Chapter VIII: Rien Acts

            Warlord Rien Tholten strode through the Great Hall, Othol Ekes’j’s dossier under his arm, an entourage of six soldiers at his back.  He indicated the soldiers should accompany him into the room.  He stepped into the Council chamber and noted all the others were already seated around the large circular table.  They were softly conversing and did not notice Rien right away.  Othol seemed preoccupied, a frown on his face, tapping the tabletop with a finger.  When he looked up, his gaze caught Rien’s.  He rose.

            “You took your sweet time, Warlord,” Othol growled.

            Rien did not reply as he strode to the open chair between Sjona and Yvar’h.  He set the dossier on the table and looked around the room.

            Othol shifted.  “Is that your investigation into Malida?”

            “You shall see,” Rien said.  

            “What is the meaning of these soldiers in our private sanctum?” Serren Osjon demanded.

            “I will explain in a minute,” Rien replied and looked at Othol.  “Sit down, my lord.”

            Othol scowled.  “What is all this, Warlord?  I’m running out of patience–“

            “Sit. Down.  Or I’ll have you forced into your seat,” Rien told him coldly.  “Do I make myself clear?”

            Othol’s scowl became positively fierce as he dropped into his chair.

            Rien looked around the room once more.  “I was given the order to investigate a member of our council, so I did.  This member has colluded with another member of the Council to usurp the rightful Crown.  This member has broken the sacred trust of marriage and has fornicated with another member of the Council, all the while conspiring to take over the Crown.  This member is a pedophile, bedding young girls to slake his monstrous and indecent tastes.”  He looked directly at a pale Othol whose skin gleamed with sweat.  “You, Othol Ekes’j, married Queen Malida and took her name.  Then, two weeks later, seduced and bedded Sjona Ekes’j, conspiring with the Queen’s younger sister to remove Malida from her rightful reign, placing Sjona in her stead when your dire deed was done.  While you were assuring Sjona–“

            “This is an insult!” Othol roared, rising to his feet.

            Rien motioned to two soldiers, who hurried around the table to manhandle him until he was kneeling, a cloth stuffed into his mouth.

            “While your were assuring Sjona that you loved her, you made your way to the most disreputable brothels and bedded girls as young as six years of age.  You paid huge amounts to have the girls kidnapped from their rightful homes and kept as your slaves.  Those brothel owners have been charged and arrested and have confessed.  I have their sworn testimonials in your dossier.  Your servants, whom I paid to spy on you, have testified that you promised Sjona the crown, if she would marry you.  Your intent, I have no doubt, was to take the Crown yourself.”  He turned to Sjona.  “You are under arrest, Sjona Ekes’j, for conspiring against your rightful Queen.”

            She gasped and fainted.  A waiting soldier caught her as she fell from her chair.

            Rien turned back to the remaining Council.  He motioned to a soldier who stood by the door.  The soldier nodded and opened the door, stepping back.

            Seven young people of different races stepped into the room.

            “What is this, Warlord?” Kol demanded.

            Rien said nothing until the door was closed.

            “These, gentlemen, are the Sentinels,” Rien said.  “Show them.”

            The young people removed their gloves, revealing their left hands which were not flesh and blood, but some metallic substance.  Lights flicked on and off in the metal.  One of them, a young woman with dusky skin and close-cropped hair stepped forward, extending her hand, palm out.  A light began to pulse from her hand and the ponderous round table rose a few feet into the air.  The Counselors stood so fast, their chairs tumbled behind them.  The girl lowered her hand and the table returned to its place on the floor.

            “Goddess preserve us!” Serren Osjon muttered and got shakily to his knees.  “Forgive us our doubts!”

            The girl frowned.  “We are not Gods.  Do not worship us.  Rise.”

            Berin helped Osjon to rise.

            Rien nodded.  “Remove Othol and Malida and place them in separate cells in the donjon until I can see to them.”

            Othol fought as he was manhandled out of the room, screaming through the cloth in his mouth.

            A second soldier carried Sjona out.

            Rien motioned for the door to be shut.

            “How is Malida?” Tehn asked.

            “She is recovering,” Rien replied.  “Sit, all of you.”

            “We’ll stand,” one of the Sentinels told Rien.

            The Sentinels stood in a semi circle near the door.

            Rien sighed.  “Malida has abdicated the throne.  She wishes you to rule, Yvar’h.  You are the oldest male.  Sjona is too weak to rule, even if she had not fallen for Othol’s schemes.”

            “Agreed,” Tehn replied and frowned.

            Yvar’h looked at Rien. “You rightly should rule, Rien.”

            Rien shook his head.  “The enemy comes.  I’ll be too busy organizing our defenses.”

            The Counselors gazed at one another.

            “It’s all true,” Berin murmured.  “Goddess protect us!”  

            Kol looked at the Sentinels.  “When will they arrive?”

            One of the Sentinels, a young man with almond shaped eyes, stepped forward.  “It will be a matter of no more than twelve weeks, Sir.  We have little time to organize our defenses.”

            Osjon wiped a shaking hand over his eyes.  “This is terrifying!  How can seven Sentinels fight an entire people?”

            “Have faith, Serren,” Rien murmured.  “I have to believe we can overcome.”

            Osjon nodded shakily but did not look at him.

            Tehn shifted in his seat.  “What do we do about Othol?”

            Rien grimaced.  “He’ll be executed.  He actively plotted against Malida.  He’s a traitor.”

            Yvar’h shook his head, a look of pure disgust on his handsome features.  “And kidnapped children for his perverse urges.”

            Kol nodded.  “We’ll have to compensate the victims’ families.  They deserve nothing more than to have him killed for his actions.”

            “Agreed,” Rien said.  He looked at Yvar’h.  “We’ll have your investiture ceremony right away.  There is too much to do.”

            The Council rose as one.

            “Do we tell the populace?” Serren Berin asked in a tremulous voice.

            “To what end?” Rien replied.  “It will only confuse and frighten them.  We must prepare and that is all we can do.”

            Berin nodded.  “You are right, of course.”  He sighed.  “Goddess preserve us!”

***

            Othol paced the cell floor.  

            How had things gone so terribly wrong so fast?   He had been careful, hadn’t he?  Sjona had said nothing.  Had she?  She was a poor actress, so he did not doubt she had remained true to him.  He wiped his face with an icy hand.  The Sentinels were true!  What else was true?  He needed to leave this cell.  He needed to contact the aliens and make sure his family, his clan, survived.  If he was careful enough, this all could go his way.  A slow smile curved his mouth.  He must go to the aliens and warn them about the Sentinels.  That information would surely assure his clan’s survival.  Perhaps the aliens would agree to install him as King.  Surely, if he gave the Sentinels away, the aliens would be agreeable and grateful.

            He glanced peevishly at the iron cell door.  He needed to get out and soon.  He had no doubt he would be executed and post haste.

            He heard a key inserted to the lock and the door swung open with a squeal.

            “Father?” Othol asked, his heart giving a lurch.

            Etir Ethael did not brook fools well.  He was a tall and powerful man, a mountain of a man who topped over six and a half feet.  He strode to where Othol stood and backhanded him brutally.  

            Othol cried out and fell to the floor.   He brought a shaking hand to his mouth.  The hand came away wet with blood.

            Lord Ethael motioned to his younger son, Thelon, who closed the cell door.  He ran his disgusted eyes over Othol’s prone form.

            “Get up, boy,” Lord Ethael growled.

            Othol scrambled to do his bidding.

            “Father–“

            “Not a word, Othol,” Lord Ethael spat.  “You have failed and spectacularly.  You had it all, but you wanted more, didn’t you?”

            “All I want–:”

            “Silence!” Lord Ethael roared.  He visibly controlled himself and sighed.  “We are going to get you out of here before your execution and you’ll return to Kuin-on-the-H’aj under a pseudonym.  You will live your life there in anonymity.  Do we have an understanding?”

            Othol shook his head. “Father, surely–“

            Lord Ethael backhanded him again, his meaty hand connecting to Othol’s cheek with a dull thud.  “Do I make myself clear?”

            Othol spat.  “Yes, sir.”

            “We will come for you within three days,” his father told him.  “Pay attention and be ready.”

            “Yes, Sir.”

            Lord Ethael snorted and shook his head.  He motioned to Thelon. “Let’s go.”

            Othol stared at the closed door long after it had been locked.  He let go the breath he had been holding and squared his shoulders.  He would approach the aliens and he would succeed.  Then, when he was King, his father would see he was a worthwhile son and heir.  He would not disappear into anonymity and history.  He would approach the aliens and give them the identity of the Sentinels.  His father would learn to appreciate him, if it was the last thing he did.

***

            Warlord Rien Tholten made his way carefully down the donjon stairs.  He came to the dank donjon and saluted the Donjon Master, a middle-aged soldier as big as a barge and sharp as a tack.

            The Donjon Master returned his salute.  “How may I be of service, Warlord?”

            “I’m here for Othol Ethael.”

            “This way, sir.”

            The Donjon Master led him down the left-hand walkway.  Rien counted twelve cells in all.  He knew there were at least ten such walkways in the vast donjon.  They came to the last cell and the Donjon Master unlocked it, pushing the door open.  The door groaned.  Rien stepped into an empty room.

            “Where is Othol Ethael?” he demanded.

            “He was there last night, sir,” the Donjon Master assured him.  “I brought his food myself.”

            Rien sighed and rubbed his forehead.  The beginning of a headache was thrumming behind his eyes.

            “Bring me your relief for last night,” Rien demanded.

            “Right away, sir,” the Donjon Master said and hurried away.

            Rien sighed and shook his head.  They would have to find him now and that would take resources.  He rubbed his forehead again.  He would send assassins and that would be that.  Othol would head to Kuin-on-the-H’aj under a pseudonym.  He would stake his title on that.  He would make sure assassins would be in the city on the river when Othol Ethael arrived.  The city would be crawling with assassins and he would not live very long after arriving there.

            The Donjon Master ran into the cell, panting from his exertions.  “We found six guards and my relief dead in a cell, Sir!”

            Rien nodded.  “Is Sjona Ekes’j still here?”    

            “Yes, sir.  I checked on her myself.”

            Rien nodded again.  “Very good.  Upgrade your defenses, Donjon Master. If this happens again, you’ll be out of a job.”

            The man paled but saluted.  “Understood, Sir.  Thank you, Sir.”

            Rien stalked from the dank donjon and up the steep, narrow stairs.  He had to tell King Yvar’h about Othol’s escape and he had to warn Malida and the Sentinels.  There was no knowing what Othol was going to do.  Knowing him, Rien had no doubt the man would sell them out to the aliens for his own benefit.  He grimaced.  They should not have revealed the Sentinel’s identity to Othol. The man was unscrupulous and greedy.  Rien would make sure an assassin’s knife gutted the man before he could cause lasting damage.

            Sjona would be shipped off to a nunnery in the TamLaie Mountains, where she would live the rest of her life.  Her whereabouts would remain a secret, known only to him and Malida and the Sentinels.  Not even King Yvar’h or his two brothers, Tehn and Kol, would know her whereabouts.  That way she would not be used against the family.  Rien would oversee her removal himself.

