Authors: Scott Toney
Sweltering heat curled over Samuel as he stood on his balcony, watching the molten ocean that stretched out over the horizon and ended near the walls of his citadel below. Flames licked up from its radiant crimson waves. Nothing could cross its maw, not even his own vessels.
He walked across the balcony, looking another direction and seeing the sheer girth of his army, standing erect and prepared to move at his will.
What do I have to fear?
I have lived for centuries without a true challenger. Why does this new presence worry me?
It had been days since he first sensed the new essences on Solaris and the powerful essence that plagued his dreams.
But I cannot be overthrown. No one can approach me without losing their body’s possession.
He clenched a golden staff with his hand, looking down at his flesh and the maps of boils crossing it.
You will protect me,
he thought to the essence within him.
You and I are one.
, the hissing voice of the spirit entered his mind.
You are the host. Do not forget that, Bishop. I could just as easily discard your flesh for another.
The suns were hot as Julieth flew above the company, but the thing she had learned most about the essences that forged with her body, was that they liked the heat, in fact thrived on it, and the hotter it was the more energy she had to fly. She pumped her wings and burst upward, higher and higher as the light of both suns almost completely blinded her with whiteness. Then she halted her wings, letting herself free fall and embracing the pummeling wind as the desert floor blurred and closed in on her. By curving her wings and beating them once, she leveled out just above the land and glided parallel to its terrain.
“Do you see the city yet?” Ivanus called from far behind her. His voice was almost silenced by the sound of the wind against her ears. “Riad says it should be just over those mountains!”
Julieth pulsed her wings again and arched her back, soaring high above once more.
Great mountains rose up in the distance. They were a different color than the desert, black goliaths from a different time.
What have they seen?
What civilizations have lived and died at their feet?
She could see the remains of structures on the mountains and on the desert at the foot of them, but she could make out nothing moving. All looked eerily barren.
With a thrust of her wings she soared through open sky, moving closer and closer to the mountain’s ridge. As she flew above its base she looked down, watching her two shadows from the suns following below. Torn white flags beat in the wind, climbing the mountain face. Huts lined a road that weaved upward, and then disappeared in the mountain’s center. Some were burned, some had fallen and some stood silent, with no people around them or in the streets.
She flew near the mountain’s face, a sulfur scent charring her nostrils as she soared above the mountain and looked down.
A vast city of clay structures lined the mountain’s base, with the arms of a wall shielding it from the desert and nestling it close to the massive black rock.
Where are Olan’s people?
Julieth squinted while looking down, scanning the city for movement. There appeared to have been a disturbance. The buildings were all intact, but the streets were in disarray, with goods and other things strewn over them. Pockets of darkness coated the roads.
Whatever has happened here, it cannot have been natural or good.
She pulled an arrow from her quiver, cocked it in her bow, and then curved in the wind, seeing something move below while passing back over the mountain’s peak.
Was it a man?
Julieth wondered. She would investigate the city with the others.
We will have to come here, because we will need to replenish our supplies, but there is no need to place myself in possible harm.
As she returned to Riad and the others, diving down and scattering a cloud of sand with the beating of her wings, Ivanus came quickly to her.
“What did you see?” he asked impatiently. “I can see the city’s form with my future-sight, but see nothing living.”
“Something is wrong in Olan,” she said, looking to Ivanus and then to Riad and the boys. “I cannot place it, but you are right, I see little sign of life there. There is nowhere else nearby that we could go, is there?” she asked Riad.
Riad’s cybernetic eye adjusted as he looked toward the mountain, a pinpoint of light burning within it. “To my knowledge, Olan is the only city for a good distance. We need to search out a food-replicater there before moving on.”
Ivanus held a hand above his eyes. “You said ‘little’ sign of life?” he asked Julieth. “Did you see something? I can sense nothing living on the mountainside or in Olan’s streets.”
“As I left I saw a quick movement below. That is all. Perhaps the heat played a trick on my eyes.”
Ivanus stood with a distant look on his face. “Possibly, but this has happened several times in the past few days. It makes me nervous to know I am not
all around me properly.”
They approached the road at the base of the mountain cautiously. Riad led the group, with Ivanus staying behind with Bayne and Andral, and Julieth flying overhead. She remained close though, so that if something startled them she could quickly join the others.
