Ten years ago…
Jace chased the dog up, then down three different sand dunes, each one taller than the last. The effort was taking its toll. Huffing and puffing, his shirt soaked with sweat, he scrambled through the desert sands. Passing over the top of the fourth dune, Jace drew a sharp breath. A polished gleam of metal captured his eye. There was the dog, sure enough, a fat rabbit between his jaws.
Three yards past where the dog lay enjoying his prize, the sand fell away from the side of the next dune, revealing the hard metal of something underneath. The metal caught the sun’s rays and drove daggers of light into Jace’s eyes. It was glistening silver; it looked like a hatch. There were hinges on the right—the left side was covered with sand.
Jace knelt beside the covered half of the metal hatch and swept the sand away with both hands. He discovered something, a depression in the metal, and he concentrated his efforts there. A handle emerged. He turned it to the right, but when he pulled on it, nothing happened. Too much sand remained upon the door.
The dog (having tired of the rabbit and being a master digger) joined in the fun. With the dog working on the lower half of the plate and Jace on the upper, they cleared the sand away in no time.
“That’s enough, Bandit; quit it!” Jace shooed the dog away. The dog smiled and laid down on the sand, sniffing the rabbit, panting from the exertion of the chase and the digging. He eyed the boy, keen to see what would happen next.
Jace planted his feet in the liquid sand beside the hatch, wrapping both hands around the handle. With a mighty groan and a grimace of effort the dog enjoyed, he yanked on it. To his surprise (and the dog’s), it flew wide open. He landed several feet away. Sand and dust erupted from the impact, depositing a fine layer of debris upon him. Coughing and spitting, he stood up and brushed away the dirt—all the sweaty parts turned to mud. Bandit watched in fascination, a wry grin on his face.
The gaping black hole in the dune was dark and foreboding, and it smelled like old dirty laundry. Lack of light inside the hole made it hard to see past where the sun shone in. When he yelled “HELLO!” into the opening, it yelled back at least three times, so he knew it was huge.
Jace looked at the dog. Bandit cocked his head—his eyes said, “not me”.
“Well, I guess we need to go get father…”
The dog agreed.
Hot floodlights cast a surreal blaze, the dunes amplified the harsh glare, making everything appear ochre-yellow. The sky was starless, moonless, overcast gray—it did nothing to brighten the mood.
Silence captured all three men who stood on the ridge...
Corian Dinatos let out a long slow sigh, turning to the others, searching their faces, trying to judge their mood.
“You know what this means; they’re lying to us, this is proof.” Corian motioned toward the open hatch below, observing the men scurrying about. Four rows of tables stood outside the entrance to the buried ship. Hazard-suited workers brought items from the interior, placing them in empty spots on the tables. As they laid the new things out, scientists in laboratory coats examined, cataloged, and crated each piece, and motioned for a team of soldiers. The men carried the crates to a transport vessel waiting on a flat stretch of sand next to the dig site.
Thaddeus Thalos shot a quick glance in Corian’s direction, nodded agreement, and said what they were all thinking. “We’ve suspected this for many years. Having proof seems almost wrong somehow, but the truth is unavoidable. The question is, what to do about it?” He turned away and hung his head. “Every time I see the news of some temple being bombed, or a riot over denominational rights, it makes me cringe.”
Eustas Callas reached into the right breast pocket of his tunic and retrieved his smoke and pipe. He drew a plasma lighter from his right pants pocket and fired the bowl. Embers flew into the night wind as the leaf caught fire. Thin tendrils of smoke rose into the air, curled around his head, then drifted off on the breeze.
“Corian, you are the Tribal Governor, so this decision is yours,” Eustas said, focusing on the gray of the cloudy darkness overhead—it matched the color of his thoughts. “We’ll take this issue before the High Council, but if you want my advice, I’ll give it to you.”
“You are my military advisor,” Corian said, “and this is a military decision. After being lied to for generations, I don’t care what the Council thinks.”
Eustas considered the response for a moment, took another pull on his pipe, and wished he was a hundred miles away. “Good. Then my suggestion is this. These False Gods are powerful. To fight power of that kind, you need that kind of power.” “I know only one person that powerful, but I hesitate to suggest her, for my own reasons...”
