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BLOOD OF THE PRIME: PREDAWN
T’nari Renegades–Pleiadian Cycle Book I, Part I

Prologue
Notes of Riál
Chapter 1 – Incursion
Chapter 2 – Dreams
Chapter 3 – Agitation

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PROLOGUE

“Code firing of the Talrésian line—Tarsus, Alcyone, Okadian timeshell, one hundred forty-four millennia after seeding. Check.”

“What? That’s your move?”

“That’s my move.”

“What good—?”

“Look at the ramifications, my dear.”

“Damn.”

The chiming, feminine voice laughed. “You see it now, don’t you?”

“Um-hmm.”

“Critical mass and a wildfire chain reaction that spreads into countless systems. Your paltry efforts to suppress such an expansion will only inflame it. Shall we continue, or do you accept utter and humiliating defeat?” The shimmering crystalline spider waited patiently, her thousand, independently moving eyes watching the sprawl of activity in front of her with wry amusement.

Across a vast expanse of space, the mass of pulsating light which the spider’s companion had chosen as his guise for their game flared in frustration. “I’m not giving up anything yet, Kalán!” Shirus scanned the blanket of tiny lights and orbs glittering in the playing field again and again for new possibilities.

The two guardians were intimately acquainted with the personalities of the stars and worlds represented in the game as well as the dramas being played out by the lifeforms inhabiting each one. They were, after all, among the master timekeepers who crafted the webworks that supported the experiments in physicality run by the clans of Genán, the underlying prime intelligence of the galaxy.

To entertain themselves, the pair had extracted a slice from one of Genán’s timeshells and projected the events of the worlds within it into their gaming space as the starting point of play. The two players proceeded to shift the lifeforms and spin out the probabilities in each system, keeping track of all moves on all worlds simultaneously while attempting to outmaneuver the other according to the nature of each “chess piece.”

For this match, Shirus directed the events of those who gravitated toward collapse and Kalán orchestrated those who moved toward expansion.

“Do you have to be such a bleeding genius every time we play?” Shirus doggedly sifted through his opponent’s moves on multiple worlds. For a moment, the ball of light brightened, appearing to be pleased with a new direction of thought. “Rastaban, Draco—Emperor Izar deploys his entire fleet of destroyers in the two-thousand-four-hundred-seventy-ninth year of his reign.”

“Excellent. That will do quite well.”

“What do you mean?” Shirus snapped irritably. “That’s going to wipe out your little upstart scheme.”

The glittering spider waved an appendage airily. “Ah, my dear. Remember, plans within plans within plans. Terra, Sol, two centuries prior to decimation—Ama is brought back from madness by her mate.”

“But that’s … so far back—”

“Indeed. Checkmate.”

With a sudden flash, the spinning points of light and orbs were instantly incinerated as a giant wave of fire rolled across the field.

Tinkling laughter emanated from the beautiful spider. The ball of light sat in sullen silence.

“Did that feel good, my dear?” Kalán inquired delicately.

Shirus growled. “Yes.”

“You just destroyed a good third of our territory with that move. Baal would applaud such an action from you.”

“Baal interferes where he should not!” The ball of light erupted with violent ribbons of red.

“Baal is brilliant and bored.”

“He’s a guardian! Our job is to keep the timewebs intact and healthy while the Prime journeys toward completion. It’s not our place to interact with the inhabitants of the webs! The clans create life and all its experience. We don’t!” A flare shot out from the ball, indicating the playing field. “This is a game. Genán never intended for us to participate directly in physical reality. You’ve been interfering just as much as Baal.”

“And what if collapse is what we all end up with as a result of his actions?” Kalán fired back. “Would the Prime want that? Just what would that look like, Shirus? You’ve stood by and watched as the great reptilian clans split apart and soured throughout the Okadian Timeshell. Look here.”

In a quick burst, the lights and orbs reconfigured in the space between the two entities. With a crisp command, the spider set the stellar and planetary bodies into motion once again.

“When the Goran Drahk splinter factions poured out of Lyra and infected the Draco Expanse, Baal was behind them.” Kalán waved an arm and a sinewy pattern of stars blinked within the playing field. “His interference spawned the first battles of the Reptilian Wars, culminating in widespread flight and the scattering of the elder creators within the clan.”

Shirus brooded in silence, fully aware of the tragic hejira of the Prime’s greatest designers.

With quiet resolve, the spider pressed on. “The elder dragons hid and started over, tucking away their secrets and infusing themselves into new worlds, but it wasn’t enough. Time and time again they were discovered, raided, plundered by the very offspring they had once been so proud of. Who do you think directed those raids, Shirus?”

Isolated groups of lights fluttered and spat while the field’s overall luminance throbbed with an unhealthy cast.

“And just when the voracious beasts were about to burn out, they turned themselves around and drew a new breath. The Drahkian Empire desecrates life in massive sweeps, intent on owning or devouring anything they deem beneath them. They conquer and terrorize to feed their addiction, leaving multitudes of beings mere shells of what they had been.” The spider watched her companion intently as cluster after cluster of the spinning stars and planets flared to indicate their downfall to Drahkian rule.

“We’ve seen millions of races rise and fall, Kalán. It is their right.”

“Agreed, but this breed of reptilians has lost all sensibilities which link them with other life. They have no concept of how their actions affect the whole, nor would they care if they knew. You know the horrible mess it makes when they destroy an entire planet. It completely disrupts the planetary collective, leaving it wounded, grieving, angry, in shock — and it blows huge holes in the timewebs. How many of those mangled grids have you reconstructed yourself?”

The ball of light spasmed with sharp bursts of color. “Too many.”

“And are you going to keep cleaning up after them?”

“Yessssss. All is allowed by the Prime in this zone, Kalán.”

“Then don’t we have free will to choose our actions?” The body of the spider blazed with golden light. “Where is your love for these beings, my dear?”

“My love for them does not allow me to manipulate and take away their choices, even appalling ones.”

“I’m not talking about taking away anyone’s choice, only showing those who ask the right questions new possibilities, just as Baal does with the Drahks. Watch as I spin the probabilities of the Drahkian Empire continuing its present course within the primary layer of the Okadian Timeshell.”

The lights swirled and wove before the two guardians. Multiple systems dimmed, while some points burst into flame and disappeared altogether from the intricate pattern. Abruptly, a vast portion of the lights spluttered and disintegrated, leaving a gaping void in the spinning wheel of stars.

Shirus shifted uncomfortably as the spider’s eyes pinned him in place.

“Yes, love. I see the potential for Genán’s consciousness to begin its collapse. If enough beings are brutalized by Drahkian violence, they will no longer hold onto the desire to live in physical reality. The pain would be too great. The wounded Prime could very well fall into an endless loop of unaware madness with no one left outside of the nightmare to wake it to sanity, let alone heal it.”

The ball of light was silent.

“If the living entities of Genán choose the path of premature demise, so be it. It is their will.” The crystalline spider twinkled for a moment as if smiling. “But if we are all ever going to get remotely close to completion, which is part of our job,” she added dryly, “then we damn well better do something about it.”

Shirus rumbled with irritation. “The Drahks are the spawn of the reptilian clan. Let them do something about their twisted offspring.”

“Oh, they are, my dear. The T’nari game masters are designing a grand scheme to do just that.”

“The T’nari? The rogue designers?”

“Mmmm, yeeeeesssss,” the female spider replied silkily. “Riál contacted me and asked if I would throw my talents in with his rather dazzling collection of renegade system busters. It appears my weaving skills are valuable to their plans.”

The ball of light flickered with annoyance. “And just what exactly have you and Riál mapped out, O Great Master Strategist?”

“I thought you’d never ask. Do pay close attention,” the spider answered primly.

With a single flourish of a delicate arm, the lights and orbs reappeared once more, the Drahkian territory clearly delineated by a wide array of fluttering star points. Single stars, both inside the territory and beyond, pulsed with luminous intensity and seemed to spin a little faster.

“Are you following this?”

The interwoven plans and shifting probabilities escalated through the events transpiring within each star system and world. “There and there,” the spider prompted as point after point in the field shimmered with vivid cobalt. Images of T’nari infiltrations and ignitions flew fast and furiously into the mind of the male guardian.

“The kernels for a brand new timeshell could be opened here, here, and, most critically, here,” Kalán prompted, indicating a planetary system in a spur of the galaxy.

“Now watch.”

Several of the blinking Drahkian systems wobbled. One by one, a series of planetary orbs sprinkled throughout the sector began to glow more brightly than the others, forming an odd configuration within the field. When the twelfth entity lit up, beams of light shot between the bodies to form a connected geometric form and the group began to thrum in unison. A blitz of light rolled out from the neon matrix, infusing itself across the entire system until all points within the playing field burned with a new intensity, even the systems which had previously gone out.

“The Angriel banks. By the Prime, they’re after the lost Angriel libraries!”

“That’s right, dear, all of them.”

“And … they work together.”

“Indeed. The reptilian designers were cunning as well as genius. There are powerful keys hidden in the libraries—that’s one thing Riál wants.”

“So he can do … this?” The guardian gestured toward the light geometry pulsing within the ocean of stars.

“Yes! The reclamation of the code banks means a chance to revitalize and reseed life in the Okadian timewebs. A new game, Shirus, think of it! The birth of a brand new timeshell for Genán and the rise into a higher frequency for all entities who can handle it, including those who were lost. Riál is after more than the banks themselves—he wants his family back.”

A great ripple burst from the giant ball of light as he shuddered in stunned surprise. “Incredible.” The guardian moved his mind through the intricate new pathways of each system once again. “You mean, those moves you made in our game are real?”

The spider laughed. “That word, coming from you. Of course, Shirus. The T’nari renegades are already hurling them into motion in all levels of the timeshells.”

“A very cunning plan indeed.”

“I thought you might be impressed.”

“I’m always impressed with what you come up with and the T’nari are brilliant, but do you think they can really pull this whole thing off?”

“Riál has a small army working the beginning stages of our plans. They’ve infiltrated key bloodlines in pivotal segments of the drama and have begun to stir interest in a new solution to the tired old problems.” Kalán blinked her eyes for a moment and then mused, “You know, maybe that’s what Baal had in mind all along—push the beings in this sector against the wall to see if they will bounce back stronger than they were.”

Turning her gaze back to her mate, the spider’s eyes sparkled with mischief. “Then again, perhaps Baal just wanted to draw me into the arena in order to have a worthy opponent.”

The ball of light roared and changed swiftly into a large male spider, sweeping a wide swath of space clear through the gaming field. Shirus crouched and began a slow stalk of his lovely partner across the open gulf between them, his eyes smoldering as his gaze bored into hers.

Kalán shivered. “The T’nari are such spectacular players,” she drawled, taunting him further. “The stimulation in watching their moves … is like nothing else in the field.” She panted as she watched the huge, glowing arachnid approach across the gaming space. “There is always room for another touch of genius, Shirus. Think about it, my love. If you wish to join us, you would be welcomed by all.”

The male spider crept closer through the suspended lights, smiling maniacally.

“Such a beautiful renegade,” the deep voice crooned. Shirus’s body began to throb in a slow, steady beat as he closed the distance to Kalán, the stars around him picking up the same pulsing rhythm.

“Flattery will get you everywhere.”

“Perhaps we could add a new … thrust … of vitality to your plans.” The male spider paused a short distance away, his eyes locked with hers in invitation, the bursts of light from his body washing over hers.

“Perhaps … we can … think of something,” Kalán whispered breathlessly.

The swirling patterns of light in the forgotten playing field behind the two guardians began to burn and sizzle.

With a wild laugh, the female spider pounced.

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NOTES OF RIÁL

I was on Tarsus with many of my kin in the Pleiadian predawn, the difficult time before we activated the Angriel E’lium, the grand re-attunement of the Angriel libraries.

We assumed our roles would amuse, that our memories would reconnect with ease. After all, the codes of our family were still within the blood, not to mention that we had done it thousands of times before. And we had Kalán’s webs—intricate and fine and primal. What more did we need?

We took our fire and our joy into a world on the brink of crisis. Our natures carried us a good part of the distance to our goal.

But in our rollicking arrogance, we often forget the challenges of breaking through fear, pain, anger, and grief. Probably a good thing or we wouldn’t keep sending ourselves into the lamentably lost pockets of our clan’s wayward experiments.

On Tarsus, I nearly let go of my passion, leaving my codes asleep and useless.

Fortunately, I was also on Bahár searching for my self-worth. Through careful interweavings and agreements, I was able to prod myself on Tarsus into activating the chain of firings I had gone in to ignite in the first place.

And thanks to Kalán’s foresight, I was also on Ti’úan, hidden in a different layer of the timeshell, or we might never have broken through to the Pleiadian seed kernel of the Angriel E’lium.

Notes of Riál, T’nari Gamemaster
The E’lium Chronicles

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INCURSION

All pilots transport NOW!

The call came while Rhys Talrésian was out working a new stretch of ground in his vegetable garden at Tintágel, the sentinel compound of Andara’s western coast. Covered in sweat, he panted and straightened his back, looking down at the grungy pair of shorts and battered sandals he wore when digging out in the hot sun.

“Crap.”

He dropped his shovel in the dirt and ran his hands through his long black hair. It never seemed to fail that he was in the middle of something awkward whenever the admiral called a drill. With any luck, no one on his team, or the rest of the crew for that matter, would fully tune into him and notice his lack of attire. That left only his partner to deal with, which meant several days of needling jibes were a foregone conclusion.

With an exasperated sigh, Rhys locked his mind into the proper geometric sound matrix that would allow him to transport across the Andaran continent and shifted himself directly onto Mirida, one of the sentient crystalline starships anchored deep within the mountains outside of Krii, the largest capital on Tarsus. He materialized on board Rai, his small interceptor, housed in one of the lower docking bays of the smoky gray vessel alongside the eleven other interceptors making up Team Six.

I’m here, Mirida, he called mentally to check in with the starship while he strapped himself into his chair.

Welcome, Rhys. I’ll let you know when all the members of your team have arrived.

Great, thanks. He scanned the control panels in front of him and began the routine checks for the small craft necessary before the starship launched into space.

Rai’s pale white walls vibrated in response to the appearance of one of her pilots. Rhys, your pulse rate is a little high and you appear to be overheated. Would you like some cool air?

He smiled at the sound of the sentient vessel’s calm voice in his mind. Yes, Rai, that would be wonderful. A soft current of air swirled over his skin while he turned his focus inward to perform a complete scan of Rai’s body, checking stored energy levels, life support systems, and internal tuning. Satisfied that all systems were in top form, he lifted his gaze to the window in Rai’s hull. Out beyond the translucent docking bay door he could see a portion of the lighted underground cavern which harbored six of the eleven great Khalama starships of Tarsus, the second planet of the Alcyone system.

The tall, solid form of Quinn Logan appeared beside him to his right in the second pilot’s seat. A silver moon dangled from the Caledonian’s left ear among strands of thick, wavy brown hair. Rhys noted with irrational irritation that his partner was fully clothed in his usual chambray shirt and jeans, having responded to the call, as required, without changing into his navy fleet uniform.

He kept his gaze directed out the window, but he could feel Quinn’s probing green eyes give him a thorough going over.

“Just don’t say it,” he growled through clenched teeth.

Quinn threw back his head with a loud laugh. “You make it so easy, man. What was it last time, a towel?”

“I was in … the shower. It was all I could grab.”

“Yeah, well I’d say this is an improvement.”

Out to impress someone, Rhys? A familiar deep voice came blaring across a mental channel with both pilots.

Rhys let out a disgusted snort. What the hell are you doing here, Kirian? Who’s running the portal?

I’m not on duty. Gridál has the shift.

Kirian Vall was one of three senior portal masters in charge of the large teams who regulated traffic through the planet’s primary portal in the upper atmosphere above Krii. He was also the leader of the Makhás masters from Sirius and founder of the Center for Geometrics where everyone in the Alcyoni Fleet had been educated.

I’ll be watching if you need me. Otherwise, keep your minds on your job.

The pilots glanced at each other with puzzled frowns at the tigerman’s rough tone. It was highly unusual for their busy friend to make contact with them on runs or drills, let alone bark at them with his infamous temper which he inflicted regularly on the rest of the world.

Quinn shook his head and shrugged as the mellifluous voice of Mirida rang through a channel with both pilots. The last member of your team just transported aboard.

Thank you, Mirida! Rhys extended his senses outward to establish a linked network with the members of Team Six: twelve sentient interceptors, twenty-four pilots, and twelve transport adepts housed in a chamber adjacent to the bay. Alright, everyone’s in the link. Ready to work, team?

Yesss!

Good. Let’s—

I’m not.

Always the comedian, Katherine. Did engineering get the air regulators fixed aboard Lessa since our last run?

Yep, nice and cool in here. Hey, Rai, you might want to crank it down a bit more for Mountain Man and Studly. Looks like he’s sweatin’ like a mad bull.

Rhys glowered as laughter burbled across the link. Beside him, Quinn’s smooth features split into a wide grin.

Thanks, smart-ass. I’ll deal with you when we get ba—

Tune to Tarsus!

The sharp command from the bridge within Mirida’s core broke across the channel. Straightening in their seats, the pilots drew in full breaths and turned their attention to making the long, clear sounds which would connect with Rai’s spinning toroidal field and activate her energetic shield. Their baritone voices blended and merged into easy, familiar harmonics, filling the crystalline chamber with ringing sound.

All around the small interceptor, an energy web began to form from the intonation of the eleven other pilot pairs and the transporters of Team Six. The web grew until it joined with the expanding network building within the body of Mirida generated by all twelve pilot teams, the transport, motion, portal, and shield teams stationed on the bridge, and all other crew members stationed throughout the ship. At the center of the spinning construct, Rhys could feel the vibrant sounds and movements of his brother, Djan, and his sister-in-law, Tyla, the starship leaders who directed the whole formation in the heart of the ship through the ecstatic drive of their lovemaking.

The heat of arousal rushed through Rhys’s body as the spinning sound construct opened a connection for everyone on board and brought the tide of sexual energy pumping through the entire network. As Djan and Tyla fused and melded, the great starship herself began to hum and vibrate. Rhys shifted his sound to a higher tone, riding the currents and moving the energy up through his own system as the swells coursed through the body of the ship. Beside him, Quinn’s resonant tones locked with his and shook with tension.

The enormous torus spun through and around the ship and the starship leaders reached for completion. With Djan and Tyla’s climax came a brilliant burst as Mirida connected with the central core of Tarsus. Light flooded through the translucent walls of living crystal, setting her entire form ablaze. Rhys felt the jolt run up his spine and electrify every cell in his body, bringing his awareness into razor-sharp clarity.

At a signal from the bridge, the toning spiked and dropped to seal off the starship’s link to Tarsus. The stored energy would maintain the high spin of Mirida’s massive toroidal field and all shipwide functions for the entire voyage. Direction of the torus was handled by the motion team who would shift its rate and size to regulate the ship’s movement. The body of the ship itself as well as those of the interceptors were designed to amplify and hold all of the energetic constructs generated by the crew of adepts on board.

Out the window, Rhys watched as Rinzen, the original Khalama starship brought by the Makhás Masters from Sirius, Telemar, and Corum, Admiral Silesian’s flagship, one by one burst into flaming life beside Mirida, ready for flight.

Adrenaline sang in Rhys’s veins, and through his heightened senses, he picked up an unusually strong undercurrent of something unexpected running through Mirida and her crew—anxiety. A glance at Quinn’s taut features confirmed that he too was feeling the disturbing vibrations coursing through the network.

Transporting to upper atmosphere. Djan’s clipped voice relayed operations and orders over the shipwide link while Tyla directed the four teams of adepts in the central bridge.

Instantly the four activated starships blinked into the cobalt blue space above Tarsus. Spread from horizon to horizon was the vast landmass of Andara, the most heavily populated continent within the primary dimension of First Shade. Directly below lay the glittering expanse of Krii just west of the rugged Shardan range which stretched lazily toward the northern seas in a long serpentine chain.

Far to the left, the green water of the Fiordian Sea met the jagged line of the western coastal lands where Rhys had blissfully been tending his garden at Tintágel only moments before. To the right beyond the Shardans, his eyes skimmed over the rolling hills of the Roden grasslands where his grandfather’s family resided, and scanned the horizon where he could just make out the snowy peak of Emrys in the southern mountains of Caledon, the second largest continent of Tarsus. He raised a hand and pointed it out, bringing a quiet smile to his partner’s face at seeing a visible piece of his northern homeland.

Leto and Gillian are joining us from Ness. Seconds later, two of the five starships from the caverns just outside of Caledon’s capital city popped into the space next to Mirida. We have access coordinates through the portal. Transport matrix is in place. Shifting out.

The pilots watched the surface of Tarsus shift from glorious greens and rusts to a dead shade of tan, devoid of seas or lifesigns, as the six starships transported out past the complex convergence of energy gridlines comprising the main entry point to Tarsus. The Portal Masters and their large teams maintained the intricate locks of the primary portal above Krii and the secondary portal above Ness, providing access to welcome visitors into First Shade while projecting the lifeless appearance of an uninhabited secondary shade into the grid in order to camouflage the planet’s surface to anyone outside.

The sleek forms of the Zephyr and Loki, two of the old mechanical fleet starships, hung in orbit just outside the wide portal space, silently standing guard and ready to assist the number of small merchant crafts and rigs coming in through the mechanized transport ring hanging in space several miles above the portal.

Starships from Chi, Ki, and Niemi are being activated and charged. Admiral Silesian will fill everyone in as soon as those ships are in orbit above their home portals.

Rhys sucked in a breath. He knew his brother too well. The tension in Djan’s voice confirmed what Rhys had begun to suspect the moment he picked up the anxiety running through the ship.

This was no drill.

The Drahkian Empire was on the move again somewhere within Maia or Alcyone, the last free planetary systems in the Pleiades. The new Alcyoni fleet that Rhys’s grandfather, Magnus, and Miros Silesian had worked so hard to build with the guidance of Kirian and the Makhás masters was about to be put to the test against the very deadly reptilians.

Rhys closed his eyes as an involuntary shudder worked its way through his frame.

“We’ll be alright,” Quinn asserted firmly, his almost imperceptible Caledonian lilt softening his words.

Rhys rubbed his face with his hands. “I know. We’ve been through the drills a thousand times. We just don’t know how effective we’ll be in a real battle.”

“We’re good at this, and you’re the best short-range netter we’ve got.” It was widely accepted that Rhys’s talent in constructing geometric webs was second to none. Working in tandem with Quinn’s long-range scanning abilities, the pair made a formidable partnership.

“We must be crazy to take them on with no weapons. All this planning and training just to capture and send them over to Tiān Lóng. I don’t know, Quinn.”

“It’s better this way. Blowing them up gets us nowhere. That’s what Miros and Magnus drummed into all our heads after they lost the war in Merope. You know how passionate Mag is about finding a way to deal with the Drahks. You’re a lot like him.”

Rhys snorted and smiled crookedly. “Yeah, don’t remind me.” He knew all the stories about how his grandfather had brought the last surviving Sirian Makhás masters to Tarsus and persuaded the staunchly pacifist psychics to share their knowledge and help birth a new fleet of sentient Khalama starships. Thanks to Magnus’s drive and the Makhás’ brilliance, the Alcyoni fleet now had the edge it needed to compete with the Drahks’ perplexing technology that enabled warships to transport instantaneously. Rhys absently touched his fingers to the golden octahedron hanging from a chain around his neck that Magnus had given him when he graduated from the academy. Such a tiny piece of delicate gold had changed all of their lives when it opened that crucial connection between Magnus and Kirian across star systems so many years ago.

With a long sigh, Rhys let his hand fall back down to the armrest. “Even if this works, we still don’t know how they break portals. How long will we be able to put off the inevitable?”

“Who says it’s inevitable? We don’t know what’s around the bend, Rhys.” The Caledonian pilot watched him calmly.

“You’re right,” he acknowledged at length. “Thanks for letting me blow off steam.”

Ok, listen up, everyone. The rich voice of Fleet Admiral Miros Silesian sounded across a secondary shipwide link connecting the admiral with all fifteen mobilized vessels. Admiral Stardancer of the Maian fleet contacted me about fifteen minutes ago to report that a Drahkian warband has invaded Galah, the smallest outworld of Maia. The last relay from Galah’s Portal Master reported that eight warships had broken through the portal locks. The Peregrine managed to lift off and join the rest of the fleet, but communication from the Portal Center staff was cut off, so we have no idea what exactly we’ll encounter once we get there.

A moment of heavy silence passed. The populated systems within the vast Pleiadian cluster—Sterope, Celaeno, Taygeta, Electra, Pleione, Atlas, and numerous smaller systems—had fallen, one by one, under Drahkian control. After the bitter loss of Merope decades prior, the Maian fleet had joined the feverish drive on Tarsus to expand into new abilities that would give them an edge against Drahkian technology. The Maians still flew the swift Birdwing starships, but the vessels had been redesigned to carry crystalline cores and the bird-headed Tori and human fleet personnel were now highly trained adepts who shared the same goals as their cousins in Alcyone.

We’re taking a third of our starships to support the Maians and will call in the rest of our ships if we need them. Admiral Stardancer has mobilized the entire Maian fleet to guard their portals and will bring a large force to meet us at a coordinate ten miles above Galah’s portal. Ship transporters, exact coordinates are coming through to your team leaders now. The teams in orbit and underground on Tiān Lóng are standing by to handle any Drahkian vessels we capture. All hands, prepare to link with Alcyone’s stargate.

Rhys pulled in a slow breath as he felt Mirida and the six Tarsian starships join in a mental bond with nine other sentient vessels from Niemi and the twin planets of Chi and Ki, vibrating in sync to prepare for connection with the great blue central star.

Open the gates!

The crisp, clear voices of the transport team on the bridge surged through Mirida as they sounded an intricate set of tones designed to resonate with the geometric configuration of Alcyone’s stargate generated by the star’s movement and vibration. A second set of tones matching the stargate signature of Maia was woven into the sound construct to link both gates and hold them open while an energetic web large enough to receive the ship was projected out to coordinates above Galah.

Transport matrices are in place. All ships, jump on my mark. Three … two … one, … now!

The fifteen crystalline starships shifted as one body and appeared above a tiny gray world surrounded by the blue dust of the Pleiadian cluster. At the same moment, twenty-four golden Birdwing vessels swooped into view beside them.

Ahiiiaaa, Alcyoni fleet! The melodious voice of Yuri Stardancer, Tori admiral of the Maian fleet, trilled across the joint channel. Thank you for coming! It’s our turn to be grateful for assistance. For decades, long before the Meropean War, the Maian Birdwings had flown to support countless free worlds under attack by forces from the Empire. Unfortunately, all of those systems had eventually fallen to the Drahks’ superior technology.

We’re here to help. Any change, Yuri?

Still nothing since we lost contact with our people in the Portal Center. They must all be dead or unconscious. We’ve received a few calls from off-duty portal staff who told us the Drahks have started to land and the city is in chaos. If we can still pick up those calls, that tells me the portal may not yet be sealed off.

Then let’s see if we can get through!

In formations of six, the shiny Maian vessels peeled out in graceful arcs toward the surface of the planet leaving the Alcyoni vessels to follow in their wake. Within a few short minutes, the combined Pleiadian fleet came to a hovering halt in front of the huge mechanical ship transport ring floating in orbit a few miles above Galah’s only portal.

Rhys shifted his mind’s eye downward to take in the view of the planet below the ship. “Damn, look at that.” Galah’s capital city of Guan was clearly visible, even from the fleet’s high vantage point in space. “The portal’s wide open or we’d never see it!”

Shadowed against the soft glow of the city’s solar dome, a set of dark discs hung in suspension, barely discernible, but unmistakable.

“By the Prime,” Quinn murmured at their first sighting of the deadly invaders they had all heard about since childhood. His jaw dropped open at seeing the hard evidence that the Drahkian Empire had turned its attention toward the last remaining free worlds in the Pleiades. “We always knew this day would come.”

“Yeah, but it’s still unnerving to see the bastards here.”

The Maian admiral’s perplexed voice sounded over the channel. I’ve never seen them leave a portal open like this. They always reseal it right after they burn through.

You’ve been through more battles than the rest of us, Yuri.

Whether it’s purposeful or some kind of malfunction, we need to keep alert, Miros, so we don’t end up trapped on the wrong side of a locked portal.

Agreed. I don’t like it either, but it’s our chance to hit them while their numbers are small. Lead the way, Yuri. We’ll follow you down. Alcyoni ships, fall into formation—groups of five! The admiral’s flagship pulled out in front of the other crystalline vessels to lead the first group.

Djan’s clipped voice rang over the internal channel linking Mirida and her crew. Moving out! The ship banked away from the cluster of Pleiadian vessels and took up position with Telemar, Leto, and Gillian behind Rinzen.

The Maian wings began their descent, trailed by the three Alcyoni formations with Corum in the lead. Within minutes, the fleet moved smoothly down through the open portal into the thin, inhospitable atmosphere toward the domed city below.

“Two warships are missing,” Quinn noted as he conducted a long-range scan past the enemy ships and searched the city beneath the solar dome. “They said there were eight.”

“Already down on the landing fields?”

The Caledonian shook his head as they watched the dark shapes grow quickly in size. Six charcoal gray Drahkian discs, each significantly larger than the Khalama or Birdwing ships, were spread out over Guan just above the energetic barrier of the solar dome. Dozens of long, blocky vessels moved outward from the ominous dark hulks, winding slow paths down toward the solar dome on their way to the surface.

Yuri’s voice cut into the link. Those smaller craft are transports filled with saur beasts and their handlers. We’ve got to stop any more from landing!

Abruptly, swarms of tiny fighters began to pour from the outer rims of the warships, rushing to form clusters around the slow-moving transports.

The Alcyoni admiral uttered a soft expletive. They finally figured out they have company! At least with so many small ships in the field, the warships won’t be transporting out from under us any time soon.

Agreed. Miros, take the western half of the city. We’ll handle the eastern sectors. I’m sending the Peregrine with a wing to circle the dome so they can transport as many people up from the surface as they can locate.

Understood, Yuri. Alright people, let’s get busy. Rinzen, your team will target the warship furthest north. Shoji’s team, head for the disc furthest west. Those of you with Corum, we’ll take the ship to the southwest. Stay alert for new orders and be prepared to move quickly!

Mirida shifted into position between Rinzen and Telemar. The Tarsian starships dropped down into the space directly above the dark disc hovering over the small landing fields and Portal Center at the northern edge of the city. Bright beams shot upward out of firing points encircling the warship’s apex as well as from positions along the rim, deftly avoiding the swirling cloud of Drahkian fighters rising upward to meet the Pleiadian vessels. The energy shield blanketing Mirida’s outer hull diffused the beams and redirected stray fragments while the five Tarsian ships adjusted their altitudes to hover at a distance that would avoid serious damage.

Djan’s voice snapped out orders over Mirida’s link. We need to clean up the field of smaller ships before the starships can hold a stable net around the warship. Pilot teams one through four, target the front formations of oncoming fighters and keep them away from Mirida. Five through twelve, transport directly down past the rim of the warship and get to work on those ground vessels and fighters. Your transport teams are ready to shift the ships you net straight out to Tiān Lóng. Keep yourselves clear of those beams. It won’t be long before the warship gunners give up on us and turn their focus on you. Get going!

Rhys shifted his telepathic connection with Mirida’s shipwide network to a secondary channel and focused his attention on the link between the twelve ships and transporters of his team. Interceptors, release you anchors. Get ready to move. He glanced aside at his partner. “Find us an open spot down there.”

Quinn nodded and closed his eyes to cast his vision down toward the warship. There’s clear space just outside the southernmost rim where some of the fighters are emerging. I’ve set an energetic beacon. Rhys, lock on and throw the transport grid.

Got it! The web is open. Everyone, shift on my mark. Ready—now!

In one clean move, the pilots transported the twelve small vessels into the center of Rhys’s energy construct. The massive gray warship loomed above them to the north, spitting bolts of fire up into the sky like an angry, metallic beast. Scores of small, silvery fighters littered the space around the disc, pulling quickly into groups to charge at the clusters of crystalline interceptors appearing all over the field. A dozen freshly launched ships just outside the open bay doors in the warship rim fell into formation and headed straight for Team Six.

Shields up! Spread out. We’ll net the fighters one at a time!

The vessels of Team Six shot forward to take on the swarm of lethal hornets. Quinn shifted Rai’s toroidal field to propel the ship upward toward the lead fighter, taking her in a zigzag course to avoid bursts of weapon fire. He lifted her sharply to allow the lead fighter to speed past before tearing through the middle of their formation. The Drahkian fighters scattered in all directions.

That should help. Pick them up, team! he called as he slowed Rai’s course and rotated back around. “Looks like we can maneuver better than they can,” he commented aloud. “They fly like planes. I wonder if they can transport like the warships.”

“I haven’t seen any of them disappear. Let’s nail the lead before they regroup.”

“He’s swinging around to come after us. Here we go.” Quinn launched Rai forward, squinting as he sent a scan through the oncoming enemy vessel. “Only one aboard. These are single-pilot craft.”

While Quinn skillfully maneuvered Rai around the fighter’s intermittent spray of short-range disruptor fire, Rhys sized up the shape of the vessel and mentally projected a soft-glowing geometric web of energy to surround it completely. He held it in place as the ship raced toward them and called out to the lead transporter of Team Six. Jess, lock onto my net and—

A rapid barrage of beams spewed out of the fighter as it closed in on Rai. The brunt was diffused by Rai’s shield wall, but the small interceptor shuddered from the impact of multiple blows as a streak of glinting metal shot past them.

Quinn glanced aside at his partner while he spun the ship around and sent her flying in pursuit of the Drahkian vessel. “Problem?”

“My construct flickered when the beams hit,” Rhys grumbled as he concentrated on the wavering dark form in front of them. “Stay with it, Quinn. I’ll reform the net. Rai, increase your amplification settings by two.”

Done. That should magnify the net you send through me.

Great. Jess?

We’re ready to take it out, Rhys, as soon as your construct is back in place.

With Rai on its tail, the small ship banked into a tight arc to come at them once more, giving Rhys the few seconds he needed to surround it with a new energy matrix.

The net is solid. Jess, shift it out of here!

The Drahkian fighter disappeared from the field.

We got it, Rhys. He’s on his way to Tiān Lóng. Keep it up!

“Ok, that’s the way it’s supposed to work! Thanks for the boost, Rai.” Rhys turned his attention to their scattered team. Six of the small interceptors were still engaged with enemy vessels, but the other five had apparently been successful in taking out their targets and had flown to assist their teammates. “Good. Quinn, who doesn’t have backup?”

“Ellim.”

“Let’s get over there and help.”

“You got it.”

Quinn quickly spun the interceptor and headed her toward a small whitish vessel taking heavy fire from a Drahkian fighter. Splintered beams scattered off of Ellim’s energetic shield, shaking the small ship as the fighter came in close.

Trevor, Sharon, sit tight. We’ll net him while his eyes are on you. Rai closed the distance to the two vessels. Rhys watched and waited for the moment the fighter shot past Ellim and ceased firing. Got him. Net’s in place. Jess!

The fighter within the light web vanished from space just beyond Ellim.

Trevor’s quivering voice came on over the link. Thanks, Rhys! That bastard was really fast.

You bet. Ellim, are you alright?

Yep, ready for more.

Good. Trev, take a deep breath. We’ve got more work to do.

While Quinn spun Rai around and headed her toward their scattered team, Rhys sent a quick probe out through the eleven small vessels. The pilots and ships were charged with tension, but were focused on snaring the last three fighters in the immediate vicinity. A scan across the space further around the warship’s rim revealed similar successes by Mirida’s teams of interceptors. The swarms of Drahkian fighters between the warship and Mirida were decidedly thinner and the launch of any more small vessels from the open bay doors had slowed considerably.

The warship itself had yet to give any indication of breaking position and was apparently waiting for the ground transports caught in their runs to either land or make it back into dock. The Drahkian gunners had ceased their futile firing on the five starships hovering above and begun to fire short, intermittent shots aimed at lone interceptors not engaged with their own fighters.

“A hit from one of those beams would tear us apart,” Quinn declared.

“In a flash. Thank the Prime we haven’t seen any explosions.”

“Yet.”

Rhys glanced aside at his partner’s odd tone, keenly aware that the Caledonian possessed the uncanny talent of precognition. He squelched a shudder and quickly located each of their teammates. The last remaining Drahkian fighter broke away and sped swiftly downward to join the escort of fighters around a slow-moving transport making its way in a gradual spiral toward the surface below.

Regroup!

Through long years of practice, each of the eleven scattered ships evaporated and rematerialized in a tight formation around Rai.

Interceptors, notch up your amplification by two to strengthen the nets. Pilots, we’re going after that transport ship. We’ll shift down behind it together. Stay sharp! Those disruptors firing from the rim are targeting interceptors unless one of theirs is close by. Keep your flying erratic so you don’t get hit.

As if to underscore Rhys’s words, a bright disruptor blast seared through space above the hovering formation, narrowly missing Divi on the edge closest to the warship.

Net’s open! Shift … now!

The twelve ships of Team Six dematerialized on cue and reappeared in a cloud a short distance behind the grimy, blocky vessel on its way down to the city.

Spread out in pairs. We have to draw the fighters off and take them out before we can net the transport. Regroup when you’re finished. Go!

The interceptors veered away, speeding forward in all directions around the large, blackish ship. Sylvan flew to Rai’s right, deftly steered by her pilots Tam and Faraji. The two ships swept up and over the aft section of the lumbering vessel and were met by a spray of beams from a fighter heading straight for them from the starboard side. Bright sparks flew off in showers around the crystalline hulls.

Tam’s booming voice came on over the link. We’ll take the lead and draw him off toward the port side. Nail him, Rhys!

Ok, we’ll pick him up from behind.

Sylvan shot forward in an arc across the transport. The Drahkian fighter followed closely on her tail, searing her with a constant stream of fire.

“I’ll swing us in under him,” Quinn confirmed, sending Rai speeding after the fast-moving ship. “That should give you should a clear view.”

Rhys nodded and focused on flinging a transport net around the fighter above them, keeping a firm grip on the construct while it flickered intermittently from the Drahk’s weapon fire. Got it. Transport team, shift him out!

The small ship disappeared. Sylvan slowed and spun as Rai came up beside her. Lessa and Ellim’s sparkling forms rose over the rim of the transport and flew in to join them.

There’s one more left on the port side, Rhys.

Thanks, Trev. As soon as everyone else gets here, we’ll shift out around the transport and beam the net out between our ships. Any appendages below?

Yeah, we saw six sets of short landing pads along the bottom, Sharon reported.

We’ll have to take them into account when we set up the web. This thing has an odd shape.

Kirian’s rich voice rolled through the team’s channel. Try a truncated tetrahedron. Six points forward, six rear.

Whoa, Tiger Sensei’s with us? Meredith chimed in from Lessa. We’ll slam this beast now!

Out of the blue, a barrage of weapon fire broke across the small group of interceptors. Rai shook under a heavy blow from a sleek, winged craft shooting past them in the space above.

Where the hell did he come from? Tam shouted in exasperation.

He transported in behind us! Quinn spat. This one’s not like the other fighters. Keep out of his sights. He’s got heavier disruptors!

The elegant black fighter whipped around in a hairpin move to come at them again.

Scatter! Rhys called. Team, we’ve got a new party. Everyone, stay clear! We’ll take him out.

The three small interceptors vacated the space around Rai. Quickly Rhys hurled a wide energetic prism out in front of her and set it vibrating with a crisp tone. The oncoming fighter opened fire with multiple disruptors, but the reddish beams deflected off of the invisible shield in sharp angles.

“I’m transporting us back behind him,” Quinn called out an instant before the fighter blew through Rhys’s construct. The crystalline vessel shifted to coordinates in the wake of the racing black war bird. A blitz of beams shot out of aft gunning stations aimed precisely at Rai’s new position.

“Damn it! This guy’s loaded!” Rhys hurriedly flung out another shield to ward off the blows.

“Can you hold it?”

“I think so, but I—”

Without warning, Rhys’s mind was enveloped by a constricting, disruptive force. Nausea gripped his insides and he cried out from the sudden, dizzying pain in his head. His hands flew to his throbbing temples and he fell forward against the straps of his chair.

“Rhys!”

The protective shield vaporized and Rai was bombarded by a shower of weapon fire.

Alarmed, Quinn threw together a makeshift barrier outside the small ship and transported her out of the lethal spray to the far end of the gray vessel. He lunged against his own straps and reached over to grab his partner’s shoulder, yanking him upright in his chair. “Rhys! What’s wrong? What happened?”

The sound of Quinn’s shaken voice pierced the dizziness. Rhys shook his head roughly and struggled to pull himself through the murky blanket suffocating his thinking. “I don’t know. Something hit me.”

“That ship? What—”

The black fighter swooped into the space beside Rai and opened fire.

“By the Prime, he’s on us again!”

“I’ll … block.” Rhys grimaced with the supreme effort of forcing his mind outward to form another wall against the blows. The small vessel rocked.

All at once, the hammering stopped. Rhys dropped his head to his chest and panted. Beside him, Quinn let out a ragged breath. “Lessa just bolted in front of the fighter to pull him off. Ellim’s shooting up toward it from below.”

A ripple of fear ran up Rhys’s spine and he raised his spinning head. “No, they can’t—”

What’s going on? Tam’s clear voice rang over the link as Sylvan flew past them, speeding toward the black fighter and their teammates’ darting forms.

We’ve got a problem, Quinn relayed. Rhys was hit by something and can’t seem to shake it.

I’m ok, really. I can manage. Let’s get moving before—

The gray transport was suddenly illuminated by a bright flash as Lessa exploded.

“NO!” Ice coursed through Rhys’s veins and twisted his gut. Katherine! Meredith!

The black fighter flew straight through the flying debris and immediately turned its guns on Sylvan.

Shauna! Quinn called up to the deathwalker aboard Mirida. Lessa and her pilots were just hit!

I have them all. Don’t worry.

A roar of pain and anguish ripped from Rhys’s throat as the shock of losing his friends turned rapidly into anger. “Get us over to that fighter, Quinn!”

“But you—”

“I can do it! No one else is going to die because of me!”

Rhys gripped his throbbing head, fighting to pull through the viscous sensations while Quinn shifted Rai to a position above and behind the black ship, matching the pace of the charging Drahk. The fighter pelted Sylvan’s shields as she veered up and away, and shifted in the next heartbeat to blasting at Ellim’s streaking form.

Hang on, all of you! I’m going to nail that son-of-a-bitch!

The fighter’s rear weapons locked in on Rai and opened fire. Rhys took firm hold of his senses and focused intently on the winged vessel, surrounding it with a spherical field which he set spinning in layers, completely encasing the dark ship in its tightly woven form. He grimaced against the strain and pumped more energy into the construct to accelerate its spin.

The fighters’ beams began to ricochet off the constricting web. He gritted his teeth and pulled the sphere in closer to the vessel. A sudden swell of elation and smug satisfaction bubbled up from within at the sight of the black fighter taking hits from its own disruptors.

“Rhys! Back off! You’re going to incinerate him!”

Again, his partner’s voice sliced through the red haze gripping his mind. He loosened his hold on the sphere at the same moment the Drahk ceased his incessant firing. Jess, get this prick out of here.

The shiny black vessel vanished from sight.

As if released from a spell, the bizarre stranglehold dissipated from his body. He could have sworn he heard faint laughter echo in his mind before the disturbing sensations melted completely away. With a groan, he collapsed against his chair and let his head fall back.

“By the Prime, it’s gone. I’m clear.” He sucked in several jagged lungfuls of air to settle his system. The faces of the two laughing women swam through his mind in a relentless, haunting loop. “God-damned Drahk.”

Quinn’s hand lashed out and clamped down on his forearm. “Rhys.”

He lifted his head again and turned toward his partner. As he met the Caledonian’s level green gaze, his eyes filled with tears. “They’re gone—” His throat closed around the rest of his words.

“I know. We all feel it, but right now we’ve got to finish this so the rest of us can get out of here.”

With a curt nod, Rhys clamped down on his grief and ran his hands over the aching muscles in his face. Quinn spun Rai around and headed back toward the transport, handling the call to collect their anxious team. We nabbed the big fighter. Regroup!

Sylvan and Ellim fell into position beside them. One by one, the eight remaining interceptors popped into view to join the formation. As the group sped up and over the back end of the transport vessel, Djan’s voice came on over the secondary channel connecting the team to Mirida’s network.

Team Six, they’ve called their fighters back in. You’ve got thirty seconds to take out that transport and get yourselves back into dock.

“Shit,” Rhys swore under his breath.

You can do this! Kirian rumbled through the link with the entire team. I’ll send each of you the adjusted formation and point assignments. All of you, shift yourselves into the positions I give you and activate the web. Transporters—

We’re ready! Jess interjected quickly.

Go!

The image of the geometric configuration which would completely surround the gray vessel flashed into Rhys’s mind. He instantly understood the coordinates of the position Rai was to hold and glanced aside at his partner. With a nod, the two pilots smoothly transported the crystalline ship to the apex of the formation in front of the Drahkian vessel and began to generate the specific tones which would link the interceptors into one giant net.

Rai’s small chamber vibrated with sound. The moment the last of the eleven ships was locked into position and synced harmonically with the rest, bright beams flashed between the crystalline ships, creating an energetic container around the gray transport.

Take it out!

The Drahkian vessel disappeared, leaving a gulf of empty space within the shimmering web.

Djan’s voice snapped through the channel. Alright everyone, move! The docking bay doors on the rim of the warship are starting to close. Shift yourselves directly back to Mirida and anchor in!

Rhys glanced up at the eerily quiet space around the warship and realized they were the last team of interceptors left in the field. He reached with his inner senses for the familiar feel of Rai’s anchor seat up in Bay Six, formed the transport matrix, and shifted the small ship into position within the starship. While Quinn took care of locking Rai into her anchor clamps, he sent a quick scan through the bay to make sure all on his team were safely back in dock. His chest constricted at the sight of Lessa’s empty stall and he fought down another wave of sickened grief.

Rhys, are you alright? The soothing voice of Shauna Malcolm, Mirida’s gentle deathwalker, privately touched his mind.

Yeah, I’m ok. For now.

Come see me when we get back and we’ll talk.

Rhys drew in a breath of air and was about to reply when Mirida’s shipwide link crackled with his brother’s orders. We’re shifting down into position to snare the warship. All hands, prepare to move!

The two pilots gripped their armrests and cast their vision outward to view the exterior of the ship. The starship transported smoothly to coordinates a short distance beyond the rim of the warship. In the same moment, the four other Tarsian vessels shifted into point positions to form a wide, shallow pyramid around the gray disc.

The warship disruptors broke loose with full blazing fire and the ship began to rise, bursting through the energetic web running between the Tarsian vessels. The disc spun upwards toward Rinzen, spraying beams outward like a spitting firecracker. The graceful Khalama vessel transported quickly out of range while the warship rose in a fiery arc and disappeared.

“Damn it!” Quinn swore. “We almost had it.”

Rhys turned his scan across the city. Four other warships came to life with the same blitzing tactic to escape their Pleiadian snares, lifting and vanishing one at a time from the airspace above Guan. “Only two took off from the east side.”

“The Maians took one out.”

“Good, but where did the others go?”

Quinn shifted his focus to a long-range scan and pointed out north of the city. “There, up in the middle of the flats. The two missing warships just transported in to join them.”

“They must have been at Luda, the colony on the backside of Galah.”

“They’re all hovering in a group near the ground. That’s odd.”

“Why? They’re losing. They’ve got to figure out what to do about us.”

“Yeah, I know,” the Caledonian grumbled as he watched the six dark ships. “But something isn’t right. It feels like they’re waiting for something.”

The admiral’s voice came on over the link. Everyone, regroup and hold your positions over the city. We’ll coordinate with the Maians to send groups out after them. The Birdwings will take the first run.

Mirida joined the other Tarsian starships to form a cluster around Rinzen. The pilots kept their projected vision pinned on the dark shapes hovering in the distance.

The glittering forms of several golden Birdwings darted in dramatic arcs around two of the warships on one side of the formation, drawing a spray of fire after them with each pass. On the opposite edge of the warband, six more Birdwings appeared together in a tight configuration around one of the discs. Whitish beams flashed between the small ships to form an energetic web that pulsed with a soft glow. The huge warship caught within the net dematerialized and the six Birdwings blinked out of sight before a single defensive shot had been fired.

“Damn, they’re good fliers,” Quinn murmured.

“No kidding. Magnus has always crowed about how brilliant they are. Now I see why.”

The six remaining warships lifted above the sprinting Birdwings and transported away.

The Caledonian scanned quickly and pointed to his left. “Out west. They’re landing! They’ll be sitting ducks! You don’t think that’s odd?”

“Yeah, but maybe they think we can’t pick off single ships on the ground.”

Quinn frowned and shook his head. “That’s not it. Rhys, why aren’t they fighting?”

A sudden explosion rocked the entire starship. Mirida lurched into motion away from the blast.

“What the hell was that?” Rhys yelled, his hands digging into his armrests to keep himself upright. “Who fired on us?”

“I’m scanning the far side of the ship.” Quinn face contorted with panic. “By the Prime, no! Telemar was blown to pieces!”

Rhys threw his focus above and behind Mirida. Debris from the Tarsian starship was still flying outward from where it had been hovering beside them seconds ago.

“Above us, just inside the portal!” Quinn cried out. “Damn it, look at that thing! That’s what the bastards were waiting for!”

In the thin upper atmosphere, far above the capital city, an object larger than a dozen Drahkian warships combined hung in space, an ominous specter silhouetted against the faint blue light of distant Maia. The dull gray dish-shaped monstrosity shifted incrementally to focus the central eye of its concave face on one of the scattering Tarsian starships.

Leto! Duncan, Dhia, it’s aiming at you! Transport out of there! Miros screamed through the link to the starship leaders.

Leto’s sparkling form vanished a split second before a black beam from the dish charred the space where the milky white starship had been and seared through the solar dome, decimating a portion of the city below.

It’s an imperial destroyer! Yuri shrieked. Everyone out! That thing can annihilate all of us in seconds!

The portal is still open! The Alcyoni admiral’s voice trembled. Meet at the ring!

The ships spread across the domed city began to wink out of sight. Mirida’s transport team quickly shifted her up through the portal to a position within the cluster of Alcyone vessels collecting around Corum. Beside them, groups of Maian craft appeared, forming a swath of burnished gold and crystal in front of the orbiting mechanical ring.

The gray destroyer rotated and ascended slowly, pausing to hover over the space where the portal lay open. For several tense moments, the colossal ship hung, suspended and silent, as if awaiting instructions.

While the fleet held its collective breath, a subtle change in hue spread across the surface of the small planet and the domed city below faded from view. The portal had been reconfigured and locked down.

No. Yuri’s softly uttered denial echoed across the open channel.

A few seconds later the gray dish dissolved.

Shocked at their sudden defeat, the pilots sat staring at the empty planet surface. A mourning wail rose over the channel from the fleet of Maian vessels. The voices of the Khalama starships joined the lament while the crews within gradually added their own to the outpouring of grief.

Quinn’s strong voice reverberated within Rai’s small chamber. Rhys knew it would help loosen the knot in his chest to find his voice and sound out his anguish with the rest of the fleet, but it wouldn’t come. The rolling tones washed over him as he sat and listened, his throat locked tighter than a drum.

For long minutes the dirge went on before silence descended. The ships hung in bleak suspension above the quiet, desolate world.

Somewhere down there, two lost cities were going through hell. They had failed to protect the people of Galah from the reptilian nightmare.

Nothing left for us here, Miros’s bitter voice cut in. The Maians will set up patrols. Transporting home on three.

Rhys let his head fall back while the tears streamed down into his hair. Quinn buried his face in his hands.

A planet lost. Pilots lost. A starship obliterated in the blink of an eye.

The battle was over, but the war for Maia had just begun.

X

Rhys was falling.

His ship was gone, Quinn was gone, and he was tumbling through some unknown, endless space. Something grabbed and dropped him, time and time again. He tried in vain to form the transport matrix he knew so well.

Nothing came but the terror, surrounding him like a huge snake squeezing the life out of him. He fought and struggled, and the constrictions increased as if something took pleasure in his torment.

“Let … go!” With a desperate push, he shoved his mind against the suffocating grip and the pressure abated.

Instantly the air sizzled with heat. His lungs were scorched as he sucked in anguished breaths. Flames raged around him, searing his skin as he fell through the center of a roaring column. The blistering pain was excruciating and he cried out in agony while deep, maniacal laughter swirled around his battered body.

“I killed them, human, hundreds of your people! How many were on the ship that my destroyer took down?”

Rhys’s face contorted as the explosions and shouting from a battle flashed all around him. His hands flew to cover his ears, trying to close out the sadistic voice.

“How many did you kill, small man? How many died because of you?”

Two women’s faces fluttered briefly in the flames. Guilt churned in his gut and his eyes searched frantically for another glimpse of his lost friends. “Katherine! Meredith! I’m sorry!”

The voice laughed softly, a touch of surprise seeping into its taunting tone. “That’s your secret, isn’t it? You killed two of your own kind. Does it bother you, human?”

He pulled his arms tightly against his stomach and sobbed.

“Did you have feelings for those women? Was one of them your lover? Both of them?”

Rhys roared in outrage and swung his fists wildly toward the flames.

The invisible battering took on a new force, slamming into his body from every angle. He screamed, but the strikes were relentless.

“I’m coming for your world, human, do you hear me? My beasts will feast on the tender flesh of your family and friends!”

“NO!” A new twist of terror seized his belly as he fought to break free of the horrible voice. He struggled vainly against his rising panic, clutching his hands to his head.

The laughter rumbled on and on. “I’m coming for you, human! I will own you. You are mine!”

* * *

The man was dreaming again. She could feel his fear. He was locked inside a repetitive cycle causing him terrible pain.

The same blue-eyed man had appeared as a tantalizing specter for the past several years in the dreamwalker’s night-time explorations, sporadically at first, but with amplified intensity as time went on. He held an irresistible fascination for her—dark, sensual, luring her with an attraction she couldn’t deny.

She scolded herself every time she woke. It was a fruitless waste of energy, the wishful conjuring of a foolish, idealistic woman.

But now she was sure that the black-haired man was no dream creation. He was real and very much alive. For the past seven nights the threads of his nightmares had moved to cross her dreampath as if magnetized to her. His terrified screams bled into her weavings, disrupting whatever work she had set out to accomplish. Could it be that he needed her? Should she drop what she was doing and find him? Would he recognize her if she showed him the way out of his terror?

The dreamwalker closed her eyes, tethered by the whirlpool of the man’s tangled emotions. She listened to his cries and extended her perception until the locus of his dream came into view. He was falling through a column of flames and twisting in agony. So close. Her hand moved involuntarily to reach for him. The strong attraction pulled at her, sucking her toward the center of his dream. A moment of exhilaration rose and fell before she froze with indecision.

It’s not my concern. The clan is my top priority.

She steeled herself and reeled her attention back to the images of her own dreampath and returned her focus to the beckoning voice she had been tracking. It felt benevolent and she was determined to hunt it through the Dreamcore down to its source.

This was her work, the purpose she understood. For the moment, it was enough. She would make it enough.

The man’s screams faded in her mind as she resumed her trek across a vast plain of white sand which glowed beneath an ocean of cobalt blue. There was something her eye could barely discern at the foot of a range of mountains which spread across the horizon.

