114 AU (After Unification), 99.6 years later
Malida closed her eyes against the wave of nausea. She had purged over and over again, but still the serrens gave her the bitter tea to drink, followed by a cup of fresh water. Gagging, she hurriedly brought the basin closer to her, but her stomach was empty, as were her bowels. Another wave of nausea washed over her. She broke out in a cold sweat and began to shiver. Wiping the sweat from her forehead with an icy hand, she sighed and rose onto shaky legs. The ritual of fasting and purification would end with a vision, they told her. It had always been so in the past. She had been queen for twenty years, since the untimely death of both her parents during the last outbreak of Leptka’s Disease, more commonly referred to as the plague. The priests and nuns of Draemin Cathedral anxiously oversaw the purification ritual, hoping the Goddess would reveal when the next bout of the plague would hit. Malida had dutifully undergone the yearly ritual twenty times and, in those twenty times, never once had the Goddess given her counsel on the disease. The visions had been fractured and troubling, vague and disconnected. Some of what she had seen had disconcerted her deeply, but she could never voice what the images meant, so had never been able to vocalize her distress and unease.
She walked naked to the prayer rug and knelt, closing her eyes. “Atana, Mother, Warrior, Virgin, Crone. Bless me with a vision that is clear. Allow me to decipher what the images mean.”
Her voice was a sibilant whisper in the silence of the cell. There were no windows, merely a door. She had slept naked on the large prayer rug, with no blanket or pillow, for ten days. Exhaustion sang in her joints and muscles, in her very soul.
The door of the cell swung open on well oiled hinges and a serren and a sarran walked in carrying the tea that would induce the vision. The priest and nun were young but already versed in the process. The priests and nuns of Atana the Warrior fasted and purged once a month for one week. They led disciplined, restricted lives. By the command of her ancestor, King Belihn Ekesj, the founder of her clan, the sect of the Warrior Goddess had also become expert warriors themselves, men and women both. They were chosen from the street urchins that ran in the Underground city, taught to read and write, taught the Holy Soulkah, and taught to become expert defenders of the Crown. Queen Malida’s private guard were all serrens and sarrans. She herself, as the Prei-Sarran, the High Priestess, was a warrior. She had learned how to fight when she was a young girl, for she had been the oldest of her parent’s children. Her heir, Toyus, was also a trained warrior and a commander in the armed forces.
The serren and sarran bowed deeply.
“Prei-Sarran,” the girl murmured. “This is the Vision Tea. You must drink it quickly and there will be no water to wash away the unpleasant taste.”
The young man handed her the cup and she swallowed the bitter contents in one go, almost throwing it back up. A monumental effort on her part kept the contents in her gut.
“Now we must pray,” the serren said.
Malida sat crosslegged and closed her eyes. She knew the words of the ancient prayer by heart, but she dutifully repeated after the priest and nun. They repeated the same prayer in the Old Tongue, now all but forgotten, except by nuns and priests. As the High Priestess, she also had been taught the ancient language, known as G’lish.
“Atana, Mother, allow me to see the future, the past, the evermore!
Atana, Warrior, allow me the tools to protect your reign!
Atana, Virgin, cleanse me of private desire, that I may serve you best!
Atana, Crone, have mercy on us all!”
The prayer was repeated over and over again to allow the drug in her belly to take effect. The signs of intoxication were subtle: a shiver along the skin, echoes in the ears, a sense of lightness and disconnection. The dream came at times swiftly, at times gradually. Suddenly, she began to shake and her eyes rolled to the back of her head. She felt herself falling over. Someone gently lowered her to the prayer rug. Sibilant whispers pushed against her skin and mind, like the wind speaking to her. The fit intensified, shaking her like an small animal in the maw of a predator. She shook so hard, her bones felt like they would break. Her teeth clacked in her mouth.
Malida, girl, wake up!
Her eyes fluttered open. She lay on a raft on a vast ocean. The sky overhead was cerulean and empty of clouds. Even though there was light, she saw no sun anywhere. The air was tepid and lacked smell. There was no wind, no temperature.
She started and turned her head. A young man, handsome and familiar, sat crosslegged on the other side of the wooden raft. His name was just beyond the tip of her tongue.
He smiled at her. “Malida. I am Belihn.”
She gasped. “Belihn Ekesj?”
He gave her a nod.
Now she could see her resemblance to him. She looked so much like him, in the curve of his oval face, in his light hazel eyes, in his full lips. His hair was loose and hung down his back. Like her, he was slender, with the defined musculature of a dancer.
His smile faded. “I’ve been trying to warn you for twenty years.”
She cocked her head. “Twenty years?”