The road wound steeply up the black rock’s face.
As they reached the first abandoned village Riad waved for her to come to them. She stood on the road, arrow cocked, watching as Riad searched the clay structures near them.
“They have seemingly been abandoned for years,” Riad spoke with a chill in his voice. The torn cloth flap of the structure’s door rippled in the wind as he held it open. “It has been a long time since I was last here, but this.” He stood, breathing for a moment, as the others were silent. “There are no bones. There is no blood. I did not expect this. Whatever has eradicated this civilization may still be near. Stay on the ground,” he instructed Julieth. “Bayne may need your protection quicker than can be given in flight.”
Julieth felt anger well in her chest. “You do not command me.” She gave him a hard look, striding to him and lowering her voice. “And there is more than one boy. If you do not value Andral as you do Bayne, then the least you can do is not vocalize it aloud.”
“And what would you have me do?” he asked, walking past her and continuing on the road climbing the steep black rock. “These are days for honesty.”
“Then honestly be a man who cares, instead of one who does not!” she shouted to him, causing him to turn and face her. “You speak of wanting to save this world from those who would cause darkness with the abilities given from the essences, but what would you rather have in return? I know my person, and my heart, but what drives you? What would you have this world be?”
“This is not the time,” Riad spoke, turning and looking up the looming mountain before returning his gaze to her.
Sweat dripped down Julieth’s back as the suns’ heat beat down on her. Her eyes were heavy with exhaustion. She dragged a hand over her brow, wiping more sweat away. “We may never have time, but I need to know your soul, your past and why you hate this Samuel, before I follow you beyond Olan and this black mountain.”
Riad turned from her, continuing his climb up the crag. “Tonight you and I will speak alone. I must focus. We all must focus and be alert.”
Julieth decided to walk, not because Riad ordered it, but because if Bayne and Andral needed protection, she wanted to be close by in order to provide it.
The day sat over them in a haze as they walked, black dust wafting up from the mountain as their feet hit road that Julieth was uncertain had been traveled for a long time. They passed several other villages, all abandoned like the first, and then, just as Julieth knew she must sit and rest, they reached the vast mouth of the cave that curved into the mountain’s chest.
Cool air wafted out of the cave’s mouth, curling over Julieth’s body and ruffling the feathers in her wings. She held her bow level, eying the shadows intently for some unseen enemy. “Are you sensing anything living yet?” she asked Ivanus.
“Nothing,” he spoke lowly. “And what’s more, I am having trouble seeing with my future-sight at all beneath our level of the ground. I sense nothing below.”
They stepped from sunlight into darkness, moving without light to avoid detection. Behind them the light from the mouth of the cavern’s opening was cut off as they turned.
Time passed. They walked on. And then, just as Julieth thought they would never emerge from the cavern, a light in front of them opened up from a pinpoint, slowly bringing illumination to the forms of the rock wall a distance before them.
Julieth squinted as they walked toward it. The light was hard on her irises. As they exited the tunnel, looking out over the large city of Olan, she saw nothing moving but the same weather-worn white flags that were also scattered over the other side of the mountain. The bareness of it all, the vacancy of movement and life struck a pulse of leeriness through her.
“As soon as we find their food-replicator and replenish our food we get out beyond the city’s wall,” she said while pulsing her wings and lifting just above them.
“It is in the city’s center,” Ivanus said. “I sense it there.”
“Then that is where we head,” Riad said.
Julieth flew low as the company weaved around stone and clay buildings that were barely taller than Riad’s height. As they exited the thoroughfares, the streets opened up to a massive slab of mountain rock. The stone area was pocked, like hard, dried skin that peeled off of scorched flesh. And then in places it appeared smooth, perfectly flat in form.
“Beware of the flat places,” Julieth spoke to them all. “I saw them from above the city. They mark portions of this whole city.”
“Bizarre. I have never seen anything like this.” Riad leaned down, touching his cybernetic hand to the pocked surface of the rock slab below them. A humming noise came from where his hand touched it. “Its structure is weakened with time. We must make our way to the replicator.”
They moved quickly toward the structure where Ivanus sensed the replicator. Then, just as they reached the center of the area, Ivanus startled them.
“It is going to give way!” He called out, first directing his voice toward Riad and then quickly looking up to Julieth.