Eustas nodded, spun around, and walked away down the face of the dune toward the transport ship, leaving them standing on the hill.
Corian stood there, dumbfounded; his mouth agape. He watched as Eustas walked away. “I don’t understand!” he yelled, turning to Thaddeus, “Who is this person?”
Thaddeus motioned for him to be quiet, placing his left palm in the center of Corian’s chest to stop him. “It’s his step-daughter…”
—From the Journal of General Eustas Callus —
Day 121, 1219, Cycle 3:
The discovery of this ship buried in the desert has me at odds. I’ve known for some time, we all have, the Gods are lying about our origins. Only common folk still believe the lie because they don’t know what the High Council does.
They claim they created us, gave us life, but their overt jealousy of each other, and their inability to control things like natural disasters: floods and storms killing hundreds or even thousands at a time, gives the lie to their tale. When questioned about their inability, they claim a hidden agenda mere mortals couldn’t understand. Rubbish. Is a true God not all-powerful? It’s not as if we were asking them to resurrect the dead.
Now, this ship. The official story is, the vessel is of alien origin, which is true—as it did not originate from this planet. Discoveries we’ve made upon examination of the technology it contained are astounding. The ship is not wrecked; we can find no damage upon the vessel, leading the scientists to believe whoever landed it did so in a very controlled manner, which begs the question—where did they go?
Our senior researcher, Carolus, believes the ship has been buried there for over two thousand years—some aging test he performed upon the material they found in the seating. This time frame predates our oldest known records by twelve-hundred years, but then, during the ‘Dark Years’, there’s an absolute dearth of history because of records being destroyed and the nomadic nature of people.
It’s complicated, I imagine, to keep detailed records while fighting for your life. Erador is filled with many wild and terrible beasts, and a single Draggon attack might wipe out an entire village. I suppose I can forgive our ancestors for not putting pen to paper more often.
So, I ponder this situation, and I wonder, did our ancestors come to Erador from another place, long ago? Was it on that ship? Is it conceivable we lost the memory of this in only eighty generations? If this is true, then how did these False-Gods come to be here? It boggles the mind.
And now, the crux of the matter. These Gods are not Gods at all; they’re pretenders—fraudulent purveyors of false hope—they need to be stopped. Alisha is the most powerful Adept I’ve ever known, but she’s young and not fully trained. The High Council agrees, we’ve waited for millennia already—a few more years can’t hurt. I hope they don’t press the issue.
Present-day Erador Prime...
Little noise escaped the door's hinges as he eased through the gap. In the distance, over the sound of running water, the lilting tones of a song floated toward him. The assassin’s training had honed his senses and tightened his control. He could be silent when he needed to.
He moved toward the sound of her voice.
He recognized the song now; his mother used to sing it to him. In his mind, he saw her sitting beside the stream flowing past their home, the blossoms from the Redfruit trees dancing in the breeze, blanketing the ground with a carpet of white and pink petals.
The cool wind on his face... his mother’s smile…
He found his target in the arboretum. He watched her for several moments, tending to the greenery growing around the edge of the pool. She was a beautiful woman. Flowing black hair cascaded around her shoulders, like the water falling on the stones behind. Dark silkiness, surrounding soft beauty.
By inches, he snuck up on her as she trimmed the plants—every muscle taut. The song she sang returned to the chorus and her voice lifted his spirits as he glided toward her.
This will be sweet...
Behind her now, lightning-fast, he reached out and encircled her with both arms, pulling her to his chest, holding her fast so she couldn't move.
“I’ve known you were there since you came in, Garrian.” Alisha Callus laughed, grasping his wrists where they crossed her chest. The plant shears falling to the stone floor made a clattering metallic sound, echoing from the walls.
“Impossible!” Garrian Callus shot back, faking indignance. “I’m a trained soldier, woman!”
“And if I hadn’t enchanted the doors to warn me, you might’ve been successful.” She spun in his arms and kissed him. Her infectious grin made him smile.
“Ahh… undone by your magic, Sorceress,” Garrian said, as he released her and took a step back, bowing at the waist and making a grand flourish with both hands. He gave her his most ravishing smile and a flirtatious wink. “When will I ever learn?”
