind, twisting it to their will, chiding her for those guilty feelings.

What was wrong? Was someone inside her head attempting a coup over her sanity? Sweat beaded up on her face and her palms became clammy as a feeling of panic grew in her heart. Just as Mihai thought she could no longer control a desire to scream, Sirion stepped through the door.

Startled to see Mihai, Sirion let out a gasp. After catching her breath, the girl exclaimed, “I came to gather her things. Didn’t expect you!”

Mihai clutched Sirion’s shirt in anger. “Why didn’t you expect me to be here?! Do you think I didn’t care for Terey?! Or do you think me to be a spy?!”

Shock on Sirion’s face changed to suspicion. She discerned something hiding behind Mihai’s eyes, something that had always been there but never noticed by the girl. Sirion hissed, “By night it walks to death’s delight. It takes the blood of souls in flight. To see it now beneath the skin, tells me I know its next of kin.”

Inside Mihai’s mind, a voice screamed out as if in agony, “Make it go away! Make it leave! It hurts me! It hurt me! The little spider weaves tunes of torture! It seeks our death! Beware, it seeks our death!”

Sirion was surprised because she could hear the voice inside Mihai. She smiled and added another verse to her rhyme, “Your kindred ruled a throne like you…until a Cherub ran him through. Tonight another your flesh shall find, for his silver blade will pierce her mind.”

The voice screeched in anger and frustration, “It seeks our death! It will destroy us both!” But Sirion’s power was too great for the beast hiding inside Mihai’s mind. It fled in panic back to the deeper recesses of her memory. Mihai released Sirion and grabbed hold of her head. Crying out in pain, she made her way to the bed and sat.

Sirion hurried to her side. “My Lord, my Lord, I’m so sorry. Something inside me told me words to say. I don’t know what they mean.”

Mihai shook her head, saying otherwise. “No. No, my child. You should not apologize. You have rescued me from something darker than death… a living death, if you can understand.”

Sirion could grasp Mihai’s meaning in her heart, making a haunting reply, “There is an evil that surrounds us, for I can feel it. Even here it lurks in dark corners hiding from view while crying out with deceptive love songs.” A chill ran down her back as she considered the true meaning of those words.

The two held each other until the disquiet subsided. Asking Sirion to remain with her, Mihai recommended they search Terey’s closed writing desk. She opened the folding top and began digging through the compartments inside.

They found letters and personal effects that were special to Terey, but nothing of note, until…until Mihai happened upon a weathered notebook. It was quite large and very old. As carefully as Mihai tried, she could not help but tear an occasional page. Much of what was recorded therein was in an unknown script, but written in Terey’s hand. Mihai puzzled over it. Sirion stared in wonder, for she could read what the book said. Something inside her mind said to remain silent.

As she slowly turned the pages, Mihai came across the letter she sent to Terey before the Prisoner Exchange. Nearing the end of the letter, she began to read aloud.

 

This fire begets fire. I watched at the council meeting. The younger ones among our kind are being caught up in this blaze for war. A hatred and bloodlust is growing in them. I fear what I see, and yet I know I must allow it to grow and develop. We, my dear Terey, are the Old Guard. We must become young again. We must support the changes taking place. What we are seeing arise is a new creation – a creation that will save us from ourselves and will finish, in its way, what was started so long ago. I believe we are witnessing the birth of the new Dragons.’

 

Mihai sighed. At least Terey got the letter before being injured on the Chisamore. She searched a little more and, much to her surprise, found an unfinished letter addressed to her and dated the same day the Chisamore was sabotaged. It read, in part:

 

My Dearest Sister,

How much I do love you, and how sweet your words are to me. I long for the day when our worlds will see peace and we can again refresh ourselves in the love of days now past.

…My dear Mihai, we are not seeing a new creation arise, but an old creation being reborn. From long ago it slept while darkness grew in the universe. When it awoke, there was too little strength in it to defeat the darkness. For all this time, the old creation awaited the day long promised when it would be united with new blood. I believe this day is soon in coming.

…Please do not feel dismay for the future. It is not a future of death and gloom but one of rebirth, for the old shall become young again and the weak will become strong. While it is true that the old order must pass away, it is not such a bad thing. No longer will a wicked heart deceive innocent minds, for the power from beyond us will be the possession of many. We – you and me – will be reborn, and shall become the Dragon-slayers.’

 

Mihai held the letter close to her breast. “I was such a fool! Why do I live when a soul with a golden heart no longer sings with joy?”

Sirion, still looking at the notebook, spied an envelope that had been hidden between some pages. “Look, my Lord, a sealed letter and it has your name on it!”