Chapter VII: The Descendants

            The wagon filled with bales of nutritious grasses and barrels filled with unknown contents lumbered over the paved road.  On the wagon bed, next to the goods, Ariahl and the others sat crosslegged, conversing through the chips embedded in their brains.  Xenolinguist Ishel deciphered the language known as the Common Tongue after immersing themselves in the culture for four weeks.  The Common Tongue was a descendant of two branches of language:  G’lish, a deterioration from the original language, English, and Ancient Isili, a language native to the planet.  Ancient Isili branched further into two other languages:  Isemi and Seyan, also known as Farrukian.  Humans, over time, became hu’ans.  They could not breed with any of the native races of beings, of which there were the three:  Isili, Isemi and Farrukian.  The races native to the planet could and did interbreed, specifically the Farrukians and the Isili.  The Isemi were racial purists and pretty much kept to themselves.

            The Sentinels also learned that civilization, language and art had evolved first in the Isili culture, the Isemi remaining cave dwellers and hunter gatherers long after the Isili began to build cities.  Farrukians and Isili had considered themselves one race in the distant past and had fractured over religion, the Farrukians leaving en masse from the main habitats and sailing to the continent closest the world’s southern pole, where they settled and developed a robust and highly artistic culture.

            Ishel was endlessly fascinated by the process of learning from words and languages.  He enjoyed his collaborations with Topon, who was xenobiologist, and Sol, who was xenopsychologist. He had learned from Topon that all animals and sentient beings on the planet, except for the reptile-like vinah and its cousins, insects, and hu’ans, were dual-sexed.  It meant any being that originated on this planet before Odyssey landed, could carry a child to term or impregnate others. Ishel knew that Topon itched to run experiments and look into cadavers, but all that would have to wait until the threat of the aliens was dealt with.

            Humans have been treated fairly decently on this world. Sol’s thought bathed Ishel’s chips.

            And that surprises you? Ishel replied.

            Sol shrugged.  Humans haven’t always been kind to each other, but the Isili are genuinely peaceful beings.  They allowed humans among them and how did humans repay them?  By enslaving them and stealing their language and culture.

            Topon shifted.  Earth did not realize this planet was already colonized by sentient species.

            Sol grimaced.  No excuse.  We shouldn’t have colonized this world at all.  

            Ishel leaned forward, gazing into Sol’s brilliant blue eyes.  Sensors revealed land masses without sentient beings.

            Sol rolled his eyes.  Knowing how fast humans reproduce and how invasive they are as a species should have given our people pause.

            Ishel sat back.  You are right, of course. If you recall, Sol, none of us voted to land on this planet.  It came from the captain and her counselors.

            They were afraid the pods were corrupted, and they would lose lives, Ariahl piped up.  They had no choice.  Hopefully, the sister planet had no inhabitants.

            Let’s hope, Sol replied dryly.  His fierce stare spoke to his agitated state.  Of them all, Sol was the most compassionate and emotional. It was ironic that he represented practicality, created to represent that aspect of mortality.  He was number 6, representing responsibility and service.  Of them all, Sol fit his role the best. 

            Ishel himself represented the number 7, the number of creation.  Ishel rounded off the Sentinels and represented unity.  On a daily basis, he did not feel enough to hold the mystical meaning of his given number.  He was supposed to complete the Sentinels, for he was the final one created in Series Four, but the human part of him never felt up to the task.

            He looked at Topon, who represented the number four, the number of stability and order, of mankind.  He had been trained as a xenobiologist, for no other role would have fit him.  Topon was calm and centered and slow to act.  He centered the Sentinels, balancing the numbers’ more expressive of members, like Sol, and those who were more cerebral, like Ariahl, or slow to act, like Mariel.

            He glanced at their leaders, Ariahl and Mariel, the only two females of their Series.  Ariahl, being number one, represented strength and individuality.  It was the number of the human being.  She was perfect as their captain.  She represented intuition for the Sentinels and needed Mariel to balance her impulsivity.  As number two, Mariel represented duality and plurality, and she walked an unsteady line between spirituality and the material world.  She was emotional and compassionate and always thought carefully before acting, while Ariahl always seemed to act from her gut feelings, seemingly often acting without thought.

            Derik was third born, third created.  The number three signified harmony, wisdom and understanding to the ancients.  As an engineer, he understood the workings of most machines.  He also represented the ability of Vision among the Sentinels.  And that left Kaster, who was created fifth.  Personal wit, freedom and a sense of adventure were his hallmarks.  He had been trained as a doctor and he was a good doctor because he did not balk at trying different and even untried methods of curatives.  Within the Sentinels, he represented possibility and always had the most outlandish of ideas.

            As they neared their destination, Ishel closed his eyes and made a mental sweep of his chips and cells, finding himself in optimal health.  The duty was Kaster’s, but Ishel liked to keep himself at best performance.  His metal legs and left hand, hidden beneath clothing and shoes, were of durable materials and were as fully functioning as when he went into cold sleep. His hands were hidden beneath gloves and he frowned.  It felt like he was under water, since the sensors did not work optimally under the shield of cloth.  So, he relied on his fleshy face and neck to mark the changes in temperatures.

            The wagon rolled up to a vast single-story house shaped like a U, with three wings, north, south and east.  There were soldiers crawling all over the yard.  One of them, looking serious and surly, stepped to the back of the wagon.

            “Name your purpose,” he said.

            The Sentinels did not reply at once, their chips having to decipher his words, intent and compose a reply.

            “We come seeking an audience with the Warlord,” Ariahl replied haltingly.

            The man looked them over with open hostility.  “Remain here.  I’ll fetch the Warlord.”

            They climbed off the wagon bed so the driver and two soldiers could unload it.

            They remained in a cluster near the front door.

            The structures of their homes are very like Earth, Sol offered silently.

            Yes, Ariahl replied.  How curious.  This building is almost mediterranean, isn’t it?  I wonder if those are genetic memories.

            Ishel found himself shrugging.

            The front door opened and the hostile soldier led another soldier, this one young and very handsome, to where they stood as a little group.

            “You wish to see the Warlord?” the young soldier asked.

            Ishel, as xenolinguist, stepped forward.  “Yes.  Are you the Warlord?”

            The young man bowed.  “At your service.”

            Ishel returned the bow.  “This is for your ears only.”

            The Warlord nodded and waved the other soldier away.  “Come inside the villa then please.”

            They stepped into the past.  There was a foyer, gleaming with pale marble veined with gold and silver.  There were pale wooden walls and colorful throw rugs.  There were exquisite tapestries and luscious paintings on the walls.      

            The Warlord led them to what amounted to a library and shut the sliding door to the hallway.

            “Sit, please,” he told them.

            They all sat in the plush pale gold armchairs and loveseats.  

            The Warlord remained standing.  “Name your business.”

            Ishel rose again and removed the glove from his metal arm.  “We are the Sentinels.”

            The Warlord took a step back, his eyes round as he took in Ishel’s blue metal and plastic arm.  He fell onto his knees.

            “Goddess preserve!” he cried.

            “We are not to be worshipped!” Ariahl growled.  “Rise, Warlord.”

            The Warlord scrambled to his feet.  “It is not I who you have come to see, then.”

            Kaster’s eyes went flat as he scanned the young man’s genetic signature.  “He’s correct.”  His eyes returned to normal.  “Bring us the Warlord and the Queen.”

            The young soldier sighed.  “The Queen is recuperating in her suites.  She can’t walk yet.”

            The Sentinels rose as one.

            “Take us to her,” Ariahl demanded softly.

            Ishel brought up the rear as they all strode down a long hallway filled with beautiful paintings of landscapes and a few portraits.  

            They stepped into an overly warm room with a hearth crackling with a healthy fire.  

            “She is through this door, in her bedroom,” the soldier told them and led them into a second room that was stuffy and smelled of medicaments and illness.

            There were seven people beyond the door and Ishel knew at once he had met their counterparts.

            The Sentinels stood with their backs to the door in a semi circle.

            The woman on the bed shifted.  “You have arrived!”

            Ariahl smiled.  “Descendants, there is much to be done.”

            Those standing knelt.

            Mariel frowned.  “Rise, please.  We are not gods.”

            They rose.

            “We are the Sentinels,” Ariahl pronounced and removed her gloves, revealing her metal and plastic hand.  Little sensors flashed in the hand and wrist and disappeared beneath the sleeves of her tunic.

            The silence in the room was like that of a sepulchre.  

            The woman on the bed began to sob weakly.

            A middle aged man sat on the edge of the bed and pulled her into a hug.  “There, Malida.  Becalm yourself, wife.”

            “But it’s all true!” she cried and shivered.  “They are coming for us, those monsters!  How can fourteen of us protect an entire world?”

            “Be calm,” Mariel whispered.  “We will not let the aliens destroy humanity.”

            The young soldier who had led them here cleared his throat.  “I’ll bring more chairs.”

            No one said anything as soldiers lugged in armchairs and set them about the room until it was crowded.

            “I’ll be outside,” the young soldier told them.

            The older man rose from the bed. “No, Rien.  You stay here.  Make sure no one is in the sitting room.”

            “Do not concern yourself,” Derik told the older man.  “I will seal the room using a field.”

            The young soldier closed the door and leaned against it.

            The Sentinels clasped hands and sealed the room with a field that distorted sound.  They sat in a semicircle near the door leading to the sitting room.

            “It is safe to speak,” Ariahl announced.  “Please tell us your names.”

            “I am Malida Ekes’j,” the woman on the bed said softly.  “I was Queen of Draemin City until I was removed from office for insanity.”  She indicated the older man.  “This is my first husband, Moyen.  He was, until very recently, Warlord.  These are our children:  Toyus, my heir;  Emeida and Soena; Pren; and Itina.  My family are seven to your seven.”

            Ishel leaned forward.  “Do you know what that means, Malida?”

            The woman swallowed thickly.  “No.  I was told to take a tea made from okre leaves and I would survive the poison and know magic, but there is no magic.”

            “Not magic,” Sol told her.  “Well, to you it will seem so.   But we manipulate fields, such as magnetic fields.  The results will seem magical to you, but it is science.  We will teach you.”  He looked around the room.  “You’ve all imbibed the poison?”

            Heads bobbed yes.

            Kaster frowned.  “Then why are you still weak?”

            Malida grimaced.  “I took too much.”

            “I need to rise,” Kaster told the others.  “I need to examine her.”

            He rose and went to the bed, where he perched on the edge of the mattress.  “I will examine you, Malida.  It may be unpleasant but it won’t hurt.”

            Malida nodded.  “Go on then.”

            Kaster placed his metal hand on her chest and closed his eyes.  A blue light emanated from the metal hand and engulfed the woman on the bed.  Clicks and whirrs filled the stunned silence in the room.  Finally, after about ten minutes, Kaster sighed and sat back, removing his metal hand from her chest.

            “There is damage to the heart and internal organs.”  He looked at the other Sentinels.  “Permission to heal her.”

            “It’s your call,” Ariahl replied.

            He nodded and bent to his task.

            “He uses the ability to distort fields to heal damage in the cells,” Ishel told Moyen and his children.  “It is slow work but it works. She’ll recover once she rests and the body expels the poison.”

            “What must I do?” Moyen asked.

            “Give her only broths and water for three days,” Derik replied.  “The fluids will dilute and flush out the poison.”

            Toyus shook himself like a beast awakening.  “I’ll go make the broth.”

            Soena chuckled.  “You burn water, brother.  I’ll go.”