“Never, I would wager.” She exaggerated a long sigh. “You are too hard-headed.”
“Which do you love more, my boyish good looks, or my exceptional charm?”
“I will ignore the question,” she said. “I can’t possibly choose between the two.”
She followed Garrian into the kitchen. The hem of her robe caressed the stones as she moved, making a soft noise like leaves brushing the ground. Garrian watched her walk. She had a gentle grace about her—it reminded him of a bird floating on the wind.
He opened the cooler door, rummaging around for a snack. He grabbed the milk. Alisha watched him drink from the bottle with a disapproving look.
“I know we’re low on food, but the grocer’s boy comes this morning to refill our regular order.” She frowned. “Can’t you use a cup?”
“Good.” He ignored the disparaging cup question. “I’m starving…”
“That’s probably him now...” Alisha grinned.
The knock at the side door interrupted their playful banter. Garrian moved toward the hallway to answer. He swung the door wide, expecting the grocer’s boy. He was surprised to find the imposing figure of Eustas Callus standing on the steps, dressed in full battle gear, crossed sabers on his back, and plasma pistol at his side.
The Zyrsteel reinforcements on his leather armor shone brightly in the early morning sun. Eustas was tall, six feet or more—and solid, like the trunk of an old tree. His face told the story of fifty-six years of a hard life. His expression was grim, and Garrian sensed the solemn manner of the man.
“Father, what brings you by so early on a fine morning such as this?” Garrian asked.
“I need to speak to the two of you,” Eustas said.
Garrian’s grin faded. Rather than question the man (which he knew would be pointless), he stepped back, motioning him inside.
Eustas sidestepped his son and stalked past him down the long corridor, headed for the center of the villa, looking for Alisha.
Garrian shut the door behind them and made his way back to the kitchen. He found his father and Alisha in a warm embrace. They rarely saw him. His wife had a fondness for Eustas, which astonished him because he didn’t share it.
Garrian’s memories of early childhood revolved around his mother because his father had always been away. When he was home, he was still away—emotionally. Eustas treated Alisha like his favorite child, from the first day he’d met her. His natural icy exterior seemed to melt when he was around her. Garrian never complained; she’d become a natural buffer between them. They never fought when she was present.
“Eustas Callus!” Alisha scolded him. “How dare you stay away from us; don’t you know Garrian misses you when you’re off solving the problems of the Tribe?” The corner of her mouth turned up. She was no fool. She knew about the tension between them, and making light of it was how she made them laugh—and laughter diluted the animosity.
Eustas chuckled, a deep rumbling sound from somewhere below the surface of his hardened exterior, his whole body shook with the effort. Garrian watched the two, amazed at how they interacted.
“I’m sure he does…” Eustace glanced at his son from the corner of his eye. Garrian thought he glimpsed a hint of sadness there—knowing better; he discounted it.
Alisha picked up on the mood and changed the subject, moving toward the dining table as she spoke, leaving them no choice but to follow. Garrian had watched her do this before. She could mold and shape situations without seeming to do so. He didn’t know if it was magic or her natural ability—but he’d never seen it fail. He recognized when she was doing it, but he was susceptible like everyone else, unable to resist her charm.
“How is Jolie?” Alisha asked, gesturing for them to take seats.
Eustas removed the sabers from his back, laying them across the far end of the long table. Garrian sat at the head of the table, watching Alisha pour kaffa from the kettle into three large cups. The steam from the liquid curled into the air between them, carrying the rich aroma to their senses. The shaded light from the overhead fixture cast a warm glow around them.
“My lovely wife is doing fine, dear,” Eustas adjusted his large frame to the chair as he spoke, “and she’s as feisty as ever. How’s my grandson?”
“Garrian got back this morning from dropping Minus off at the Lancer Academy on Minos. He decided he wanted to skip his last year of schooling and get started on his Martial training early.” Alisha sipped the kaffa, glaring at Garrian over the rim of her cup. Eustas saw the look and grinned.
“I take it, you disapprove?” He asked.
“He’s only eleven-years-old…” Alisha sat her cup down and leaned back in her chair, eyes still locked on Garrian. “My husband and I discussed it—I guess I lost.”