“You have six months left before it begins,” he said as if she had not spoken. “Wake up!”
He clapped his hands and the vision darkened until they seemed to float over the world. She heard his voice in her head.
“They come from without,” he said.
Before her she saw gleaming machines, so many they filled the skies over the world. They were the shape of mjish seeds, fat in the center and tapering to thinner ends. They traveled silently across cities and towns. Everywhere they sailed, people fell onto their knees. Inside the machine lived a people, thin and statuesque, easily eight feel tall. They were impossibly beautiful, like gods, with eyes of a blue that ate up the sclera. Inside the blue was a black pupil that shifted from round to slitted, depending on the amount of light. Fur of differing colors covered their bodies. Their mane were pale gold and silver. They wore it long, although some had no hair, their shapely skulls shaved. Their slender bodies moved with grace when inside their vessels, but outside of their machines, they sat strapped on gliding contraptions that looked like tall backed chairs without legs.
“They cannot tolerate the gravity of most worlds,” Belihn explained. “Even though they have artificial gravities on their ships, the gravity of our world is too much for them.”
“Who are they?” she asked, intrigued.
“The Sha’jeen,” he replied. “Look.”
What she saw next pushed the air from her lungs in a rush. A dizzying sequence of scenes showed the history of the Sha’jeen. They left their overcrowded world in space arks, seeking to find worlds to colonize but, in time, they became nomads, growing food inside their ships, studying the universe, seeking knowledge. Somewhere in their journeys, they picked up a bacterium that began to destroy their food supplies until they faced starvation and demise. Desperate, they turned to cannibalism, writing new rules into their holy book to justify the practice. The writings evolved and the Sha’jeen came to believe that consuming the flesh and organs of sentient being imparted to the Sha’jeen their lifespans and intelligence. They sought new worlds to ruthlessly harvest.
Malida gasped, sickened by what she saw. In time, the Sha’jeen’s teeth evolved, become sharp and strong enough to tear through flesh.
“They are dying,” Belihn stated.
She started, having forgotten he was there. What he said filtered into her mind.
He nodded. “They cannot reproduce. Each generation produces less and less children, so this time they seek genetic material as well as food.”
“Oh Goddess,” she whimpered.
He leaned forward. “Do not lose hope. There is a book in the Draemin City vault. I wrote it. Ishones Thul, The Book of Dreams. When I lived, I was given the instructions on how to best the Sha’jeen. The instructions are in poetic form and prayers. You must read the book and decipher it. That is your purpose and role, Malida. You are the key to everything.”
“No,” he spat. “No. You will do what must be done. Soon, the arrival of the ships will awaken the Sentinels.”
“But the Sentinels are a myth,” she protested.
He barked a laugh. “We came from the stars, thousands of years ago. With us came the Sentinels, artificial lifeforms who sleep until a threat from without arrives. There are seven Sentinels. They will awaken and they will find you. No one will believe you. You will be called mad, your crown stripped from you. Do not lose hope; do not lose your way. Follow the Book, but keep it hidden. Tell no one of the Book. If the Book is destroyed, all hope is lost. Those who you trust are not trustworthy. You will be betrayed by your heart. In the darkness shines a light; do not be blinded. See through it to the Truth and the Way.”
“Will we survive?” she asked him.
His smiled became cold.
Slowly, he morphed, his form dissolving and become slimmer, taller. He coalesced into an impossibly beautiful being. The being looked at her, his eyes devoid of emotion. When he smiled, his mouth was full of sharp fangs. He lunged at her, gurgling with hunger.
She screamed and fell into the water.
The water had no sensation. She struggled to hold her breath as she was pulled down into the depths.
Her lungs burned. She began to struggle in earnest, fighting with all in her to live.
She opened her mouth and the strange water filled her mouth and throat.
She started awake and blinked her eyes open. The nun and priest were bathing her body with warm, wet cloths.
“You Saw?” the sarran asked.
Malida sighed and swallowed, her throat sore. “Yes.”
“Will there be a plague?” the priest asked.
“No,” she lied.
They assisted her to sit.
“The ritual is concluded, Prei-Sarran,” the nun told her.
“You will bathe and consume a broth,” the priest murmured.
Malida paled at the idea of consuming anything made from flesh. “May I have fruit juice instead?”
“Of course, your Majesty,” the sarran said.
They helped her to her feet and steadied her as she found her balance. She followed them into the empty hallway and to a second room. This was a bathing chamber made of pale yellow tiles, with a large, deep tub, a shower, a long table with cloths and towels, vials of fragrant oils, brushes and combs, and cakes of soap. The tub was full of steaming water, drops of oils clinging to the surface of the water. Flower petals bobbed in the water.