“What?” she called back down. She dove, landing beside him and the boys so that she could hear him better.
“The earth below us is ripping apart.”
A sudden rumble came from nearby. Then the ground sank beneath her, not as sinking soil, but as scales of dried earth cracking off from their surrounding pieces and tumbling into a vast cavern below.
Julieth instinctively pulsed her wings as the ground she stood on dropped away, pulling the rest of the platform with it in shattered pieces of earth. Riad, Ivanus, Bayne and Andral were consumed by blackness below; the boys’ shouts piercing her hearing.
Her heart beat rapidly, not knowing why the earth had caved or what was below them, but without thought she angled her wings and dove down after them, curving out of the sunlight and into the black unknown below.
Wind beat over her, ramming her chest and curling around her as she dove. Julieth could barely make out the shadowy forms of her companions falling beneath her. Then a series of splashing sounds echoed in her ears, sounds she hadn’t heard before.
It would sound different if they collided with earth,
she thought, adjusting her wings to hover down instead of quickly descending.
What has happened to them?
Julieth halted in the blackness, hovering and watching below as torches lit a chamber. A liquid substance was directly beneath her. Her companions bobbed at the top of it.
It could not be lava,
Could it be water?
She had not seen a pool of water for years.
Beasts held the torches, their rippling, furred muscles illuminated in the firelight. They had long noses and pointed ears.
“Can we eat them?” a rasped voice echoed over the chamber and came to her ears.
Julieth felt a surge of energy rushing through her, the same as when Bayne had rendered all in Kaskal unconscious, and then darkness came.
Wings stopped. She hurtled down, barely able to register the punch of her body hitting the water.
In the darkness of her mind she heard voices, an alien tongue she could not discern. Rock was hard below her. Her wings were restrained. With an involuntary suck of air Julieth awoke, violently startling and writhing on the floor of a prison cell before realizing where she was and stopping the struggle. A faint red hue illuminated the cell from somewhere beyond it. Her hands and feet were bound in rope.
She thrust her legs against the black rock floor, pushing herself like a serpent toward the rusted steel bars that caged her in. With a roll and a look above her she realized the cell was only half her height if she were to stand.
“Move or you get no food!” an unnatural voice shouted beyond her cell.
She peered out of the cell carefully. Twenty or so shirtless men and women pulled at a massive stone with ropes, slowly dragging it across the cavern base a distance below her. Several long-nosed, doglike beasts prodded the people with pikes and whipped their backs if they faltered. The beasts’ backs were hunched with the bones of their spines stretching their skin.
One man fell to the ground in exhaustion, his knees quaking as he struggled to stand.
“You dare slow the construction of the master’s temple!” A beast near the man shouted in its guttural voice. The beast cracked the man’s back with his whip, blood splicing where the weapon hit, and the man shrieked in pain. “What are you looking at?” The beast glared at the slaves. “Pull, or you will be next!” As the worn people continued to pull the stone slab onward the beast walked to the fallen man.
“Please, please have mercy.” Julieth heard the elderly man plead. Blood streamed down his back.
“There is no mercy for slaves.” The beast lifted a clawed foot and struck it down in the man’s legs.
The sound of his bones breaking echoed around them.
Julieth watched in horror as the beast continued onward.
It grabbed one of the man’s arms, dragging him across the cavern floor. A trail of blood covered the underground road, the man screaming in pain and convulsing as he was pulled.
Bile churned in Julieth’s throat as she lay immobile in the cell. It burned in her chest.
Who are these creatures? Do they serve Samuel?
She would have to escape before the answers to any of her questions would matter.
As she eyed the rust-coated bars she realized that a shard of metal protruded slightly away from one of them.
Over time it must have separated,
Will it be enough to free me?
Julieth waited a few moments, and then eyed as far as she could down the red illuminated passageway. Others in cells across from her had begun to move. She pushed slowly with her legs, angling her back towards the bars. It was cramped and she had to curl into the fetal position to get near them. Her bound wings scraped against the bars, the feathers cutting and pulling against the rust flecks peeling off of them. She felt the feathers pulling loose of her wings and her wings rejuvenating and creating new feathers as they healed.
With another thrust she was in position. She could not come right up against the bars because of her wings, but she extended her arms and thrust them against the extended metal shard. She sawed the braids of the rope binding her, praying to loose her arms before one of the beasts came to open her cell.