Garrian blew out a breath and looked down, studying the grain of wood on the table. He traced the pattern with his fingertips. Alisha wanted their son to attend the Cirrian School of Orphic Mysteries—she’d seen great promise in Minus from an early age. The Orphic energy ran deep within him, but Minus had no use for it: he wanted to be like his father: a soldier, and what father could deny a son’s wish?
“Well,” Eustas said after a moment, “I know the boy wasn’t happy with his studies, so I must agree with Garrian on this one. The Lancers will better serve Minus’ education.”
Alisha’s gaze shifted from her husband to her father-in-law, but the intensity remained the same.
Garrian stared at Eustas, his mouth open in shock. He hadn’t expected agreement from him, figuring he would choose Alisha’s side, as he’d done many times before.
“Either way, I’ve accepted it.” Her voice was a chilly monotone. “I heard Garrian ask you at the door, Eustas, what brings you by this morning?”
Eustas’ brown eyes met her blue ones but couldn’t hold them. He sipped his kaffa and watched the dark surface of the liquid in his cup. After several sips and prolonged silence, he set the cup down and drew a long deep breath.
“You both remember... when we found the ship buried outside Thalos Plains?” he asked.
Garrian glanced at Alisha. She nodded, her eyes still fixed on his father, not with malice, but with curiosity. He turned his attention toward Eustas.
“What about it?” Garrian asked. “That was years ago. It was all over the holo-vids. A crashed military ship: they said it went down in a dust storm in the Caral desert. No injuries.”
Eustas shifted in his seat, out of character. Although it was cool inside the house, Garrian saw beads of sweat forming on his father’s brow. Something wasn’t right; this wasn’t the man he’d known his entire life—he seemed nervous.
“We lied to the news services…” Eustas said. “I need to tell you the truth.”
Jarod ran down the narrow lane connecting the main bazaar to the side roads of Jos Hollow. Behind him, he heard vendors hawking their wares—the bustle of the city streets—and the pursuers who were chasing him. His breath came in ragged gasps. He’d been running for several minutes, and he was exhausted. Rivers of sweat ran down his face, soaking his shirt and stinging his eyes. His muscles screamed in agony from the exertion, but he dared not stop.
“Hold up, you coward!” The taller one was closer, the shorter one falling behind. Feet slapping pavement, breathing hard—closer now. He could feel the violence reaching for him like a heavy hand. He was terrified.
At a fork in the road, Jarod chose left, hoping he could lose them by cutting through the park, mingling with the crowd surrounding the fountain. Arms and legs pumping, chest heaving, the last hundred yards seemed a thousand or more.
Jumping and dodging, weaving and ducking, he made it to the fountain as the other men caught him. The taller one grabbed him, taking him down, they rolled for several yards, dust and gravel flying. The shorter man caught up and straddled his chest, raining blows on his face and shoulders with clenched fists, screaming obscenities.
Jarod curled into a tight ball and tried to protect himself with his arms—his tears mixing with the blood streaming down his battered face, his nose shattered and twisted at an odd angle.
A giant of a man with long black hair and piercing blue eyes grabbed the two attackers by the collar of their shirts, throwing them to either side of the helpless man. He stood over Jarod, glaring at the other two, demanding answers. “What in the name of all that’s good is goin’ on here?”
The fountain was typically crowded with people, and today was no different. Men surrounded the brawl, shouting encouragement or derision, eager for tales for their next trip to the saloon. Women hid their faces and whispered to each other. Children were pulled behind mothers, hands held over small ears and eyes, protecting them from the carnage.
“So, let’s have it!” The big man wasn’t satisfied with the attacker’s silence. “What on Erador is all this?”
The taller man was the first to regain his composure. The shorter man lay in the dirt where he’d fallen, glaring at Jarod, bleeding and broken on the ground ten feet away.
“He said our Lord Kavan was a False God!” The taller man said, pointing at Jarod.
The big man chuckled. Several people in the crowd hissed, and several others laughed—a few made no sound at all, but hate poured from their eyes: some for the broken-bleeding man—some for the other two. Hushed whispers passed through the throng. Mothers grabbed their children, herding them away.