Picking it up, Mihai noticed the date was the same as when Terey took Sirion’s fighter. What might be inside filled her heart with dread. Did Terey unleash her venom in one final tirade, knowing Mihai would be unable to make reply or seek forgiveness for her actions? It took Sirion’s urging to get her to open it. Tears ran freely as she read the carefully written note.

 

My Lord and King,

Never have I loved a person more than I have loved you. But there comes a time when love alone will not settle an issue. I cannot prove to you my loyalty in any greater way than to place my soul in front of yours at this crucial hour.

If you are reading this, then I am no longer able to hold my shield in defense of your safety. I do not regret my sacrifice nor do I wish you to hold yourself responsible in any way. Had I been more mild-tempered and less impulsive, we would have settled our differences long before. I refused to see you not because I was still angry with you, but out of shame for my earlier feelings, I could not face you.

There are many things I wish to tell you but a vow keeps me silent. Stay close to PalaHar for he is a shining light for you. I cannot tell you with certainty who is a friend to you or not other than the Eighty. But you must be aware that not all claiming to be are seeking your betterment.

Please trust our little sister, Sirion, for I see she has a power inside her more ancient than the mountains and more insightful than the wisest of seers. Listen to her counsel as if it were that of DungenBarr, for I perceive a part of his soul residing within her.

My dearest, no love is worth losing unless it is lost for love. You are worthy of all my love. May it keep you warm on the coldest of nights…

Terey’

 

Sirion could find no words to console Mihai as she sobbed and sobbed until no more tears could come. Mihai cursed her life, her birth, her stupidity. With surprise, Sirion noted that the occasional tear that fell upon the opened pages of the notebook turned the ancient paper blood red.

Mihai spoke of Terey’s great respect she had for Sirion and offered the notebook to her as a keepsake. As she lifted it to hand it over, a silver flash of metal caught her eye. Trying to catch it as it slid from the book, she fumbled, flipping the book onto the floor. The shiny silver blade of a finely crafted letter opener spun in the air and fell point first into Mihai’s hand. Mihai’s fingers instinctively snapped tight, closing around it to prevent its falling to the floor. She let out a cry of pain as the point pierced her palm.

The blade was as sharp as a derker and sliced through Mihai’s hand so that the point protruded through it. Blood dripped on the book lying open on the floor, making a sizzling sound as it hit. Sirion stared dumbly, spellbound, watching a burning mist rise from the bloodied page.

Mihai let out another cry as she opened her hand. “A fire burns along my arm! I fear it seeks my destruction! What kind of witchery is this?!”

The burning fire flooded her body as both women watched, transfixed, seeing the silver blade quickly melt into Mihai’s flesh until it disappeared into the wound. Then, even more astounding, the wound closed and instantly healed!

For several more minutes this fire raced throughout Mihai’s body. Then, in one final outburst, Mihai cried, “My head! Oh, my head!”

She heard another voice inside her mind cry out in terror. “It seeks to kill us! It seeks to kill us!” The screaming grew fainter as though the ugliness within retreated back to the deepest recesses of her mind.

A sudden rush like a fresh breath of spring raced from Mihai’s heart to her mind and back to her heart. For the first time in so many months she felt free and in control of her soul again.

It was all so confusing. What was it really all about? She asked Sirion her opinion.

“My Lord, I am but a child of this age.” Sirion confessed, attempting to avoid giving a direct answer, which for some unexplainable reason the girl knew. There was a tiny voice in her head encouraging her not to share that knowledge with Mihai. “You have many questions in need of answers. There are times when wisdom is best displayed by not extolling one’s viewpoint.”

Mihai wondered what she was to do. Who, if anyone, was there to ask? Sirion suggested, “Terey recommended PalaHar or an aged member of the Eighty. Might wisdom be to wait and confide in one of those people? For a certainty, you know for a fact you will not be misled to your detriment.”

Agreeing, Mihai suggested, “There exists one person on board whom I can trust… that is, if she will tolerate my company.” She sadly shook her head. “I do not blame Gabrielle if she refuses to see me. In fact, it’s what I half expect. Still, I must begin with her.” Standing, Mihai asked Sirion to take Terey’s gathered items back to her stateroom, while she went in search of the admiral.

It took several minutes to reach the captain’s bridge, what with all the battle damage. Elevators were not in operation and many compartments of the ship were still sealed, requiring Mihai to make several detours. When she finally reached the bridge, Gabrielle was not there.