“Julieth? Julieth, is that you?” Bayne’s hushed voice came from somewhere above her.
“Sh!” she hushed him, taking a second to make sure the voice was his. It was. “Yes. Be quiet. Do not draw attention.”
“They are gone. They will not return for some time. I have been watching them for a good while now.” Bayne still spoke quietly, obviously not willing to keep silent.
Moans and other hushed voices echoed around the comb of cells she was stacked in.
Julieth decided to trust the boy’s opinion. “Did you see what happened? I remember a sensation much like what I felt when I blacked out in Kaskal. Did you cause this as well?”
“I could not help it. I was afraid.” Were those tears she heard in his voice? “The energy pulsed out of me. My brother, Ivanus and Riad all were unconscious then and you thrashed down into the water beside us, but the beasts were not affected. They came for me. Their eyes glowed and steam roiled from their nostrils as they came to the water’s edge, reaching in and dragging me out. Their claws drew my blood. I do not know where they took the others, but after they scaled the cells to cage me I remained alert and eventually thought I saw one of the beasts bringing you below.” Bayne was silent for a moment. “How do we escape? Where are we?”
“I do not know,” Julieth said, beginning to saw the rope binding her hands once more. She could feel strand after strand snapping after hitting the shard’s edge. She eventually felt the bindings weakening and leaned away from the bars, pulling with all her strength in an effort to break it. “Ugh,” she moaned, the muscles in her arms burning with heat and pain. She sat up, letting her body relax for a second, then, with a forceful pull with her arms the rope shredded and her arms flung into open air, one of them thrusting against the stone wall of the cell. Blood trickled down her knuckles, but she was free. Without hesitation she reached down and untied the rope knotting her legs.
“I have freed myself of the ropes,” she spoke upward out of the cell bars.
“Will that do us any good if we cannot escape these bars?” Bayne replied.
“…click, click, click, click, click, click…” a faint metallic sound came from the underground road beyond their cells.
Julieth lay flat, peering out to see what was coming.
There is nothing there,
she thought. Then, in the shadows along the bottom of the far wall, she saw a metallic thing that could not have been bigger than her foot, quickly skittering along. Her heart raced as she saw it stopping. Its head adjusted toward their direction, and then it quickly moved across the road toward their side.
“…click, click, click, click, click, click…” The metallic thing moved. She saw its beady red eyes before it disappeared from view.
“Did you see that?” she whispered to Bayne.
“Yes. What is it? I haven’t seen anything like that with the beasts before. Do you think it is coming for us?”
Before Julieth had the chance to answer the head of a metallic, insect-like thing flipped up and into her cell. Its body remained out of sight below.
“Beep, Vrax at your service, compartmentalized cyber-repair and multifunctional cyborg device.” Its eyes glowed the same red hue she had seen in Riad’s. It’s talon-like metal feet clasped onto her cell’s ledge. “Permission to enter requested.”
“Riad?” she questioned, wondering if this thing had some connection with him.
“Beep, yes, Cyborg Riad’s repairing pair, mam. Permission to enter requested. Vrax is on orders.”
Julieth stared at the bizarre mechanism for a second. Could she force it to leave if she wanted to? “How do we know Riad has sent you?”
…click, click, click… Vrax climbed the rusted bars, curved inside her cell and turned its back to her. On it was a blue symbol that she remembered seeing on Riad’s leg.
Yet something else you have hidden from us,
she thought, now certain this thing was with and possibly even a part of Riad. “Permission granted,” Julieth said, scooting back in the cramped cell as Vrax moved in further and held its claw-like hands before her.
“Cyborg Riad requests assistance,” it spoke coldly to her.
“In case you haven’t noticed,” Julieth held out her hands as if motioning to the ‘grandeur’ about her, “we are not able to come to him at the moment.”
“The woman and boy are restrained, yes, but Vrax can fix.” The bot’s head clicked and flipped down, steam roiling up from an open area where its head had been. Its arm reached up, grabbing something minute from within the hole. Its head then flipped up and clicked back into place.
“What are you?” Julieth questioned.
Without hesitation the bot brought the minute rod from its back up to the bars and touched one.
A hot metallic scent wafted over Julieth as she watched the bar glow molten orange and then ooze down and harden on the cell’s floor. Again Vrax touched the rod to a bar, melting it with heat and then moving on, until no bars of her cell remained.