“So... this is about whose God is the real God?” The voice came from the edge of the crowd. Everyone turned. A tall thin man with a long flowing gray beard, dressed in red robes, pushed his way through the masses. Approaching the big man, he made a sign in the air with one slender finger, thin trails of red fire carving a shining rune in space before him.
The stone in the circlet on his forehead glowed with a crimson light. He raised the staff in his left hand and brought the end down against the earth with a resounding thud, shaking the ground beneath the gathered crowd. Sparks of red and amber erupted from the base of the staff. The big man staggered back several feet, leaving the injured Jarod undefended on the ground.
“I am a Herald of the God Zaril, and this man has been wronged!” His voice had changed: it sounded like the earth grating against itself—like a volcano erupting. The light surrounding the fountain dimmed as dense clouds passed overhead, streaks of blue lightning crawling across their gray faces. Thunder echoed in the distance.
The crowd fled—thirty people running in as many directions. Screams of women mixed with the cursing of men—some were too afraid to move and became witness to the slaughter.
The Herald raised the staff above his head, turning toward the two assailants—they tried to run. Both ends of the staff glowed a hot red, and flame burst forth: two beams of searing fire, consuming the pair before they could move. Engulfed in flames, screaming in agony, they died where they stood, charred beyond recognition. Two blackened stumps remained, the bittersweet smell of charred flesh mixing with those of sweat and fear.
The big man grabbed the Herald by the neck, one massive arm lifting him from the ground—his fingers tightened around the Sorcerer’s throat, choking the life from him. The Herald spun the staff around, striking him on the side of the head. He lost his grip long enough for his victim to fall to the ground, choking, trying to catch his breath.
The big man pulled his broadsword free—fire from the staff reflecting in his eyes. The blade made an evil-sounding hiss as it cleared the leather scabbard. The Sorcerer regained his feet, raising the staff, muttering something in the Cirrian speech, when the broadsword blade entered his neck from the left side. Blood erupted, showering the ground around them as the severed head flew into the air, propelled by the force of the blow. The lifeless body fell like a sack on the ground, twitching and writhing in the throes of death.
The big man reached down, wiping the crimson stain from his blade on the red robe of the dead Adept—the cloth turned a deep black. He looked at the head, the lips still moved, mouthing whatever spell had almost been cast. He sheathed the sword and picked up the staff, snapping it across his left knee—he tossed the two halves into the dirt.
The remaining crowd milled about, like sheep in a thunderstorm. One man, a short blond fellow who’d seen the whole thing walked over, curiosity conquering fear.
“Tell me, friend… w-what is your name?” he stammered.
The big man looked at him, gave a curt nod, and walked away. Ten yards passed when he pivoted and stared at the blond stranger. He walked back and placed his right hand on the man’s shoulder.
“Do you believe in these... Gods?” His voice was deep but melodious.
The blond man looked into the big man’s eyes—all he saw was pain. “Not after what I saw you do.”
“This Senate meeting will come to order!” The scribe took her seat.
Corian Dinatos eased himself up and strolled onto the floor of the Senate chamber. He had his hands in his pockets, Alisha noticed, she wondered why it would register with her.
“My good Senators and citizens, tonight is a historic night for Erador...”
Corian would ramble on for several minutes. She glanced to her right where Garrian and Eustas sat—they looked as anxious as she felt. She’d never been this close to the Senate floor, had never wanted to be.
I can’t believe this is happening, am I losing my mind? I’m not ready for this… What was it Eustas said at the kitchen table?
“I don’t understand.” Her brow wrinkled as she stared at him. “What’s the real reason behind having this council? Why is it necessary?”
The fire from the kitchen hearth crackled and spit, a single glowing ember escaped the inferno, finding a spot to cool and die on the brick below—it hissed with relief, the torture over.
Eustas smiled and leaned back. “You realize, if we’re successful, your actions will probably not ingratiate you with their followers…”
“You mean they might want revenge?” Alisha sipped her kaffa, a distant look on her face.
“People have died for less... Let’s make sure our cause is legitimate. We have the people’s best interest at heart, don’t we?” His wink made her smile, at first… “And if they agree now, they can hardly back out later…”
“Isn’t this sanctioned murder?” she asked.
“Murder is such a nasty word.” He drained his cup and stood. “Let’s stop saying it.”