The faint echo of the cryptic voice floated ahead of her and she walked in silence under the bright light of an unknown moon.

* * *

Rhys jerked awake in the darkness of his private apartment in the fleet residential quarter, shaking uncontrollably, his body covered in cold sweat. He struggled to slow his choppy breath and racing heart, and pounded his fist on the mattress in angry frustration. Damn it! He had no control when that horrible voice invaded his dreams. Every night since Galah, the menacing shadow stalked him as he slept. Infuriated, he shook his disheveled head as a strangled shriek of rage tore from his throat.

He jumped up from the wreckage of bed sheets and paced restlessly back and forth across the dimly lit room. “Get a grip. It was just a dream.”

An image of the Orchid House, his favorite oasis of solitude and comfort, sprang up in his mind. He could transport over to Tintágel and take a walk out through his gardens to the isolated greenhouse. The cool night air of the coastal estate would do him good.

No, he thought impatiently, tonight he needed something more tactile that would calm his nerves and diffuse the tension binding his muscles. He knew just the place where he could find it.

He touched his fingertips to his temples and reached for connection with one of his oldest friends who resided in the teeming waters of Tarsus’s Fourth Shade. What he intended as a soft mental call came bursting across the channel as a jarring blast. E’liak, are you there?!?

Silvery laughter wafted through his skull. Is that you, Rhys? Feels like your circuits are a bit singed.

The familiar contact slid around him like an icy balm, soothing his frayed emotions. Care to have some company for a while?

You know I could never resist the tenuous honor of your presence. Come on out. E’liak’s chiming voice trailed off into the distance, seemingly unconcerned with his human friend’s disturbed state of mind.

Without bothering to dress, Rhys sounded the proper tones in his mind and transported himself onto a crescent-shaped, black pebble beach. The wide lagoon glistened under the soft light of the small twin moons overhead.

He closed his eyes and let his head roll back, raising his arms out from his sides to allow the cool, salty breeze to wash over his skin. Slowly he walked into the soft surf of the lagoon until he could slide into the waves and head for deeper water. He alternated between swimming and floating on his back, knowing E’liak would find him in his own time.

A sudden slam into his backside knocked him from his restful floating. Quick reflexes sent his arm flying out to the right, barely catching hold of a slippery fin as a huge, sleek body surged to the surface. E’liak broke into the air and spurted a blast of warm spray which blew straight into his face, making him wince and nearly miss pulling in a lungful of air before the cetacean dove.

Damn it, E’liak! You’re going to drown me!

Nice to see you, too, Rhys. Need some air?

Yeeeesssss!

He held onto the fin in desperation as the dolphin charged back up to the surface. The moment he felt air on his face, he let go, flailing his arms while struggling to regain his sense of balance. He flipped his hair out of his eyes and took deep, gasping breaths while the silhouette of dark fin circled a dozen yards away.

So what has shriveled your manhood to embarrassing proportions? The cetacean’s voice crackled with laughter.

Bad dreams, out of control. Threats by a voice, same voice every night since Galah. He coughed and spluttered, treading water to keep himself afloat.

Ah, The Great Demon. The Dark Threat. The Scourge of the Known Universe. Rhys Talrésian’s Evil Bane–

I don’t know how to stop it, E’liak! Two of my friends died in that battle because of me! I haven’t slept well in a bloody week and I feel shredded!

Relax, dear human. E’liak flipped his body up and out of the water before disappearing into a dive.

Where are you going, you lousy fish? He cupped his hand to send a splash of water toward the spot where he had seen E’liak’s tail.

Several minutes passed with no sound from the depths. Just when he thought he’d been abandoned for the night, the surface of the water about fifty feet to his left was broken by the sprays of five large bodies. He was quickly surrounded by E’liak’s pod who circled him languidly under the star-filled sky.

His body went limp the moment he felt the first tingling twinges of an energy construct forming around him. He tuned his focus inward and sensed a sound form, woven by the five dolphins, inaudible to his normal hearing, which buoyed his body in the moonlit water. Every ounce of tension drained from his muscles as the sound washed away the exhaustion and slowly filled him with renewed vitality.

Thank you. He picked up five sets of cetacean smiles before the group silently disappeared, leaving him to float by himself, his mind a peaceful blank.

After what seemed like hours of tranquility, E’liak’s soft spray hissed above the surface of the water somewhere off to his right. The dolphin waited patiently for Rhys to break the silence.

They’re coming and I don’t know how to stop them.

So you dream.

I feel so vulnerable, helpless.

Perhaps that’s what they want you to feel. You’re playing their game.

I have a choice?

Always. But you’ve grown up with the fear. All of you in First Shade have. Now the Empire is knocking down the back door and it’s time to face the music. Find a new game, Rhys. E’liak dove and resurfaced a few minutes later.

How do you do it, E’liak, you and the rest of the pod? None of you ever seem disturbed or act like you take the coming threat at all seriously.

E’liak flicked his head and clicked with laughter. Why should we? You spend enough energy worrying for all of us combined!

Doesn’t it upset you that we’re targeted for takeover?

You forget, my friend, cetacean purpose here is to help Tarsus maintain health and integrity. That’s why we accepted the party invitation in the first place. Unless the day comes when Tarsus is too wounded to sustain us or visa versa, we’ll weave our sound webs for him. If we’re ever drummed out of physical existence here, we’ll simply go somewhere else.

I wish I had your peace of mind.

E’liak splashed him playfully with his left fin. We all follow our own natures. There’s nothing wrong with yours, Rhys. On the contrary. I wouldn’t miss the entertainment you provide for all the sardines in three seas. With a dramatic lunge into the air and crack of his tail on the surface, the cetacean was gone.

Rhys turned his head to the side and studied the starscape, locating Maia low on the horizon. Somewhere around it was tiny lost Galah. The ominous voice had followed him home from the battle, taunting him, hammering at his self-confidence. He had to get a handle on his fears and the guilt over Katherine and Meredith or he would be no good to anyone. These frantic dreams had to stop.

E’liak’s words drifted back through his mind. Find a new game.

With smooth, steady strokes, he made his way back to the lagoon and waded slowly out of the water. He gave his black mane a shake and stood for a few moments listening to the surf lap around his feet.

Grateful for the gift of healing and the brief respite of peace, he picked up a small white shell from the beach and imprinted it mentally with a message of thanks to the cetaceans before throwing it far out into the lagoon. He turned his focus inward and transported back to his chamber with the intention of sleeping deeply for the remainder of the night. He fervently hoped it would be undisturbed.

* * *

Deep, rasping laughter filled the private room. Biak’s breathing was harsh and fast. His body quivered with wave after wave of ecstasy. He let his head fall to the side on the heated recliner, his eyes half-closed as incredible pleasure engulfed his entire frame. Oh yes, this was sweet reward for all the years of torment he’d endured from his cruel grandfather back home on Bahár or out on assignment, chafing under Bálok’s harsh orders. The thrill of domination and conquest for his own gain was immensely gratifying and it would only get better, for he had barely begun to explore the possibilities laid out in front of him with this tantalizing new game.

The warlord shifted his languid gaze to the object he held in his hand. It mystified him, but it was certainly proving to be useful. He opened the clawed digits of his right hand and carefully examined his new toy. A small, faceted red stone was suspended at the center of an intricate set of wires which looked like spun gold. He knew the stone could rotate within the small, perfectly balanced tetrahedron. It had been spinning rapidly while its previous owner offered it on her trembling, outstretched palm attempting to barter for her life.

From the moment he’d laid eyes on the sparkling web of gold, it had drawn him with an irresistible force, and with one sweeping swipe, he had killed the groveling woman and wrested the golden object out of her death grip. The instant it came in contact with his skin, the vision of a dark-haired human had flooded his mind and he was suddenly pulled into the middle of the battle going on up above the domed city. The man was flying one of those tiny, crystal-like craft from the Alcyoni fleet and was being pursued by his brother in his expensive, prized black fighter.

The experience had been utterly astonishing. He could see what the man saw, hear the man speak, and, most deliciously, feel the human’s anguished emotions when his brother destroyed one of the other small vessels.

Biak shivered, remembering how the heat of the pilot’s rage had rippled through his own flesh, followed by the wildly satisfying pleasure of watching his brother’s fighter fall into the man’s sights mere seconds before it was completely vaporized. He was rid of that pretentious prick without lifting a finger himself.

As luck would have it, the magic of the gold hadn’t stopped with that one isolated vision. Hours later, after his second-in-command had salvaged the botched raid on this god-forsaken rock, he’d pulled the object out of his pocket, only to find himself inexplicably connected once again with the Alcyoni pilot. The black-haired man seemed to be dreaming and, much to Biak’s delight, he discovered he could taunt the human in Mothertongue and cause him pain simply by thinking it, a weirdly bizarre experience which he found intensely stimulating.

The warlord rolled his head from side to side and smiled. Such exquisite satiation. The muscles of his eight-and-a-half-foot frame twitched with the aftermath of the night’s harvest as he stretched his long limbs and shifted on the warm leather cushion.

Of course, as enjoyable as he found this new pastime, he knew that tormenting the human was nothing more than cream. A far more important opportunity had been laid at his feet through this fortuitous turn of events—a hook into the axis star system of Alcyone. With cunning, skill, and balls, he would be master of more than just the seven worlds of Maia. He would steal the prize of Alcyone for himself before Emperor Izar’s grandson Bazh got off his sorry ass to claim it, and no one could stop him.

Tossing the golden device into the air and catching it in his huge fist, Biak laughed again, the rumbling sound bouncing off the chamber walls. Thanks to this tiny little device, he would soon have the power to break away from his loathsome grandfather and enough wealth to build an army to bring Bálok down.

X

AGITATION

Karra Jas Khurias wove her way through the corridors to the common eating hall of the caverns, her thoughts turned inward to the events of the previous night. As usual, she had awakened at first light with clear, sharp awareness, energized both mentally and physically from walking the Dreamcore.

A touch of excitement lightened her steps. There was much to discuss with the elder dreamwalkers and she anticipated an eager reaction from her mentors when she shared her experiences in their meeting later that afternoon. She grabbed a bowl of honeyed oatmeal and seated herself at a vacant table by the wall, digging in to her morning meal while she reviewed the night’s dreamwalk and prepared her words for the upcoming meeting.

After the first few bites, her concentration wavered and she lowered the spoon absently to the table. The important dream discovery which should have consumed her complete attention dissolved into a pair of steel-blue eyes. Echoes of the man’s cries ripped through her mind, clawing at her heart. She had left him yet again, a cowardly decision she’d regretted and swept aside the moment she decided to walk away. What was she so afraid of? The intensity of her own attraction to this man?

Karra winced, ashamed to admit that her own insecurities were exactly what had stopped her, but her personal fears were no excuse for abandoning someone in such desperate straits. She had the skills to enter his dreams and weave the few strands he needed to lead him out of his cycle of terror, perhaps even show him how to change the traumatic dreams himself. She would simply have to keep tight control over private feelings which had nothing to do with the stranger and his plight. If she was discreet with her assistance, he would never even detect her presence nor remember her when he awoke.

Yes, now she had a plan. If the dark-haired man’s dreams crossed her path again tonight, she would carefully step in to help and her conscience would be clear.

Karra took several more bites of her breakfast before dropping the spoon into the bowl once more. She should feel better about her decision, so why did her body still clench with queasy apprehension at the thought of entering his dreams?

Not just dreams, she corrected herself—nightmares. The depth of the man’s terror was more extreme than anything she had experienced in her waking life or in dreamwalking, where daily fears were often magnified out of proportion. The more she thought about it, the more certain she became that there was something very dark, very threatening about the man’s dreams which frightened her.

Impatient with her own hesitance, Karra quickly decided she could do something about it right now. At the very least, perhaps she could pinpoint exactly what it was in the dreams that was so disturbing. She pushed her breakfast aside and straightened her shoulders, turning her mind’s eye inward to send a portion of her awareness back into the Dreamcore to search for the fading afterimages of last night’s encounter.

The jagged energy of the man’s dream construct was easy to sense and locate. Karra kept her projected view outside the dream fragment and watched the man fall through a narrow column of flames, screaming as the fire seared his skin. Her emotions fluttered, but she squelched the quick rise of her own attraction to focus on what the man was experiencing within the dream. Despite the pain, he seemed to be attempting to do something. Over and over, his face tightened in concentration. Everything she sensed about him felt normal, afraid and tense, but normal. The flames, the falling were all typical fear manifestations. So where was the disturbance?

A deep voice rang through the dream, laughing and taunting the man. There. Karra’s solar plexus flared and led her directly to the source of her unease. That voice. It was not just a creation from the man’s mind. Something was attached to that voice. No, someone was attached to that voice. By the Prime, no wonder she felt apprehensive about walking the man’s dreams. He was being attacked by an outside force.

From her perspective outside the dream fragment, Karra could feel a thread of energy attached to it from somewhere beyond, leading off into the void of the Dreamcore. Focusing her senses on the unwelcome presence, she sent a probe along the thread into the darkness, searching for its source.

Bright yellow eyes within a grayish-green pebbled face rushed forward to meet her. Long spikes crested the huge head and the wide mouth below a sleek snout lay partially open, exposing long rows of razor-sharp teeth. Laughter rolled from the reptilian’s broad chest and his breathing was fast and harsh. He was clearly in some kind of ecstatic state, with taut, charged energy running through every muscle of his massive body.

Shocked, Karra jerked violently in her chair and her eyes flew open, breaking the mental connection. A Drahk was tormenting the man. What kind of trouble was he in? And did she want to have anything to do with it? Had the beast sensed her mental probe?

The whole thing was unheard of. The Drahks supposedly did not have any kind of psychic skill or the ability to manipulate someone else’s dreams, a primary reason her people felt relatively safe walking the Dreamcore. What she had just seen held serious ramifications for everyone she knew.

The dreamwalker wiped the sudden sweat from her forehead and looked around. Fortunately no one in the dining hall had noticed her odd behavior, but she certainly should have known better than to pull such a stunt in the middle of a crowd.

She rallied her composure and jumped to her feet, scooping up her bowl and tossing it hastily onto a stack of dishes waiting to be cleared. She left the dining hall in a flurry and headed for the growing fields to take her place in the morning ceremony. She was already running late and she could not allow herself to fail in her commitments.

As she hurried along the corridor leading to the upper fields, Karra reluctantly realized that the enigma of the alluring, dark-haired man and his Drahkian pursuer would have to be discussed with the elder dreamwalkers. If she followed through with her resolve to help the man, it could prove dangerous, both to her and the Schedaran clans. A solid course of action needed to be planned before sleep, for surely tonight as she wove her dreampath, the nightmare would find her again.

* * *

 

The conference room was stifling. Djan Talrésian ran his hands through his sandy blond hair in an attempt to quiet his agitation, a condition that seemed to have taken hold of his crew and just about everyone he had spoken with over the past seven days, including the Khalama starships in their own unique way. With so many unanswered questions after the Drahks’ attack in Maia, anxiety was running incredibly high.

The loss of Telemar and all of his crew cut deeply into the psyche of the whole Alcyoni fleet. Djan could still hear Sanos Kataryan’s dry one-liners and his wife Irena’s brash laughter bouncing off the walls of this very room. It was still hard to grasp that nearly five hundred people and ships had been blown out of the sky in a matter of seconds.

The deaths of fleet members from other starships had been just as devastating. Mirida alone had lost five crystalline interceptors and their ten pilots. His brother had looked haggard and withdrawn at the funeral ceremony held two days after Galah to honor the dead. No doubt he was torturing himself with guilt over losing three from his team.

Since the battle, Miros had put all forty-three starships in the fleet on active alert, with round the clock watches set up over each of the primary and secondary portals of Alcyone’s eleven inhabited worlds. Djan and Tyla had put their crew through countless runs and practice maneuvers with other Tarsian vessels and twice they had joined starships from Chi, Ki, and Niemi for mock battles and transport drills over Dunn in Alcyone’s outer belt. The specter of unfinished business in Maia hung over their heads like a blade waiting to fall and the need to be prepared consumed every waking moment.

Djan shifted his large frame in an attempt to get comfortable. The meeting hadn’t even begun and he was squirming like a small child.

“Can we get some air in here?”

“Sure, Djan. I’ll take care of it.” Mairi Buchanan got up and moved down the steps of the tiered, conical chamber. At the bottom of the stairs, she darted across the stream of traffic pouring in through the entrance hallway and spoke a few soft words into a small panel in the wall. Several louvered windows in the upper translucent dome of the ceiling opened and a gentle waft of air began to spiral down into the large room.

Djan sighed, chiding himself for his unnecessary waspishness, and nodded his thanks to the tiny starship leader as she returned to her seat down the row beside her husband Kip.

Tyla reached for Djan’s hand under the table. “Relax, dragon eyes,” she whispered, sending him a warm, sensuous smile.

Before she pulled her hand away, Djan clamped down on his hold. Not for the first time, he wondered what his life would be like without his beautiful, lissom wife. He’d been in love with her since childhood and the intensely sexual relationship which ignited between them at the academy had made them ideal candidates to become starship leaders, since that bond was requisite in flying the great Khalama starships.

While conversation buzzed softly around them, Djan let his gaze wander over Tyla’s silky sienna skin and the graceful curve of her neck. His pulse raced at the mere thought of touching her, and when her golden eyes flashed with a responding spark, he grinned and squeezed her hand again before releasing it, feeling the tight coil in his midsection begin to loosen. “Later,” he mouthed silently before pulling his attention back to the conference room to concentrate on the problems at hand.

The large room was packed with the top officers of the Tarsian fleet: starship leaders and bridge team leads, high-ranking officers from headquarters, and senior faculty members from the academy. The bottom tier above the floor had been reserved for key figureheads from around the globe. Several of the original Makhás masters from Sirius were clustered together on one side, their powerful builds, snowy white hair, fur, and black stripes a stark contrast to the sea of Tarsians in navy blue fleet uniforms. Kirian Vall sat with his arms crossed and conversed with Arman Sijía, Director of the Portal Center up in Ness. Kalden Ngari, head of the Center for Geometrics, stood speaking with his son Anil, Tarsian Vice Admiral and starship leader with his wife Nandi. Kalden’s elderly mother Tenzin was seated beside a dusky-skinned human, the renowned crystal master Adi Batur.

“Quite an impressive line-up,” Tyla murmured above the hum. “Where would we be without each one of those people?”

“Still blowing things up with limp-dick lasers.”

“True enough, and a lot more of us would probably be dead right now.”

“Duncan and Dhia would be for sure.” Djan’s eyes slid briefly up across the room to the Caledonian leaders and bridge officers who had narrowly escaped annihilation by the Drahkian destroyer.

A swell of sound rose as Miros Silesian strode through the entryway with his wife Lita, the first couple on Tarsus to be trained by the Makhás to fly a Khalama starship. The petite blonde slid into a seat next to Kirian while the admiral walked over to the podium and control panel on the far side of the floor. The tall, trim man tipped his dark head up toward the large viewscreen mounted high on the wall behind him, nodding while an officer briefed him on the communications set-up that linked the conference room with meeting rooms at Fleet Headquarters on Chi, Ki, and Niemi.

“Add the Silesians to the ‘where-would-we-be’ group and that leaves—”

“The loud one. Speak of the devil.” Djan crossed his arms and watched his charismatic grandfather stride down the entry hall surrounded by four aides with headsets and tablets. “Lord, don’t they ever leave him alone?”

“Oh, come on. You know perfectly well that he’s the one who keeps them hopping. He’s been that way since we were kids. That man thrives on overdrive.”

Djan snorted softly, knowing she was right. Growing up, he’d always seen Magnus as larger than life, a brawny man with the force and energy of ten men, a towering hero who had once been a fleet pilot and gone on to become the captain of the starship Zephyr. As an adult, Djan realized his view of his grandfather hadn’t changed all that much. Mag was now the High Councilor of Andara and spokesman for the entire Tarsian High Council, wielding more political clout than anyone else on the planet.

As Magnus issued instructions to his staff at the edge of the floor, a dark-haired man with a regal bearing walked silently around the buzzing cluster. A bright smile lit the counselor’s face and his hand shot out to clap the man fondly on the shoulder.

“I didn’t know my dad was going to be here.” Djan grinned and waved as Kahl glanced up and caught his eye before taking a seat next to Lita Silesian. As quiet and unassuming as Magnus was bombastic, the prominent historian at the University of Krii knew more about the Drahkian Empire and its movement than anyone in the system.

“Makes sense that he was invited,” Tyla remarked. “Miros probably wants him to help analyze the battle and try to project the next target.”

“Ok, everyone, let’s get started.” Miros’s rich voice cut through the buzz of the room. He paused and waited for people to quiet and settle down, and glanced over at the cluster of people standing in the entryway. “Mag?”

“Yeah, we’re good.” Magnus wrapped up his instructions to his aides who turned and hurried back down the hall while the councilor flipped off his own headset and took a seat next to Kahl.

“Alright. It’s been a rough week for all of us. I know I’ve put all of you through a tough schedule and it’s not going to stop. There’s no such thing as being too ready.” The admiral slid his hands into his pockets and took up a casual pacing at the front of the room while he spoke. The perfectly balanced acoustics carried his voice clearly to the highest rows of officers in the cavernous room.

“As I said at the funeral service a few days ago, it was a real blow to lose Telemar and everyone else who went down. It’s one thing to know that people and ships are destroyed in battles, but it always hits hard when it happens. The damned thing was, we were winning.” He stopped and glanced over at Lita and Magnus. “It’s not like it was in Merope. Granted, it was a small force we were up against on Galah, but our plans, our new abilities—they’re working.” He shifted his gaze to the group of Makhás clustered in front of him. “We’re on the right track. I know it.”

Kalden Ngari nodded and put an arm around his smiling, elderly mother, the first to have seen the potential in teaching the Alcyoni the advanced skills they had brought with them from Sirius.

“We still can’t stand up to those destroyers,” Duncan Cameron called out. “And we don’t know how they break the portals in the first place.” The room rumbled with murmurs of agreement.

Miros raised his head and looked around, studying the sea of concerned faces. “Yeah, we’ll talk about those things. We have a long list of challenges yet to overcome if we’re going to survive the spread of the Empire.” The admiral turned and started to pace again while he collected his thoughts. “Let’s start off with where we stand right now. I know everyone in the fleet is feeling unsettled and anxious, especially those who went to Galah. We’re all on pins and needles wondering when the next hit will happen. Tension is running high through the entire population here on Tarsus and I imagine it’s the same everywhere else in Alcyone.” He lifted his eyes up toward the faces of the three admirals displayed on the split screen above him.

“You’ve got that right,” Yao Kang of Chi declared. “I don’t know how many times I’ve had to calm people down this past week.”

Kometani Mitsu shook her head. “It’s been really crazy all over Ki, especially here in Shido. My staff has fielded hundreds of calls from worried business leaders and politicians. People seem to be a lot more affected by an attack in Maia than they were during the Meropean War.”

“Yes, I find it strange, but the same phenomenon is prevalent on Niemi as well.” Marcel Girard stroked his beard as he mulled over the issue. “Perhaps all the attention we’ve received over the past several decades while we built the new ships finally woke people up to the very real danger we’re facing.”

“At least we’ve gotten them to wake up,” Miros added with a note of exasperation. “Offworlders and merchants, on the other hand, have always had a keen sense of what transpires across the galactic network. They have to in order to stay alive. Kirian, I’m sure you and the other portal masters have seen evidence of that in the last seven days.”

The Makhás nodded solemnly. “Word must have spread quickly about the Drahks in Maia. Incoming traffic from Alcyone worlds as well as other planetary systems has dropped dramatically through both portals. We’ve got a lot of folks cooling their heels here in Krii and up in Ness, just waiting to see if there will be any further incursions. Few are willing to risk being caught between planetary portals if Drahkian ships are on the move.”

Magnus piped up and made a sour face. “Yeah, and there’s been a lot of screaming from all parts of the globe over stalled trade. Crikey, people act as if we could just make the Drahks disappear by snapping our fingers.”

“You can tell them that I’ve got two of the older starships and one Khalama stationed on guard duty over each Alcyoni portal,” Miros suggested. “That includes Ubad, Ra-ki, and the four outworlds who don’t have starships of their own.”

“Thanks, that ought to calm a few feathers.”

“I’ll wager the lull will be short-lived,” Kirian threw out. “The natural pressures of business will get people moving once they get over their initial fears. Merchants are generally not inclined to sit still for long.”

The admiral nodded his head. “I agree. We’ll have to trust for the moment that the situation will correct itself. Alright, before we take a closer look at Galah, let’s fill everyone in on a couple key developments. Magnus, tell us what’s happening on Tiān Lóng.”

The high councilor shifted in his seat and glanced up at Admiral Yao. “The adepts stationed on Chi’s third moon have had their hands full for the past week, to say the least. Shi Mia, the head of the project, reported that her specialized teams handled the incoming ships sent over from Galah like clockwork. The transporters aboard Tengfei in orbit over Tiān Lóng hit the occupants with hard mental slams to knock them out as soon as the ships appeared before sending them down into the underground caverns of the base. The few females found on board the warships were separated out and sent on to the smaller facility we’ve got set up on Shinju, Ki’s second moon.”

“So how many did we snare?”

“Over a thousand Drahks from the two warships alone plus dozens more from the single pilot crafts and transports.” A swell of murmurs buzzed through the sea of officers. “They also offloaded hundreds of saur beasts and their reptilian keepers as well as penned herds of bovine animals and two groups of captive humans from several races which were flown over to a recovery center in Chi’s capital of Jinhua.”

The admiral winced and shook his head. “Any of our reptilian guests talking to us yet?”

“No, and since that’s one of the reasons we designed this whole system, it’s more than a small concern. As some of you are aware, I pulled Dieter van der Meer, one of Andara’s past high councilors, away from his business and enlisted his help in establishing communication with our captives. Since none of us speak Drahkian, he and his team have made numerous attempts to get through to them in Mothertongue. Nothing. The weird thing is, after the Drahks woke up in the middle of the compound we built to house them, they ran off into the jungles, every last one of them.”

“What?”

“Yep, the compound is a ghost town. We expected the animals to wander off in search of game since they weren’t penned, but the Drahks disappearing was a complete surprise. The only evidence they were ever there was a scattered collection of discarded heatsuits left out in the trees beyond the barracks.”

“Damn. That’s going to make Dieter’s job a lot harder.”

“Granted. Mia’s underground teams are keeping careful track of the Drahks on the surface and studying everything they can—movement, habits, behaviors, physical traits. It’s the first time any of us have been this close to them. She and Dieter will keep us posted with updates on their progress.”

“What about the ships we captured?”

“They’ve all been sent over to Master Engineer Li Xiangting’s underground facilities on Chi. I’m sure he’s got his teams working round the clock to disassemble and analyze the Drahkian technology. If anybody can figure out their secrets, it’s Xiangting.”

“Let’s hope so. We’re all in agreement with Duncan. We need to get ahead of their destructive technology in order to defend against it. On the home front, Adi, can you give us the status on the new Alcyoni ships you and Tenzin are overseeing?”

“I’d be happy to.” The short crystal master from the spiritual colonies of Ubad, Alcyone’s small third planet, stood up and clasped his hands together in front of him. “With so many grave issues challenging our worlds, I have the rare privilege of sharing something quite magical and joyous with all of you. I consider myself the most fortunate of men to be able to work with the luminous entities who come to inhabit the great ships we create as well as this amazing master here at my side.” He turned a fond smile to the elderly tigerwoman who beamed up at him. “We are well pleased with the progress of the building teams at each of the incubation centers throughout Alcyone. New ships should be ready to be birthed inside two months on Chi and Ki, with another to follow within three on Niemi.”

“That’s welcome news, Adi.”

“Yes, indeed. And the best news I have to share is that, thanks to the superlative efforts of the engineers out at the base in the Shardans and the special team I brought with me from Ubad, the new ships here on Tarsus will be finished ahead of schedule. We will birth the starship and all of her interceptor vessels in two weeks’ time on the solstice.”

“Yesssss!” An exuberant shout from Olof Helsin rang through the room.

“And we have a name,” the crystal master called up to the grinning team who would fly the new ship. “We’ve been speaking with the entity who will become the next Khalama and she told us what she has chosen.” He glanced down at the petite Makhás master beside him and spoke softly. “You tell them.”

The elder dropped her eyes and demurely shook her white head.

Adi lowered one hand toward the seated elder before turning a broad smile up to the packed rows of officers. “The ship wants to be called Tenzin in honor of this wonderful lady.”

The room erupted with cheers and applause. Djan grinned at Tyla and added his own deep hoots to the calls of support and approval.

Miros stepped toward the modest Makhás and gave her a deep bow of respect, raising his head with a quiet smile. He spoke a few soft words with her while the heartening acclaim settled and slowly dropped away. Adi took his seat again while the admiral turned and walked back to the podium.

The tall man stood for a few moments before looking up again. “It’s nice to have something to feel good about in the midst of difficulty. I’d like to express how proud I am of each and every one of you for the part you play in defending our worlds and for being strong enough to do something bold and different in order to meet the violence threatening to swallow us all. And now I have to draw on your strength again so we can look at the brutal and ugly reality of the Drahkian Empire. We have to face it head on if we’re going to find the solutions we need.”

Miros glanced down and pressed a button on the control panel in front of him. The striking image of a white, crested, bird-like head with royal blue eye bands and dark irises appeared in the large split screen alongside the Alcyoni admirals. Miros turned his face upward to greet the leader of the Maian fleet. “Yuri, thank you for joining us. I know it’s the middle of the night in Ibissam.”

The Tori trilled a greeting which echoed through the chamber. “It’s not a problem, Miros. I haven’t been getting much sleep lately anyway.” The Maian admiral glanced over at his old friend seated in the front row. “Hey, Mag.”

The councilor tipped his head and smiled broadly. “Hey.”

“Any changes in Maia we should know about, Yuri?”

“Nothing much to speak of. Our patrols reported that a couple cargo vessels were released by the Drahks through Galah’s portal for some unfathomable reason and our people allowed them to pass on through the transport ring. Other than that, we’ve seen no warship activity since we were locked out of the portal.”

“How are things at home?”

“Tense, a bit chaotic. Our high councils and fleet officers have been in non-stop meetings it seems. Everyone’s upset.”

“Understandably. We’re all here to do some brainstorming as well. I’ll report our concerns and projections when I come to Turaco in two days.”

“Good. Any and all ideas are welcome.”

“Yuri, you told me a couple days ago that you created a holo of your last communication with the Portal Center on Galah. Can you share it with our folks?”

“Yes, but I’ll warn you right off, it’s more than a bit disturbing.”

“I know, but I think we ought to see what happened before we got there.”

“Ok, I’m setting it up here. The transmission should be coming through your system any moment.”

The translucent image of a slender, silver-haired woman appeared in the middle of the open space high above the conference room floor. Her pale features were taut with strain.

“That’s Shelindra Dosen, Galah’s Senior Portal Master. The first views you’ll see are what I saw when she put the call through to me. Later the view shifts to what she saw after I linked my perspective with hers.”

The urgent voices of the portal master and the Tori admiral began to echo in the chamber.

Yuri! Yuri, can you hear me? This is an emergency! We’ve been attacked!

Shelindra? Yes, I’m here!

The Drahks broke through the portal locks about fifteen minutes ago. They just appeared outside the portal and then rammed into it with some kind of energy blast. The grid is a mess. I tried to repair it and force them out, but I haven’t been able … I just can’t … manage to— The shaken woman paused, her face twisting with pain.

Are you alright?

The portal master rubbed her forehead and forced herself to go on. It was very … disruptive.

Where’s Tavi?

Unconscious. He’s bleeding, maybe dead. I called him at home when I saw the gray warships. He transported in to help me hold the portal, but the breakthrough hit him hard. All of my tuners were knocked unconscious. The woman gestured toward the floor around her. I’m the only one still standing. She froze and swung her head to the side as if listening for something. The Peregrine just took off. I told Merl to get out of here and join you at Turaco, but I hear weapon fire. The Drahks must be just above the dome! Oh god! Please, Yuri, come as quickly as you can!

I’m mobilizing the fleet right now, Shelindra. We’ll be there in minutes. How many ships broke through?

The woman closed her eyes. I’m scanning. I see eight warships, big. They’re spreading out over the entire city.

Eight? What—hold on a second. The Peregrine just transported in above Turaco’s portal.

You have her? Thank the Prime. The portal master’s body sagged in relief. Yuri, call the Alcyoni. We’re going to need Tiān Lóng.

I just opened a link with Miros, Shelindra. They’re on their way. Hold on, we’ll get you out of there.

The woman’s thin face contorted as she continued to scan. By the Prime, no! Several transport vessels are headed straight down here to the landing pads. Two of them are moving fast. I … can’t … shift them.

Don’t try! Get out of the building! Keep the link open, if you can.

I’ve got to warn everyone. They don’t know what’s coming. The image of the distraught woman wobbled as she moved with difficulty toward the exit, stepping around people lying on the floor. She pushed her way through the doors of the central chamber and began to run down the hall of the small portal center.

Get out! Everyone out! The Drahks are about to land! If you can transport, grab someone and leave!

Thunderstruck men and women poured into the hallway from adjoining offices. Some disappeared, but most began to scramble in panic toward the outer exits. Within seconds, the scene was in chaos. Yells and shouts drowned out the exhausted portal master’s hoarse calls. She stumbled once, but managed to remain upright in the middle of the clot of terrified people pushing to get out of the building. The moment she made it through the open doorway, the sound of a wild roar rose above the commotion.

That was a saur, Shelindra!

It came from the landing pad.

The portal master pulled herself away from the frightened people fleeing down the sidewalks and leaned heavily against the side of the building, panting while she closed her eyes to send out another scan.

Yuri, can you see this? Follow my link. The images in the holo shifted as the admiral’s mind joined Shelindra’s mental focus and moved out beyond the buildings at the perimeter of the landing field.

Two blackish transports were on the ground in the middle of the expanse of concrete. The ends of the long, blocky vessels were wide open and the unmistakable figures of tall, crested Drahks in dark green garb armed with disruptor rifles sauntered down the steel mesh ramps. Gigantic reptilian beasts held on chains by their stocky, hulking keepers scurried past them in droves, eager and frantic to begin their hunt. At least a dozen shrieking animals had already been let loose and were running with alarming determination across the pad toward the portal center compound.

Shelindra sucked in a loud, horrified breath and let go of her visual scan. The holo images snapped back to the slender woman leaning against the wall next to the side door of the building. She glanced aside at the thinning stream of people running down the walkway toward the city streets.

It’s going to be a massacre.

Shelindra, shift out of there! Go home or hide somewhere in the city. I’ll find you! I’ve got to take over my ship now so I can bring the fleet. We’re coming.

Alright, Yuri, I’ll … I’ll go home. She pushed away from the wall and pressed her hands to her temples. I’m just so tired.

A shrill cry pierced the air. Disconcerted, Shelindra turned her head in the direction of the terrifying sound. A sleek black raptor tore around the corner and raced toward her with blinding speed. The portal master’s face knotted with strain and she appeared to be trying desperately to form a transport matrix to shift herself away, but her terror-stricken gaze was locked on the charging beast with wild, dilated eyes. The saur let out a delirious screech in hungry anticipation of a kill and whipped its slavering black head forward, lashing downward to snap her into its jaws. Shelindra’s wrenching scream split the air, jerking with pain in short bursts before it was abruptly cut short.

The bloody scene winked out as the holo ended and shut down.

Utter stillness hung in the conference room. Djan looked around at the expressions of his fellow officers, frozen in shock. They all knew what had been happening on the surface that day, but no one had seen it. He glanced down at Kirian and Arman Sijía, and saw that both portal masters were visibly quite shaken.

“Ok, people, don’t let it get stuck in your gut,” Miros began in a low voice. “Take a deep breath and send it down to Tarsus.”
After several moments, the admiral sniffed and turned around to look up at the wide screen. “Yuri, I don’t know how you held it together through the battle after experiencing that.”

“I’ve been fighting the Drahks most of my life, Miros, and I can tell you, it never gets any easier.”

“I appreciate you sharing the holo with us. Go get some sleep.”

“No arguments there. I’ll sign off then. Walk with the Prime, Alcyoni Fleet.” The Tori whistled a brief salute and was gone.

Kalden Ngari was the first to break the heavy silence. “I remember the day we lost our own portal on Lyonnae. We were attacked by the ruling Shitza military who had the Empire behind them and the benefit of Drahkian technology. Our portal masters experienced the same kind of disruptive force that Shelindra described. It mangled the energetic threads of our portal and trapped us on the planet for over thirty years. The only clue we ever got about the Drahks’ peculiar devices was discovered by Arman.”

Miros took a few steps away from the podium and shifted his gaze from Kalden over to the brawny Makhás master. “Arman, for the benefit of our younger officers, can you please recount your experiences in the Lyonnae capital? You got close to a portal lock, didn’t you?”

Arman nodded his tawny head. “Yes, and so did Senga Shengeti. Since we both have lion coloring, we were able to walk among the Shitza unnoticed. Senga made the first attempt to find the device that locked down the primary portal over Edu. He said he could feel the thing before he ever got into the Portal Center where it was housed. It was like, let’s see, how did he put it?”

“‘A dark ball of potent, jagged energy,’” Kalden filled in.

“That’s right, thanks. He couldn’t get a sigil probe close to it and nearly got himself killed because he said it ‘fuzzed’ his mind. When I went to Edu, I got the same results every time I tried to remote view the device, so I—”

“Got a job in the Portal Center,” Kirian snarled, “as a janitor.”

“Yeah, drove him crazy,” the big portal master added with a grin. “No one was allowed in the room where they kept the device, even lowly janitors, but I learned from the people who worked there that they were all terrified of the officers and techs who operated the portal lock. Everyone called it ‘The Beast’ because it needed blood to operate. People were murdered on a regular basis to keep the device working.”

A loud, disturbed murmur reverberated through the room. The admiral held up a hand and waited until the noise settled down. “Kahl, have you come across anything like this in your research?”

“Bits and snatches. I’ve heard rumors that killing or sacrifice have something to do with their machines, but it was all fearful supposition, nothing definitive. It must be one of the most carefully guarded secrets in the Empire.”

Miros nodded gravely as he walked back and forth at the front of the room. “This is one of our top priorities, people. Xiangting and his teams are already watching for any sign of this bizarre blood factor in the Drahkian ships and equipment we’ve captured, but I have a feeling they won’t find anything until we nail the flagship that carries the portal breaker. Kahl, do you have any info about the larger destroyers?”

“Nothing beyond reports of the damage they’ve caused.”

“Alright, let’s move on. Kahl, can you give us a brief picture of what we do know about the Empire? Maybe we can get a sharper focus on Galah.”

“Of course.”

“Ok, I want everyone to jump in if you have questions, observations, any thoughts at all about what we’re up against.”

The historian stood and placed a crystal point on one of the holo pads in the table surface in front of him. The bright display of a broad sector of stars appeared above the floor in the center of the room.

“I’ve been studying the Drahkian Empire for several decades now. We have traces in our histories of horrible wars among reptilians eons ago, long before the Drahkian Empire emerged. In recent millennia, the power core has been centered in the Draco Expanse.” Kahl adjusted the holo to zoom in on a large grouping of stars. “The reigning house shifted over two thousand Tarsian years ago when Izar took over from an old regime. He rules the empire from Karkir in Rastaban and his vast house controls numerous systems in Draco and scattered throughout their known territory. His five primary overlords—Tirgal, Shahr, Nakkár, Bálok, and Eo—all originated in Draco but have moved their seats of power out into their conquered domains which include the Lupus, Hydra, Herculean, Perseun, and Orion territories. Many smaller houses have seized pieces of clusters or single planetary systems and, apparently, quite often, they fight with each other, vying for position and influence. I don’t have enough detailed information to map their territory accurately, but I have a feeling it’s spreading to engulf a sizeable portion of the galaxy.”

A disturbed murmur moved through the officers in the room as Kahl zoomed the holo back out and highlighted planetary systems which had fallen under Drahkian control.

“I’ve collected reports from hundreds of merchants, scientists, refugees, Maian officers who fought them in other systems, and our own records of their conquests here in the Pleiades. I’ve pinpointed several distinct patterns of Drahkian takeover methods—incremental encroachment, capitulation through harassment, blackmail, bribery, betrayal, and of course, full-scale invasion. The method used in each case depends on which reptilian house is making the move and what its financial status and connections are within the Empire.”

“So who controls the Pleiadian Cluster?” Marcel inquired.

Kahl glanced up at the Niemian admiral. “No single house. If that were true, I believe we would have gone under from all-out invasion a long time ago.” He shifted the holo to a close-up display of the Pleiades, a long, cone-like mass of stars slowly swirling around an invisible axis, following Alcyone in its path around the galactic core. “Bits and pieces have been parceled out by the emperor as rewards to various houses. Why they have chosen to ‘consume’ our cluster like this, I can only surmise.”

“Perversion.” Djan rumbled just loud enough to be heard, bringing a smile to Kahl’s face as he watched the holo of the cluster spin above him.

“The most likely reason would be to keep any one house from building a power base in this sector. Izar keeps an iron grip on the reins of power and allows only a select few to hold any sizable authority outside of his own. Because of this, the family of cooperative worlds we once had here in the Pleiades has been almost completely shattered. The Taygeta trinary was the first to go down a Tarsian millennium ago because of their worlds’ wealth of resources and we think the controlling house has shifted twice since the original invasion. Celaeno and the Sterope binary are ruled by two warring brothers from the house of Koros. Electra was taken by Ishmal, an isolated rogue who reportedly has nothing to do with any other house in the cluster. The worlds in Pleone went silent all at once and we know nothing about what happened or who rules there. Atlas was taken a few centuries ago by a nephew of Overlord Nakkár. The list of smaller Pleiadian systems and rulers goes on and on. Merope, our last loss, was given to Salaal by the Emperor as a prize.”

“And we all know what a bloody bastard he was.” Magnus’s low, bitter words were echoed by loud grumbling from good number of angry, grimacing people around the room.

Miros shook his head. “He was a real piece of work.”

“He seemed to like you in particular.”

The admiral twisted his mouth and glanced at his old friend. “Thanks for reminding me. Salaal was a supreme misogynist, never once acknowledged Amara Tungo, the admiral of the Meropean fleet. He’d only speak with me or Tanamar Rimstrider, the Maian admiral. I can only assume that Salaal was typical of Drahkian elite.”

Kahl nodded in confirmation. “In all my research, I’ve never heard a whisper about Drahkian women and the reports of violence against females of any race are extreme.” The holo shifted in the space above their heads as Kahl zoomed in to display a close-up of the second primary star in the Pleiadian spiral after Alcyone. “Admiral, since you led our forces in Merope, why don’t you give us a rundown of the four years of fighting before the system fell.”

Miros slid his hands into his pockets and started to pace. “Most of you weren’t even born when we lost the Meropean War. Some of you were just children. And some of us—” He broke off his words and let out a long sigh.

“—had the unpleasant misfortune to be a part of it,” Mitsu Kometani finished, her beautiful features taking on a somber set. “It was a long, stressful four years for everyone in the combined fleet. We lost some really good people.”

“Yeah, we did,” Miros added roughly and looked up, focusing on the shimmering image of Merope. “The human populations of the system are spread out over eight planets. Chaka was hit first, then Gado, both small mining colonies in the outer reaches. Salaal initially brought in only a handful of warships and burned through the portals in quick, surprise attacks, reconfiguring the grid patterns to keep all of us locked out. Kimbo, the innermost planet was taken next to serve, we believe, as an incubation center for saurs which they need in large numbers to subdue native populations.”

Lita hissed loudly in disgust. “That’s just barbaric!”

“I agree, but that’s what we’re dealing with.” Miros waited for the disturbed chatter to settle down before he went on. “Salaal gradually slipped freighters and warships into his three hidden bases. We took out a few vessels in small skirmishes, but it was more than two years before he emerged with a sizable warband to attack Masala. The combined Pleiadian forces held him off for quite a while, but he’d retreat and just hit us again. We almost nailed his flagship once, but that just set him off and we ended up losing the Appin.” He glanced aside at Magnus. “Nearly lost you, too, all because we couldn’t transport.”

Miros went back to his pacing. “It was frustrating as hell. One by one, Salaal broke through the portals of Masala, Ngama, and Bandu, expanding his wealth and fleet with each conquest. He must have gotten tired of losing ships or dealing with us, because he brought in the Empire’s trump card to finish off Sahara and Dashen, the two largest worlds of the system.” The admiral turned to his wife. “Did you bring the holo we took of the final battle over Sahara?”

“Yeah, I’ve got it. Hold on.” Lita reached into her jacket and pulled out a cloth satchel while Kahl closed down the holo of Merope. The tiny starship leader placed a clear piece of quartz on the pad in front of her and touched the controls. The bright image of a tan planet blinked into the space in the middle of the room. “Ok, let me enhance the view of what we saw after we got there.” The image shifted to Sahara’s horizon and zoomed in on a light gray orb, hovering a short distance from one of the planet’s small, natural satellites.

“One of the ‘Emperor’s Moons’ showed up over Sahara’s secondary portal four days after we lost Bandu,” Miros continued. “Everyone on the planet was in an uproar. Admiral Tungo attempted communication and when that failed, she sent out her heaviest artillery, which had no effect on the moon. Shortly after we all arrived through the transport ring, Salaal showed up with his fleet outside the portal, and right before our eyes—”

A black beam shot out of the moon and seared a path across a landmass on the surface, churning huge clouds of brown dust up into the atmosphere.

“That beam annihilated millions in a few heartbeats and left nothing but desert. Salaal demanded complete surrender of Sahara and Dashen’s portals, threatening to blow both planets if they did not comply. The Saharan High Council capitulated. We stayed long enough to help a number of ships full of refugees, mostly children, and a few merchants make it through Sahara’s primary transport ring before the moon destroyed it. We barely made it home.”

The room of officers broke into an uproar of voices while the holo of the chaos and destruction played itself out. Djan glanced aside at his wife and saw that her eyes were wet with unshed tears. Both of her parents had been children among the evacuees on those ships. Her grandfather, Ulu Malawi, had been one of the high councilors of Sahara who’d been forced to surrender their world to a Drahkian warlord. Djan grabbed Tyla’s hand. “Damn, we only had to face a baby dish-monster.” Tyla bit her lips and nodded.

“Alright, people, let’s take a closer look at our situation in Maia.” Miros’s strong voice cut through the noise. “Kahl, give us a quick picture of the Maian worlds before Lita brings up our holo of the raid on Galah.”

The historian tapped the pad in front of him. The shining blue star and its orbiting worlds appeared in the air above the floor. “The seven inhabited planets in Maia are all held in close proximity to the star. The inner four, Prion, Takahe, Turaco, and Quetzal are populated primarily by the Tori birdpeople while the outer three, Kōkako, Tui, and Galah are predominantly human. The bulk of usable resources are concentrated on the two largest worlds of Turaco and Quetzal.”

“So why would the Drahks bother with Galah in the first place?” Kip Buchanan asked. “It’s tiny, only two cities, and most of the people are artists or scientists, right? Very little trade outside of novelty tourism, and it’s too cold for most people to stand, even under the solar domes.”

“That’s right. You’d think it would be worthless to them,” his wife Mairi added. “Why not bring in stronger forces and attack one of the prime worlds where there is more money to be made?”

“A wedge into the system,” Kahl replied. “The strike on the small planet indicates that the invading house may be relatively limited in its power and resources.”

The admiral nodded. “I agree. The move on Galah is very similar to the first move into Merope. This warlord must be some kind of upstart or minor house, just like Salaal. Otherwise—”

“The four Tori worlds would be rubble,” Djan called out.

Kahl turned his head and looked up at his son. “They would indeed. The Tori have interfered with Drahkian raids in other systems too many times over the past few centuries to slip by unnoticed. If the attacking house has retaliation in mind, it may become apparent in the next strike or whenever the warlord decides to make contact. The human populations on Kōkako and Tui will suffer any backlash along with them, just as Galah has.”

“The lucrative diamond deposits on Turaco might be just a little attractive, too,” Kang noted, “Or the aeronautics production of Quetzal.”

“Yes, that’s quite true,” Kahl answered. “If this Drahk is in need of funds, the wealth from both of those worlds would boost his campaign, but it will take a much larger force than they brought to Galah to manage takeovers of such heavily populated planets. My guess would be that one of the two warm inner planets of Prion or Takahe will be targeted for saur incubation.”

Miros rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Alright, let’s take a look at what we encountered at Galah. Lita, can run the holo of the raid? Most folks haven’t seen it yet. Leave the sound on this time.”

The images of the tiny gray world and the fleet of sparkling Birdwing and Khalama starships appeared in the center of the room. The ensuing battle and encounters with the hovering discs and fighters sped forward while discussion buzzed around the room.

Djan sat forward and leaned his arms on the desktop so he could scrutinize every detail of the scene. It was easy to spot Mirida among the Alcyoni starships. Pride and admiration swelled in his chest as he followed her graceful, faceted, grayish-white form through the familiar events, but he found it more difficult than he’d anticipated to watch the five fighters from their teams explode a second time. Knowing what was just about to happen made his stomach twist with apprehension.

The voices of Miros and Yuri discussing strategy sounded over the display of the rising gray warships and their flight to the northern flats. With the sudden appearance of the concave destroyer, the scene devolved rapidly into chaos. Djan winced at the horrible sight of the deadly beam tearing Telemar apart and the sounds of explosions overlaid by the screaming of both admirals. He glanced down at Miros’s grim face while the rest of the room watched the fleet’s flight out of the portal and the tense moments before the city and destroyer disappeared.

“Did you see?” Lita shot at her husband, cutting short the swell of reaction. “It fired within two seconds after it got there.”

Miros dropped his eyes to the floor and swallowed.

“He’s been beating himself up for not picking up the presence of that damned thing sooner.”

Amid a flurry of comments and frowns, Magnus’s deep voice cut through the noise. “That destroyer came in ready to fire. Let yourself off the hook, Miros,” he added gently. “We couldn’t have a sharper leader.”

“I second that,” Anil Ngari called out.

A round of supportive applause and whistles rose from the tiers of officers and through the channels with the linked conference rooms.

“Sanos and Irena would agree!” Mitsu shouted above the din.

Miros looked up at the sea of nodding heads and took a deep breath. “Thanks.” He exchanged a quiet look with his wife and smiled.

When the clapping abated, he spoke again. “Thank you, all of you. I appreciate your support.” He turned and paced across the front of the room. “Ok, let’s finish this up so we can all get back to work. From what you just saw, what are the obvious questions about our first battle with this set of Drahks?”

“Why didn’t they close the portal?” Tyla called out.

“Yeah, I think we surprised the hell out of them.” Kip’s booming voice echoed around the room. “Apparently they didn’t expect the Maian fleet to arrive so quickly. The arrogant fools were just calmly landing transports as if they had all the time in the world. The fighters weren’t even launched until they spotted us.”

“Yuri said he’d never seen them leave a portal open like that before,” Anil threw out. “Looks to me like it was either a pretty major screw up on someone’s part or else some kind of systems failure. Maybe the machine they use to reset the portal grid wasn’t working.”

Ando Kometani’s angry face appeared on the overhead screen. “And then they turned tail and ran! We were minutes away from nailing all those bastards.”

“I think they were desperate to kick us all out and get the portal closed,” Anil went on. “Running off to the flats gave them time to call in the big guns.”

“So why didn’t they just bring in the destroyer to begin with?” Nandi asked beside him. “We wouldn’t have stood a chance against it and they wouldn’t have lost all those fighters and two warships.”

“It was probably just a back-up plan, used as a last resort.”

“Bingo, Anil.” Miros pulled his hands from his pockets and crossed his arms. “The fact that it took so long for the destroyer to arrive and then left after firing only two shots tells me the warlord on Galah must not have been in any position to command more. It’s probably expensive to bring in a ship that size. That’s to our advantage, people.”

“So who are we dealing with?” Djan called out. “Did anybody recognize the insignias on the warships?”

Miros shook his head and glanced over at the group of Makhás masters speaking together in low voices. Kahl cleared his throat and spoke up. “I couldn’t make anything out from the images in the holo. Is it possible to get a closer look at the insignia on the warship that was below Corum?”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Lita replied, flipping the holo pad on to bring the display back to life. With a few adjustments, she located the image of the dark charcoal gray hulk hovering below the flagship against the soft glow of Guan’s dome.

“Can you zoom in on the shield?” Kahl asked softly. “There, on the far side, just above the rim.”

“Yes, but the light isn’t good. I don’t know if we’ll be able to make anything out.”

The starship leader pulled the image in and refocused several times, zeroing in on a whitish plate with a black, script-like emblem that was partially obscured by grime.

“Stop!”

Kahl shot to his feet with his eyes glued on the Drahkian symbol. “No—”

Alarmed, Miros stepped toward the historian whose face had drained of color. “Kahl, do you recognize it?”

Kahl lowered his eyes to the admiral and nodded slowly. “I was wrong,” he croaked, barely above a whisper. “I was sure it was a small, fledgling house, but that’s the mark of Overlord Bálok, the second most powerful man in the Empire.”

The conference room erupted with a flood of voices. Djan looked at his wife as the ramifications of his father’s hushed declaration hit him like a sledgehammer. If Bálok was in Maia, then the probability of holding out against the overlord’s armies and wealth was exceedingly low, and if Maia went down, with who knew how many of them with it, how long would it be before the nightmare came to swallow Alcyone?

“How are we ever going to stop them?” Tyla murmured bleakly.

Djan slumped in his chair and let his head fall heavily onto the back. “We’re not.”

 

* * *

 

Rai flew high over the capital city. Rhys reveled in her exhilaration and let it spread through his body, soaking it up like a man starved. It was his first real break from the long hours of drills and portal duty aboard Mirida over the past week. The top officers of the fleet had all been called to a big meeting at headquarters this morning, but thanks to Tyla’s rigorous training schedule for the freshly assigned crew members, he’d spent the past three hours working with the new pilots and interceptor for his team. He was beyond exhausted and didn’t know what kind of shape he’d be in if he hadn’t visited E’liak in the wee hours of the night. At the moment, the healing he’d received from the pod and Rai’s exuberance were all that kept him going.

The young pilots were bright and performed remarkably well with Jin, one of the interceptors pulled early out of incubation. Thankfully, all three showed healthy signs of bonding with the rest of Team Six. Jin’s quirky intelligence was whimsical and engaging. Marko was quiet, but a damned good flier, while his partner Cass was a whip with energetic matrices and had a raw sense of humor. Katherine would have liked her, he thought with a familiar pang of heartache.
Pushing aside his feelings, he relaxed into the cushions of his chair and let his thoughts drift. For the time being, his duties were finished and Rai was all his.

With the barest of mental nudges, he guided the small ship in a graceful arc away from Krii and headed north along the forested front of the Shardan Mountains to the east. The Lyena River glistened below in the bright midday glare as it snaked its way down through the foothills to the capital city and on across Andara to the Fiordian Sea. Broad swaths of agrarian cultivation followed the undulations of the lowlands, dotted by an occasional white stone homestead or a herd of domesticated deer. He sighed at the thought of his own puny efforts at farming, wondering idly what it would be like to have nothing but fields and animals to care for day in and day out.