Admiral SujinKotoku was observing on the bridge while the Sophia’s captain and officers hurried about with their duties. Operations on a ship this size were a monumental undertaking under normal conditions. The admiral believed the captain was better qualified to care for the over six thousand sailors, Marines, and Army personnel currently aboard. He attempted to remain conspicuous, in case the captain sought his assistance, while staying out of the way so as to not hamper activities.

Seeing the admiral standing idle midst the wild confusion, Mihai approached. “Admiral Sujin, have you seen Admiral Gabrielle?”

The admiral bowed in respect. “My Lord, the admiral was with me on this bridge when a dispatch was handed her. I saw her pale as she read the note. Excusing herself, the admiral left, asking me to stand in her stead.”

“Did she say where she was off to?” Mihai asked, fearing her question sounded too intrusive.

Shaking his head, Admiral Sujin answered, “No, my Lord, but I feel she departed out of need. I fear the news she received was grave.”

Not desiring to appear unconcerned, Mihai asked about the welfare of the ship and crew.

Sujin gave her a weary smile. “We shall survive, my Lord, but this has been a day filled with suffering. Many a fine sailor will not return from this voyage. Our aft hangar deck was severely damaged, killing a large portion of the maintenance crew. The hull was breached in several places, bombs exploding within sealed compartments. We haven’t reached all of those areas yet.”

He reassured her, “This is one of the toughest ships I’ve ever served on. There is no present threat to its overall safety. Our loss has been to our crew and passengers.” He then suggested, “If you are able, a visit to our medical bays would be most appreciated by the wounded. I mentioned this to Lady Anna also. She said she would see what could be done.”

Mihai thanked Sujin for the information, promising to visit the medical bays shortly and then politely took her leave.

The admiral’s office door was open. Mihai poked her head in the room but saw no one. At the far end of the office there was another door that led into Gabrielle’s private quarters. Hesitantly, she entered the room. Standing there, to build up her courage and consider what might be said, she pondered her last encounter in this room.

How could she have acted so stupidly? Gabrielle was a person whose existence passed beyond the mists of time. The days of her creation were a mystery to Mihai. The women was ageless like the mountains, older than the very hills Mihai had played on when a child. Why had she considered herself as wise and noble as this most venerated and majestic of Mawe’s children?

Being as quiet as possible, Mihai cautiously made her way across the room until she stood in front of the doorway leading into Gabrielle’s private chambers. She knocked softly on the doorsill and waited. There was no reply. She knocked once more…still nothing. Building up her courage, she stepped into the room.

Gabrielle sat on the edge of her bed, facing away from the doorway with both feet still on the floor, her head slumped forward, its long platinum-white hair hanging limp, hiding the woman’s face. One hand was placed on the admiral’s left knee, while she threw most of her weight on her right hand, which was rested on the bed. Mihai thought she could hear subdued crying.

“My sister…” Mihai gently called. “My sister…”

Not having heard Mihai enter, the woman was startled and turned quickly to see who spoke. Mihai saw Gabrielle’s tearstained face and red puffy eyes. Her heart began to ache over her sister’s agony.

Gabrielle turned away as quickly as she had looked, replying coldly, “Please go away!”

Mihai was stunned. She wanted to tell Gabrielle just how sorry she was. “Please…” She begged.

Gabrielle did not move. In a broken voice, she bitterly rebuffed Mihai, “You have gifted me too well already, woman! Alone I have always been and alone I shall remain. Now leave me!”

A burning ache grew in Mihai’s chest, but there was nothing she could do. It was clear that Gabrielle wished her gone. She backed from the room, tears of guilt-filled remorse welling up in her eyes.

Nearing the office door, Mihai spied a crumpled paper on the floor. She picked it up, carefully unfolding it. As she read the message, the import of Gabrielle’s words to her struck a heavy blow to her heart.

 

Dear Admiral Gabrielle,

 

I am sorry to inform you of the news that General PalaHar was wounded in combat and succumbed to his injuries this last eve. His passing is grieved by all of us here at Army Command. I am aware of the general’s deep affection he had for you. He spoke of you constantly. Please accept my deepest sympathies. I am personally making arrangements for his return to EdenEsonbar.

 

Your sister in grief,

TrishaQaShaibJal’

 

Mihai’s hands trembled as her soul filled with grief and guilt. How could her sister ever forgive her for sending away the one man who could console her in her hour of need? Fool! Stupid fool! Oh, how she just wanted to die and be done with her worthless life.