“... and so, I ask you to welcome, Councilor-General Eustas Callus!” Corian sat down; his eyes were furtive.
Eustas stood and took his place. She admired his stoic demeanor. He circled the floor, casting glances toward the seated Senators, judging their acquiescence before he spoke. Eustas was a consummate politician—he was a better warrior. They were starting a war, so that was good.
The white plasma lamps circling the Senate chambers flashed on the rows of medals adorning Eustas’ chest. His knee-high leather boots gleamed. Epaulets with gold braided rope hung from each shoulder, accenting the dark blue of the dress uniform. Gray streaks along his temples and down the center of his close-cropped beard gave him an air of authority. His presence was commanding.
Besides Corian and Eustas, there were three other High Council members. Thaddeus Thalos sat across from them, flanked by his oldest son, Rodrik, and his daughter, Cerene—all three watched Eustas as he circled the Senate floor. Riven Marlock and his wife, Justia, were whispering to each other; occasionally, they would laugh. Jos Riner was absent, but his wife, Merdith, sat staring into the crowd with apparent disdain.
Eustas’ booming voice broke the silence. “We have a problem,” he said. “There’s no spiritual leadership on Erador, since the departure of the Adeptus Order to Cirrus.”
A soft murmur of agreement rose and then fell away. Senators exchanged whispers, and many heads nodded. When the mild furor subsided, Eustas continued, clasping his hands behind his back in a military posture.
“We’ve become three worlds, fighting against a fourth, and although we’re all Eradorians at our core, we’ve lost much of our diversity. Our mystics moved to Cirrus, and most of our soldiers now live on Minos, while our scientists remain here on Erador. Although we’re free to choose our paths, and our home world, this division has segregated our resources.”
Eustas paused, judging the Senators’ acceptance; Alisha followed his gaze, she saw no outright opposition in the assembled faces, although several appeared to be daydreaming.
“The High Council has determined we must address this issue, and we’ve decided on the means to do so.” Eustas glanced at Alisha; she saw a hint of indecision; her smile made him press on. “We bring this before you Senators tonight for your support. We hope you see things as we do.”
One Senator from Erador Prime stood—he was an old man, with a wise face. His eyes were kind but cautious, and he was experienced at politics. Alisha smiled. Eustas said this would happen.
“So, are we to assume this is a formality, and the Council has already made the decision it requires?” He held his arms across his chest, nodding to himself, confident his answer was correct.
“Not at all.” Eustas turned to face him, his smile disarming. “This is open for debate—but allow me to propose the idea first, please, before you take issue with it.”
The old man sat, but he kept his arms crossed. The seated Senators congratulated him, their hands slapped his shoulders, proclaiming their solidarity. Eustas turned away from him. Alisha saw the move for what it was—a dismissal. She watched her father-in-law breathe, walking in a tight circle, aiming his attention at a different section of the assembly.
“As I said, we need spiritual leadership. There’s one person among us who is qualified to provide it, but we shouldn’t expect one person to shoulder the burden. The Council believes we should institute a separate body, charged with shaping Erador’s faith and beliefs. There are four Gods whose doctrines seem at odds. This causes untold hardship. I’m sure everyone here would agree.”
The old Senator nodded, uncrossed his arms, and leaned forward. Alisha noticed most of the others mirror his actions. Eustas pressed his advantage.
“We ask for the formation of a Luminary Council, without the supervision of the High Council, or the Senate. This Council will act on its own accord and will not be a government body—it will answer only to its leader, and its sole purpose will be Erador’s spiritual future.”
Alisha looked around. The Senators were all still leaning forward; most of their mouths hung open, unsure what to say.
The old man’s eyes turned to slits as he stood. His bony knuckles white as he grasped the seat-back in front of him.
“So, this is strictly a religious body?” he asked, suspicion in his voice. “They’ll have no say in governmental matters, no power to enforce policy?”
Eustas turned again, locking eyes with the older man.
Alisha knew if he could pacify this leader, then the others would follow. She held her breath, fingers crossed.
“Absolutely not. The directive of the Luminary Council is the furtherance of Erador’s spiritual beliefs and incorporating all the Gods’ doctrines into a functional system that leaves no one behind.” Eustas smiled. He looked satisfied.
