Chapter II: The Signal

            Sol was the first to receive the signal from the moon.  All the Sentinels were regenerating, as they had to do every third day.  The signal slashed through the chips in his brain and his eyes popped open.  He was on his feet and fully dressed within seconds, making his way out into the hallway before he was even fully awake.  He startled Toyus, who was also striding down the hallway.

            “What is it?” the young man asked.

            “Give me a moment, my lord,” Sol said and strode to Ariahl’s room, knocking on the door.

            A second later, she stood before him.

            “I felt it,” she told him.  “Wake the others and the humans.”

            Sol saluted.  “Right away, Commander.”

            He turned to Toyus, who stood by expectantly.  “Wake your parents and siblings.  We have to meet right away.”

            Toyus stalked away without a reply.  Sol appreciated the young man’s seriousness and dedication.

            Fifteen minutes later, the Sentinels were gathered in the library of the South Wing.

            “They have anchored in one of the Lagrange points,” Sol told his colleagues.  “Five ships total.”

            Ishel was pacing.  “We must warn the city.”  He looked at Ariahl and Mariel.  “I’m going to send the gardener to the city to fetch Warlord Rien Tholten.”

            Ariahl nodded.  “Go.”

            Ishel hurried away.

            Kaster shifted in his seat.  “What is our plan of defense?”

            “We disrupt their magnetic fields or electrical fields,” Mariel replied.  “We want their transports down as soon as possible.  Once we capture one of their transports, we can gather intel.”

            Mariel turned to Topon.  “What has Malida told you about their vulnerabilities?”

            Topon leaned forward and rested his forearms on his thighs.  His almond-shaped eyes took his colleagues.  “They are mortal beings with fleshy bodies.  They are not android or cyborg.  They can be killed.”

            Derik stood.  “Don’t take them for granted.  From what Malida said, they are desperate because their race is dying.”

            “They were a warrior race once and have recalled their past,” Mariel told them.  “I spoke to Malida last night, after her most recent vision.  She says they are descended from some catlike animal.  Their claws can eviscerate a being, so don’t let them come near you.  It is best to stand apart and disrupt their vehicles.  They fight with both feet and hands and are vicious.”

            Kaster sat back.  “They won’t do well in this gravity, though.”

            Ariahl nodded.  “That is our only advantage, I think.  They will be no match for us, if they are incapable of functioning because of gravity.”

            Topon shook his head.  “We can’t stop them all without regenerating.  We should attack in waves.  We’ll go first. When it is time to rest, Malida’s family can take over.”

            “Agreed,” Ariahl said.  “Although they will tire more easily than we will.”

            Mariel took a deep breath and released it.  “They may be only good for one wave.”  She turned to the doctor.  “Have we a drug that assists in stimulating energy production in humans?”

            Derik nodded.  “Yes.  But if we apply such a drug, they will collapse and be useless for a number of days afterward.  Do we really want to go that route?”

            Mariel grimaced.  “I don’t know.”

            “I say we forego the drugs,” Ariahl told them.  “We will have to trust their stamina.”

            The human family shuffled into the library, looking bewildered.

            “What has happened?” Malida demanded.

            Ariahl rose from her seat. “They are here.”

            The rest of the Sentinels rose at Malida’s gasp.

            “So soon?” the woman asked in a small voice.

            Moyen slid his arm around her waist.  “This time next year, we will be safe.”

            She looked at him.  “Will we?”

            “I have to believe so,” he told her.

            Itina began to weep and Malida gathered the girl in her arms.

            “Be strong, child,” Malida murmured against the girl’s hair.  “We have to be warriors.”

            Ishel returned.  “I’ve sent the gardener to fetch the Warlord.”

            Moyen nodded. “Thank you, Ishel.”

            Ariahl looked around the room.  “Are you sure they will attack here first, Malida?”

            The woman released her daughter.  “Yes.  We are all linked.  They will come here.”

            Derik nodded.  “They are directly overhead in the nearest Lagrange point to this location. Malida is correct.”

            “Sit everyone, please,” Ariahl told them.

            Everyone took a seat and the Commander of the Sentinels closed the library door.

            She went to stand before the fireplace and faced them.  “Malida, we are going to attack them by disrupting their electrical and magnetic fields, downing their transports.  We need to capture at least one alive so that we may learn their physiology.  That way, the Sentinels can create a large disruption that will affect the race rather than their machines.”

            Malida nodded.  She looked at Moyen.

            Her husband sighed.  “We can charge Rien with capturing some of the beings alive.”

            “They must stun the aliens,” Derik told the man.  “They cannot get near them for danger of being eviscerated by their claws.  Don’t forget these beings are warriors first and foremost and are built for stamina and speed.”

            “I won’t,” Moyen assured him.

            Ariahl placed a hand on the fireplace mantle.  “We will head towards the grass fields northeast of the city.  There we can battle these beings without causing disruption to the populace.”

            Malida leaned forward.  “But we don’t know where they will attack.”

            “Once they realize we are disrupting their fields, they will head to where we are located.  Don’t worry about that,” Mariel replied.

            “Dress in leather armor,” Moyen told his family.  He rose.  “Let’s get ready before Rien gets here.”

            He looked at the Commander.  “We have bahil for you to ride.”

            Ariahl smiled at him.  “Thank you, my lord.”

            “These animals are battle-trained,” he told her.  “They will remain steady under you when you are in the heat of battle.”   He signalled to his family.  “Come.”

            “You have an hour,” Sol told the human family.  “Then we must head to the battlefield.”

            “Understood,” Moyen said and led his family away.

            Ariahl looked at Sol.  “You sense it, too?  They are waiting.  I wonder why.”

            Sol shook his head.  “I only feel they are gathering some intel and preparing their transports.  I feel their arrogance as a race.”

            Derik rose.  “They have had little competition since leaving their planet.  They have grown complacent.”

            Mariel rubbed her fleshy arm.  “Don’t forget they are desperate.”

            “We won’t,” Derik told her.  “But they are relieved to have found this planet.  And they believe themselves to be superior.”

            Topon chuckled.  “A mortal, flesh and blood being should never feel superior.”

            Kaster frowned.  “They have encountered beings on underdeveloped planets.  They think this planet is the same.  They don’t realize we are here.”

            “Let’s keep it that way,” Ariahl said.  “Let’s align our mind chips.”

***

            Warlord Rien Tholten led his company through the grass fields northwest of the city.  He had informed his second-in-command, Seron Etol, of what they could expect.  His second had reacted with doubt at first, until the Sentinels had showed him their metal arms and legs.

            Commander Etol wore a grim expression as he rode next to Rien.

            “Why are we bringing so few warriors, Warlord, to a battle?” he growled.

            Rien looked over his shoulder at the company behind them.  They numbered 152, 150 warriors and two commanders.

            Rien turned to look ahead once more.  “We are here to capture the fallen enemy and that is all.  We cannot engage.”

            Etol frowned.  “But why not?”

            Rien sighed.  “You’ll see.  They come on machines from the air, Etol.  How are we to fight that?”

            Etol looked away.  “Goddess aid us!  Who is fighting this enemy?”

            “The Sentinels and Moyen’s family.”

            “We must train our warriors to fight the external threat,” Etol told him.

            “I agree,” Rien assured him.  “I’ve already spoken to Moyen and he agrees.  We just don’t have time until this initial threat is dealt with.”

            They reached where the Sentinels and the Ekesj family had gathered and Rien lifted an arm to bring the company to a halt.

            The silence, except for the whistling wind and the huffs and grunts from their mounts, was deafening.

            Moyen urged his mount forward.  “Men!”

            The company saluted the First Consort.

            Moyen rode his bahil back and forth before the company of soldiers.  “This is Commander Ariahl of the Sentinels.”

            The soldiers stared at Moyen. Some coughed; others laughed nervously. 

            Ariahl rode forward and lifted her metal arm into the sky.  She pointed her hand in the direction of a boulder, half buried in the ground.  A light emitted from her hand and the boulder moved.  She frowned with concentration.  The boulder moved again and soon was lifting into the air.

            There were cries and swearing from the company of soldiers.  They looked with awe upon the dusky Sentinel.

            “What is the meaning of this, Warlord?” someone demanded.

            Rien turned his mount to face the company.  “The Sentinels have awakened because a threat from outside the planet has amassed.”

            “Lies!” someone cried out.

            Rien turned to Ariahl.  “Show them again.”

            Ariahl nodded and muscled her mount closer to the company.  She held her metal hand out.  Her hand began to glow blue.  A high pitched whirr emitted from Ariahl’s arm and two soldiers were thrown off their mounts and landed several feet away on the ground.  They lay on their backs stunned and blinking blindly at the sky.

            Rien perceived the beginnings of panic.

            “Hold!” he roared.  “Attention!”

            The company turned to him and saluted.