She stepped from the room, desiring to find a way to die. Life was no longer a good thing. Why had she continued to go on when others far more deserving were gone and by her own hand they had perished. ‘How will you wash the blood from your hands now, Judas? Should God call forth a thousand angels to cleanse you of your wickedness, there should be no redemption for you. Death? Is death not too great a gift to give to one so wicked? One must suffer for such evil. The evil of eternal darkness with no hope of release is what you deserve.’

Mihai was given little more time to contemplate her wickedness and its deserved punishment. A sudden rush of people in the corridor forced her to focus on other more urgent matters. Emergency rescue crews carrying a number of litters bearing wounded passed Mihai, pressing her against the wall. A hand went up from one of the stretchers reaching out for Mihai as a weak voice cried out for the bearers to stop.

Mihai instinctively reached for the hand, looking down into the face of a horribly burned, disfigured woman. A voice, as if already calling out from beyond the grave, pleaded with her, “My Lord. My Lord…a blessing upon us, my Lord. Please…have we honored you today? Please let us know our labors have not been in vain.”

Any selfish thoughts Mihai was harboring vanished from her mind as her heart filled with compassion and sorrow. She leaned close to the woman so her words could be clearly understood. “You have honored us all with everything that is yours. A far greater person are you than I. Should our fates only be reversed, I would feel myself the most blessed of women, for you have proved your valor and have wrested the victory away from the Evil One. You I should ask the blessing from…”

This was the ‘Michael Beloved’ the people knew and adored – the pure, unbridled, passionate woman who spoke from a selfless heart. Here was the woman divine who could move armies with her mere presence, could calm the seas of despair, and lift the spirits of the dying. All eyes turned to her, pleading for her approval and blessings. There was nothing for Mihai to do other than remain with this woman as she was hurried to the medical bay.

Many long hours later, Paul found Mihai curled up in a corner of the main triage center, amidships, dead asleep. He sat down beside her, leaned his head against the bulkhead and gently massaged her arm. For the remaining time aboard the Sophia, Mihai administered her medicine to the wounded and dying, refusing to leave until she had visited it upon all those in need.

 

  • * *

 

It was long after midnight when Treston arrived at the forward Army command post south of Memphis. The many flashes of light and a constant rumbling told him that the battle was far from over. Before he could dismount, a squad of armed sentries surrounded him.

A sergeant holding a short-barreled shotgun politely but firmly asked, “What’s your business here?”

Treston knew there was only one thing to do if he didn’t want to risk being shot. Officers were not enlisted, and thus rarely took to being interrogated by the enlisted. He must prove to them he was an officer without becoming arrogant and maybe getting himself shot anyway.

He brushed the sergeant’s question aside as if unimportant. “My business is not of your concern.” He began to dismount as he continued to speak. “I am Colonel TrestonOikos-phulaxHegemon, counsel to General PalaHar.” He hopped to the ground.

Slapping the snow from his sleeves with his fur cap, he eyed the sergeant. “Now be a good soldier and take me to your commanding officer…and care for my mount, please.”

The sergeant raised the barrel of her gun, stopping him. “Give up your weapon, Colonel, and I may think of letting you live.”

Treston did not even flinch. “My friends, Contorie and Ysuah, remain with me! They do not like the hands of strangers touching them.”

The sergeant slipped her thumb over the safety of her weapon, readying it. “Your friends have no say here. Now hand them over!”

A sudden gust of wind tugged at Treston’s long coat, pulling open the flap, so that a portion of his sword could be seen. An eerie, pale, white light flashed from it just before the coat’s flap closed.

Treston, sensing the sergeant’s surprise, softly replied, “My friends feel differently. May I suggest you reconsider your request?”

Though shocked by what she saw, the sergeant did not back down and prepared to force Treston into surrendering his weapons. The distinct sound of a bullet being delivered to the chamber of Treston’s rifle while it hung freely from his shoulder stopped her cold. A greenish-blue glow started radiating from the weapon as it began to struggle with the strap holding it over Treston’s shoulder.

Treston reached across with his hand, gently stroking the rifle, whispering strange words to it. At first it did nothing, apparently upset with the sergeant. Treston repeated what he had said. Finally, the weapon quieted and its light faded away.

The sergeant stepped back, eyes wide. Treston smiled. “Now, would you please be kind enough to take us to your commanding officer.”

Telling her squad to ‘keep a sharp eye’, the sergeant directed Treston to follow her. It was awkward for the sergeant, to say the least. Who this stranger was, she did not know. Friend or foe, it mattered not, for she was well aware of just how little power she held against him. What was there to do but take him to her commander and hope her actions were treated with understanding?