The old Senator judged the faces of his peers. They all looked to him, waiting for his decision.
“Well, I see no problem, and I think everyone else will agree with me, but who is this person you think is qualified to lead our people into the spiritual future?” the senator asked. “The Adeptus Order, as you say, moved off-world to Cirrus.”
Alisha knew this was her cue. She’d sat with Eustas at their dining table, discussing how the meeting would play out. Garrian came around eventually—even joined in the strategy. She knew her husband was opposed, but only because of the danger to her, not for lack of certainty about the need for action.
Alisha stood and smoothed the folds of the blue robe she wore. All eyes focused on her as she strode to the center of the floor. She tried to imagine standing on a broad hilltop, clouds circling overhead, calm wind on her face—it didn’t help. She took Eustas’ hand and raised her head to address the gathering. “My name is Alisha Callus, and I am an Adeptus Supreme.” Her voice never faltered. “What Eustas says is true: we haven’t all left for Cirrus. I am here to serve you as a guide if you’ll have me.”
Whispers of Adeptus Supreme and Sorceress flowed among the Senators; glances were shared, eyes locked in disbelief. Several seconds passed, interrupted by a soft voice from the back row.
“Why should we place our faith in a woman who wouldn’t honor her vow?” A small woman with black hair and pale green eyes, dressed in the silver-gray robe of an adept, carrying a wooden staff with a solid gold headpiece, descended the stairs toward the gallery floor. She moved like water flowing over stone—graceful, but purposeful, her eyes fixed on Alisha. “What faith can we place behind a woman who abandoned her order?” She stopped at the edge of the floor, driving the end of her staff into the wood planks. “Cenae enforus!”
The force of the blow echoed from the walls of the chamber. Blue-lightning crawled across the floorboards, crackling and hissing, reaching out. Alisha waived her right hand in the air, silver fire burned at her fingertips, her eyes intent on the younger girl. She snapped her fingers, almost like an afterthought.
The lightning disappeared with a loud pop! An acrid smell of spent magic floated on the still air. The small Sorceress gasped, bowing toward Alisha. She knelt, laying her staff upon the floor, her head down. The Senators were beside themselves in awe.
“Who are you?” Alisha demanded. She moved toward the woman, making small protective sigils in the air with her fingers, her eyes on fire with silver light. The folds of her cerulean robe filled with the glow of Orphic energy drawn from the ether. She resonated power. “What do you want?”
The Sorceress raised her head, grabbed her staff with both hands, and offered it to Alisha in defeat. Her eyes were fearful, looking into the face of the Adeptus—her body shook, hands trembling.
“I was told you were a fake,” the young woman murmured, looking past her at Eustas. “I can see my error; please forgive me, Adeptus…”
Alisha spun around to look at Eustas. The cold gleam in his eye and the corner of his mouth told her what she needed to know.
He turned from her and addressed the assemblage. “Who can doubt this Adeptus Supreme is our rightful spiritual leader?”
Murmurs became shouts, and shouts became cheers. The old Senator from Erador Prime shook Alisha’s hand. They milled around her, crowding the center of the floor, threatening to overwhelm her. A steady hand grabbed her left wrist, and she followed—out the door of the Senate chamber into the street, oblivious to her destination. She looked up at her escort, he was a huge man, with long jet-black hair and a kind face—a large broadsword strapped across his back in the warrior fashion.
“Who are you?” She recoiled, pulling against his grip. “Where are you taking me, and where is my husband?”
“My name is Dalo Karran, Sorceress.” The big man bowed toward her. “I am your protector, at Eustas’ request. No harm will come to you as long as my heart beats—I swear it.”
His eyes were full of pain, but she could see a gentle calm there. He seemed familiar, and she couldn’t say why, but she trusted him without question. She let him lead, unafraid, down the dimly lit streets into the darkness beyond.
Kavan was vexed.
He sat by the spirit-pool. The deep pool cast no reflections, absorbing the surrounding light; the glow from the plasma lamps mounted on the walls bent toward the inky surface. The hard floor and walls of the cave were slick, the moisture pervasive. Kavan stared into the pool long after the images had faded. Punching a button on the console by the pool produced a short capsule-shaped object—he slid it into the pocket of his robe.