            “You are in good hands,” he told them.  “I need you to believe and to be strong.  You will see many things today that will shock and frighten you.  I need you to be strong!  I need you to be warriors!  For North Torahn!”

            “Aye!  For North Torahn!” the company cried as one.

            “Do I have your loyalty and courage?” he demanded.

            “Aye aye, Warlord!”

            Rien turned to Moyen.  “That is the best I can do, sir.  I chose our steadiest men.”

            “You did good,” Moyen told him.  He turned to the Company and urged his mount forward.  “Do not get close to these beings.   If you corner one outside of his vessel, use your stone throwers to stun them and then bind their arms and legs and tails.  We will place them on the wagons and haul them to Draemin Castle.  Once we lose our element of surprise, anything can happen.  So, we must capture them as soon as they fall from their transports.  If their crashes kill them, gather the corpses.  We need at least ten specimen. Understood?”

            “Aye, Sir!” the company cried as one.

            Moyen turned to Rien.  “I do not lie.  It will not be easy to defeat them once the element of surprise is gone.”

            “We can’t allow the Sentinels or your family to be captured, sir,” Rien said.  “They cannot learn about our weapons.”

            Ariahl urged her mount to where Rien and Moyen were conversing.  “Sir.  Did you say you have stone throwers?”

            “Yes,” Rien told her.  “We have catapults and ballistas.”

            “Bring the catapults and ballistas.  We will use them to knock their transports from the sky,” she said.

            Rien nodded and dispatched two soldiers to fetch another company to bring three catapults to the field.

            Moyen turned to Ariahl. “If they aliens fly close, we can also dispatch them with slings.”

            “The catapults are our best chance,” she replied.

            “All the company have bows and arrows and slings,” Rien told her.

            “Then I suggest they fight alongside us,” Ariahl said.  “Separate one quarter of the company to gather the fallen aliens.”

            Rien grinned at her.  “They will be relieved to hear that, my lady.  I will organize them now into fighting units.  Excuse me.”

            Ariahl turned to Moyen.  “We must allow your soldiers to fight, my lord.  This is their battle as well.”  She shook her head.  “We’ll have a greater chance of success if this doesn’t not become our private battle.”

            “Agreed,” he said and gnawed his lower lip.  “We will lose a lot of men.”

            “That is true in all wars,” she said to  him.  She grasped his shoulder with her fleshy hand and gently squeezed.  “Trust in your people, my lord.  They may surprise you.”

            “Indeed.”

            They turned towards Rien’s voice as he directed the company to break up into smaller units.

            They settled in to wait.

Part II: Arrival Chapter I: oun Shi’ehl

            oun Shi’ehl D’jir Ya’ihone turned on his sleeping platform and gave a luxuriant stretch.  In one day, they would be saved, his people.  The people he guarded for Ya’ih, the Almighty God of Pain and Death.  He had another name as well, didn’t he?  Ael.  The aspect of suffering and terror.  As Ael’s priest, he was called oun Shi’ehl D’jir Aellus.  Praise be the dual-faced God!  

            He rose naked from the platform and walked to the tub that was filled with filtered water and the blood of the sacrificed. Immersing himself in the lukewarm water, he bathed as he prayed. He felt the heated gazes from nearby Deuili who guarded his sanctum.  He smirked as he took time to wash his sexes.  When his ablutions were done, he fully immersed his head under the water.  He recommited himself to his deity before rising to reach for the drying cloth.  A silent bouel assisted him out of the water, taking the cloth from him and gently dabbing the beads of moisture from his skin.  Ignoring the lesser being, D’jir turned and strode to his garments chest, where he chose an appropriate attire.  The Sha’jeen needed little sleep to regenerate.  Once, in their distant past, they had been hunters and warriors, had lost their way for a time, and then returned to their roots.  They were a hardy race, strong and resilient, with enhanced senses. The Sha’jeen could see well in the dark, for their eyes were serviceable in both daylight and darkness.  Their eyes glowed at night, so they wore goggles to hide the shine of their eyes.  They possessed deadly speeds and agility.  It had been what allowed the Sha’jeen to decimate all other sentient beings fighting for control of resources on their long-ago abandoned planet.  Unfortunately, the Sha’jeen had not been preservationists, and they depleted their planet as well, launching into the stars to seek other worlds.

            In the absence of any competitors, the Sha’jeen, for a brief time, forgot their purpose, turning into scientists instead, but the God had sent down a plague, hadn’t He?  In the form of a tiny organism that they could not contain nor battle.  It had almost been the death of their kind.  Until they found a planet with a fierce god named Ya’ih, a God of Death, of Destruction.  The Sha’jeen married Ya’ih to their ancient deity, Ael.  Ya’ih-Ael became a dual-faced deity.  And the Sha’jeen had recalled their place and their purpose in existence.

            D’jir turned to his study area and sat crosslegged on the mat on the floor, opening their precious tome, Ya’ih doahn shal, and finding the place that spoke of the bloody harvest.  The Harvest of Blood, Meduh’ Nin’h, the most sacred of rituals.  The ground of the planet would soak the sacrificial blood and become holy.  Then the true work would begin.  The work of finding a way to stop the decimation and obliteration of their kind.  Time to leave the stars and settle on a world.  Time to conquer and harvest.

            The God had told one of his ancestors, a High Priest like himself:  “Let the sacrifice of lesser beings make a holy ground for the home of the High Priest of the Warrior People.  Drain all bodies of blood, burn the bodies so that the God may partake of the essence of Life.  The fire should be hot with special oils and it should burn bodies for three entire days and nights.  Feel nothing for the sacrificial being, for it is as nothing, worthy of nothing but death.  Any Sha’jeen who harbors empathy and compassion shall be excised from the people and made an example of.  Hang the heretic by their feet and drain the body of blood.  Let the body rot, the spirit never allowed to reach the God of Blood and Pain.  The smell of rot pleases the Lord.

            The Lord shall lead the Warrior People to a planet suitable for habitat.  The Lord shall provide an endless source of sacrifice to please Him.

            oun Shi’ehl D’jir looked up and out the window of his cabin.  He could feel the proximity of the world and all it’s hapless inhabitants. The Sha’jeen would strike fast and hard, swinging the Holy Scythe and leaving bodies littered in their wake.

            He closed his eyes and prayed.  The visions he had seen of these beings were strange: they were bulky and slow, these people.  Mere chattel.  oun Shi’ehl D’jir looked forward to seeing their structures and if they would be serviceable for the Sha’jeen.  If not, all would be destroyed and the planet’s resources would be used to built appropriate domiciles for the conquerors.  The people of the world would provide labor for the accomplishments of the Sha’jeen. He smiled to himself:  it would be pleasant and agreeable to break every being on that planet.  He had been born in an auspicious time and he bent his head and gave thanks to the God that his role would be the greatest for a High Priest in several generations.

            “oun Shi’ehl.”

            oun Shi’ehl D’jir hissed.

            “Forgive our trespass, oun Shi’ehl. We approach the planet.”

             “Do you jest, aun Deuil?  Would you like me to eviscerate you?”

            The guard did not flinch.  oun Shi’ehl D’jir was impressed and his sexes signalled their interest in the guard.  He filed that away for a future time.

            The guard bowed.  “I jest not, oun Shi’ehl.  We had miscalculated the time it would take to reach the planet.”

            oun Shi’ehl D’jir hissed again and rose smoothly.  “Close the sails and find an anchor in a point between the planet and its satellite.”

            The guard bowed.  “At once, oun Shi’ehl.”

            Excitement coursed through oun Shi’ehl D’jir.  He hurried to the control room through the maze of hallways.  Mostly aun Deuili occupied the control room, although oun Shi’ehl Nema captained the fore ship and gave orders that were relayed to the other four vessels that followed in its wake.

            oun Shi’ehl Nema turned and bowed to oun Shi’ehl D’jir.  “oun Shi’ehl:  behold.”

            oun Shi’ehl D’jir turned to the window directly ahead.  The solar sail had been retracted, allowing for an unencumbered view of the blue and white planet before them.  Further away, the satellite hung in space, smallish and unimpressive.  

            “Find the point in space where we can dock,” oun Shi’ehl D’jir told his counterpart.  “We must begin and soon.”

            oun Shi’ehl Nema frowned.  “Of course, oun Shi’ehl.  Right away.”

            oun Shi’ehl D’jir found an uninhabited chair and sat before a console.  He watched avidly as the ships were maneuvered to the points in space where the gravity between the planet and its satellite would anchor the ships.  His eyes returned again and again to the untarnished world.  It was beautiful enough for their kind, he supposed.  The gravity would prove difficult for a generation or two, but eventually they would become adapted to it.  They would have to leave the ship en masse and leave a skeleton crew to maintain the ships.  Eventually, when the world was depleted, they would once again leave its devastation and return to the stars to continue their search for immortality and perfection.

            oun Shi’ehl D’jir signalled to oun Shi’ehl Nema.  oun Shi’ehl Nema approached deferentially and bowed.