            She left the room, closing the door behind her.

            Some time later, she returned with a tray and two large mugs.

            “Bone broth and water,” she told the Sentinels.  

            Ishel smiled at her, making her blush.  “The body has its wisdom.”

            She ducked her head and hurried to the bedside table, where she set the tray down.

            Kaster rose.  “You will feel very tired.  Please drink your broth and water then rest.”

            “We need to talk,” Malida insisted, a jaw-cracking yawn muffling her words.

            “We will be here when you wake,” Mariel told her.

            Soena sat on the edge of the mattress and handed her mother the large ceramic mug. “Drink it all, Aya.”

            “We will speak when you wake,” Mariel repeated to the room.  “There is still time to train all of you before the aliens arrive.”

            “We need to regenerate,” Ariahl told Moyen.  “Where can we rest?”

            He nodded and walked to the door.  “This way.  You’ll each get a room.  Come.”

            Ishel looked one last time at Malida, who was sipping her broth and was more than half asleep already.

Chapter VI: Schemes

            Othol paced before the Council, at all times aware of their reactions.  He was a good actor; so he acted.  Though outwardly calm, inside he buzzed with excitement.  If his sources were correct, Malida had poisoned herself and had convinced both her heir, Toyus, and her other husband, Moyen, to believe in her mad visions.  He made the Council wait, acting as if he was distracted by concern.  He didn’t have to wait for long.

            “Why did you call us here, Othol?” Yvar’h demanded.

            Othol cleared his throat.  “I’ve received very distressing news from a good source.”

            Tehn frowned.  “Go on.”

            “Malida has poisoned herself, which is why Moyen is not here and his second-in-command, Rien Tholten, is.”

            The Council gasped and Sjona rose.  “Malida?”

            “Sit, Sjona,” he told her mildly.  “I’m not finished.”

            “But–” Her eyes glittered with unshed tears.  “Is she dead?”

            “I’m not sure,” he replied honestly.  “Her children have sequestered her body in her suites.  They seem to believe she will awaken from her poisoning whole.”  He grimaced and shook his head.  “There will be brain damage, if she survives.  She imbibed a tea made from okre leaves.”

            Sjona began to helplessly sob and he frowned.  She was detracting from him, damn her!

            Kol rose and put his arm around her shoulders.  “Becalm yourself, Aunt.”  He looked at Othol.  “What else do you know?”            

            Osjon rose unsteadily to his feet.  “And the Warlord?”

            “He is there but has refused to fetch a healer,” Othol replied.  “I don’t know why, other than to believe he believes in this absurd fantasy that Malida has conjured up.  Toyus, too, believes it.”

            Osjon wiped his mouth with a shaking hand and dropped to his seat.  “Goddess help us, they are all mad.”

            Othol willed himself to remain calm and schooled his features into a worried mask.  “Do you think so?”

            Osjon sighed.  “What else are we to believe?”        

            Commander Rien Tholten cleared his throat.  “I would not do anything hasty, my lords.  I would investigate first.  I will head to the villa myself.”

            Othol scowled at the young man.  “They were all witness to her madness and they allowed her to poison herself, Commander.  What does that tell you?”

            Rien Tholten opened his hands helplessly.  “I will not jail anyone without a fair investigation, my lord.  I am within my rights to demand it of the Council.”

            Berin shifted.  “We can’t allow Malida, Toyus or Moyen to rule during the investigation.  That leaves Sjona, as the oldest living female.  Are you willing to rule in your sister’s stead while the investigation is mounted?”

            Sjona sniffled and looked helplessly at Othol.

            Othol sighed impatiently.  “Answer the Serren, girl!”

            She started and swallowed thickly.  “Y-yes.”

            Berin nodded.  “Good.”  He looked at the Commander.  “Then the Council will vote now.  Do we allow the investigation to be mounted, temporarily removing Malida and Moyen from their positions?”

            Othol almost growled with frustration, but he kept his face a bland mask.

            Everyone raised their hands and looked expectantly at him.

            He looked at Rien Tholten and knew he would have the young man poisoned at some point for interfering with his plans.

            “Agreed,” Othol stated with practiced reluctance.

            Rien nodded.  “Then I’ll head to the villa right now with a troop.  I’ll place everyone on arrest until I conclude the investigation.  Excuse me.”

            Othol’s control slipped again a he frowned.

            He watched helplessly as the Council rose.

            “You are Queen now Sjona,” Osjon stated.   “Rule with an even hand, girl.  We will be here to counsel you.  You are not alone.”

            He made his unsteady way to the hall door, Berin holding his elbow to steady him.

            Malida’s brothers rose and left the chamber without a word.

            Sjona turned helplessly to him.  He waited until the hallway door was closed before brutally backhanding her.  She cried out and fell to the floor.

            “Have you no sense!” he snarled.

            She began to cry.

            He sighed and squatted beside her prone form.  She flinched when he reached out and tenderly touched the growing bruise on her right cheek.

            “Have we not spoken of this before?” he asked her with deceptive mildness.

            She nodded mutely, her eyes large and frightened.

            He smiled at her.  “You are queen and now we shall marry.  Don’t you want this, Sjona?”

            “Y-yes.”

            He helped her rise and hugged her.  “You need a firm hand, girl.  You always have.  Our hopes and wishes are almost accomplished.  I need you to heed me.”

            “But Malida?”

            “She will be brain dead or mad, when all is said and done.  You are queen now, girl.  As soon as Malida is dead or set to one side, we shall have my marriage to her annulled.   Nothing stands in our way.”

            He caressed her back and she sighed.

            Grimacing with distaste, he willed himself to cradle her gently, even though he wanted to beat her black and blue.

            “I love you, Othol.”

            “And I you,” he replied, swallowing the lie and the foul taste it left behind.  How long, if he slowly poisoned her, would it take her to die, he wondered.

            He pulled back and stared deeply into her eyes.  “We’ve lots of changes to make, but we have to be patient.  Can you be good, Sjona?”

            “Yes.”

            He kissed her mouth and pulled away before she could deepen the kiss.  The idea of stroking her tongue with his made him want to vomit.

            “Good,” he told her. “Let’s go then.  There are many things that need to be done.”

***

            Commander Rien Tholten did not trust Counselor Othol as far as he could throw him.  He had to proceed carefully to mount a fair and swift investigation, before the Counselor wrested the crown from Sjona Ekesj’s hands.  Oh, Rien had no doubt about Counselor Othol’s motives.  He had a thick file on Othol in his office.  If there was one thing he knew, it was people.  Moyen had begun amassing the file long before Rien became his second-in-command, but Rien had taken over the file with no problem. Rien Tholten was a commoner and he was quite aware that Othol was a son of the clans and had slipped a time or two about bringing the clans to their former glory.  Othol’s achilles heel was that he believed himself infallible and clever.  Sooner or later, those who thought themselves clever gave themselves away.

            There were courtiers that Othol had strung along for a years.  Men who had wanted to climb the ladder of influence and who were ruled by their pockets.  It had been easy to buy their loyalty.  Othol paid for no one’s loyalty.  He rode his marriage to Malida like a tired nag.  He believed himself above commoners and the courtiers he courted with promises of sex which amounted to nothing.  Rien had no problem convincing the courtiers that money was better than sex with the handsome Othol.  Slowly, for five years, he had collected intel on Othol Ekesj by placing his ears and eyes in Othol’s very household.

            From his ears and eyes he had learned that he bedded Sjona, that they had been lovers since shortly after Othol had married Malida.  He grimaced.  Othol was a pedophile, bedding and abusing young girls to slake his twisted sexual urges.  He treated his servants abysmally.  He had no one’s loyalty, except Sjona’s.  But Rien had placed his eyes and ears in her household as well.  He knew that Othol and Sjona had sex once a week and then spoke about taking over the Crown.  Othol would find it nigh impossible to become King.  Rien would see to it.

            He sighed as they approached the Ekesj villa.  He wondered whom Othol had in his pocket.  He would find out, if it was the last thing he did.

            Rien and his men rode onto the half moon drive, past the dead garden with its lush okre trees. He had brought half a troop with him.  It was not his intent to arrest anyone but merely to get to the bottom of everything.

            He dismounted and turned to his second.  “Post half the men at the back of the villa and the other half here in the front. See our animals are stabled.”

            His second saluted him.  “Right away, Sir!”

            Rien entered the household.  

            The butler bowed.  

            “Bring your family together in the kitchen, Besen.”

            The butler bowed again, face worried.  “Right away, sir.”

            “Before you go, Besen.  Where is the Warlord?”

            “In the Queen’s suites, sir.  Down the hall. In the north wing.  Would you like me to lead you there, sir?”

            Rien shook his head.  “I’ll find it.  I’ll be at the kitchen shortly.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            Rien stalked into the hallway that connected the north and south wings of the main house and headed into the north wing.  The hallway was wide and filled with paintings painted by an ancestor of the Ekesj clan, the famous Alona Ekesj.  He glanced at the stunning and colorful paintings, regretting his inability to pause and study them more thoroughly.  

            Voices led him to the Queen’s suites.  The door to the sitting chamber was ajar and he entered, following the voices to the bedchamber.

            He paused at the open door and took in the scene.  

            The Queen was sitting up propped upon a stack of pillows, looking waxy and pale but otherwise hale.

            Warlord Moyen sat in an armchair next to the bed and held her hand.

            “Sir,” Rien murmured.

            Both Queen and Warlord turned as one to him.

            Moyen cocked his head and smiled.  “What are you doing here, Rien?”

            Rien closed the door behind him.  “Sjona has been made Queen and I am here to investigate the allegation that the Queen has poisoned herself.”

            Moyen frowned and rose.  “Who told you?”

            “Othol has spies in this villa, Sir.  I intend to find out who among your servants is a spy for him.”

            Malida made to stand then fell heavily back on the pillows.  “Goddess, I feel so weak.”

            Rien took two steps closer to the bed.  “Your Majesty.  If you would explain to me what has occurred, I intend to reinstate your rule.”

            She shook her head.  “No.  I cannot be Queen and do what must be done.  Sit, Commander.  There is much to speak of today.”

            Rien sat down in the armchair and Moyen perched himself on the edge of the mattress.

            “I’m listening, your Majesty,” Rien told her.

            She told him every fantastical bit of information, going so far as revealing Belihn Ekesj’s book to him.  He paged through the ancient tome with wonder and a growing sense of disconcertion.  

            Rien was not a gullible man.  He was serious, intelligent and an excellent judge of people.  He knew the Queen and Moyen sane and he did not for one minute doubt the veracity of the book.  

            “So, you believe the Sentinels have awakened?” he asked.

            “Yes.  It is only a matter of time before they find us,” she replied.

            Moyen looked at him.  “I cannot rule if I must do what Malida has seen, Rien.  I am going to suggest another to take up the scepter and orb rule, as I am stepping down as Warlord and you will take over for me.”

            Rien gasped.  “No, sir!”

            Moyen placed a hand on Rien’s knee. “Listen to me, Rien.  The threat to this world is vaster than my desire to remain Warlord. I cannot ignore this threat; none of us can.  I must undergo the okre poison and see what I see.  Can you support me in this?”

            Rien took in a deep breath and released it. “Yes, sir.”