At least out at Tintágel he had more than enough space to build all the gardens he wanted. Since he’d grown up in the city, he’d jumped at the chance of grabbing the position of Sector Sentinel of the western province when it opened seven years ago and had talked Quinn into applying for it together. They shared the position jointly and split their time between the coastal estate and their private fleet apartments in Krii. Even through it doubled their responsibilities within the fleet, Rhys savored every moment he spent out in his Tintágel gardens or walking the hills, and he knew that Quinn’s attachment to the hauntingly beautiful estate ran just as deeply as his own.

Tomorrow they were slated to spend the entire day at the compound. There were a dozen things to take care of—meetings with Alina, the head of the sentinel crew in their absence, safety grid checks, and passing the news of Galah’s loss to the inhabitants of the four other shades under his jurisdiction. Perhaps by the end of the day he’d be able to spend some time with his orchids and retrieve the damned shovel he’d left out in the field when the call had come through. It wasn’t nearly enough time to relax and unwind, but with the ramped up schedule from being on alert, he would have to make due with what little time he could get.

With a small adjustment to Rai’s field, he swung the small ship around in a gentle curve and headed back along base of the mountains. In a few moments, they were gliding over Tirim Nah, the chain of ancient stone circles just east of the city which spread in an arc across the grasslands just below the foothills of the Shardans. The celebrations held throughout the year among the thousands of megaliths had been the backbone of Andaran culture as far back as anyone could remember. Rhys let his gaze roam over the phenomenal constructs, picking out the individual circles he was most familiar with by the color of stone and distinctive layouts. The sight of the stones from the air always took his breath away.

He banked the ship away from the grassy plain of Tirim Nah and skimmed above the eastern quadrant of Krii, dominated by the spectacular Great Hall with adjoining offices of the Tarsian High Council, and the tall, golden pyramid of the Center for Geometrics which rose grandly above the buildings of the Fleet Academy. Fanning out north of the hall was an extensive collection of conference areas and living quarters for visiting dignitaries which bordered the large fleet district around the academy where Rhys and Quinn’s private apartments were located. To the south lay the bustling Portal Center complex and the multi-tiered structure of Fleet Headquarters, both built around the upper perimeters of the vast landing fields. Rhys kept the interceptor clear of the busy airspace, but from his high vantage point, he could see a multitude of freight and transport vessels on the ground in the trade sector and the angular forms of small craft and three of the older starships docked in the fleet zone.

Turning Rai northward to coast over the residential districts, he scanned the ocean of trees until he found the rooftops of both Magnus and Kirian’s white stone homes. Further west, he picked out the forested ridge where his parents lived, just above the distinctive peaks of university buildings in the northwest part of the city. As he flew over his childhood haunts, he caught a clear glimpse of the ornamental garden he and his mother had built at the back of the property before he started his studies at the academy. He swung the ship around to take a pass over the large artisan quarter on the southern bank of the Lyena, where his sister Kahli ran a lapidary studio, before following the river back toward the downtown core of high-rise office buildings that sparkled like a cluster of fine quartz needles in the midday sun.

With one last glance at the city below, he projected the matrix he needed to transport Rai into her dock on Mirida and popped the two of them through to the underground base. Once the ship was settled, he shifted the internal lighting to a dim glow and dropped his head onto one of his hands so he could rest and absorb the silence.

That was fun, Rhys.

Yeah, it was. Thanks, Rai.

Rhys?

Mmmm?

I like Jin.

Rhys grinned at the interceptor’s light tone. Me, too, Rai. I like all of them.

They’ll be good for the team. Rhys, are you going to fall asleep in that chair?

The pilot drew in a deep breath to collect himself and rubbed his hands over his face. No, there’s something I need to go do. Listen, Quinn will be in this afternoon for more training, so you can go hang out with Jin for several more hours. Don’t be too easy on them, you hear? He smiled at the sound of Rai’s soft laughter. Quinn and I will be out at Tintágel all day tomorrow, but we’ll be back here early for drills the day after. Is there anything you need before I leave?

No, I’m well tuned, thanks to you. Get some sleep, Rhys.

I’ll try.

With a nod, he shifted himself to the bedroom of his apartment. He stayed long enough to change out of his uniform into a t-shirt and jeans and then took off at a brisk pace through the maze of walkways running through the sector of private apartment buildings. When he found the door he was looking for, he stood in front of it, staring at the ground without knocking. He should have had the nerve to face this days ago, but if he could pull himself together long enough to get through it, he just might free himself from the horrible dreams plaguing his sleep. Shaking his head, he closed his eyes and briefly considered leaving again, but the door silently opened and a pretty woman with soft brown eyes smiled up at him.

“I was wondering when you would come.” The deathwalker quietly stepped back from the doorway and motioned for him to enter.

“Shauna, I, uh—” He dropped his eyes as his throat locked up and his words failed him.

“I know. Come in.” She took his hand and led him into the living room where she gently guided him into a large, comfortable chair. She sat down across from him and patiently waited for him to speak.

Rhys rubbed his hands over his thighs. “I haven’t been sleeping.”

Shauna nodded, but remained silent, giving him the time to put together his thoughts.

“The nightmares have been terrible.”

“Are you dreaming of Katherine and Meredith?”

“Uh-huh, and some shithead Drahk who keeps taunting me and—” He flinched automatically at the remembered agony of the nightly attacks. He looked up at Shauna with confusion and concern. “Is this normal? I mean, it really hurts to lose someone, but nightmares?”

The deathwalker blinked and drew in a quiet breath. “It happens sometimes, especially if there are lingering feelings of guilt.”

The pilot shut his eyes quickly as a jolt of pain hit the middle of his chest.

“Is that it, Rhys? Do you feel guilty about what happened?”

He cracked his eyes open and fought past the knot in his throat. “Yeah. It was my fault. My fault they’re dead.”

“Do you think they blame you?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Perhaps it would help you to ask them.”

Rhys stared at the deathwalker while he fought to hold onto his composure. The prospect of facing the two women was more difficult than he thought it would be. The image of bright beams and Lessa’s explosion flashed across his mind and he lost his struggle for control. His face crumpled with grief as a cry broke from his throat.

Shauna jumped out of her chair and hurried over to him, gripping his shoulders as he dropped his head into his hands and wept.

“That’s it. Let it out, Rhys. You had to stuff it all down when it happened, but it needs to come out.”

She reached up and stroked his head while he cried, calming his tattered emotions with her touch. As the pain began to subside, he dropped his hands to his lap and straightened, sniffing to clear his head while Shauna smoothed the hair back out of his face.

“Let’s see if we can find them now, ok?” She continued to stroke his face, wiping the tears away, easing the tension with the sound of her voice. He looked up at her and nodded.

“They’ve been expecting you,” she added, smiling down at him. “They must know you pretty well, Rhys. They told me you’d probably find a way to blame yourself for what happened.”

Rhys laughed brokenly and tried to smile. “Pretty smart ladies.”

“Now close your eyes. I’m here for you. We’ll find Katherine and Meredith and you can tell them everything you need to. Just relax now and breathe.” Shauna stepped quietly behind him and placed her hands on his shoulders. “Alright. I want you to reach for your two friends, Rhys. It’s easy. Just call to them with your heart. They’ll hear you.”

Rhys pulled in a steadying breath and followed the deathwalker’s gentle instructions. Meredith! Katherine! It’s Rhys. Come talk to me, please!

“That’s right. Now picture their faces in your mind. Do you see them?” She paused and waited until he nodded. “Let yourself feel their presence. You work with energy all the time. This is no different. They’re here, Rhys, standing right in front of you. Do you sense them?”

Rhys nodded again as he allowed his mental picture of the two pilots to merge with the vibrating forms he picked up in front of his chair. A soft tingling skittered over his skin when he made the connection.

Hey, big guy!

Rhys jumped when Meredith’s voice rang distinctly in his mind, just like any other telepathic link. Next to the slight, red-haired woman, an elfin blonde nudged her partner with her elbow. He looks kind of haggard, don’t you think, Mer? He’s usually all cocky and swaggering charm.

Rhys laughed, releasing a burst of tension.

You been sleeping ok, Rhys? Katherine raised her head to look up into his face.

No! This week’s been sheer hell.

The tiny pilot stretched her body like a cat. Poor man. We don’t have to get up for anything now. No damned drills at all hours!

Rhys, what’s up with you? Meredith asked with concern. I can feel something inside you coiled tight like a spring.

It was my fault! I’m sorry! It was all my fault!

What are you talking about? Katherine frowned and placed her hands on her hips. It was a simple blast from that fucking black fighter.

I didn’t want you anywhere near him. If it hadn’t been for me, you’d still be alive!

What was going on out there, Rhys? Why did you shift Rai to the back end of the transport?

Quinn did that. I lost the grip on my block. I was … having trouble.

Did the beams hurt you? We thought you guys had been hit, so we all came running.

I don’t know what it was. Something gripped my head and I nearly blacked out.

And you blame yourself for that?!?

You shouldn’t have had to save my sorry ass.

Katherine stepped closer and put her hand out to touch his shoulder, bringing her face right up next to his. Rhys, we came running because we love you. And we’d do it again, any time, any day. You were trying to do the same for us.

Rhys swallowed hard as tears rushed to his eyes once more and streamed down his face. The two young women glanced at each other and then back at their friend. Meredith reached out and touched him on the cheek. Rhys, there’s no blame. We’re alright where we are. Let yourself heal now. You’ll need your strength for future battles to come.

It still hurts whenever I think about you. I miss you both.

Katherine cocked her head to the side. Well then, we’ll just have to buzz your butt every once in a while to let you know we’re around. Can you handle that, tall guy?

Yeah, I can handle that.

Good. Tell Quinn we’ll be by to buzz him, too. Now get up and let us hug you so we can go make trouble for somebody else.

You can do that?

What, make trouble?

Rhys laughed in spite of himself. No, hug me.

Sure. Just let it happen, Rhys. It’s us and it’s real.

He pushed himself up out of the chair and stood in front of it, breathing in with surprise when he felt their arms slide around his waist to pull him close.

You could hug us back, ya’ big oaf.

With a small smile, he tuned his senses to pick up the subtle feel of his friends’ forms and gently skimmed his hands down their backs. You’re just so thin these days, girls.

Meredith and Katherine stepped back and smiled up into his face. Thin? Just watch this!

The women began to writhe and sink into the floor, their bodies vaporizing into white smoke. A pair of high pitched voices cackled with laughter before the diaphanous smoke disappeared altogether. And then they were gone.

Rhys opened his eyes and stood staring at the space where the two pilots had just been. He lifted his hands to clear his face before he turned around and opened his arms to Shauna. With an easy smile, she walked into them and hugged him tightly.
“Thank you,” he whispered softly into her hair, holding her for several minutes before letting go.

“You’re more than welcome, Rhys. Talk to them anytime you want to. You don’t really need me since you know how it feels now, but I’m here if you ever want to talk.”

“Ok, thanks. That’s nice to know.”

“Can you get some rest now?” Shauna reached up and ran her fingers over his face to push the loose hair back out of his eyes. “You look like you could use some.”

“Yeah, that’s exactly what I need.” Rhys turned to leave, but paused for a moment with his hand on the door handle, looking back over his shoulder at the quiet woman. “You have a rare gift, Shauna.”

The deathwalker shrugged her shoulders as a shy smile touched her face. “Not so rare, but I’m glad I could help.”

“Are you alright?” he asked with concern. “You’ve had a lot to handle lately and it may get difficult again soon.”

Shauna nodded her head. “Yes. I get a lot of support from the elders in Second Shade who taught me. When things get rough, they help me stay balanced.”

He smiled. “Good. I have a feeling that’s something we’re all going to need to learn. Thank you again, kind lady.”

Rhys left the apartment and made his way back to his own quarters. As he followed the maze of walkways, he realized the twisting ache he had carried for seven days and nights was gone. They didn’t blame him. He was amazed and grateful, and it left no reason to hold onto the load of his self-imposed guilt any longer. With any luck, the nightmares would stop and he could pull himself back into shape over the next couple of days. The time out at Tintágel would be a big help.

He entered his dim chambers like a blind man, comforted by the blanket of darkness. He stumbled toward his bedroom and stopped just inside the door, remembering one last thing he needed to do before releasing himself to the void.

He glanced at a clock and saw that he still had at least six hours before he was expected out at his parents’ house for a family dinner. He closed his eyes and sent out a mental probe in search of his partner. After several long moments, the channel came through, but Quinn held the visual link tightly focused on his face.

Yeah. What’s up?

Despite his exhaustion, Rhys couldn’t help but grin. There was no mistaking the flush of sex in Quinn’s skin.

You’ve got that gorgeous woman in bed with you?

A slow smile spread across Quinn’s face and he bent his head down to look at someone beside him.

What do you want, man? I’ve got another half hour before I’m on duty and don’t want to waste it on the likes of you.

Rhys laughed wearily. Well, first of all, Katherine and Meredith send their love.

Quinn’s smile dissolved. You spoke with them. Good, Rhys. You’re better. I can tell.

Yeah, I’ll be alright. Now, do you feel like taking on the Talrésian brood for dinner tonight? Altea’s calling in the chicks and you’re invited to come along. Bring Lani. She’s welcome, too.

Now there’s an offer that’s hard to resist. Magnus going to be there?

Oh yeah, larger than life.

Hang on, let me check. Quinn rolled his head on the pillow and kissed the top of a wildly tousled, dark head. After speaking a few private words, his voice came back into the link.

I just don’t understand this woman. She thinks it would be fun.

Hah, so you’ll come?

Yeah. What time?

Seven.

Right. We’ll see you later. Get some sleep. You look awful.

That’s what everyone keeps telling me.

Rhys smiled as he closed the link and walked over to his bed. With a groan, he let his body fall into the middle of the rumpled sheets and buried his face in the pillows.

Within seconds, he was blissfully beyond the land of the dead.

 

* * *

 

She was late again. The four elder dreamwalkers were already in deep discussion when Karra entered the meeting chamber. Domen Kin Reesh glanced her way, a disapproving scowl etched on the older woman’s face. She kept her own expression aloof and cool in the presence of the elders and hurried to take her seat without interrupting the conversation.

Even though she did not serve as an elder of the cavern settlement like the others, Karra was very aware of how much was expected of her as a dreamwalker. The five of them carried the responsibility of keeping one of the three surviving clans from Ushua that resided in the deserts of Third Shade on Tarsus connected with the tattered remnants of Schedaran culture hidden across the far reaches of the galaxy. The last fifteen clans from the lost worlds of Schedar considered themselves the sole guardians of ancient secrets which the Drahkian Empire wanted eradicated.

Karra had never quite understood why secrecy was so important to the elders. Surely if what they knew was so threatening to the Drahks, it would be crucial to spread the information to anyone and everyone who wanted to stay free of reptilian control. But no one ever asked for her opinion. As the youngest dreamwalker of the Ushuan clan on Tarsus, she knew her lucid dreaming abilities were respected, but sagely wisdom apparently only belonged to those of elder status.

The edged voice of Luán Aul Benán pierced Karra’s stray thoughts. As Keeper of Custom for their cavern, Luán expected every word she uttered to be heeded by those around her. She wasn’t much older than Karra, but, as a widow, she carried herself with a matronly stiffness that was incongruous with her youthful beauty. Karra had often wondered if the haughty Keeper covered some inner hurt by clinging so rigidly to her rank.

As if reading her thoughts, Luán turned her glance pointedly in Karra’s direction, snuffing out the younger woman’s private conjecture and forcing her attention back to the issues at hand.

“I have one last item to report,” Luán enunciated, an air of drama underscoring her words. “I met a young dreamwalker from the Mannuan clan last night.”

“A Mannuan? Where have they been all this time?” Hano Emmon Dahl’s dark eyes glittered with surprise and excitement. Older than anyone knew, Hano was the most revered individual among all the caverns on Tarsus and also the most dedicated to keeping the Schedaran dreamwalker network alive. “We haven’t heard from any of the people from Mannua since the mass destruction in Schedar. The network counted them all dead centuries ago.”

“Apparently the clan that survived was almost wiped out by disease after they found a home in the Cassalta system. The young man I found last night was barely a novice, the first to have Dreamcore ability in generations.”

“How did you find him? I search for lost survivors every night and have never come across any trace of the Mannuans.”

The touch of a rare smile softened Luán’s feature. “A happy accident, Hano. I came across him exploring one of the old Schedaran temple constructs in the Dreamcore and recognized him as one of ours. He said he was looking for his roots and was thrilled to find out we exist. I’ll take you with me tonight when I meet him again and you can introduce him to the network. Acceptable?”

“Yes, yes! We’ll have to set up some training for him so we don’t lose the Mannuans again. Oh, this is good news indeed, Luán!” The short, blond man could barely contain his elation. Several groups fleeing the imminent destruction on their home planets around Schedar had disappeared without a trace. The Empire had been unmerciful in its annihilation of the Schedaran populations, wiping out countless cities across five populated worlds and exploding their two smallest worlds entirely.

“I’ll have to plant some indicators in other parts of the old Schedaran dream constructs to signal us of any other newcomers. Good work, Luán! Domen, did you touch base with the Darvi clan dreamer on Tadema?”

“Yes, Holla is well,” the prim woman reported. “She still can’t walk the Dreamcore on her own, but she can hold her lucidity whenever I find her. She now has a bright young apprentice, her grandson Tosh, who may be capable of becoming a full dreamwalker.”

“Wonderful. For a time, I thought we were going to lose them, too.” Hano sighed in relief. “There are so few of them left.”

“She also reported two births since we heard from them last. Survival is still difficult in the thin, cold air of Tadema, but the city populations at least continue to leave the small Schedaran colonies alone.”

“Schedarans couldn’t be too choosy about where they were taken in after the escape,” Hano murmured as he worried his chin with his fingers. “It’s amazing that the clan on Tadema did not die out completely. We were more fortunate.”

“More fortunate to be given a pile of sun-baked sand and rocks?” Domen spat bitterly.

“Yes, indeed we were,” the ancient man barked right back. “The Tarsian High Council offered us homes in their primary shade alongside their own people, with open arms, like they’ve done with other refugees. We turned them down and chose to build our colonies in these isolated caverns of one of their secondary shades, just to be alone.”

“And our sacred ceremonies have kept us alive out here,” Luán insisted.

“I know that.” Hano sighed wearily. “But, after all these years, the Tarsians still keep us informed and include us under their protection without so much as a thank you from us.”

“We know nothing about them,” Domen sniffed. “We don’t know what’s in their blood.”

“Our knowledge must be preserved at all cost!” Luán flared, spewing the orthodox rhetoric. “We can’t let ourselves be absorbed into another culture.”

Hano ran a hand over tired eyes. “This is an old argument, friends.”

The two women bristled indignantly, but refrained from further comment. Hano sighed and turned to the tall, thin man seated across from him. “Let’s go on with our Dreamcore contacts. Mieshel, did you attend the network gathering last night?”

Mieshel Ben Ruh’s angular face drew into a fretful frown. “Yes, Hano. It was a good turnout with at least eleven other clans represented, but it sounds like the Bataani clan on Caldera has a big problem. Their three primary dreamwalkers made it to the meeting and reported that a new round of persecution has begun. One of their villages was burned to the ground and two people perished in the flames.”

Luán shook her head and grimaced. “Oh no. No more deaths.” Over a century ago, one of the surviving clans from Samarra that had taken refuge on Thalebe had been completely wiped out by frenzied populations who had viciously turned on them.

“Persecution is a terrible risk when no one understands us.” Karra’s bold venture earned a faint smile from Hano, but he remained silent.

“There is never any excuse to harm another!” Mieshel exclaimed, clearly appalled at Karra’s assertion. “Schedarans are peaceful and keep to themselves to avoid any kind of violence.”

Luán nearly jumped out of her chair. “It would be disastrous if people saw what we do! They’d see blood and immediately jump to the wrong conclusions. No one lives with honor anymore!”

“Even those who gave us homes? The ones who accepted weird cults of ‘blood mongers’ into their midst?”

Hano’s grin widened as he sat back in his chair and laced his fingers behind his head, watching the melee.

“That’s exactly what happened on Thelebe, Karra, but you’re too young to remember,” Mieshel retorted. “Our people were left alone for the first couple of centuries, but the climate changed and the Samarran settlements were harassed. We knew the dreamwalkers who disappeared without a trace and it sounds like Caldera is ripe for another massacre.”

“That doesn’t mean it will happen everywhere.” Karra looked around the circle of outraged faces. “Isn’t it time for some new blood? We’re far too isolated and inbred for our own good. Tell me, just who are we saving our secrets for?”

From the disdainful glares and ensuing silence, Karra knew she wouldn’t be given an answer. Domen’s mouth turned down in a dismissive sneer. “Well, I don’t see any point in continuing this line of discussion. Mieshel, we trust you’ll keep careful tabs on the Bataani on Caldera?”

“I attend the network gathering every night. If they don’t show up, I’ll collect a group and go looking for them.”

“I wish we knew how to help them.” Luán turned fretful eyes to Hano. “Isn’t there any way to get them out?”

“A powerful ally would be very beneficial in this case, don’t you think?” Hano remarked dryly. “Unfortunately, none of the surviving clans have access to ships to transport the Bataani clan, unless we find a way to negotiate with the Tarsians for help in bringing them here. Mieshel, please check tonight with the Bataani dreamwalkers about the exact numbers we’re dealing with. Domen, send out runners to the elders of our six other caverns to collect reports on available space, water supplies, and whether or not our exploration teams have turned up any more livable cavern sites.”

The elders nodded in somber agreement, concern etched into each of their faces.

“It’s pathetically sad that we still have more to fear than just the Empire.” Hano shook his head and snorted at his own words. “Listen to me. Just the Empire. As if we haven’t had enough trauma from them to last countless lifetimes.”

The five dreamwalkers sat in silence, each buried in thought before Hano looked up again with a slight twinkle in his eyes. “Well, we haven’t heard yet from our youngest member. Karra, did you find anything of interest down the path I sent you?”

For months now, Hano had been training his young student in the techniques he used to search for surviving Schedarans. While he had been successful in picking up threads of Schedaran dreamers, she had yet to be so lucky.

“I discovered something, but not exactly what you might expect.” Hano raised a brow and Karra plunged ahead, careful to school her features to mask her emotions. “Someone seems to have found me.”

“Found you?” Mieshel asked with mild surprise. “Who?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“What kind of nonsense is that?” Domen barked. Hano threw up a hand to silence further comment and nodded for Karra to continue.

“Last night I stilled myself to tune into the void of the Dreamcore, as we’ve been doing,” she began, tipping her head toward her mentor, “and cast out a dream seed to hunt for dreamers with similar vibrations to ours. I was just about ready to cast another seed when a soft voice came back along the thread and spoke to me.”

“And?”

“It simply said, ‘Follow.’”

“And you did?”

Karra kept her expression neutral when she replied. “Of course, Luán. I know what feels right and I trust my own skills.” The Keeper blinked, momentarily taken aback.

The young dreamwalker turned again to Hano and went on with her story. “At first, everything remained black, but I continued to follow the whisper of a presence which I sensed out in front of me. Just when I thought I had lost the voice, faint shadows of a dream landscape formed around me. I was about to call out to the voice when I heard—” She broke off her words, clenching her muscles against the sudden rush of heat tearing through her body at the mere thought of the dark-haired stranger. To her horror, she felt a hot flush rise to her face. Hano’s eyes narrowed and she could have sworn she detected a mischievous glint before she recovered herself and hurriedly resumed her report.

“I found myself in a wide, open plain at night. A sky of deep cobalt blue stretched as far as I could see in all directions and a small, banded full moon spread a luminous glow over the everything around me.”

Warming to her subject, Karra’s smooth features took on a look of barely suppressed excitement. “I heard a murmur in the distance and when I turned to search for its source, I noticed the crisp line of a mountain range running along the horizon. I started across the fine white sand and walked through the serene landscape for quite some time. As I got closer to the mountains, I saw that there was something near the foothills at the base, shining in the moonlight—a huge city, spread out for miles.”

“I can’t believe you approached an unknown city!” Domen accused angrily. “You know the rules!”

“It wasn’t an inhabited city, at least not the way we understand.” Karra glanced around at the stunned elders and went on unperturbed. “It was beautiful—made entirely of enormous geometric forms. As I got closer, I realized that they towered far above my head. Cones, cubes, cylinders, spheres, different kinds of pyramids. Some forms were balanced inexplicably on top of others, making unusual configurations, very similar to the warding stones here on Tarsus, like the ones next to the courtyard portal down below the caverns on the plateau. But the forms in the dream city were all made of some translucent, whitish crystal. No, wait a minute, that can’t be right. I tried to touch one of the giant cones and my hand sort of … went through it.”

“So what good does this do any of us?” Mieshel threw out impatiently.

“I’m not sure yet, but the last words I heard before the voice disappeared were intriguing. ‘The League awaits.’”

Hano’s thin face broke into a wide grin. “Now that’s very interesting.” The ancient man looked at each of his colleagues’ blank faces and laughed. “You mean to tell me that none of you ever heard the legends of the T’nari League?” He rocked back on his chair and steepled his fingers in front of him, smiling like a young boy with a secret. “A long time ago, apparently a very long time ago, before we ever left Schedar, rumors went flying about a great alliance who was fighting the Drahkian Empire. Supposedly there were beings from all over our sector joined in a unified front against the spreading reptiles.”

“Rumors?”

Hano’s face took on a wistful look. “Yes. Sadly, none of us ever found such a group before the Drahks attacked Schedar and I’ve never given the matter much thought since.” Still perched precariously on his chair, he inclined his head and looked curiously at Karra for several moments.

“I don’t know why the voice spoke to me,” she mumbled, beginning to feel a bit uncomfortable under her mentor’s scrutiny.
“But it did. Tonight I’d like you to go back to the city to see what else turns up. Do you feel you can find it again without the voice leading you?”

“I think so. It’s just that—” She broke off her words, reluctant to share her visions of the blue-eyed man with the critical elders, but she knew it was imperative that she let them know about her disturbing discovery of the Drahk and the potential threat to all of them in the Dreamcore.

“I have a problem, a much more serious problem, I’m afraid.” Karra dropped her eyes to her lap. “Last night I also encountered a man who was being psychically attacked—by a Drahk.”

The four dreamwalkers stared at her in horror.

“And just how did you ‘encounter’ such a thing?” Mieshel asked tersely.

“The dream found me. I guess it was my lucky night,” she muttered and sighed heavily. “I believe the man needs help. I don’t think he’s aware that he’s being attacked by an outside source, let alone a Drahk.”

“Don’t get involved!” Luán shouted. “Whoever the man is, he’s not one of us.”

“I can’t just keep walking away!” she retorted, instantly regretting her revealing choice of words.

“Yes, you can!” Domen pounded the table with her fist. “That thing might attach itself to you and find the rest of us, or even hurt you. We don’t know what the creature is capable of. They haven’t moved out of their sector of the Dreamcore for eons. Oh my, there must be a way through the shield we built.”

“I’ll take a team to check it tonight,” Mieshel declared nervously, “after I alert the dreamwalkers at the network gathering to be watchful for any further signs of incursion. Karra, if you sense that beast again, stay away from it at all costs.”

The dreamwalker pursed her mouth and remained silent. She had known the elders would react this way, so there was no need to feel angry or resentful. She turned a shuttered glance toward Hano who had yet to make any kind of comment and once again caught him gazing at her with speculation instead of reproof.

“Reinforce your shields before you start your work,” he said crisply, setting his chair down with a loud thump before turning his attention to winding up the meeting. “Ok, everyone, we’ve had a busy afternoon. Is there anything else?”

Luán rapped her knuckles on the table to draw the group’s attention. “I have one last issue to discuss.”

Hano sighed and sat forward on the edge of his chair, quite obviously eager to leave. “Yes, Luán?”

“It’s far past time for Karra to marry and I’ve found a suitable match for her here in our own caverns. ”

Karra’s stomach flipped inside out and she was sure her pallor had turned a putrid shade of green. “Can we please discuss this privately, Luán?” she hissed with embarrassment.

“I’m only doing my duty, Karra. You’ve turned down every candidate I’ve suggested for the past five or six years. I shouldn’t need to remind you that as a dreamwalker for the clan, it’s imperative that you pass your abilities on to at least one of your offspring.”

Karra bit back several choice responses for the Keeper of Custom who had yet to remarry herself. Every time Luán had broached the subject in the past, she’d managed to find some excuse or evasion to avoid any unwanted entanglement. She had never been quite sure exactly what she was holding out for until the dreams of the dark-haired man began, tantalizing her with the hope of something that was far beyond her reach.

Reading Karra’s tight-lipped silence as acquiescence, Luán rolled on briskly with her authoritative dictums. “I’ve selected Ben Lael Jarvis for you, Karra. The only other matches remotely appropriate are either far older or quite a few years younger than you which I doubt you would accept. I haven’t reached out to the Keepers of other caverns to look for candidates because you’re a dreamwalker and it’s best for all of us to remain here. This is your last opportunity to make a healthy match before you, shall we say, lose your appeal for eligible suitors. I’ve slated the ceremony to take place at the next equinox celebration three months from now.”

“Why not the solstice, Luán, if you’re in such a hurry?” Hano snapped caustically. “That’s only two weeks away.”

“The couple needs time to get used to the idea and perhaps even court each other,” the Keeper replied indulgently. “Do you accept my proposition, Karra?”

With a raw pit in her middle, the dreamwalker nodded curtly.

“Alright, we’re finished here, people.” Hano bounded out of his chair and headed for the door.

Luán gathered her robes around her as she got up to leave with the other elders. “Ben was very excited when I discussed the match with him this morning. He’s also turned down every suggestion I’ve made in the past, Karra. I think he’s already enamored with you.”

You’ve got that one right. Karra gritted her teeth and refused to look up as Luán left the table. Handsome Ben had been pestering her since they were teens. Most women in the colony would have been flattered by his attention. He was nice looking, well-built, caring, respectful of the observances, and easily the most talented lapidary in the Ushuan caverns. And dull, she thought sourly, at least from her point of view—nothing at all like the man in the Dreamcore. Frustrated, she sprang up from the chair to shake the clinging thoughts out of her head. Her choices in the caverns were limited and her fantasies about the stranger were just that—ridiculous and completely ungrounded in the reality of her life. The sooner she came to terms with becoming Ben’s wife, the better off she would be.

Suddenly, the air in the chamber was too close. She headed toward the doorway after the others, deciding that a visit to the herb garden to sniff something pungent might be just what she needed at the moment. Luán and the other elders were already wandering out of sight when she reached the corridor, but Hano stood outside the meeting room waiting for her with a knowing look on his face.

“Come to my chambers after dinner. We need to talk.” Without another word, the elder dreamwalker turned and sauntered away.

With an inward groan, Karra fell into step with the traffic in the corridor, feeling like she’d been sucked into a sandstorm and spit out again. She veered down a side tunnel leading up to the gardens and looked up in time to discover Ben among the faces headed in her direction. By the blood, he was the last person she wanted to deal with at the moment.

Impulsively, she ducked behind the door covering of the first chamber on her right, hoping against hope that she hadn’t been spotted by the amorous lapidary. She lifted the heavy tapestry open a crack and carefully peered out at the passing throng, but failed to notice the chamber’s occupant scrutinizing her from across the room. When she turned and saw the silent woman, she blushed and straightened, hurriedly spitting out an apology in Mothertongue. “Please forgive me, Asha. I’m sorry to have disturbed you.”

The cool, colorless eyes of Asha Kniuwi took in the intruder before her without expressing a hint of her thoughts. Thick, heavy scars marred the entire left side of what had once been an exotically beautiful face. Not overly gregarious herself, Karra had never gone out of her way to speak with the tall, introverted healer. The foreign woman had arrived at the caverns four months ago, tightly veiled and shrouded in mystery, sent by a dreamwalker from another Schedaran colony along with the unheard of request that she be taken in. No one had openly questioned Hano’s decision to allow the woman to stay, but her presence among the Ushuans had met much resistance despite her useful talents as a healer. The quiet woman had done little to ingratiate herself with the rest of the clan as she rarely spoke, shared nothing of her past, and never smiled—a recluse among obsessive recluses.

“You are welcome here, Karra Jas Khurias, especially when you wish to avoid being seen. Evasion I understand quite well.”
The dreamwalker was caught off guard by the woman’s directness. “I, uh, saw Ben Lael Jarvis coming down the hall,” she stammered sheepishly.

“Is he not to become your mate?”

“You know that already?” Karra’s mouth fell open in surprise.

Asha motioned to the table and chairs against the side wall of the chamber. “Please, sit. I’ll make us some tea.”

Even more startled by the unusual invitation from the reticent healer, Karra could think of nothing else to do but sit down at the small table. Asha moved to the tiny fire pit and vent at the back of the chamber and lit the pile of wood with a motion of her hand. After hanging the kettle on a hook above the flames, she turned back to her guest.

“You’re a very talented lady.” Karra nodded her head toward at the crackling fire.

“So, I hear, are you,” Asha replied in husky, soft accents, taking the other chair at the table across from the dreamwalker. With carefully controlled movements, the healer pulled her long black braid over her left shoulder and curled it in her lap.

She met Karra’s curious gaze with one of her own. “Are you allowed to speak of your work?”

“I suppose. No one has ever asked.”

The healer blinked in surprise. “That’s very odd. Have you no one to share with?”

“Only the other dreamwalkers.”

“No family?”

“No.” Karra dropped her eyes, unable to completely mask her raw reaction to the healer’s innocent question.

“I’m sorry. I did not mean to pry.”

She let out a soft sigh. “It’s alright, Asha. The day has just been rather wearing. What about you? Do you have family anywhere?”

Asha touched a long, delicate finger to the middle of her forehead. “I have a sister, but I haven’t been able to open a connection with her for a week.” She raised her silver eyes to Karra’s. “I’m very worried. She’s all I have left.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

“That’s what I was wondering myself.” The healer got up and moved to check the tea kettle. She prepared two steaming mugs of aromatic black tea and brought them back to the table, placing one in front of Karra. “Do you have any way to obtain news of other worlds?”

“We have a network of Schedaran dreamwalkers among the scattered clans, but I doubt that will help. As I’m sure you’re aware, our people are rabid isolationists. Where is your sister?”

“She is visiting a woman on a small world here in the Pleiades. Do you or the elders have any contact with the people in First Shade?”

Karra blinked thoughtfully for several moments before replying. “We receive reports occasionally from the Tarsian Sector Sentinels at the courtyard portal down on the plateau below the caverns, but I haven’t heard of anything coming to us within the past week. Have you spoken with Hano about this?”

“Not yet.”

“I’ll ask him to let you know as soon as we receive any news.”

Asha nodded her silent thanks and stared down into her tea. For a few moments, Karra watched the other woman struggle with worry.

“You know, if you’re willing,” she began tentatively, “we could use the courtyard portal ourselves to travel to Krii in First Shade to ask for news directly. You came through the courtyard a few months back when you arrived, didn’t you?”

The healer’s head bobbed up. “You would go with me to do this?”

Karra answered without hesitation. “Of course, if that’s what you want to do. It’s for family.”

Relief spread over the woman’s marred features. “Thank you. I will think it over. I, uh, … don’t like to be seen,” she added softly, “but if it means finding word of Ani—” She broke off as tears welled in her eyes.

Not used to offering comfort to anyone, Karra awkwardly put her hand on Asha’s forearm. “Maybe we’ll hear something soon without having to go to Krii ourselves. Keep trying to contact her.” Asha nodded again as silent tears spilled down her face.

“I was just on my way to the gardens,” she offered in a lighter tone, desperate to find a way to help her new friend, “when I was overcome with an uncontrollable urge to hide from my future husband.” Asha spluttered a short, choked laugh. “So I popped in on you, you lucky woman. Do you think he’s gone by now? He’s incredibly tenacious.” She rolled her eyes to the ceiling, prompting yet another small laugh and a rare smile from the shy healer.

“I think it might be safe now.”

“In that case, would you care to join me for a walk in the herb gardens? I always find it soothing to be there. After the day I’ve had, I could use a lift.”

“Yes, that would be nice.” Asha sniffed and wiped her face clear with her hands. “I have some herbs I would like to check on for tinctures. Let me put out the fire first.”

Karra waited patiently for Asha to finish her task, watching the woman make concise, graceful movements at the back of the tiny chamber. She shook her head and sighed, marveling at how easy it had been to agree to break one of the strictest taboos of the elders in order to help someone in such obvious pain. Actually, it felt quite exhilarating to think about venturing into a place she’d never been. She did it all the time in the Dreamcore, so why not here on her home world? One visit to First Shade to help Asha’s peace of mind would hurt no one in the clan.

A slow frown crept over her face as her eyes lost their focus within the room and slid to the image of the black-haired man. Would it be as easy to reject the elders’ authority when she was faced again with helping him break free of his assailant? His need was far more desperate than Asha’s.

She already knew the answer. By stepping into the terrified man’s dreams, she would be taking on far more than a simple adventure. She would be walking into the fire.

PNG Reality Raiders Press Short Logo 2T'nari Renegades
Pleiadian Cycle

Chronology
To Steal a Moon  (Prequel Novella)
Descent of the Maw  (Prequel)
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Blood of the Prime: Predawn
(Book I, Part I)
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BLOOD OF THE PRIME: PREDAWN
T’nari Renegades–Pleiadian Cycle Book I, Part I

Prologue
Notes of Riál
Chapter 1 – Incursion
Chapter 2 – Dreams
Chapter 3 – Agitation

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PROLOGUE

“Code firing of the Talrésian line—Tarsus, Alcyone, Okadian timeshell, one hundred forty-four millennia after seeding. Check.”

“What? That’s your move?”

“That’s my move.”

“What good—?”

“Look at the ramifications, my dear.”

“Damn.”

The chiming, feminine voice laughed. “You see it now, don’t you?”

“Um-hmm.”

“Critical mass and a wildfire chain reaction that spreads into countless systems. Your paltry efforts to suppress such an expansion will only inflame it. Shall we continue, or do you accept utter and humiliating defeat?” The shimmering crystalline spider waited patiently, her thousand, independently moving eyes watching the sprawl of activity in front of her with wry amusement.

Across a vast expanse of space, the mass of pulsating light which the spider’s companion had chosen as his guise for their game flared in frustration. “I’m not giving up anything yet, Kalán!” Shirus scanned the blanket of tiny lights and orbs glittering in the playing field again and again for new possibilities.

The two guardians were intimately acquainted with the personalities of the stars and worlds represented in the game as well as the dramas being played out by the lifeforms inhabiting each one. They were, after all, among the master timekeepers who crafted the webworks that supported the experiments in physicality run by the clans of Genán, the underlying prime intelligence of the galaxy.

To entertain themselves, the pair had extracted a slice from one of Genán’s timeshells and projected the events of the worlds within it into their gaming space as the starting point of play. The two players proceeded to shift the lifeforms and spin out the probabilities in each system, keeping track of all moves on all worlds simultaneously while attempting to outmaneuver the other according to the nature of each “chess piece.”

For this match, Shirus directed the events of those who gravitated toward collapse and Kalán orchestrated those who moved toward expansion.

“Do you have to be such a bleeding genius every time we play?” Shirus doggedly sifted through his opponent’s moves on multiple worlds. For a moment, the ball of light brightened, appearing to be pleased with a new direction of thought. “Rastaban, Draco—Emperor Izar deploys his entire fleet of destroyers in the two-thousand-four-hundred-seventy-ninth year of his reign.”

“Excellent. That will do quite well.”

“What do you mean?” Shirus snapped irritably. “That’s going to wipe out your little upstart scheme.”

The glittering spider waved an appendage airily. “Ah, my dear. Remember, plans within plans within plans. Terra, Sol, two centuries prior to decimation—Ama is brought back from madness by her mate.”

“But that’s … so far back—”

“Indeed. Checkmate.”

With a sudden flash, the spinning points of light and orbs were instantly incinerated as a giant wave of fire rolled across the field.

Tinkling laughter emanated from the beautiful spider. The ball of light sat in sullen silence.

“Did that feel good, my dear?” Kalán inquired delicately.

Shirus growled. “Yes.”

“You just destroyed a good third of our territory with that move. Baal would applaud such an action from you.”

“Baal interferes where he should not!” The ball of light erupted with violent ribbons of red.

“Baal is brilliant and bored.”

“He’s a guardian! Our job is to keep the timewebs intact and healthy while the Prime journeys toward completion. It’s not our place to interact with the inhabitants of the webs! The clans create life and all its experience. We don’t!” A flare shot out from the ball, indicating the playing field. “This is a game. Genán never intended for us to participate directly in physical reality. You’ve been interfering just as much as Baal.”

“And what if collapse is what we all end up with as a result of his actions?” Kalán fired back. “Would the Prime want that? Just what would that look like, Shirus? You’ve stood by and watched as the great reptilian clans split apart and soured throughout the Okadian Timeshell. Look here.”

In a quick burst, the lights and orbs reconfigured in the space between the two entities. With a crisp command, the spider set the stellar and planetary bodies into motion once again.

“When the Goran Drahk splinter factions poured out of Lyra and infected the Draco Expanse, Baal was behind them.” Kalán waved an arm and a sinewy pattern of stars blinked within the playing field. “His interference spawned the first battles of the Reptilian Wars, culminating in widespread flight and the scattering of the elder creators within the clan.”

Shirus brooded in silence, fully aware of the tragic hejira of the Prime’s greatest designers.

With quiet resolve, the spider pressed on. “The elder dragons hid and started over, tucking away their secrets and infusing themselves into new worlds, but it wasn’t enough. Time and time again they were discovered, raided, plundered by the very offspring they had once been so proud of. Who do you think directed those raids, Shirus?”

Isolated groups of lights fluttered and spat while the field’s overall luminance throbbed with an unhealthy cast.

“And just when the voracious beasts were about to burn out, they turned themselves around and drew a new breath. The Drahkian Empire desecrates life in massive sweeps, intent on owning or devouring anything they deem beneath them. They conquer and terrorize to feed their addiction, leaving multitudes of beings mere shells of what they had been.” The spider watched her companion intently as cluster after cluster of the spinning stars and planets flared to indicate their downfall to Drahkian rule.

“We’ve seen millions of races rise and fall, Kalán. It is their right.”

“Agreed, but this breed of reptilians has lost all sensibilities which link them with other life. They have no concept of how their actions affect the whole, nor would they care if they knew. You know the horrible mess it makes when they destroy an entire planet. It completely disrupts the planetary collective, leaving it wounded, grieving, angry, in shock — and it blows huge holes in the timewebs. How many of those mangled grids have you reconstructed yourself?”

The ball of light spasmed with sharp bursts of color. “Too many.”

“And are you going to keep cleaning up after them?”

“Yessssss. All is allowed by the Prime in this zone, Kalán.”

“Then don’t we have free will to choose our actions?” The body of the spider blazed with golden light. “Where is your love for these beings, my dear?”

“My love for them does not allow me to manipulate and take away their choices, even appalling ones.”

“I’m not talking about taking away anyone’s choice, only showing those who ask the right questions new possibilities, just as Baal does with the Drahks. Watch as I spin the probabilities of the Drahkian Empire continuing its present course within the primary layer of the Okadian Timeshell.”

The lights swirled and wove before the two guardians. Multiple systems dimmed, while some points burst into flame and disappeared altogether from the intricate pattern. Abruptly, a vast portion of the lights spluttered and disintegrated, leaving a gaping void in the spinning wheel of stars.

Shirus shifted uncomfortably as the spider’s eyes pinned him in place.

“Yes, love. I see the potential for Genán’s consciousness to begin its collapse. If enough beings are brutalized by Drahkian violence, they will no longer hold onto the desire to live in physical reality. The pain would be too great. The wounded Prime could very well fall into an endless loop of unaware madness with no one left outside of the nightmare to wake it to sanity, let alone heal it.”

The ball of light was silent.

“If the living entities of Genán choose the path of premature demise, so be it. It is their will.” The crystalline spider twinkled for a moment as if smiling. “But if we are all ever going to get remotely close to completion, which is part of our job,” she added dryly, “then we damn well better do something about it.”

Shirus rumbled with irritation. “The Drahks are the spawn of the reptilian clan. Let them do something about their twisted offspring.”

“Oh, they are, my dear. The T’nari game masters are designing a grand scheme to do just that.”

“The T’nari? The rogue designers?”

“Mmmm, yeeeeesssss,” the female spider replied silkily. “Riál contacted me and asked if I would throw my talents in with his rather dazzling collection of renegade system busters. It appears my weaving skills are valuable to their plans.”

The ball of light flickered with annoyance. “And just what exactly have you and Riál mapped out, O Great Master Strategist?”

“I thought you’d never ask. Do pay close attention,” the spider answered primly.

With a single flourish of a delicate arm, the lights and orbs reappeared once more, the Drahkian territory clearly delineated by a wide array of fluttering star points. Single stars, both inside the territory and beyond, pulsed with luminous intensity and seemed to spin a little faster.

“Are you following this?”

The interwoven plans and shifting probabilities escalated through the events transpiring within each star system and world. “There and there,” the spider prompted as point after point in the field shimmered with vivid cobalt. Images of T’nari infiltrations and ignitions flew fast and furiously into the mind of the male guardian.

“The kernels for a brand new timeshell could be opened here, here, and, most critically, here,” Kalán prompted, indicating a planetary system in a spur of the galaxy.

“Now watch.”

Several of the blinking Drahkian systems wobbled. One by one, a series of planetary orbs sprinkled throughout the sector began to glow more brightly than the others, forming an odd configuration within the field. When the twelfth entity lit up, beams of light shot between the bodies to form a connected geometric form and the group began to thrum in unison. A blitz of light rolled out from the neon matrix, infusing itself across the entire system until all points within the playing field burned with a new intensity, even the systems which had previously gone out.

“The Angriel banks. By the Prime, they’re after the lost Angriel libraries!”

“That’s right, dear, all of them.”

“And … they work together.”

“Indeed. The reptilian designers were cunning as well as genius. There are powerful keys hidden in the libraries—that’s one thing Riál wants.”

“So he can do … this?” The guardian gestured toward the light geometry pulsing within the ocean of stars.

“Yes! The reclamation of the code banks means a chance to revitalize and reseed life in the Okadian timewebs. A new game, Shirus, think of it! The birth of a brand new timeshell for Genán and the rise into a higher frequency for all entities who can handle it, including those who were lost. Riál is after more than the banks themselves—he wants his family back.”

A great ripple burst from the giant ball of light as he shuddered in stunned surprise. “Incredible.” The guardian moved his mind through the intricate new pathways of each system once again. “You mean, those moves you made in our game are real?”

The spider laughed. “That word, coming from you. Of course, Shirus. The T’nari renegades are already hurling them into motion in all levels of the timeshells.”

“A very cunning plan indeed.”

“I thought you might be impressed.”

“I’m always impressed with what you come up with and the T’nari are brilliant, but do you think they can really pull this whole thing off?”

“Riál has a small army working the beginning stages of our plans. They’ve infiltrated key bloodlines in pivotal segments of the drama and have begun to stir interest in a new solution to the tired old problems.” Kalán blinked her eyes for a moment and then mused, “You know, maybe that’s what Baal had in mind all along—push the beings in this sector against the wall to see if they will bounce back stronger than they were.”

Turning her gaze back to her mate, the spider’s eyes sparkled with mischief. “Then again, perhaps Baal just wanted to draw me into the arena in order to have a worthy opponent.”

The ball of light roared and changed swiftly into a large male spider, sweeping a wide swath of space clear through the gaming field. Shirus crouched and began a slow stalk of his lovely partner across the open gulf between them, his eyes smoldering as his gaze bored into hers.

Kalán shivered. “The T’nari are such spectacular players,” she drawled, taunting him further. “The stimulation in watching their moves … is like nothing else in the field.” She panted as she watched the huge, glowing arachnid approach across the gaming space. “There is always room for another touch of genius, Shirus. Think about it, my love. If you wish to join us, you would be welcomed by all.”

The male spider crept closer through the suspended lights, smiling maniacally.

“Such a beautiful renegade,” the deep voice crooned. Shirus’s body began to throb in a slow, steady beat as he closed the distance to Kalán, the stars around him picking up the same pulsing rhythm.

“Flattery will get you everywhere.”

“Perhaps we could add a new … thrust … of vitality to your plans.” The male spider paused a short distance away, his eyes locked with hers in invitation, the bursts of light from his body washing over hers.

“Perhaps … we can … think of something,” Kalán whispered breathlessly.

The swirling patterns of light in the forgotten playing field behind the two guardians began to burn and sizzle.

With a wild laugh, the female spider pounced.

X

NOTES OF RIÁL

I was on Tarsus with many of my kin in the Pleiadian predawn, the difficult time before we activated the Angriel E’lium, the grand re-attunement of the Angriel libraries.

We assumed our roles would amuse, that our memories would reconnect with ease. After all, the codes of our family were still within the blood, not to mention that we had done it thousands of times before. And we had Kalán’s webs—intricate and fine and primal. What more did we need?

We took our fire and our joy into a world on the brink of crisis. Our natures carried us a good part of the distance to our goal.

But in our rollicking arrogance, we often forget the challenges of breaking through fear, pain, anger, and grief. Probably a good thing or we wouldn’t keep sending ourselves into the lamentably lost pockets of our clan’s wayward experiments.

On Tarsus, I nearly let go of my passion, leaving my codes asleep and useless.

Fortunately, I was also on Bahár searching for my self-worth. Through careful interweavings and agreements, I was able to prod myself on Tarsus into activating the chain of firings I had gone in to ignite in the first place.

And thanks to Kalán’s foresight, I was also on Ti’úan, hidden in a different layer of the timeshell, or we might never have broken through to the Pleiadian seed kernel of the Angriel E’lium.

Notes of Riál, T’nari Gamemaster
The E’lium Chronicles

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INCURSION

All pilots transport NOW!

The call came while Rhys Talrésian was out working a new stretch of ground in his vegetable garden at Tintágel, the sentinel compound of Andara’s western coast. Covered in sweat, he panted and straightened his back, looking down at the grungy pair of shorts and battered sandals he wore when digging out in the hot sun.

“Crap.”

He dropped his shovel in the dirt and ran his hands through his long black hair. It never seemed to fail that he was in the middle of something awkward whenever the admiral called a drill. With any luck, no one on his team, or the rest of the crew for that matter, would fully tune into him and notice his lack of attire. That left only his partner to deal with, which meant several days of needling jibes were a foregone conclusion.

With an exasperated sigh, Rhys locked his mind into the proper geometric sound matrix that would allow him to transport across the Andaran continent and shifted himself directly onto Mirida, one of the sentient crystalline starships anchored deep within the mountains outside of Krii, the largest capital on Tarsus. He materialized on board Rai, his small interceptor, housed in one of the lower docking bays of the smoky gray vessel alongside the eleven other interceptors making up Team Six.

I’m here, Mirida, he called mentally to check in with the starship while he strapped himself into his chair.

Welcome, Rhys. I’ll let you know when all the members of your team have arrived.

Great, thanks. He scanned the control panels in front of him and began the routine checks for the small craft necessary before the starship launched into space.

Rai’s pale white walls vibrated in response to the appearance of one of her pilots. Rhys, your pulse rate is a little high and you appear to be overheated. Would you like some cool air?

He smiled at the sound of the sentient vessel’s calm voice in his mind. Yes, Rai, that would be wonderful. A soft current of air swirled over his skin while he turned his focus inward to perform a complete scan of Rai’s body, checking stored energy levels, life support systems, and internal tuning. Satisfied that all systems were in top form, he lifted his gaze to the window in Rai’s hull. Out beyond the translucent docking bay door he could see a portion of the lighted underground cavern which harbored six of the eleven great Khalama starships of Tarsus, the second planet of the Alcyone system.

The tall, solid form of Quinn Logan appeared beside him to his right in the second pilot’s seat. A silver moon dangled from the Caledonian’s left ear among strands of thick, wavy brown hair. Rhys noted with irrational irritation that his partner was fully clothed in his usual chambray shirt and jeans, having responded to the call, as required, without changing into his navy fleet uniform.

He kept his gaze directed out the window, but he could feel Quinn’s probing green eyes give him a thorough going over.

“Just don’t say it,” he growled through clenched teeth.

Quinn threw back his head with a loud laugh. “You make it so easy, man. What was it last time, a towel?”

“I was in … the shower. It was all I could grab.”

“Yeah, well I’d say this is an improvement.”

Out to impress someone, Rhys? A familiar deep voice came blaring across a mental channel with both pilots.

Rhys let out a disgusted snort. What the hell are you doing here, Kirian? Who’s running the portal?

I’m not on duty. Gridál has the shift.

Kirian Vall was one of three senior portal masters in charge of the large teams who regulated traffic through the planet’s primary portal in the upper atmosphere above Krii. He was also the leader of the Makhás masters from Sirius and founder of the Center for Geometrics where everyone in the Alcyoni Fleet had been educated.

I’ll be watching if you need me. Otherwise, keep your minds on your job.

The pilots glanced at each other with puzzled frowns at the tigerman’s rough tone. It was highly unusual for their busy friend to make contact with them on runs or drills, let alone bark at them with his infamous temper which he inflicted regularly on the rest of the world.

Quinn shook his head and shrugged as the mellifluous voice of Mirida rang through a channel with both pilots. The last member of your team just transported aboard.

Thank you, Mirida! Rhys extended his senses outward to establish a linked network with the members of Team Six: twelve sentient interceptors, twenty-four pilots, and twelve transport adepts housed in a chamber adjacent to the bay. Alright, everyone’s in the link. Ready to work, team?

Yesss!

Good. Let’s—

I’m not.

Always the comedian, Katherine. Did engineering get the air regulators fixed aboard Lessa since our last run?

Yep, nice and cool in here. Hey, Rai, you might want to crank it down a bit more for Mountain Man and Studly. Looks like he’s sweatin’ like a mad bull.

Rhys glowered as laughter burbled across the link. Beside him, Quinn’s smooth features split into a wide grin.

Thanks, smart-ass. I’ll deal with you when we get ba—

Tune to Tarsus!

The sharp command from the bridge within Mirida’s core broke across the channel. Straightening in their seats, the pilots drew in full breaths and turned their attention to making the long, clear sounds which would connect with Rai’s spinning toroidal field and activate her energetic shield. Their baritone voices blended and merged into easy, familiar harmonics, filling the crystalline chamber with ringing sound.

All around the small interceptor, an energy web began to form from the intonation of the eleven other pilot pairs and the transporters of Team Six. The web grew until it joined with the expanding network building within the body of Mirida generated by all twelve pilot teams, the transport, motion, portal, and shield teams stationed on the bridge, and all other crew members stationed throughout the ship. At the center of the spinning construct, Rhys could feel the vibrant sounds and movements of his brother, Djan, and his sister-in-law, Tyla, the starship leaders who directed the whole formation in the heart of the ship through the ecstatic drive of their lovemaking.

The heat of arousal rushed through Rhys’s body as the spinning sound construct opened a connection for everyone on board and brought the tide of sexual energy pumping through the entire network. As Djan and Tyla fused and melded, the great starship herself began to hum and vibrate. Rhys shifted his sound to a higher tone, riding the currents and moving the energy up through his own system as the swells coursed through the body of the ship. Beside him, Quinn’s resonant tones locked with his and shook with tension.

The enormous torus spun through and around the ship and the starship leaders reached for completion. With Djan and Tyla’s climax came a brilliant burst as Mirida connected with the central core of Tarsus. Light flooded through the translucent walls of living crystal, setting her entire form ablaze. Rhys felt the jolt run up his spine and electrify every cell in his body, bringing his awareness into razor-sharp clarity.