He rose and walked toward the vast cavern he called home. The images played through his memory: a blue-robed woman with silver eyes, the older soldier, and the big warrior with the Draggon-crested sword. They shared a secret—it concerned him, he knew, but he couldn’t discern the reason—couldn’t see their thoughts. Something was blocking his vision.
Perhaps the woman?
Kavan sensed the Orphic energy discharge; it was far greater than some minor adept wielding a staff or casting a healing spell. The level of energy he and the others could control—it required a deep knowledge, a natural affinity. At first, he believed it was one of them, but the sensation was different, he knew how their power felt. The pool showed him the truth. Something was wrong, and it bothered him.
The furnishings in his cavern were the finest available on Erador, all supplied by his followers. His black eyes took in the room. Gold and silver. Beautiful woods and cloth. He kept trying to give it back—trying to help those in need, but they only brought more.
The time was close for his adoration ceremony—followers would gather at the temple, forming the mouth of the grotto. Changing his robe for a more formal vestment, he headed up the central passage.
The cave looked out upon a lush valley with a river winding through it—mountains lined both sides, some high enough to keep the snow from melting. He’d chosen this spot for its beauty, its solitude—it had lost part of that when his followers built the temple, but it was convenient, they came to him now. Columns and stonework cut from the sides of the mountain formed a circle with a large stone altar in the center. A stone path—smooth river rocks carved by water—led from the altar to the cave. Vines grew around the columns and covered the arches. Trees took root within the circle—his followers wanted to cut them down, but he’d stopped them—it was beautiful.
His congregation was assembled as they did each day. Several hundred gathered close, awaiting their God, hungry for wisdom and healing. He climbed the short steps and stood upon the altar, raising his arms, searching the faces before him.
“I feel your need, your hunger,” his voice resonated: a booming echo from the mountainside. “I will satisfy your desires. Focus your thoughts on me. Whatever sickness plagues you, whatever you wish for your life, ask it of me, and I will deliver it.”
Everyone dropped to their knees, heads down, hands stretched out before them. The murmur of three-hundred prayers—like waves breaking on a rocky shore. The sound built to a crescendo, amplified by the stone.
Kavan felt the power course through him. All the attention, the focus of all those souls, forcing stray Orphic energy into his body, more than he could ever summon alone. He glowed, starting at the top of his head—the golden light enveloped him, moving down his body, becoming brighter. He chanted in the speech they’d taught to the adepts, waves of light pulsing from his body, passing through the masses.
“Eriod falen dae, cassius mystiae, enactus!” He spoke it several times, each louder than the last—the final utterance accompanied by a bolt of luminous golden lightning from a clear sky, striking the center of the altar before him—a deep crack of thunder from overhead. The reverberation threw everyone to the ground—they writhed in joy, filled with the power of their God, the remnants of the golden glow fading from their bodies.
Kavan stepped down from the altar and motioned a black-robed Herald to his side. The Herald followed his God down the smooth stone path, careful to stay one pace behind—the silver staff he carried made a metallic noise as it struck the stones, in time with his steps. At the entrance to the cave, Kavan turned, his dull black eyes capturing those of the Herald. “I need you to relay a message.”
The Herald nodded, saying nothing. His grip on the silver staff tightened, his knuckles white.
“Go to Mordus,” Kavan said. “You know where to find him?”
The Herald nodded, fear creeping across his face. “But my Lord, they will kill me on sight…”
Kavan grasped the black knob on the Herald’s staff. Releasing the energy he’d gained from the ceremony, he infused the staff with power. Golden light flowed from his hand, down the staff, surrounding the Herald.
“Delius visio null.”
The Herald’s body and staff shimmered like the surface of a waterfall, becoming thinner until he was invisible to all but Kavan.
“There, only Mordus will see you—his Heralds will not perceive your presence. When he discovers you, show him this,” Kavan removed the small black capsule-shaped object from the pocket of his robe, it was covered with glowing pale-green runes. He placed it in the Herald’s outstretched hand, “before he turns you to dust.”
“Y-yes, my Lord,” the Herald stuttered. “What is the message?”
“Tell him; the past may have caught up with him.”