            Moyen nodded.  “We must bring Othol’s file to the Council and we must arrest him for treason.  Sjona is weak; once he falls, she will fall in line.  Yvar’h, as Malida’s oldest brother, will rule in her stead, she as a figurehead.”

            Rien straightened his back.  “I will do as you say, Warlord.”

            Moyen nodded again and smiled at him.  “You must talk to the Council members one at a time, away from Othol.  Convince them each and then present a unified front.  Arrest Othol and have him quietly poisoned, before his father intervenes.  Later say he took his own life.”

            Rien nodded.  “I’ll burn the body before anyone becomes the wiser.”

            Moyen’s smile widened.  “Good.  I knew I could trust you, Rien.”

            Rien turned to the Queen.  “Will Sjona remain Queen then, your Majesty?”

            “I agree with Moyen’s suggestion that Yvar’h rule and Sjona remain as a figurehead,” she told him.  

            “And your heir?” he asked.

            She shook her head. “I doubt any of us will survive, Commander Tholten.  I must be sure the kingdom is secure and Belihn’s work remains intact.”

            He stood and saluted her.  “I shall make sure the Ekesj clan remain rulers.”  He tamped down his growing fear.  “When will the aliens arrive?”

            “In less than a season,” she replied.  “Make sure Othol is dead by then.”

            “Yes, your Majesty.”

            Moyen clapped him on the back.  “Now, let’s find our mole, shall we?”

Chapter V: Moyen

             Malida wore loose tunic and trousers and ankle boots.  A light dusting of snow lay on the grounds of the villa.  She made her way to the nearest okre tree in the garden and began to collect the large tri-tipped leaves.  The leaves were thick and waxy and managed to survive the cooler temperatures of haltath.  She collected until the cloth hanging from her shoulder was full then turned back to the house, trudging through the bare, brown gardens to the driveway and then to the front door.  

            Toyus stood on the top step of the stoop. He watched her with a worried frown.

            “What are you up to, Aya?” he asked in a soft voice befitting the early hour.

            She climbed the steps and paused to gaze up into the beautiful clear blue eyes he had inherited from their Yllysian ancestor.

            “I must do as the dream tells me,” she replied and entered the house, making her way to the kitchen through the wide hallway that bisected the house into north and south wings.  Both wings shared the large kitchen at the back of the house.  This early, Masiha and Dihsa would be busy with breakfast and prepping for the other meals.  She would prepare the tea quickly, leaving them to their domain.

            She murmured soft greetings to the women, who curtsied.

            “May I do something for you, my lady?” Masiha asked.

            “No, my dear,” Malida replied.  “You continue your work.”

            Masiha curtsied again.  “Just let me know if I can help.”

            Toyus watched Malida sharply as she pulled two large leaves from the shoulder bag, setting the bag on the counter afterward.  Using the larger mortar and pestle, she crushed the thick waxy leaves.  The fluid in the leaves was thick and slimy, releasing a green scent that was not unpleasant.  

            “Tell me how I can help you,” Toyus said.

            She flicked him an impatient glance.  “Fill the kettle with water and boil the water.”

            He went to do as she asked while she continued to grind the leaves into a paste.

            When the water was boiling, she scooped two tablespoons of the leaf paste into a mug and poured boiling water afterward.  

            She turned to the women.  “Do not touch this pestle and mortar until we are done.”

            Dihsa curtsied.  “Of course, your Majesty.”

            Malida carried the mug with her to the sitting room, Toyus at her heels.

            “Aya, you are going to drink poison?” he demanded.

            “I’ve been directed to do so,” she murmured patiently and took a seat on the loveseat.

            He sat beside her.  “What if…”

            She looked at him.  “Are you doubting now?”

            He wrung his hands.  “Aya…”  He shook his head.  “I’m sorry, but what if you die?”

            “Then you become King,” she snapped then sighed.  “I’m sorry, son.  I must do this.  Promise me one thing.”

            “Anything.”

            “If I die, wait five days before burying me.”

            He shook his head.  “Why?”

            “Trust me.  Do you trust me?”

            “Implicitly.”

            She sighed.  “A state burial will take a few days.  Just don’t have them embalm me for five days.”

            He shuddered.

            “The dreams tell me the okra poisoning is a little death, mimicking real death, but that the person sleeps and is not dead.  The heartbeat slows down but does not stop.  Pay attention and have faith, Toyus.  Promise me.”

            “I promise.”

            She nodded and looked at the thick green tea, grimacing.

            “How long does it steep for?” he asked.

            “Until it is almost cool.  Go wake your siblings, please.”

            He rose and walked out into the hallway.

            She closed her eyes and prayed to Atana to give her strength.  If her dreams were metaphors, then she was about to poison herself.  Goddess help her, it was not her intent or wish to die, but if she died…Toyus was ready, she thought.  He was young, but honest, hardworking and serious.  He would make a good king.

            She waited until her children had risen and dressed and gathered around her.  She looked at each in the eye.

            “If my dreams are metaphors,” she began.

            Itina burst out weeping and Malida sighed.

            Pren wrapped his arm around his younger sister’s shoulders.  “Aya–“

            “Listen to me,” Malida said.  “We’ve talked this to death.  I don’t want to talk to any of you about this anymore.  I ask you to witness this.  I’ve given your older brother instructions.  Abide by his word.  Do I make myself clear?”

            Each of her children nodded.

            Emeida and Soena clasped hands.

            Malida drank the bitter, slimy tea in one go.  She shuddered at the taste and gasped.

            It only took a few minutes before her stomach was cramping.  The muscle spasms started soon after, followed quickly by a fit.  She fell to the ground, insensate.  The dream came almost right away.

            She saw several young people dressed oddly. They were of different races, but all impossibly young and serious.  They were of average height.  Something was off about them, but it was not apparent right away.  Then she saw that each had a hand that was metallic.  They wore their hair close to their skulls and some went completely shaved.  She realized these were the Sentinels, the Guardians of the planet, and they were awake and making their way to her.  They knew of her, although she could not fathom how. There were two young women and they led the others.  There were seven in total.

            She knew their names as if by instinct and knew they were connected genetically, although she was not sure what it meant.  How could this thing be?  How could beings 15,000 years old be connected to her?  And how could they be so ancient and appear young and vibrant?  

            We are not Gods, they told her.  Do not worship us.

            She could feel her desire to worship them, to believe in something solid and real.  And how was Atana involved in all of this?  Was the Goddess real?

            Her mind whirled with questions.

            A sharp pain sliced through her like a knife cutting her soft organs.  She shook like in the maw of a great predator.  Her eyes rolled to the back of her head and she saw no more.

***

            Toyus grappled for control of his fear and impatience.

            Itina was sobbing disconsolately and the sound of her sobs was grating on his nerves.

            He bent and picked up his mother’s slack body, carrying it down the hall to her bedroom, where he lay her on the bed and covered her with blankets up to her chin.  If she was in some sort of sleep then her body temperature would plummet.  He needed to keep her warm until she awakened once more.  

            His siblings had followed him into the room and stood awkwardly around the footrest.

            He pressed his ear to his mother’s chest and closed his eyes.  He could not hear a heartbeat, so he pressed the tips of his fingers to her neck.  He felt nothing.  He went hot and cold at once.  To distract himself, he wiped the foam from the corner of her mouth.  Her skin was waxy and pale, with the sheen of perspiration, but it was cold as well.

            “What do we do, Toyus?” Pren asked.

            Toyus turned to his brother.  “We wait five days, as she asked.  If, after five days, her body decomposes or she won’t awaken, we contact father.”

            Emeida wrapped her arms around her slender body.  “Decomposes?”

            Toyus sighed.  “If she died, she will decompose.  If her body remains fresh, then she has not died.”

            Soena wrapped her arm around her twin’s shoulders.  “How can you sound so callous? This is mother.”

            He rounded on her.  “I tried to dissuade her, Soena.  Did she listen to me?  No.  Goddess damn you, do you think I don’t love Aya?”

            His sister’s eyes grew round.  “I’m sorry.”

            “She told me not to bury her right away, to give her five days, so I will.”

            “Call father, Toyus,” Pren suggested.  “Tell him, please.  We need father!”

            Toyus started.  Pren had never acted more than serious and in control.  His younger brother’s eyes gleamed with unshed tears and he looked all of his seventeen years.

            Emeida took a step towards him.  “Do as Pren says, brother.  Please.”

            Soena nodded.  “If the Sentinels are on their way, we need a seventh.  Maybe the seventh is Father.”

            Toyus swallowed.  “What if it isn’t?”

            Pren scowled.  “This is Father, Toyus.  Our father.”

            “I know,” Toyus assured his brother.

            He took in his siblings’ pleading looks and sighed.  “Very well.  I’ll send a servant to fetch him.”

            Pren released a breath.  “Thank you, Toyus.”

            Toyus nodded.  “I’ll be back.”

            He went out into the hallway and then into the yard, where he found Besen and his son, Oskel, raking leaves in the yard.

            The servants stopped and bowed.

            “May we be of assistance, my lord?” Oskel asked.

            “Yes, Oskel.  Can you go into the city and fetch our father?  Mother has fallen ill.”

            The young servant glanced at his father and back at Toyus and bowed again.  “Right away, sir.  Do I fetch a healer?”

            Toyus shook his head.  “Father only please.”

            “Right away, sir.”

            Toyus returned to his mother’s suites.

            Warlord Moyen arrived near midday, riding his bahil into a lather.  He jumped from the saddle before the beast had even stopped and threw the reins at Besen.  

            “Oskel is right behind me,” he told the servant.

            Besen bowed.  “Very good, my lord.  Your children are in the Queen’s suites.”

            Moyen jogged to Malida’s suites and burst through the door, startling the children.

            “Eda!” Pren cried.

            “What is going on?” Moyen demanded.

            “Calm down, Eda,” Toyus said.

            The Warlord scowled.  “Do not tell me what to do, boy.”  His eyes trailed to the bed, where Malida lay under blankets, looking impossibly pale.  He paused.  “What is wrong with your mother?”

            “It’s a long story, Eda,” Toyus told him.

            Moyen released an impatient breath.  “Then begin, blast it!  I need to know what is going on here!”

            “Have a seat, Eda,” Toyus asked.

            Moyen frowned at his oldest, but something in the young man’s gaze made him comply without fuss.

            Toyus told him everything, his siblings piping up every once in a while.

            Moyen gaped, his mind barely able to grasp what his oldest son and heir was telling him. His wife had deliberately poisoned herself because of her visions.  Was Othol correct?  Was she mad?

            He rose.  “I’ll send for a healer.  Why has none of you sent for a healer?  Are you mad as well?”

            Toyus stiffened.  “And that is why she didn’t confide in you, Eda.  You don’t believe her.”

            “Fool of a boy,” he snarled.  “She poisoned herself.  What person in their right mind poisons themselves?”

            Toyus paused and sighed.  “Father, please.  Mother is perfectly sane.  Trust her.  Trust us, please.  Wait here.”

            The young man went to the trunk at the foot of the bed and lifted the lid, reaching within.  He withdrew a tome and closed the lid, walking to where Moyen sat and handing him the tome.

            Moyen read the cover, Ishones Thul, by Belihn Ekesj.

            He glanced at Toyus.  “What is this?”

            “In Mother’s vision,” Toyus replied.  “Belihn told her about this book.  She found it in the castle vault.  It’s several hundred years old, Father.  If the Visions aren’t true, how did she know about this book?  How is this book even possible?”