At a signal from the bridge, the toning spiked and dropped to seal off the starship’s link to Tarsus. The stored energy would maintain the high spin of Mirida’s massive toroidal field and all shipwide functions for the entire voyage. Direction of the torus was handled by the motion team who would shift its rate and size to regulate the ship’s movement. The body of the ship itself as well as those of the interceptors were designed to amplify and hold all of the energetic constructs generated by the crew of adepts on board.

Out the window, Rhys watched as Rinzen, the original Khalama starship brought by the Makhás Masters from Sirius, Telemar, and Corum, Admiral Silesian’s flagship, one by one burst into flaming life beside Mirida, ready for flight.

Adrenaline sang in Rhys’s veins, and through his heightened senses, he picked up an unusually strong undercurrent of something unexpected running through Mirida and her crew—anxiety. A glance at Quinn’s taut features confirmed that he too was feeling the disturbing vibrations coursing through the network.

Transporting to upper atmosphere. Djan’s clipped voice relayed operations and orders over the shipwide link while Tyla directed the four teams of adepts in the central bridge.

Instantly the four activated starships blinked into the cobalt blue space above Tarsus. Spread from horizon to horizon was the vast landmass of Andara, the most heavily populated continent within the primary dimension of First Shade. Directly below lay the glittering expanse of Krii just west of the rugged Shardan range which stretched lazily toward the northern seas in a long serpentine chain.

Far to the left, the green water of the Fiordian Sea met the jagged line of the western coastal lands where Rhys had blissfully been tending his garden at Tintágel only moments before. To the right beyond the Shardans, his eyes skimmed over the rolling hills of the Roden grasslands where his grandfather’s family resided, and scanned the horizon where he could just make out the snowy peak of Emrys in the southern mountains of Caledon, the second largest continent of Tarsus. He raised a hand and pointed it out, bringing a quiet smile to his partner’s face at seeing a visible piece of his northern homeland.

Leto and Gillian are joining us from Ness. Seconds later, two of the five starships from the caverns just outside of Caledon’s capital city popped into the space next to Mirida. We have access coordinates through the portal. Transport matrix is in place. Shifting out.

The pilots watched the surface of Tarsus shift from glorious greens and rusts to a dead shade of tan, devoid of seas or lifesigns, as the six starships transported out past the complex convergence of energy gridlines comprising the main entry point to Tarsus. The Portal Masters and their large teams maintained the intricate locks of the primary portal above Krii and the secondary portal above Ness, providing access to welcome visitors into First Shade while projecting the lifeless appearance of an uninhabited secondary shade into the grid in order to camouflage the planet’s surface to anyone outside.

The sleek forms of the Zephyr and Loki, two of the old mechanical fleet starships, hung in orbit just outside the wide portal space, silently standing guard and ready to assist the number of small merchant crafts and rigs coming in through the mechanized transport ring hanging in space several miles above the portal.

Starships from Chi, Ki, and Niemi are being activated and charged. Admiral Silesian will fill everyone in as soon as those ships are in orbit above their home portals.

Rhys sucked in a breath. He knew his brother too well. The tension in Djan’s voice confirmed what Rhys had begun to suspect the moment he picked up the anxiety running through the ship.

This was no drill.

The Drahkian Empire was on the move again somewhere within Maia or Alcyone, the last free planetary systems in the Pleiades. The new Alcyoni fleet that Rhys’s grandfather, Magnus, and Miros Silesian had worked so hard to build with the guidance of Kirian and the Makhás masters was about to be put to the test against the very deadly reptilians.

Rhys closed his eyes as an involuntary shudder worked its way through his frame.

“We’ll be alright,” Quinn asserted firmly, his almost imperceptible Caledonian lilt softening his words.

Rhys rubbed his face with his hands. “I know. We’ve been through the drills a thousand times. We just don’t know how effective we’ll be in a real battle.”

“We’re good at this, and you’re the best short-range netter we’ve got.” It was widely accepted that Rhys’s talent in constructing geometric webs was second to none. Working in tandem with Quinn’s long-range scanning abilities, the pair made a formidable partnership.

“We must be crazy to take them on with no weapons. All this planning and training just to capture and send them over to Tiān Lóng. I don’t know, Quinn.”

“It’s better this way. Blowing them up gets us nowhere. That’s what Miros and Magnus drummed into all our heads after they lost the war in Merope. You know how passionate Mag is about finding a way to deal with the Drahks. You’re a lot like him.”

Rhys snorted and smiled crookedly. “Yeah, don’t remind me.” He knew all the stories about how his grandfather had brought the last surviving Sirian Makhás masters to Tarsus and persuaded the staunchly pacifist psychics to share their knowledge and help birth a new fleet of sentient Khalama starships. Thanks to Magnus’s drive and the Makhás’ brilliance, the Alcyoni fleet now had the edge it needed to compete with the Drahks’ perplexing technology that enabled warships to transport instantaneously. Rhys absently touched his fingers to the golden octahedron hanging from a chain around his neck that Magnus had given him when he graduated from the academy. Such a tiny piece of delicate gold had changed all of their lives when it opened that crucial connection between Magnus and Kirian across star systems so many years ago.

With a long sigh, Rhys let his hand fall back down to the armrest. “Even if this works, we still don’t know how they break portals. How long will we be able to put off the inevitable?”

“Who says it’s inevitable? We don’t know what’s around the bend, Rhys.” The Caledonian pilot watched him calmly.

“You’re right,” he acknowledged at length. “Thanks for letting me blow off steam.”

Ok, listen up, everyone. The rich voice of Fleet Admiral Miros Silesian sounded across a secondary shipwide link connecting the admiral with all fifteen mobilized vessels. Admiral Stardancer of the Maian fleet contacted me about fifteen minutes ago to report that a Drahkian warband has invaded Galah, the smallest outworld of Maia. The last relay from Galah’s Portal Master reported that eight warships had broken through the portal locks. The Peregrine managed to lift off and join the rest of the fleet, but communication from the Portal Center staff was cut off, so we have no idea what exactly we’ll encounter once we get there.

A moment of heavy silence passed. The populated systems within the vast Pleiadian cluster—Sterope, Celaeno, Taygeta, Electra, Pleione, Atlas, and numerous smaller systems—had fallen, one by one, under Drahkian control. After the bitter loss of Merope decades prior, the Maian fleet had joined the feverish drive on Tarsus to expand into new abilities that would give them an edge against Drahkian technology. The Maians still flew the swift Birdwing starships, but the vessels had been redesigned to carry crystalline cores and the bird-headed Tori and human fleet personnel were now highly trained adepts who shared the same goals as their cousins in Alcyone.

We’re taking a third of our starships to support the Maians and will call in the rest of our ships if we need them. Admiral Stardancer has mobilized the entire Maian fleet to guard their portals and will bring a large force to meet us at a coordinate ten miles above Galah’s portal. Ship transporters, exact coordinates are coming through to your team leaders now. The teams in orbit and underground on Tiān Lóng are standing by to handle any Drahkian vessels we capture. All hands, prepare to link with Alcyone’s stargate.

Rhys pulled in a slow breath as he felt Mirida and the six Tarsian starships join in a mental bond with nine other sentient vessels from Niemi and the twin planets of Chi and Ki, vibrating in sync to prepare for connection with the great blue central star.

Open the gates!

The crisp, clear voices of the transport team on the bridge surged through Mirida as they sounded an intricate set of tones designed to resonate with the geometric configuration of Alcyone’s stargate generated by the star’s movement and vibration. A second set of tones matching the stargate signature of Maia was woven into the sound construct to link both gates and hold them open while an energetic web large enough to receive the ship was projected out to coordinates above Galah.

Transport matrices are in place. All ships, jump on my mark. Three … two … one, … now!

The fifteen crystalline starships shifted as one body and appeared above a tiny gray world surrounded by the blue dust of the Pleiadian cluster. At the same moment, twenty-four golden Birdwing vessels swooped into view beside them.

Ahiiiaaa, Alcyoni fleet! The melodious voice of Yuri Stardancer, Tori admiral of the Maian fleet, trilled across the joint channel. Thank you for coming! It’s our turn to be grateful for assistance. For decades, long before the Meropean War, the Maian Birdwings had flown to support countless free worlds under attack by forces from the Empire. Unfortunately, all of those systems had eventually fallen to the Drahks’ superior technology.

We’re here to help. Any change, Yuri?

Still nothing since we lost contact with our people in the Portal Center. They must all be dead or unconscious. We’ve received a few calls from off-duty portal staff who told us the Drahks have started to land and the city is in chaos. If we can still pick up those calls, that tells me the portal may not yet be sealed off.

Then let’s see if we can get through!

In formations of six, the shiny Maian vessels peeled out in graceful arcs toward the surface of the planet leaving the Alcyoni vessels to follow in their wake. Within a few short minutes, the combined Pleiadian fleet came to a hovering halt in front of the huge mechanical ship transport ring floating in orbit a few miles above Galah’s only portal.

Rhys shifted his mind’s eye downward to take in the view of the planet below the ship. “Damn, look at that.” Galah’s capital city of Guan was clearly visible, even from the fleet’s high vantage point in space. “The portal’s wide open or we’d never see it!”

Shadowed against the soft glow of the city’s solar dome, a set of dark discs hung in suspension, barely discernible, but unmistakable.

“By the Prime,” Quinn murmured at their first sighting of the deadly invaders they had all heard about since childhood. His jaw dropped open at seeing the hard evidence that the Drahkian Empire had turned its attention toward the last remaining free worlds in the Pleiades. “We always knew this day would come.”

“Yeah, but it’s still unnerving to see the bastards here.”

The Maian admiral’s perplexed voice sounded over the channel. I’ve never seen them leave a portal open like this. They always reseal it right after they burn through.

You’ve been through more battles than the rest of us, Yuri.

Whether it’s purposeful or some kind of malfunction, we need to keep alert, Miros, so we don’t end up trapped on the wrong side of a locked portal.

Agreed. I don’t like it either, but it’s our chance to hit them while their numbers are small. Lead the way, Yuri. We’ll follow you down. Alcyoni ships, fall into formation—groups of five! The admiral’s flagship pulled out in front of the other crystalline vessels to lead the first group.

Djan’s clipped voice rang over the internal channel linking Mirida and her crew. Moving out! The ship banked away from the cluster of Pleiadian vessels and took up position with Telemar, Leto, and Gillian behind Rinzen.

The Maian wings began their descent, trailed by the three Alcyoni formations with Corum in the lead. Within minutes, the fleet moved smoothly down through the open portal into the thin, inhospitable atmosphere toward the domed city below.

“Two warships are missing,” Quinn noted as he conducted a long-range scan past the enemy ships and searched the city beneath the solar dome. “They said there were eight.”

“Already down on the landing fields?”

The Caledonian shook his head as they watched the dark shapes grow quickly in size. Six charcoal gray Drahkian discs, each significantly larger than the Khalama or Birdwing ships, were spread out over Guan just above the energetic barrier of the solar dome. Dozens of long, blocky vessels moved outward from the ominous dark hulks, winding slow paths down toward the solar dome on their way to the surface.

Yuri’s voice cut into the link. Those smaller craft are transports filled with saur beasts and their handlers. We’ve got to stop any more from landing!

Abruptly, swarms of tiny fighters began to pour from the outer rims of the warships, rushing to form clusters around the slow-moving transports.

The Alcyoni admiral uttered a soft expletive. They finally figured out they have company! At least with so many small ships in the field, the warships won’t be transporting out from under us any time soon.

Agreed. Miros, take the western half of the city. We’ll handle the eastern sectors. I’m sending the Peregrine with a wing to circle the dome so they can transport as many people up from the surface as they can locate.

Understood, Yuri. Alright people, let’s get busy. Rinzen, your team will target the warship furthest north. Shoji’s team, head for the disc furthest west. Those of you with Corum, we’ll take the ship to the southwest. Stay alert for new orders and be prepared to move quickly!

Mirida shifted into position between Rinzen and Telemar. The Tarsian starships dropped down into the space directly above the dark disc hovering over the small landing fields and Portal Center at the northern edge of the city. Bright beams shot upward out of firing points encircling the warship’s apex as well as from positions along the rim, deftly avoiding the swirling cloud of Drahkian fighters rising upward to meet the Pleiadian vessels. The energy shield blanketing Mirida’s outer hull diffused the beams and redirected stray fragments while the five Tarsian ships adjusted their altitudes to hover at a distance that would avoid serious damage.

Djan’s voice snapped out orders over Mirida’s link. We need to clean up the field of smaller ships before the starships can hold a stable net around the warship. Pilot teams one through four, target the front formations of oncoming fighters and keep them away from Mirida. Five through twelve, transport directly down past the rim of the warship and get to work on those ground vessels and fighters. Your transport teams are ready to shift the ships you net straight out to Tiān Lóng. Keep yourselves clear of those beams. It won’t be long before the warship gunners give up on us and turn their focus on you. Get going!

Rhys shifted his telepathic connection with Mirida’s shipwide network to a secondary channel and focused his attention on the link between the twelve ships and transporters of his team. Interceptors, release you anchors. Get ready to move. He glanced aside at his partner. “Find us an open spot down there.”

Quinn nodded and closed his eyes to cast his vision down toward the warship. There’s clear space just outside the southernmost rim where some of the fighters are emerging. I’ve set an energetic beacon. Rhys, lock on and throw the transport grid.

Got it! The web is open. Everyone, shift on my mark. Ready—now!

In one clean move, the pilots transported the twelve small vessels into the center of Rhys’s energy construct. The massive gray warship loomed above them to the north, spitting bolts of fire up into the sky like an angry, metallic beast. Scores of small, silvery fighters littered the space around the disc, pulling quickly into groups to charge at the clusters of crystalline interceptors appearing all over the field. A dozen freshly launched ships just outside the open bay doors in the warship rim fell into formation and headed straight for Team Six.

Shields up! Spread out. We’ll net the fighters one at a time!

The vessels of Team Six shot forward to take on the swarm of lethal hornets. Quinn shifted Rai’s toroidal field to propel the ship upward toward the lead fighter, taking her in a zigzag course to avoid bursts of weapon fire. He lifted her sharply to allow the lead fighter to speed past before tearing through the middle of their formation. The Drahkian fighters scattered in all directions.

That should help. Pick them up, team! he called as he slowed Rai’s course and rotated back around. “Looks like we can maneuver better than they can,” he commented aloud. “They fly like planes. I wonder if they can transport like the warships.”

“I haven’t seen any of them disappear. Let’s nail the lead before they regroup.”

“He’s swinging around to come after us. Here we go.” Quinn launched Rai forward, squinting as he sent a scan through the oncoming enemy vessel. “Only one aboard. These are single-pilot craft.”

While Quinn skillfully maneuvered Rai around the fighter’s intermittent spray of short-range disruptor fire, Rhys sized up the shape of the vessel and mentally projected a soft-glowing geometric web of energy to surround it completely. He held it in place as the ship raced toward them and called out to the lead transporter of Team Six. Jess, lock onto my net and—

A rapid barrage of beams spewed out of the fighter as it closed in on Rai. The brunt was diffused by Rai’s shield wall, but the small interceptor shuddered from the impact of multiple blows as a streak of glinting metal shot past them.

Quinn glanced aside at his partner while he spun the ship around and sent her flying in pursuit of the Drahkian vessel. “Problem?”

“My construct flickered when the beams hit,” Rhys grumbled as he concentrated on the wavering dark form in front of them. “Stay with it, Quinn. I’ll reform the net. Rai, increase your amplification settings by two.”

Done. That should magnify the net you send through me.

Great. Jess?

We’re ready to take it out, Rhys, as soon as your construct is back in place.

With Rai on its tail, the small ship banked into a tight arc to come at them once more, giving Rhys the few seconds he needed to surround it with a new energy matrix.

The net is solid. Jess, shift it out of here!

The Drahkian fighter disappeared from the field.

We got it, Rhys. He’s on his way to Tiān Lóng. Keep it up!

“Ok, that’s the way it’s supposed to work! Thanks for the boost, Rai.” Rhys turned his attention to their scattered team. Six of the small interceptors were still engaged with enemy vessels, but the other five had apparently been successful in taking out their targets and had flown to assist their teammates. “Good. Quinn, who doesn’t have backup?”

“Ellim.”

“Let’s get over there and help.”

“You got it.”

Quinn quickly spun the interceptor and headed her toward a small whitish vessel taking heavy fire from a Drahkian fighter. Splintered beams scattered off of Ellim’s energetic shield, shaking the small ship as the fighter came in close.

Trevor, Sharon, sit tight. We’ll net him while his eyes are on you. Rai closed the distance to the two vessels. Rhys watched and waited for the moment the fighter shot past Ellim and ceased firing. Got him. Net’s in place. Jess!

The fighter within the light web vanished from space just beyond Ellim.

Trevor’s quivering voice came on over the link. Thanks, Rhys! That bastard was really fast.

You bet. Ellim, are you alright?

Yep, ready for more.

Good. Trev, take a deep breath. We’ve got more work to do.

While Quinn spun Rai around and headed her toward their scattered team, Rhys sent a quick probe out through the eleven small vessels. The pilots and ships were charged with tension, but were focused on snaring the last three fighters in the immediate vicinity. A scan across the space further around the warship’s rim revealed similar successes by Mirida’s teams of interceptors. The swarms of Drahkian fighters between the warship and Mirida were decidedly thinner and the launch of any more small vessels from the open bay doors had slowed considerably.

The warship itself had yet to give any indication of breaking position and was apparently waiting for the ground transports caught in their runs to either land or make it back into dock. The Drahkian gunners had ceased their futile firing on the five starships hovering above and begun to fire short, intermittent shots aimed at lone interceptors not engaged with their own fighters.

“A hit from one of those beams would tear us apart,” Quinn declared.

“In a flash. Thank the Prime we haven’t seen any explosions.”

“Yet.”

Rhys glanced aside at his partner’s odd tone, keenly aware that the Caledonian possessed the uncanny talent of precognition. He squelched a shudder and quickly located each of their teammates. The last remaining Drahkian fighter broke away and sped swiftly downward to join the escort of fighters around a slow-moving transport making its way in a gradual spiral toward the surface below.

Regroup!

Through long years of practice, each of the eleven scattered ships evaporated and rematerialized in a tight formation around Rai.

Interceptors, notch up your amplification by two to strengthen the nets. Pilots, we’re going after that transport ship. We’ll shift down behind it together. Stay sharp! Those disruptors firing from the rim are targeting interceptors unless one of theirs is close by. Keep your flying erratic so you don’t get hit.

As if to underscore Rhys’s words, a bright disruptor blast seared through space above the hovering formation, narrowly missing Divi on the edge closest to the warship.

Net’s open! Shift … now!

The twelve ships of Team Six dematerialized on cue and reappeared in a cloud a short distance behind the grimy, blocky vessel on its way down to the city.

Spread out in pairs. We have to draw the fighters off and take them out before we can net the transport. Regroup when you’re finished. Go!

The interceptors veered away, speeding forward in all directions around the large, blackish ship. Sylvan flew to Rai’s right, deftly steered by her pilots Tam and Faraji. The two ships swept up and over the aft section of the lumbering vessel and were met by a spray of beams from a fighter heading straight for them from the starboard side. Bright sparks flew off in showers around the crystalline hulls.

Tam’s booming voice came on over the link. We’ll take the lead and draw him off toward the port side. Nail him, Rhys!

Ok, we’ll pick him up from behind.

Sylvan shot forward in an arc across the transport. The Drahkian fighter followed closely on her tail, searing her with a constant stream of fire.

“I’ll swing us in under him,” Quinn confirmed, sending Rai speeding after the fast-moving ship. “That should give you should a clear view.”

Rhys nodded and focused on flinging a transport net around the fighter above them, keeping a firm grip on the construct while it flickered intermittently from the Drahk’s weapon fire. Got it. Transport team, shift him out!

The small ship disappeared. Sylvan slowed and spun as Rai came up beside her. Lessa and Ellim’s sparkling forms rose over the rim of the transport and flew in to join them.

There’s one more left on the port side, Rhys.

Thanks, Trev. As soon as everyone else gets here, we’ll shift out around the transport and beam the net out between our ships. Any appendages below?

Yeah, we saw six sets of short landing pads along the bottom, Sharon reported.

We’ll have to take them into account when we set up the web. This thing has an odd shape.

Kirian’s rich voice rolled through the team’s channel. Try a truncated tetrahedron. Six points forward, six rear.

Whoa, Tiger Sensei’s with us? Meredith chimed in from Lessa. We’ll slam this beast now!

Out of the blue, a barrage of weapon fire broke across the small group of interceptors. Rai shook under a heavy blow from a sleek, winged craft shooting past them in the space above.

Where the hell did he come from? Tam shouted in exasperation.

He transported in behind us! Quinn spat. This one’s not like the other fighters. Keep out of his sights. He’s got heavier disruptors!

The elegant black fighter whipped around in a hairpin move to come at them again.

Scatter! Rhys called. Team, we’ve got a new party. Everyone, stay clear! We’ll take him out.

The three small interceptors vacated the space around Rai. Quickly Rhys hurled a wide energetic prism out in front of her and set it vibrating with a crisp tone. The oncoming fighter opened fire with multiple disruptors, but the reddish beams deflected off of the invisible shield in sharp angles.

“I’m transporting us back behind him,” Quinn called out an instant before the fighter blew through Rhys’s construct. The crystalline vessel shifted to coordinates in the wake of the racing black war bird. A blitz of beams shot out of aft gunning stations aimed precisely at Rai’s new position.

“Damn it! This guy’s loaded!” Rhys hurriedly flung out another shield to ward off the blows.

“Can you hold it?”

“I think so, but I—”

Without warning, Rhys’s mind was enveloped by a constricting, disruptive force. Nausea gripped his insides and he cried out from the sudden, dizzying pain in his head. His hands flew to his throbbing temples and he fell forward against the straps of his chair.

“Rhys!”

The protective shield vaporized and Rai was bombarded by a shower of weapon fire.

Alarmed, Quinn threw together a makeshift barrier outside the small ship and transported her out of the lethal spray to the far end of the gray vessel. He lunged against his own straps and reached over to grab his partner’s shoulder, yanking him upright in his chair. “Rhys! What’s wrong? What happened?”

The sound of Quinn’s shaken voice pierced the dizziness. Rhys shook his head roughly and struggled to pull himself through the murky blanket suffocating his thinking. “I don’t know. Something hit me.”

“That ship? What—”

The black fighter swooped into the space beside Rai and opened fire.

“By the Prime, he’s on us again!”

“I’ll … block.” Rhys grimaced with the supreme effort of forcing his mind outward to form another wall against the blows. The small vessel rocked.

All at once, the hammering stopped. Rhys dropped his head to his chest and panted. Beside him, Quinn let out a ragged breath. “Lessa just bolted in front of the fighter to pull him off. Ellim’s shooting up toward it from below.”

A ripple of fear ran up Rhys’s spine and he raised his spinning head. “No, they can’t—”

What’s going on? Tam’s clear voice rang over the link as Sylvan flew past them, speeding toward the black fighter and their teammates’ darting forms.

We’ve got a problem, Quinn relayed. Rhys was hit by something and can’t seem to shake it.

I’m ok, really. I can manage. Let’s get moving before—

The gray transport was suddenly illuminated by a bright flash as Lessa exploded.

“NO!” Ice coursed through Rhys’s veins and twisted his gut. Katherine! Meredith!

The black fighter flew straight through the flying debris and immediately turned its guns on Sylvan.

Shauna! Quinn called up to the deathwalker aboard Mirida. Lessa and her pilots were just hit!

I have them all. Don’t worry.

A roar of pain and anguish ripped from Rhys’s throat as the shock of losing his friends turned rapidly into anger. “Get us over to that fighter, Quinn!”

“But you—”

“I can do it! No one else is going to die because of me!”

Rhys gripped his throbbing head, fighting to pull through the viscous sensations while Quinn shifted Rai to a position above and behind the black ship, matching the pace of the charging Drahk. The fighter pelted Sylvan’s shields as she veered up and away, and shifted in the next heartbeat to blasting at Ellim’s streaking form.

Hang on, all of you! I’m going to nail that son-of-a-bitch!

The fighter’s rear weapons locked in on Rai and opened fire. Rhys took firm hold of his senses and focused intently on the winged vessel, surrounding it with a spherical field which he set spinning in layers, completely encasing the dark ship in its tightly woven form. He grimaced against the strain and pumped more energy into the construct to accelerate its spin.

The fighters’ beams began to ricochet off the constricting web. He gritted his teeth and pulled the sphere in closer to the vessel. A sudden swell of elation and smug satisfaction bubbled up from within at the sight of the black fighter taking hits from its own disruptors.

“Rhys! Back off! You’re going to incinerate him!”

Again, his partner’s voice sliced through the red haze gripping his mind. He loosened his hold on the sphere at the same moment the Drahk ceased his incessant firing. Jess, get this prick out of here.

The shiny black vessel vanished from sight.

As if released from a spell, the bizarre stranglehold dissipated from his body. He could have sworn he heard faint laughter echo in his mind before the disturbing sensations melted completely away. With a groan, he collapsed against his chair and let his head fall back.

“By the Prime, it’s gone. I’m clear.” He sucked in several jagged lungfuls of air to settle his system. The faces of the two laughing women swam through his mind in a relentless, haunting loop. “God-damned Drahk.”

Quinn’s hand lashed out and clamped down on his forearm. “Rhys.”

He lifted his head again and turned toward his partner. As he met the Caledonian’s level green gaze, his eyes filled with tears. “They’re gone—” His throat closed around the rest of his words.

“I know. We all feel it, but right now we’ve got to finish this so the rest of us can get out of here.”

With a curt nod, Rhys clamped down on his grief and ran his hands over the aching muscles in his face. Quinn spun Rai around and headed back toward the transport, handling the call to collect their anxious team. We nabbed the big fighter. Regroup!

Sylvan and Ellim fell into position beside them. One by one, the eight remaining interceptors popped into view to join the formation. As the group sped up and over the back end of the transport vessel, Djan’s voice came on over the secondary channel connecting the team to Mirida’s network.

Team Six, they’ve called their fighters back in. You’ve got thirty seconds to take out that transport and get yourselves back into dock.

“Shit,” Rhys swore under his breath.

You can do this! Kirian rumbled through the link with the entire team. I’ll send each of you the adjusted formation and point assignments. All of you, shift yourselves into the positions I give you and activate the web. Transporters—

We’re ready! Jess interjected quickly.

Go!

The image of the geometric configuration which would completely surround the gray vessel flashed into Rhys’s mind. He instantly understood the coordinates of the position Rai was to hold and glanced aside at his partner. With a nod, the two pilots smoothly transported the crystalline ship to the apex of the formation in front of the Drahkian vessel and began to generate the specific tones which would link the interceptors into one giant net.

Rai’s small chamber vibrated with sound. The moment the last of the eleven ships was locked into position and synced harmonically with the rest, bright beams flashed between the crystalline ships, creating an energetic container around the gray transport.

Take it out!

The Drahkian vessel disappeared, leaving a gulf of empty space within the shimmering web.

Djan’s voice snapped through the channel. Alright everyone, move! The docking bay doors on the rim of the warship are starting to close. Shift yourselves directly back to Mirida and anchor in!

Rhys glanced up at the eerily quiet space around the warship and realized they were the last team of interceptors left in the field. He reached with his inner senses for the familiar feel of Rai’s anchor seat up in Bay Six, formed the transport matrix, and shifted the small ship into position within the starship. While Quinn took care of locking Rai into her anchor clamps, he sent a quick scan through the bay to make sure all on his team were safely back in dock. His chest constricted at the sight of Lessa’s empty stall and he fought down another wave of sickened grief.

Rhys, are you alright? The soothing voice of Shauna Malcolm, Mirida’s gentle deathwalker, privately touched his mind.

Yeah, I’m ok. For now.

Come see me when we get back and we’ll talk.

Rhys drew in a breath of air and was about to reply when Mirida’s shipwide link crackled with his brother’s orders. We’re shifting down into position to snare the warship. All hands, prepare to move!

The two pilots gripped their armrests and cast their vision outward to view the exterior of the ship. The starship transported smoothly to coordinates a short distance beyond the rim of the warship. In the same moment, the four other Tarsian vessels shifted into point positions to form a wide, shallow pyramid around the gray disc.

The warship disruptors broke loose with full blazing fire and the ship began to rise, bursting through the energetic web running between the Tarsian vessels. The disc spun upwards toward Rinzen, spraying beams outward like a spitting firecracker. The graceful Khalama vessel transported quickly out of range while the warship rose in a fiery arc and disappeared.

“Damn it!” Quinn swore. “We almost had it.”

Rhys turned his scan across the city. Four other warships came to life with the same blitzing tactic to escape their Pleiadian snares, lifting and vanishing one at a time from the airspace above Guan. “Only two took off from the east side.”

“The Maians took one out.”

“Good, but where did the others go?”

Quinn shifted his focus to a long-range scan and pointed out north of the city. “There, up in the middle of the flats. The two missing warships just transported in to join them.”

“They must have been at Luda, the colony on the backside of Galah.”

“They’re all hovering in a group near the ground. That’s odd.”

“Why? They’re losing. They’ve got to figure out what to do about us.”

“Yeah, I know,” the Caledonian grumbled as he watched the six dark ships. “But something isn’t right. It feels like they’re waiting for something.”

The admiral’s voice came on over the link. Everyone, regroup and hold your positions over the city. We’ll coordinate with the Maians to send groups out after them. The Birdwings will take the first run.

Mirida joined the other Tarsian starships to form a cluster around Rinzen. The pilots kept their projected vision pinned on the dark shapes hovering in the distance.

The glittering forms of several golden Birdwings darted in dramatic arcs around two of the warships on one side of the formation, drawing a spray of fire after them with each pass. On the opposite edge of the warband, six more Birdwings appeared together in a tight configuration around one of the discs. Whitish beams flashed between the small ships to form an energetic web that pulsed with a soft glow. The huge warship caught within the net dematerialized and the six Birdwings blinked out of sight before a single defensive shot had been fired.

“Damn, they’re good fliers,” Quinn murmured.

“No kidding. Magnus has always crowed about how brilliant they are. Now I see why.”

The six remaining warships lifted above the sprinting Birdwings and transported away.

The Caledonian scanned quickly and pointed to his left. “Out west. They’re landing! They’ll be sitting ducks! You don’t think that’s odd?”

“Yeah, but maybe they think we can’t pick off single ships on the ground.”

Quinn frowned and shook his head. “That’s not it. Rhys, why aren’t they fighting?”

A sudden explosion rocked the entire starship. Mirida lurched into motion away from the blast.

“What the hell was that?” Rhys yelled, his hands digging into his armrests to keep himself upright. “Who fired on us?”

“I’m scanning the far side of the ship.” Quinn face contorted with panic. “By the Prime, no! Telemar was blown to pieces!”

Rhys threw his focus above and behind Mirida. Debris from the Tarsian starship was still flying outward from where it had been hovering beside them seconds ago.

“Above us, just inside the portal!” Quinn cried out. “Damn it, look at that thing! That’s what the bastards were waiting for!”

In the thin upper atmosphere, far above the capital city, an object larger than a dozen Drahkian warships combined hung in space, an ominous specter silhouetted against the faint blue light of distant Maia. The dull gray dish-shaped monstrosity shifted incrementally to focus the central eye of its concave face on one of the scattering Tarsian starships.

Leto! Duncan, Dhia, it’s aiming at you! Transport out of there! Miros screamed through the link to the starship leaders.

Leto’s sparkling form vanished a split second before a black beam from the dish charred the space where the milky white starship had been and seared through the solar dome, decimating a portion of the city below.

It’s an imperial destroyer! Yuri shrieked. Everyone out! That thing can annihilate all of us in seconds!

The portal is still open! The Alcyoni admiral’s voice trembled. Meet at the ring!

The ships spread across the domed city began to wink out of sight. Mirida’s transport team quickly shifted her up through the portal to a position within the cluster of Alcyone vessels collecting around Corum. Beside them, groups of Maian craft appeared, forming a swath of burnished gold and crystal in front of the orbiting mechanical ring.

The gray destroyer rotated and ascended slowly, pausing to hover over the space where the portal lay open. For several tense moments, the colossal ship hung, suspended and silent, as if awaiting instructions.

While the fleet held its collective breath, a subtle change in hue spread across the surface of the small planet and the domed city below faded from view. The portal had been reconfigured and locked down.

No. Yuri’s softly uttered denial echoed across the open channel.

A few seconds later the gray dish dissolved.

Shocked at their sudden defeat, the pilots sat staring at the empty planet surface. A mourning wail rose over the channel from the fleet of Maian vessels. The voices of the Khalama starships joined the lament while the crews within gradually added their own to the outpouring of grief.

Quinn’s strong voice reverberated within Rai’s small chamber. Rhys knew it would help loosen the knot in his chest to find his voice and sound out his anguish with the rest of the fleet, but it wouldn’t come. The rolling tones washed over him as he sat and listened, his throat locked tighter than a drum.

For long minutes the dirge went on before silence descended. The ships hung in bleak suspension above the quiet, desolate world.

Somewhere down there, two lost cities were going through hell. They had failed to protect the people of Galah from the reptilian nightmare.

Nothing left for us here, Miros’s bitter voice cut in. The Maians will set up patrols. Transporting home on three.

Rhys let his head fall back while the tears streamed down into his hair. Quinn buried his face in his hands.

A planet lost. Pilots lost. A starship obliterated in the blink of an eye.

The battle was over, but the war for Maia had just begun.

X

Rhys was falling.

His ship was gone, Quinn was gone, and he was tumbling through some unknown, endless space. Something grabbed and dropped him, time and time again. He tried in vain to form the transport matrix he knew so well.

Nothing came but the terror, surrounding him like a huge snake squeezing the life out of him. He fought and struggled, and the constrictions increased as if something took pleasure in his torment.

“Let … go!” With a desperate push, he shoved his mind against the suffocating grip and the pressure abated.

Instantly the air sizzled with heat. His lungs were scorched as he sucked in anguished breaths. Flames raged around him, searing his skin as he fell through the center of a roaring column. The blistering pain was excruciating and he cried out in agony while deep, maniacal laughter swirled around his battered body.

“I killed them, human, hundreds of your people! How many were on the ship that my destroyer took down?”

Rhys’s face contorted as the explosions and shouting from a battle flashed all around him. His hands flew to cover his ears, trying to close out the sadistic voice.

“How many did you kill, small man? How many died because of you?”

Two women’s faces fluttered briefly in the flames. Guilt churned in his gut and his eyes searched frantically for another glimpse of his lost friends. “Katherine! Meredith! I’m sorry!”

The voice laughed softly, a touch of surprise seeping into its taunting tone. “That’s your secret, isn’t it? You killed two of your own kind. Does it bother you, human?”

He pulled his arms tightly against his stomach and sobbed.

“Did you have feelings for those women? Was one of them your lover? Both of them?”

Rhys roared in outrage and swung his fists wildly toward the flames.

The invisible battering took on a new force, slamming into his body from every angle. He screamed, but the strikes were relentless.

“I’m coming for your world, human, do you hear me? My beasts will feast on the tender flesh of your family and friends!”

“NO!” A new twist of terror seized his belly as he fought to break free of the horrible voice. He struggled vainly against his rising panic, clutching his hands to his head.

The laughter rumbled on and on. “I’m coming for you, human! I will own you. You are mine!”

* * *

The man was dreaming again. She could feel his fear. He was locked inside a repetitive cycle causing him terrible pain.

The same blue-eyed man had appeared as a tantalizing specter for the past several years in the dreamwalker’s night-time explorations, sporadically at first, but with amplified intensity as time went on. He held an irresistible fascination for her—dark, sensual, luring her with an attraction she couldn’t deny.

She scolded herself every time she woke. It was a fruitless waste of energy, the wishful conjuring of a foolish, idealistic woman.

But now she was sure that the black-haired man was no dream creation. He was real and very much alive. For the past seven nights the threads of his nightmares had moved to cross her dreampath as if magnetized to her. His terrified screams bled into her weavings, disrupting whatever work she had set out to accomplish. Could it be that he needed her? Should she drop what she was doing and find him? Would he recognize her if she showed him the way out of his terror?

The dreamwalker closed her eyes, tethered by the whirlpool of the man’s tangled emotions. She listened to his cries and extended her perception until the locus of his dream came into view. He was falling through a column of flames and twisting in agony. So close. Her hand moved involuntarily to reach for him. The strong attraction pulled at her, sucking her toward the center of his dream. A moment of exhilaration rose and fell before she froze with indecision.

It’s not my concern. The clan is my top priority.

She steeled herself and reeled her attention back to the images of her own dreampath and returned her focus to the beckoning voice she had been tracking. It felt benevolent and she was determined to hunt it through the Dreamcore down to its source.

This was her work, the purpose she understood. For the moment, it was enough. She would make it enough.

The man’s screams faded in her mind as she resumed her trek across a vast plain of white sand which glowed beneath an ocean of cobalt blue. There was something her eye could barely discern at the foot of a range of mountains which spread across the horizon.

The faint echo of the cryptic voice floated ahead of her and she walked in silence under the bright light of an unknown moon.

* * *

Rhys jerked awake in the darkness of his private apartment in the fleet residential quarter, shaking uncontrollably, his body covered in cold sweat. He struggled to slow his choppy breath and racing heart, and pounded his fist on the mattress in angry frustration. Damn it! He had no control when that horrible voice invaded his dreams. Every night since Galah, the menacing shadow stalked him as he slept. Infuriated, he shook his disheveled head as a strangled shriek of rage tore from his throat.

He jumped up from the wreckage of bed sheets and paced restlessly back and forth across the dimly lit room. “Get a grip. It was just a dream.”

An image of the Orchid House, his favorite oasis of solitude and comfort, sprang up in his mind. He could transport over to Tintágel and take a walk out through his gardens to the isolated greenhouse. The cool night air of the coastal estate would do him good.

No, he thought impatiently, tonight he needed something more tactile that would calm his nerves and diffuse the tension binding his muscles. He knew just the place where he could find it.

He touched his fingertips to his temples and reached for connection with one of his oldest friends who resided in the teeming waters of Tarsus’s Fourth Shade. What he intended as a soft mental call came bursting across the channel as a jarring blast. E’liak, are you there?!?

Silvery laughter wafted through his skull. Is that you, Rhys? Feels like your circuits are a bit singed.

The familiar contact slid around him like an icy balm, soothing his frayed emotions. Care to have some company for a while?

You know I could never resist the tenuous honor of your presence. Come on out. E’liak’s chiming voice trailed off into the distance, seemingly unconcerned with his human friend’s disturbed state of mind.

Without bothering to dress, Rhys sounded the proper tones in his mind and transported himself onto a crescent-shaped, black pebble beach. The wide lagoon glistened under the soft light of the small twin moons overhead.

He closed his eyes and let his head roll back, raising his arms out from his sides to allow the cool, salty breeze to wash over his skin. Slowly he walked into the soft surf of the lagoon until he could slide into the waves and head for deeper water. He alternated between swimming and floating on his back, knowing E’liak would find him in his own time.

A sudden slam into his backside knocked him from his restful floating. Quick reflexes sent his arm flying out to the right, barely catching hold of a slippery fin as a huge, sleek body surged to the surface. E’liak broke into the air and spurted a blast of warm spray which blew straight into his face, making him wince and nearly miss pulling in a lungful of air before the cetacean dove.

Damn it, E’liak! You’re going to drown me!

Nice to see you, too, Rhys. Need some air?

Yeeeesssss!

He held onto the fin in desperation as the dolphin charged back up to the surface. The moment he felt air on his face, he let go, flailing his arms while struggling to regain his sense of balance. He flipped his hair out of his eyes and took deep, gasping breaths while the silhouette of dark fin circled a dozen yards away.

So what has shriveled your manhood to embarrassing proportions? The cetacean’s voice crackled with laughter.

Bad dreams, out of control. Threats by a voice, same voice every night since Galah. He coughed and spluttered, treading water to keep himself afloat.

Ah, The Great Demon. The Dark Threat. The Scourge of the Known Universe. Rhys Talrésian’s Evil Bane–

I don’t know how to stop it, E’liak! Two of my friends died in that battle because of me! I haven’t slept well in a bloody week and I feel shredded!

Relax, dear human. E’liak flipped his body up and out of the water before disappearing into a dive.

Where are you going, you lousy fish? He cupped his hand to send a splash of water toward the spot where he had seen E’liak’s tail.

Several minutes passed with no sound from the depths. Just when he thought he’d been abandoned for the night, the surface of the water about fifty feet to his left was broken by the sprays of five large bodies. He was quickly surrounded by E’liak’s pod who circled him languidly under the star-filled sky.

His body went limp the moment he felt the first tingling twinges of an energy construct forming around him. He tuned his focus inward and sensed a sound form, woven by the five dolphins, inaudible to his normal hearing, which buoyed his body in the moonlit water. Every ounce of tension drained from his muscles as the sound washed away the exhaustion and slowly filled him with renewed vitality.

Thank you. He picked up five sets of cetacean smiles before the group silently disappeared, leaving him to float by himself, his mind a peaceful blank.

After what seemed like hours of tranquility, E’liak’s soft spray hissed above the surface of the water somewhere off to his right. The dolphin waited patiently for Rhys to break the silence.

They’re coming and I don’t know how to stop them.

So you dream.

I feel so vulnerable, helpless.

Perhaps that’s what they want you to feel. You’re playing their game.

I have a choice?

Always. But you’ve grown up with the fear. All of you in First Shade have. Now the Empire is knocking down the back door and it’s time to face the music. Find a new game, Rhys. E’liak dove and resurfaced a few minutes later.

How do you do it, E’liak, you and the rest of the pod? None of you ever seem disturbed or act like you take the coming threat at all seriously.

E’liak flicked his head and clicked with laughter. Why should we? You spend enough energy worrying for all of us combined!

Doesn’t it upset you that we’re targeted for takeover?

You forget, my friend, cetacean purpose here is to help Tarsus maintain health and integrity. That’s why we accepted the party invitation in the first place. Unless the day comes when Tarsus is too wounded to sustain us or visa versa, we’ll weave our sound webs for him. If we’re ever drummed out of physical existence here, we’ll simply go somewhere else.

I wish I had your peace of mind.

E’liak splashed him playfully with his left fin. We all follow our own natures. There’s nothing wrong with yours, Rhys. On the contrary. I wouldn’t miss the entertainment you provide for all the sardines in three seas. With a dramatic lunge into the air and crack of his tail on the surface, the cetacean was gone.

Rhys turned his head to the side and studied the starscape, locating Maia low on the horizon. Somewhere around it was tiny lost Galah. The ominous voice had followed him home from the battle, taunting him, hammering at his self-confidence. He had to get a handle on his fears and the guilt over Katherine and Meredith or he would be no good to anyone. These frantic dreams had to stop.

E’liak’s words drifted back through his mind. Find a new game.

With smooth, steady strokes, he made his way back to the lagoon and waded slowly out of the water. He gave his black mane a shake and stood for a few moments listening to the surf lap around his feet.

Grateful for the gift of healing and the brief respite of peace, he picked up a small white shell from the beach and imprinted it mentally with a message of thanks to the cetaceans before throwing it far out into the lagoon. He turned his focus inward and transported back to his chamber with the intention of sleeping deeply for the remainder of the night. He fervently hoped it would be undisturbed.

* * *

Deep, rasping laughter filled the private room. Biak’s breathing was harsh and fast. His body quivered with wave after wave of ecstasy. He let his head fall to the side on the heated recliner, his eyes half-closed as incredible pleasure engulfed his entire frame. Oh yes, this was sweet reward for all the years of torment he’d endured from his cruel grandfather back home on Bahár or out on assignment, chafing under Bálok’s harsh orders. The thrill of domination and conquest for his own gain was immensely gratifying and it would only get better, for he had barely begun to explore the possibilities laid out in front of him with this tantalizing new game.

The warlord shifted his languid gaze to the object he held in his hand. It mystified him, but it was certainly proving to be useful. He opened the clawed digits of his right hand and carefully examined his new toy. A small, faceted red stone was suspended at the center of an intricate set of wires which looked like spun gold. He knew the stone could rotate within the small, perfectly balanced tetrahedron. It had been spinning rapidly while its previous owner offered it on her trembling, outstretched palm attempting to barter for her life.

From the moment he’d laid eyes on the sparkling web of gold, it had drawn him with an irresistible force, and with one sweeping swipe, he had killed the groveling woman and wrested the golden object out of her death grip. The instant it came in contact with his skin, the vision of a dark-haired human had flooded his mind and he was suddenly pulled into the middle of the battle going on up above the domed city. The man was flying one of those tiny, crystal-like craft from the Alcyoni fleet and was being pursued by his brother in his expensive, prized black fighter.

The experience had been utterly astonishing. He could see what the man saw, hear the man speak, and, most deliciously, feel the human’s anguished emotions when his brother destroyed one of the other small vessels.

Biak shivered, remembering how the heat of the pilot’s rage had rippled through his own flesh, followed by the wildly satisfying pleasure of watching his brother’s fighter fall into the man’s sights mere seconds before it was completely vaporized. He was rid of that pretentious prick without lifting a finger himself.

As luck would have it, the magic of the gold hadn’t stopped with that one isolated vision. Hours later, after his second-in-command had salvaged the botched raid on this god-forsaken rock, he’d pulled the object out of his pocket, only to find himself inexplicably connected once again with the Alcyoni pilot. The black-haired man seemed to be dreaming and, much to Biak’s delight, he discovered he could taunt the human in Mothertongue and cause him pain simply by thinking it, a weirdly bizarre experience which he found intensely stimulating.

The warlord rolled his head from side to side and smiled. Such exquisite satiation. The muscles of his eight-and-a-half-foot frame twitched with the aftermath of the night’s harvest as he stretched his long limbs and shifted on the warm leather cushion.

Of course, as enjoyable as he found this new pastime, he knew that tormenting the human was nothing more than cream. A far more important opportunity had been laid at his feet through this fortuitous turn of events—a hook into the axis star system of Alcyone. With cunning, skill, and balls, he would be master of more than just the seven worlds of Maia. He would steal the prize of Alcyone for himself before Emperor Izar’s grandson Bazh got off his sorry ass to claim it, and no one could stop him.

Tossing the golden device into the air and catching it in his huge fist, Biak laughed again, the rumbling sound bouncing off the chamber walls. Thanks to this tiny little device, he would soon have the power to break away from his loathsome grandfather and enough wealth to build an army to bring Bálok down.

X

AGITATION

Karra Jas Khurias wove her way through the corridors to the common eating hall of the caverns, her thoughts turned inward to the events of the previous night. As usual, she had awakened at first light with clear, sharp awareness, energized both mentally and physically from walking the Dreamcore.

A touch of excitement lightened her steps. There was much to discuss with the elder dreamwalkers and she anticipated an eager reaction from her mentors when she shared her experiences in their meeting later that afternoon. She grabbed a bowl of honeyed oatmeal and seated herself at a vacant table by the wall, digging in to her morning meal while she reviewed the night’s dreamwalk and prepared her words for the upcoming meeting.

After the first few bites, her concentration wavered and she lowered the spoon absently to the table. The important dream discovery which should have consumed her complete attention dissolved into a pair of steel-blue eyes. Echoes of the man’s cries ripped through her mind, clawing at her heart. She had left him yet again, a cowardly decision she’d regretted and swept aside the moment she decided to walk away. What was she so afraid of? The intensity of her own attraction to this man?

Karra winced, ashamed to admit that her own insecurities were exactly what had stopped her, but her personal fears were no excuse for abandoning someone in such desperate straits. She had the skills to enter his dreams and weave the few strands he needed to lead him out of his cycle of terror, perhaps even show him how to change the traumatic dreams himself. She would simply have to keep tight control over private feelings which had nothing to do with the stranger and his plight. If she was discreet with her assistance, he would never even detect her presence nor remember her when he awoke.

Yes, now she had a plan. If the dark-haired man’s dreams crossed her path again tonight, she would carefully step in to help and her conscience would be clear.

Karra took several more bites of her breakfast before dropping the spoon into the bowl once more. She should feel better about her decision, so why did her body still clench with queasy apprehension at the thought of entering his dreams?

Not just dreams, she corrected herself—nightmares. The depth of the man’s terror was more extreme than anything she had experienced in her waking life or in dreamwalking, where daily fears were often magnified out of proportion. The more she thought about it, the more certain she became that there was something very dark, very threatening about the man’s dreams which frightened her.

Impatient with her own hesitance, Karra quickly decided she could do something about it right now. At the very least, perhaps she could pinpoint exactly what it was in the dreams that was so disturbing. She pushed her breakfast aside and straightened her shoulders, turning her mind’s eye inward to send a portion of her awareness back into the Dreamcore to search for the fading afterimages of last night’s encounter.

The jagged energy of the man’s dream construct was easy to sense and locate. Karra kept her projected view outside the dream fragment and watched the man fall through a narrow column of flames, screaming as the fire seared his skin. Her emotions fluttered, but she squelched the quick rise of her own attraction to focus on what the man was experiencing within the dream. Despite the pain, he seemed to be attempting to do something. Over and over, his face tightened in concentration. Everything she sensed about him felt normal, afraid and tense, but normal. The flames, the falling were all typical fear manifestations. So where was the disturbance?

A deep voice rang through the dream, laughing and taunting the man. There. Karra’s solar plexus flared and led her directly to the source of her unease. That voice. It was not just a creation from the man’s mind. Something was attached to that voice. No, someone was attached to that voice. By the Prime, no wonder she felt apprehensive about walking the man’s dreams. He was being attacked by an outside force.

From her perspective outside the dream fragment, Karra could feel a thread of energy attached to it from somewhere beyond, leading off into the void of the Dreamcore. Focusing her senses on the unwelcome presence, she sent a probe along the thread into the darkness, searching for its source.

Bright yellow eyes within a grayish-green pebbled face rushed forward to meet her. Long spikes crested the huge head and the wide mouth below a sleek snout lay partially open, exposing long rows of razor-sharp teeth. Laughter rolled from the reptilian’s broad chest and his breathing was fast and harsh. He was clearly in some kind of ecstatic state, with taut, charged energy running through every muscle of his massive body.

Shocked, Karra jerked violently in her chair and her eyes flew open, breaking the mental connection. A Drahk was tormenting the man. What kind of trouble was he in? And did she want to have anything to do with it? Had the beast sensed her mental probe?

The whole thing was unheard of. The Drahks supposedly did not have any kind of psychic skill or the ability to manipulate someone else’s dreams, a primary reason her people felt relatively safe walking the Dreamcore. What she had just seen held serious ramifications for everyone she knew.

The dreamwalker wiped the sudden sweat from her forehead and looked around. Fortunately no one in the dining hall had noticed her odd behavior, but she certainly should have known better than to pull such a stunt in the middle of a crowd.

She rallied her composure and jumped to her feet, scooping up her bowl and tossing it hastily onto a stack of dishes waiting to be cleared. She left the dining hall in a flurry and headed for the growing fields to take her place in the morning ceremony. She was already running late and she could not allow herself to fail in her commitments.

As she hurried along the corridor leading to the upper fields, Karra reluctantly realized that the enigma of the alluring, dark-haired man and his Drahkian pursuer would have to be discussed with the elder dreamwalkers. If she followed through with her resolve to help the man, it could prove dangerous, both to her and the Schedaran clans. A solid course of action needed to be planned before sleep, for surely tonight as she wove her dreampath, the nightmare would find her again.

* * *

 

The conference room was stifling. Djan Talrésian ran his hands through his sandy blond hair in an attempt to quiet his agitation, a condition that seemed to have taken hold of his crew and just about everyone he had spoken with over the past seven days, including the Khalama starships in their own unique way. With so many unanswered questions after the Drahks’ attack in Maia, anxiety was running incredibly high.

The loss of Telemar and all of his crew cut deeply into the psyche of the whole Alcyoni fleet. Djan could still hear Sanos Kataryan’s dry one-liners and his wife Irena’s brash laughter bouncing off the walls of this very room. It was still hard to grasp that nearly five hundred people and ships had been blown out of the sky in a matter of seconds.

The deaths of fleet members from other starships had been just as devastating. Mirida alone had lost five crystalline interceptors and their ten pilots. His brother had looked haggard and withdrawn at the funeral ceremony held two days after Galah to honor the dead. No doubt he was torturing himself with guilt over losing three from his team.

Since the battle, Miros had put all forty-three starships in the fleet on active alert, with round the clock watches set up over each of the primary and secondary portals of Alcyone’s eleven inhabited worlds. Djan and Tyla had put their crew through countless runs and practice maneuvers with other Tarsian vessels and twice they had joined starships from Chi, Ki, and Niemi for mock battles and transport drills over Dunn in Alcyone’s outer belt. The specter of unfinished business in Maia hung over their heads like a blade waiting to fall and the need to be prepared consumed every waking moment.

Djan shifted his large frame in an attempt to get comfortable. The meeting hadn’t even begun and he was squirming like a small child.

“Can we get some air in here?”

“Sure, Djan. I’ll take care of it.” Mairi Buchanan got up and moved down the steps of the tiered, conical chamber. At the bottom of the stairs, she darted across the stream of traffic pouring in through the entrance hallway and spoke a few soft words into a small panel in the wall. Several louvered windows in the upper translucent dome of the ceiling opened and a gentle waft of air began to spiral down into the large room.

Djan sighed, chiding himself for his unnecessary waspishness, and nodded his thanks to the tiny starship leader as she returned to her seat down the row beside her husband Kip.

Tyla reached for Djan’s hand under the table. “Relax, dragon eyes,” she whispered, sending him a warm, sensuous smile.

Before she pulled her hand away, Djan clamped down on his hold. Not for the first time, he wondered what his life would be like without his beautiful, lissom wife. He’d been in love with her since childhood and the intensely sexual relationship which ignited between them at the academy had made them ideal candidates to become starship leaders, since that bond was requisite in flying the great Khalama starships.

While conversation buzzed softly around them, Djan let his gaze wander over Tyla’s silky sienna skin and the graceful curve of her neck. His pulse raced at the mere thought of touching her, and when her golden eyes flashed with a responding spark, he grinned and squeezed her hand again before releasing it, feeling the tight coil in his midsection begin to loosen. “Later,” he mouthed silently before pulling his attention back to the conference room to concentrate on the problems at hand.

The large room was packed with the top officers of the Tarsian fleet: starship leaders and bridge team leads, high-ranking officers from headquarters, and senior faculty members from the academy. The bottom tier above the floor had been reserved for key figureheads from around the globe. Several of the original Makhás masters from Sirius were clustered together on one side, their powerful builds, snowy white hair, fur, and black stripes a stark contrast to the sea of Tarsians in navy blue fleet uniforms. Kirian Vall sat with his arms crossed and conversed with Arman Sijía, Director of the Portal Center up in Ness. Kalden Ngari, head of the Center for Geometrics, stood speaking with his son Anil, Tarsian Vice Admiral and starship leader with his wife Nandi. Kalden’s elderly mother Tenzin was seated beside a dusky-skinned human, the renowned crystal master Adi Batur.

“Quite an impressive line-up,” Tyla murmured above the hum. “Where would we be without each one of those people?”

“Still blowing things up with limp-dick lasers.”

“True enough, and a lot more of us would probably be dead right now.”

“Duncan and Dhia would be for sure.” Djan’s eyes slid briefly up across the room to the Caledonian leaders and bridge officers who had narrowly escaped annihilation by the Drahkian destroyer.