            “How many beings inhabit the world?” he asked Nema.

            Nema considered.  “There are innumerable wild life for hunting and poaching, oun Shi’ehl.  The combined populations of the sentient beings number in the 200 millions, oun Shi’ehl.”

            oun Shi’ehl D’jir gasped.  “So many?”

            Nema bowed.  “Ye, oun Shi’ehl.”

            oun Shi’ehl D’jir considered.  They could not defeat all those beings and they didn’t want a wholesale slaughter.  They needed to harvest the planet slowly, so their numbers could recuperate.  He knew their own people numbered but 3,050.  Of those numbers, boueli numbered 2,287.  Deuili numbered 510 and Shi’ehli just over 251.  For years they had led a precarious existence, keeping the boueli ruthlessly under control, teaching them nothing but spoken language.  They must never know they outnumbered by so many the Deuili and Shi’ehli.  They would have rebelled a long time ago and would have outright killed any and all the others, effectively ending their race.

            oun Shi’ehl D’jir considered the circumstances in silence for a few minutes.  The God did not speak to him or guide him unless he went into a trance.  Perhaps a trance was in order.  He rose gracefully.

            “I’ll speak with the God for guidance,” he told his counterpart.  “Do nothing until I return.”

            oun Shi’ehl Nema bowed.  “Of course, oun Shi’ehl.”

            oun Shi’ehl D’jir strode back through the maze of corridors, his thick claws clicking on the bare metallic floor.  The Sha’jeen had millions of years ago evolved from an animal on their home planet.  The animal had had thick claws on all four feet and a tail.  Only the Shi’ehl and the Deuil still had the remnants of claws and tails.  The boueli, being lesser beings, had no claws and no tail.  oun Shi’ehl D’jir kept his tail tightly wrapped around his left leg.  His tail was particularly expressive and gave too much away. He preferred not to signal his willingness to be mounted or his excitement about anything.  He liked being remote and distant.  It added to his superior nature and mystery.  It kept his guards confused and curious.  He never allowed his tail to stray to a Deuil to signal that copulation was required.  oun Shi’ehl D’jir had not gone into heat in at least three solar years.  It was worrisome and would perhaps one day signal his death.  Each ship had a High Priest.  Each High Priest was charged with conceiving clutches of young for the colony.  Other Shi’ehli had conceived, although infrequently.  He knew his position precarious indeed.  Other Shi’ehli viewed his position with greed and envy.  Already they questioned him, pushed him, challenged him, doubting his visions.  Soon they would have him killed.  He needed to orchestrate a victory for the warrior people.  His very existence depended on it.

            When he reached his quarters, he had the guards withdraw into the hallway and sealed himself alone in his cabin.

            With a sigh, he removed his robes and unwound his tail.  He knelt on the study rug and bent his head.  He prayed for guidance.

            Going into a trance required putting himself in danger, for he would be incapacitated and vulnerable.  But it was necessary to see what the God desired and demanded.

            It took a precious hour this time.  When he attained the trance-like state, he fell forward onto the rug.  His body twitched and trembled as the trance took hold.

            oun Shi’ehl.

            D’jir opened his eyes and looked around.  He stood on a plain of wild grass.  The air was sweet and clean, green with the scent of crushed grasses.  D’jir looked around, awed by the hugeness of the planet, the expansiveness of the sky.

            oun Shi’ehl.

            “My lord?” he said to the sky.

            Laughter shimmered through the cool air.  

            You are a fool, oun Shi’ehl.  I am no God. I am the Goddess of this world.  The Warrior Goddess Atana.

            D’jir flinched.  “This cannot be.”

            Then how do you explain me?

            “I cannot.  Deceiver!”  He spat on the ground.

            The air rippled again.

            You will be defeated and your own people will destroy you.  Where is your God now, oun Shi’ehl?

            Fear clutched at D’jir for the first time in his brief life.  

            Fear not and embrace the truth and the way.  If you come in peace, there will be salvation for your race.  If you come to destroy, your race will end.  You have been warned.

            oun Shi’ehl D’jir gasped and blinked his eyes open.  He slowly came onto his hands and knees, reaching with a trembling hand for his robes.  He pulled the robes over his body, wrapping his tail around his left leg.  He pulled in a shivery breath and sat cross legged on the study rug, reaching for the Book of Life.

            “Where are you, God?” he whispered.

            He looked through the tome for clues to the God’s behaviors.  Was he being tested by the God?  Did the God send a mirage to test him?

            There was a signal from the cabin door.

            He squared his shoulders and rose smoothly.  Beyond the door stood five Deuili.  

            The middle guard bowed.  “The captain requires your direction, oun Shi’ehl.”

            oun Shi’ehl D’jir masked his growing terror and bowed.  “Please lead the way to the control room.”

            The guards bowed.             oun Shi’ehl stepped into the hallway, half thinking a knife would be plunged into his heart, but no such thing happened.  He released his breath and followed the guards down the maze of corridors

Chapter XII: Vision

                Kaster gave Malida a purging agent which had her emptying her stomach, bladder, and bowels.  He allowed her to imbibe only water before he administered the drug intravenously.

            Malida lay on the longest couch in the library, her children and husband around her.  The Sentinels stood at strategic places around the room, two at the closed door, one at each of the windows, and Mariel, Ariahl and Kaster near Malida.

            Malida flinched when Kaster injected her and plunged the drug into her vein.  The substance felt hot and soon her body flushed with its side effects.  Her skin felt feverish and soon a fine film of perspiration covered her entire body.  At the same time, she kept trembling as if she were cold, but she could not stand the feel of blankets or sheets on her.  She got restless and began to pace.

            Kaster looked at Moyen.  “This will take several hours, my lord.  The experience was euphemistically referred to as a ‘trip’ in the old days.  There is a pattern to the trip.  At first, as you can see, she will be irritable, restless, and uncomfortable.  I have to gauge how much she needs to imbibe before she begins to hallucinate.  I have to monitor her life signs in the meantime.”

            Moyen frowned.  “Why?”

            Kaster grimaced.  “Her heart has to be monitored.  Too much of the drug increases heartbeat and taxes the heart.  If she is poisoned, she can have a heart attack or a stroke.  But I started with a relatively small dose.”  He looked at Malida.  “My lady, please sit.”

            She scratched at her bare arms.  “I…I can’t sit.”

            Moyen went to her and took her by the shoulders, shaking her gently.  “Malida, please.  Sit and allow the doctor to listen to your heart.”

            She made herself sit and Kaster placed his electronic pad in front of her chest, turning it on and finding the correct setting.  

            Curious, Moyen stood nearby.   He gasped when a picture of Malida’s heart appeared on the pad.   A tinny beat emitted from the pad.

            Kaster glanced at Moyen. “Her heart is fine.  Strong.”  He looked at Ariahl.  “I need permission to administer a higher dose, Captain.”

            “Granted,” Ariahl replied.

            Malida watched as the Sentinel injected her once more.  She hardly felt the prick of the needle, but soon she felt disconcerted as her sense of connection to solid objects eroded until she felt she could float off the couch.  She gasped.

            “Moyen!  Hold me, please.”

            Her husband sat next to her and placed an arm around her waist.  “What is it, Malida?”

            “I’ll float away if you don’t anchor me,” she told him in a breathless voice.

            Kaster placed his pad before her chest.  “Heart is fine.  Now we wait.”

            The hallucinations started soon afterward.  Colors seemed to bleed one into the other. It was as if she could look through objects somehow.  She felt eerily disconnected from her feelings.

            “Malida,” Ariahl said.  “Please lie down and close your eyes.”

            Malida did as she was asked.  She noted Moyen sat down on the floor next to the couch and continued to anchor her by holding her hand.  She smiled at him before she closed her eyes.

            In the darkness behind her eyes, she saw colors swirling.  Someone placed something around her head and soon she heard Ariahl’s voice directly in her mind.

            Malida, think of the Sha’jeen, the Sentinel captain told her.  Try to see them.

            Soon she lost the thread of the voice as her mind became immersed in hallucinations.  Sha’jeen, she thought.  Find the Sha’jeen.  It was almost like sleeping, but she was awake and aware of everyone around her.  She could feel, in the distance of her skin, the heat of Moyen’s hand on hers.  She was filled with desire and love for him.  So strong, the emotions filled her eyes with tears that leaked down the side of her face.

            What do you see, Malida? asked the voice in her head.

            She started at the sound.