            Moyen opened the first page and read:

            In 310 years a descendant will find this book.  Her name is Malida Ekesj.  She will awaken the Sentinels when the Sha’jeen arrive from space.  The battle between the Sentinels and the Sha’jeen will shake the very foundations of the world.  This book is for Malida Ekesj and are instructions for awakening magic. The poems that follow show the way.  Everything is clear to those who See and Believe.  The rest will never know or understand.

            Moyen went hot and cold.  The pages and the ink were old, yellowed and faded.  He grappled with his thoughts, shaken to his core.  

            Malida had not trusted him with something so vast and impossible.  He grimaced, recalling his reactions to her telling the council about her Vision, about an alien race coming from the stars.  Goddess preserve, had all she said been true?  He went cold inside and glanced helplessly at his oldest.

            “Why did she poison herself?” he asked numbly, thinking she had been in despair.

            “Look at page twenty, Eda,” the boy replied.

            Numbly, Moyen did as he was told.  He saw the drawing of an okre leaf.    

            Through the okre leaf lies the door to magic.  Through death awakens power and sight.  Mash the okre leaf in a mortar and pestle and steep in boiling water for half an hour.  Drink.  You will step through a door into the future.

            He looked helplessly at his heir.  

            “We are all going to do this, Father,” Toyus told him.  “If Mother survives.  We are six; we need a seventh to counterpart the Sentinels.  Fourteen is a holy number.”

            Moyen slowly closed the book.  “How long before we know?”

            “One to five days,” Toyus replied.  “If on the fifth day she doesn’t awaken…then we call a healer.”

            Moyen scrubbed his face with a hand.  “By then she could have brain damage–“

            “Trust her, Father.  I beg of you.”

            Moyen looked at Malida’s still form.  He was paralyzed with indecision, which was not like him at all.  He looked helplessly at his oldest.

            “Let me send word to my second,” he said.  “I’ll remain here as long as Malida does.  If she survives, I’ll imbibe the poison as well.”

            Toyus broke into a relieved grin.  “Thank you, Eda.”

            Moyen sighed and nodded.  “Goddess help me, I don’t know quite what to believe.”

Chapter IV: The Rise of the Sentinels

            283.2 million miles away, a large vessel passed the second moon of the nearest planet to Odyssey’s Fall and broke through the laser marker of the two closest satellites.  When the laser light was interrupted, a signal was sent to the small moon of Odyssey’s Fall, a planet colonized by Earth nearly 15,000 years prior.  The signal woke the computers stored in a large, deep cave of the moon.  The computers were vast, taking up most of the cave.  They had been covered with thick black sheets of plastic and moored by strong tape.  The plastic kept the computers mostly pristine.  Seven pods rested in a smaller adjoining cave.  An artificial gravity kept the computers and pods resting on the ground of the caves.  When the computers awakened, the pods triggered as well.  Slowly, the dusty covers of the pods slid open, revealing seven cyborgs.  The artificial atmosphere in the caves triggered on, sealing the caves from the outside.  Large containers nearby stored suits and oxygen cannisters.  

            Each pod was labeled with its inhabitant’s name.  The seven cyborgs were called Sentinels, Series Four.  The first cyborg, a female by the name of Ariahl, awoke.  Her eyes sprang open and she took a deep breath which dissolved into spasmodic coughing.  The girl pulled electrodes from her human arm, neck and head, and fell onto the dusty cave floor.  Coughs wracked her body and soon she was vomiting fluid from her lungs.  She wiped her mouth and sat back against the pod, wiping sweat from her forehead and neck.  Her metal arm shone blue in the low light of the cave, as did her metal legs.  Her skin was the shade of coffee with cream.  Her kinky hair was worn cropped short to the skull.  Her brown eyes took in the cave without recognition and, slowly, she began to recall.

            She rose slowly and closed the lid of the pod, wiping the dust off to read her name.

            “Ariahl,” she whispered.

            She looked around the sealed cave and saw six other pods.  She walked carefully to the cave entrance and through it to the larger cave.  Slowly, she began to remove the plastic covering from the mainframe and took a seat in a swivel chair before the control board. She pressed a blue button on the display and looked up at the large monitors.  The vast vessel that filled the screen was unfamiliar, shaped like seeds without windows.  There were no words on the side of the vessel, so Ariahl doubted the vessel was from Earth.  

            She watched for several minutes, counting five vessels in all.  They were huge, with sails to capture the solar winds.  The sails were open.

            Ariahl rose and walked carefully to the smaller cave, where she went to her chest and withdrew a black and silver uniform, pulling it over her slender, naked form.  Lastly, she pulled boots over her metal feet.

            She turned to the other pods and began to wake them, starting with Derik.  Then she stood back as the pods awoke each inhabitant.

            Each cyborg awoke in the manner she had:  taking deep breaths, coughing up the fluid in the lungs.  At first there was confusion, followed by recall as the chips in their minds supplied memories.  

            She watched impassively as Derik stumbled from his pod, fell to his knees and vomited violently.

            The others followed:  Mariel, Topon, Kaster, Sol, and Ishel.  Each cyborg represented the major races of Earth:  Ariahl represented North Africa; Derek represented China; Mariel represented South America; Topon represented Southeast Asia; Kaster and Sol represented Europe; Ishel represented the Middle East.  

            “What woke us?” Derik asked, voice rough from disuse.

            Ariahl flicked him a glance while maintaining her full attention on the others as they woke.  “There are vessels headed this way. They broke past the markers.”

            “Earth vessels?” Derik asked.

            Ariahl shook her head.  “They do not have names on the shell of the ships.  I don’t think they are from Earth.”

            Derik sucked in a surprised breath but said no more as he and Ariahl assisted the others.  Soon they were in the larger cave, dressed and sitting around a large round table on seven uncomfortable plastic chairs.  

            “What does this mean?” Mariel asked with her soft Latino accent.  She, like Ariahl and the rest of the Sentinels, kept her hair cropped tightly against her skull.

            Ariahl looked at each of her companions.  “We are to monitor the situation.  If the aliens come with violent intent, we must act to assist the descendants of Odyssey’s Fall.”

            Sol opened and closed his human hand, working a kink.  He looked at Ariahl.  “How long have we slept?”

            “15,000 years, give or take,” Ariahl replied,taking in their reactions.

            Kaster shook his head.  “No one has awaken us since then?  We may have been forgotten by Earth.”

            Topon nodded, his dark almond-shaped eyes flashing.   “More than likely Odyssey’s Fall is a lost colony.”

            Sol leaned forward and put both forearms on the table.  “We should head to the planet so the aliens don’t spot us.”

            “We are to remain here and observe,” Ariahl reminded him gently.

            Mariel made a sound in her throat and sat back in her chair.  “I disagree.  If the aliens are hostile, our tiny shuttle will be shot down or captured.  We should go to the planet before the aliens get here.”

            Ariahl shifted.  “We’ll take a vote.”

            Ariahl and Topon voted to remain on the moon and observe, while the others dissented.  So it was agreed to power up the shuttle and head to the planet before long sensors could detect them.

            They rose as one.

            Kaster and Ishel sealed the computers once more with the thick plastic, turning them to sleep status so they would not be detected.  Topon and Mariel went into the smaller cave to seal the pods before following the others to the third and largest cave, where their shuttle awaited, sealed beneath thick plastic.  The shuttle was a vibrant blue and it was called Little Odyssey, the words written in English on the sides of the ship.  

            Ariahl and Mariel were pilot and copilot, while the others sat behind their computers and began to research the planet nearby.

            “What about our other colony in the second habitable planet of the solar system?” Kaster asked.

            Ariahl pressed the red button on her console and the shuttle hummed to life. “They have their Sentinels, which should have been awakened by now.”

            Sol leaned forward.  “Should we confer with them?”

            Ariahl nodded.  “Let’s get down to our own planet and see what we can see.  We will have to touch base with our counterparts eventually.”

            She pressed another button and the shuttle gave a shake like a great cat awaking.  The cave entrance was large enough for the shuttle to pass through.  Beyond the vast cave mouth, the gray satellite was still.  They saw the large blue white planet in the horizon.  Slowly, the shuttle began to roll out into the plain beyond.  The soft ground of the moon had pebbles that pulverized under the shuttle’s thick tires as it rolled away from the cave.

            “We’ll find the night side,” Ariahl told his companions.  “We’ll come in dark.  Can you find us the cave designated for hiding our shuttle, Derik?”

            “On it,” Derik replied and bent to his task.

            The shuttle rose from the surface of the moon, a cloud of dust rising in their wake.  Ariahl and Mariel maneuvered the shuttle southwest.  The ship soundlessly turned and sped away from the moon.

            “The cave is on the night side of the planet,” Derik informed them.  “There is a grass plain nearby and the ocean not too far.”

            “What about cities?” Sol inquired.

            “There are heat signatures large enough to signify settlements,” Ishel replied.  “Some lights, too.  Not electricity, though.  The settlement seems primitive.”

            “We surmise that would happen,” Mariel told him.  “There are no satellites around the planet.  I wonder if the sister planet evolved.”

            “Doubtful,” Kaster said.  “There has been no stellar exploration or we would have been awakened before now.  Besides, if the other planet’s civilization made it to the stars, our counterparts would have warned us.”

            “You speak truth,” Topon piped up.  “I wonder if Earth is dead now and how many other colonies they managed to found.”

            They looked at one another in silence before turning back to their consoles.  

            After a few minutes, Ishel said:  “If they left Earth alone, I think she will recover.”

            “It is the hope,” Ariahl told him, but she did not say she believed it and doubt clung to the silence.

            As they approached Odyssey’s Fall, the planet loomed dark with few lights on her surface.  She seemed unspoiled, for which Ariahl was absurdly grateful. She recalled the polluted and spoiled face of old Earth and shuddered.  They broke through the atmosphere and the shuttle shook, her lights blinking on and off for a few seconds before re-stabilizing.  They glided silently through a bank of clouds. The sky filled with stars and the moon hung near the horizon.  The shuttle careened to the left and then glided back.  Beneath them, the clouds parted and a dark land appeared.  In the distance, there were some lights.  Soft rain fell and the wind gently batted at the metal skin of the shuttle.  

            Ariahl and Mariel set the shuttle down on a field filled with tall grasses and a few copses of trees.  

            Topon and Sol ran tests on the atmosphere and found the air clean with minimal traces of pollution.  They rose from their seats and stepped down onto the ground.  Ariahl gasped as the weight of the atmosphere settled over her.  Her metal legs were made to support her under most atmospheres, but it would take her flesh and blood a while to acclimate.

            “When are the aliens slated to arrive?” Kaster asked.

            Ariahl consulted her brain chips.  “In a few months.  We need to find the ones who know.  We need to hide the shuttle and seal it against the elements.  Then we need to learn the language.”  She turned to Derik.  “Where is the cave?”

            He consulted his hand console and turned west, pointing.  “That way, ten miles. In a seaward cave.”

            Mariel shifted.  “We have to be very careful sealing the shuttle against the elements.”

            “Let’s go find this cave.  We might have to blast its opening to widen it,” Ariahl said and turned back to the shuttle.