A swell of sound rose as Miros Silesian strode through the entryway with his wife Lita, the first couple on Tarsus to be trained by the Makhás to fly a Khalama starship. The petite blonde slid into a seat next to Kirian while the admiral walked over to the podium and control panel on the far side of the floor. The tall, trim man tipped his dark head up toward the large viewscreen mounted high on the wall behind him, nodding while an officer briefed him on the communications set-up that linked the conference room with meeting rooms at Fleet Headquarters on Chi, Ki, and Niemi.

“Add the Silesians to the ‘where-would-we-be’ group and that leaves—”

“The loud one. Speak of the devil.” Djan crossed his arms and watched his charismatic grandfather stride down the entry hall surrounded by four aides with headsets and tablets. “Lord, don’t they ever leave him alone?”

“Oh, come on. You know perfectly well that he’s the one who keeps them hopping. He’s been that way since we were kids. That man thrives on overdrive.”

Djan snorted softly, knowing she was right. Growing up, he’d always seen Magnus as larger than life, a brawny man with the force and energy of ten men, a towering hero who had once been a fleet pilot and gone on to become the captain of the starship Zephyr. As an adult, Djan realized his view of his grandfather hadn’t changed all that much. Mag was now the High Councilor of Andara and spokesman for the entire Tarsian High Council, wielding more political clout than anyone else on the planet.

As Magnus issued instructions to his staff at the edge of the floor, a dark-haired man with a regal bearing walked silently around the buzzing cluster. A bright smile lit the counselor’s face and his hand shot out to clap the man fondly on the shoulder.

“I didn’t know my dad was going to be here.” Djan grinned and waved as Kahl glanced up and caught his eye before taking a seat next to Lita Silesian. As quiet and unassuming as Magnus was bombastic, the prominent historian at the University of Krii knew more about the Drahkian Empire and its movement than anyone in the system.

“Makes sense that he was invited,” Tyla remarked. “Miros probably wants him to help analyze the battle and try to project the next target.”

“Ok, everyone, let’s get started.” Miros’s rich voice cut through the buzz of the room. He paused and waited for people to quiet and settle down, and glanced over at the cluster of people standing in the entryway. “Mag?”

“Yeah, we’re good.” Magnus wrapped up his instructions to his aides who turned and hurried back down the hall while the councilor flipped off his own headset and took a seat next to Kahl.

“Alright. It’s been a rough week for all of us. I know I’ve put all of you through a tough schedule and it’s not going to stop. There’s no such thing as being too ready.” The admiral slid his hands into his pockets and took up a casual pacing at the front of the room while he spoke. The perfectly balanced acoustics carried his voice clearly to the highest rows of officers in the cavernous room.

“As I said at the funeral service a few days ago, it was a real blow to lose Telemar and everyone else who went down. It’s one thing to know that people and ships are destroyed in battles, but it always hits hard when it happens. The damned thing was, we were winning.” He stopped and glanced over at Lita and Magnus. “It’s not like it was in Merope. Granted, it was a small force we were up against on Galah, but our plans, our new abilities—they’re working.” He shifted his gaze to the group of Makhás clustered in front of him. “We’re on the right track. I know it.”

Kalden Ngari nodded and put an arm around his smiling, elderly mother, the first to have seen the potential in teaching the Alcyoni the advanced skills they had brought with them from Sirius.

“We still can’t stand up to those destroyers,” Duncan Cameron called out. “And we don’t know how they break the portals in the first place.” The room rumbled with murmurs of agreement.

Miros raised his head and looked around, studying the sea of concerned faces. “Yeah, we’ll talk about those things. We have a long list of challenges yet to overcome if we’re going to survive the spread of the Empire.” The admiral turned and started to pace again while he collected his thoughts. “Let’s start off with where we stand right now. I know everyone in the fleet is feeling unsettled and anxious, especially those who went to Galah. We’re all on pins and needles wondering when the next hit will happen. Tension is running high through the entire population here on Tarsus and I imagine it’s the same everywhere else in Alcyone.” He lifted his eyes up toward the faces of the three admirals displayed on the split screen above him.

“You’ve got that right,” Yao Kang of Chi declared. “I don’t know how many times I’ve had to calm people down this past week.”

Kometani Mitsu shook her head. “It’s been really crazy all over Ki, especially here in Shido. My staff has fielded hundreds of calls from worried business leaders and politicians. People seem to be a lot more affected by an attack in Maia than they were during the Meropean War.”

“Yes, I find it strange, but the same phenomenon is prevalent on Niemi as well.” Marcel Girard stroked his beard as he mulled over the issue. “Perhaps all the attention we’ve received over the past several decades while we built the new ships finally woke people up to the very real danger we’re facing.”

“At least we’ve gotten them to wake up,” Miros added with a note of exasperation. “Offworlders and merchants, on the other hand, have always had a keen sense of what transpires across the galactic network. They have to in order to stay alive. Kirian, I’m sure you and the other portal masters have seen evidence of that in the last seven days.”

The Makhás nodded solemnly. “Word must have spread quickly about the Drahks in Maia. Incoming traffic from Alcyone worlds as well as other planetary systems has dropped dramatically through both portals. We’ve got a lot of folks cooling their heels here in Krii and up in Ness, just waiting to see if there will be any further incursions. Few are willing to risk being caught between planetary portals if Drahkian ships are on the move.”

Magnus piped up and made a sour face. “Yeah, and there’s been a lot of screaming from all parts of the globe over stalled trade. Crikey, people act as if we could just make the Drahks disappear by snapping our fingers.”

“You can tell them that I’ve got two of the older starships and one Khalama stationed on guard duty over each Alcyoni portal,” Miros suggested. “That includes Ubad, Ra-ki, and the four outworlds who don’t have starships of their own.”

“Thanks, that ought to calm a few feathers.”

“I’ll wager the lull will be short-lived,” Kirian threw out. “The natural pressures of business will get people moving once they get over their initial fears. Merchants are generally not inclined to sit still for long.”

The admiral nodded his head. “I agree. We’ll have to trust for the moment that the situation will correct itself. Alright, before we take a closer look at Galah, let’s fill everyone in on a couple key developments. Magnus, tell us what’s happening on Tiān Lóng.”

The high councilor shifted in his seat and glanced up at Admiral Yao. “The adepts stationed on Chi’s third moon have had their hands full for the past week, to say the least. Shi Mia, the head of the project, reported that her specialized teams handled the incoming ships sent over from Galah like clockwork. The transporters aboard Tengfei in orbit over Tiān Lóng hit the occupants with hard mental slams to knock them out as soon as the ships appeared before sending them down into the underground caverns of the base. The few females found on board the warships were separated out and sent on to the smaller facility we’ve got set up on Shinju, Ki’s second moon.”

“So how many did we snare?”

“Over a thousand Drahks from the two warships alone plus dozens more from the single pilot crafts and transports.” A swell of murmurs buzzed through the sea of officers. “They also offloaded hundreds of saur beasts and their reptilian keepers as well as penned herds of bovine animals and two groups of captive humans from several races which were flown over to a recovery center in Chi’s capital of Jinhua.”

The admiral winced and shook his head. “Any of our reptilian guests talking to us yet?”

“No, and since that’s one of the reasons we designed this whole system, it’s more than a small concern. As some of you are aware, I pulled Dieter van der Meer, one of Andara’s past high councilors, away from his business and enlisted his help in establishing communication with our captives. Since none of us speak Drahkian, he and his team have made numerous attempts to get through to them in Mothertongue. Nothing. The weird thing is, after the Drahks woke up in the middle of the compound we built to house them, they ran off into the jungles, every last one of them.”

“What?”

“Yep, the compound is a ghost town. We expected the animals to wander off in search of game since they weren’t penned, but the Drahks disappearing was a complete surprise. The only evidence they were ever there was a scattered collection of discarded heatsuits left out in the trees beyond the barracks.”

“Damn. That’s going to make Dieter’s job a lot harder.”

“Granted. Mia’s underground teams are keeping careful track of the Drahks on the surface and studying everything they can—movement, habits, behaviors, physical traits. It’s the first time any of us have been this close to them. She and Dieter will keep us posted with updates on their progress.”

“What about the ships we captured?”

“They’ve all been sent over to Master Engineer Li Xiangting’s underground facilities on Chi. I’m sure he’s got his teams working round the clock to disassemble and analyze the Drahkian technology. If anybody can figure out their secrets, it’s Xiangting.”

“Let’s hope so. We’re all in agreement with Duncan. We need to get ahead of their destructive technology in order to defend against it. On the home front, Adi, can you give us the status on the new Alcyoni ships you and Tenzin are overseeing?”

“I’d be happy to.” The short crystal master from the spiritual colonies of Ubad, Alcyone’s small third planet, stood up and clasped his hands together in front of him. “With so many grave issues challenging our worlds, I have the rare privilege of sharing something quite magical and joyous with all of you. I consider myself the most fortunate of men to be able to work with the luminous entities who come to inhabit the great ships we create as well as this amazing master here at my side.” He turned a fond smile to the elderly tigerwoman who beamed up at him. “We are well pleased with the progress of the building teams at each of the incubation centers throughout Alcyone. New ships should be ready to be birthed inside two months on Chi and Ki, with another to follow within three on Niemi.”

“That’s welcome news, Adi.”

“Yes, indeed. And the best news I have to share is that, thanks to the superlative efforts of the engineers out at the base in the Shardans and the special team I brought with me from Ubad, the new ships here on Tarsus will be finished ahead of schedule. We will birth the starship and all of her interceptor vessels in two weeks’ time on the solstice.”

“Yesssss!” An exuberant shout from Olof Helsin rang through the room.

“And we have a name,” the crystal master called up to the grinning team who would fly the new ship. “We’ve been speaking with the entity who will become the next Khalama and she told us what she has chosen.” He glanced down at the petite Makhás master beside him and spoke softly. “You tell them.”

The elder dropped her eyes and demurely shook her white head.

Adi lowered one hand toward the seated elder before turning a broad smile up to the packed rows of officers. “The ship wants to be called Tenzin in honor of this wonderful lady.”

The room erupted with cheers and applause. Djan grinned at Tyla and added his own deep hoots to the calls of support and approval.

Miros stepped toward the modest Makhás and gave her a deep bow of respect, raising his head with a quiet smile. He spoke a few soft words with her while the heartening acclaim settled and slowly dropped away. Adi took his seat again while the admiral turned and walked back to the podium.

The tall man stood for a few moments before looking up again. “It’s nice to have something to feel good about in the midst of difficulty. I’d like to express how proud I am of each and every one of you for the part you play in defending our worlds and for being strong enough to do something bold and different in order to meet the violence threatening to swallow us all. And now I have to draw on your strength again so we can look at the brutal and ugly reality of the Drahkian Empire. We have to face it head on if we’re going to find the solutions we need.”

Miros glanced down and pressed a button on the control panel in front of him. The striking image of a white, crested, bird-like head with royal blue eye bands and dark irises appeared in the large split screen alongside the Alcyoni admirals. Miros turned his face upward to greet the leader of the Maian fleet. “Yuri, thank you for joining us. I know it’s the middle of the night in Ibissam.”

The Tori trilled a greeting which echoed through the chamber. “It’s not a problem, Miros. I haven’t been getting much sleep lately anyway.” The Maian admiral glanced over at his old friend seated in the front row. “Hey, Mag.”

The councilor tipped his head and smiled broadly. “Hey.”

“Any changes in Maia we should know about, Yuri?”

“Nothing much to speak of. Our patrols reported that a couple cargo vessels were released by the Drahks through Galah’s portal for some unfathomable reason and our people allowed them to pass on through the transport ring. Other than that, we’ve seen no warship activity since we were locked out of the portal.”

“How are things at home?”

“Tense, a bit chaotic. Our high councils and fleet officers have been in non-stop meetings it seems. Everyone’s upset.”

“Understandably. We’re all here to do some brainstorming as well. I’ll report our concerns and projections when I come to Turaco in two days.”

“Good. Any and all ideas are welcome.”

“Yuri, you told me a couple days ago that you created a holo of your last communication with the Portal Center on Galah. Can you share it with our folks?”

“Yes, but I’ll warn you right off, it’s more than a bit disturbing.”

“I know, but I think we ought to see what happened before we got there.”

“Ok, I’m setting it up here. The transmission should be coming through your system any moment.”

The translucent image of a slender, silver-haired woman appeared in the middle of the open space high above the conference room floor. Her pale features were taut with strain.

“That’s Shelindra Dosen, Galah’s Senior Portal Master. The first views you’ll see are what I saw when she put the call through to me. Later the view shifts to what she saw after I linked my perspective with hers.”

The urgent voices of the portal master and the Tori admiral began to echo in the chamber.

Yuri! Yuri, can you hear me? This is an emergency! We’ve been attacked!

Shelindra? Yes, I’m here!

The Drahks broke through the portal locks about fifteen minutes ago. They just appeared outside the portal and then rammed into it with some kind of energy blast. The grid is a mess. I tried to repair it and force them out, but I haven’t been able … I just can’t … manage to— The shaken woman paused, her face twisting with pain.

Are you alright?

The portal master rubbed her forehead and forced herself to go on. It was very … disruptive.

Where’s Tavi?

Unconscious. He’s bleeding, maybe dead. I called him at home when I saw the gray warships. He transported in to help me hold the portal, but the breakthrough hit him hard. All of my tuners were knocked unconscious. The woman gestured toward the floor around her. I’m the only one still standing. She froze and swung her head to the side as if listening for something. The Peregrine just took off. I told Merl to get out of here and join you at Turaco, but I hear weapon fire. The Drahks must be just above the dome! Oh god! Please, Yuri, come as quickly as you can!

I’m mobilizing the fleet right now, Shelindra. We’ll be there in minutes. How many ships broke through?

The woman closed her eyes. I’m scanning. I see eight warships, big. They’re spreading out over the entire city.

Eight? What—hold on a second. The Peregrine just transported in above Turaco’s portal.

You have her? Thank the Prime. The portal master’s body sagged in relief. Yuri, call the Alcyoni. We’re going to need Tiān Lóng.

I just opened a link with Miros, Shelindra. They’re on their way. Hold on, we’ll get you out of there.

The woman’s thin face contorted as she continued to scan. By the Prime, no! Several transport vessels are headed straight down here to the landing pads. Two of them are moving fast. I … can’t … shift them.

Don’t try! Get out of the building! Keep the link open, if you can.

I’ve got to warn everyone. They don’t know what’s coming. The image of the distraught woman wobbled as she moved with difficulty toward the exit, stepping around people lying on the floor. She pushed her way through the doors of the central chamber and began to run down the hall of the small portal center.

Get out! Everyone out! The Drahks are about to land! If you can transport, grab someone and leave!

Thunderstruck men and women poured into the hallway from adjoining offices. Some disappeared, but most began to scramble in panic toward the outer exits. Within seconds, the scene was in chaos. Yells and shouts drowned out the exhausted portal master’s hoarse calls. She stumbled once, but managed to remain upright in the middle of the clot of terrified people pushing to get out of the building. The moment she made it through the open doorway, the sound of a wild roar rose above the commotion.

That was a saur, Shelindra!

It came from the landing pad.

The portal master pulled herself away from the frightened people fleeing down the sidewalks and leaned heavily against the side of the building, panting while she closed her eyes to send out another scan.

Yuri, can you see this? Follow my link. The images in the holo shifted as the admiral’s mind joined Shelindra’s mental focus and moved out beyond the buildings at the perimeter of the landing field.

Two blackish transports were on the ground in the middle of the expanse of concrete. The ends of the long, blocky vessels were wide open and the unmistakable figures of tall, crested Drahks in dark green garb armed with disruptor rifles sauntered down the steel mesh ramps. Gigantic reptilian beasts held on chains by their stocky, hulking keepers scurried past them in droves, eager and frantic to begin their hunt. At least a dozen shrieking animals had already been let loose and were running with alarming determination across the pad toward the portal center compound.

Shelindra sucked in a loud, horrified breath and let go of her visual scan. The holo images snapped back to the slender woman leaning against the wall next to the side door of the building. She glanced aside at the thinning stream of people running down the walkway toward the city streets.

It’s going to be a massacre.

Shelindra, shift out of there! Go home or hide somewhere in the city. I’ll find you! I’ve got to take over my ship now so I can bring the fleet. We’re coming.

Alright, Yuri, I’ll … I’ll go home. She pushed away from the wall and pressed her hands to her temples. I’m just so tired.

A shrill cry pierced the air. Disconcerted, Shelindra turned her head in the direction of the terrifying sound. A sleek black raptor tore around the corner and raced toward her with blinding speed. The portal master’s face knotted with strain and she appeared to be trying desperately to form a transport matrix to shift herself away, but her terror-stricken gaze was locked on the charging beast with wild, dilated eyes. The saur let out a delirious screech in hungry anticipation of a kill and whipped its slavering black head forward, lashing downward to snap her into its jaws. Shelindra’s wrenching scream split the air, jerking with pain in short bursts before it was abruptly cut short.

The bloody scene winked out as the holo ended and shut down.

Utter stillness hung in the conference room. Djan looked around at the expressions of his fellow officers, frozen in shock. They all knew what had been happening on the surface that day, but no one had seen it. He glanced down at Kirian and Arman Sijía, and saw that both portal masters were visibly quite shaken.

“Ok, people, don’t let it get stuck in your gut,” Miros began in a low voice. “Take a deep breath and send it down to Tarsus.”
After several moments, the admiral sniffed and turned around to look up at the wide screen. “Yuri, I don’t know how you held it together through the battle after experiencing that.”

“I’ve been fighting the Drahks most of my life, Miros, and I can tell you, it never gets any easier.”

“I appreciate you sharing the holo with us. Go get some sleep.”

“No arguments there. I’ll sign off then. Walk with the Prime, Alcyoni Fleet.” The Tori whistled a brief salute and was gone.

Kalden Ngari was the first to break the heavy silence. “I remember the day we lost our own portal on Lyonnae. We were attacked by the ruling Shitza military who had the Empire behind them and the benefit of Drahkian technology. Our portal masters experienced the same kind of disruptive force that Shelindra described. It mangled the energetic threads of our portal and trapped us on the planet for over thirty years. The only clue we ever got about the Drahks’ peculiar devices was discovered by Arman.”

Miros took a few steps away from the podium and shifted his gaze from Kalden over to the brawny Makhás master. “Arman, for the benefit of our younger officers, can you please recount your experiences in the Lyonnae capital? You got close to a portal lock, didn’t you?”

Arman nodded his tawny head. “Yes, and so did Senga Shengeti. Since we both have lion coloring, we were able to walk among the Shitza unnoticed. Senga made the first attempt to find the device that locked down the primary portal over Edu. He said he could feel the thing before he ever got into the Portal Center where it was housed. It was like, let’s see, how did he put it?”

“‘A dark ball of potent, jagged energy,’” Kalden filled in.

“That’s right, thanks. He couldn’t get a sigil probe close to it and nearly got himself killed because he said it ‘fuzzed’ his mind. When I went to Edu, I got the same results every time I tried to remote view the device, so I—”

“Got a job in the Portal Center,” Kirian snarled, “as a janitor.”

“Yeah, drove him crazy,” the big portal master added with a grin. “No one was allowed in the room where they kept the device, even lowly janitors, but I learned from the people who worked there that they were all terrified of the officers and techs who operated the portal lock. Everyone called it ‘The Beast’ because it needed blood to operate. People were murdered on a regular basis to keep the device working.”

A loud, disturbed murmur reverberated through the room. The admiral held up a hand and waited until the noise settled down. “Kahl, have you come across anything like this in your research?”

“Bits and snatches. I’ve heard rumors that killing or sacrifice have something to do with their machines, but it was all fearful supposition, nothing definitive. It must be one of the most carefully guarded secrets in the Empire.”

Miros nodded gravely as he walked back and forth at the front of the room. “This is one of our top priorities, people. Xiangting and his teams are already watching for any sign of this bizarre blood factor in the Drahkian ships and equipment we’ve captured, but I have a feeling they won’t find anything until we nail the flagship that carries the portal breaker. Kahl, do you have any info about the larger destroyers?”

“Nothing beyond reports of the damage they’ve caused.”

“Alright, let’s move on. Kahl, can you give us a brief picture of what we do know about the Empire? Maybe we can get a sharper focus on Galah.”

“Of course.”

“Ok, I want everyone to jump in if you have questions, observations, any thoughts at all about what we’re up against.”

The historian stood and placed a crystal point on one of the holo pads in the table surface in front of him. The bright display of a broad sector of stars appeared above the floor in the center of the room.

“I’ve been studying the Drahkian Empire for several decades now. We have traces in our histories of horrible wars among reptilians eons ago, long before the Drahkian Empire emerged. In recent millennia, the power core has been centered in the Draco Expanse.” Kahl adjusted the holo to zoom in on a large grouping of stars. “The reigning house shifted over two thousand Tarsian years ago when Izar took over from an old regime. He rules the empire from Karkir in Rastaban and his vast house controls numerous systems in Draco and scattered throughout their known territory. His five primary overlords—Tirgal, Shahr, Nakkár, Bálok, and Eo—all originated in Draco but have moved their seats of power out into their conquered domains which include the Lupus, Hydra, Herculean, Perseun, and Orion territories. Many smaller houses have seized pieces of clusters or single planetary systems and, apparently, quite often, they fight with each other, vying for position and influence. I don’t have enough detailed information to map their territory accurately, but I have a feeling it’s spreading to engulf a sizeable portion of the galaxy.”

A disturbed murmur moved through the officers in the room as Kahl zoomed the holo back out and highlighted planetary systems which had fallen under Drahkian control.

“I’ve collected reports from hundreds of merchants, scientists, refugees, Maian officers who fought them in other systems, and our own records of their conquests here in the Pleiades. I’ve pinpointed several distinct patterns of Drahkian takeover methods—incremental encroachment, capitulation through harassment, blackmail, bribery, betrayal, and of course, full-scale invasion. The method used in each case depends on which reptilian house is making the move and what its financial status and connections are within the Empire.”

“So who controls the Pleiadian Cluster?” Marcel inquired.

Kahl glanced up at the Niemian admiral. “No single house. If that were true, I believe we would have gone under from all-out invasion a long time ago.” He shifted the holo to a close-up display of the Pleiades, a long, cone-like mass of stars slowly swirling around an invisible axis, following Alcyone in its path around the galactic core. “Bits and pieces have been parceled out by the emperor as rewards to various houses. Why they have chosen to ‘consume’ our cluster like this, I can only surmise.”

“Perversion.” Djan rumbled just loud enough to be heard, bringing a smile to Kahl’s face as he watched the holo of the cluster spin above him.

“The most likely reason would be to keep any one house from building a power base in this sector. Izar keeps an iron grip on the reins of power and allows only a select few to hold any sizable authority outside of his own. Because of this, the family of cooperative worlds we once had here in the Pleiades has been almost completely shattered. The Taygeta trinary was the first to go down a Tarsian millennium ago because of their worlds’ wealth of resources and we think the controlling house has shifted twice since the original invasion. Celaeno and the Sterope binary are ruled by two warring brothers from the house of Koros. Electra was taken by Ishmal, an isolated rogue who reportedly has nothing to do with any other house in the cluster. The worlds in Pleone went silent all at once and we know nothing about what happened or who rules there. Atlas was taken a few centuries ago by a nephew of Overlord Nakkár. The list of smaller Pleiadian systems and rulers goes on and on. Merope, our last loss, was given to Salaal by the Emperor as a prize.”

“And we all know what a bloody bastard he was.” Magnus’s low, bitter words were echoed by loud grumbling from good number of angry, grimacing people around the room.

Miros shook his head. “He was a real piece of work.”

“He seemed to like you in particular.”

The admiral twisted his mouth and glanced at his old friend. “Thanks for reminding me. Salaal was a supreme misogynist, never once acknowledged Amara Tungo, the admiral of the Meropean fleet. He’d only speak with me or Tanamar Rimstrider, the Maian admiral. I can only assume that Salaal was typical of Drahkian elite.”

Kahl nodded in confirmation. “In all my research, I’ve never heard a whisper about Drahkian women and the reports of violence against females of any race are extreme.” The holo shifted in the space above their heads as Kahl zoomed in to display a close-up of the second primary star in the Pleiadian spiral after Alcyone. “Admiral, since you led our forces in Merope, why don’t you give us a rundown of the four years of fighting before the system fell.”

Miros slid his hands into his pockets and started to pace. “Most of you weren’t even born when we lost the Meropean War. Some of you were just children. And some of us—” He broke off his words and let out a long sigh.

“—had the unpleasant misfortune to be a part of it,” Mitsu Kometani finished, her beautiful features taking on a somber set. “It was a long, stressful four years for everyone in the combined fleet. We lost some really good people.”

“Yeah, we did,” Miros added roughly and looked up, focusing on the shimmering image of Merope. “The human populations of the system are spread out over eight planets. Chaka was hit first, then Gado, both small mining colonies in the outer reaches. Salaal initially brought in only a handful of warships and burned through the portals in quick, surprise attacks, reconfiguring the grid patterns to keep all of us locked out. Kimbo, the innermost planet was taken next to serve, we believe, as an incubation center for saurs which they need in large numbers to subdue native populations.”

Lita hissed loudly in disgust. “That’s just barbaric!”

“I agree, but that’s what we’re dealing with.” Miros waited for the disturbed chatter to settle down before he went on. “Salaal gradually slipped freighters and warships into his three hidden bases. We took out a few vessels in small skirmishes, but it was more than two years before he emerged with a sizable warband to attack Masala. The combined Pleiadian forces held him off for quite a while, but he’d retreat and just hit us again. We almost nailed his flagship once, but that just set him off and we ended up losing the Appin.” He glanced aside at Magnus. “Nearly lost you, too, all because we couldn’t transport.”

Miros went back to his pacing. “It was frustrating as hell. One by one, Salaal broke through the portals of Masala, Ngama, and Bandu, expanding his wealth and fleet with each conquest. He must have gotten tired of losing ships or dealing with us, because he brought in the Empire’s trump card to finish off Sahara and Dashen, the two largest worlds of the system.” The admiral turned to his wife. “Did you bring the holo we took of the final battle over Sahara?”

“Yeah, I’ve got it. Hold on.” Lita reached into her jacket and pulled out a cloth satchel while Kahl closed down the holo of Merope. The tiny starship leader placed a clear piece of quartz on the pad in front of her and touched the controls. The bright image of a tan planet blinked into the space in the middle of the room. “Ok, let me enhance the view of what we saw after we got there.” The image shifted to Sahara’s horizon and zoomed in on a light gray orb, hovering a short distance from one of the planet’s small, natural satellites.

“One of the ‘Emperor’s Moons’ showed up over Sahara’s secondary portal four days after we lost Bandu,” Miros continued. “Everyone on the planet was in an uproar. Admiral Tungo attempted communication and when that failed, she sent out her heaviest artillery, which had no effect on the moon. Shortly after we all arrived through the transport ring, Salaal showed up with his fleet outside the portal, and right before our eyes—”

A black beam shot out of the moon and seared a path across a landmass on the surface, churning huge clouds of brown dust up into the atmosphere.

“That beam annihilated millions in a few heartbeats and left nothing but desert. Salaal demanded complete surrender of Sahara and Dashen’s portals, threatening to blow both planets if they did not comply. The Saharan High Council capitulated. We stayed long enough to help a number of ships full of refugees, mostly children, and a few merchants make it through Sahara’s primary transport ring before the moon destroyed it. We barely made it home.”

The room of officers broke into an uproar of voices while the holo of the chaos and destruction played itself out. Djan glanced aside at his wife and saw that her eyes were wet with unshed tears. Both of her parents had been children among the evacuees on those ships. Her grandfather, Ulu Malawi, had been one of the high councilors of Sahara who’d been forced to surrender their world to a Drahkian warlord. Djan grabbed Tyla’s hand. “Damn, we only had to face a baby dish-monster.” Tyla bit her lips and nodded.

“Alright, people, let’s take a closer look at our situation in Maia.” Miros’s strong voice cut through the noise. “Kahl, give us a quick picture of the Maian worlds before Lita brings up our holo of the raid on Galah.”

The historian tapped the pad in front of him. The shining blue star and its orbiting worlds appeared in the air above the floor. “The seven inhabited planets in Maia are all held in close proximity to the star. The inner four, Prion, Takahe, Turaco, and Quetzal are populated primarily by the Tori birdpeople while the outer three, Kōkako, Tui, and Galah are predominantly human. The bulk of usable resources are concentrated on the two largest worlds of Turaco and Quetzal.”

“So why would the Drahks bother with Galah in the first place?” Kip Buchanan asked. “It’s tiny, only two cities, and most of the people are artists or scientists, right? Very little trade outside of novelty tourism, and it’s too cold for most people to stand, even under the solar domes.”

“That’s right. You’d think it would be worthless to them,” his wife Mairi added. “Why not bring in stronger forces and attack one of the prime worlds where there is more money to be made?”

“A wedge into the system,” Kahl replied. “The strike on the small planet indicates that the invading house may be relatively limited in its power and resources.”

The admiral nodded. “I agree. The move on Galah is very similar to the first move into Merope. This warlord must be some kind of upstart or minor house, just like Salaal. Otherwise—”

“The four Tori worlds would be rubble,” Djan called out.

Kahl turned his head and looked up at his son. “They would indeed. The Tori have interfered with Drahkian raids in other systems too many times over the past few centuries to slip by unnoticed. If the attacking house has retaliation in mind, it may become apparent in the next strike or whenever the warlord decides to make contact. The human populations on Kōkako and Tui will suffer any backlash along with them, just as Galah has.”

“The lucrative diamond deposits on Turaco might be just a little attractive, too,” Kang noted, “Or the aeronautics production of Quetzal.”

“Yes, that’s quite true,” Kahl answered. “If this Drahk is in need of funds, the wealth from both of those worlds would boost his campaign, but it will take a much larger force than they brought to Galah to manage takeovers of such heavily populated planets. My guess would be that one of the two warm inner planets of Prion or Takahe will be targeted for saur incubation.”

Miros rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Alright, let’s take a look at what we encountered at Galah. Lita, can run the holo of the raid? Most folks haven’t seen it yet. Leave the sound on this time.”

The images of the tiny gray world and the fleet of sparkling Birdwing and Khalama starships appeared in the center of the room. The ensuing battle and encounters with the hovering discs and fighters sped forward while discussion buzzed around the room.

Djan sat forward and leaned his arms on the desktop so he could scrutinize every detail of the scene. It was easy to spot Mirida among the Alcyoni starships. Pride and admiration swelled in his chest as he followed her graceful, faceted, grayish-white form through the familiar events, but he found it more difficult than he’d anticipated to watch the five fighters from their teams explode a second time. Knowing what was just about to happen made his stomach twist with apprehension.

The voices of Miros and Yuri discussing strategy sounded over the display of the rising gray warships and their flight to the northern flats. With the sudden appearance of the concave destroyer, the scene devolved rapidly into chaos. Djan winced at the horrible sight of the deadly beam tearing Telemar apart and the sounds of explosions overlaid by the screaming of both admirals. He glanced down at Miros’s grim face while the rest of the room watched the fleet’s flight out of the portal and the tense moments before the city and destroyer disappeared.

“Did you see?” Lita shot at her husband, cutting short the swell of reaction. “It fired within two seconds after it got there.”

Miros dropped his eyes to the floor and swallowed.

“He’s been beating himself up for not picking up the presence of that damned thing sooner.”

Amid a flurry of comments and frowns, Magnus’s deep voice cut through the noise. “That destroyer came in ready to fire. Let yourself off the hook, Miros,” he added gently. “We couldn’t have a sharper leader.”

“I second that,” Anil Ngari called out.

A round of supportive applause and whistles rose from the tiers of officers and through the channels with the linked conference rooms.

“Sanos and Irena would agree!” Mitsu shouted above the din.

Miros looked up at the sea of nodding heads and took a deep breath. “Thanks.” He exchanged a quiet look with his wife and smiled.

When the clapping abated, he spoke again. “Thank you, all of you. I appreciate your support.” He turned and paced across the front of the room. “Ok, let’s finish this up so we can all get back to work. From what you just saw, what are the obvious questions about our first battle with this set of Drahks?”

“Why didn’t they close the portal?” Tyla called out.

“Yeah, I think we surprised the hell out of them.” Kip’s booming voice echoed around the room. “Apparently they didn’t expect the Maian fleet to arrive so quickly. The arrogant fools were just calmly landing transports as if they had all the time in the world. The fighters weren’t even launched until they spotted us.”

“Yuri said he’d never seen them leave a portal open like that before,” Anil threw out. “Looks to me like it was either a pretty major screw up on someone’s part or else some kind of systems failure. Maybe the machine they use to reset the portal grid wasn’t working.”

Ando Kometani’s angry face appeared on the overhead screen. “And then they turned tail and ran! We were minutes away from nailing all those bastards.”

“I think they were desperate to kick us all out and get the portal closed,” Anil went on. “Running off to the flats gave them time to call in the big guns.”

“So why didn’t they just bring in the destroyer to begin with?” Nandi asked beside him. “We wouldn’t have stood a chance against it and they wouldn’t have lost all those fighters and two warships.”

“It was probably just a back-up plan, used as a last resort.”

“Bingo, Anil.” Miros pulled his hands from his pockets and crossed his arms. “The fact that it took so long for the destroyer to arrive and then left after firing only two shots tells me the warlord on Galah must not have been in any position to command more. It’s probably expensive to bring in a ship that size. That’s to our advantage, people.”

“So who are we dealing with?” Djan called out. “Did anybody recognize the insignias on the warships?”

Miros shook his head and glanced over at the group of Makhás masters speaking together in low voices. Kahl cleared his throat and spoke up. “I couldn’t make anything out from the images in the holo. Is it possible to get a closer look at the insignia on the warship that was below Corum?”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Lita replied, flipping the holo pad on to bring the display back to life. With a few adjustments, she located the image of the dark charcoal gray hulk hovering below the flagship against the soft glow of Guan’s dome.

“Can you zoom in on the shield?” Kahl asked softly. “There, on the far side, just above the rim.”

“Yes, but the light isn’t good. I don’t know if we’ll be able to make anything out.”

The starship leader pulled the image in and refocused several times, zeroing in on a whitish plate with a black, script-like emblem that was partially obscured by grime.

“Stop!”

Kahl shot to his feet with his eyes glued on the Drahkian symbol. “No—”

Alarmed, Miros stepped toward the historian whose face had drained of color. “Kahl, do you recognize it?”

Kahl lowered his eyes to the admiral and nodded slowly. “I was wrong,” he croaked, barely above a whisper. “I was sure it was a small, fledgling house, but that’s the mark of Overlord Bálok, the second most powerful man in the Empire.”

The conference room erupted with a flood of voices. Djan looked at his wife as the ramifications of his father’s hushed declaration hit him like a sledgehammer. If Bálok was in Maia, then the probability of holding out against the overlord’s armies and wealth was exceedingly low, and if Maia went down, with who knew how many of them with it, how long would it be before the nightmare came to swallow Alcyone?

“How are we ever going to stop them?” Tyla murmured bleakly.

Djan slumped in his chair and let his head fall heavily onto the back. “We’re not.”

 

* * *

 

Rai flew high over the capital city. Rhys reveled in her exhilaration and let it spread through his body, soaking it up like a man starved. It was his first real break from the long hours of drills and portal duty aboard Mirida over the past week. The top officers of the fleet had all been called to a big meeting at headquarters this morning, but thanks to Tyla’s rigorous training schedule for the freshly assigned crew members, he’d spent the past three hours working with the new pilots and interceptor for his team. He was beyond exhausted and didn’t know what kind of shape he’d be in if he hadn’t visited E’liak in the wee hours of the night. At the moment, the healing he’d received from the pod and Rai’s exuberance were all that kept him going.

The young pilots were bright and performed remarkably well with Jin, one of the interceptors pulled early out of incubation. Thankfully, all three showed healthy signs of bonding with the rest of Team Six. Jin’s quirky intelligence was whimsical and engaging. Marko was quiet, but a damned good flier, while his partner Cass was a whip with energetic matrices and had a raw sense of humor. Katherine would have liked her, he thought with a familiar pang of heartache.
Pushing aside his feelings, he relaxed into the cushions of his chair and let his thoughts drift. For the time being, his duties were finished and Rai was all his.

With the barest of mental nudges, he guided the small ship in a graceful arc away from Krii and headed north along the forested front of the Shardan Mountains to the east. The Lyena River glistened below in the bright midday glare as it snaked its way down through the foothills to the capital city and on across Andara to the Fiordian Sea. Broad swaths of agrarian cultivation followed the undulations of the lowlands, dotted by an occasional white stone homestead or a herd of domesticated deer. He sighed at the thought of his own puny efforts at farming, wondering idly what it would be like to have nothing but fields and animals to care for day in and day out.

At least out at Tintágel he had more than enough space to build all the gardens he wanted. Since he’d grown up in the city, he’d jumped at the chance of grabbing the position of Sector Sentinel of the western province when it opened seven years ago and had talked Quinn into applying for it together. They shared the position jointly and split their time between the coastal estate and their private fleet apartments in Krii. Even through it doubled their responsibilities within the fleet, Rhys savored every moment he spent out in his Tintágel gardens or walking the hills, and he knew that Quinn’s attachment to the hauntingly beautiful estate ran just as deeply as his own.

Tomorrow they were slated to spend the entire day at the compound. There were a dozen things to take care of—meetings with Alina, the head of the sentinel crew in their absence, safety grid checks, and passing the news of Galah’s loss to the inhabitants of the four other shades under his jurisdiction. Perhaps by the end of the day he’d be able to spend some time with his orchids and retrieve the damned shovel he’d left out in the field when the call had come through. It wasn’t nearly enough time to relax and unwind, but with the ramped up schedule from being on alert, he would have to make due with what little time he could get.

With a small adjustment to Rai’s field, he swung the small ship around in a gentle curve and headed back along base of the mountains. In a few moments, they were gliding over Tirim Nah, the chain of ancient stone circles just east of the city which spread in an arc across the grasslands just below the foothills of the Shardans. The celebrations held throughout the year among the thousands of megaliths had been the backbone of Andaran culture as far back as anyone could remember. Rhys let his gaze roam over the phenomenal constructs, picking out the individual circles he was most familiar with by the color of stone and distinctive layouts. The sight of the stones from the air always took his breath away.

He banked the ship away from the grassy plain of Tirim Nah and skimmed above the eastern quadrant of Krii, dominated by the spectacular Great Hall with adjoining offices of the Tarsian High Council, and the tall, golden pyramid of the Center for Geometrics which rose grandly above the buildings of the Fleet Academy. Fanning out north of the hall was an extensive collection of conference areas and living quarters for visiting dignitaries which bordered the large fleet district around the academy where Rhys and Quinn’s private apartments were located. To the south lay the bustling Portal Center complex and the multi-tiered structure of Fleet Headquarters, both built around the upper perimeters of the vast landing fields. Rhys kept the interceptor clear of the busy airspace, but from his high vantage point, he could see a multitude of freight and transport vessels on the ground in the trade sector and the angular forms of small craft and three of the older starships docked in the fleet zone.

Turning Rai northward to coast over the residential districts, he scanned the ocean of trees until he found the rooftops of both Magnus and Kirian’s white stone homes. Further west, he picked out the forested ridge where his parents lived, just above the distinctive peaks of university buildings in the northwest part of the city. As he flew over his childhood haunts, he caught a clear glimpse of the ornamental garden he and his mother had built at the back of the property before he started his studies at the academy. He swung the ship around to take a pass over the large artisan quarter on the southern bank of the Lyena, where his sister Kahli ran a lapidary studio, before following the river back toward the downtown core of high-rise office buildings that sparkled like a cluster of fine quartz needles in the midday sun.

With one last glance at the city below, he projected the matrix he needed to transport Rai into her dock on Mirida and popped the two of them through to the underground base. Once the ship was settled, he shifted the internal lighting to a dim glow and dropped his head onto one of his hands so he could rest and absorb the silence.

That was fun, Rhys.

Yeah, it was. Thanks, Rai.

Rhys?

Mmmm?

I like Jin.

Rhys grinned at the interceptor’s light tone. Me, too, Rai. I like all of them.

They’ll be good for the team. Rhys, are you going to fall asleep in that chair?

The pilot drew in a deep breath to collect himself and rubbed his hands over his face. No, there’s something I need to go do. Listen, Quinn will be in this afternoon for more training, so you can go hang out with Jin for several more hours. Don’t be too easy on them, you hear? He smiled at the sound of Rai’s soft laughter. Quinn and I will be out at Tintágel all day tomorrow, but we’ll be back here early for drills the day after. Is there anything you need before I leave?

No, I’m well tuned, thanks to you. Get some sleep, Rhys.

I’ll try.

With a nod, he shifted himself to the bedroom of his apartment. He stayed long enough to change out of his uniform into a t-shirt and jeans and then took off at a brisk pace through the maze of walkways running through the sector of private apartment buildings. When he found the door he was looking for, he stood in front of it, staring at the ground without knocking. He should have had the nerve to face this days ago, but if he could pull himself together long enough to get through it, he just might free himself from the horrible dreams plaguing his sleep. Shaking his head, he closed his eyes and briefly considered leaving again, but the door silently opened and a pretty woman with soft brown eyes smiled up at him.

“I was wondering when you would come.” The deathwalker quietly stepped back from the doorway and motioned for him to enter.

“Shauna, I, uh—” He dropped his eyes as his throat locked up and his words failed him.

“I know. Come in.” She took his hand and led him into the living room where she gently guided him into a large, comfortable chair. She sat down across from him and patiently waited for him to speak.

Rhys rubbed his hands over his thighs. “I haven’t been sleeping.”

Shauna nodded, but remained silent, giving him the time to put together his thoughts.

“The nightmares have been terrible.”

“Are you dreaming of Katherine and Meredith?”

“Uh-huh, and some shithead Drahk who keeps taunting me and—” He flinched automatically at the remembered agony of the nightly attacks. He looked up at Shauna with confusion and concern. “Is this normal? I mean, it really hurts to lose someone, but nightmares?”

The deathwalker blinked and drew in a quiet breath. “It happens sometimes, especially if there are lingering feelings of guilt.”

The pilot shut his eyes quickly as a jolt of pain hit the middle of his chest.

“Is that it, Rhys? Do you feel guilty about what happened?”

He cracked his eyes open and fought past the knot in his throat. “Yeah. It was my fault. My fault they’re dead.”

“Do you think they blame you?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Perhaps it would help you to ask them.”

Rhys stared at the deathwalker while he fought to hold onto his composure. The prospect of facing the two women was more difficult than he thought it would be. The image of bright beams and Lessa’s explosion flashed across his mind and he lost his struggle for control. His face crumpled with grief as a cry broke from his throat.

Shauna jumped out of her chair and hurried over to him, gripping his shoulders as he dropped his head into his hands and wept.

“That’s it. Let it out, Rhys. You had to stuff it all down when it happened, but it needs to come out.”

She reached up and stroked his head while he cried, calming his tattered emotions with her touch. As the pain began to subside, he dropped his hands to his lap and straightened, sniffing to clear his head while Shauna smoothed the hair back out of his face.

“Let’s see if we can find them now, ok?” She continued to stroke his face, wiping the tears away, easing the tension with the sound of her voice. He looked up at her and nodded.

“They’ve been expecting you,” she added, smiling down at him. “They must know you pretty well, Rhys. They told me you’d probably find a way to blame yourself for what happened.”

Rhys laughed brokenly and tried to smile. “Pretty smart ladies.”

“Now close your eyes. I’m here for you. We’ll find Katherine and Meredith and you can tell them everything you need to. Just relax now and breathe.” Shauna stepped quietly behind him and placed her hands on his shoulders. “Alright. I want you to reach for your two friends, Rhys. It’s easy. Just call to them with your heart. They’ll hear you.”

Rhys pulled in a steadying breath and followed the deathwalker’s gentle instructions. Meredith! Katherine! It’s Rhys. Come talk to me, please!

“That’s right. Now picture their faces in your mind. Do you see them?” She paused and waited until he nodded. “Let yourself feel their presence. You work with energy all the time. This is no different. They’re here, Rhys, standing right in front of you. Do you sense them?”

Rhys nodded again as he allowed his mental picture of the two pilots to merge with the vibrating forms he picked up in front of his chair. A soft tingling skittered over his skin when he made the connection.

Hey, big guy!

Rhys jumped when Meredith’s voice rang distinctly in his mind, just like any other telepathic link. Next to the slight, red-haired woman, an elfin blonde nudged her partner with her elbow. He looks kind of haggard, don’t you think, Mer? He’s usually all cocky and swaggering charm.

Rhys laughed, releasing a burst of tension.

You been sleeping ok, Rhys? Katherine raised her head to look up into his face.

No! This week’s been sheer hell.

The tiny pilot stretched her body like a cat. Poor man. We don’t have to get up for anything now. No damned drills at all hours!

Rhys, what’s up with you? Meredith asked with concern. I can feel something inside you coiled tight like a spring.

It was my fault! I’m sorry! It was all my fault!

What are you talking about? Katherine frowned and placed her hands on her hips. It was a simple blast from that fucking black fighter.

I didn’t want you anywhere near him. If it hadn’t been for me, you’d still be alive!

What was going on out there, Rhys? Why did you shift Rai to the back end of the transport?

Quinn did that. I lost the grip on my block. I was … having trouble.

Did the beams hurt you? We thought you guys had been hit, so we all came running.

I don’t know what it was. Something gripped my head and I nearly blacked out.

And you blame yourself for that?!?

You shouldn’t have had to save my sorry ass.

Katherine stepped closer and put her hand out to touch his shoulder, bringing her face right up next to his. Rhys, we came running because we love you. And we’d do it again, any time, any day. You were trying to do the same for us.

Rhys swallowed hard as tears rushed to his eyes once more and streamed down his face. The two young women glanced at each other and then back at their friend. Meredith reached out and touched him on the cheek. Rhys, there’s no blame. We’re alright where we are. Let yourself heal now. You’ll need your strength for future battles to come.

It still hurts whenever I think about you. I miss you both.

Katherine cocked her head to the side. Well then, we’ll just have to buzz your butt every once in a while to let you know we’re around. Can you handle that, tall guy?

Yeah, I can handle that.

Good. Tell Quinn we’ll be by to buzz him, too. Now get up and let us hug you so we can go make trouble for somebody else.

You can do that?

What, make trouble?

Rhys laughed in spite of himself. No, hug me.

Sure. Just let it happen, Rhys. It’s us and it’s real.

He pushed himself up out of the chair and stood in front of it, breathing in with surprise when he felt their arms slide around his waist to pull him close.

You could hug us back, ya’ big oaf.

With a small smile, he tuned his senses to pick up the subtle feel of his friends’ forms and gently skimmed his hands down their backs. You’re just so thin these days, girls.

Meredith and Katherine stepped back and smiled up into his face. Thin? Just watch this!

The women began to writhe and sink into the floor, their bodies vaporizing into white smoke. A pair of high pitched voices cackled with laughter before the diaphanous smoke disappeared altogether. And then they were gone.

Rhys opened his eyes and stood staring at the space where the two pilots had just been. He lifted his hands to clear his face before he turned around and opened his arms to Shauna. With an easy smile, she walked into them and hugged him tightly.
“Thank you,” he whispered softly into her hair, holding her for several minutes before letting go.

“You’re more than welcome, Rhys. Talk to them anytime you want to. You don’t really need me since you know how it feels now, but I’m here if you ever want to talk.”

“Ok, thanks. That’s nice to know.”

“Can you get some rest now?” Shauna reached up and ran her fingers over his face to push the loose hair back out of his eyes. “You look like you could use some.”

“Yeah, that’s exactly what I need.” Rhys turned to leave, but paused for a moment with his hand on the door handle, looking back over his shoulder at the quiet woman. “You have a rare gift, Shauna.”

The deathwalker shrugged her shoulders as a shy smile touched her face. “Not so rare, but I’m glad I could help.”

“Are you alright?” he asked with concern. “You’ve had a lot to handle lately and it may get difficult again soon.”

Shauna nodded her head. “Yes. I get a lot of support from the elders in Second Shade who taught me. When things get rough, they help me stay balanced.”

He smiled. “Good. I have a feeling that’s something we’re all going to need to learn. Thank you again, kind lady.”

Rhys left the apartment and made his way back to his own quarters. As he followed the maze of walkways, he realized the twisting ache he had carried for seven days and nights was gone. They didn’t blame him. He was amazed and grateful, and it left no reason to hold onto the load of his self-imposed guilt any longer. With any luck, the nightmares would stop and he could pull himself back into shape over the next couple of days. The time out at Tintágel would be a big help.

He entered his dim chambers like a blind man, comforted by the blanket of darkness. He stumbled toward his bedroom and stopped just inside the door, remembering one last thing he needed to do before releasing himself to the void.

He glanced at a clock and saw that he still had at least six hours before he was expected out at his parents’ house for a family dinner. He closed his eyes and sent out a mental probe in search of his partner. After several long moments, the channel came through, but Quinn held the visual link tightly focused on his face.

Yeah. What’s up?

Despite his exhaustion, Rhys couldn’t help but grin. There was no mistaking the flush of sex in Quinn’s skin.

You’ve got that gorgeous woman in bed with you?

A slow smile spread across Quinn’s face and he bent his head down to look at someone beside him.

What do you want, man? I’ve got another half hour before I’m on duty and don’t want to waste it on the likes of you.

Rhys laughed wearily. Well, first of all, Katherine and Meredith send their love.

Quinn’s smile dissolved. You spoke with them. Good, Rhys. You’re better. I can tell.

Yeah, I’ll be alright. Now, do you feel like taking on the Talrésian brood for dinner tonight? Altea’s calling in the chicks and you’re invited to come along. Bring Lani. She’s welcome, too.

Now there’s an offer that’s hard to resist. Magnus going to be there?

Oh yeah, larger than life.

Hang on, let me check. Quinn rolled his head on the pillow and kissed the top of a wildly tousled, dark head. After speaking a few private words, his voice came back into the link.

I just don’t understand this woman. She thinks it would be fun.

Hah, so you’ll come?

Yeah. What time?

Seven.

Right. We’ll see you later. Get some sleep. You look awful.

That’s what everyone keeps telling me.

Rhys smiled as he closed the link and walked over to his bed. With a groan, he let his body fall into the middle of the rumpled sheets and buried his face in the pillows.

Within seconds, he was blissfully beyond the land of the dead.

 

* * *

 

She was late again. The four elder dreamwalkers were already in deep discussion when Karra entered the meeting chamber. Domen Kin Reesh glanced her way, a disapproving scowl etched on the older woman’s face. She kept her own expression aloof and cool in the presence of the elders and hurried to take her seat without interrupting the conversation.

Even though she did not serve as an elder of the cavern settlement like the others, Karra was very aware of how much was expected of her as a dreamwalker. The five of them carried the responsibility of keeping one of the three surviving clans from Ushua that resided in the deserts of Third Shade on Tarsus connected with the tattered remnants of Schedaran culture hidden across the far reaches of the galaxy. The last fifteen clans from the lost worlds of Schedar considered themselves the sole guardians of ancient secrets which the Drahkian Empire wanted eradicated.

Karra had never quite understood why secrecy was so important to the elders. Surely if what they knew was so threatening to the Drahks, it would be crucial to spread the information to anyone and everyone who wanted to stay free of reptilian control. But no one ever asked for her opinion. As the youngest dreamwalker of the Ushuan clan on Tarsus, she knew her lucid dreaming abilities were respected, but sagely wisdom apparently only belonged to those of elder status.

The edged voice of Luán Aul Benán pierced Karra’s stray thoughts. As Keeper of Custom for their cavern, Luán expected every word she uttered to be heeded by those around her. She wasn’t much older than Karra, but, as a widow, she carried herself with a matronly stiffness that was incongruous with her youthful beauty. Karra had often wondered if the haughty Keeper covered some inner hurt by clinging so rigidly to her rank.

As if reading her thoughts, Luán turned her glance pointedly in Karra’s direction, snuffing out the younger woman’s private conjecture and forcing her attention back to the issues at hand.

“I have one last item to report,” Luán enunciated, an air of drama underscoring her words. “I met a young dreamwalker from the Mannuan clan last night.”

“A Mannuan? Where have they been all this time?” Hano Emmon Dahl’s dark eyes glittered with surprise and excitement. Older than anyone knew, Hano was the most revered individual among all the caverns on Tarsus and also the most dedicated to keeping the Schedaran dreamwalker network alive. “We haven’t heard from any of the people from Mannua since the mass destruction in Schedar. The network counted them all dead centuries ago.”

“Apparently the clan that survived was almost wiped out by disease after they found a home in the Cassalta system. The young man I found last night was barely a novice, the first to have Dreamcore ability in generations.”

“How did you find him? I search for lost survivors every night and have never come across any trace of the Mannuans.”

The touch of a rare smile softened Luán’s feature. “A happy accident, Hano. I came across him exploring one of the old Schedaran temple constructs in the Dreamcore and recognized him as one of ours. He said he was looking for his roots and was thrilled to find out we exist. I’ll take you with me tonight when I meet him again and you can introduce him to the network. Acceptable?”

“Yes, yes! We’ll have to set up some training for him so we don’t lose the Mannuans again. Oh, this is good news indeed, Luán!” The short, blond man could barely contain his elation. Several groups fleeing the imminent destruction on their home planets around Schedar had disappeared without a trace. The Empire had been unmerciful in its annihilation of the Schedaran populations, wiping out countless cities across five populated worlds and exploding their two smallest worlds entirely.

“I’ll have to plant some indicators in other parts of the old Schedaran dream constructs to signal us of any other newcomers. Good work, Luán! Domen, did you touch base with the Darvi clan dreamer on Tadema?”

“Yes, Holla is well,” the prim woman reported. “She still can’t walk the Dreamcore on her own, but she can hold her lucidity whenever I find her. She now has a bright young apprentice, her grandson Tosh, who may be capable of becoming a full dreamwalker.”

“Wonderful. For a time, I thought we were going to lose them, too.” Hano sighed in relief. “There are so few of them left.”

“She also reported two births since we heard from them last. Survival is still difficult in the thin, cold air of Tadema, but the city populations at least continue to leave the small Schedaran colonies alone.”

“Schedarans couldn’t be too choosy about where they were taken in after the escape,” Hano murmured as he worried his chin with his fingers. “It’s amazing that the clan on Tadema did not die out completely. We were more fortunate.”

“More fortunate to be given a pile of sun-baked sand and rocks?” Domen spat bitterly.

“Yes, indeed we were,” the ancient man barked right back. “The Tarsian High Council offered us homes in their primary shade alongside their own people, with open arms, like they’ve done with other refugees. We turned them down and chose to build our colonies in these isolated caverns of one of their secondary shades, just to be alone.”

“And our sacred ceremonies have kept us alive out here,” Luán insisted.

“I know that.” Hano sighed wearily. “But, after all these years, the Tarsians still keep us informed and include us under their protection without so much as a thank you from us.”

“We know nothing about them,” Domen sniffed. “We don’t know what’s in their blood.”

“Our knowledge must be preserved at all cost!” Luán flared, spewing the orthodox rhetoric. “We can’t let ourselves be absorbed into another culture.”

Hano ran a hand over tired eyes. “This is an old argument, friends.”

The two women bristled indignantly, but refrained from further comment. Hano sighed and turned to the tall, thin man seated across from him. “Let’s go on with our Dreamcore contacts. Mieshel, did you attend the network gathering last night?”