            She thought of the Sha’jeen and soon she was floating in space.  Before her sailed five vast ships with round sails in the front.  They sailed past her and she saw the sails were deceptive.  Most of what comprised the Sha’jeen arks were the sails themselves.  Each sail was about a sepek in size horizontally and a sepek in size vertically. The sails were made of a reflective fabric or material.  The ships themselves were large, but not as large as they had first seemed to her.  Somehow, she knew that once there had been almost one hundred such ships, but the Sha’jeen’s numbers had reduced due to infertility.  She also knew the Sha’jeen had dispersed into different parts of the galaxy, although she could not see if the other ships were still functional.  She only knew that the one hundred ships had parted ways in groups of five.  She wondered briefly if each unit had developed new beliefs or if they all still clung to their bloody deity.

            As she neared the ships, she saw scars on the skin of each ship.  Collisions of some sort had damaged the ships.  There were holes, here and there, on the sails, too.  

            What do you see, Malida?  

            “Ships.  They are damaged, both the ships and the sails.”

            Go inside and tell us what you see.

            She approached the closest ship and placed her hand on the shell.  Her hand went through the skin of the ship and she fell inside, passing through an array of chaotic wiring and hull spaces before she stepped out into a hallway.  The hallway, which curved gently, was filled with doors.  She began to walk down the hallway.  Soon she began to hear cries in the distance.  The sounds of agony and fear drew her like a moth to a flame.  Soon she was running.  She turned a corner and stopped abruptly.  Before her were groups of Sha’jeen.  There were around twelve naked beings chained to each other.  Next to them were taller beings in some sort of uniform.  They wore a type of helmet that was oval in shape, made of gleaming metal and rising to a point about a foot in the air and ending in an elaborate and exquisite feather of different colors.  The feathers changed colors as the hallway light hit them at different angles.  

            What do you see?

            “People chained.  They are boueli, I think.  They have no sex.  They are in pain and are afraid, terrified really.”  She swallowed past her parched throat.  “The Deuili are around them.  They seemed to be waiting for something.”

            A door slid open and a tall, exquisite being stepped through.  He was beautiful, willowy, and graceful.  He wore diaphanous robes that glimmered and changed colors depending on the angle of the light.  His chest was bare, as was his long neck.  His head was adorned with an elaborate headdress that looked like tree branches except, when he stepped closer, she saw they were delicate thin bones twisted to look like branches.  The bones were yellowed with age.  At the tips of each bony branch, which had been whittled to sharp points, were stains that could have been red paint or could have been blood.  The being carried a sharp, jagged knife in each hand.  He began to dance, mesmerizing the chained beings.  His dance was fast and impossibly graceful and beautiful.  As his speed increased, Malida’s fear increased as well.  Some premonition filled her with horror.

            The being began to spin faster and faster and soon he spun close to the chained boueli, whose screams reduced to gurgles and whimpers.  A spray of blood splattered the walls of the hallway and drops fell to the ground.  A moment later, the chained beings crumbled to the ground, already dead before they hit the ground.  They were sliced in several places, including their necks, but Malida knew that the neck slice had come last.  The Shi’ehl, for that is what it was, the High Priest of these people, made sure the boueli had suffered before cutting off their lives.          

            The High Priest stopped dancing and went down on one knee.  He cut a piece of flesh from the chest of nearest dead bouel and brought the flesh to his lips, biting a piece off and chewing it reflectively.  He glanced at the nearest guard.

            “How soon will we reach the planet?”

            The guard bowed.  “oun Shi’ehl, within the week.”

            The High Priest sighed.  “Then these twelve bodies will have to feed us until then.  Butcher them and put them in the storage vats.”

            The guards bowed and dragged away the bodies, leaving long lines of blood in their wake.

            The High Priest turned and entered his room.

            Malida followed him into a room rich with the scents of incense and old blood.  The round room was illuminated by low lighting.  The floors were bare, as were the gleaming metal walls.   A round structure, like a bed, was set against one side of the room.  Other structures stood at intervals around the room.  Some structures were like chairs and made of yellowed bones.  

            The Shi’ehl walked to a metal table and set the jagged knives down.  He wiped the blades with the tip of his finger and brought the finger to his mouth.  Then he picked up a cloth and wiped them clean.  Removing his elaborate headdress he set it on the table and walked to the only window in the room.  Outside, darkness and pinpricks of light in the distance.  The High Priest placed his hand flat on the window, his spidery fingers splaying.

            “Ael Ya’ih, itolis, shai shai!”  He turned and looked right at Malida.  His wide mouth splayed into a smile, showing sharp, jagged teeth.  “I know you are there.”

            Malida gasped.

            He stalked towards her. “You know we come.  I will have to find out how such a thing can be.  Consuming you will make us invincible!”

            She turned and ran as he reached where she stood.

            His laughter followed her from the room.

            She floated through the ship’s shell and into icy, airless space.

            Her eyes flew open.  Moyen was dabbing her forehead with a damp cloth.  Light was seeping through the curtains.  Her children were asleep on settees and nearby armchairs.

            “What time is it?” she croaked.

            Her husband held a mug of water to her mouth. She swallowed the cold, sweet water with a sigh.

            “It is near midday,” Moyen told her.

            Ariahl sat on the low table before Malida’s couch.  “What did you see?”

            Malida sighed.  “They know we know about them, Ariahl!  Their High Priest knew I was observing him.”

            “Calm down,” the Sentinel told her.  “We can’t be sure what was true and what was a hallucination.”

            “I know what I saw, ” Malida insisted and sat up, pushing the blankets off her.  “Goddess preserve us, it was horrible!  They butchered twelve boueli and the High Priest ate a piece of flesh.”

            “Calm down,” Ariahl repeated.

            Malida rose.  “Don’t tell me to calm down!  We don’t even have the element of surprise.  I still can’t gauge how many of them there are!”

            Moyen pulled her to him, engulfing her in his strong arms. She began to sob, and he gently stroke her hair as if she was a child. She felt like a child, afraid and lost.  She clung to him desperately. He pressed a kiss to the side of her head.

            “We must not lose hope, Malida,” he murmured into her ear.  “If we lose hope, all is lost.”

            She sniffled.  “I know.  It’s just…where is Atana?  She hasn’t spoken to me in ages.”

            “The Goddess has her ways and we must believe she will be with us when we encounter the Sha’jeen.”

            She turned her face to his neck and breathed in his scent. It calmed her almost instantly.  She closed her eyes.

            “My lady,” Ariahl said from behind her. “You must eat.  The drug depletes nutrients from the body.”

            Malida sighed and nodded.  She sat down on the couch and Moyen placed the tray with her breakfast on her lap.  She uncovered the bowl of boiled grains smothered in honey and tah’lir’s milk, tza nuts and dried lounma.  She almost wept from gratitude that it was not animal flesh of any kind.  She didn’t think she would ever be able to consume any type of flesh again.

            The Sentinels watched her finish the bowl and then eat a thick slab of fresh bread with honey and butter.  She drank a cup of water and allowed Moyen to take up the tray and bear it to the kitchen.

            Malida looked at the Sentinels, who stood in a semi-circle on the other side of the low table.

            “They will be here within the week,” Malida told them.  “Our time is up.”

            The Sentinels looked at each other before turning to her once more.

            “So be it,” Ariahl told her.  “We will be victorious.  There is no choice for us.”

            Malida crossed her arms over her chest against the sudden chill in the room.

            The time had come.  Goddess preserve, she prayed and rose.  There were plans to be made before everything changed.

Chapter XI: Decision

            Once Rien was gone from the property, Moyen carried Itina to her room and laid her on the bed, covering up the girl, who had fallen asleep.

            He held the girl’s icy hand in both of his and rubbed it to get blood into the pale flesh.

            “I want him dead, Moyen,” Malida whispered, taking a seat on a nearby armchair.

            “I will kill him myself,” Moyen assured her.  “Once I torture him.”

            She rubbed peevishly at her forehead.  “How can I not have seen him for what he is?”

            He turned to her.  “Don’t, Malida.  Perverts hide their perversions very well, if they are smart.  Othel is clever.”    

            Her eyes filled with tears.  

            “My lord, my lady.”

            They both turned.

            Sol stepped into the bedroom and gently closed the door behind him. “May I speak to you a moment?”

            They rose to face him.

            “Of course,” Moyen replied.

            The Sentinel scratched the side of his neck.  “I don’t want you to think I am sympathetic to Othel’s perversions.  I am a psychologist and I was trained to understand human behavior.”

            Moyen scowled.  “What are you trying to say?”

            Sol squared his shoulders.  “A pervert is not born; he is made.  Someone abused Othel when he was a child and Othel became an abuser in turn.  Not everyone who is sexually abused as a child becomes a sexual predator in turn, you understand. But a certain number do.  If people have a weak sense of empathy, they become predators.”

            “Are you saying we are to forgive Othel?” Moyen demanded.