            They found the cave among a series of interconnected abandoned caves.  Indeed, as Ariahl had predicted, they had to hover the shuttle near the cave entrance and blast the opening wider.  But the cave was located on the seaward face of a series of cliffs whose faces were largely insurmountable.  There might be a different way to access the cave, which they would find.  Where humans could not go, Sentinels always could.  When they stepped out of the shuttle, they found the cave slick with moisture and slime, the walls and floor covered here and there with algae.  Puddles littered the uneven floor.  The Sentinels packed their travel bags and began the laborious task of sealing the shuttle against the wear and tear of the elements.  Once the shuttle was sealed, they found another entrance to the cave about 1.5 mile to the south, through a dark, dank passageway.  Once outside the cave, they sealed the entrance with a rockslide.  

            They wore jumpsuits of different colors designating their different ranks and duties:  Ariahl, being captain, wore black and silver;  Mariel, being second in command, wore silver and black;  Kaster, being a doctor, wore light blue;   Derik, being engineer, wore dark blue;  Topon, being xenobiologist, wore dark green;  Sol, being xenopsychologist, wore light green;  Ishel, being a xenolinguist, wore a yellow green.  

            They paused at the collapsed entrance to the cave and looked at one another.  

            Ariahl turned to Ishel.  “How long will it take you to decipher the language or languages?”

            “I just need a few samples,” Ishel replied.  “My guess is that there should be a main language, a descendant of English.  We shall see.”

            Ariahl nodded and sighed.  “Let’s head towards the largest settlement.”  She turned to Topon.  “Which way, Topon?”        

            He consulted his console.  “There is large heat mass to the northeast.  My senses tell me we should go there.  Someone knows what all this means, and she lives there.  My intuition and instincts tell me this.”

            “Mine have awoken as well,” Mariel told them, flicking a glance at Ariahl.  “The one we seek knows about the aliens and us.  She is connected genetically to all of us.  My chips are whirring awake.”

            Sol’s glance had grown distant.  “Yes…I see it.”

            Ariahl strapped on her backpack.  “Then we should head northeast.”  She glanced up at the dark sky.  It was raining softly, and the temperatures were frigid, but they felt little of it, for they were mostly metal and plastic.  She felt the cold in her left arm and her neck and chest and face.  She heated the metal in her body to ward off the cold.  She turned her back to her companions and began the trek to the northeast along the seashore.  They others followed behind her.

Chapter III: The Lesser Husband

            Othol ran his hands over Sjona’s arms and the girl shivered.  He smirked, cupping her small breasts and squeezing gently.  It had been absurdly easy to seduce Malida’s younger sister.  She was a shy, reserved girl, clumsy and socially awkward.   She was pretty, too, so it was no hardship, but Goddess!  She bored him to tears.  At thirty, she was way too old to fuck.  

            He bent her until her chest was pressed to the mattress and fingered her sex.  She gasped and moaned.  He thrust into her tight heat with three fingers, his mind a million miles away.  

            Approaching the Council would take finesse.  His smirk widened.  Malida had given him the perfect excuse to remove her from the throne and, knowing her, she would not be able to refrain from her getting in her own way.  She was absurdly moral and committed.  She would be her own worst enemy, unable to silence her thoughts and unable to let go of her ridiculous vision.  He had almost crowed with glee when she had revealed her Vision and admitted to believing it.  And now she was gone for a month, leaving Moyen in charge.

            He removed his fingers from Sjona’s ouna and lined his kaoun to her hot, slick flesh, thrusting without preamble.  She cried out and wriggled, glancing at him over her shoulder.

            He refrained from rolling his eyes at the actions she construed as alluring.  For a thirty year old woman, Sjona was surprisingly naive.

            He allowed his thoughts to wander again.  He pictured himself sitting on the throne, holding the scepter and orb, and his kauon got hard as stone.  He bit his lip to keep from laughing.  Sjona thought she had him wrapped around her little finger, but the only thing that made him truly aroused, beside very young girls, was the thought of power.  Moyen did not want the throne, being absurdly devoted to his role of Warlord.  He would get Malida deposed and then ascend to the throne, marrying Sjona to solidify his rule.  All he had to do was plant the seed of doubt in the Council’s mind.  If Malida was mad, then her children were susceptible to lunacy as well.  He frowned.  Toyus was stolid, though, and might oppose him.  But there was always poison.

            Sjona had wanted nothing but attention.  It had taken him but a few weeks to convince her that she wanted to be queen.  He would fill her womb with a child and she would be set to one side. He was of the mindset that women should not rule.  They were weak and emotional; look at Malida, believing fantastical visions and fantasies.  Soft on the poorest of the poor, absurdly devoted to her soldiers.  Soldiers were tools, that’s all. He would impose the caste laws once more, which would allow him to tax the commoners like they ought to be taxed and allow the clans to rise to their former power and glory.  He was a child of Clan Ethael, but he had been forced to take Malida’s surname when he married her.  A surname brought from Yllysia, of all places.  It was foreign and of impure lineage.  Clan Ethael traced its history back before the founding of Torahn.

            Once he brought back the caste laws, the clans would back him and he would be supreme, untouchable and ruthless.  The first thing he would do would be to remove Moyen from his post and exile Clan Ekesj.  He had a younger brother in the armed forces who shared his beliefs and he would make a fine Warlord.  And all of it would be done without a drop of blood.

            His thoughts made him thrust harder and harder into her until he was on the brink of his completion.   He reached down and fingered her to speed her completion as well.  Her moans rose like a litany over the large bedroom.  Pretty soon, he was stuttering as he came, bathing her insides with his seed.  Hopefully, his seed would take root now that he had convinced her to stop taking her pregnancy suppressing tea.  He pulled out of her and slapped her pert bottom.  She yelped and he laughed.

            She dropped onto the mattress, her fingers furiously working her ouna.

            He turned from her and picked up his clothes, striding to the adjoining bathing chamber to wash her musk from his skin.  He bathed in cold water, his mind planning so furiously, he hardly felt the icy water pelting his skin.  When he was done bathing, he dressed and left Sjona’s suites, making his way down the hall to his own apartments.  He needed to write his brother in the army to set up a meeting.  He would not commit to writing any of his schemes.  Any letter could be intercepted and his plans would die before ever seeing the light of day.

            Once in his study, he locked the door and went to his desk, where he pulled out a sheet of paper and began to write, asking when his brother had a day off to join him for dinner.  Then he poured fine sand over the ink to absorb the excess, setting the note to one side to dry.  Rising from his chair, he went to the window to gaze out at the snow falling softly and silently onto the bailey.  His brother was absurdly devoted to the Warlord, so he had to proceed cautiously to convince him to join forces.  The good thing about Thelon was that he shared Othol’s beliefs about the clans and the caste laws.  It wouldn’t take too much convincing, he didn’t think, to get his brother onboard.  He would also write to his father in Kuin-on-the-H’aj.  His father was conservative in his views and barely tolerated paying taxes to a woman.  He treated his servants as they should be treated and taxed the denizens of the city as they ought to be taxed.  His father had taught him his morals and beliefs and Othol would get no arguments from him.  He sighed, remembering when his father heard Othol had taken Malida’s surname.  The old man had been livid.  It had taken Othol a long time to convince him that he had plans and his plans involved returning glory to the clans.  His relationship with his sire remained strained to this day but, once he was king, his father would mend that fence.  He was sure of it.

            Turning back to the desk, he thought of Sjona.  The idea of being married to her made his blood run cold.  She was so empty and inane.  Did he really need her?  Perhaps at first, he thought.  A bit of poison would take care of her, but only once she gave him a child.  Then he could find a girl who was meek and docile and would allow herself to be controlled, a girl from a pure line, a daughter of the clans.  He smiled.  His time of pretending, of keeping his mouth closed, was coming to an end.  He could envision the freedoms that would fill his days.  One of the first things he would do, right after ascending the clans to their rightful place, was to amass a harem.  Then he could fuck to his heart’s content and stop sneaking around like it was some sort of sin.  Women’s freedoms would be stripped away, like the commoners’ rights would.  And he would dismiss the House of Commons.  His rule would be a Theocratic Aristocracy.  He would be sole ruler with the clans and the Church advising him.  His rule would evolve into a monarchy and his descendants would then make the Ethaels the most powerful of the clans.  Eventually, only the Ethaels would rule.  His kaoun got hard in his trousers and he smirked, reaching down to adjust his erection.  Perhaps he would visit a brothel this night, where a girl would accept to be fucked up the ass if he paid enough.  And soon enough he would not have to pay at all.

            He rubbed his hands and returned to his desk.  He pulled his chain out from under his tunic and unhooked his desk key.  He unlocked the top drawer and removed his journal.  He continued to write down laws and ideas for laws, but he also wrote down his plans for the future.  He had three girls in mind for a possible wife.  Two were the tender age of twelve but already showed promise.  They were clan daughters, docile and meek, and beautiful as a sunrise.  The third was fifteen, ripe for marriage.  He frowned and wrote down another idea to lower women’s marriageable age to twelve.  If they bled, they were old enough to marry.  He wanted a large brood of children, so perhaps all three girls could become his wives.  He narrowed his eyes.  Once he was king, the clans would not demand a bride price.  He would get five children per girl, which would be plenty.  Once he was tired of them, he would put his harem together.  

            He set the pen in its holder and rubbed his hands together briskly.  He sneered.  Malida had given him the world.  It made all the times he lied and agreed with her ideas worth it.  The lies he had voiced to get her to marry him!  Equality of the sexes.  Suffrage for the common rabble.  Greater power for the House of Commons.  Lesser taxes until Draemin City was eclipsed by other cities.  It was intolerable!  He scowled.  Things would change and for the better.  He would see to that.

            He slid the letter to his brother into its envelope and sealed it using his family crest in green wax.  

            He would confide his plans to his brother and gauge if he had an ally in him. If not, then he would have to silence him and swiftly.  No one was worth losing his future to.  No one.

            Rising, he strode to the hallway door and handed the letter to a passing servant, giving directions to have it delivered to his brother.  He dropped a coin onto the servants palm and refrained from scowling.  He would have to put an end to that and soon enough.

            Going back inside the study, he pulled his cloak from its hook on the wall and pulled it on, fastening it at the collarbone before striding out into the sitting room.

            “Will my lord be dining here tonight,” his butler asked.

            “No.  I’ll be eating in town,” he replied tersely, brushing past the servant.

            “Very good, sir,” the butler replied and bowed.

            Down in the Great Hall, he noted which of the courtiers were his supporters and which were not.  He would have to reward loyalty, especially in the beginning.  All of his supporters were men of the clans.  Some had tried unsuccessfully to bed him.  He sneered.  Filthy atoliy.  When he became king, it would become a sin and punishable by death to be atoliy.  That would put them in their place.  The idea of lying sexually with another man filled him with a cold disgust.  He had had to flirt with these sinners in order to garner supporters, letting some cup his flaccid kaoun or his bottom, letting them corner him and kiss him.  He shuddered.  He would personally plunge his dagger into the hearts of every one of the men who had used him thusly.  When he became king, Atana would be wiped from North Torahn.  He refused to worship a goddess. The God Poa would return to Torahn in all His glory.  He would choose the bloodiest incarnation of the God, too.  Poa the Harvester.  On his altar, he would sacrifice anyone who refused to worship Him, every single atoliy, every single person who refused to back his government.  He would bathe North Torahn in blood and cleanse the land of impurities.  