Julieth unbound her wings while Vrax climbed above her to free Bayne. She held her head beyond where the bars had been, glancing to be sure that the hall was still barren and that it was safe to talk.
“Vrax, what does Riad need? Where are he and the others?” she asked as it returned to her cell.
It stared at her, silent. “Coordinate and instruct reboot requested,” it spoke. The lights in its eyes went dark briefly and then clicked back on. “Riad bot coordinates reset. Orders… woman and boy to follow Vrax to main throne. Cyborg Riad urgently in need.”
…click, click, click, click, click, click… The bot suddenly scurried out of her cell and back down the wall of other cells.
“We need to follow it if we are to find the others,” Julieth spoke to Bayne. “Leap onto my back as I fly out,” she instructed him.
“Ready,” his voice came from above.
Julieth leaned out of the cell, slowly expanding her cramped wings into open air. She pulsed them once, her feet leaving the cell’s floor just before Bayne landed on her back. She temporarily lost control of her flight, being pulled downward by the thrust of his weight, but quickly beat her wings again and again, steadying herself in the air of the red-lit darkness.
“There it is,” Bayne said while sitting on her back.
She couldn’t see his outstretched arm, but registered the direction his voice went and looked there, watching Vrax’s silver shell quickly moving away from them on the edge of the cavern floor below. Julieth swooped upward; hugging the cavern roof where she hoped the darkness there would protect them from enemy eyes. They passed several companies of beast-led slaves below, but none glanced upward as they moved.
Vrax suddenly veered into a completely dark tunnel, a minute glowing light on its head the only thing Julieth could see. Then, in the distance, light opened up before her.
Is that sunlight?
she wondered. A massive temple rose from the cavern’s base. She quickly dipped, diving from the roof of the cavern to a shadowed spot on its floor. Her feet barely made a sound as she landed. She and Bayne both flattened their bodies against the wall behind them, watching as Vrax scurried into the sunlit space and then disappeared in a crevice along the temple’s bottom.
“Can you control your fear?” Julieth asked Bayne in a whisper. “It sounds as if your ability has no effect on these creatures. If it manifests, then they will recapture us and we will probably die.”
“I can try, but what can we do?” the boy said with a steady voice.
If he cannot control his emotions,
then we are doomed.
“I do not know,” she said. “My bow and arrows are gone, and we do not have Riad’s weapons.”
“Shh…” Bayne’s voice caressed her ears. There, striding around the base of the temple, was a man. He held a large sword, almost the length of his body, sunlight shimmering off its blade and refracting through the darkness. He wore no shirt and his body was tone and strong.
He is no slave,
Julieth thought. As the man walked from the sunlight and into a shadowed area his body changed, covering in hair and taking on the snout of the beasts, then morphing into human form again while re-entering a shaft of sunlight.
So the beasts are men.
She clasped a hand on Bayne’s wrist, assuring him that all was well, trying to keep the boy from releasing energy and destroying their chances.
Are they all like this? The darkness allows them to maintain their forms, and the sunlight exposes their flesh. This is why they are below Olan and not in its streets. But are they Olan’s people or an invading force?
Julieth held her breath as the soldier turned, peering out into the tunnel’s darkness. He did not move for a long moment, and then began his pacing walk once more.
Have we been seen?
Is it only a matter of time? Regardless, our opportunity is now. We will need weapons if we are going to escape. My chance will be when he is in human form.
“Bayne,” she spoke softly, cupping her hands near his ear. “I must do something. Kneel down and cover your ears. Do not watch me. I will return shortly.”
The boy huddled against the wall in the darkness as Julieth pulsed her wings, lifting upward and gracefully flying to a cut out portion of the wall near the temple. Sunlight streamed over her. The soldier moved away from her and she kept silent enough that he wouldn’t hear her movements.
Everything hinges on Bayne’s fear,
she thought as the soldier took the form of a beast in the shadows.
How are we to fight, or even survive, if every time Bayne is afraid he takes away our consciousness?
She watched as the hair-covered beast stepped back into the sunlight, his body contorting as he twisted back into the form of a man. She waited a moment, letting him get a distance into the sunlight before punching her feet against the rock wall behind her and soaring quickly down toward him.