The remainder of Treston’s visit went smoothly. The division commander was awake and very interested in hearing any news about General PalaHar. She was saddened by Treston’s report and his fear that the general’s wounds were fatal. There was also a lot of interest in Treston’s account of his experience with the man on the battlefield. He had omitted the part about the riddle and some other details that were better left untold.

General Maliazia-Daaning suggested to Treston, since he was an adjutant to PalaHar, thus also to the field marshal, he should continue north and then east to HerpetonMnema. “There you can find General Copeland and relay your findings to her. She may desire a report be sent to Field Marshal Trisha. In any event, it will do you good to see what is going on. This way High Command will be able to receive an overall view of conditions on the field.”

Treston was offered a tent for the night and encouraged to wait until morning to start his journey, the general stating that other trigger happy sergeants might be lying in wait along the road. The sergeant, who had been asked to remain, winced at the remark.

Smiling, Treston came to the sergeant’s defense. “I find this soldier’s deportment commendable. She did the best she could under such circumstances. I would have surrendered up my weapons had things been different but, you see, I had no other choice.”

He motioned to his rifle, Contorie. “It won’t tolerate anyone but me.”

General Maliazia asked if she could have a look at it. Treston nodded. Much to the amazement of everyone, including Treston, Contorie shot sparks at the general when her hand came within inches of it.

Stepping back in surprise, while rubbing her stinging fingers, the general exclaimed, “I guess you had little choice!”

She then bid Treston good night, concluding with a question. “May I help you in your journey? Is there something else you may have need of?”

Treston thanked her. “Yes, there is one little thing you could do for me. This is a hostile land, filled with the dangers of war. If you would gift me with an escort, it would be much appreciated.”

“That is an easy request.” General Maliazia replied, offering, “I have some rangers at the ready. Will they suffice?”

Treston felt that offer unnecessary. “I need someone who is fast with a safety and can handle a horse. Your offer is generous, but beyond my needs. May I suggest the sergeant and three of her squad…that is if the sergeant can sit a horse.”

The general grinned. “Sergeant, can you sit a horse?”

The sergeant did not see any humor in this very embarrassing predicament, but she maintained her composure. “Yes, General, I have done courier and scout duty on occasion.”

“What’s your name, Sergeant?” Maliazia asked, as she walked over to a nearby table.

“Sergeant DaishoTalwar, Sergeant of the Guard, Gillison Company, Fourth Watch, Security Division.”

“Well, Sergeant Daisho, please see to our guest’s needs.” The general handed a written note to the sergeant. “Give this to your captain. It’s self-explanatory. I trust you to pick your traveling companions well.”

General Maliazia looked at Treston and then back at the sergeant. “Do not take your duties lightly. If you haven’t already guessed, the good colonel is not of our kind. His presence is not accidental nor is his visit casual. And let me warn you about this man who wears the sword of our brother, VanGoddawin. There are those you cannot see who direct his steps. It will be wise on your part not to question his decisions.”

Daisho was confused and somewhat apprehensive. “Yes… yes, Commander. I will be careful.”

Maliazia turned to Treston and grinned. “The wind heralded your coming this very evening. I waited your arrival. VanGoddawin and I have shared the blood grape. His passing was not secret to me. His sword is now yours because you were chosen to carry it. There is still some destiny it seeks to fulfill. You keep secret the breeze while releasing the tempest.”

She pointed at the sergeant. “Please keep my child safe. I fear more for her than I do for you.”

Bidding the colonel goodnight, the general directed him and the sergeant from the command tent. Once they were a little distance away, Treston turned to the sergeant, apologizing, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know things would become so complicated. I only desired you for my escort because I feel comfortable with you, as if we were destined to be together. If I have angered or upset you in any way…”

Sergeant Daisho stopped him. “No, Colonel Treston. I’m fine…nervous and confused, but fine.” Then, looking around, she offered, “There’s room in my compound, sir, if that will be acceptable to you. I feel a strange disquiet and think it best your presence here not be advertised.”

Treston smiled, his shiny white teeth reflecting the camp light. “I agree. But it’s not this place that disturbs me.” He looked into the distant north. “It’s beyond those hills in time and space.”

Lifting his head as if smelling the air, Treston asked, “Are you afraid of me?”

Daisho thought about it. “Yes, in a way I am, but not of what you may do to me. I fear you for who you might be…or might become. Something inside my heart fills me with foreboding and dread. And what I fear most is I see my own soul being drawn into the darkness with you should my journey be with you.”

Treston agreed. “I don’t understand many things and I have no idea of what my destiny really is other than to protect some very important people. I have chosen wisely in asking for your assistance.”