Mieshel Ben Ruh’s angular face drew into a fretful frown. “Yes, Hano. It was a good turnout with at least eleven other clans represented, but it sounds like the Bataani clan on Caldera has a big problem. Their three primary dreamwalkers made it to the meeting and reported that a new round of persecution has begun. One of their villages was burned to the ground and two people perished in the flames.”

Luán shook her head and grimaced. “Oh no. No more deaths.” Over a century ago, one of the surviving clans from Samarra that had taken refuge on Thalebe had been completely wiped out by frenzied populations who had viciously turned on them.

“Persecution is a terrible risk when no one understands us.” Karra’s bold venture earned a faint smile from Hano, but he remained silent.

“There is never any excuse to harm another!” Mieshel exclaimed, clearly appalled at Karra’s assertion. “Schedarans are peaceful and keep to themselves to avoid any kind of violence.”

Luán nearly jumped out of her chair. “It would be disastrous if people saw what we do! They’d see blood and immediately jump to the wrong conclusions. No one lives with honor anymore!”

“Even those who gave us homes? The ones who accepted weird cults of ‘blood mongers’ into their midst?”

Hano’s grin widened as he sat back in his chair and laced his fingers behind his head, watching the melee.

“That’s exactly what happened on Thelebe, Karra, but you’re too young to remember,” Mieshel retorted. “Our people were left alone for the first couple of centuries, but the climate changed and the Samarran settlements were harassed. We knew the dreamwalkers who disappeared without a trace and it sounds like Caldera is ripe for another massacre.”

“That doesn’t mean it will happen everywhere.” Karra looked around the circle of outraged faces. “Isn’t it time for some new blood? We’re far too isolated and inbred for our own good. Tell me, just who are we saving our secrets for?”

From the disdainful glares and ensuing silence, Karra knew she wouldn’t be given an answer. Domen’s mouth turned down in a dismissive sneer. “Well, I don’t see any point in continuing this line of discussion. Mieshel, we trust you’ll keep careful tabs on the Bataani on Caldera?”

“I attend the network gathering every night. If they don’t show up, I’ll collect a group and go looking for them.”

“I wish we knew how to help them.” Luán turned fretful eyes to Hano. “Isn’t there any way to get them out?”

“A powerful ally would be very beneficial in this case, don’t you think?” Hano remarked dryly. “Unfortunately, none of the surviving clans have access to ships to transport the Bataani clan, unless we find a way to negotiate with the Tarsians for help in bringing them here. Mieshel, please check tonight with the Bataani dreamwalkers about the exact numbers we’re dealing with. Domen, send out runners to the elders of our six other caverns to collect reports on available space, water supplies, and whether or not our exploration teams have turned up any more livable cavern sites.”

The elders nodded in somber agreement, concern etched into each of their faces.

“It’s pathetically sad that we still have more to fear than just the Empire.” Hano shook his head and snorted at his own words. “Listen to me. Just the Empire. As if we haven’t had enough trauma from them to last countless lifetimes.”

The five dreamwalkers sat in silence, each buried in thought before Hano looked up again with a slight twinkle in his eyes. “Well, we haven’t heard yet from our youngest member. Karra, did you find anything of interest down the path I sent you?”

For months now, Hano had been training his young student in the techniques he used to search for surviving Schedarans. While he had been successful in picking up threads of Schedaran dreamers, she had yet to be so lucky.

“I discovered something, but not exactly what you might expect.” Hano raised a brow and Karra plunged ahead, careful to school her features to mask her emotions. “Someone seems to have found me.”

“Found you?” Mieshel asked with mild surprise. “Who?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“What kind of nonsense is that?” Domen barked. Hano threw up a hand to silence further comment and nodded for Karra to continue.

“Last night I stilled myself to tune into the void of the Dreamcore, as we’ve been doing,” she began, tipping her head toward her mentor, “and cast out a dream seed to hunt for dreamers with similar vibrations to ours. I was just about ready to cast another seed when a soft voice came back along the thread and spoke to me.”

“And?”

“It simply said, ‘Follow.’”

“And you did?”

Karra kept her expression neutral when she replied. “Of course, Luán. I know what feels right and I trust my own skills.” The Keeper blinked, momentarily taken aback.

The young dreamwalker turned again to Hano and went on with her story. “At first, everything remained black, but I continued to follow the whisper of a presence which I sensed out in front of me. Just when I thought I had lost the voice, faint shadows of a dream landscape formed around me. I was about to call out to the voice when I heard—” She broke off her words, clenching her muscles against the sudden rush of heat tearing through her body at the mere thought of the dark-haired stranger. To her horror, she felt a hot flush rise to her face. Hano’s eyes narrowed and she could have sworn she detected a mischievous glint before she recovered herself and hurriedly resumed her report.

“I found myself in a wide, open plain at night. A sky of deep cobalt blue stretched as far as I could see in all directions and a small, banded full moon spread a luminous glow over the everything around me.”

Warming to her subject, Karra’s smooth features took on a look of barely suppressed excitement. “I heard a murmur in the distance and when I turned to search for its source, I noticed the crisp line of a mountain range running along the horizon. I started across the fine white sand and walked through the serene landscape for quite some time. As I got closer to the mountains, I saw that there was something near the foothills at the base, shining in the moonlight—a huge city, spread out for miles.”

“I can’t believe you approached an unknown city!” Domen accused angrily. “You know the rules!”

“It wasn’t an inhabited city, at least not the way we understand.” Karra glanced around at the stunned elders and went on unperturbed. “It was beautiful—made entirely of enormous geometric forms. As I got closer, I realized that they towered far above my head. Cones, cubes, cylinders, spheres, different kinds of pyramids. Some forms were balanced inexplicably on top of others, making unusual configurations, very similar to the warding stones here on Tarsus, like the ones next to the courtyard portal down below the caverns on the plateau. But the forms in the dream city were all made of some translucent, whitish crystal. No, wait a minute, that can’t be right. I tried to touch one of the giant cones and my hand sort of … went through it.”

“So what good does this do any of us?” Mieshel threw out impatiently.

“I’m not sure yet, but the last words I heard before the voice disappeared were intriguing. ‘The League awaits.’”

Hano’s thin face broke into a wide grin. “Now that’s very interesting.” The ancient man looked at each of his colleagues’ blank faces and laughed. “You mean to tell me that none of you ever heard the legends of the T’nari League?” He rocked back on his chair and steepled his fingers in front of him, smiling like a young boy with a secret. “A long time ago, apparently a very long time ago, before we ever left Schedar, rumors went flying about a great alliance who was fighting the Drahkian Empire. Supposedly there were beings from all over our sector joined in a unified front against the spreading reptiles.”

“Rumors?”

Hano’s face took on a wistful look. “Yes. Sadly, none of us ever found such a group before the Drahks attacked Schedar and I’ve never given the matter much thought since.” Still perched precariously on his chair, he inclined his head and looked curiously at Karra for several moments.

“I don’t know why the voice spoke to me,” she mumbled, beginning to feel a bit uncomfortable under her mentor’s scrutiny.
“But it did. Tonight I’d like you to go back to the city to see what else turns up. Do you feel you can find it again without the voice leading you?”

“I think so. It’s just that—” She broke off her words, reluctant to share her visions of the blue-eyed man with the critical elders, but she knew it was imperative that she let them know about her disturbing discovery of the Drahk and the potential threat to all of them in the Dreamcore.

“I have a problem, a much more serious problem, I’m afraid.” Karra dropped her eyes to her lap. “Last night I also encountered a man who was being psychically attacked—by a Drahk.”

The four dreamwalkers stared at her in horror.

“And just how did you ‘encounter’ such a thing?” Mieshel asked tersely.

“The dream found me. I guess it was my lucky night,” she muttered and sighed heavily. “I believe the man needs help. I don’t think he’s aware that he’s being attacked by an outside source, let alone a Drahk.”

“Don’t get involved!” Luán shouted. “Whoever the man is, he’s not one of us.”

“I can’t just keep walking away!” she retorted, instantly regretting her revealing choice of words.

“Yes, you can!” Domen pounded the table with her fist. “That thing might attach itself to you and find the rest of us, or even hurt you. We don’t know what the creature is capable of. They haven’t moved out of their sector of the Dreamcore for eons. Oh my, there must be a way through the shield we built.”

“I’ll take a team to check it tonight,” Mieshel declared nervously, “after I alert the dreamwalkers at the network gathering to be watchful for any further signs of incursion. Karra, if you sense that beast again, stay away from it at all costs.”

The dreamwalker pursed her mouth and remained silent. She had known the elders would react this way, so there was no need to feel angry or resentful. She turned a shuttered glance toward Hano who had yet to make any kind of comment and once again caught him gazing at her with speculation instead of reproof.

“Reinforce your shields before you start your work,” he said crisply, setting his chair down with a loud thump before turning his attention to winding up the meeting. “Ok, everyone, we’ve had a busy afternoon. Is there anything else?”

Luán rapped her knuckles on the table to draw the group’s attention. “I have one last issue to discuss.”

Hano sighed and sat forward on the edge of his chair, quite obviously eager to leave. “Yes, Luán?”

“It’s far past time for Karra to marry and I’ve found a suitable match for her here in our own caverns. ”

Karra’s stomach flipped inside out and she was sure her pallor had turned a putrid shade of green. “Can we please discuss this privately, Luán?” she hissed with embarrassment.

“I’m only doing my duty, Karra. You’ve turned down every candidate I’ve suggested for the past five or six years. I shouldn’t need to remind you that as a dreamwalker for the clan, it’s imperative that you pass your abilities on to at least one of your offspring.”

Karra bit back several choice responses for the Keeper of Custom who had yet to remarry herself. Every time Luán had broached the subject in the past, she’d managed to find some excuse or evasion to avoid any unwanted entanglement. She had never been quite sure exactly what she was holding out for until the dreams of the dark-haired man began, tantalizing her with the hope of something that was far beyond her reach.

Reading Karra’s tight-lipped silence as acquiescence, Luán rolled on briskly with her authoritative dictums. “I’ve selected Ben Lael Jarvis for you, Karra. The only other matches remotely appropriate are either far older or quite a few years younger than you which I doubt you would accept. I haven’t reached out to the Keepers of other caverns to look for candidates because you’re a dreamwalker and it’s best for all of us to remain here. This is your last opportunity to make a healthy match before you, shall we say, lose your appeal for eligible suitors. I’ve slated the ceremony to take place at the next equinox celebration three months from now.”

“Why not the solstice, Luán, if you’re in such a hurry?” Hano snapped caustically. “That’s only two weeks away.”

“The couple needs time to get used to the idea and perhaps even court each other,” the Keeper replied indulgently. “Do you accept my proposition, Karra?”

With a raw pit in her middle, the dreamwalker nodded curtly.

“Alright, we’re finished here, people.” Hano bounded out of his chair and headed for the door.

Luán gathered her robes around her as she got up to leave with the other elders. “Ben was very excited when I discussed the match with him this morning. He’s also turned down every suggestion I’ve made in the past, Karra. I think he’s already enamored with you.”

You’ve got that one right. Karra gritted her teeth and refused to look up as Luán left the table. Handsome Ben had been pestering her since they were teens. Most women in the colony would have been flattered by his attention. He was nice looking, well-built, caring, respectful of the observances, and easily the most talented lapidary in the Ushuan caverns. And dull, she thought sourly, at least from her point of view—nothing at all like the man in the Dreamcore. Frustrated, she sprang up from the chair to shake the clinging thoughts out of her head. Her choices in the caverns were limited and her fantasies about the stranger were just that—ridiculous and completely ungrounded in the reality of her life. The sooner she came to terms with becoming Ben’s wife, the better off she would be.

Suddenly, the air in the chamber was too close. She headed toward the doorway after the others, deciding that a visit to the herb garden to sniff something pungent might be just what she needed at the moment. Luán and the other elders were already wandering out of sight when she reached the corridor, but Hano stood outside the meeting room waiting for her with a knowing look on his face.

“Come to my chambers after dinner. We need to talk.” Without another word, the elder dreamwalker turned and sauntered away.

With an inward groan, Karra fell into step with the traffic in the corridor, feeling like she’d been sucked into a sandstorm and spit out again. She veered down a side tunnel leading up to the gardens and looked up in time to discover Ben among the faces headed in her direction. By the blood, he was the last person she wanted to deal with at the moment.

Impulsively, she ducked behind the door covering of the first chamber on her right, hoping against hope that she hadn’t been spotted by the amorous lapidary. She lifted the heavy tapestry open a crack and carefully peered out at the passing throng, but failed to notice the chamber’s occupant scrutinizing her from across the room. When she turned and saw the silent woman, she blushed and straightened, hurriedly spitting out an apology in Mothertongue. “Please forgive me, Asha. I’m sorry to have disturbed you.”

The cool, colorless eyes of Asha Kniuwi took in the intruder before her without expressing a hint of her thoughts. Thick, heavy scars marred the entire left side of what had once been an exotically beautiful face. Not overly gregarious herself, Karra had never gone out of her way to speak with the tall, introverted healer. The foreign woman had arrived at the caverns four months ago, tightly veiled and shrouded in mystery, sent by a dreamwalker from another Schedaran colony along with the unheard of request that she be taken in. No one had openly questioned Hano’s decision to allow the woman to stay, but her presence among the Ushuans had met much resistance despite her useful talents as a healer. The quiet woman had done little to ingratiate herself with the rest of the clan as she rarely spoke, shared nothing of her past, and never smiled—a recluse among obsessive recluses.

“You are welcome here, Karra Jas Khurias, especially when you wish to avoid being seen. Evasion I understand quite well.”
The dreamwalker was caught off guard by the woman’s directness. “I, uh, saw Ben Lael Jarvis coming down the hall,” she stammered sheepishly.

“Is he not to become your mate?”

“You know that already?” Karra’s mouth fell open in surprise.

Asha motioned to the table and chairs against the side wall of the chamber. “Please, sit. I’ll make us some tea.”

Even more startled by the unusual invitation from the reticent healer, Karra could think of nothing else to do but sit down at the small table. Asha moved to the tiny fire pit and vent at the back of the chamber and lit the pile of wood with a motion of her hand. After hanging the kettle on a hook above the flames, she turned back to her guest.

“You’re a very talented lady.” Karra nodded her head toward at the crackling fire.

“So, I hear, are you,” Asha replied in husky, soft accents, taking the other chair at the table across from the dreamwalker. With carefully controlled movements, the healer pulled her long black braid over her left shoulder and curled it in her lap.

She met Karra’s curious gaze with one of her own. “Are you allowed to speak of your work?”

“I suppose. No one has ever asked.”

The healer blinked in surprise. “That’s very odd. Have you no one to share with?”

“Only the other dreamwalkers.”

“No family?”

“No.” Karra dropped her eyes, unable to completely mask her raw reaction to the healer’s innocent question.

“I’m sorry. I did not mean to pry.”

She let out a soft sigh. “It’s alright, Asha. The day has just been rather wearing. What about you? Do you have family anywhere?”

Asha touched a long, delicate finger to the middle of her forehead. “I have a sister, but I haven’t been able to open a connection with her for a week.” She raised her silver eyes to Karra’s. “I’m very worried. She’s all I have left.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

“That’s what I was wondering myself.” The healer got up and moved to check the tea kettle. She prepared two steaming mugs of aromatic black tea and brought them back to the table, placing one in front of Karra. “Do you have any way to obtain news of other worlds?”

“We have a network of Schedaran dreamwalkers among the scattered clans, but I doubt that will help. As I’m sure you’re aware, our people are rabid isolationists. Where is your sister?”

“She is visiting a woman on a small world here in the Pleiades. Do you or the elders have any contact with the people in First Shade?”

Karra blinked thoughtfully for several moments before replying. “We receive reports occasionally from the Tarsian Sector Sentinels at the courtyard portal down on the plateau below the caverns, but I haven’t heard of anything coming to us within the past week. Have you spoken with Hano about this?”

“Not yet.”

“I’ll ask him to let you know as soon as we receive any news.”

Asha nodded her silent thanks and stared down into her tea. For a few moments, Karra watched the other woman struggle with worry.

“You know, if you’re willing,” she began tentatively, “we could use the courtyard portal ourselves to travel to Krii in First Shade to ask for news directly. You came through the courtyard a few months back when you arrived, didn’t you?”

The healer’s head bobbed up. “You would go with me to do this?”

Karra answered without hesitation. “Of course, if that’s what you want to do. It’s for family.”

Relief spread over the woman’s marred features. “Thank you. I will think it over. I, uh, … don’t like to be seen,” she added softly, “but if it means finding word of Ani—” She broke off as tears welled in her eyes.

Not used to offering comfort to anyone, Karra awkwardly put her hand on Asha’s forearm. “Maybe we’ll hear something soon without having to go to Krii ourselves. Keep trying to contact her.” Asha nodded again as silent tears spilled down her face.

“I was just on my way to the gardens,” she offered in a lighter tone, desperate to find a way to help her new friend, “when I was overcome with an uncontrollable urge to hide from my future husband.” Asha spluttered a short, choked laugh. “So I popped in on you, you lucky woman. Do you think he’s gone by now? He’s incredibly tenacious.” She rolled her eyes to the ceiling, prompting yet another small laugh and a rare smile from the shy healer.

“I think it might be safe now.”

“In that case, would you care to join me for a walk in the herb gardens? I always find it soothing to be there. After the day I’ve had, I could use a lift.”

“Yes, that would be nice.” Asha sniffed and wiped her face clear with her hands. “I have some herbs I would like to check on for tinctures. Let me put out the fire first.”

Karra waited patiently for Asha to finish her task, watching the woman make concise, graceful movements at the back of the tiny chamber. She shook her head and sighed, marveling at how easy it had been to agree to break one of the strictest taboos of the elders in order to help someone in such obvious pain. Actually, it felt quite exhilarating to think about venturing into a place she’d never been. She did it all the time in the Dreamcore, so why not here on her home world? One visit to First Shade to help Asha’s peace of mind would hurt no one in the clan.

A slow frown crept over her face as her eyes lost their focus within the room and slid to the image of the black-haired man. Would it be as easy to reject the elders’ authority when she was faced again with helping him break free of his assailant? His need was far more desperate than Asha’s.

She already knew the answer. By stepping into the terrified man’s dreams, she would be taking on far more than a simple adventure. She would be walking into the fire.

PNG Reality Raiders Press Short Logo 2T'nari Renegades
Pleiadian Cycle

Chronology
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Blood of the Prime: Predawn
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READING SAMPLE

BLOOD OF THE PRIME: PREDAWN
T’nari Renegades–Pleiadian Cycle Book I, Part I

Prologue
Notes of Riál
Chapter 1 – Incursion
Chapter 2 – Dreams
Chapter 3 – Agitation

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PROLOGUE

“Code firing of the Talrésian line—Tarsus, Alcyone, Okadian timeshell, one hundred forty-four millennia after seeding. Check.”

“What? That’s your move?”

“That’s my move.”

“What good—?”

“Look at the ramifications, my dear.”

“Damn.”

The chiming, feminine voice laughed. “You see it now, don’t you?”

“Um-hmm.”

“Critical mass and a wildfire chain reaction that spreads into countless systems. Your paltry efforts to suppress such an expansion will only inflame it. Shall we continue, or do you accept utter and humiliating defeat?” The shimmering crystalline spider waited patiently, her thousand, independently moving eyes watching the sprawl of activity in front of her with wry amusement.

Across a vast expanse of space, the mass of pulsating light which the spider’s companion had chosen as his guise for their game flared in frustration. “I’m not giving up anything yet, Kalán!” Shirus scanned the blanket of tiny lights and orbs glittering in the playing field again and again for new possibilities.

The two guardians were intimately acquainted with the personalities of the stars and worlds represented in the game as well as the dramas being played out by the lifeforms inhabiting each one. They were, after all, among the master timekeepers who crafted the webworks that supported the experiments in physicality run by the clans of Genán, the underlying prime intelligence of the galaxy.

To entertain themselves, the pair had extracted a slice from one of Genán’s timeshells and projected the events of the worlds within it into their gaming space as the starting point of play. The two players proceeded to shift the lifeforms and spin out the probabilities in each system, keeping track of all moves on all worlds simultaneously while attempting to outmaneuver the other according to the nature of each “chess piece.”

For this match, Shirus directed the events of those who gravitated toward collapse and Kalán orchestrated those who moved toward expansion.

“Do you have to be such a bleeding genius every time we play?” Shirus doggedly sifted through his opponent’s moves on multiple worlds. For a moment, the ball of light brightened, appearing to be pleased with a new direction of thought. “Rastaban, Draco—Emperor Izar deploys his entire fleet of destroyers in the two-thousand-four-hundred-seventy-ninth year of his reign.”

“Excellent. That will do quite well.”

“What do you mean?” Shirus snapped irritably. “That’s going to wipe out your little upstart scheme.”

The glittering spider waved an appendage airily. “Ah, my dear. Remember, plans within plans within plans. Terra, Sol, two centuries prior to decimation—Ama is brought back from madness by her mate.”

“But that’s … so far back—”

“Indeed. Checkmate.”

With a sudden flash, the spinning points of light and orbs were instantly incinerated as a giant wave of fire rolled across the field.

Tinkling laughter emanated from the beautiful spider. The ball of light sat in sullen silence.

“Did that feel good, my dear?” Kalán inquired delicately.

Shirus growled. “Yes.”

“You just destroyed a good third of our territory with that move. Baal would applaud such an action from you.”

“Baal interferes where he should not!” The ball of light erupted with violent ribbons of red.

“Baal is brilliant and bored.”

“He’s a guardian! Our job is to keep the timewebs intact and healthy while the Prime journeys toward completion. It’s not our place to interact with the inhabitants of the webs! The clans create life and all its experience. We don’t!” A flare shot out from the ball, indicating the playing field. “This is a game. Genán never intended for us to participate directly in physical reality. You’ve been interfering just as much as Baal.”

“And what if collapse is what we all end up with as a result of his actions?” Kalán fired back. “Would the Prime want that? Just what would that look like, Shirus? You’ve stood by and watched as the great reptilian clans split apart and soured throughout the Okadian Timeshell. Look here.”

In a quick burst, the lights and orbs reconfigured in the space between the two entities. With a crisp command, the spider set the stellar and planetary bodies into motion once again.

“When the Goran Drahk splinter factions poured out of Lyra and infected the Draco Expanse, Baal was behind them.” Kalán waved an arm and a sinewy pattern of stars blinked within the playing field. “His interference spawned the first battles of the Reptilian Wars, culminating in widespread flight and the scattering of the elder creators within the clan.”

Shirus brooded in silence, fully aware of the tragic hejira of the Prime’s greatest designers.

With quiet resolve, the spider pressed on. “The elder dragons hid and started over, tucking away their secrets and infusing themselves into new worlds, but it wasn’t enough. Time and time again they were discovered, raided, plundered by the very offspring they had once been so proud of. Who do you think directed those raids, Shirus?”

Isolated groups of lights fluttered and spat while the field’s overall luminance throbbed with an unhealthy cast.

“And just when the voracious beasts were about to burn out, they turned themselves around and drew a new breath. The Drahkian Empire desecrates life in massive sweeps, intent on owning or devouring anything they deem beneath them. They conquer and terrorize to feed their addiction, leaving multitudes of beings mere shells of what they had been.” The spider watched her companion intently as cluster after cluster of the spinning stars and planets flared to indicate their downfall to Drahkian rule.

“We’ve seen millions of races rise and fall, Kalán. It is their right.”

“Agreed, but this breed of reptilians has lost all sensibilities which link them with other life. They have no concept of how their actions affect the whole, nor would they care if they knew. You know the horrible mess it makes when they destroy an entire planet. It completely disrupts the planetary collective, leaving it wounded, grieving, angry, in shock — and it blows huge holes in the timewebs. How many of those mangled grids have you reconstructed yourself?”

The ball of light spasmed with sharp bursts of color. “Too many.”

“And are you going to keep cleaning up after them?”

“Yessssss. All is allowed by the Prime in this zone, Kalán.”

“Then don’t we have free will to choose our actions?” The body of the spider blazed with golden light. “Where is your love for these beings, my dear?”

“My love for them does not allow me to manipulate and take away their choices, even appalling ones.”

“I’m not talking about taking away anyone’s choice, only showing those who ask the right questions new possibilities, just as Baal does with the Drahks. Watch as I spin the probabilities of the Drahkian Empire continuing its present course within the primary layer of the Okadian Timeshell.”

The lights swirled and wove before the two guardians. Multiple systems dimmed, while some points burst into flame and disappeared altogether from the intricate pattern. Abruptly, a vast portion of the lights spluttered and disintegrated, leaving a gaping void in the spinning wheel of stars.

Shirus shifted uncomfortably as the spider’s eyes pinned him in place.

“Yes, love. I see the potential for Genán’s consciousness to begin its collapse. If enough beings are brutalized by Drahkian violence, they will no longer hold onto the desire to live in physical reality. The pain would be too great. The wounded Prime could very well fall into an endless loop of unaware madness with no one left outside of the nightmare to wake it to sanity, let alone heal it.”

The ball of light was silent.

“If the living entities of Genán choose the path of premature demise, so be it. It is their will.” The crystalline spider twinkled for a moment as if smiling. “But if we are all ever going to get remotely close to completion, which is part of our job,” she added dryly, “then we damn well better do something about it.”

Shirus rumbled with irritation. “The Drahks are the spawn of the reptilian clan. Let them do something about their twisted offspring.”

“Oh, they are, my dear. The T’nari game masters are designing a grand scheme to do just that.”

“The T’nari? The rogue designers?”

“Mmmm, yeeeeesssss,” the female spider replied silkily. “Riál contacted me and asked if I would throw my talents in with his rather dazzling collection of renegade system busters. It appears my weaving skills are valuable to their plans.”

The ball of light flickered with annoyance. “And just what exactly have you and Riál mapped out, O Great Master Strategist?”

“I thought you’d never ask. Do pay close attention,” the spider answered primly.

With a single flourish of a delicate arm, the lights and orbs reappeared once more, the Drahkian territory clearly delineated by a wide array of fluttering star points. Single stars, both inside the territory and beyond, pulsed with luminous intensity and seemed to spin a little faster.

“Are you following this?”

The interwoven plans and shifting probabilities escalated through the events transpiring within each star system and world. “There and there,” the spider prompted as point after point in the field shimmered with vivid cobalt. Images of T’nari infiltrations and ignitions flew fast and furiously into the mind of the male guardian.

“The kernels for a brand new timeshell could be opened here, here, and, most critically, here,” Kalán prompted, indicating a planetary system in a spur of the galaxy.

“Now watch.”

Several of the blinking Drahkian systems wobbled. One by one, a series of planetary orbs sprinkled throughout the sector began to glow more brightly than the others, forming an odd configuration within the field. When the twelfth entity lit up, beams of light shot between the bodies to form a connected geometric form and the group began to thrum in unison. A blitz of light rolled out from the neon matrix, infusing itself across the entire system until all points within the playing field burned with a new intensity, even the systems which had previously gone out.

“The Angriel banks. By the Prime, they’re after the lost Angriel libraries!”

“That’s right, dear, all of them.”

“And … they work together.”

“Indeed. The reptilian designers were cunning as well as genius. There are powerful keys hidden in the libraries—that’s one thing Riál wants.”

“So he can do … this?” The guardian gestured toward the light geometry pulsing within the ocean of stars.

“Yes! The reclamation of the code banks means a chance to revitalize and reseed life in the Okadian timewebs. A new game, Shirus, think of it! The birth of a brand new timeshell for Genán and the rise into a higher frequency for all entities who can handle it, including those who were lost. Riál is after more than the banks themselves—he wants his family back.”

A great ripple burst from the giant ball of light as he shuddered in stunned surprise. “Incredible.” The guardian moved his mind through the intricate new pathways of each system once again. “You mean, those moves you made in our game are real?”

The spider laughed. “That word, coming from you. Of course, Shirus. The T’nari renegades are already hurling them into motion in all levels of the timeshells.”

“A very cunning plan indeed.”

“I thought you might be impressed.”

“I’m always impressed with what you come up with and the T’nari are brilliant, but do you think they can really pull this whole thing off?”

“Riál has a small army working the beginning stages of our plans. They’ve infiltrated key bloodlines in pivotal segments of the drama and have begun to stir interest in a new solution to the tired old problems.” Kalán blinked her eyes for a moment and then mused, “You know, maybe that’s what Baal had in mind all along—push the beings in this sector against the wall to see if they will bounce back stronger than they were.”

Turning her gaze back to her mate, the spider’s eyes sparkled with mischief. “Then again, perhaps Baal just wanted to draw me into the arena in order to have a worthy opponent.”

The ball of light roared and changed swiftly into a large male spider, sweeping a wide swath of space clear through the gaming field. Shirus crouched and began a slow stalk of his lovely partner across the open gulf between them, his eyes smoldering as his gaze bored into hers.

Kalán shivered. “The T’nari are such spectacular players,” she drawled, taunting him further. “The stimulation in watching their moves … is like nothing else in the field.” She panted as she watched the huge, glowing arachnid approach across the gaming space. “There is always room for another touch of genius, Shirus. Think about it, my love. If you wish to join us, you would be welcomed by all.”

The male spider crept closer through the suspended lights, smiling maniacally.

“Such a beautiful renegade,” the deep voice crooned. Shirus’s body began to throb in a slow, steady beat as he closed the distance to Kalán, the stars around him picking up the same pulsing rhythm.

“Flattery will get you everywhere.”

“Perhaps we could add a new … thrust … of vitality to your plans.” The male spider paused a short distance away, his eyes locked with hers in invitation, the bursts of light from his body washing over hers.

“Perhaps … we can … think of something,” Kalán whispered breathlessly.

The swirling patterns of light in the forgotten playing field behind the two guardians began to burn and sizzle.

With a wild laugh, the female spider pounced.

X

NOTES OF RIÁL

I was on Tarsus with many of my kin in the Pleiadian predawn, the difficult time before we activated the Angriel E’lium, the grand re-attunement of the Angriel libraries.

We assumed our roles would amuse, that our memories would reconnect with ease. After all, the codes of our family were still within the blood, not to mention that we had done it thousands of times before. And we had Kalán’s webs—intricate and fine and primal. What more did we need?

We took our fire and our joy into a world on the brink of crisis. Our natures carried us a good part of the distance to our goal.

But in our rollicking arrogance, we often forget the challenges of breaking through fear, pain, anger, and grief. Probably a good thing or we wouldn’t keep sending ourselves into the lamentably lost pockets of our clan’s wayward experiments.

On Tarsus, I nearly let go of my passion, leaving my codes asleep and useless.

Fortunately, I was also on Bahár searching for my self-worth. Through careful interweavings and agreements, I was able to prod myself on Tarsus into activating the chain of firings I had gone in to ignite in the first place.

And thanks to Kalán’s foresight, I was also on Ti’úan, hidden in a different layer of the timeshell, or we might never have broken through to the Pleiadian seed kernel of the Angriel E’lium.

Notes of Riál, T’nari Gamemaster
The E’lium Chronicles

 

X

INCURSION

All pilots transport NOW!

The call came while Rhys Talrésian was out working a new stretch of ground in his vegetable garden at Tintágel, the sentinel compound of Andara’s western coast. Covered in sweat, he panted and straightened his back, looking down at the grungy pair of shorts and battered sandals he wore when digging out in the hot sun.

“Crap.”

He dropped his shovel in the dirt and ran his hands through his long black hair. It never seemed to fail that he was in the middle of something awkward whenever the admiral called a drill. With any luck, no one on his team, or the rest of the crew for that matter, would fully tune into him and notice his lack of attire. That left only his partner to deal with, which meant several days of needling jibes were a foregone conclusion.

With an exasperated sigh, Rhys locked his mind into the proper geometric sound matrix that would allow him to transport across the Andaran continent and shifted himself directly onto Mirida, one of the sentient crystalline starships anchored deep within the mountains outside of Krii, the largest capital on Tarsus. He materialized on board Rai, his small interceptor, housed in one of the lower docking bays of the smoky gray vessel alongside the eleven other interceptors making up Team Six.

I’m here, Mirida, he called mentally to check in with the starship while he strapped himself into his chair.

Welcome, Rhys. I’ll let you know when all the members of your team have arrived.

Great, thanks. He scanned the control panels in front of him and began the routine checks for the small craft necessary before the starship launched into space.

Rai’s pale white walls vibrated in response to the appearance of one of her pilots. Rhys, your pulse rate is a little high and you appear to be overheated. Would you like some cool air?

He smiled at the sound of the sentient vessel’s calm voice in his mind. Yes, Rai, that would be wonderful. A soft current of air swirled over his skin while he turned his focus inward to perform a complete scan of Rai’s body, checking stored energy levels, life support systems, and internal tuning. Satisfied that all systems were in top form, he lifted his gaze to the window in Rai’s hull. Out beyond the translucent docking bay door he could see a portion of the lighted underground cavern which harbored six of the eleven great Khalama starships of Tarsus, the second planet of the Alcyone system.

The tall, solid form of Quinn Logan appeared beside him to his right in the second pilot’s seat. A silver moon dangled from the Caledonian’s left ear among strands of thick, wavy brown hair. Rhys noted with irrational irritation that his partner was fully clothed in his usual chambray shirt and jeans, having responded to the call, as required, without changing into his navy fleet uniform.

He kept his gaze directed out the window, but he could feel Quinn’s probing green eyes give him a thorough going over.

“Just don’t say it,” he growled through clenched teeth.

Quinn threw back his head with a loud laugh. “You make it so easy, man. What was it last time, a towel?”

“I was in … the shower. It was all I could grab.”

“Yeah, well I’d say this is an improvement.”

Out to impress someone, Rhys? A familiar deep voice came blaring across a mental channel with both pilots.

Rhys let out a disgusted snort. What the hell are you doing here, Kirian? Who’s running the portal?

I’m not on duty. Gridál has the shift.

Kirian Vall was one of three senior portal masters in charge of the large teams who regulated traffic through the planet’s primary portal in the upper atmosphere above Krii. He was also the leader of the Makhás masters from Sirius and founder of the Center for Geometrics where everyone in the Alcyoni Fleet had been educated.

I’ll be watching if you need me. Otherwise, keep your minds on your job.

The pilots glanced at each other with puzzled frowns at the tigerman’s rough tone. It was highly unusual for their busy friend to make contact with them on runs or drills, let alone bark at them with his infamous temper which he inflicted regularly on the rest of the world.

Quinn shook his head and shrugged as the mellifluous voice of Mirida rang through a channel with both pilots. The last member of your team just transported aboard.

Thank you, Mirida! Rhys extended his senses outward to establish a linked network with the members of Team Six: twelve sentient interceptors, twenty-four pilots, and twelve transport adepts housed in a chamber adjacent to the bay. Alright, everyone’s in the link. Ready to work, team?

Yesss!

Good. Let’s—

I’m not.

Always the comedian, Katherine. Did engineering get the air regulators fixed aboard Lessa since our last run?

Yep, nice and cool in here. Hey, Rai, you might want to crank it down a bit more for Mountain Man and Studly. Looks like he’s sweatin’ like a mad bull.

Rhys glowered as laughter burbled across the link. Beside him, Quinn’s smooth features split into a wide grin.

Thanks, smart-ass. I’ll deal with you when we get ba—

Tune to Tarsus!

The sharp command from the bridge within Mirida’s core broke across the channel. Straightening in their seats, the pilots drew in full breaths and turned their attention to making the long, clear sounds which would connect with Rai’s spinning toroidal field and activate her energetic shield. Their baritone voices blended and merged into easy, familiar harmonics, filling the crystalline chamber with ringing sound.

All around the small interceptor, an energy web began to form from the intonation of the eleven other pilot pairs and the transporters of Team Six. The web grew until it joined with the expanding network building within the body of Mirida generated by all twelve pilot teams, the transport, motion, portal, and shield teams stationed on the bridge, and all other crew members stationed throughout the ship. At the center of the spinning construct, Rhys could feel the vibrant sounds and movements of his brother, Djan, and his sister-in-law, Tyla, the starship leaders who directed the whole formation in the heart of the ship through the ecstatic drive of their lovemaking.

The heat of arousal rushed through Rhys’s body as the spinning sound construct opened a connection for everyone on board and brought the tide of sexual energy pumping through the entire network. As Djan and Tyla fused and melded, the great starship herself began to hum and vibrate. Rhys shifted his sound to a higher tone, riding the currents and moving the energy up through his own system as the swells coursed through the body of the ship. Beside him, Quinn’s resonant tones locked with his and shook with tension.

The enormous torus spun through and around the ship and the starship leaders reached for completion. With Djan and Tyla’s climax came a brilliant burst as Mirida connected with the central core of Tarsus. Light flooded through the translucent walls of living crystal, setting her entire form ablaze. Rhys felt the jolt run up his spine and electrify every cell in his body, bringing his awareness into razor-sharp clarity.

At a signal from the bridge, the toning spiked and dropped to seal off the starship’s link to Tarsus. The stored energy would maintain the high spin of Mirida’s massive toroidal field and all shipwide functions for the entire voyage. Direction of the torus was handled by the motion team who would shift its rate and size to regulate the ship’s movement. The body of the ship itself as well as those of the interceptors were designed to amplify and hold all of the energetic constructs generated by the crew of adepts on board.

Out the window, Rhys watched as Rinzen, the original Khalama starship brought by the Makhás Masters from Sirius, Telemar, and Corum, Admiral Silesian’s flagship, one by one burst into flaming life beside Mirida, ready for flight.

Adrenaline sang in Rhys’s veins, and through his heightened senses, he picked up an unusually strong undercurrent of something unexpected running through Mirida and her crew—anxiety. A glance at Quinn’s taut features confirmed that he too was feeling the disturbing vibrations coursing through the network.

Transporting to upper atmosphere. Djan’s clipped voice relayed operations and orders over the shipwide link while Tyla directed the four teams of adepts in the central bridge.

Instantly the four activated starships blinked into the cobalt blue space above Tarsus. Spread from horizon to horizon was the vast landmass of Andara, the most heavily populated continent within the primary dimension of First Shade. Directly below lay the glittering expanse of Krii just west of the rugged Shardan range which stretched lazily toward the northern seas in a long serpentine chain.

Far to the left, the green water of the Fiordian Sea met the jagged line of the western coastal lands where Rhys had blissfully been tending his garden at Tintágel only moments before. To the right beyond the Shardans, his eyes skimmed over the rolling hills of the Roden grasslands where his grandfather’s family resided, and scanned the horizon where he could just make out the snowy peak of Emrys in the southern mountains of Caledon, the second largest continent of Tarsus. He raised a hand and pointed it out, bringing a quiet smile to his partner’s face at seeing a visible piece of his northern homeland.

Leto and Gillian are joining us from Ness. Seconds later, two of the five starships from the caverns just outside of Caledon’s capital city popped into the space next to Mirida. We have access coordinates through the portal. Transport matrix is in place. Shifting out.

The pilots watched the surface of Tarsus shift from glorious greens and rusts to a dead shade of tan, devoid of seas or lifesigns, as the six starships transported out past the complex convergence of energy gridlines comprising the main entry point to Tarsus. The Portal Masters and their large teams maintained the intricate locks of the primary portal above Krii and the secondary portal above Ness, providing access to welcome visitors into First Shade while projecting the lifeless appearance of an uninhabited secondary shade into the grid in order to camouflage the planet’s surface to anyone outside.

The sleek forms of the Zephyr and Loki, two of the old mechanical fleet starships, hung in orbit just outside the wide portal space, silently standing guard and ready to assist the number of small merchant crafts and rigs coming in through the mechanized transport ring hanging in space several miles above the portal.

Starships from Chi, Ki, and Niemi are being activated and charged. Admiral Silesian will fill everyone in as soon as those ships are in orbit above their home portals.

Rhys sucked in a breath. He knew his brother too well. The tension in Djan’s voice confirmed what Rhys had begun to suspect the moment he picked up the anxiety running through the ship.

This was no drill.

The Drahkian Empire was on the move again somewhere within Maia or Alcyone, the last free planetary systems in the Pleiades. The new Alcyoni fleet that Rhys’s grandfather, Magnus, and Miros Silesian had worked so hard to build with the guidance of Kirian and the Makhás masters was about to be put to the test against the very deadly reptilians.

Rhys closed his eyes as an involuntary shudder worked its way through his frame.

“We’ll be alright,” Quinn asserted firmly, his almost imperceptible Caledonian lilt softening his words.

Rhys rubbed his face with his hands. “I know. We’ve been through the drills a thousand times. We just don’t know how effective we’ll be in a real battle.”

“We’re good at this, and you’re the best short-range netter we’ve got.” It was widely accepted that Rhys’s talent in constructing geometric webs was second to none. Working in tandem with Quinn’s long-range scanning abilities, the pair made a formidable partnership.

“We must be crazy to take them on with no weapons. All this planning and training just to capture and send them over to Tiān Lóng. I don’t know, Quinn.”

“It’s better this way. Blowing them up gets us nowhere. That’s what Miros and Magnus drummed into all our heads after they lost the war in Merope. You know how passionate Mag is about finding a way to deal with the Drahks. You’re a lot like him.”

Rhys snorted and smiled crookedly. “Yeah, don’t remind me.” He knew all the stories about how his grandfather had brought the last surviving Sirian Makhás masters to Tarsus and persuaded the staunchly pacifist psychics to share their knowledge and help birth a new fleet of sentient Khalama starships. Thanks to Magnus’s drive and the Makhás’ brilliance, the Alcyoni fleet now had the edge it needed to compete with the Drahks’ perplexing technology that enabled warships to transport instantaneously. Rhys absently touched his fingers to the golden octahedron hanging from a chain around his neck that Magnus had given him when he graduated from the academy. Such a tiny piece of delicate gold had changed all of their lives when it opened that crucial connection between Magnus and Kirian across star systems so many years ago.

With a long sigh, Rhys let his hand fall back down to the armrest. “Even if this works, we still don’t know how they break portals. How long will we be able to put off the inevitable?”

“Who says it’s inevitable? We don’t know what’s around the bend, Rhys.” The Caledonian pilot watched him calmly.

“You’re right,” he acknowledged at length. “Thanks for letting me blow off steam.”

Ok, listen up, everyone. The rich voice of Fleet Admiral Miros Silesian sounded across a secondary shipwide link connecting the admiral with all fifteen mobilized vessels. Admiral Stardancer of the Maian fleet contacted me about fifteen minutes ago to report that a Drahkian warband has invaded Galah, the smallest outworld of Maia. The last relay from Galah’s Portal Master reported that eight warships had broken through the portal locks. The Peregrine managed to lift off and join the rest of the fleet, but communication from the Portal Center staff was cut off, so we have no idea what exactly we’ll encounter once we get there.

A moment of heavy silence passed. The populated systems within the vast Pleiadian cluster—Sterope, Celaeno, Taygeta, Electra, Pleione, Atlas, and numerous smaller systems—had fallen, one by one, under Drahkian control. After the bitter loss of Merope decades prior, the Maian fleet had joined the feverish drive on Tarsus to expand into new abilities that would give them an edge against Drahkian technology. The Maians still flew the swift Birdwing starships, but the vessels had been redesigned to carry crystalline cores and the bird-headed Tori and human fleet personnel were now highly trained adepts who shared the same goals as their cousins in Alcyone.

We’re taking a third of our starships to support the Maians and will call in the rest of our ships if we need them. Admiral Stardancer has mobilized the entire Maian fleet to guard their portals and will bring a large force to meet us at a coordinate ten miles above Galah’s portal. Ship transporters, exact coordinates are coming through to your team leaders now. The teams in orbit and underground on Tiān Lóng are standing by to handle any Drahkian vessels we capture. All hands, prepare to link with Alcyone’s stargate.

Rhys pulled in a slow breath as he felt Mirida and the six Tarsian starships join in a mental bond with nine other sentient vessels from Niemi and the twin planets of Chi and Ki, vibrating in sync to prepare for connection with the great blue central star.

Open the gates!

The crisp, clear voices of the transport team on the bridge surged through Mirida as they sounded an intricate set of tones designed to resonate with the geometric configuration of Alcyone’s stargate generated by the star’s movement and vibration. A second set of tones matching the stargate signature of Maia was woven into the sound construct to link both gates and hold them open while an energetic web large enough to receive the ship was projected out to coordinates above Galah.

Transport matrices are in place. All ships, jump on my mark. Three … two … one, … now!

The fifteen crystalline starships shifted as one body and appeared above a tiny gray world surrounded by the blue dust of the Pleiadian cluster. At the same moment, twenty-four golden Birdwing vessels swooped into view beside them.

Ahiiiaaa, Alcyoni fleet! The melodious voice of Yuri Stardancer, Tori admiral of the Maian fleet, trilled across the joint channel. Thank you for coming! It’s our turn to be grateful for assistance. For decades, long before the Meropean War, the Maian Birdwings had flown to support countless free worlds under attack by forces from the Empire. Unfortunately, all of those systems had eventually fallen to the Drahks’ superior technology.

We’re here to help. Any change, Yuri?

Still nothing since we lost contact with our people in the Portal Center. They must all be dead or unconscious. We’ve received a few calls from off-duty portal staff who told us the Drahks have started to land and the city is in chaos. If we can still pick up those calls, that tells me the portal may not yet be sealed off.

Then let’s see if we can get through!

In formations of six, the shiny Maian vessels peeled out in graceful arcs toward the surface of the planet leaving the Alcyoni vessels to follow in their wake. Within a few short minutes, the combined Pleiadian fleet came to a hovering halt in front of the huge mechanical ship transport ring floating in orbit a few miles above Galah’s only portal.

Rhys shifted his mind’s eye downward to take in the view of the planet below the ship. “Damn, look at that.” Galah’s capital city of Guan was clearly visible, even from the fleet’s high vantage point in space. “The portal’s wide open or we’d never see it!”

Shadowed against the soft glow of the city’s solar dome, a set of dark discs hung in suspension, barely discernible, but unmistakable.

“By the Prime,” Quinn murmured at their first sighting of the deadly invaders they had all heard about since childhood. His jaw dropped open at seeing the hard evidence that the Drahkian Empire had turned its attention toward the last remaining free worlds in the Pleiades. “We always knew this day would come.”

“Yeah, but it’s still unnerving to see the bastards here.”

The Maian admiral’s perplexed voice sounded over the channel. I’ve never seen them leave a portal open like this. They always reseal it right after they burn through.

You’ve been through more battles than the rest of us, Yuri.

Whether it’s purposeful or some kind of malfunction, we need to keep alert, Miros, so we don’t end up trapped on the wrong side of a locked portal.

Agreed. I don’t like it either, but it’s our chance to hit them while their numbers are small. Lead the way, Yuri. We’ll follow you down. Alcyoni ships, fall into formation—groups of five! The admiral’s flagship pulled out in front of the other crystalline vessels to lead the first group.

Djan’s clipped voice rang over the internal channel linking Mirida and her crew. Moving out! The ship banked away from the cluster of Pleiadian vessels and took up position with Telemar, Leto, and Gillian behind Rinzen.

The Maian wings began their descent, trailed by the three Alcyoni formations with Corum in the lead. Within minutes, the fleet moved smoothly down through the open portal into the thin, inhospitable atmosphere toward the domed city below.

“Two warships are missing,” Quinn noted as he conducted a long-range scan past the enemy ships and searched the city beneath the solar dome. “They said there were eight.”

“Already down on the landing fields?”

The Caledonian shook his head as they watched the dark shapes grow quickly in size. Six charcoal gray Drahkian discs, each significantly larger than the Khalama or Birdwing ships, were spread out over Guan just above the energetic barrier of the solar dome. Dozens of long, blocky vessels moved outward from the ominous dark hulks, winding slow paths down toward the solar dome on their way to the surface.

Yuri’s voice cut into the link. Those smaller craft are transports filled with saur beasts and their handlers. We’ve got to stop any more from landing!

Abruptly, swarms of tiny fighters began to pour from the outer rims of the warships, rushing to form clusters around the slow-moving transports.

The Alcyoni admiral uttered a soft expletive. They finally figured out they have company! At least with so many small ships in the field, the warships won’t be transporting out from under us any time soon.

Agreed. Miros, take the western half of the city. We’ll handle the eastern sectors. I’m sending the Peregrine with a wing to circle the dome so they can transport as many people up from the surface as they can locate.

Understood, Yuri. Alright people, let’s get busy. Rinzen, your team will target the warship furthest north. Shoji’s team, head for the disc furthest west. Those of you with Corum, we’ll take the ship to the southwest. Stay alert for new orders and be prepared to move quickly!

Mirida shifted into position between Rinzen and Telemar. The Tarsian starships dropped down into the space directly above the dark disc hovering over the small landing fields and Portal Center at the northern edge of the city. Bright beams shot upward out of firing points encircling the warship’s apex as well as from positions along the rim, deftly avoiding the swirling cloud of Drahkian fighters rising upward to meet the Pleiadian vessels. The energy shield blanketing Mirida’s outer hull diffused the beams and redirected stray fragments while the five Tarsian ships adjusted their altitudes to hover at a distance that would avoid serious damage.

Djan’s voice snapped out orders over Mirida’s link. We need to clean up the field of smaller ships before the starships can hold a stable net around the warship. Pilot teams one through four, target the front formations of oncoming fighters and keep them away from Mirida. Five through twelve, transport directly down past the rim of the warship and get to work on those ground vessels and fighters. Your transport teams are ready to shift the ships you net straight out to Tiān Lóng. Keep yourselves clear of those beams. It won’t be long before the warship gunners give up on us and turn their focus on you. Get going!

Rhys shifted his telepathic connection with Mirida’s shipwide network to a secondary channel and focused his attention on the link between the twelve ships and transporters of his team. Interceptors, release you anchors. Get ready to move. He glanced aside at his partner. “Find us an open spot down there.”

Quinn nodded and closed his eyes to cast his vision down toward the warship. There’s clear space just outside the southernmost rim where some of the fighters are emerging. I’ve set an energetic beacon. Rhys, lock on and throw the transport grid.

Got it! The web is open. Everyone, shift on my mark. Ready—now!

In one clean move, the pilots transported the twelve small vessels into the center of Rhys’s energy construct. The massive gray warship loomed above them to the north, spitting bolts of fire up into the sky like an angry, metallic beast. Scores of small, silvery fighters littered the space around the disc, pulling quickly into groups to charge at the clusters of crystalline interceptors appearing all over the field. A dozen freshly launched ships just outside the open bay doors in the warship rim fell into formation and headed straight for Team Six.

Shields up! Spread out. We’ll net the fighters one at a time!

The vessels of Team Six shot forward to take on the swarm of lethal hornets. Quinn shifted Rai’s toroidal field to propel the ship upward toward the lead fighter, taking her in a zigzag course to avoid bursts of weapon fire. He lifted her sharply to allow the lead fighter to speed past before tearing through the middle of their formation. The Drahkian fighters scattered in all directions.

That should help. Pick them up, team! he called as he slowed Rai’s course and rotated back around. “Looks like we can maneuver better than they can,” he commented aloud. “They fly like planes. I wonder if they can transport like the warships.”

“I haven’t seen any of them disappear. Let’s nail the lead before they regroup.”

“He’s swinging around to come after us. Here we go.” Quinn launched Rai forward, squinting as he sent a scan through the oncoming enemy vessel. “Only one aboard. These are single-pilot craft.”

While Quinn skillfully maneuvered Rai around the fighter’s intermittent spray of short-range disruptor fire, Rhys sized up the shape of the vessel and mentally projected a soft-glowing geometric web of energy to surround it completely. He held it in place as the ship raced toward them and called out to the lead transporter of Team Six. Jess, lock onto my net and—

A rapid barrage of beams spewed out of the fighter as it closed in on Rai. The brunt was diffused by Rai’s shield wall, but the small interceptor shuddered from the impact of multiple blows as a streak of glinting metal shot past them.

Quinn glanced aside at his partner while he spun the ship around and sent her flying in pursuit of the Drahkian vessel. “Problem?”

“My construct flickered when the beams hit,” Rhys grumbled as he concentrated on the wavering dark form in front of them. “Stay with it, Quinn. I’ll reform the net. Rai, increase your amplification settings by two.”

Done. That should magnify the net you send through me.

Great. Jess?

We’re ready to take it out, Rhys, as soon as your construct is back in place.

With Rai on its tail, the small ship banked into a tight arc to come at them once more, giving Rhys the few seconds he needed to surround it with a new energy matrix.

The net is solid. Jess, shift it out of here!

The Drahkian fighter disappeared from the field.

We got it, Rhys. He’s on his way to Tiān Lóng. Keep it up!

“Ok, that’s the way it’s supposed to work! Thanks for the boost, Rai.” Rhys turned his attention to their scattered team. Six of the small interceptors were still engaged with enemy vessels, but the other five had apparently been successful in taking out their targets and had flown to assist their teammates. “Good. Quinn, who doesn’t have backup?”

“Ellim.”

“Let’s get over there and help.”

“You got it.”

Quinn quickly spun the interceptor and headed her toward a small whitish vessel taking heavy fire from a Drahkian fighter. Splintered beams scattered off of Ellim’s energetic shield, shaking the small ship as the fighter came in close.

Trevor, Sharon, sit tight. We’ll net him while his eyes are on you. Rai closed the distance to the two vessels. Rhys watched and waited for the moment the fighter shot past Ellim and ceased firing. Got him. Net’s in place. Jess!

The fighter within the light web vanished from space just beyond Ellim.

Trevor’s quivering voice came on over the link. Thanks, Rhys! That bastard was really fast.

You bet. Ellim, are you alright?

Yep, ready for more.

Good. Trev, take a deep breath. We’ve got more work to do.

While Quinn spun Rai around and headed her toward their scattered team, Rhys sent a quick probe out through the eleven small vessels. The pilots and ships were charged with tension, but were focused on snaring the last three fighters in the immediate vicinity. A scan across the space further around the warship’s rim revealed similar successes by Mirida’s teams of interceptors. The swarms of Drahkian fighters between the warship and Mirida were decidedly thinner and the launch of any more small vessels from the open bay doors had slowed considerably.

The warship itself had yet to give any indication of breaking position and was apparently waiting for the ground transports caught in their runs to either land or make it back into dock. The Drahkian gunners had ceased their futile firing on the five starships hovering above and begun to fire short, intermittent shots aimed at lone interceptors not engaged with their own fighters.

“A hit from one of those beams would tear us apart,” Quinn declared.

“In a flash. Thank the Prime we haven’t seen any explosions.”

“Yet.”

Rhys glanced aside at his partner’s odd tone, keenly aware that the Caledonian possessed the uncanny talent of precognition. He squelched a shudder and quickly located each of their teammates. The last remaining Drahkian fighter broke away and sped swiftly downward to join the escort of fighters around a slow-moving transport making its way in a gradual spiral toward the surface below.

Regroup!

Through long years of practice, each of the eleven scattered ships evaporated and rematerialized in a tight formation around Rai.

Interceptors, notch up your amplification by two to strengthen the nets. Pilots, we’re going after that transport ship. We’ll shift down behind it together. Stay sharp! Those disruptors firing from the rim are targeting interceptors unless one of theirs is close by. Keep your flying erratic so you don’t get hit.

As if to underscore Rhys’s words, a bright disruptor blast seared through space above the hovering formation, narrowly missing Divi on the edge closest to the warship.

Net’s open! Shift … now!

The twelve ships of Team Six dematerialized on cue and reappeared in a cloud a short distance behind the grimy, blocky vessel on its way down to the city.