She stepped into the water and sighed. She had not been allowed to bathe in ten days. Now she took up a washcloth and a cake of soap and scrubbed the sweat and salt from her skin, paying special attention to her armpits and her sex and feet. Afterward, she unpinned her hair and scrubbed the oil and sweat from the locks, submerging herself into the fragrant water to rinse the soap away. When she was done, she lay back against the edge of the tub and closed her eyes. She could still see the disturbing images. Now past images made sense to her. A sense of urgency filled her, coupled with a crippling fear. She swallowed thickly. It felt like she was trapped in a nightmare and wondered if she had imagined seeing and talking to Belihn, if she had dreamed everything. The only way to be sure was to find the book. If Ishones Thul existed, then she had not hallucinated, if the Book of Dreams was real, then she had seen true. And Goddess help them all if she had.
Malida spent the rest of the day recovering. She demanded solitude and had the guards keep everyone, including her husbands, away.
Her moods swung wildly from despair and depression to anxiety and fear. She struggled for control before she had to face her Council and her family.
Near midnight, she donned a pair of trousers and a simple tunic and a thick, dark cloak with a hood and went to her bedroom, where she parted the tapestries next to the wardrobe and pushed a button on the wall. The wall clicked and a hidden door swung silently inward. Walking to the bedside table, she picked up the candle holder by its handle and stepped into the secret passageway, making sure the tapestries hid the wall before she pulled the lever on the inside wall and the door swung closed. She hated using the secret passageways. They were filled with cobwebs, dust, strange insects, and a still, musty air. The ceilings were low and she had to bend her waist to walk through them.
The web of secret ways was known to her and to her heir and to no one else. Not her sister and not her brothers, not her husbands and not her spiritual advisers. When he was 10 years old, she had sworn Toyus to secrecy and shown him the passageways. Loyal to a fault, the boy had kept the secret. The web led through every one of the five stories. One passageway led to her apartments, another to the Throne Room, another to the War Room, another to the library and yet another to the castle vault. She had to stop a moment to recall which of the arteries led to the vault. She went to the end of the passageway and took the left hand offshoot and down a narrow stairwell that had panic rising inside of her. The darkness was inky beyond the buttery light of the candle. Strange insects glowed along the wall, wriggling worms and winged creatures. She hurried, whimpering with terror.
The vault was on the third floor, next to the library, so she followed the passageway’s incline to where the library was located then veered right into another vein. This offshoot ended at a door. The door was made of iron, its hinges rusted through. An old key hung from a nail on the wall. She took up the key and pushed it into the keyhole, praying it would not break in half when she turned it. Thankfully, the key turned. But the door shrieked when she pulled it open. She paused breathlessly, hoping the sound had not traveled through the thick stone walls. She knew the vault was hidden within thick walls and a second metal door, but guards always stood beyond the door.
After a few minutes, when no one rushed into the vault, she stepped into the vast interior of the coffer. The room had countless chests filled with gold and jewels, some of the money from before North Torahn was a unified nation. She maneuvered her way around the chests. The walls were filled with niches and in the niches were documents housed in airless glass containers. She sighed, running her eyes disconsolately over the many niches, wondering where the book would be. She began at one end of the southern wall. Time ceased to matter as she focused on her task.
“Goddess guide me,” she prayed.
At the end of a long time, she lost hope and sat down on a chest. After brief rest, she rose and went to the northern wall, walking to the middle and randomly looking through niches.
Finally, a long time later, she came to a deep niche. She thought it was empty at first, until she thrust the candle into the darkness and saw an object that turned out to be an oiled leather bag. She pulled it out carefully and hurried to a chest, setting it on the chest and kneeling down next to it. She set the candle holder down and unlaced the bag, pulling it open and reaching inside. At once, electricity rushed through it. She gasped and pulled her hand away. After a few seconds, she reached in again and pulled the book out. It had a thick, treated cover with a gold lock. She rummaged in the bag and came up with the small key on a gold chain.
She inserted the key into the keyhole and opened the book.
Ishones Thul, it read in gold lettering. The Book of Dreams.
With a sigh, she locked the book once more and hung the chain around her neck, hiding the key under her tunic. It hung, cold and strange, between her breasts.
Taking up the book and the candle holder, she left the vault behind, shutting the iron door with a screech.
Hurrying to her apartments, she opened the secret door and paused, listening, before pushing the tapestries to one side. The bedroom was silent, so she stepped inside. The door swung silently, shutting with a click. She dropped the tapestry into place. She needed to speak to Toyus and as soon as possible.