He placed his hand on Daisho’s shoulder. “Listen, take your orders to your captain. I wish for us to travel alone without any added escort. Also, we must leave as soon as may be, taking provisions for a week. Are you with me on this?”

A chill ran up the sergeant’s spine. “Death rides with us should our journey begin this night, but whether it is ours or another’s, I cannot tell.”

Treston agreed. Twenty minutes later, two shadowy horsemen disappeared into the darkness, their destiny as uncertain as the trail they were taking.

 

  • * *

 

 

SECTION 20

 

DREAMS AND DESPAIR

 

Anna was becoming impatient. She had been waiting over an hour for Mihai. Most of the personnel and crew were already aboard the RananAhot. As she paced back and forth, disgruntled by the delay, the woman mumbled, “That miserable little man won’t leave her alone. He’s probably giving her another humpin’…can’t keep it in his pants!”

Hearing her name called, Anna spun around to see CrilenianTorpedee struggling across the hangar deck, loaded down with his luggage. Anna made little attempt to hide her sour mood, asking sarcastically, “Did your attendant oversleep or has the king demoted her councilor to a position of burden bearer?”

Crilenian said nothing until stopping near the freight door of the RananAhot. He handed his luggage to a waiting officer, asking her to take them to his cabin, and then addressed Anna’s remarks. “There is little difference between a councilor and a burden bearer unless one considers the level of arrogance certain councilors attain.”

Anna ignored Crilenian’s remark, brushing it aside. “Where is our leader off to? We were to leave over two hours ago. Doesn’t anyone care that time is of the essence? We must leave soon if we are to remain on schedule.”

Crilenian started for the boarding ramp. “We’re almost ready to go. Captain says our escorts are queuing up beside the Sophia as I speak.”

“What do you mean ready to go?” Anna fumed. “Mihai hasn’t even loaded her fighter yet! It will be another half hour, at best, before we can depart!”

Stopping, Crilenian shook his head. “She’s leaving it here – says they have greater need of it.”

“So when’s our little princess coming?” Anna grumped, beginning to pace again. “There are times when the bed needs to be forsaken for duties.”

Crilenian cocked his head. “Didn’t they tell you? Mihai’s not coming with us. She and Paul left several hours ago aboard the GrizBokk. Paul’s idea, you know. Thought secrecy was virtuous.”

“What?!” Anna screeched, her face flushing red. “Already left?!” Her outburst brought the attention of nearby crews. As they stared, she scolded, “Get back to your work! This is not your business!”

Crilenian grinned. “Yep, talked to the watch officer just a bit ago. Said Mihai and Paul along with a few others departed about three hundred hours, Palace Time. Said something about making a stopover on the way back, didn’t say where. I then asked our captain. She says her orders are to return directly to EdenEsonbar.”

Anna cursed Paul under her breath. “I knew that frog wart would be trouble! I should’ve put him in his place the other day. If he thinks his rutting is going to win that lady, he’s only fooling himself. There’s more to love than a donkey’s cock.”

Crilenian could not hear what Anna said, but he read her lips enough to get the gist of matter. “Do be careful, my dear! I’ve watched him eyeing you. Maybe he wants to try his donkey’s cock on you!”

“Shut up, you!” Anna threatened. “Or you may well find yourself wishing you’d stayed behind on the Sophia!”

Wrinkling his face up in mock terror, Crilenian cried, “Oh master, I’m so afraid!” He then chided, “What’s wrong? Has the little princess been dethroned by our little princess? Or is she just jealous over being replaced in little princess’s bed?”

Anna was about to return a scathing retort when she noticed Sirion’s arrival on the hangar deck. She poured on the charm, calling out, “My dear child, have you come to see us off?” Then, while the girl was still some distance away, she glared at Crilenian. “Be off with you, Skolex! I’ve business to conduct.”

It was Crilenian’s turn to become angry. He snarled, “Do be careful how you speak! The worm that feeds upon the dead may enjoy the living flesh as well! Mind your manners, for I smell a change in the breeze…” He hurried away, hustling up the ship’s ramp.

Anna had no time to bother with Crilenian’s warning. She extended her arms and walked toward Sirion. “What brings my darling child here? Has she come to see us off and wish us a safe trip?”

Sirion innocently replied, “My Lady, I do wish you and all with you a safe return. May the wings of Cherubs guide you on your way. But I come because of this note left on my bed. I believe it is from Mihai, saying it was urgent.”

Anna glanced at the note. “Mihai? Possibly… But I doubt she wrote it. News is that our king left some time ago, taking off on secret business.” She paused and raising her hand to Sirion’s face, cooed, “But let us not waste this fleeting moment.”