Spread out in pairs. We have to draw the fighters off and take them out before we can net the transport. Regroup when you’re finished. Go!

The interceptors veered away, speeding forward in all directions around the large, blackish ship. Sylvan flew to Rai’s right, deftly steered by her pilots Tam and Faraji. The two ships swept up and over the aft section of the lumbering vessel and were met by a spray of beams from a fighter heading straight for them from the starboard side. Bright sparks flew off in showers around the crystalline hulls.

Tam’s booming voice came on over the link. We’ll take the lead and draw him off toward the port side. Nail him, Rhys!

Ok, we’ll pick him up from behind.

Sylvan shot forward in an arc across the transport. The Drahkian fighter followed closely on her tail, searing her with a constant stream of fire.

“I’ll swing us in under him,” Quinn confirmed, sending Rai speeding after the fast-moving ship. “That should give you should a clear view.”

Rhys nodded and focused on flinging a transport net around the fighter above them, keeping a firm grip on the construct while it flickered intermittently from the Drahk’s weapon fire. Got it. Transport team, shift him out!

The small ship disappeared. Sylvan slowed and spun as Rai came up beside her. Lessa and Ellim’s sparkling forms rose over the rim of the transport and flew in to join them.

There’s one more left on the port side, Rhys.

Thanks, Trev. As soon as everyone else gets here, we’ll shift out around the transport and beam the net out between our ships. Any appendages below?

Yeah, we saw six sets of short landing pads along the bottom, Sharon reported.

We’ll have to take them into account when we set up the web. This thing has an odd shape.

Kirian’s rich voice rolled through the team’s channel. Try a truncated tetrahedron. Six points forward, six rear.

Whoa, Tiger Sensei’s with us? Meredith chimed in from Lessa. We’ll slam this beast now!

Out of the blue, a barrage of weapon fire broke across the small group of interceptors. Rai shook under a heavy blow from a sleek, winged craft shooting past them in the space above.

Where the hell did he come from? Tam shouted in exasperation.

He transported in behind us! Quinn spat. This one’s not like the other fighters. Keep out of his sights. He’s got heavier disruptors!

The elegant black fighter whipped around in a hairpin move to come at them again.

Scatter! Rhys called. Team, we’ve got a new party. Everyone, stay clear! We’ll take him out.

The three small interceptors vacated the space around Rai. Quickly Rhys hurled a wide energetic prism out in front of her and set it vibrating with a crisp tone. The oncoming fighter opened fire with multiple disruptors, but the reddish beams deflected off of the invisible shield in sharp angles.

“I’m transporting us back behind him,” Quinn called out an instant before the fighter blew through Rhys’s construct. The crystalline vessel shifted to coordinates in the wake of the racing black war bird. A blitz of beams shot out of aft gunning stations aimed precisely at Rai’s new position.

“Damn it! This guy’s loaded!” Rhys hurriedly flung out another shield to ward off the blows.

“Can you hold it?”

“I think so, but I—”

Without warning, Rhys’s mind was enveloped by a constricting, disruptive force. Nausea gripped his insides and he cried out from the sudden, dizzying pain in his head. His hands flew to his throbbing temples and he fell forward against the straps of his chair.

“Rhys!”

The protective shield vaporized and Rai was bombarded by a shower of weapon fire.

Alarmed, Quinn threw together a makeshift barrier outside the small ship and transported her out of the lethal spray to the far end of the gray vessel. He lunged against his own straps and reached over to grab his partner’s shoulder, yanking him upright in his chair. “Rhys! What’s wrong? What happened?”

The sound of Quinn’s shaken voice pierced the dizziness. Rhys shook his head roughly and struggled to pull himself through the murky blanket suffocating his thinking. “I don’t know. Something hit me.”

“That ship? What—”

The black fighter swooped into the space beside Rai and opened fire.

“By the Prime, he’s on us again!”

“I’ll … block.” Rhys grimaced with the supreme effort of forcing his mind outward to form another wall against the blows. The small vessel rocked.

All at once, the hammering stopped. Rhys dropped his head to his chest and panted. Beside him, Quinn let out a ragged breath. “Lessa just bolted in front of the fighter to pull him off. Ellim’s shooting up toward it from below.”

A ripple of fear ran up Rhys’s spine and he raised his spinning head. “No, they can’t—”

What’s going on? Tam’s clear voice rang over the link as Sylvan flew past them, speeding toward the black fighter and their teammates’ darting forms.

We’ve got a problem, Quinn relayed. Rhys was hit by something and can’t seem to shake it.

I’m ok, really. I can manage. Let’s get moving before—

The gray transport was suddenly illuminated by a bright flash as Lessa exploded.

“NO!” Ice coursed through Rhys’s veins and twisted his gut. Katherine! Meredith!

The black fighter flew straight through the flying debris and immediately turned its guns on Sylvan.

Shauna! Quinn called up to the deathwalker aboard Mirida. Lessa and her pilots were just hit!

I have them all. Don’t worry.

A roar of pain and anguish ripped from Rhys’s throat as the shock of losing his friends turned rapidly into anger. “Get us over to that fighter, Quinn!”

“But you—”

“I can do it! No one else is going to die because of me!”

Rhys gripped his throbbing head, fighting to pull through the viscous sensations while Quinn shifted Rai to a position above and behind the black ship, matching the pace of the charging Drahk. The fighter pelted Sylvan’s shields as she veered up and away, and shifted in the next heartbeat to blasting at Ellim’s streaking form.

Hang on, all of you! I’m going to nail that son-of-a-bitch!

The fighter’s rear weapons locked in on Rai and opened fire. Rhys took firm hold of his senses and focused intently on the winged vessel, surrounding it with a spherical field which he set spinning in layers, completely encasing the dark ship in its tightly woven form. He grimaced against the strain and pumped more energy into the construct to accelerate its spin.

The fighters’ beams began to ricochet off the constricting web. He gritted his teeth and pulled the sphere in closer to the vessel. A sudden swell of elation and smug satisfaction bubbled up from within at the sight of the black fighter taking hits from its own disruptors.

“Rhys! Back off! You’re going to incinerate him!”

Again, his partner’s voice sliced through the red haze gripping his mind. He loosened his hold on the sphere at the same moment the Drahk ceased his incessant firing. Jess, get this prick out of here.

The shiny black vessel vanished from sight.

As if released from a spell, the bizarre stranglehold dissipated from his body. He could have sworn he heard faint laughter echo in his mind before the disturbing sensations melted completely away. With a groan, he collapsed against his chair and let his head fall back.

“By the Prime, it’s gone. I’m clear.” He sucked in several jagged lungfuls of air to settle his system. The faces of the two laughing women swam through his mind in a relentless, haunting loop. “God-damned Drahk.”

Quinn’s hand lashed out and clamped down on his forearm. “Rhys.”

He lifted his head again and turned toward his partner. As he met the Caledonian’s level green gaze, his eyes filled with tears. “They’re gone—” His throat closed around the rest of his words.

“I know. We all feel it, but right now we’ve got to finish this so the rest of us can get out of here.”

With a curt nod, Rhys clamped down on his grief and ran his hands over the aching muscles in his face. Quinn spun Rai around and headed back toward the transport, handling the call to collect their anxious team. We nabbed the big fighter. Regroup!

Sylvan and Ellim fell into position beside them. One by one, the eight remaining interceptors popped into view to join the formation. As the group sped up and over the back end of the transport vessel, Djan’s voice came on over the secondary channel connecting the team to Mirida’s network.

Team Six, they’ve called their fighters back in. You’ve got thirty seconds to take out that transport and get yourselves back into dock.

“Shit,” Rhys swore under his breath.

You can do this! Kirian rumbled through the link with the entire team. I’ll send each of you the adjusted formation and point assignments. All of you, shift yourselves into the positions I give you and activate the web. Transporters—

We’re ready! Jess interjected quickly.

Go!

The image of the geometric configuration which would completely surround the gray vessel flashed into Rhys’s mind. He instantly understood the coordinates of the position Rai was to hold and glanced aside at his partner. With a nod, the two pilots smoothly transported the crystalline ship to the apex of the formation in front of the Drahkian vessel and began to generate the specific tones which would link the interceptors into one giant net.

Rai’s small chamber vibrated with sound. The moment the last of the eleven ships was locked into position and synced harmonically with the rest, bright beams flashed between the crystalline ships, creating an energetic container around the gray transport.

Take it out!

The Drahkian vessel disappeared, leaving a gulf of empty space within the shimmering web.

Djan’s voice snapped through the channel. Alright everyone, move! The docking bay doors on the rim of the warship are starting to close. Shift yourselves directly back to Mirida and anchor in!

Rhys glanced up at the eerily quiet space around the warship and realized they were the last team of interceptors left in the field. He reached with his inner senses for the familiar feel of Rai’s anchor seat up in Bay Six, formed the transport matrix, and shifted the small ship into position within the starship. While Quinn took care of locking Rai into her anchor clamps, he sent a quick scan through the bay to make sure all on his team were safely back in dock. His chest constricted at the sight of Lessa’s empty stall and he fought down another wave of sickened grief.

Rhys, are you alright? The soothing voice of Shauna Malcolm, Mirida’s gentle deathwalker, privately touched his mind.

Yeah, I’m ok. For now.

Come see me when we get back and we’ll talk.

Rhys drew in a breath of air and was about to reply when Mirida’s shipwide link crackled with his brother’s orders. We’re shifting down into position to snare the warship. All hands, prepare to move!

The two pilots gripped their armrests and cast their vision outward to view the exterior of the ship. The starship transported smoothly to coordinates a short distance beyond the rim of the warship. In the same moment, the four other Tarsian vessels shifted into point positions to form a wide, shallow pyramid around the gray disc.

The warship disruptors broke loose with full blazing fire and the ship began to rise, bursting through the energetic web running between the Tarsian vessels. The disc spun upwards toward Rinzen, spraying beams outward like a spitting firecracker. The graceful Khalama vessel transported quickly out of range while the warship rose in a fiery arc and disappeared.

“Damn it!” Quinn swore. “We almost had it.”

Rhys turned his scan across the city. Four other warships came to life with the same blitzing tactic to escape their Pleiadian snares, lifting and vanishing one at a time from the airspace above Guan. “Only two took off from the east side.”

“The Maians took one out.”

“Good, but where did the others go?”

Quinn shifted his focus to a long-range scan and pointed out north of the city. “There, up in the middle of the flats. The two missing warships just transported in to join them.”

“They must have been at Luda, the colony on the backside of Galah.”

“They’re all hovering in a group near the ground. That’s odd.”

“Why? They’re losing. They’ve got to figure out what to do about us.”

“Yeah, I know,” the Caledonian grumbled as he watched the six dark ships. “But something isn’t right. It feels like they’re waiting for something.”

The admiral’s voice came on over the link. Everyone, regroup and hold your positions over the city. We’ll coordinate with the Maians to send groups out after them. The Birdwings will take the first run.

Mirida joined the other Tarsian starships to form a cluster around Rinzen. The pilots kept their projected vision pinned on the dark shapes hovering in the distance.

The glittering forms of several golden Birdwings darted in dramatic arcs around two of the warships on one side of the formation, drawing a spray of fire after them with each pass. On the opposite edge of the warband, six more Birdwings appeared together in a tight configuration around one of the discs. Whitish beams flashed between the small ships to form an energetic web that pulsed with a soft glow. The huge warship caught within the net dematerialized and the six Birdwings blinked out of sight before a single defensive shot had been fired.

“Damn, they’re good fliers,” Quinn murmured.

“No kidding. Magnus has always crowed about how brilliant they are. Now I see why.”

The six remaining warships lifted above the sprinting Birdwings and transported away.

The Caledonian scanned quickly and pointed to his left. “Out west. They’re landing! They’ll be sitting ducks! You don’t think that’s odd?”

“Yeah, but maybe they think we can’t pick off single ships on the ground.”

Quinn frowned and shook his head. “That’s not it. Rhys, why aren’t they fighting?”

A sudden explosion rocked the entire starship. Mirida lurched into motion away from the blast.

“What the hell was that?” Rhys yelled, his hands digging into his armrests to keep himself upright. “Who fired on us?”

“I’m scanning the far side of the ship.” Quinn face contorted with panic. “By the Prime, no! Telemar was blown to pieces!”

Rhys threw his focus above and behind Mirida. Debris from the Tarsian starship was still flying outward from where it had been hovering beside them seconds ago.

“Above us, just inside the portal!” Quinn cried out. “Damn it, look at that thing! That’s what the bastards were waiting for!”

In the thin upper atmosphere, far above the capital city, an object larger than a dozen Drahkian warships combined hung in space, an ominous specter silhouetted against the faint blue light of distant Maia. The dull gray dish-shaped monstrosity shifted incrementally to focus the central eye of its concave face on one of the scattering Tarsian starships.

Leto! Duncan, Dhia, it’s aiming at you! Transport out of there! Miros screamed through the link to the starship leaders.

Leto’s sparkling form vanished a split second before a black beam from the dish charred the space where the milky white starship had been and seared through the solar dome, decimating a portion of the city below.

It’s an imperial destroyer! Yuri shrieked. Everyone out! That thing can annihilate all of us in seconds!

The portal is still open! The Alcyoni admiral’s voice trembled. Meet at the ring!

The ships spread across the domed city began to wink out of sight. Mirida’s transport team quickly shifted her up through the portal to a position within the cluster of Alcyone vessels collecting around Corum. Beside them, groups of Maian craft appeared, forming a swath of burnished gold and crystal in front of the orbiting mechanical ring.

The gray destroyer rotated and ascended slowly, pausing to hover over the space where the portal lay open. For several tense moments, the colossal ship hung, suspended and silent, as if awaiting instructions.

While the fleet held its collective breath, a subtle change in hue spread across the surface of the small planet and the domed city below faded from view. The portal had been reconfigured and locked down.

No. Yuri’s softly uttered denial echoed across the open channel.

A few seconds later the gray dish dissolved.

Shocked at their sudden defeat, the pilots sat staring at the empty planet surface. A mourning wail rose over the channel from the fleet of Maian vessels. The voices of the Khalama starships joined the lament while the crews within gradually added their own to the outpouring of grief.

Quinn’s strong voice reverberated within Rai’s small chamber. Rhys knew it would help loosen the knot in his chest to find his voice and sound out his anguish with the rest of the fleet, but it wouldn’t come. The rolling tones washed over him as he sat and listened, his throat locked tighter than a drum.

For long minutes the dirge went on before silence descended. The ships hung in bleak suspension above the quiet, desolate world.

Somewhere down there, two lost cities were going through hell. They had failed to protect the people of Galah from the reptilian nightmare.

Nothing left for us here, Miros’s bitter voice cut in. The Maians will set up patrols. Transporting home on three.

Rhys let his head fall back while the tears streamed down into his hair. Quinn buried his face in his hands.

A planet lost. Pilots lost. A starship obliterated in the blink of an eye.

The battle was over, but the war for Maia had just begun.

 

X

Rhys was falling.

His ship was gone, Quinn was gone, and he was tumbling through some unknown, endless space. Something grabbed and dropped him, time and time again. He tried in vain to form the transport matrix he knew so well.

Nothing came but the terror, surrounding him like a huge snake squeezing the life out of him. He fought and struggled, and the constrictions increased as if something took pleasure in his torment.

“Let … go!” With a desperate push, he shoved his mind against the suffocating grip and the pressure abated.

Instantly the air sizzled with heat. His lungs were scorched as he sucked in anguished breaths. Flames raged around him, searing his skin as he fell through the center of a roaring column. The blistering pain was excruciating and he cried out in agony while deep, maniacal laughter swirled around his battered body.

“I killed them, human, hundreds of your people! How many were on the ship that my destroyer took down?”

Rhys’s face contorted as the explosions and shouting from a battle flashed all around him. His hands flew to cover his ears, trying to close out the sadistic voice.

“How many did you kill, small man? How many died because of you?”

Two women’s faces fluttered briefly in the flames. Guilt churned in his gut and his eyes searched frantically for another glimpse of his lost friends. “Katherine! Meredith! I’m sorry!”

The voice laughed softly, a touch of surprise seeping into its taunting tone. “That’s your secret, isn’t it? You killed two of your own kind. Does it bother you, human?”

He pulled his arms tightly against his stomach and sobbed.

“Did you have feelings for those women? Was one of them your lover? Both of them?”

Rhys roared in outrage and swung his fists wildly toward the flames.

The invisible battering took on a new force, slamming into his body from every angle. He screamed, but the strikes were relentless.

“I’m coming for your world, human, do you hear me? My beasts will feast on the tender flesh of your family and friends!”

“NO!” A new twist of terror seized his belly as he fought to break free of the horrible voice. He struggled vainly against his rising panic, clutching his hands to his head.

The laughter rumbled on and on. “I’m coming for you, human! I will own you. You are mine!”

* * *

The man was dreaming again. She could feel his fear. He was locked inside a repetitive cycle causing him terrible pain.

The same blue-eyed man had appeared as a tantalizing specter for the past several years in the dreamwalker’s night-time explorations, sporadically at first, but with amplified intensity as time went on. He held an irresistible fascination for her—dark, sensual, luring her with an attraction she couldn’t deny.

She scolded herself every time she woke. It was a fruitless waste of energy, the wishful conjuring of a foolish, idealistic woman.

But now she was sure that the black-haired man was no dream creation. He was real and very much alive. For the past seven nights the threads of his nightmares had moved to cross her dreampath as if magnetized to her. His terrified screams bled into her weavings, disrupting whatever work she had set out to accomplish. Could it be that he needed her? Should she drop what she was doing and find him? Would he recognize her if she showed him the way out of his terror?

The dreamwalker closed her eyes, tethered by the whirlpool of the man’s tangled emotions. She listened to his cries and extended her perception until the locus of his dream came into view. He was falling through a column of flames and twisting in agony. So close. Her hand moved involuntarily to reach for him. The strong attraction pulled at her, sucking her toward the center of his dream. A moment of exhilaration rose and fell before she froze with indecision.

It’s not my concern. The clan is my top priority.

She steeled herself and reeled her attention back to the images of her own dreampath and returned her focus to the beckoning voice she had been tracking. It felt benevolent and she was determined to hunt it through the Dreamcore down to its source.

This was her work, the purpose she understood. For the moment, it was enough. She would make it enough.

The man’s screams faded in her mind as she resumed her trek across a vast plain of white sand which glowed beneath an ocean of cobalt blue. There was something her eye could barely discern at the foot of a range of mountains which spread across the horizon.

The faint echo of the cryptic voice floated ahead of her and she walked in silence under the bright light of an unknown moon.

* * *

Rhys jerked awake in the darkness of his private apartment in the fleet residential quarter, shaking uncontrollably, his body covered in cold sweat. He struggled to slow his choppy breath and racing heart, and pounded his fist on the mattress in angry frustration. Damn it! He had no control when that horrible voice invaded his dreams. Every night since Galah, the menacing shadow stalked him as he slept. Infuriated, he shook his disheveled head as a strangled shriek of rage tore from his throat.

He jumped up from the wreckage of bed sheets and paced restlessly back and forth across the dimly lit room. “Get a grip. It was just a dream.”

An image of the Orchid House, his favorite oasis of solitude and comfort, sprang up in his mind. He could transport over to Tintágel and take a walk out through his gardens to the isolated greenhouse. The cool night air of the coastal estate would do him good.

No, he thought impatiently, tonight he needed something more tactile that would calm his nerves and diffuse the tension binding his muscles. He knew just the place where he could find it.

He touched his fingertips to his temples and reached for connection with one of his oldest friends who resided in the teeming waters of Tarsus’s Fourth Shade. What he intended as a soft mental call came bursting across the channel as a jarring blast. E’liak, are you there?!?

Silvery laughter wafted through his skull. Is that you, Rhys? Feels like your circuits are a bit singed.

The familiar contact slid around him like an icy balm, soothing his frayed emotions. Care to have some company for a while?

You know I could never resist the tenuous honor of your presence. Come on out. E’liak’s chiming voice trailed off into the distance, seemingly unconcerned with his human friend’s disturbed state of mind.

Without bothering to dress, Rhys sounded the proper tones in his mind and transported himself onto a crescent-shaped, black pebble beach. The wide lagoon glistened under the soft light of the small twin moons overhead.

He closed his eyes and let his head roll back, raising his arms out from his sides to allow the cool, salty breeze to wash over his skin. Slowly he walked into the soft surf of the lagoon until he could slide into the waves and head for deeper water. He alternated between swimming and floating on his back, knowing E’liak would find him in his own time.

A sudden slam into his backside knocked him from his restful floating. Quick reflexes sent his arm flying out to the right, barely catching hold of a slippery fin as a huge, sleek body surged to the surface. E’liak broke into the air and spurted a blast of warm spray which blew straight into his face, making him wince and nearly miss pulling in a lungful of air before the cetacean dove.

Damn it, E’liak! You’re going to drown me!

Nice to see you, too, Rhys. Need some air?

Yeeeesssss!

He held onto the fin in desperation as the dolphin charged back up to the surface. The moment he felt air on his face, he let go, flailing his arms while struggling to regain his sense of balance. He flipped his hair out of his eyes and took deep, gasping breaths while the silhouette of dark fin circled a dozen yards away.

So what has shriveled your manhood to embarrassing proportions? The cetacean’s voice crackled with laughter.

Bad dreams, out of control. Threats by a voice, same voice every night since Galah. He coughed and spluttered, treading water to keep himself afloat.

Ah, The Great Demon. The Dark Threat. The Scourge of the Known Universe. Rhys Talrésian’s Evil Bane–

I don’t know how to stop it, E’liak! Two of my friends died in that battle because of me! I haven’t slept well in a bloody week and I feel shredded!

Relax, dear human. E’liak flipped his body up and out of the water before disappearing into a dive.

Where are you going, you lousy fish? He cupped his hand to send a splash of water toward the spot where he had seen E’liak’s tail.

Several minutes passed with no sound from the depths. Just when he thought he’d been abandoned for the night, the surface of the water about fifty feet to his left was broken by the sprays of five large bodies. He was quickly surrounded by E’liak’s pod who circled him languidly under the star-filled sky.

His body went limp the moment he felt the first tingling twinges of an energy construct forming around him. He tuned his focus inward and sensed a sound form, woven by the five dolphins, inaudible to his normal hearing, which buoyed his body in the moonlit water. Every ounce of tension drained from his muscles as the sound washed away the exhaustion and slowly filled him with renewed vitality.

Thank you. He picked up five sets of cetacean smiles before the group silently disappeared, leaving him to float by himself, his mind a peaceful blank.

After what seemed like hours of tranquility, E’liak’s soft spray hissed above the surface of the water somewhere off to his right. The dolphin waited patiently for Rhys to break the silence.

They’re coming and I don’t know how to stop them.

So you dream.

I feel so vulnerable, helpless.

Perhaps that’s what they want you to feel. You’re playing their game.

I have a choice?

Always. But you’ve grown up with the fear. All of you in First Shade have. Now the Empire is knocking down the back door and it’s time to face the music. Find a new game, Rhys. E’liak dove and resurfaced a few minutes later.

How do you do it, E’liak, you and the rest of the pod? None of you ever seem disturbed or act like you take the coming threat at all seriously.

E’liak flicked his head and clicked with laughter. Why should we? You spend enough energy worrying for all of us combined!

Doesn’t it upset you that we’re targeted for takeover?

You forget, my friend, cetacean purpose here is to help Tarsus maintain health and integrity. That’s why we accepted the party invitation in the first place. Unless the day comes when Tarsus is too wounded to sustain us or visa versa, we’ll weave our sound webs for him. If we’re ever drummed out of physical existence here, we’ll simply go somewhere else.

I wish I had your peace of mind.

E’liak splashed him playfully with his left fin. We all follow our own natures. There’s nothing wrong with yours, Rhys. On the contrary. I wouldn’t miss the entertainment you provide for all the sardines in three seas. With a dramatic lunge into the air and crack of his tail on the surface, the cetacean was gone.

Rhys turned his head to the side and studied the starscape, locating Maia low on the horizon. Somewhere around it was tiny lost Galah. The ominous voice had followed him home from the battle, taunting him, hammering at his self-confidence. He had to get a handle on his fears and the guilt over Katherine and Meredith or he would be no good to anyone. These frantic dreams had to stop.

E’liak’s words drifted back through his mind. Find a new game.

With smooth, steady strokes, he made his way back to the lagoon and waded slowly out of the water. He gave his black mane a shake and stood for a few moments listening to the surf lap around his feet.

Grateful for the gift of healing and the brief respite of peace, he picked up a small white shell from the beach and imprinted it mentally with a message of thanks to the cetaceans before throwing it far out into the lagoon. He turned his focus inward and transported back to his chamber with the intention of sleeping deeply for the remainder of the night. He fervently hoped it would be undisturbed.

* * *

Deep, rasping laughter filled the private room. Biak’s breathing was harsh and fast. His body quivered with wave after wave of ecstasy. He let his head fall to the side on the heated recliner, his eyes half-closed as incredible pleasure engulfed his entire frame. Oh yes, this was sweet reward for all the years of torment he’d endured from his cruel grandfather back home on Bahár or out on assignment, chafing under Bálok’s harsh orders. The thrill of domination and conquest for his own gain was immensely gratifying and it would only get better, for he had barely begun to explore the possibilities laid out in front of him with this tantalizing new game.

The warlord shifted his languid gaze to the object he held in his hand. It mystified him, but it was certainly proving to be useful. He opened the clawed digits of his right hand and carefully examined his new toy. A small, faceted red stone was suspended at the center of an intricate set of wires which looked like spun gold. He knew the stone could rotate within the small, perfectly balanced tetrahedron. It had been spinning rapidly while its previous owner offered it on her trembling, outstretched palm attempting to barter for her life.

From the moment he’d laid eyes on the sparkling web of gold, it had drawn him with an irresistible force, and with one sweeping swipe, he had killed the groveling woman and wrested the golden object out of her death grip. The instant it came in contact with his skin, the vision of a dark-haired human had flooded his mind and he was suddenly pulled into the middle of the battle going on up above the domed city. The man was flying one of those tiny, crystal-like craft from the Alcyoni fleet and was being pursued by his brother in his expensive, prized black fighter.

The experience had been utterly astonishing. He could see what the man saw, hear the man speak, and, most deliciously, feel the human’s anguished emotions when his brother destroyed one of the other small vessels.

Biak shivered, remembering how the heat of the pilot’s rage had rippled through his own flesh, followed by the wildly satisfying pleasure of watching his brother’s fighter fall into the man’s sights mere seconds before it was completely vaporized. He was rid of that pretentious prick without lifting a finger himself.

As luck would have it, the magic of the gold hadn’t stopped with that one isolated vision. Hours later, after his second-in-command had salvaged the botched raid on this god-forsaken rock, he’d pulled the object out of his pocket, only to find himself inexplicably connected once again with the Alcyoni pilot. The black-haired man seemed to be dreaming and, much to Biak’s delight, he discovered he could taunt the human in Mothertongue and cause him pain simply by thinking it, a weirdly bizarre experience which he found intensely stimulating.

The warlord rolled his head from side to side and smiled. Such exquisite satiation. The muscles of his eight-and-a-half-foot frame twitched with the aftermath of the night’s harvest as he stretched his long limbs and shifted on the warm leather cushion.

Of course, as enjoyable as he found this new pastime, he knew that tormenting the human was nothing more than cream. A far more important opportunity had been laid at his feet through this fortuitous turn of events—a hook into the axis star system of Alcyone. With cunning, skill, and balls, he would be master of more than just the seven worlds of Maia. He would steal the prize of Alcyone for himself before Emperor Izar’s grandson Bazh got off his sorry ass to claim it, and no one could stop him.

Tossing the golden device into the air and catching it in his huge fist, Biak laughed again, the rumbling sound bouncing off the chamber walls. Thanks to this tiny little device, he would soon have the power to break away from his loathsome grandfather and enough wealth to build an army to bring Bálok down.

X

AGITATION

Karra Jas Khurias wove her way through the corridors to the common eating hall of the caverns, her thoughts turned inward to the events of the previous night. As usual, she had awakened at first light with clear, sharp awareness, energized both mentally and physically from walking the Dreamcore.

A touch of excitement lightened her steps. There was much to discuss with the elder dreamwalkers and she anticipated an eager reaction from her mentors when she shared her experiences in their meeting later that afternoon. She grabbed a bowl of honeyed oatmeal and seated herself at a vacant table by the wall, digging in to her morning meal while she reviewed the night’s dreamwalk and prepared her words for the upcoming meeting.

After the first few bites, her concentration wavered and she lowered the spoon absently to the table. The important dream discovery which should have consumed her complete attention dissolved into a pair of steel-blue eyes. Echoes of the man’s cries ripped through her mind, clawing at her heart. She had left him yet again, a cowardly decision she’d regretted and swept aside the moment she decided to walk away. What was she so afraid of? The intensity of her own attraction to this man?

Karra winced, ashamed to admit that her own insecurities were exactly what had stopped her, but her personal fears were no excuse for abandoning someone in such desperate straits. She had the skills to enter his dreams and weave the few strands he needed to lead him out of his cycle of terror, perhaps even show him how to change the traumatic dreams himself. She would simply have to keep tight control over private feelings which had nothing to do with the stranger and his plight. If she was discreet with her assistance, he would never even detect her presence nor remember her when he awoke.

Yes, now she had a plan. If the dark-haired man’s dreams crossed her path again tonight, she would carefully step in to help and her conscience would be clear.

Karra took several more bites of her breakfast before dropping the spoon into the bowl once more. She should feel better about her decision, so why did her body still clench with queasy apprehension at the thought of entering his dreams?

Not just dreams, she corrected herself—nightmares. The depth of the man’s terror was more extreme than anything she had experienced in her waking life or in dreamwalking, where daily fears were often magnified out of proportion. The more she thought about it, the more certain she became that there was something very dark, very threatening about the man’s dreams which frightened her.

Impatient with her own hesitance, Karra quickly decided she could do something about it right now. At the very least, perhaps she could pinpoint exactly what it was in the dreams that was so disturbing. She pushed her breakfast aside and straightened her shoulders, turning her mind’s eye inward to send a portion of her awareness back into the Dreamcore to search for the fading afterimages of last night’s encounter.

The jagged energy of the man’s dream construct was easy to sense and locate. Karra kept her projected view outside the dream fragment and watched the man fall through a narrow column of flames, screaming as the fire seared his skin. Her emotions fluttered, but she squelched the quick rise of her own attraction to focus on what the man was experiencing within the dream. Despite the pain, he seemed to be attempting to do something. Over and over, his face tightened in concentration. Everything she sensed about him felt normal, afraid and tense, but normal. The flames, the falling were all typical fear manifestations. So where was the disturbance?

A deep voice rang through the dream, laughing and taunting the man. There. Karra’s solar plexus flared and led her directly to the source of her unease. That voice. It was not just a creation from the man’s mind. Something was attached to that voice. No, someone was attached to that voice. By the Prime, no wonder she felt apprehensive about walking the man’s dreams. He was being attacked by an outside force.

From her perspective outside the dream fragment, Karra could feel a thread of energy attached to it from somewhere beyond, leading off into the void of the Dreamcore. Focusing her senses on the unwelcome presence, she sent a probe along the thread into the darkness, searching for its source.

Bright yellow eyes within a grayish-green pebbled face rushed forward to meet her. Long spikes crested the huge head and the wide mouth below a sleek snout lay partially open, exposing long rows of razor-sharp teeth. Laughter rolled from the reptilian’s broad chest and his breathing was fast and harsh. He was clearly in some kind of ecstatic state, with taut, charged energy running through every muscle of his massive body.

Shocked, Karra jerked violently in her chair and her eyes flew open, breaking the mental connection. A Drahk was tormenting the man. What kind of trouble was he in? And did she want to have anything to do with it? Had the beast sensed her mental probe?

The whole thing was unheard of. The Drahks supposedly did not have any kind of psychic skill or the ability to manipulate someone else’s dreams, a primary reason her people felt relatively safe walking the Dreamcore. What she had just seen held serious ramifications for everyone she knew.

The dreamwalker wiped the sudden sweat from her forehead and looked around. Fortunately no one in the dining hall had noticed her odd behavior, but she certainly should have known better than to pull such a stunt in the middle of a crowd.

She rallied her composure and jumped to her feet, scooping up her bowl and tossing it hastily onto a stack of dishes waiting to be cleared. She left the dining hall in a flurry and headed for the growing fields to take her place in the morning ceremony. She was already running late and she could not allow herself to fail in her commitments.

As she hurried along the corridor leading to the upper fields, Karra reluctantly realized that the enigma of the alluring, dark-haired man and his Drahkian pursuer would have to be discussed with the elder dreamwalkers. If she followed through with her resolve to help the man, it could prove dangerous, both to her and the Schedaran clans. A solid course of action needed to be planned before sleep, for surely tonight as she wove her dreampath, the nightmare would find her again.

* * *

 

The conference room was stifling. Djan Talrésian ran his hands through his sandy blond hair in an attempt to quiet his agitation, a condition that seemed to have taken hold of his crew and just about everyone he had spoken with over the past seven days, including the Khalama starships in their own unique way. With so many unanswered questions after the Drahks’ attack in Maia, anxiety was running incredibly high.

The loss of Telemar and all of his crew cut deeply into the psyche of the whole Alcyoni fleet. Djan could still hear Sanos Kataryan’s dry one-liners and his wife Irena’s brash laughter bouncing off the walls of this very room. It was still hard to grasp that nearly five hundred people and ships had been blown out of the sky in a matter of seconds.

The deaths of fleet members from other starships had been just as devastating. Mirida alone had lost five crystalline interceptors and their ten pilots. His brother had looked haggard and withdrawn at the funeral ceremony held two days after Galah to honor the dead. No doubt he was torturing himself with guilt over losing three from his team.

Since the battle, Miros had put all forty-three starships in the fleet on active alert, with round the clock watches set up over each of the primary and secondary portals of Alcyone’s eleven inhabited worlds. Djan and Tyla had put their crew through countless runs and practice maneuvers with other Tarsian vessels and twice they had joined starships from Chi, Ki, and Niemi for mock battles and transport drills over Dunn in Alcyone’s outer belt. The specter of unfinished business in Maia hung over their heads like a blade waiting to fall and the need to be prepared consumed every waking moment.

Djan shifted his large frame in an attempt to get comfortable. The meeting hadn’t even begun and he was squirming like a small child.

“Can we get some air in here?”

“Sure, Djan. I’ll take care of it.” Mairi Buchanan got up and moved down the steps of the tiered, conical chamber. At the bottom of the stairs, she darted across the stream of traffic pouring in through the entrance hallway and spoke a few soft words into a small panel in the wall. Several louvered windows in the upper translucent dome of the ceiling opened and a gentle waft of air began to spiral down into the large room.

Djan sighed, chiding himself for his unnecessary waspishness, and nodded his thanks to the tiny starship leader as she returned to her seat down the row beside her husband Kip.

Tyla reached for Djan’s hand under the table. “Relax, dragon eyes,” she whispered, sending him a warm, sensuous smile.

Before she pulled her hand away, Djan clamped down on his hold. Not for the first time, he wondered what his life would be like without his beautiful, lissom wife. He’d been in love with her since childhood and the intensely sexual relationship which ignited between them at the academy had made them ideal candidates to become starship leaders, since that bond was requisite in flying the great Khalama starships.

While conversation buzzed softly around them, Djan let his gaze wander over Tyla’s silky sienna skin and the graceful curve of her neck. His pulse raced at the mere thought of touching her, and when her golden eyes flashed with a responding spark, he grinned and squeezed her hand again before releasing it, feeling the tight coil in his midsection begin to loosen. “Later,” he mouthed silently before pulling his attention back to the conference room to concentrate on the problems at hand.

The large room was packed with the top officers of the Tarsian fleet: starship leaders and bridge team leads, high-ranking officers from headquarters, and senior faculty members from the academy. The bottom tier above the floor had been reserved for key figureheads from around the globe. Several of the original Makhás masters from Sirius were clustered together on one side, their powerful builds, snowy white hair, fur, and black stripes a stark contrast to the sea of Tarsians in navy blue fleet uniforms. Kirian Vall sat with his arms crossed and conversed with Arman Sijía, Director of the Portal Center up in Ness. Kalden Ngari, head of the Center for Geometrics, stood speaking with his son Anil, Tarsian Vice Admiral and starship leader with his wife Nandi. Kalden’s elderly mother Tenzin was seated beside a dusky-skinned human, the renowned crystal master Adi Batur.

“Quite an impressive line-up,” Tyla murmured above the hum. “Where would we be without each one of those people?”

“Still blowing things up with limp-dick lasers.”

“True enough, and a lot more of us would probably be dead right now.”

“Duncan and Dhia would be for sure.” Djan’s eyes slid briefly up across the room to the Caledonian leaders and bridge officers who had narrowly escaped annihilation by the Drahkian destroyer.

A swell of sound rose as Miros Silesian strode through the entryway with his wife Lita, the first couple on Tarsus to be trained by the Makhás to fly a Khalama starship. The petite blonde slid into a seat next to Kirian while the admiral walked over to the podium and control panel on the far side of the floor. The tall, trim man tipped his dark head up toward the large viewscreen mounted high on the wall behind him, nodding while an officer briefed him on the communications set-up that linked the conference room with meeting rooms at Fleet Headquarters on Chi, Ki, and Niemi.

“Add the Silesians to the ‘where-would-we-be’ group and that leaves—”

“The loud one. Speak of the devil.” Djan crossed his arms and watched his charismatic grandfather stride down the entry hall surrounded by four aides with headsets and tablets. “Lord, don’t they ever leave him alone?”

“Oh, come on. You know perfectly well that he’s the one who keeps them hopping. He’s been that way since we were kids. That man thrives on overdrive.”

Djan snorted softly, knowing she was right. Growing up, he’d always seen Magnus as larger than life, a brawny man with the force and energy of ten men, a towering hero who had once been a fleet pilot and gone on to become the captain of the starship Zephyr. As an adult, Djan realized his view of his grandfather hadn’t changed all that much. Mag was now the High Councilor of Andara and spokesman for the entire Tarsian High Council, wielding more political clout than anyone else on the planet.

As Magnus issued instructions to his staff at the edge of the floor, a dark-haired man with a regal bearing walked silently around the buzzing cluster. A bright smile lit the counselor’s face and his hand shot out to clap the man fondly on the shoulder.

“I didn’t know my dad was going to be here.” Djan grinned and waved as Kahl glanced up and caught his eye before taking a seat next to Lita Silesian. As quiet and unassuming as Magnus was bombastic, the prominent historian at the University of Krii knew more about the Drahkian Empire and its movement than anyone in the system.

“Makes sense that he was invited,” Tyla remarked. “Miros probably wants him to help analyze the battle and try to project the next target.”

“Ok, everyone, let’s get started.” Miros’s rich voice cut through the buzz of the room. He paused and waited for people to quiet and settle down, and glanced over at the cluster of people standing in the entryway. “Mag?”

“Yeah, we’re good.” Magnus wrapped up his instructions to his aides who turned and hurried back down the hall while the councilor flipped off his own headset and took a seat next to Kahl.

“Alright. It’s been a rough week for all of us. I know I’ve put all of you through a tough schedule and it’s not going to stop. There’s no such thing as being too ready.” The admiral slid his hands into his pockets and took up a casual pacing at the front of the room while he spoke. The perfectly balanced acoustics carried his voice clearly to the highest rows of officers in the cavernous room.

“As I said at the funeral service a few days ago, it was a real blow to lose Telemar and everyone else who went down. It’s one thing to know that people and ships are destroyed in battles, but it always hits hard when it happens. The damned thing was, we were winning.” He stopped and glanced over at Lita and Magnus. “It’s not like it was in Merope. Granted, it was a small force we were up against on Galah, but our plans, our new abilities—they’re working.” He shifted his gaze to the group of Makhás clustered in front of him. “We’re on the right track. I know it.”

Kalden Ngari nodded and put an arm around his smiling, elderly mother, the first to have seen the potential in teaching the Alcyoni the advanced skills they had brought with them from Sirius.

“We still can’t stand up to those destroyers,” Duncan Cameron called out. “And we don’t know how they break the portals in the first place.” The room rumbled with murmurs of agreement.

Miros raised his head and looked around, studying the sea of concerned faces. “Yeah, we’ll talk about those things. We have a long list of challenges yet to overcome if we’re going to survive the spread of the Empire.” The admiral turned and started to pace again while he collected his thoughts. “Let’s start off with where we stand right now. I know everyone in the fleet is feeling unsettled and anxious, especially those who went to Galah. We’re all on pins and needles wondering when the next hit will happen. Tension is running high through the entire population here on Tarsus and I imagine it’s the same everywhere else in Alcyone.” He lifted his eyes up toward the faces of the three admirals displayed on the split screen above him.

“You’ve got that right,” Yao Kang of Chi declared. “I don’t know how many times I’ve had to calm people down this past week.”

Kometani Mitsu shook her head. “It’s been really crazy all over Ki, especially here in Shido. My staff has fielded hundreds of calls from worried business leaders and politicians. People seem to be a lot more affected by an attack in Maia than they were during the Meropean War.”

“Yes, I find it strange, but the same phenomenon is prevalent on Niemi as well.” Marcel Girard stroked his beard as he mulled over the issue. “Perhaps all the attention we’ve received over the past several decades while we built the new ships finally woke people up to the very real danger we’re facing.”

“At least we’ve gotten them to wake up,” Miros added with a note of exasperation. “Offworlders and merchants, on the other hand, have always had a keen sense of what transpires across the galactic network. They have to in order to stay alive. Kirian, I’m sure you and the other portal masters have seen evidence of that in the last seven days.”

The Makhás nodded solemnly. “Word must have spread quickly about the Drahks in Maia. Incoming traffic from Alcyone worlds as well as other planetary systems has dropped dramatically through both portals. We’ve got a lot of folks cooling their heels here in Krii and up in Ness, just waiting to see if there will be any further incursions. Few are willing to risk being caught between planetary portals if Drahkian ships are on the move.”

Magnus piped up and made a sour face. “Yeah, and there’s been a lot of screaming from all parts of the globe over stalled trade. Crikey, people act as if we could just make the Drahks disappear by snapping our fingers.”

“You can tell them that I’ve got two of the older starships and one Khalama stationed on guard duty over each Alcyoni portal,” Miros suggested. “That includes Ubad, Ra-ki, and the four outworlds who don’t have starships of their own.”

“Thanks, that ought to calm a few feathers.”

“I’ll wager the lull will be short-lived,” Kirian threw out. “The natural pressures of business will get people moving once they get over their initial fears. Merchants are generally not inclined to sit still for long.”

The admiral nodded his head. “I agree. We’ll have to trust for the moment that the situation will correct itself. Alright, before we take a closer look at Galah, let’s fill everyone in on a couple key developments. Magnus, tell us what’s happening on Tiān Lóng.”

The high councilor shifted in his seat and glanced up at Admiral Yao. “The adepts stationed on Chi’s third moon have had their hands full for the past week, to say the least. Shi Mia, the head of the project, reported that her specialized teams handled the incoming ships sent over from Galah like clockwork. The transporters aboard Tengfei in orbit over Tiān Lóng hit the occupants with hard mental slams to knock them out as soon as the ships appeared before sending them down into the underground caverns of the base. The few females found on board the warships were separated out and sent on to the smaller facility we’ve got set up on Shinju, Ki’s second moon.”

“So how many did we snare?”

“Over a thousand Drahks from the two warships alone plus dozens more from the single pilot crafts and transports.” A swell of murmurs buzzed through the sea of officers. “They also offloaded hundreds of saur beasts and their reptilian keepers as well as penned herds of bovine animals and two groups of captive humans from several races which were flown over to a recovery center in Chi’s capital of Jinhua.”

The admiral winced and shook his head. “Any of our reptilian guests talking to us yet?”

“No, and since that’s one of the reasons we designed this whole system, it’s more than a small concern. As some of you are aware, I pulled Dieter van der Meer, one of Andara’s past high councilors, away from his business and enlisted his help in establishing communication with our captives. Since none of us speak Drahkian, he and his team have made numerous attempts to get through to them in Mothertongue. Nothing. The weird thing is, after the Drahks woke up in the middle of the compound we built to house them, they ran off into the jungles, every last one of them.”

“What?”

“Yep, the compound is a ghost town. We expected the animals to wander off in search of game since they weren’t penned, but the Drahks disappearing was a complete surprise. The only evidence they were ever there was a scattered collection of discarded heatsuits left out in the trees beyond the barracks.”

“Damn. That’s going to make Dieter’s job a lot harder.”

“Granted. Mia’s underground teams are keeping careful track of the Drahks on the surface and studying everything they can—movement, habits, behaviors, physical traits. It’s the first time any of us have been this close to them. She and Dieter will keep us posted with updates on their progress.”

“What about the ships we captured?”

“They’ve all been sent over to Master Engineer Li Xiangting’s underground facilities on Chi. I’m sure he’s got his teams working round the clock to disassemble and analyze the Drahkian technology. If anybody can figure out their secrets, it’s Xiangting.”

“Let’s hope so. We’re all in agreement with Duncan. We need to get ahead of their destructive technology in order to defend against it. On the home front, Adi, can you give us the status on the new Alcyoni ships you and Tenzin are overseeing?”

“I’d be happy to.” The short crystal master from the spiritual colonies of Ubad, Alcyone’s small third planet, stood up and clasped his hands together in front of him. “With so many grave issues challenging our worlds, I have the rare privilege of sharing something quite magical and joyous with all of you. I consider myself the most fortunate of men to be able to work with the luminous entities who come to inhabit the great ships we create as well as this amazing master here at my side.” He turned a fond smile to the elderly tigerwoman who beamed up at him. “We are well pleased with the progress of the building teams at each of the incubation centers throughout Alcyone. New ships should be ready to be birthed inside two months on Chi and Ki, with another to follow within three on Niemi.”

“That’s welcome news, Adi.”

“Yes, indeed. And the best news I have to share is that, thanks to the superlative efforts of the engineers out at the base in the Shardans and the special team I brought with me from Ubad, the new ships here on Tarsus will be finished ahead of schedule. We will birth the starship and all of her interceptor vessels in two weeks’ time on the solstice.”

“Yesssss!” An exuberant shout from Olof Helsin rang through the room.

“And we have a name,” the crystal master called up to the grinning team who would fly the new ship. “We’ve been speaking with the entity who will become the next Khalama and she told us what she has chosen.” He glanced down at the petite Makhás master beside him and spoke softly. “You tell them.”

The elder dropped her eyes and demurely shook her white head.

Adi lowered one hand toward the seated elder before turning a broad smile up to the packed rows of officers. “The ship wants to be called Tenzin in honor of this wonderful lady.”

The room erupted with cheers and applause. Djan grinned at Tyla and added his own deep hoots to the calls of support and approval.

Miros stepped toward the modest Makhás and gave her a deep bow of respect, raising his head with a quiet smile. He spoke a few soft words with her while the heartening acclaim settled and slowly dropped away. Adi took his seat again while the admiral turned and walked back to the podium.

The tall man stood for a few moments before looking up again. “It’s nice to have something to feel good about in the midst of difficulty. I’d like to express how proud I am of each and every one of you for the part you play in defending our worlds and for being strong enough to do something bold and different in order to meet the violence threatening to swallow us all. And now I have to draw on your strength again so we can look at the brutal and ugly reality of the Drahkian Empire. We have to face it head on if we’re going to find the solutions we need.”

Miros glanced down and pressed a button on the control panel in front of him. The striking image of a white, crested, bird-like head with royal blue eye bands and dark irises appeared in the large split screen alongside the Alcyoni admirals. Miros turned his face upward to greet the leader of the Maian fleet. “Yuri, thank you for joining us. I know it’s the middle of the night in Ibissam.”

The Tori trilled a greeting which echoed through the chamber. “It’s not a problem, Miros. I haven’t been getting much sleep lately anyway.” The Maian admiral glanced over at his old friend seated in the front row. “Hey, Mag.”

The councilor tipped his head and smiled broadly. “Hey.”

“Any changes in Maia we should know about, Yuri?”

“Nothing much to speak of. Our patrols reported that a couple cargo vessels were released by the Drahks through Galah’s portal for some unfathomable reason and our people allowed them to pass on through the transport ring. Other than that, we’ve seen no warship activity since we were locked out of the portal.”

“How are things at home?”

“Tense, a bit chaotic. Our high councils and fleet officers have been in non-stop meetings it seems. Everyone’s upset.”

“Understandably. We’re all here to do some brainstorming as well. I’ll report our concerns and projections when I come to Turaco in two days.”

“Good. Any and all ideas are welcome.”

“Yuri, you told me a couple days ago that you created a holo of your last communication with the Portal Center on Galah. Can you share it with our folks?”

“Yes, but I’ll warn you right off, it’s more than a bit disturbing.”

“I know, but I think we ought to see what happened before we got there.”

“Ok, I’m setting it up here. The transmission should be coming through your system any moment.”

The translucent image of a slender, silver-haired woman appeared in the middle of the open space high above the conference room floor. Her pale features were taut with strain.

“That’s Shelindra Dosen, Galah’s Senior Portal Master. The first views you’ll see are what I saw when she put the call through to me. Later the view shifts to what she saw after I linked my perspective with hers.”

The urgent voices of the portal master and the Tori admiral began to echo in the chamber.

Yuri! Yuri, can you hear me? This is an emergency! We’ve been attacked!

Shelindra? Yes, I’m here!

The Drahks broke through the portal locks about fifteen minutes ago. They just appeared outside the portal and then rammed into it with some kind of energy blast. The grid is a mess. I tried to repair it and force them out, but I haven’t been able … I just can’t … manage to— The shaken woman paused, her face twisting with pain.

Are you alright?

The portal master rubbed her forehead and forced herself to go on. It was very … disruptive.

Where’s Tavi?

Unconscious. He’s bleeding, maybe dead. I called him at home when I saw the gray warships. He transported in to help me hold the portal, but the breakthrough hit him hard. All of my tuners were knocked unconscious. The woman gestured toward the floor around her. I’m the only one still standing. She froze and swung her head to the side as if listening for something. The Peregrine just took off. I told Merl to get out of here and join you at Turaco, but I hear weapon fire. The Drahks must be just above the dome! Oh god! Please, Yuri, come as quickly as you can!

I’m mobilizing the fleet right now, Shelindra. We’ll be there in minutes. How many ships broke through?

The woman closed her eyes. I’m scanning. I see eight warships, big. They’re spreading out over the entire city.

Eight? What—hold on a second. The Peregrine just transported in above Turaco’s portal.

You have her? Thank the Prime. The portal master’s body sagged in relief. Yuri, call the Alcyoni. We’re going to need Tiān Lóng.

I just opened a link with Miros, Shelindra. They’re on their way. Hold on, we’ll get you out of there.

The woman’s thin face contorted as she continued to scan. By the Prime, no! Several transport vessels are headed straight down here to the landing pads. Two of them are moving fast. I … can’t … shift them.

Don’t try! Get out of the building! Keep the link open, if you can.

I’ve got to warn everyone. They don’t know what’s coming. The image of the distraught woman wobbled as she moved with difficulty toward the exit, stepping around people lying on the floor. She pushed her way through the doors of the central chamber and began to run down the hall of the small portal center.

Get out! Everyone out! The Drahks are about to land! If you can transport, grab someone and leave!

Thunderstruck men and women poured into the hallway from adjoining offices. Some disappeared, but most began to scramble in panic toward the outer exits. Within seconds, the scene was in chaos. Yells and shouts drowned out the exhausted portal master’s hoarse calls. She stumbled once, but managed to remain upright in the middle of the clot of terrified people pushing to get out of the building. The moment she made it through the open doorway, the sound of a wild roar rose above the commotion.

That was a saur, Shelindra!

It came from the landing pad.

The portal master pulled herself away from the frightened people fleeing down the sidewalks and leaned heavily against the side of the building, panting while she closed her eyes to send out another scan.

Yuri, can you see this? Follow my link. The images in the holo shifted as the admiral’s mind joined Shelindra’s mental focus and moved out beyond the buildings at the perimeter of the landing field.

Two blackish transports were on the ground in the middle of the expanse of concrete. The ends of the long, blocky vessels were wide open and the unmistakable figures of tall, crested Drahks in dark green garb armed with disruptor rifles sauntered down the steel mesh ramps. Gigantic reptilian beasts held on chains by their stocky, hulking keepers scurried past them in droves, eager and frantic to begin their hunt. At least a dozen shrieking animals had already been let loose and were running with alarming determination across the pad toward the portal center compound.

Shelindra sucked in a loud, horrified breath and let go of her visual scan. The holo images snapped back to the slender woman leaning against the wall next to the side door of the building. She glanced aside at the thinning stream of people running down the walkway toward the city streets.

It’s going to be a massacre.

Shelindra, shift out of there! Go home or hide somewhere in the city. I’ll find you! I’ve got to take over my ship now so I can bring the fleet. We’re coming.

Alright, Yuri, I’ll … I’ll go home. She pushed away from the wall and pressed her hands to her temples. I’m just so tired.

A shrill cry pierced the air. Disconcerted, Shelindra turned her head in the direction of the terrifying sound. A sleek black raptor tore around the corner and raced toward her with blinding speed. The portal master’s face knotted with strain and she appeared to be trying desperately to form a transport matrix to shift herself away, but her terror-stricken gaze was locked on the charging beast with wild, dilated eyes. The saur let out a delirious screech in hungry anticipation of a kill and whipped its slavering black head forward, lashing downward to snap her into its jaws. Shelindra’s wrenching scream split the air, jerking with pain in short bursts before it was abruptly cut short.

The bloody scene winked out as the holo ended and shut down.

Utter stillness hung in the conference room. Djan looked around at the expressions of his fellow officers, frozen in shock. They all knew what had been happening on the surface that day, but no one had seen it. He glanced down at Kirian and Arman Sijía, and saw that both portal masters were visibly quite shaken.

“Ok, people, don’t let it get stuck in your gut,” Miros began in a low voice. “Take a deep breath and send it down to Tarsus.”
After several moments, the admiral sniffed and turned around to look up at the wide screen. “Yuri, I don’t know how you held it together through the battle after experiencing that.”

“I’ve been fighting the Drahks most of my life, Miros, and I can tell you, it never gets any easier.”

“I appreciate you sharing the holo with us. Go get some sleep.”

“No arguments there. I’ll sign off then. Walk with the Prime, Alcyoni Fleet.” The Tori whistled a brief salute and was gone.

Kalden Ngari was the first to break the heavy silence. “I remember the day we lost our own portal on Lyonnae. We were attacked by the ruling Shitza military who had the Empire behind them and the benefit of Drahkian technology. Our portal masters experienced the same kind of disruptive force that Shelindra described. It mangled the energetic threads of our portal and trapped us on the planet for over thirty years. The only clue we ever got about the Drahks’ peculiar devices was discovered by Arman.”

Miros took a few steps away from the podium and shifted his gaze from Kalden over to the brawny Makhás master. “Arman, for the benefit of our younger officers, can you please recount your experiences in the Lyonnae capital? You got close to a portal lock, didn’t you?”

Arman nodded his tawny head. “Yes, and so did Senga Shengeti. Since we both have lion coloring, we were able to walk among the Shitza unnoticed. Senga made the first attempt to find the device that locked down the primary portal over Edu. He said he could feel the thing before he ever got into the Portal Center where it was housed. It was like, let’s see, how did he put it?”