            He climbed into a free carriage.  First things first.  He needed to slake his sexual thirst with the youngest whore he could find.  Then he would see to his future.

Chapter II: Revelation

            Queen Malida called her Council to the War Room the next morning.  Toyus had been on patrol the previous night and had not been able to meet with her.  She thought of the book hidden in a locked drawer of her wardrobe.  Shivers rushed over her skin.  Two keys now hung from the chain around her neck: the key to the Book and the key to the wardrobe.  She touched them through the thick cloth of her bodice.  Her full skirt swept the floor as she made her way down the hallway to the main floor of Draemin Castle, four guards behind her and four guards leading the way.  Like purportedly Belihn’s mother had done, Malida went barefoot under her skirts.  The act of going barefoot connected her to something solid and gave her courage.  She had always done so when she was unsure or perturbed, and she had never been so unsure or perturbed as she was now.

            The little entourage swept into the main hallway towards the Great Hall.  Servants and courtiers curtsied or bowed as she walked past.  She hardly noticed them, her mind so astir with conflicting thoughts.  She thought of Belihn’s warning that she would be betrayed by her heart.  It disturbed her deeply and she wondered who in her Council would betray her.  Perhaps it would be one of her children, although that thought seemed inconceivable to her.  

            When they arrived at the War Room, one of the four guards who led the procession opened the door and bowed, stepping to one side to allow her entrance.

            Her Council was already within the room.  They rose when she swept in and she ran her eyes over the congregation with suspicion and curiosity.  Her Council was made up of Moyen, her first husband and Warlord of North Torahn, Othol, her second husband, Sjona, her younger sister, Yvar’h, Tehn and Kol, her younger brothers, and two religious counselors, Osjon and Berin, who had been like fathers to her when her actual father had passed on.  The two serrens were old but still strong and capable.

            She hurried to her chair which stood on the other side of the round table.  She sat and motioned for the Council to sit as well, then she indicated that the guards should exit and close the hall door.

            Once they were ensconced in the room, she ran her eyes over the people who had assisted her in ruling for twenty years.  The only two who had not been with her from the beginning had been her sister Sjona, who had been ten when Malida ascended to the throne, and Othol, whom Malida married ten years after becoming Queen.  She wondered whom in the Council would betray her and how.  She struggled to control her emotions and swallowed thickly.

            Warlord Moyen placed his hand on hers.  “Are you alright, Malida?”

            She sighed and pulled her hand free.  She no longer trusted anyone in that room and the thought was deeply troubling.

            “I was given my Vision,” she stated without preamble.  “What I am about to tell you will shock you, but I must have you know.  In my Vision I was visited by Belihn Ekesj.  He came to tell me we will be invaded by a people who are stellar nomads.  They seek genetic material and food.”

            Warlord Moyen sat back in his chair.  “Surely, we have enough food to share.”

            Othol snorted.  “Stellar nomads, Moyen?  Space travelers?  Really?”

            One of the priests, Osjon, cleared his throat.  “Are you questioning the Goddess’ Oracle, Othol Ekesj?”

            Othol shook his head.  “I’m saying Visions are metaphorical–“

            “These Visions were not metaphors,” Malida interrupted him.  “Belihn was frank and clear.”

            Serren Berin placed his knobby hands on the table.  “That is not how Visions work, my Queen.”

            Malida sighed.  “Listen, I saw something and I am trying to tell you it was a warning.  You ignore it to the peril of every sentient being on this planet.”

            Othol leaned forward.  “You were fasting and under the influence of a drug.  How can we take anything you say seriously?”

            Malida flushed.  “You forget yourself, Counselor.”

            Blood suffused Othol’s handsome features.  He bowed.  “Apologies, my Queen.  I am trying to be reasonable.”

            Her brother Yvar’h shifted in his chair.  “Let’s say this Vision was clear, my Queen.  As the Warlord has stated, we’ve plenty of food to share.”

            She splayed her hands on the glossy tabletop.  “Please let me finish.”  She took a deep breath to steady her growing alarm.  She looked around the room, at every face she loved.  “They come to harvest the planet.”

            Her brother Tehn, whom Toyus resembled so, cocked his head.  “What does that mean, my Queen?”

            She took a deep, bracing breath.  “They–”  Her mind was assailed by images of the Sha’jeen feasting on the bodies of beings and shivered.  “They harvest intelligent beings.”

            A silence befell the room.  Her Councilors looked at one another.  

            Her sister slammed her hand on the tabletop.  “Be clear, Malida, please.”

            Malida frowned.  Sjona had grown impatient with her of late, recalcitrant and distant.  

            “Very well,” Malida said.  “These beings once upon a time grew food on their ships, but a disease killed all the food and they resorted to cannibalism.  Eventually, their cannibalism became the norm.  After that, they no longer traveled the universe for knowledge, but for food.  They eat sentient beings because they believe it imparts to them longevity and intelligence.”

            Othol flushed and looked away, his eyes containing some emotion he did not want anyone to see.

            “But they are also a dying race, unable to procreate much and every generation thins their numbers.  Thus, they come seeking genetic material to bolster their ability to procreate.”

            Othol snorted again and shook his head.  “We’re to take this fantasy as reality and gather our forces to fight a dream?”  His gray eyes flicked to Malida.  “You believe this?”

            She jutted her chin.  “Yes.”

            “Then you are mad,” Othol declared.  

            Malida felt her face heat.

            “You speak treason,” her youngest brother, Kol, stated with deceptive calm.  His eyes flashed with ire.

            Othol turned to the younger man.  “You’d follow a mad queen, would you, Kol?  You were always a fool.”

            Osjon rose.  “That’s enough.”  The old man had developed a palsy in the last few years and now shook more than he normally did. Malida realized he was upset.  The old man looked around the table.  “The Holy Soulkah tells us we came from the stars–“

            “That’s a myth!” Othol shouted.

            Warlord Moyen rose, his hand on the pommel of his sword.  “You will not disrespect a serren and fellow Counselor.  I will have you dragged from this room and into a cell faster than you can protest, Othol.  Do I make myself clear?”

            Othol gave a mocking bow.  “Eminently, Warlord.”

            Moyen gave a terse nod and looked at Malida again.  He retook his seat.  “Please continue, my Queen.”

            Malida waited until all attention was on her once more.  “The arrival of the Sha’jeen will awaken the Sentinels–“

            Othol threw his hands up in the air.  “That’s it for me.”  He rose.  “The Sentinels are a myth to frighten children.  I won’t listen to this drivel any longer.”

            He stalked from the room, slamming the hall door behind him.

            Sjona rose.  “I’ll go talk to him.”    

            She hurried away.

            Malida rubbed her forehead peevishly.  “I know this is all fantastical, but the dream felt true to me.  I want to be prepared.”

            Warlord Moyen looked at her. “And how will we prepare ourselves, my Queen?  Our technology won’t be able to compete with such advanced beings.  What is the purpose of frightening the populace over something that may not be true and, if it is true, we cannot defend against?”

            Malida’s throat burned with the need to weep.  Of course, Moyen would point out the obvious.  She looked around the table and knew she could not tell them about the Book.  She would heed Belihn’s warning.

            “What do we do then?” she asked helplessly.

            “Surely they can’t kill all of us,” Tehn stated.

            She frowned.  “And you will stand by while our citizens are harvested?”

            “They will surely spare those who rule for the sake of convenience?” Yvar’h piped up.

            She released a breath.  “So you think they will spare us and take others?  You’re alright with that, are you, brother?”

            Yvar’h scowled.  “I don’t believe any of this. It’s a waste of time.  Had there been life on other worlds, surely someone would have reached us by now.”  He rose.  “I am not going to alarm my family or anyone with this fantasy of yours, Malida, nor will I set aside funds to prepare for something that is too fantastical to be real!  I am with Othol in this.  If you insist on pursuing this line of action, you will be branded mad and deposed.”  He looked at the rest of the Council.  “Who stands with me?”

            Kol and Tehn rose in unison, followed by Moyen.  Finally, with much reluctance, Osjon and Berin rose.

            Malida, despite having known it would be difficult to convince her Council, was hurt to her core.  She straightened her back.

            “Don’t speak, Malida,” Osjon said gently.  “Think on your words carefully.  People have gone mad before from the purification rituals and the Visions.  I’m not saying you are mad, but I have my doubts right now.  We will not speak of this outside of these walls and you will go on ruling as you have.”

            She rose and leaned against the table.  “But what if what I say is true?”

            Yvar’h slammed his hand on the table.  “Then you are mad, sister.  Tread carefully here on in.”

            Except for Osjon, the rest of the Council exited the room, leaving Malida struggling with frustration and a crippling fear that clogged her throat.

            Osjon signed and hobbled around the table to where she stood.  He used a staff to steady himself and now he thumped the staff on the stone floor twice.

            Malida started and turned to him.

            “We will council you, Berin and I, on how to find your sanity.”  He shook his head.  “We will pray.  You were so young when you became Queen and the office has been a heavy burden on your shoulders.  The rigors of the purification ritual are demanding.  The drug makes all the dreams seem real and possible, Malida, but they are metaphors, as Othol stated.  There are days when I wonder if the Goddess is even real.”

            She gasped, bringing her hands to her mouth to stifle a scream from spilling out.  The blasphemy cut through her.

            “Of course,” he continued conversationally.  “If you say this about me, I will deny it.  I am an old man and I have been devout all my life.  In gratitude, our Goddess plagues me with palsy and lack of balance, aches and pains and a dimming eyesight.  She hasn’t been kind to me.”  He looked into her eyes.  “Tread carefully, my Queen.  This is my only warning to you.”

            She watched as he limped out of the room, closing the hallway door carefully.

***

            “You wanted to see me, Aya,” Toyus asked as he walked into the sitting room of Malida’s apartments.

            She rose and ran to him, throwing her arms around his shoulders.  She began to sob in earnest, and he held her, his strong arms around her waist.

            “Aya, what is wrong?” he asked.

            She struggled to control herself and pulled back, looking up at his beautiful features with tearful eyes. He strongly resembled their ancestor, Kah’len Thalmar.

            “Please sit with me.  I have to talk to you.”

            They sat side by side on a loveseat and she dismissed all the servants.

            When the servants left, she turned to her firstborn.  “I had troubling visions when I underwent the purification ritual. I was sent a warning, Toyus, but no one in my Council believes or supports me.”

            He took her hand.  “Tell me, Aya.”

            She told him of the Vision, of Ishones Thul, of the Sentinels awakening, of his role and her role.

            Once she was done, he sat back in his seat and blew out a breath.  “I must confess, Aya, this is all fantastical.  I’m having a hard time believing in it.”

            “Then how do you account for The Book of Dreams and my finding it?” she challenged.

            He shook his head.  “I can’t.  And that is the one aspect that makes me question my doubt.  Why didn’t you tell the Council about the Book?”

            “Because I was warned by Belihn that someone will betray me,” she replied.  “I can only trust you, Toyus.  I can’t trust anyone else.”

            He sighed.  “They were awfully swift in proclaiming you mad, weren’t they?”

            She rubbed her bare arms.  “I can’t blame them.  It is all so strange and fey.”  She rose.  “Come with me Toyus.”