Staring into Sirion’s face, Anna began a riddle.

 

The little bird someday will find a nest for her, a nest of mine.

Upon the boughs of mighty trees the bird will sing for him and me.

Come listen, sing, and dance with us,

Come away, away, away with us you must.”

 

Sirion smiled in puzzlement. “My Lady, it is a beautiful poem. Does it have a meaning beyond pretty words?”

Anna reached up to Sirion’s ear and removed the girl’s ear-pin. Curious, Sirion asked what she was doing. Anna began chatting away, replacing the girl’s pin with another. “A token, my dear one, a token. Things became so hectic during the past few days, I forgot the gift I was to give you. On the eve of our journey here, Mother gave me this to give you. Now please be a good girl and show proper appreciation for it. Mother would be so unhappy if you didn’t like her gift.”

The girl felt the new pin in her ear. “Tell me, please, where is the other one?”

Laughing, Anna exclaimed, “There is only one, my dear! One will suffice as a gift. What! Are you being selfish, wanting more than what is offered?”

“No.” Sirion confessed, not wanting to appear greedy. “I only thought there would be two…one for each ear.”

Gently gripping the girl’s shoulders, Anna replied, “You have but one head and you have but one eye, so we shall decorate but one ear. Where the head goes, the ear will follow. That’s good enough.”

Anna frowned. “What shall I tell Mother when I return? That you are unhappy with her gift?”

“No! No! It’s a fine gift.” Sirion answered, not wanting Mother to think her daughter didn’t appreciate such a fine gift. “I was only a little confused, being used to wearing two matching pins. This is wonderful.”

“I will let Mother know. Now I must be off.” Anna kissed Sirion on the lips. “You are such a dear. If you are good, I’m sure Mother’s gift will bring you many pleasant surprises.” She hurried off to board the ship.

 

  • * *

 

From the hill near the gate, Treston could see to the distant western part of the Silent Tombs. He knew Sirion was somewhere out there, for her evening song drifted upon his ears. She must be singing her lament to Periste. Treston hurried down the hillock toward the distant grave.

The sun was sinking below the hills when he arrived at the trail leading into the shallow ravine. Already, the shade of twilight made the pathway obscure. But he was sure now that Sirion was down there. Treston quietly sank into the shadows.

The little brook bubbled away as the water splashed into the pool below but its tune chilled Treston’s heart with foreboding. He stopped to listen for Sirion’s song. Ah, there it was. But its melody was unsettling and disjointed.

Making his way cautiously, Treston turned the corner in the path. Sirion sat on the ground, facing away toward the darkness of night. Her song was now guttural and crude, the words she sang incoherent and raspy. Why was this maker of such charming rhyme crying out like some dying beast? He softly called Sirion’s name.

A bloodcurdling wail rose from Sirion’s mouth. She jumped up and faced Treston, angrily screeching curses at him. “Why has it come to us? Too late! Too late! Go back to the damned! Go back! Go back!” She clutched her head, crying, “This is the fate of all! Of all! Stop it while you can or this is the fate of all!”

Sirion lunged at Treston. He stared in horror at her deformed face covered with ugly, black, cancerous sores. She screamed again, “Too late! Too late! You must find the truth or it will be too late for us all!”

A roaring engine and screeching tires drew Treston’s attention to the crest of the ravine. At that moment, PalaHar’s command car came careening into view. A sudden, violent explosion cast the auto end over end, just missing him. Someone was thrown out of the machine, crashing to the ground a few feet away.

Treston rushed over to see it was Ishtar clutching the side of her face, crying “My head! Oh my head! It has hunted me here to kill me!”

Before Treston could respond, there appeared a sudden flash of light across the sky followed by the haunting call of a ghostly voice. “My son… My son… The blood of all my daughters rests in your hands. Save my children or all the world shall pass into darkness.”

Treston shot up from his blanket, crying aloud, sweat running down his face as his hands began to shake uncontrollably. Instantly, Sergeant Daisho was by his side.

“Colonel! Colonel Treston! Are you all right? It’s that dream again, isn’t it?”

 

  • * *

 

 

EPILOGUE

 

 

For the Children’s Empire, the battle for MueoPoros will forever be called ‘The Black Victory’. Every objective was met and then some. The PrasiaOdous Naval Base was securely established, assuring Eden’s Gate would remain in the Empire’s hands. HerpetonMnema, ‘The Spider’s Lair’, was now in the Children’s possession. Even though of no military value, High Command chose to maintain a standing army there, surrendering to the voices decrying its abandonment.