            “No,” Sol replied.  “He cannot be rehabilitated, I don’t think.  There has been little success with rehabilitating pedophiles, other than enforced celibacy.  I am not telling you how to mete justice.  It is not my daughter who was molested.  I am saying you should kill him, if that is the justice you wish to mete. But torturing him makes you no better than he, and we cannot stand by for such barbaric measures.”

            “You heard me?” Moyen asked.

            “We have enhanced hearing.  Yes, I was headed this way to see how you both were and I heard you.”  Sol took in a deep breath and released it.  “I have my mission and my ethics.  As a doctor and a psychologist, I cannot stand by and watch you torture a sick man.”

            Malida cocked her head.  “How did you deal with…what did you call Othel?”

            “A pedophile.  It is an old word.  Pedo means child; phile means lover of.”

            Moyen grimaced but said nothing.

            “How did you deal with pedophiles in your time?” Malida asked.

            “We incarcerated them,” Sol replied.  “Removed them from society.”

            Malida shook her head.  “There must have been many, to give them a label.”

            “There were,” Sol replied.

            “Well, incarceration must have been more secure in the distant past,” Moyen said.

            “”It was a huge institution,” Sol agreed.  “I have another idea of how to deal with Othel, sir.”

            Moyen sighed.  “Oh?”

            “We can remove his desires, which is also what we did in the past, if the pedophile requested the measure,” the Sentinel said.  “We can emasculate him.  It didn’t always work, you see.  Sometimes the pedophile became bitter and kidnapped children to torture or kill them.  That is why we simply imprisoned them, but we also emasculated them, permanently removing their sexual desires.”

            “And how is that not torture?” Moyen demanded.

            “It was successful in a percentage of the population of pedophiles. They became normal members of society in that they held jobs and contributed to society.  They no longer were tortured by their unnatural desires.”

            “I see,” Moyen replied, unsure he did see.  

            “Then if we capture–no,” Malida stated firmly.  “When we capture Othel, I would like him emasculated.”

            Moyen crossed his arms over his chest.  “I want him dead.”

            Sol shifted. “Let’s see if the emasculation works first.”

            Moyen shook his head.  “I don’t think Othel has any sense of empathy.  What if we create a monster?”

            Malida looked at him.  “Then we kill him.”

            “But not before he does something that warrants death,” Moyen said.  “I object to this path of action.  I want my objection to go on record.”

            “Noted,” Malida told him.

            Moyen turned to Sol.  “What does the process of emasculation look like?”

            “We inject a chip into his brain that interferes with sexual drive.  As much as he will want to desire a child, he will be unable to.  He will essentially be without a sexual drive.”  Sol cleared his throat.  “Also, the chip renders him unable to obtain an erection.  His penis–his  kauon–will not become erect, no matter what he does.”

            Moyen shuddered but said nothing.  The more he heard, the more he was inclined to go along with the scheme.  Othel would suffer greatly and he was infinitely pleased by that.

            Malida gave a firm nod. “Then that will be justice in and of itself.”

            Sol nodded.  “Agreed.”

            “Eda?”

            Moyen gasped and turned to the bed.

            Itina’s eyes were open and she was glancing uncertainly around the room.

            “Hello, daughter,” Moyen said and sat at the edge of the mattress.  “How are you, child?”

            “Why am I in bed, Eda?” the girl asked in a small voice.  “Am I sick?”

            “You were examined, child, that’s all,” her father replied.  “Are you well?”

            The girl frowned.  “I have a headache.”

            “That is common,” Sol replied.  “Give her fluids.  She might be dehydrated.  That is a side effect of the drug.”

            Malida went to the bedside table and poured water from a decanter into a mug.  She handed Moyen the mug.

            Moyen helped his daughter to sit up then fed her the water.

            “Your headache will go away in a bit,” Sol told the girl.

            The girl blushed and nodded as her father helped her lie back down.

            “I suggest you rest, young lady,” Sol told her.  “After a bit of a nap, you’ll be right as rain.”

            They watched as the girl closed her eyes and was soon sleeping.

***

            The family gathered in the sitting room later that day.  The Sentinels joined them.

            Malida had another vision.

            “The Sha’jeen will be here soon,” she told them.  She looked at Ishel.  “I have a sense of their language, Ishel.  I understand them when they speak.”

            Ishel leaned forward eagerly.  “Then we need to discuss this matter indeed.  We have chips in our brains that allow us to learn languages quickly.  We don’t have much time.”

            Malida rose.  “Excuse me.”

            Ishel watched her leave the room and return shortly with paper, an inkwell and pens.  

            “I will write down the words and their language for you,” Malida told them.  

            The Sentinels pulled out their electronic pads from their shoulder bags.  

            She wrote a symbol on paper and held it up. “This symbol means Shi’ehl.  The pronoun for the Shi’ehl, who are their rulers, is ‘oun’.  Oun is the equivalent of ‘she,’ except the Shi’ehl look like males, not females. Oun means ‘that can bear young.'”  She set the paper on the low table and wrote another symbol.  “This symbol means Deuil.  The pronoun for the Deuil, who are their soldiers, is ‘aun’.  Aun is the equivalent of ‘he.’  The Deuil grow tall, too, and are strong with speed and stealth being their abilities, but they don’t have the musculature of hu’an males.”

            “That is because of the gravity on their ships,” Kaster piped up.  “A planet has greater gravity than a ship is able to produce.”

            Malida nodded.  “Don’t take the Deuil lightly, please.  I have seen in my vision what they can do.”  She set the page on the table and drew a third symbol.  “This is the symbol for bouel, who are their servants and slaves.  Their pronoun is ‘nieh.’  It means ‘nothing.’  They are neuter, unable to reproduce.  They have no sexual organs.  The Sha’jeen have conveniently forgotten that all of their fetuses are boueli at first.  When they are conceive, none of the Sha’jeen have a gender or sex.  Then a wash of hormones assists the fetus in developing sexual organs.  The boueli also look like males.”

            “Curious,” Topon said.  “So do the dual-sexed higher beings on this planet.  The isili look like young men all their lives.  The Isemi look like human males.  Well, the dominant gender of that species anyway.  Their ouna-nae look like slender young men.  At least, that is how they are portrayed in paintings and drawings.”

            Malida nodded.  “Yes, you are correct.  I’ve never meet an Isemi, but my ancestors did.  Those portraits and drawings in our books are fairly accurate, I hear.”

            They settled down around her as she drew two symbols on the paper.  “This is how a Shi’ehl is addressed.  The pronoun always comes first in their language.  So, if you address a Shi’ehl, you address oun as ‘oun Shi’ehl.’  If you address a Deuil, you address aun as ‘aun Deuil.’  The same with the bouel.  You address nieh as ‘nieh bouel.'”

            Sol shifted in his chair.  “I don’t know how I feel about addressing a being as ‘nothing.'”

            “Yes,” Ariahl agreed.  “But we must be able to communicate with them first and foremost.”

            “Agreed,” Mariel said.

            Ariahl turned to Sol.  “You must address them in a way they comprehend.”

            Sol grimaced but nodded.

            Topon leaned forward in his seat.  “Malida, what else has been revealed to you?”

            She gave the question some thought.  She sighed.  “They will travel on small, light machines on the planet.  They resemble black metal chairs with glass coverings.  The machines are equipped with weapons that destroy living things and structures.  These weapons pulverize anything the Sha’jeen want destroyed.  The weapons emit a light beam of some sort.”  She shuddered.  “Anyone who stands in the way of the Sha’jeen gets pulverized.  I saw us in battle, though.”

            “We can bend fields, Malida,” Derik gently reminded her.  “Your lessons have been going well and now you and your children can bend fields as well.”  He glanced at each Sentinels before turning his gaze to her as well.  “Once we see their weapons in action, we can devise a means to stop them.”

            “But that means they will fire their weapons,” Malida put in.  “Does that mean something will be destroyed or someone will be killed?”

            “We may have no choice but to let such a thing happen,” the engineer told her.  “We have to see the weapons being used before we can devise a counter weapon.  Do you see?”

            She rubbed her arms.  “Yes.”

            Mariel crossed her legs.  “We cannot give away our advantages.  We might have to let the Sha’jeen do some damage before we are able to fight back.”

            Moyen shook his  head and sighed.  “This begs the question:  how can fourteen of us fight an entire race?”

            Malida looked at her husband.  “The majority of Sha’jeen are boueli, my dear.  They are not taught how to fight.  Their mode of transport is not equipped with anything, because the Shi’ehli and the Deuili do not trust their slaves.  We have to worry about the Deuili, their soldiers.  The Shi’ehl believe it beneath them to fight.  Unfortunately, I don’t have numbers for the Deuili.  They could be 100 or 1,000, for all I know, although I get a feeling their numbers are not as many as I fear.  Each generation produces fewer and fewer Sha’jeen, after all.  In the last vision I had, they showed stress and fear that they would not make it here in time.”

