Kaster gave Malida a purging agent which had her emptying her stomach, bladder, and bowels. He allowed her to imbibe only water before he administered the drug intravenously.
Malida lay on the longest couch in the library, her children and husband around her. The Sentinels stood at strategic places around the room, two at the closed door, one at each of the windows, and Mariel, Ariahl and Kaster near Malida.
Malida flinched when Kaster injected her and plunged the drug into her vein. The substance felt hot and soon her body flushed with its side effects. Her skin felt feverish and soon a fine film of perspiration covered her entire body. At the same time, she kept trembling as if she were cold, but she could not stand the feel of blankets or sheets on her. She got restless and began to pace.
Kaster looked at Moyen. “This will take several hours, my lord. The experience was euphemistically referred to as a ‘trip’ in the old days. There is a pattern to the trip. At first, as you can see, she will be irritable, restless, and uncomfortable. I have to gauge how much she needs to imbibe before she begins to hallucinate. I have to monitor her life signs in the meantime.”
Moyen frowned. “Why?”
Kaster grimaced. “Her heart has to be monitored. Too much of the drug increases heartbeat and taxes the heart. If she is poisoned, she can have a heart attack or a stroke. But I started with a relatively small dose.” He looked at Malida. “My lady, please sit.”
She scratched at her bare arms. “I…I can’t sit.”
Moyen went to her and took her by the shoulders, shaking her gently. “Malida, please. Sit and allow the doctor to listen to your heart.”
She made herself sit and Kaster placed his electronic pad in front of her chest, turning it on and finding the correct setting.
Curious, Moyen stood nearby. He gasped when a picture of Malida’s heart appeared on the pad. A tinny beat emitted from the pad.
Kaster glanced at Moyen. “Her heart is fine. Strong.” He looked at Ariahl. “I need permission to administer a higher dose, Captain.”
“Granted,” Ariahl replied.
Malida watched as the Sentinel injected her once more. She hardly felt the prick of the needle, but soon she felt disconcerted as her sense of connection to solid objects eroded until she felt she could float off the couch. She gasped.
“Moyen! Hold me, please.”
Her husband sat next to her and placed an arm around her waist. “What is it, Malida?”
“I’ll float away if you don’t anchor me,” she told him in a breathless voice.
Kaster placed his pad before her chest. “Heart is fine. Now we wait.”
The hallucinations started soon afterward. Colors seemed to bleed one into the other. It was as if she could look through objects somehow. She felt eerily disconnected from her feelings.
“Malida,” Ariahl said. “Please lie down and close your eyes.”
Malida did as she was asked. She noted Moyen sat down on the floor next to the couch and continued to anchor her by holding her hand. She smiled at him before she closed her eyes.
In the darkness behind her eyes, she saw colors swirling. Someone placed something around her head and soon she heard Ariahl’s voice directly in her mind.
Malida, think of the Sha’jeen, the Sentinel captain told her. Try to see them.
Soon she lost the thread of the voice as her mind became immersed in hallucinations. Sha’jeen, she thought. Find the Sha’jeen. It was almost like sleeping, but she was awake and aware of everyone around her. She could feel, in the distance of her skin, the heat of Moyen’s hand on hers. She was filled with desire and love for him. So strong, the emotions filled her eyes with tears that leaked down the side of her face.
What do you see, Malida? asked the voice in her head.
She started at the sound.
She thought of the Sha’jeen and soon she was floating in space. Before her sailed five vast ships with round sails in the front. They sailed past her and she saw the sails were deceptive. Most of what comprised the Sha’jeen arks were the sails themselves. Each sail was about a sepek in size horizontally and a sepek in size vertically. The sails were made of a reflective fabric or material. The ships themselves were large, but not as large as they had first seemed to her. Somehow, she knew that once there had been almost one hundred such ships, but the Sha’jeen’s numbers had reduced due to infertility. She also knew the Sha’jeen had dispersed into different parts of the galaxy, although she could not see if the other ships were still functional. She only knew that the one hundred ships had parted ways in groups of five. She wondered briefly if each unit had developed new beliefs or if they all still clung to their bloody deity.
As she neared the ships, she saw scars on the skin of each ship. Collisions of some sort had damaged the ships. There were holes, here and there, on the sails, too.
What do you see, Malida?
“Ships. They are damaged, both the ships and the sails.”
Go inside and tell us what you see.
She approached the closest ship and placed her hand on the shell. Her hand went through the skin of the ship and she fell inside, passing through an array of chaotic wiring and hull spaces before she stepped out into a hallway. The hallway, which curved gently, was filled with doors. She began to walk down the hallway. Soon she began to hear cries in the distance. The sounds of agony and fear drew her like a moth to a flame. Soon she was running. She turned a corner and stopped abruptly. Before her were groups of Sha’jeen. There were around twelve naked beings chained to each other. Next to them were taller beings in some sort of uniform. They wore a type of helmet that was oval in shape, made of gleaming metal and rising to a point about a foot in the air and ending in an elaborate and exquisite feather of different colors. The feathers changed colors as the hallway light hit them at different angles.
What do you see?
“People chained. They are boueli, I think. They have no sex. They are in pain and are afraid, terrified really.” She swallowed past her parched throat. “The Deuili are around them. They seemed to be waiting for something.”