Fighting to the south of Memphis lasted for months, Legion finally being forced back to his pre-battle positions. Although the battle for the Silk was heroic and costly, it paled in comparison to the total percentage of deaths and destruction caused by the savage fighting in the southern battle. Of all combatants engaged on the field during the first week’s fighting, a casualty rate of thirty percent was seen. Of that number, over twenty-five thousand were killed in action or died from their wounds.

After sixteen months of trench warfare that cost thousands more casualties but achieved no military objective other than prove to Legion the tenacity of Lowenah’s children, High Command pulled it forces back toward the west and away from Memphis. The hill from which the Glitter Brigade charged the enemy became the army’s eastern-most position, with the territory between it and the enemy a vast no-man’s land of constant skirmishing.

The navy’s successes were resounding but costly. Not as cataclysmic as the Day of Tears, percentage-wise it was as deadly. Fighters and heavies played a greater part in the battles than in the Day of Tears, and the attrition rate among those crews was staggering. The First Fleet lost fifty percent of its fighters and seventy percent of its heavies. The combined death toll for the First, Second, and Fourth Fleets from fighters was over five hundred pilots. The heavies suffered thirty-seven hundred fatalities within the crews.

The death knell had been sounded for the heavies. Never again were they to play a major role in front-line combat operations. A slightly smaller version of Sarah’s Mosquito Class WolfPack Marauder soon replaced the heavy bomber. And those ships, although supported and harbored by the carriers, carried out operations in similar fashion to their bigger sisters under the centurion general’s command.

The horrendous loss of life needed to attain this victory was bad enough, but it wasn’t the entire price paid by the Children’s Empire. To prevent Asotos from winning back MueoPoros, High Command stripped its colonies of much needed forces. Candletoe was overrun, as well as several colonies and planets in the Outer Corridor and the Trizentine. Desiah was besieged. Pilneser and Stargaton were harassed by commando raids and Navy bombardments…all this while Asotos’ armadas raged unchecked across half of the Empire.

As ecstatic as Asotos and his lieutenants felt about these lightning victories, the bells were already tolling for his kingdom. Instead of all these setbacks discouraging Lowenah’s loyal children, it welded them into one seething, fighting machine. For the first time in the Empire’s history, the vast majority of children threw themselves upon the altar of war. Like a gathering fist being drawn back to strike a blow, new armies were assembling for battle, while Garlock’s war machine was just gearing up to flood the universe with its weapons of war.

 

  • * *

 


The Chronicles of Heaven's War: Hell Above the Skies

“A Blood Moon rises! For too long we have hidden from reality, fearing the loss of our past should we attempt to find our future. No more! Our day of infamy has arrived. A spark has ignited our universe and set it ablaze. From those ashes has grown a force that will crush the League of Brothers and drive it from our Realm! The decision has been made! Today we go to War! Phoenix rises!” Tears flowed down the new king’s face as she thought of her sister, Darla, hoping beyond hope the woman might still live. This time her opponent had gone too far. There was no longer any place for negotiation. Their day of infamy had arrived. Mihai Astron, king over the Children’s Empire, had raised her fist, declaring absolute and total war with no hope of treaty or armistice. From the flames and ashes of this coming holocaust would rise only one power to rule over Heaven, Earth, and Hell - one power to rule the universe, either to its ending hour or coming glory. The Third Fleet was shattered, Admiral Euroaquilo’s heroic rescue attempt of the Shikkeron sounding his demise and the fleet’s ruin as a fighting force. But they had won, beaten the enemy back, saved the Shikkeron and its precious living cargo from capture, or had they? What of the imperial frigate, Shikkeron? Gone it was, ship and crew, swallowed up in the cosmic dust of space. Mihai shrugged. It mattered little now. She had raised her fist to the god of war, declaring the time of the world’s ending. Already her battle fleets hovered above MueoPoros, those invasion forces protected by Navy and Marine sky ships swarming the planet’s surface, engaging a ruthless enemy with no intention of surrender. In her mind’s eye, she could already see the great slaughter and the ruin of body and machine, smell the blood and gore of battle, the burning cordite and charred flesh. Had she not witnessed it so many times before, but always as the soldier faithfully obeying another’s commands? This time Mihai had raised the banner of war, declared the unholy hour of death and destruction. Now others led the charge into the slaughter, into the meat-grinder of damnation...

  • ISBN: 9781370049905
  • Author: Ava D. Dohn
  • Published: 2017-02-13 21:20:15
  • Words: 138219
The Chronicles of Heaven's War: Hell Above the Skies The Chronicles of Heaven's War: Hell Above the Skies