“‘A dark ball of potent, jagged energy,’” Kalden filled in.

“That’s right, thanks. He couldn’t get a sigil probe close to it and nearly got himself killed because he said it ‘fuzzed’ his mind. When I went to Edu, I got the same results every time I tried to remote view the device, so I—”

“Got a job in the Portal Center,” Kirian snarled, “as a janitor.”

“Yeah, drove him crazy,” the big portal master added with a grin. “No one was allowed in the room where they kept the device, even lowly janitors, but I learned from the people who worked there that they were all terrified of the officers and techs who operated the portal lock. Everyone called it ‘The Beast’ because it needed blood to operate. People were murdered on a regular basis to keep the device working.”

A loud, disturbed murmur reverberated through the room. The admiral held up a hand and waited until the noise settled down. “Kahl, have you come across anything like this in your research?”

“Bits and snatches. I’ve heard rumors that killing or sacrifice have something to do with their machines, but it was all fearful supposition, nothing definitive. It must be one of the most carefully guarded secrets in the Empire.”

Miros nodded gravely as he walked back and forth at the front of the room. “This is one of our top priorities, people. Xiangting and his teams are already watching for any sign of this bizarre blood factor in the Drahkian ships and equipment we’ve captured, but I have a feeling they won’t find anything until we nail the flagship that carries the portal breaker. Kahl, do you have any info about the larger destroyers?”

“Nothing beyond reports of the damage they’ve caused.”

“Alright, let’s move on. Kahl, can you give us a brief picture of what we do know about the Empire? Maybe we can get a sharper focus on Galah.”

“Of course.”

“Ok, I want everyone to jump in if you have questions, observations, any thoughts at all about what we’re up against.”

The historian stood and placed a crystal point on one of the holo pads in the table surface in front of him. The bright display of a broad sector of stars appeared above the floor in the center of the room.

“I’ve been studying the Drahkian Empire for several decades now. We have traces in our histories of horrible wars among reptilians eons ago, long before the Drahkian Empire emerged. In recent millennia, the power core has been centered in the Draco Expanse.” Kahl adjusted the holo to zoom in on a large grouping of stars. “The reigning house shifted over two thousand Tarsian years ago when Izar took over from an old regime. He rules the empire from Karkir in Rastaban and his vast house controls numerous systems in Draco and scattered throughout their known territory. His five primary overlords—Tirgal, Shahr, Nakkár, Bálok, and Eo—all originated in Draco but have moved their seats of power out into their conquered domains which include the Lupus, Hydra, Herculean, Perseun, and Orion territories. Many smaller houses have seized pieces of clusters or single planetary systems and, apparently, quite often, they fight with each other, vying for position and influence. I don’t have enough detailed information to map their territory accurately, but I have a feeling it’s spreading to engulf a sizeable portion of the galaxy.”

A disturbed murmur moved through the officers in the room as Kahl zoomed the holo back out and highlighted planetary systems which had fallen under Drahkian control.

“I’ve collected reports from hundreds of merchants, scientists, refugees, Maian officers who fought them in other systems, and our own records of their conquests here in the Pleiades. I’ve pinpointed several distinct patterns of Drahkian takeover methods—incremental encroachment, capitulation through harassment, blackmail, bribery, betrayal, and of course, full-scale invasion. The method used in each case depends on which reptilian house is making the move and what its financial status and connections are within the Empire.”

“So who controls the Pleiadian Cluster?” Marcel inquired.

Kahl glanced up at the Niemian admiral. “No single house. If that were true, I believe we would have gone under from all-out invasion a long time ago.” He shifted the holo to a close-up display of the Pleiades, a long, cone-like mass of stars slowly swirling around an invisible axis, following Alcyone in its path around the galactic core. “Bits and pieces have been parceled out by the emperor as rewards to various houses. Why they have chosen to ‘consume’ our cluster like this, I can only surmise.”

“Perversion.” Djan rumbled just loud enough to be heard, bringing a smile to Kahl’s face as he watched the holo of the cluster spin above him.

“The most likely reason would be to keep any one house from building a power base in this sector. Izar keeps an iron grip on the reins of power and allows only a select few to hold any sizable authority outside of his own. Because of this, the family of cooperative worlds we once had here in the Pleiades has been almost completely shattered. The Taygeta trinary was the first to go down a Tarsian millennium ago because of their worlds’ wealth of resources and we think the controlling house has shifted twice since the original invasion. Celaeno and the Sterope binary are ruled by two warring brothers from the house of Koros. Electra was taken by Ishmal, an isolated rogue who reportedly has nothing to do with any other house in the cluster. The worlds in Pleone went silent all at once and we know nothing about what happened or who rules there. Atlas was taken a few centuries ago by a nephew of Overlord Nakkár. The list of smaller Pleiadian systems and rulers goes on and on. Merope, our last loss, was given to Salaal by the Emperor as a prize.”

“And we all know what a bloody bastard he was.” Magnus’s low, bitter words were echoed by loud grumbling from good number of angry, grimacing people around the room.

Miros shook his head. “He was a real piece of work.”

“He seemed to like you in particular.”

The admiral twisted his mouth and glanced at his old friend. “Thanks for reminding me. Salaal was a supreme misogynist, never once acknowledged Amara Tungo, the admiral of the Meropean fleet. He’d only speak with me or Tanamar Rimstrider, the Maian admiral. I can only assume that Salaal was typical of Drahkian elite.”

Kahl nodded in confirmation. “In all my research, I’ve never heard a whisper about Drahkian women and the reports of violence against females of any race are extreme.” The holo shifted in the space above their heads as Kahl zoomed in to display a close-up of the second primary star in the Pleiadian spiral after Alcyone. “Admiral, since you led our forces in Merope, why don’t you give us a rundown of the four years of fighting before the system fell.”

Miros slid his hands into his pockets and started to pace. “Most of you weren’t even born when we lost the Meropean War. Some of you were just children. And some of us—” He broke off his words and let out a long sigh.

“—had the unpleasant misfortune to be a part of it,” Mitsu Kometani finished, her beautiful features taking on a somber set. “It was a long, stressful four years for everyone in the combined fleet. We lost some really good people.”

“Yeah, we did,” Miros added roughly and looked up, focusing on the shimmering image of Merope. “The human populations of the system are spread out over eight planets. Chaka was hit first, then Gado, both small mining colonies in the outer reaches. Salaal initially brought in only a handful of warships and burned through the portals in quick, surprise attacks, reconfiguring the grid patterns to keep all of us locked out. Kimbo, the innermost planet was taken next to serve, we believe, as an incubation center for saurs which they need in large numbers to subdue native populations.”

Lita hissed loudly in disgust. “That’s just barbaric!”

“I agree, but that’s what we’re dealing with.” Miros waited for the disturbed chatter to settle down before he went on. “Salaal gradually slipped freighters and warships into his three hidden bases. We took out a few vessels in small skirmishes, but it was more than two years before he emerged with a sizable warband to attack Masala. The combined Pleiadian forces held him off for quite a while, but he’d retreat and just hit us again. We almost nailed his flagship once, but that just set him off and we ended up losing the Appin.” He glanced aside at Magnus. “Nearly lost you, too, all because we couldn’t transport.”

Miros went back to his pacing. “It was frustrating as hell. One by one, Salaal broke through the portals of Masala, Ngama, and Bandu, expanding his wealth and fleet with each conquest. He must have gotten tired of losing ships or dealing with us, because he brought in the Empire’s trump card to finish off Sahara and Dashen, the two largest worlds of the system.” The admiral turned to his wife. “Did you bring the holo we took of the final battle over Sahara?”

“Yeah, I’ve got it. Hold on.” Lita reached into her jacket and pulled out a cloth satchel while Kahl closed down the holo of Merope. The tiny starship leader placed a clear piece of quartz on the pad in front of her and touched the controls. The bright image of a tan planet blinked into the space in the middle of the room. “Ok, let me enhance the view of what we saw after we got there.” The image shifted to Sahara’s horizon and zoomed in on a light gray orb, hovering a short distance from one of the planet’s small, natural satellites.

“One of the ‘Emperor’s Moons’ showed up over Sahara’s secondary portal four days after we lost Bandu,” Miros continued. “Everyone on the planet was in an uproar. Admiral Tungo attempted communication and when that failed, she sent out her heaviest artillery, which had no effect on the moon. Shortly after we all arrived through the transport ring, Salaal showed up with his fleet outside the portal, and right before our eyes—”

A black beam shot out of the moon and seared a path across a landmass on the surface, churning huge clouds of brown dust up into the atmosphere.

“That beam annihilated millions in a few heartbeats and left nothing but desert. Salaal demanded complete surrender of Sahara and Dashen’s portals, threatening to blow both planets if they did not comply. The Saharan High Council capitulated. We stayed long enough to help a number of ships full of refugees, mostly children, and a few merchants make it through Sahara’s primary transport ring before the moon destroyed it. We barely made it home.”

The room of officers broke into an uproar of voices while the holo of the chaos and destruction played itself out. Djan glanced aside at his wife and saw that her eyes were wet with unshed tears. Both of her parents had been children among the evacuees on those ships. Her grandfather, Ulu Malawi, had been one of the high councilors of Sahara who’d been forced to surrender their world to a Drahkian warlord. Djan grabbed Tyla’s hand. “Damn, we only had to face a baby dish-monster.” Tyla bit her lips and nodded.

“Alright, people, let’s take a closer look at our situation in Maia.” Miros’s strong voice cut through the noise. “Kahl, give us a quick picture of the Maian worlds before Lita brings up our holo of the raid on Galah.”

The historian tapped the pad in front of him. The shining blue star and its orbiting worlds appeared in the air above the floor. “The seven inhabited planets in Maia are all held in close proximity to the star. The inner four, Prion, Takahe, Turaco, and Quetzal are populated primarily by the Tori birdpeople while the outer three, Kōkako, Tui, and Galah are predominantly human. The bulk of usable resources are concentrated on the two largest worlds of Turaco and Quetzal.”

“So why would the Drahks bother with Galah in the first place?” Kip Buchanan asked. “It’s tiny, only two cities, and most of the people are artists or scientists, right? Very little trade outside of novelty tourism, and it’s too cold for most people to stand, even under the solar domes.”

“That’s right. You’d think it would be worthless to them,” his wife Mairi added. “Why not bring in stronger forces and attack one of the prime worlds where there is more money to be made?”

“A wedge into the system,” Kahl replied. “The strike on the small planet indicates that the invading house may be relatively limited in its power and resources.”

The admiral nodded. “I agree. The move on Galah is very similar to the first move into Merope. This warlord must be some kind of upstart or minor house, just like Salaal. Otherwise—”

“The four Tori worlds would be rubble,” Djan called out.

Kahl turned his head and looked up at his son. “They would indeed. The Tori have interfered with Drahkian raids in other systems too many times over the past few centuries to slip by unnoticed. If the attacking house has retaliation in mind, it may become apparent in the next strike or whenever the warlord decides to make contact. The human populations on Kōkako and Tui will suffer any backlash along with them, just as Galah has.”

“The lucrative diamond deposits on Turaco might be just a little attractive, too,” Kang noted, “Or the aeronautics production of Quetzal.”

“Yes, that’s quite true,” Kahl answered. “If this Drahk is in need of funds, the wealth from both of those worlds would boost his campaign, but it will take a much larger force than they brought to Galah to manage takeovers of such heavily populated planets. My guess would be that one of the two warm inner planets of Prion or Takahe will be targeted for saur incubation.”

Miros rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Alright, let’s take a look at what we encountered at Galah. Lita, can run the holo of the raid? Most folks haven’t seen it yet. Leave the sound on this time.”

The images of the tiny gray world and the fleet of sparkling Birdwing and Khalama starships appeared in the center of the room. The ensuing battle and encounters with the hovering discs and fighters sped forward while discussion buzzed around the room.

Djan sat forward and leaned his arms on the desktop so he could scrutinize every detail of the scene. It was easy to spot Mirida among the Alcyoni starships. Pride and admiration swelled in his chest as he followed her graceful, faceted, grayish-white form through the familiar events, but he found it more difficult than he’d anticipated to watch the five fighters from their teams explode a second time. Knowing what was just about to happen made his stomach twist with apprehension.

The voices of Miros and Yuri discussing strategy sounded over the display of the rising gray warships and their flight to the northern flats. With the sudden appearance of the concave destroyer, the scene devolved rapidly into chaos. Djan winced at the horrible sight of the deadly beam tearing Telemar apart and the sounds of explosions overlaid by the screaming of both admirals. He glanced down at Miros’s grim face while the rest of the room watched the fleet’s flight out of the portal and the tense moments before the city and destroyer disappeared.

“Did you see?” Lita shot at her husband, cutting short the swell of reaction. “It fired within two seconds after it got there.”

Miros dropped his eyes to the floor and swallowed.

“He’s been beating himself up for not picking up the presence of that damned thing sooner.”

Amid a flurry of comments and frowns, Magnus’s deep voice cut through the noise. “That destroyer came in ready to fire. Let yourself off the hook, Miros,” he added gently. “We couldn’t have a sharper leader.”

“I second that,” Anil Ngari called out.

A round of supportive applause and whistles rose from the tiers of officers and through the channels with the linked conference rooms.

“Sanos and Irena would agree!” Mitsu shouted above the din.

Miros looked up at the sea of nodding heads and took a deep breath. “Thanks.” He exchanged a quiet look with his wife and smiled.

When the clapping abated, he spoke again. “Thank you, all of you. I appreciate your support.” He turned and paced across the front of the room. “Ok, let’s finish this up so we can all get back to work. From what you just saw, what are the obvious questions about our first battle with this set of Drahks?”

“Why didn’t they close the portal?” Tyla called out.

“Yeah, I think we surprised the hell out of them.” Kip’s booming voice echoed around the room. “Apparently they didn’t expect the Maian fleet to arrive so quickly. The arrogant fools were just calmly landing transports as if they had all the time in the world. The fighters weren’t even launched until they spotted us.”

“Yuri said he’d never seen them leave a portal open like that before,” Anil threw out. “Looks to me like it was either a pretty major screw up on someone’s part or else some kind of systems failure. Maybe the machine they use to reset the portal grid wasn’t working.”

Ando Kometani’s angry face appeared on the overhead screen. “And then they turned tail and ran! We were minutes away from nailing all those bastards.”

“I think they were desperate to kick us all out and get the portal closed,” Anil went on. “Running off to the flats gave them time to call in the big guns.”

“So why didn’t they just bring in the destroyer to begin with?” Nandi asked beside him. “We wouldn’t have stood a chance against it and they wouldn’t have lost all those fighters and two warships.”

“It was probably just a back-up plan, used as a last resort.”

“Bingo, Anil.” Miros pulled his hands from his pockets and crossed his arms. “The fact that it took so long for the destroyer to arrive and then left after firing only two shots tells me the warlord on Galah must not have been in any position to command more. It’s probably expensive to bring in a ship that size. That’s to our advantage, people.”

“So who are we dealing with?” Djan called out. “Did anybody recognize the insignias on the warships?”

Miros shook his head and glanced over at the group of Makhás masters speaking together in low voices. Kahl cleared his throat and spoke up. “I couldn’t make anything out from the images in the holo. Is it possible to get a closer look at the insignia on the warship that was below Corum?”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Lita replied, flipping the holo pad on to bring the display back to life. With a few adjustments, she located the image of the dark charcoal gray hulk hovering below the flagship against the soft glow of Guan’s dome.

“Can you zoom in on the shield?” Kahl asked softly. “There, on the far side, just above the rim.”

“Yes, but the light isn’t good. I don’t know if we’ll be able to make anything out.”

The starship leader pulled the image in and refocused several times, zeroing in on a whitish plate with a black, script-like emblem that was partially obscured by grime.

“Stop!”

Kahl shot to his feet with his eyes glued on the Drahkian symbol. “No—”

Alarmed, Miros stepped toward the historian whose face had drained of color. “Kahl, do you recognize it?”

Kahl lowered his eyes to the admiral and nodded slowly. “I was wrong,” he croaked, barely above a whisper. “I was sure it was a small, fledgling house, but that’s the mark of Overlord Bálok, the second most powerful man in the Empire.”

The conference room erupted with a flood of voices. Djan looked at his wife as the ramifications of his father’s hushed declaration hit him like a sledgehammer. If Bálok was in Maia, then the probability of holding out against the overlord’s armies and wealth was exceedingly low, and if Maia went down, with who knew how many of them with it, how long would it be before the nightmare came to swallow Alcyone?

“How are we ever going to stop them?” Tyla murmured bleakly.

Djan slumped in his chair and let his head fall heavily onto the back. “We’re not.”

 

* * *

 

Rai flew high over the capital city. Rhys reveled in her exhilaration and let it spread through his body, soaking it up like a man starved. It was his first real break from the long hours of drills and portal duty aboard Mirida over the past week. The top officers of the fleet had all been called to a big meeting at headquarters this morning, but thanks to Tyla’s rigorous training schedule for the freshly assigned crew members, he’d spent the past three hours working with the new pilots and interceptor for his team. He was beyond exhausted and didn’t know what kind of shape he’d be in if he hadn’t visited E’liak in the wee hours of the night. At the moment, the healing he’d received from the pod and Rai’s exuberance were all that kept him going.

The young pilots were bright and performed remarkably well with Jin, one of the interceptors pulled early out of incubation. Thankfully, all three showed healthy signs of bonding with the rest of Team Six. Jin’s quirky intelligence was whimsical and engaging. Marko was quiet, but a damned good flier, while his partner Cass was a whip with energetic matrices and had a raw sense of humor. Katherine would have liked her, he thought with a familiar pang of heartache.
Pushing aside his feelings, he relaxed into the cushions of his chair and let his thoughts drift. For the time being, his duties were finished and Rai was all his.

With the barest of mental nudges, he guided the small ship in a graceful arc away from Krii and headed north along the forested front of the Shardan Mountains to the east. The Lyena River glistened below in the bright midday glare as it snaked its way down through the foothills to the capital city and on across Andara to the Fiordian Sea. Broad swaths of agrarian cultivation followed the undulations of the lowlands, dotted by an occasional white stone homestead or a herd of domesticated deer. He sighed at the thought of his own puny efforts at farming, wondering idly what it would be like to have nothing but fields and animals to care for day in and day out.

At least out at Tintágel he had more than enough space to build all the gardens he wanted. Since he’d grown up in the city, he’d jumped at the chance of grabbing the position of Sector Sentinel of the western province when it opened seven years ago and had talked Quinn into applying for it together. They shared the position jointly and split their time between the coastal estate and their private fleet apartments in Krii. Even through it doubled their responsibilities within the fleet, Rhys savored every moment he spent out in his Tintágel gardens or walking the hills, and he knew that Quinn’s attachment to the hauntingly beautiful estate ran just as deeply as his own.

Tomorrow they were slated to spend the entire day at the compound. There were a dozen things to take care of—meetings with Alina, the head of the sentinel crew in their absence, safety grid checks, and passing the news of Galah’s loss to the inhabitants of the four other shades under his jurisdiction. Perhaps by the end of the day he’d be able to spend some time with his orchids and retrieve the damned shovel he’d left out in the field when the call had come through. It wasn’t nearly enough time to relax and unwind, but with the ramped up schedule from being on alert, he would have to make due with what little time he could get.

With a small adjustment to Rai’s field, he swung the small ship around in a gentle curve and headed back along base of the mountains. In a few moments, they were gliding over Tirim Nah, the chain of ancient stone circles just east of the city which spread in an arc across the grasslands just below the foothills of the Shardans. The celebrations held throughout the year among the thousands of megaliths had been the backbone of Andaran culture as far back as anyone could remember. Rhys let his gaze roam over the phenomenal constructs, picking out the individual circles he was most familiar with by the color of stone and distinctive layouts. The sight of the stones from the air always took his breath away.

He banked the ship away from the grassy plain of Tirim Nah and skimmed above the eastern quadrant of Krii, dominated by the spectacular Great Hall with adjoining offices of the Tarsian High Council, and the tall, golden pyramid of the Center for Geometrics which rose grandly above the buildings of the Fleet Academy. Fanning out north of the hall was an extensive collection of conference areas and living quarters for visiting dignitaries which bordered the large fleet district around the academy where Rhys and Quinn’s private apartments were located. To the south lay the bustling Portal Center complex and the multi-tiered structure of Fleet Headquarters, both built around the upper perimeters of the vast landing fields. Rhys kept the interceptor clear of the busy airspace, but from his high vantage point, he could see a multitude of freight and transport vessels on the ground in the trade sector and the angular forms of small craft and three of the older starships docked in the fleet zone.

Turning Rai northward to coast over the residential districts, he scanned the ocean of trees until he found the rooftops of both Magnus and Kirian’s white stone homes. Further west, he picked out the forested ridge where his parents lived, just above the distinctive peaks of university buildings in the northwest part of the city. As he flew over his childhood haunts, he caught a clear glimpse of the ornamental garden he and his mother had built at the back of the property before he started his studies at the academy. He swung the ship around to take a pass over the large artisan quarter on the southern bank of the Lyena, where his sister Kahli ran a lapidary studio, before following the river back toward the downtown core of high-rise office buildings that sparkled like a cluster of fine quartz needles in the midday sun.

With one last glance at the city below, he projected the matrix he needed to transport Rai into her dock on Mirida and popped the two of them through to the underground base. Once the ship was settled, he shifted the internal lighting to a dim glow and dropped his head onto one of his hands so he could rest and absorb the silence.

That was fun, Rhys.

Yeah, it was. Thanks, Rai.

Rhys?

Mmmm?

I like Jin.

Rhys grinned at the interceptor’s light tone. Me, too, Rai. I like all of them.

They’ll be good for the team. Rhys, are you going to fall asleep in that chair?

The pilot drew in a deep breath to collect himself and rubbed his hands over his face. No, there’s something I need to go do. Listen, Quinn will be in this afternoon for more training, so you can go hang out with Jin for several more hours. Don’t be too easy on them, you hear? He smiled at the sound of Rai’s soft laughter. Quinn and I will be out at Tintágel all day tomorrow, but we’ll be back here early for drills the day after. Is there anything you need before I leave?

No, I’m well tuned, thanks to you. Get some sleep, Rhys.

I’ll try.

With a nod, he shifted himself to the bedroom of his apartment. He stayed long enough to change out of his uniform into a t-shirt and jeans and then took off at a brisk pace through the maze of walkways running through the sector of private apartment buildings. When he found the door he was looking for, he stood in front of it, staring at the ground without knocking. He should have had the nerve to face this days ago, but if he could pull himself together long enough to get through it, he just might free himself from the horrible dreams plaguing his sleep. Shaking his head, he closed his eyes and briefly considered leaving again, but the door silently opened and a pretty woman with soft brown eyes smiled up at him.

“I was wondering when you would come.” The deathwalker quietly stepped back from the doorway and motioned for him to enter.

“Shauna, I, uh—” He dropped his eyes as his throat locked up and his words failed him.

“I know. Come in.” She took his hand and led him into the living room where she gently guided him into a large, comfortable chair. She sat down across from him and patiently waited for him to speak.

Rhys rubbed his hands over his thighs. “I haven’t been sleeping.”

Shauna nodded, but remained silent, giving him the time to put together his thoughts.

“The nightmares have been terrible.”

“Are you dreaming of Katherine and Meredith?”

“Uh-huh, and some shithead Drahk who keeps taunting me and—” He flinched automatically at the remembered agony of the nightly attacks. He looked up at Shauna with confusion and concern. “Is this normal? I mean, it really hurts to lose someone, but nightmares?”

The deathwalker blinked and drew in a quiet breath. “It happens sometimes, especially if there are lingering feelings of guilt.”

The pilot shut his eyes quickly as a jolt of pain hit the middle of his chest.

“Is that it, Rhys? Do you feel guilty about what happened?”

He cracked his eyes open and fought past the knot in his throat. “Yeah. It was my fault. My fault they’re dead.”

“Do you think they blame you?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Perhaps it would help you to ask them.”

Rhys stared at the deathwalker while he fought to hold onto his composure. The prospect of facing the two women was more difficult than he thought it would be. The image of bright beams and Lessa’s explosion flashed across his mind and he lost his struggle for control. His face crumpled with grief as a cry broke from his throat.

Shauna jumped out of her chair and hurried over to him, gripping his shoulders as he dropped his head into his hands and wept.

“That’s it. Let it out, Rhys. You had to stuff it all down when it happened, but it needs to come out.”

She reached up and stroked his head while he cried, calming his tattered emotions with her touch. As the pain began to subside, he dropped his hands to his lap and straightened, sniffing to clear his head while Shauna smoothed the hair back out of his face.

“Let’s see if we can find them now, ok?” She continued to stroke his face, wiping the tears away, easing the tension with the sound of her voice. He looked up at her and nodded.

“They’ve been expecting you,” she added, smiling down at him. “They must know you pretty well, Rhys. They told me you’d probably find a way to blame yourself for what happened.”

Rhys laughed brokenly and tried to smile. “Pretty smart ladies.”

“Now close your eyes. I’m here for you. We’ll find Katherine and Meredith and you can tell them everything you need to. Just relax now and breathe.” Shauna stepped quietly behind him and placed her hands on his shoulders. “Alright. I want you to reach for your two friends, Rhys. It’s easy. Just call to them with your heart. They’ll hear you.”

Rhys pulled in a steadying breath and followed the deathwalker’s gentle instructions. Meredith! Katherine! It’s Rhys. Come talk to me, please!

“That’s right. Now picture their faces in your mind. Do you see them?” She paused and waited until he nodded. “Let yourself feel their presence. You work with energy all the time. This is no different. They’re here, Rhys, standing right in front of you. Do you sense them?”

Rhys nodded again as he allowed his mental picture of the two pilots to merge with the vibrating forms he picked up in front of his chair. A soft tingling skittered over his skin when he made the connection.

Hey, big guy!

Rhys jumped when Meredith’s voice rang distinctly in his mind, just like any other telepathic link. Next to the slight, red-haired woman, an elfin blonde nudged her partner with her elbow. He looks kind of haggard, don’t you think, Mer? He’s usually all cocky and swaggering charm.

Rhys laughed, releasing a burst of tension.

You been sleeping ok, Rhys? Katherine raised her head to look up into his face.

No! This week’s been sheer hell.

The tiny pilot stretched her body like a cat. Poor man. We don’t have to get up for anything now. No damned drills at all hours!

Rhys, what’s up with you? Meredith asked with concern. I can feel something inside you coiled tight like a spring.

It was my fault! I’m sorry! It was all my fault!

What are you talking about? Katherine frowned and placed her hands on her hips. It was a simple blast from that fucking black fighter.

I didn’t want you anywhere near him. If it hadn’t been for me, you’d still be alive!

What was going on out there, Rhys? Why did you shift Rai to the back end of the transport?

Quinn did that. I lost the grip on my block. I was … having trouble.

Did the beams hurt you? We thought you guys had been hit, so we all came running.

I don’t know what it was. Something gripped my head and I nearly blacked out.

And you blame yourself for that?!?

You shouldn’t have had to save my sorry ass.

Katherine stepped closer and put her hand out to touch his shoulder, bringing her face right up next to his. Rhys, we came running because we love you. And we’d do it again, any time, any day. You were trying to do the same for us.

Rhys swallowed hard as tears rushed to his eyes once more and streamed down his face. The two young women glanced at each other and then back at their friend. Meredith reached out and touched him on the cheek. Rhys, there’s no blame. We’re alright where we are. Let yourself heal now. You’ll need your strength for future battles to come.

It still hurts whenever I think about you. I miss you both.

Katherine cocked her head to the side. Well then, we’ll just have to buzz your butt every once in a while to let you know we’re around. Can you handle that, tall guy?

Yeah, I can handle that.

Good. Tell Quinn we’ll be by to buzz him, too. Now get up and let us hug you so we can go make trouble for somebody else.

You can do that?

What, make trouble?

Rhys laughed in spite of himself. No, hug me.

Sure. Just let it happen, Rhys. It’s us and it’s real.

He pushed himself up out of the chair and stood in front of it, breathing in with surprise when he felt their arms slide around his waist to pull him close.

You could hug us back, ya’ big oaf.

With a small smile, he tuned his senses to pick up the subtle feel of his friends’ forms and gently skimmed his hands down their backs. You’re just so thin these days, girls.

Meredith and Katherine stepped back and smiled up into his face. Thin? Just watch this!

The women began to writhe and sink into the floor, their bodies vaporizing into white smoke. A pair of high pitched voices cackled with laughter before the diaphanous smoke disappeared altogether. And then they were gone.

Rhys opened his eyes and stood staring at the space where the two pilots had just been. He lifted his hands to clear his face before he turned around and opened his arms to Shauna. With an easy smile, she walked into them and hugged him tightly.
“Thank you,” he whispered softly into her hair, holding her for several minutes before letting go.

“You’re more than welcome, Rhys. Talk to them anytime you want to. You don’t really need me since you know how it feels now, but I’m here if you ever want to talk.”

“Ok, thanks. That’s nice to know.”

“Can you get some rest now?” Shauna reached up and ran her fingers over his face to push the loose hair back out of his eyes. “You look like you could use some.”

“Yeah, that’s exactly what I need.” Rhys turned to leave, but paused for a moment with his hand on the door handle, looking back over his shoulder at the quiet woman. “You have a rare gift, Shauna.”

The deathwalker shrugged her shoulders as a shy smile touched her face. “Not so rare, but I’m glad I could help.”

“Are you alright?” he asked with concern. “You’ve had a lot to handle lately and it may get difficult again soon.”

Shauna nodded her head. “Yes. I get a lot of support from the elders in Second Shade who taught me. When things get rough, they help me stay balanced.”

He smiled. “Good. I have a feeling that’s something we’re all going to need to learn. Thank you again, kind lady.”

Rhys left the apartment and made his way back to his own quarters. As he followed the maze of walkways, he realized the twisting ache he had carried for seven days and nights was gone. They didn’t blame him. He was amazed and grateful, and it left no reason to hold onto the load of his self-imposed guilt any longer. With any luck, the nightmares would stop and he could pull himself back into shape over the next couple of days. The time out at Tintágel would be a big help.

He entered his dim chambers like a blind man, comforted by the blanket of darkness. He stumbled toward his bedroom and stopped just inside the door, remembering one last thing he needed to do before releasing himself to the void.

He glanced at a clock and saw that he still had at least six hours before he was expected out at his parents’ house for a family dinner. He closed his eyes and sent out a mental probe in search of his partner. After several long moments, the channel came through, but Quinn held the visual link tightly focused on his face.

Yeah. What’s up?

Despite his exhaustion, Rhys couldn’t help but grin. There was no mistaking the flush of sex in Quinn’s skin.

You’ve got that gorgeous woman in bed with you?

A slow smile spread across Quinn’s face and he bent his head down to look at someone beside him.

What do you want, man? I’ve got another half hour before I’m on duty and don’t want to waste it on the likes of you.

Rhys laughed wearily. Well, first of all, Katherine and Meredith send their love.

Quinn’s smile dissolved. You spoke with them. Good, Rhys. You’re better. I can tell.

Yeah, I’ll be alright. Now, do you feel like taking on the Talrésian brood for dinner tonight? Altea’s calling in the chicks and you’re invited to come along. Bring Lani. She’s welcome, too.

Now there’s an offer that’s hard to resist. Magnus going to be there?

Oh yeah, larger than life.

Hang on, let me check. Quinn rolled his head on the pillow and kissed the top of a wildly tousled, dark head. After speaking a few private words, his voice came back into the link.

I just don’t understand this woman. She thinks it would be fun.

Hah, so you’ll come?

Yeah. What time?

Seven.

Right. We’ll see you later. Get some sleep. You look awful.

That’s what everyone keeps telling me.

Rhys smiled as he closed the link and walked over to his bed. With a groan, he let his body fall into the middle of the rumpled sheets and buried his face in the pillows.

Within seconds, he was blissfully beyond the land of the dead.

 

* * *

 

She was late again. The four elder dreamwalkers were already in deep discussion when Karra entered the meeting chamber. Domen Kin Reesh glanced her way, a disapproving scowl etched on the older woman’s face. She kept her own expression aloof and cool in the presence of the elders and hurried to take her seat without interrupting the conversation.

Even though she did not serve as an elder of the cavern settlement like the others, Karra was very aware of how much was expected of her as a dreamwalker. The five of them carried the responsibility of keeping one of the three surviving clans from Ushua that resided in the deserts of Third Shade on Tarsus connected with the tattered remnants of Schedaran culture hidden across the far reaches of the galaxy. The last fifteen clans from the lost worlds of Schedar considered themselves the sole guardians of ancient secrets which the Drahkian Empire wanted eradicated.

Karra had never quite understood why secrecy was so important to the elders. Surely if what they knew was so threatening to the Drahks, it would be crucial to spread the information to anyone and everyone who wanted to stay free of reptilian control. But no one ever asked for her opinion. As the youngest dreamwalker of the Ushuan clan on Tarsus, she knew her lucid dreaming abilities were respected, but sagely wisdom apparently only belonged to those of elder status.

The edged voice of Luán Aul Benán pierced Karra’s stray thoughts. As Keeper of Custom for their cavern, Luán expected every word she uttered to be heeded by those around her. She wasn’t much older than Karra, but, as a widow, she carried herself with a matronly stiffness that was incongruous with her youthful beauty. Karra had often wondered if the haughty Keeper covered some inner hurt by clinging so rigidly to her rank.

As if reading her thoughts, Luán turned her glance pointedly in Karra’s direction, snuffing out the younger woman’s private conjecture and forcing her attention back to the issues at hand.

“I have one last item to report,” Luán enunciated, an air of drama underscoring her words. “I met a young dreamwalker from the Mannuan clan last night.”

“A Mannuan? Where have they been all this time?” Hano Emmon Dahl’s dark eyes glittered with surprise and excitement. Older than anyone knew, Hano was the most revered individual among all the caverns on Tarsus and also the most dedicated to keeping the Schedaran dreamwalker network alive. “We haven’t heard from any of the people from Mannua since the mass destruction in Schedar. The network counted them all dead centuries ago.”

“Apparently the clan that survived was almost wiped out by disease after they found a home in the Cassalta system. The young man I found last night was barely a novice, the first to have Dreamcore ability in generations.”

“How did you find him? I search for lost survivors every night and have never come across any trace of the Mannuans.”

The touch of a rare smile softened Luán’s feature. “A happy accident, Hano. I came across him exploring one of the old Schedaran temple constructs in the Dreamcore and recognized him as one of ours. He said he was looking for his roots and was thrilled to find out we exist. I’ll take you with me tonight when I meet him again and you can introduce him to the network. Acceptable?”

“Yes, yes! We’ll have to set up some training for him so we don’t lose the Mannuans again. Oh, this is good news indeed, Luán!” The short, blond man could barely contain his elation. Several groups fleeing the imminent destruction on their home planets around Schedar had disappeared without a trace. The Empire had been unmerciful in its annihilation of the Schedaran populations, wiping out countless cities across five populated worlds and exploding their two smallest worlds entirely.

“I’ll have to plant some indicators in other parts of the old Schedaran dream constructs to signal us of any other newcomers. Good work, Luán! Domen, did you touch base with the Darvi clan dreamer on Tadema?”

“Yes, Holla is well,” the prim woman reported. “She still can’t walk the Dreamcore on her own, but she can hold her lucidity whenever I find her. She now has a bright young apprentice, her grandson Tosh, who may be capable of becoming a full dreamwalker.”

“Wonderful. For a time, I thought we were going to lose them, too.” Hano sighed in relief. “There are so few of them left.”

“She also reported two births since we heard from them last. Survival is still difficult in the thin, cold air of Tadema, but the city populations at least continue to leave the small Schedaran colonies alone.”

“Schedarans couldn’t be too choosy about where they were taken in after the escape,” Hano murmured as he worried his chin with his fingers. “It’s amazing that the clan on Tadema did not die out completely. We were more fortunate.”

“More fortunate to be given a pile of sun-baked sand and rocks?” Domen spat bitterly.

“Yes, indeed we were,” the ancient man barked right back. “The Tarsian High Council offered us homes in their primary shade alongside their own people, with open arms, like they’ve done with other refugees. We turned them down and chose to build our colonies in these isolated caverns of one of their secondary shades, just to be alone.”

“And our sacred ceremonies have kept us alive out here,” Luán insisted.

“I know that.” Hano sighed wearily. “But, after all these years, the Tarsians still keep us informed and include us under their protection without so much as a thank you from us.”

“We know nothing about them,” Domen sniffed. “We don’t know what’s in their blood.”

“Our knowledge must be preserved at all cost!” Luán flared, spewing the orthodox rhetoric. “We can’t let ourselves be absorbed into another culture.”

Hano ran a hand over tired eyes. “This is an old argument, friends.”

The two women bristled indignantly, but refrained from further comment. Hano sighed and turned to the tall, thin man seated across from him. “Let’s go on with our Dreamcore contacts. Mieshel, did you attend the network gathering last night?”

Mieshel Ben Ruh’s angular face drew into a fretful frown. “Yes, Hano. It was a good turnout with at least eleven other clans represented, but it sounds like the Bataani clan on Caldera has a big problem. Their three primary dreamwalkers made it to the meeting and reported that a new round of persecution has begun. One of their villages was burned to the ground and two people perished in the flames.”

Luán shook her head and grimaced. “Oh no. No more deaths.” Over a century ago, one of the surviving clans from Samarra that had taken refuge on Thalebe had been completely wiped out by frenzied populations who had viciously turned on them.

“Persecution is a terrible risk when no one understands us.” Karra’s bold venture earned a faint smile from Hano, but he remained silent.

“There is never any excuse to harm another!” Mieshel exclaimed, clearly appalled at Karra’s assertion. “Schedarans are peaceful and keep to themselves to avoid any kind of violence.”

Luán nearly jumped out of her chair. “It would be disastrous if people saw what we do! They’d see blood and immediately jump to the wrong conclusions. No one lives with honor anymore!”

“Even those who gave us homes? The ones who accepted weird cults of ‘blood mongers’ into their midst?”

Hano’s grin widened as he sat back in his chair and laced his fingers behind his head, watching the melee.

“That’s exactly what happened on Thelebe, Karra, but you’re too young to remember,” Mieshel retorted. “Our people were left alone for the first couple of centuries, but the climate changed and the Samarran settlements were harassed. We knew the dreamwalkers who disappeared without a trace and it sounds like Caldera is ripe for another massacre.”

“That doesn’t mean it will happen everywhere.” Karra looked around the circle of outraged faces. “Isn’t it time for some new blood? We’re far too isolated and inbred for our own good. Tell me, just who are we saving our secrets for?”

From the disdainful glares and ensuing silence, Karra knew she wouldn’t be given an answer. Domen’s mouth turned down in a dismissive sneer. “Well, I don’t see any point in continuing this line of discussion. Mieshel, we trust you’ll keep careful tabs on the Bataani on Caldera?”

“I attend the network gathering every night. If they don’t show up, I’ll collect a group and go looking for them.”

“I wish we knew how to help them.” Luán turned fretful eyes to Hano. “Isn’t there any way to get them out?”

“A powerful ally would be very beneficial in this case, don’t you think?” Hano remarked dryly. “Unfortunately, none of the surviving clans have access to ships to transport the Bataani clan, unless we find a way to negotiate with the Tarsians for help in bringing them here. Mieshel, please check tonight with the Bataani dreamwalkers about the exact numbers we’re dealing with. Domen, send out runners to the elders of our six other caverns to collect reports on available space, water supplies, and whether or not our exploration teams have turned up any more livable cavern sites.”

The elders nodded in somber agreement, concern etched into each of their faces.

“It’s pathetically sad that we still have more to fear than just the Empire.” Hano shook his head and snorted at his own words. “Listen to me. Just the Empire. As if we haven’t had enough trauma from them to last countless lifetimes.”

The five dreamwalkers sat in silence, each buried in thought before Hano looked up again with a slight twinkle in his eyes. “Well, we haven’t heard yet from our youngest member. Karra, did you find anything of interest down the path I sent you?”

For months now, Hano had been training his young student in the techniques he used to search for surviving Schedarans. While he had been successful in picking up threads of Schedaran dreamers, she had yet to be so lucky.

“I discovered something, but not exactly what you might expect.” Hano raised a brow and Karra plunged ahead, careful to school her features to mask her emotions. “Someone seems to have found me.”

“Found you?” Mieshel asked with mild surprise. “Who?”

“I don’t know yet.”

“What kind of nonsense is that?” Domen barked. Hano threw up a hand to silence further comment and nodded for Karra to continue.

“Last night I stilled myself to tune into the void of the Dreamcore, as we’ve been doing,” she began, tipping her head toward her mentor, “and cast out a dream seed to hunt for dreamers with similar vibrations to ours. I was just about ready to cast another seed when a soft voice came back along the thread and spoke to me.”

“And?”

“It simply said, ‘Follow.’”

“And you did?”

Karra kept her expression neutral when she replied. “Of course, Luán. I know what feels right and I trust my own skills.” The Keeper blinked, momentarily taken aback.

The young dreamwalker turned again to Hano and went on with her story. “At first, everything remained black, but I continued to follow the whisper of a presence which I sensed out in front of me. Just when I thought I had lost the voice, faint shadows of a dream landscape formed around me. I was about to call out to the voice when I heard—” She broke off her words, clenching her muscles against the sudden rush of heat tearing through her body at the mere thought of the dark-haired stranger. To her horror, she felt a hot flush rise to her face. Hano’s eyes narrowed and she could have sworn she detected a mischievous glint before she recovered herself and hurriedly resumed her report.

“I found myself in a wide, open plain at night. A sky of deep cobalt blue stretched as far as I could see in all directions and a small, banded full moon spread a luminous glow over the everything around me.”

Warming to her subject, Karra’s smooth features took on a look of barely suppressed excitement. “I heard a murmur in the distance and when I turned to search for its source, I noticed the crisp line of a mountain range running along the horizon. I started across the fine white sand and walked through the serene landscape for quite some time. As I got closer to the mountains, I saw that there was something near the foothills at the base, shining in the moonlight—a huge city, spread out for miles.”

“I can’t believe you approached an unknown city!” Domen accused angrily. “You know the rules!”

“It wasn’t an inhabited city, at least not the way we understand.” Karra glanced around at the stunned elders and went on unperturbed. “It was beautiful—made entirely of enormous geometric forms. As I got closer, I realized that they towered far above my head. Cones, cubes, cylinders, spheres, different kinds of pyramids. Some forms were balanced inexplicably on top of others, making unusual configurations, very similar to the warding stones here on Tarsus, like the ones next to the courtyard portal down below the caverns on the plateau. But the forms in the dream city were all made of some translucent, whitish crystal. No, wait a minute, that can’t be right. I tried to touch one of the giant cones and my hand sort of … went through it.”

“So what good does this do any of us?” Mieshel threw out impatiently.

“I’m not sure yet, but the last words I heard before the voice disappeared were intriguing. ‘The League awaits.’”

Hano’s thin face broke into a wide grin. “Now that’s very interesting.” The ancient man looked at each of his colleagues’ blank faces and laughed. “You mean to tell me that none of you ever heard the legends of the T’nari League?” He rocked back on his chair and steepled his fingers in front of him, smiling like a young boy with a secret. “A long time ago, apparently a very long time ago, before we ever left Schedar, rumors went flying about a great alliance who was fighting the Drahkian Empire. Supposedly there were beings from all over our sector joined in a unified front against the spreading reptiles.”

“Rumors?”

Hano’s face took on a wistful look. “Yes. Sadly, none of us ever found such a group before the Drahks attacked Schedar and I’ve never given the matter much thought since.” Still perched precariously on his chair, he inclined his head and looked curiously at Karra for several moments.

“I don’t know why the voice spoke to me,” she mumbled, beginning to feel a bit uncomfortable under her mentor’s scrutiny.
“But it did. Tonight I’d like you to go back to the city to see what else turns up. Do you feel you can find it again without the voice leading you?”

“I think so. It’s just that—” She broke off her words, reluctant to share her visions of the blue-eyed man with the critical elders, but she knew it was imperative that she let them know about her disturbing discovery of the Drahk and the potential threat to all of them in the Dreamcore.

“I have a problem, a much more serious problem, I’m afraid.” Karra dropped her eyes to her lap. “Last night I also encountered a man who was being psychically attacked—by a Drahk.”

The four dreamwalkers stared at her in horror.

“And just how did you ‘encounter’ such a thing?” Mieshel asked tersely.

“The dream found me. I guess it was my lucky night,” she muttered and sighed heavily. “I believe the man needs help. I don’t think he’s aware that he’s being attacked by an outside source, let alone a Drahk.”

“Don’t get involved!” Luán shouted. “Whoever the man is, he’s not one of us.”

“I can’t just keep walking away!” she retorted, instantly regretting her revealing choice of words.

“Yes, you can!” Domen pounded the table with her fist. “That thing might attach itself to you and find the rest of us, or even hurt you. We don’t know what the creature is capable of. They haven’t moved out of their sector of the Dreamcore for eons. Oh my, there must be a way through the shield we built.”

“I’ll take a team to check it tonight,” Mieshel declared nervously, “after I alert the dreamwalkers at the network gathering to be watchful for any further signs of incursion. Karra, if you sense that beast again, stay away from it at all costs.”

The dreamwalker pursed her mouth and remained silent. She had known the elders would react this way, so there was no need to feel angry or resentful. She turned a shuttered glance toward Hano who had yet to make any kind of comment and once again caught him gazing at her with speculation instead of reproof.

“Reinforce your shields before you start your work,” he said crisply, setting his chair down with a loud thump before turning his attention to winding up the meeting. “Ok, everyone, we’ve had a busy afternoon. Is there anything else?”

Luán rapped her knuckles on the table to draw the group’s attention. “I have one last issue to discuss.”

Hano sighed and sat forward on the edge of his chair, quite obviously eager to leave. “Yes, Luán?”

“It’s far past time for Karra to marry and I’ve found a suitable match for her here in our own caverns. ”

Karra’s stomach flipped inside out and she was sure her pallor had turned a putrid shade of green. “Can we please discuss this privately, Luán?” she hissed with embarrassment.

“I’m only doing my duty, Karra. You’ve turned down every candidate I’ve suggested for the past five or six years. I shouldn’t need to remind you that as a dreamwalker for the clan, it’s imperative that you pass your abilities on to at least one of your offspring.”

Karra bit back several choice responses for the Keeper of Custom who had yet to remarry herself. Every time Luán had broached the subject in the past, she’d managed to find some excuse or evasion to avoid any unwanted entanglement. She had never been quite sure exactly what she was holding out for until the dreams of the dark-haired man began, tantalizing her with the hope of something that was far beyond her reach.

Reading Karra’s tight-lipped silence as acquiescence, Luán rolled on briskly with her authoritative dictums. “I’ve selected Ben Lael Jarvis for you, Karra. The only other matches remotely appropriate are either far older or quite a few years younger than you which I doubt you would accept. I haven’t reached out to the Keepers of other caverns to look for candidates because you’re a dreamwalker and it’s best for all of us to remain here. This is your last opportunity to make a healthy match before you, shall we say, lose your appeal for eligible suitors. I’ve slated the ceremony to take place at the next equinox celebration three months from now.”

“Why not the solstice, Luán, if you’re in such a hurry?” Hano snapped caustically. “That’s only two weeks away.”

“The couple needs time to get used to the idea and perhaps even court each other,” the Keeper replied indulgently. “Do you accept my proposition, Karra?”

With a raw pit in her middle, the dreamwalker nodded curtly.

“Alright, we’re finished here, people.” Hano bounded out of his chair and headed for the door.

Luán gathered her robes around her as she got up to leave with the other elders. “Ben was very excited when I discussed the match with him this morning. He’s also turned down every suggestion I’ve made in the past, Karra. I think he’s already enamored with you.”

You’ve got that one right. Karra gritted her teeth and refused to look up as Luán left the table. Handsome Ben had been pestering her since they were teens. Most women in the colony would have been flattered by his attention. He was nice looking, well-built, caring, respectful of the observances, and easily the most talented lapidary in the Ushuan caverns. And dull, she thought sourly, at least from her point of view—nothing at all like the man in the Dreamcore. Frustrated, she sprang up from the chair to shake the clinging thoughts out of her head. Her choices in the caverns were limited and her fantasies about the stranger were just that—ridiculous and completely ungrounded in the reality of her life. The sooner she came to terms with becoming Ben’s wife, the better off she would be.

Suddenly, the air in the chamber was too close. She headed toward the doorway after the others, deciding that a visit to the herb garden to sniff something pungent might be just what she needed at the moment. Luán and the other elders were already wandering out of sight when she reached the corridor, but Hano stood outside the meeting room waiting for her with a knowing look on his face.

“Come to my chambers after dinner. We need to talk.” Without another word, the elder dreamwalker turned and sauntered away.

With an inward groan, Karra fell into step with the traffic in the corridor, feeling like she’d been sucked into a sandstorm and spit out again. She veered down a side tunnel leading up to the gardens and looked up in time to discover Ben among the faces headed in her direction. By the blood, he was the last person she wanted to deal with at the moment.

Impulsively, she ducked behind the door covering of the first chamber on her right, hoping against hope that she hadn’t been spotted by the amorous lapidary. She lifted the heavy tapestry open a crack and carefully peered out at the passing throng, but failed to notice the chamber’s occupant scrutinizing her from across the room. When she turned and saw the silent woman, she blushed and straightened, hurriedly spitting out an apology in Mothertongue. “Please forgive me, Asha. I’m sorry to have disturbed you.”

The cool, colorless eyes of Asha Kniuwi took in the intruder before her without expressing a hint of her thoughts. Thick, heavy scars marred the entire left side of what had once been an exotically beautiful face. Not overly gregarious herself, Karra had never gone out of her way to speak with the tall, introverted healer. The foreign woman had arrived at the caverns four months ago, tightly veiled and shrouded in mystery, sent by a dreamwalker from another Schedaran colony along with the unheard of request that she be taken in. No one had openly questioned Hano’s decision to allow the woman to stay, but her presence among the Ushuans had met much resistance despite her useful talents as a healer. The quiet woman had done little to ingratiate herself with the rest of the clan as she rarely spoke, shared nothing of her past, and never smiled—a recluse among obsessive recluses.

“You are welcome here, Karra Jas Khurias, especially when you wish to avoid being seen. Evasion I understand quite well.”
The dreamwalker was caught off guard by the woman’s directness. “I, uh, saw Ben Lael Jarvis coming down the hall,” she stammered sheepishly.

“Is he not to become your mate?”

“You know that already?” Karra’s mouth fell open in surprise.

Asha motioned to the table and chairs against the side wall of the chamber. “Please, sit. I’ll make us some tea.”

Even more startled by the unusual invitation from the reticent healer, Karra could think of nothing else to do but sit down at the small table. Asha moved to the tiny fire pit and vent at the back of the chamber and lit the pile of wood with a motion of her hand. After hanging the kettle on a hook above the flames, she turned back to her guest.

“You’re a very talented lady.” Karra nodded her head toward at the crackling fire.

“So, I hear, are you,” Asha replied in husky, soft accents, taking the other chair at the table across from the dreamwalker. With carefully controlled movements, the healer pulled her long black braid over her left shoulder and curled it in her lap.

She met Karra’s curious gaze with one of her own. “Are you allowed to speak of your work?”

“I suppose. No one has ever asked.”

The healer blinked in surprise. “That’s very odd. Have you no one to share with?”

“Only the other dreamwalkers.”

“No family?”

“No.” Karra dropped her eyes, unable to completely mask her raw reaction to the healer’s innocent question.

“I’m sorry. I did not mean to pry.”

She let out a soft sigh. “It’s alright, Asha. The day has just been rather wearing. What about you? Do you have family anywhere?”

Asha touched a long, delicate finger to the middle of her forehead. “I have a sister, but I haven’t been able to open a connection with her for a week.” She raised her silver eyes to Karra’s. “I’m very worried. She’s all I have left.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

“That’s what I was wondering myself.” The healer got up and moved to check the tea kettle. She prepared two steaming mugs of aromatic black tea and brought them back to the table, placing one in front of Karra. “Do you have any way to obtain news of other worlds?”

“We have a network of Schedaran dreamwalkers among the scattered clans, but I doubt that will help. As I’m sure you’re aware, our people are rabid isolationists. Where is your sister?”

“She is visiting a woman on a small world here in the Pleiades. Do you or the elders have any contact with the people in First Shade?”

Karra blinked thoughtfully for several moments before replying. “We receive reports occasionally from the Tarsian Sector Sentinels at the courtyard portal down on the plateau below the caverns, but I haven’t heard of anything coming to us within the past week. Have you spoken with Hano about this?”

“Not yet.”

“I’ll ask him to let you know as soon as we receive any news.”

Asha nodded her silent thanks and stared down into her tea. For a few moments, Karra watched the other woman struggle with worry.

“You know, if you’re willing,” she began tentatively, “we could use the courtyard portal ourselves to travel to Krii in First Shade to ask for news directly. You came through the courtyard a few months back when you arrived, didn’t you?”

The healer’s head bobbed up. “You would go with me to do this?”

Karra answered without hesitation. “Of course, if that’s what you want to do. It’s for family.”

Relief spread over the woman’s marred features. “Thank you. I will think it over. I, uh, … don’t like to be seen,” she added softly, “but if it means finding word of Ani—” She broke off as tears welled in her eyes.

Not used to offering comfort to anyone, Karra awkwardly put her hand on Asha’s forearm. “Maybe we’ll hear something soon without having to go to Krii ourselves. Keep trying to contact her.” Asha nodded again as silent tears spilled down her face.

“I was just on my way to the gardens,” she offered in a lighter tone, desperate to find a way to help her new friend, “when I was overcome with an uncontrollable urge to hide from my future husband.” Asha spluttered a short, choked laugh. “So I popped in on you, you lucky woman. Do you think he’s gone by now? He’s incredibly tenacious.” She rolled her eyes to the ceiling, prompting yet another small laugh and a rare smile from the shy healer.

“I think it might be safe now.”

“In that case, would you care to join me for a walk in the herb gardens? I always find it soothing to be there. After the day I’ve had, I could use a lift.”

“Yes, that would be nice.” Asha sniffed and wiped her face clear with her hands. “I have some herbs I would like to check on for tinctures. Let me put out the fire first.”

Karra waited patiently for Asha to finish her task, watching the woman make concise, graceful movements at the back of the tiny chamber. She shook her head and sighed, marveling at how easy it had been to agree to break one of the strictest taboos of the elders in order to help someone in such obvious pain. Actually, it felt quite exhilarating to think about venturing into a place she’d never been. She did it all the time in the Dreamcore, so why not here on her home world? One visit to First Shade to help Asha’s peace of mind would hurt no one in the clan.

A slow frown crept over her face as her eyes lost their focus within the room and slid to the image of the black-haired man. Would it be as easy to reject the elders’ authority when she was faced again with helping him break free of his assailant? His need was far more desperate than Asha’s.

She already knew the answer. By stepping into the terrified man’s dreams, she would be taking on far more than a simple adventure. She would be walking into the fire.

PNG Reality Raiders Press Short Logo 2T'nari Renegades
Pleiadian Cycle

Chronology
To Steal a Moon  (Prequel Novella)
Descent of the Maw  (Prequel)
Flare Shifter  (Prequel Novella)

T'nari Blood Claim  (Short Story)
Blood of the Prime: Predawn
(Book I, Part I)
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