A door slid open and a tall, exquisite being stepped through. He was beautiful, willowy, and graceful. He wore diaphanous robes that glimmered and changed colors depending on the angle of the light. His chest was bare, as was his long neck. His head was adorned with an elaborate headdress that looked like tree branches except, when he stepped closer, she saw they were delicate thin bones twisted to look like branches. The bones were yellowed with age. At the tips of each bony branch, which had been whittled to sharp points, were stains that could have been red paint or could have been blood. The being carried a sharp, jagged knife in each hand. He began to dance, mesmerizing the chained beings. His dance was fast and impossibly graceful and beautiful. As his speed increased, Malida’s fear increased as well. Some premonition filled her with horror.
The being began to spin faster and faster and soon he spun close to the chained boueli, whose screams reduced to gurgles and whimpers. A spray of blood splattered the walls of the hallway and drops fell to the ground. A moment later, the chained beings crumbled to the ground, already dead before they hit the ground. They were sliced in several places, including their necks, but Malida knew that the neck slice had come last. The Shi’ehl, for that is what it was, the High Priest of these people, made sure the boueli had suffered before cutting off their lives.
The High Priest stopped dancing and went down on one knee. He cut a piece of flesh from the chest of nearest dead bouel and brought the flesh to his lips, biting a piece off and chewing it reflectively. He glanced at the nearest guard.
“How soon will we reach the planet?”
The guard bowed. “oun Shi’ehl, within the week.”
The High Priest sighed. “Then these twelve bodies will have to feed us until then. Butcher them and put them in the storage vats.”
The guards bowed and dragged away the bodies, leaving long lines of blood in their wake.
The High Priest turned and entered his room.
Malida followed him into a room rich with the scents of incense and old blood. The round room was illuminated by low lighting. The floors were bare, as were the gleaming metal walls. A round structure, like a bed, was set against one side of the room. Other structures stood at intervals around the room. Some structures were like chairs and made of yellowed bones.
The Shi’ehl walked to a metal table and set the jagged knives down. He wiped the blades with the tip of his finger and brought the finger to his mouth. Then he picked up a cloth and wiped them clean. Removing his elaborate headdress he set it on the table and walked to the only window in the room. Outside, darkness and pinpricks of light in the distance. The High Priest placed his hand flat on the window, his spidery fingers splaying.
“Ael Ya’ih, itolis, shai shai!” He turned and looked right at Malida. His wide mouth splayed into a smile, showing sharp, jagged teeth. “I know you are there.”
He stalked towards her. “You know we come. I will have to find out how such a thing can be. Consuming you will make us invincible!”
She turned and ran as he reached where she stood.
His laughter followed her from the room.
She floated through the ship’s shell and into icy, airless space.
Her eyes flew open. Moyen was dabbing her forehead with a damp cloth. Light was seeping through the curtains. Her children were asleep on settees and nearby armchairs.
“What time is it?” she croaked.
Her husband held a mug of water to her mouth. She swallowed the cold, sweet water with a sigh.
“It is near midday,” Moyen told her.
Ariahl sat on the low table before Malida’s couch. “What did you see?”
Malida sighed. “They know we know about them, Ariahl! Their High Priest knew I was observing him.”
“Calm down,” the Sentinel told her. “We can’t be sure what was true and what was a hallucination.”
“I know what I saw, ” Malida insisted and sat up, pushing the blankets off her. “Goddess preserve us, it was horrible! They butchered twelve boueli and the High Priest ate a piece of flesh.”
“Calm down,” Ariahl repeated.
Malida rose. “Don’t tell me to calm down! We don’t even have the element of surprise. I still can’t gauge how many of them there are!”
Moyen pulled her to him, engulfing her in his strong arms. She began to sob, and he gently stroke her hair as if she was a child. She felt like a child, afraid and lost. She clung to him desperately. He pressed a kiss to the side of her head.
“We must not lose hope, Malida,” he murmured into her ear. “If we lose hope, all is lost.”
She sniffled. “I know. It’s just…where is Atana? She hasn’t spoken to me in ages.”
“The Goddess has her ways and we must believe she will be with us when we encounter the Sha’jeen.”
She turned her face to his neck and breathed in his scent. It calmed her almost instantly. She closed her eyes.
“My lady,” Ariahl said from behind her. “You must eat. The drug depletes nutrients from the body.”
Malida sighed and nodded. She sat down on the couch and Moyen placed the tray with her breakfast on her lap. She uncovered the bowl of boiled grains smothered in honey and tah’lir’s milk, tza nuts and dried lounma. She almost wept from gratitude that it was not animal flesh of any kind. She didn’t think she would ever be able to consume any type of flesh again.
The Sentinels watched her finish the bowl and then eat a thick slab of fresh bread with honey and butter. She drank a cup of water and allowed Moyen to take up the tray and bear it to the kitchen.
Malida looked at the Sentinels, who stood in a semi-circle on the other side of the low table.
“They will be here within the week,” Malida told them. “Our time is up.”
The Sentinels looked at each other before turning to her once more.
“So be it,” Ariahl told her. “We will be victorious. There is no choice for us.”
Malida crossed her arms over her chest against the sudden chill in the room.
The time had come. Goddess preserve, she prayed and rose. There were plans to be made before everything changed.