            Sol shifted.  “How do they know of this planet?”

            Malida glanced at him.  “Their bloodthirsty deity sends them visions, just like Atana sends me mine. The deity gave their supreme ruler coordinates to this planet almost two hundred years ago, so they were in the general vicinity of our solar system.”

            Sol looked at Ariahl.  “That means we are connected somehow, these beings and this planet.  For what purpose, I wonder?”        

            “I think we are meant to change them,” Malida offered.  “To lead them to a more peaceful existence, to offer part of this world for them to settle in.  To return them to who they used to be.”

            Kaster nodded.  “I believe they need to settle on the planet if they are to survive, for their travels through the galaxy has only poisoned their bodies.”

            Mariel glanced at Ariahl.  “We’ll have to settle them in an uninhabited land mass on the planet.  That way they can develop a new culture free of influences.”

            Ariahl nodded.  “We’ll make sure to keep an eye on them.”

            “Yes,” her second agreed.

            Moyen shifted.  “Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, shall we?  We have to defeat them in order to assist them.”  He looked at Malida.  “What my wife tells me is that they are bloodthirsty and aggressive. If they believe us to be inferior, how are we to change them?”

            Derik let out a bark of laughter.  “If we beat them, they will not hold that belief for long.  We just have to make sure to beat them and soundly.”

            Mariel frowned.  “We have a drug in our possession that induces altered states in the mind.”  She flicked a glance to Kaster.  “How safe is the drug, Kaster?”

            “It’s fairly safe,” he replied.  “It just gives a feeling of euphoria for a few days and the imbiber may not be good for much during that time.”

            Mariel nodded.  She looked at Malida.  “Will you agree to undergo a vision with us in attendance, my lady?  We have to direct your vision in order to gather intel.”

            Malida felt someone take her left hand and she gazed at her husband.

            “Do only what you feel comfortable with, Malida,” he told her.

            She squeezed his hand. “I must do what is good for the mission of the Sentients.  I am the key to all this.”  She let Moyen’s hand go and turned to Mariel.  “Let’s do this then.”

Chapter X: Interrogation

Warlord Rien Tholten dismounted and handed his reins to Oskel Oloin, the groundskeeper.  He turned to his escort troop and signalled that they should dismount as well.

            “I’m going in to speak to his lordship, Moyen Stait,” he told his second-in-command, Seron Etol.

            Commander Etol saluted.  “Very good, sir.  We’ll keep watch out here.”

            Rien nodded and headed to the villa’s front door.  

            The villa overseer, Besen Oloin, opened the door before Rien reached it and bowed.  “How may I assist you, Warlord?”

            “I’m here to see Lord Moyen, Besen.”

            The overseer bowed again.  “Very good, sir.  I shall fetch him for you.  Please wait in the main library.”

            Rien strode to the library and entered, finding the Sentinels already occupying the room.

            “Good morning,” Rien said to the room.

            The Sentinels rose as one.

            The young woman called Mariel took a step forward.  “What brings you out here, Warlord?”

            Rien smiled at her.  “I’m here to see Moyen, m’lady.  But you are all welcome to linger.  What I have to tell him you may as well hear.”

            She blushed and nodded, looking shyly away.

            He gauged her to be around twenty-two, two years his junior.  Something about Mariel called to him.  He liked her looks, true enough:  she was slender and on the small side, with honey dark skin and a light smattering of freckles along her cheeks and the bridge of her nose.  She kept her black hair short, like all the Sentinels, and had the most intriguing hazel eyes he had ever seen.  But her lips were his favorite part of her face:  full and luscious and dark, bespeaking of a passionate nature.  Slender and graceful, she was much to his taste, and he was fairly entertained by the fact that he didn’t seemed disturbed by the meaning of her existence, or the fact that she had slept on the planet’s airless moon for over 15,000 years.  When she first slept, there had been no hu’ans, no city-states, no nations as they existed today.  He shook his head and turned to the archway leading from the hallway.

            “Rien!” Moyen greeted and caught his hand in both of his.  “What brings you out here?”

            “Can you close the door, my lord?” Rien asked.

            Moyen seemed taken aback for a moment before he relented and nodded, letting go his hand and shutting the hallway door.  “What is it?”

            “Have you forgotten you have Othol’s paid spy in your household?” Rien asked without preamble.

            Moyen grimaced.  “I have not.  Besen’s family has been in our service for generations.  We pay them well.”  He shook his head.  “Are you sure one of his family is Othol’s spy?”

            Rien splayed his hands.  “How do you determine that Othol knew Malida had taken a tea made from okre leaves, if it wasn’t a servant?”

            “I’m not sure,” Moyen owned and looked helplessly at him.

            “Well, I never got to interrogate Othol,” Rien told him.

            “Excuse me, my lords,” the Sentinel called Sol interrupted them and stepped forward.  “I have the means to extract information from your servants without harming them.”

            “A truth serum?” Rien asked.

            The Sentinel shrugged.  “Something like that, sir.  It is a synthesized drug that works on most humans by lowering inhibitions and producing mild intoxication and disorientation.  The individual will not recall the interrogation.”

            The one called Kaster shifted.  “Shouldn’t we be saving the drug for the Sha’jeen?”

            Sol shrugged.  “It may not work on another species, Kaster.  Besides, we have frozen stockpiles at the base.”

            Kaster scratched his left cheek.  “That’s true.”

            Rien cleared his throat.  “We have a type of truth serum made from a plant, but it isn’t very effective – only on about 63% of those who imbibe it.”

            Sol turned back to him.  “Our synthesized drug is more effective than that.”

            “Then I would try it on the servants,” Rien told him.  He turned to Moyen.  “Permission?”

            Moyen made a helpless gesture.  “I suppose.”  He sighed.  “We’ll have to tell them why we are doing it.”

            “We’ll tell them it is an examination,” Kaster offered.  “I’ll examine them once they are interrogated.  Like Sol said, they won’t recall anything anyway.”

            Ariahl cleared her throat and stepped forward to stand next to Sol.  “My lords.  If the servants turn out not to be the infiltrators, we’ll have to interrogate your family.”

            Moyen frowned.  “What?”

            Ariahl took another step forward and gazed into Lord Stait’s eyes.  “I trust you and your wife are not infiltrators, my lord, but I do not have the same confidence in your children.”

            Moyen’s frown turned into a scowl.  “I beg your pardon–”        

            Ariahl stared unwaveringly back at the tall man.  “The safety of the populace of this planet and the outcome of this mission is all that matters to me, my lord.  I am not your friend; I am not even your ally.  I am your protector.  The protector of all humanity.  We will interrogate your family, as we will your servants.  Someone has betrayed Malida and we will find out who.  Understood?”    

            Moyen looked helplessly at Rien.

            “I hadn’t considered it, my lord,” Rien replied with an apologetic smile.  “But she is correct.  This mission is too large, too important, and no one can matter above it.”

            Moyen sighed.  “Very well.  Shall we begin with Besen?”

            They commandeered the library for the interrogations.  Besen was brought in and made to sit in a settee near the fire.

            “The drug lowers body temperatures,” Kaster explained to Moyen and Rien.  “Thus, the fire.  May we secure a blanket?”

            “Of course,” Moyen replied and hurried away, returning a few minutes later with a thick pale blue blanket.

            Kaster took the blanket and draped it over Besen.  “I am going to inject you with a drug that will make the examination more thorough.”

            “Inject?” the servant asked blankly.

            Kaster reached into his bag and retrieved a syringe with a capped needle.

            Besen took one look at the syringe and its long needle and rose abruptly.

            “Sit down, Besen,” Moyen ordered.

            The older servant looked at his employer.  “But, sir, there is absolutely nothing wrong with me!”

            “Sit. Down,” Moyen stated more firmly.

            With a helpless look around the room, Besen sat down once more.  “Yes, sir.”

            Kaster pushed the servant’s loose sleeve to his bicep and tied a leather thong tightly around the upper arm.  Using his fingers, he felt around for a suitable vein, glancing up at Moyen, who stood nearby.

            “Intravenous injection delivers the drug very quickly and efficiently throughout the body,” he told the lord.  

            He found a vein and inserted the needle slowly into the arm, pulling the plunger back.  Blood rushed into the syringe, turning the colorless substance a dark red.  Untying the thong, he injected the drug into the vein and pressed his thumb against the wound, withdrawing the needle.

            A minute or so later, he let go Besen’s arm.  “It should work fairly quickly, Lord Moyen.”

            He reached into his bag and removed a stethoscope and an ophthalmoscope.  He gently pushed Besen onto his back and covered him with the blanket.  The old man began to shiver as Kaster listened to his heart and looked at his dilated eyes.  He pursed his lips and stood up, turning to Rien.