            She led him to her bedroom, where she unlocked the wardrobe drawer and removed the Book.  They sat side by side on the bed and she unlocked the Book and opened it.

            He ran his hand reverently over Belihn Ekesj’s name.  “He is real.  This is his handwriting.”

            “Yes,” she said, turning a page.  She began to read out loud.

            “These are the words of my dreams.  The blood soaked dreams of the future.  In these pages you will find the Truth and the Way.  Magic is real and I will show you how to attain it.”

            “Magic?” Toyus asked, frowning.  “Mother–“

            “Belihn warned his words would be couched in metaphors, poetry and language that had to be deciphered.  Perhaps magic refers to a weapon of some sort.  To us, a much advanced weapon would seem magical.”

            He licked his lips.  “What if he meant true and actual magic?”

            “I don’t know,” she confessed.  “I will have to read the Book to make sure.”

            He rubbed his face with his hands and sighed.  “This is terrible news, Aya.  How long did Belihn say it would be before the aliens get here?”

            “Six months,” she replied.  “I have to decipher this Book in short order and teach you and your siblings what you need to know.”  She rose.  “Have your siblings meet me at the villa in a week’s time. I will speak to them then.”        

            “You’d trust them, Aya?” Toyus asked.

            “We can’t do this on our own, child,” she replied.  “There are seven Sentinels. We need seven of us to complement their number.”

            “What does the number 14 mean?” Toyus asked.  “You are High Priestess.”

            “Fourteen means independence and self-determination, freedom,” she recited by rote.  “And seven represents completeness.  It is the most holy of numbers.”

            After a moment, he nodded.  “Who will be our seventh?”

            “I want to ask your father, son,” she said.  “But…”

            “He will think you mad,” he finished for her.  He sighed and scratched his cheek.  “We don’t need to find the seventh right away.  We need to read the Book.”  He rose.  “You read it and take notes, Aya.  I’ll see to my siblings.”

            She watched him hurry into the hallway and gripped the Book tighter.  Could she trust him?  Could she trust anyone?

           ***

            Magic is a change in perception.  Its key is trust and belief, just as trust and belief are out connection to Atana.

            Raise your hand and call the wind.  

            Dance as the leaves fall from the trees.

            Perceive truly and you shall see.

            Take the leaf of the okre tree,

            Crush it with a mortar and pestle,

            Release its properties.

            Imbibe to dream and awaken the holy

            magic of the Goddess.

            Okre is a holy tree, unseen and undetected.

            It awakens dimensions in the mind.

             Malida sighed and jotted down the directions to make a tea to induce magic.  She shook her head in frustration.  If it were that easy, wouldn’t someone have discovered it by now?  Okre was primarily a poison.  She turned her eyes to the Book once more.

            Through the doorway lies death,

            Through death lies life,

            Through life lies the Truth and the Way.

            Awake and See before it is too late!

            Malida knew there were okre trees at the villa. They were popular decorative trees for gardens and parks, affording lush foliage for shade.  She would make the tea and imbibe it herself.  She would not give it to any of her children.

            She told her Council she would be taking a month from ruling and left Warlord Moyen in charge, bundling the Book into her travel chest and watching it as it was carefully loaded onto the royal carriage.  Once the trunk was secured, she entered the carriage, smoothing her skirts around her.  She had pulled on lined slippers, for the season was turning from haltath to kamaran.  Haltath, the season of the turning of leaves, was almost past.  The days had grown colder and cloudier and the air smelled of snow.

            Her hands itched for the Book, but she could not reveal it to anyone.  

            The door to the carriage opened and Warlord Moyen entered, sitting across from her and closing the carriage door.

            “Warlord,” she said.

            He bowed.  “My Queen.  Why are you taking a month off and leaving me in charge?”

            “My Council’s betrayal has shocked me to the core,” she replied honestly.  “I need space and time.”

            He studied her face.  “Something else is going on, my Queen.  Do you not trust me?”

            The hurt in his eyes moved her deeply, but she didn’t trust him.

            “This is bigger than you and I, Moyen,” she told him.  “I love you with all my heart.  You have given five beautiful children and have been the leader of my armies and navies since I became Queen.  Moyen, I trust you but you must give me space and time.  There are things I cannot reveal just yet.  Will you trust me?  Will you wait until I am ready to tell you all?”

            He cocked his head.  “You truly believe you saw a true Vision?”

            “Yes.”

            He stroke his cheek with a hand.  “Then Goddess protect us if what you saw is real, Malida.  Do you have a weapon?”

            “I might, Moyen, but I haven’t found it as yet.  Once I find it, you will know.  I promise.”

            He sought her gaze and held it.  After a few seconds, he seemed to come to a conclusion and nodded, putting his hand on the doorhandle to open the carriage door.  

            “Then I will be patient, Malida,” he said and exited the carriage, closing the carriage door and slapping the side of the carriage.

            In the next second, the carriage lurched into a roll and made its way through the bailey and onto the moat bridge.

            She closed her eyes and leaned her forehead against the glass windowpane.  

            The journey from Draemin Castle to Ekesj Villa took around four hours.  The carriage exited the city through the southern gate and entered the vast grassland beyond, where the villas were located. Some villas were working villas, of which hers was one, producing wines and liqueurs or husbanding tah’lir and dosi for meat and leather.  Her family villa produced the finest liqueurs in North Torahn and had for over 100 years.  She had an overseer run the villa, seeing to the production of the liqueurs as well.  The man had been in her family’s employ since before she was Queen.  He had married, had children, and was now training her eldest to become overseer when he retired.

            When the carriage reached the villa hours later, she stepped down onto the courtyard and immediately looked east, where the gardens lay in the shade of okre trees.  She sighed with relief.  

            Mister Besen Oloin stepped out of the house and bowed.  “Your Majesty.  Master Toyus said you would be arriving today.  Your children are already here.”

            She smiled at him. “Thank you, Besen.  Please have the trunk put in my bedroom suite.”

            He bowed again.  “Right away, your Majesty.”

            Dihsa Oloin, Besen’s wife, stood just inside the foyer.  She was in charge of running the house, while her oldest daughter, Masiha, ran the kitchen.

            “Hello, Dihsa,” Malida murmured.

            “Your Majesty,” the older woman replied and reached to unlace Malida’s cloak.  She pulled the cloak off and hung it on a hook next to the front door.  “Your brood is gathered in the sitting rooms of the north wing.”

            “Thank you, Dihsa.”

            “May I fetch you anything, your Majesty?”

            “Yes, please, Dihsa. Some fresh tea.  I’m parched.”

            Dihsa curtsied.  “Right away, your Majesty.  Masiha is preparing dinner.”        

            “Excellent.  Thank you.”

            Malida kicked off her slippers and walked barefoot into the sitting room area of the north wing.  Her five children were present and talking over each other, joking and laughing. Malida paused under the archway leading into the room and smiled to herself.  They had always been a happy, affectionate family.  Toyus, the oldest, was 20 years old, followed by the twins, Emeida and Soena, who were 19 years old.  Pren, the youngest male, was 17, and the youngest girl, Itina, was 16 years old.  They were all levelheaded young men and women, accomplished artists and students.  She was very proud of them.  Her smile faded.  They were all so young.  Could she really mar their lives with information that may or may not be true?  

            “Aya!” Itina yelled and ran to her mother, throwing her arms around Malida and hugging her.

            Malida oofed.  “Child!  You are not five any longer.”

            Itina pulled back and beamed at her mother.  She was slender and graceful and resembled  their beautiful Yllysian ancestor, Queen Emira’h.

            “It’s just that we never see you, Aya,” the young girl complained and took Malida’s hand, pressing a kiss to the palm.  “I miss you so, Aya!”

            Malida smiled tenderly at the girl.  “I miss you, too, my girl.”

            Itina let go of her hand and stepped back.  

            Emeida and Soena hugged her as one.  They were tall girls, although slender and graceful, as Itina.  They had inherited Moyen’s height, just as Toyus and Pren had.  Itina seemed diminutive beside her siblings.

            Once the twins finished hugging her, serious, studious Pren walked up and pressed a kiss to her cheek.  “Hallo, Mother.”

            She hugged him.  He stiffened before he relaxed against her.  “How are your studies, Pren?”

            He stepped back.  “I’m excelling, Aya.”

            She patted his cheek.  “Of course you are, child.”

            Toyus bowed to her.  “Aya.”

            She sobered and looked around at her children.  “Please sit, all of you.”

            The children looked at one another before sitting down.  She took an armchair facing her little brood.

            “I’ve called you here because I need you,” she said without preamble.  “I had a Vision which I believe to be true.  All I ask is that you listen to me with open minds and hearts.  Can you do that for me?”

            The children stared at one another once more before turning as one to her and nodding mutely.

            Malida sighed.  She told them everything she had seen and then she told them of the Book and what they must do to open the doorway to magic.  When she was done, she saw doubt and fear, shock and consternation in her children’s eyes.

            Pren, always the most practical one, leaned forward.  “How come Belihn hid the book?”

            “I’m not sure,” Malida answered honestly.  “It could be for the reasons I faced with my Council.  They think I am becoming mad.  Belihn had a lot of hard work to do before the kingdom was stable.  He had to do away with the caste laws and change the makeup of the army and navy, he had to unify North Torahn, all of which he did.  What mattered a book that would not come into play in his lifetime?”

            Pren frowned but said nothing as he sat back once more.

            Itina wrung her hands.  “You believe this dream, Aya?”

            Malida sucked in a breath and released it in a rush that made her head spin.  “I’m not always sure, girl.  There are moments when I have no doubts, and then the doubts inevitably come.  I believe the only way to be sure is to do as the Book tells me to do.  To find magic.  If the magic is revealed, then I shall know for sure.”

            “Isn’t the existence of Ishones Thul proof enough?” Emeida asked.  “Belihn told you there was a Book, named it and you found it.”  She rubbed her bare arms.  “I think it is all true.  Goddess help us!”

            Malida gazed at her oldest daughter.  “Have faith, Emeida.  The Sentinels will awaken and they will help us.”

            Pren rose and began to pace.  “I don’t want to believe any of this.  If I believe this, then it means we might disappear as a species!”

            “Pren,” Toyus growled.  “You just heard Aya.  We must have faith.”

            Soena sighed and nodded.  “Please Pren.  You are the most practical one.  You have to keep calm.”

            “Everything in me rejects this as a fantasy,” the boy said.  “It is fantastical.  Unbelievable!”

            Malida glanced at her youngest son.  “You think me mad, child?”

            Pren flushed.  “No, Aya!  Never!  I believe you saw what you saw…it’s just…”  He shook his head.  “If it’s true…if it’s true, what does that mean for the future?”

            Malida rubbed the goosebumps on her arms.  “I don’t know.  I wish I did.”

            Itina stood. “I think we should try making the okre tea–“

            “Okre is a poison!” Toyus protested.

            Malida rose.  “Enough!  I will imbibe the okre tea myself.”

            “I will,” Toyus stated firmly.

            She turned a withering glare at him and he ducked his head.  “I will not be gainsaid.  I am your mother, but I am also your Queen.”

            He bowed deeply.  “Yes, your Majesty.”

            She gave a firm nod.  “Good.  Now, I shall bring the Book down and we shall read it together.  Once I prepare and imbibe the okre tea, you shall continue to read the prayers and poems in the Book, and we shall find a way.”