            “You may interrogate him now, my lord,” the Sentinel murmured and stepped away from the settee.

            Rien nodded and took a seat on the low table facing the loveseat.  He leaned forward and rested his forearms on his thighs.  

            “Besen,” he said softly.

            The old man turned his head to face Rien.  His eyes were so blown, they appeared completely black.  “My lord?”

            “State your full name,” Rien said.

            “Besen Oloin, Sir.”

            “How long have you worked for Malida Stait?”

            “Since I was five, sir,” the old man said.

            “What do you do for Lady Stait?” Rien asked.

            “I run the villa, sir. I hire seasonal workers for the sowing of seeds, the maintenance of the crops, and the harvests.  I pay the seasonal workers from the house accounts.  I go into the city once a week for supplies, although we use the two large hothouses to grow food year round.  My son, Oskel, maintains the grounds, including the hothouse crops, making sure the plants get enough water and fertilizer.”

            Rien nodded.  “Very good, Besen.  Did Lord Othol ever approach you, Besen, with the promise of more money?”

            The servant frowned.  “No, sir.  Lord Othol has never come to the villa, and I’ve never come across him while in town.  I don’t visit the castle, sir.  I only go to the public market.”

            “Would your wife or daughter or son have had any contact with Othol Stait?” Rien asked.

            Besen shook his head.   “No, sir.  Oskel comes with me to the market, as does my daughter,  Masiha.”

            “Do your son or daughter ever go into the city alone, without you?” Rien asked.

            “Yes, sir.  My son has an affianced, as does his sister.  Both young people live in the city.  I allow them to visit their sweethearts once a week.  They go together and return the following day together.”

            “Thank you, Besen,” Rien said and rose.  “I’m done here.”

            “Who next?” Moyen asked.

            “I would like to talk to Masiha and Oskel,” Rien replied.  “I think we are safe not talking to the wife, if she never leaves here alone.”

            The interrogation of the servants took around two hours.  The interrogated servants were then carried to their rooms by the Sentinels to sleep off the effects of the drug.

            They uncovered nothing from their efforts, so they perforce turned their attention to Moyen’s children.  

            “I need to speak to Malida before we start,” Moyen told those in the library.

            “Talk to me about what?”

            They all turned to the archway.  Malida stood there with her oldest son and heir, Toyus.

            Moyen sighed. “Come in, Malida.  You, too, Toyus.  Close the door please.”

            Once his wife and son were seated, Moyen explained to them what had to be done.

            Toyus became upset and stood up abruptly.  “But this is absurd!  My siblings are children!”

            Kaster crossed his arms over his chest.  “Your siblings are young men and women and human.”

            Toyus frowned. “What does that mean?”

            “I’ve yet to meet a more deceitful race than humanity,” the Sentinel replied blandly.

            “But, you’re human–” Toyus said helplessly.

            Kaster barked a laugh.  “I am a cyborg.  An amalgam of flesh and machine.  A true human would not have survived cryo-sleep.  My humanity is tampered by electronic chips in my brain that allow me to function without being hampered by strong emotions.  I only feel the emotions necessary for me to do my job: empathy, compassion, love, dedication, and loyalty.  We represent the best of the species.”

            Toyus sat down abruptly, the wind gone from his sails.

            Malida sighed.  “I trust Toyus with my life.”

            Mariel knelt before Malida.  “My lady, our mission is bigger than your family.  Bigger than any one individual.”

            Malida nodded distractedly.  She gazed at the Sentinel before her with her heart in her eyes.

            Mariel swallowed thickly and took Malida’s hands in hers.  “I’m sorry, my lady.”

            Malida nodded again.  She looked at Rien. “What do we have to do?”

            “We inject a truth serum into the subject and ask him or her specific questions,” Rien told her.

            Toyus rose again.  “I’ll go first.”

            Kaster uncrossed his arms.  “That makes me think you aren’t the one.”

            Toyus frowned.  “I won’t be treated differently from my siblings.”

            “Very well,” Kaster replied.  “Shall we start?”

            As Kaster had suspected, Toyus was a dead end.            

            They brought in the children, one by one, and told them they had to be examined.  Each child waited outside the library while his or her siblings were interrogated.  

            Itina was the last.

            She looked at the needle Kaster held up and blanched pale as a sheet.  But she bravely held her arm out for him.

            Toyus stood behind the settee and Malida held the girl’s hand and sat on the floor next to the loveseat.

            Rien sighed and sat once more on the low table facing the small couch.  He rubbed his face and looked expectantly at Kaster.

            When the doctor nodded, Rien turned back to the girl.

            “What is your name?”

            “Itina Stait.”

            “How old are you, Itina?”        

            “I’ll be seventeen in three months.  I’m sixteen.”

            “Do you know Othol Stait?”

            The girl squirmed.  “He’s aya’s second husband.”        

            “Why are you uncomfortable, Itina?”

            The girl scrounged up her face.  “I–”  She reached a shaking hand to her face and wiped at her cheek.  

            “Answer the question, Itina:  How well do you know Othol Stait?”

            She sat up.  “No!”

            Rien stood up and sat on the edge of the settee, gently pushing her back onto the couch.

            “What do you mean no, Itina?” he asked.

            The girl shook her head.  “He’s–”  She said nothing more for several minutes.

            Rien looked at Kaster.  “Is she immune to the truth serum?”

            “She might have a resistance,” the doctor replied.  “I will administer half a dose more.  That’s all I would dare.”

            “Will it harm her?” Malida demanded.

            “Not if I only give her half a dose more,” Kaster replied and proceeded to inject the girl with more of the drug.

            They waited ten minutes before Rien began to ask her questions once more.  She had calmed down by then.

            “Itina?”    

            “Yes?”

            “How well do you know Othol Stait?”

            She frowned.  “What–he…”  

            She crossed her arms as if cold, so Rien covered her with the blue blanket.  

            “Answer me, Itina.”

            She began to cry.  “Mama!  Mama!”

            “I’m here, sweetheart,” Malida told her and wiped the tears from her cheeks.

            “He…” Itina said.  “He raped me!  When I was  eleven.  He told me if I didn’t help him, he would tell everyone I had seduced him and–”  She was sobbing so hard now, her words became lost.

            Malida sat on the edge of the couch and gathered the girl to her.  “Oh, my baby!  My darling child!”

            Toyus growled. “I am going to kill him with my own hands.”

            “That’s my job,” Moyen told him.

            Rien turned his gaze to Itina once more.  “Did you tell Othol about Malida taking the tea made of poison?”

            The girl nodded miserably.  “Yes!  I’m sorry, Aya!  He made me!  He made me tell!”

            Malida caressed the girl’s hair and crooned softly to her.

            Rien sighed wearily and rose.  “I would venture to guess he raped her repeatedly until she was too old for his perverse tastes.”  He looked at Moyen.  “I have assassins on his trail.  He’ll be dispatched quietly and quickly.”

            Moyen worked his jaw.  “I want him brought to me.”

            “My lord–“

            Moyen straightened to his full height.  “I. Want. To. Dispatch. Him. Myself.”

            Rien nodded.  “It will make it harder to kidnap him.”

            “Knock him out, drug him,” Moyen said.  “I don’t care.  I don’t care if he comes to me a bit worn.”

            Rien nodded.  “Yes, sir.  Excuse me.”

            They watched him as he left the library.  He needed to dispatch a carrier vinah to his contacts in Kuin-on-the-Ha’j as soon as possible.

Chapter IX: Enemy Revealed

            Sol finished his entry into his work tablet and ran his eyes over what he had dictated.

            Day 60 since awakening.  The aliens are due to arrive in two months’ time.  We have been contacted by our counterparts on the sister planet, Syrion.  Humans on that planet have devolved and remain rudimentary in their language and culture, opting to live simple lives in grass huts or caves.  There will be no contacting the populace for fear of corrupting their evolutionary timeline.  Our counterparts assure us there are signs the populace is developing complex religions and cultures, especially those people living near oceans, rivers and in areas of rich earth amiable to agriculture.  Our counterparts estimate it will be at least 1500 years before they will evolve complex cities and cultures.  Our fear is that if the aliens contact them, the populace with inevitably worship them as gods.  We must stop them here before they discover Syrion.  Our sensors identified five arks heading this way via the asteroid belt.  How the massive ships survived the asteroid belt is a mystery, but their sheer sizes tripped our sensors.  Although the ships are huge, there is no way to gauge the numbers of their inhabitants.  Most of the ships may be made up of machinery.  We noted they use sails to capture the solar winds, much as humans did when they settled Odyssey’s Landing and Syrion. The name Odyssey’s Landing has been corrupted to Audesei.  In the ancient Isili name it simply means “bearer,” which in human terms means “mother.”

            The rest of the beacons around the solar system have not been broken.   The beacons have been placed betweem the large gas planets and their rocky moons.  There are six planets in total in this solar system:  four gas giants and two terrestrial planets.  Syrion had no native sentient beings but was flourishing with plant and animal life when the ark Syrion arrived.  The four gas giants have twenty moons between them.  Syrion has two moons:  one small moon and the larger moon, where our counterparts went into cryosleep.  Audesei has only one moon, which the inhabitants have dubbed Tanita.  She is larger than the average moons in the solar system and, if a bit larger, might have been its third terrestrial planet.  

            All the sentient beings and the mammalian species on the planet Audesei are dual-sexed.  We use mammalian because the animals are warm blooded and they carry their young in their bodies until they are mature enough for birth.  There are a lot of small reptiles.  Some fly.  The most common is called the vinah.  Vinah are a littoral animal, living near coastlines and subsisting on the rich bounty of the seas and oceans.  The fish, like the reptiles, are single sexed, male and female, although the fish we have had a chance to study change sex at will and so do the reptiles.  The reptiles seem to have the roles birds did on old Earth. Some of the reptiles have feather-like coverings.  Many of the reptiles are able to fly.  They are small with hollow bones, much like birds.  There are innumerable numbers of ophidian, some poisonous and some benign.  There are many kinds of insects, some benign and some destructive.  Many inhabitants keep reptiles as pets to manage destructive insects.  The vinah is also used as a carrier animal, carrying notes in small tubes attached to their hind legs.  

            We, as a unit, have decided to remain on Audesei once the aliens have been dealt with.  There is much information to collect and maintain.  Once we collect the information, we will categorize it and enter it into the mainframe on the moon.  Then we will return to cryosleep until we are needed once more.  I will put to the team to awaken once every 200 years to see how the inhabitants of Audesei are evolving and faring.  The idea of sleeping forever does not sit well with me.  There may be no more alien contact with this planet.  Are we to sleep until the cryo chambers malfunction and we die?  

            He swallowed thickly and shut the tablet off, slipping it into his shoulder bag.  He rose from the desk and made his way out of his bedroom and down the hall to where the others had come together in the south wing’s expansive library.  They greeted him softly when he joined them.  He shut the library door behind him and took a seat in an unoccupied armchair.

            “Topon was explaining the properties of the okre tree,” Mariel murmured.

            Sol nodded but said nothing, turning expectantly to his counterpart.

            “The poison, if survived, seems to influence the ability to manipulate fields,” Topon said.  “It saturates the brain cells and changes them.  I would like time to study the tree further, to see if its flowers have enhancing properties, like the leaves do.”

            Ariahl nodded.  “When the aliens are dealt with, Topon.  We will remain here for a decade to study the planet and the animals and plants.”  She turned to Kaster.  “Have you spoken to Malida about her visions?”

            Kaster shifted and inclined his head.  “Yes.  The aliens are called ‘Sha’jeen’ and are collectively known as the ‘Sha’j.’  In the beginning, they were searching for habitable planets, but they evolved tall, thin bodies amenable to the thinner atmosphere and lesser gravity of their ships.  Their culture eventually developed into a knowledge-seeking culture.  They came across planets with sentient beings and they categorized the different planets, the different species of sentient beings, taking samples of trees, grasses, and the carcasses of insects and animals.  Their arks were equipped with hothouses to grow their foods and they were basically a vegetarian culture, abhorring killing of any sort.”

            He sighed and shook his head.  “They imported a destructive organism into their arks.  The bacterium — that was Malida’s term — destroyed their crops and soil.  The Sha’jeen almost disappeared as a species.   Their religion evolved. They picked up a particularly bloody entity called Ya’ih on some planet.  Ya’ih is a god of death and sacrifice.  The Sha’jeen made Ya’ih their own, rewriting their religious tome and reinventing themselves as a warrior race, as conquerors, and as cannibals.  They consumed their own kind for a few centuries and then developed a book called Ya’ih Shemis Uta (the God Prevails), in which they introduced the idea of consuming sentient beings to incorporate their intelligence and strengths and longevity.”

            Silence befell the library.  The Sentinels themselves, having taken an oath not to harm life unless to protect humanity, were vegetarian.  The idea of cannibalism or harming sentient beings for the purpose of nourishment disgusted and disturbed them.  Sol shuddered and tamped down the horror that was yawning inside of him.  The Sha’jeen must have long ago ruthlessly done away with compassion, curiosity and kindness.  They would come as conquerors and overlords.  There would be no compromising, not that compromise with such beings was possible.

            Kaster continued in a hushed tone.  “They have three genders:  the Shi’ehl, who are the equivalent of females, able to reproduce.  They rule the  Sha’jeen as high priests.  Malida told me the Shi’ehl have the appearance of young men, though, not women.  They do not lactate and she does not know how they feed their young.  The second most powerful gender is that of the deuil.  They are the ones who produce sperm in their genitals, able to impregnate the Shi’ehl.  Their roles are that of soldiers and protectors.  The final gender is that of bouel.  They are, essentially, neuters.  They are the work horses of the species, filling the role of servants and food for the Shi’ehl and deuil.  They are the most common gender among the Sha’jeen.”

            He frowned.  “Malida also told me that with each generation, less an less Shi’ehl are able to bare young.  Perhaps solar radiation has poisoned them.  Sperm is fragile, after all.  There is no reason to believe Sha’jeen sperm is any less fragile than that of human males.  So, she said the Sha’jeen come for genetic material as well as food.  The Sha’jeen were, first and foremost, scientists and researchers.  It gives me hope that their numbers are less than we anticipate.”

            “It is sad,” Mariel whispered.  “They began so well.”

            Sol shifted.  “Their evolution as a species is understandable, if unacceptable.  The drive to survive is the strongest instinct and it is informed by all the emotions.  A sentient species which began as a peaceful, exploratory one, conserving sentience in the universe, will have felt strong emotions like guilt and empathy.  In order to become conquerors, they needed obdurate justifications, including making themselves feel superior and, thereby, worthy of survival over all other species of beings.  This god they picked up was the vehicle through which they could remake themselves.”  He shook his head.  “It is fascinating how sentience duplicates behavior across species and worlds.”

            Ariahl grimaced.  “Humans have resorted to cannibalism for lesser reasons, after all, haven’t they?  There have been cultures on old Earth that resorted to cannibalism even when there was a bounty of food around them.”  She shuddered.  “For this reason, we must try to preserve the Sha’jeen.”

            Derik scowled.  “Our mission is to preserve humanity.”

            Mariel leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees.  “Our mission is ultimately to preserve life, Derik.”

            “Agreed,” Topon piped up and glanced at Derik.  “We have to preserve all sentient life, Derik.  We know your prejudices and preferences for the human being, but all sentient life is worthy of preservation.”        

            Derik crossed his arms over his chest.  “I disagree and argue against that proposal.”

            “Shall we take a vote?” Ariahl asked.  “All those in agreement that we should try to preserve the Sha’jeen, raise your left arms.”

            All the Sentinels, except Derik, raised their arms.

            “You have been outvoted,” Mariel pronounced without inflection.  “Will you agree not to harm the Sha’jeen?”

            Derik said nothing.

            Sol snorted and shook his head.  “You are number three, Derik.  The number of harmony, wisdom and understanding.  You represent vision.”

            “I am a scientist,” Derik growled.  “First and foremost.  If there is a destructive species, it should be eradicated for the sake of the whole.”

            “Why don’t we agree to excise what is poisoned?” Ishel asked.

            Derik turned to him.  “What do you mean?”

            “Their leaders and their priests are what keep their belief system intact.  Maybe we should focus on those and see if some of their younger members can be reprogrammed to live alongside other sentient beings?”

            Derik considered.  “I won’t kill younglings. So, yes.  I am for saving the youngest of the Sha’jeen and teaching them to be other than bloodthirsty cannibals.”

            Ariahl nodded.  “Do we agree we will save the offspring?”

            She put her hand out and each Sentinel then covered her right hand with their own.

            “Agreed,” Derik stated and sighed with relief.

            Kaster sat back.  “I will try to see why they aren’t reproducing, but that will have to be once we defeat them in battle.”  He rubbed his face with his fleshy hand. “This is all quite complicated.  I’m not sure how we will be able to manage.”  He turned to Ariahl.  “Has Malida have visions about how we fight them?”

            “Just battle scenes but nothing concrete,” their captain replied.  “We have to talk about strategy.”

            “How well can we prepare ourselves, if we don’t have the faintest idea of their weapons?” Mariel asked.

            “We will have to improvise,” Ariahl told her.  She looked at each Sentinel.  “We will have to think on our feet.  Our brain chips are up to the task, it is only our emotions that get in the way.”

            “We should have been left with at least one android,” Topon agreed.  “But we weren’t.  We will have to be enough.”

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.”