The Planet Orek 140 Years Ago
His resolve weakened. The candle gave off just enough light for Jaron to see the deep hole in the center of the small cave. There would be no turning back from this choice. No chance at redemption. It didn't matter that there was no one left to condemn or forgive him.
He closed his eyes. The image of his wife danced through his mind. He loved how her long hair curled around her face in the breeze. Her eyes as pale blue as the sky, and just as clear, haunted him. Standing in the dank chamber, he imagined her in his arms. Her warm body. Her hair that smelled of flowers.
"Dailya, I do this for you and our son. Please forgive me." His whisper echoed back to him.
Eyes open, book tilted to the light, he read the chant to call a demon from the depths of the earth. He spoke slow and soft until his resolve solidified. His voice grew stronger and the ground trembled.
The stench in the air intensified when a breeze sighed its way out of the dark hole. It looked like an insubstantial swirl of black smoke writhing in the air, but Jaron new better. He took a step forward, opened his arms, and invited the demon in.
With the final words uttered, the demon coalesced and rushed toward him. It pushed its way down his throat, up his nostrils, and seeped into his ears and eye sockets as he fell to the ground. Jaron gasped for air, sucking in more of the evil substance that burned nose, throat, and lungs.
He was drowning. Drowning in evil. The demon screamed through his veins and mind as it forced its way inside. Anger and fear battled for control of his emotions. Jaron didn't know if he wanted to torture someone or throw himself into the pit for a welcomed death.
Hold on a little longer. He continued to suck in the demon. The last of the darkness rushed in when fireworks burst behind his eyelids.
His lungs filled with oxygen. Jaron's hand gripped the edge of the pit and he pushed himself away until his back rested against the cool wall.
A crawling sensation started inside his skull. His hands scratched at his scalp, but the crawling tendrils of motion were under the skin, under the bone, and deep inside his brain.
The demon itch sent shooting pains into every part of his body. Legs, arms, and fingers twitched as the demon tried to move them according to his will.
Jaron called on every bit of magical discipline he had to retain power over his body. He made himself sit still and breathe while he concentrated on living in his own body. There must be no room for the demon except for the small space Jaron had set aside in his mind.
When the demon moved into that area, it pulled all of Jaron's nightmares out of his memory and replayed them over and over again.
Memories of his return to a devastated world—the charred remains of his home. The demon fed him every fear and moment of loneliness and despair from his life. Jaron's tears flowed freely, but his training had been thorough.
He held onto the most precious memory of his life. It alone prevented him from giving in to the darkness that tried to fill his body and mind. He remembered the look in Dailya's eyes on the day their son was born. That feeling of love and completeness would always be with him. In life, she had been his savior; in death, she kept him whole.
Eventually the demon settled down in a corner, content with the promise of freedom from the depths of the earth. Jaron stood and retrieved the book from the shelf with shaking hands. The candle had long since burned out. He searched in his pack for another one, lit it, and made his way out of the cave.
Back to the sunlight.
It was a high price to pay—his soul—but the demon would prolong his life and give him strength to carry out his plan for revenge.
The Planet Sendek
A third vehicle carrying Space Exploration Foundation equipment had been attacked. The sleek bullet-shaped tram lay crumpled beside its track across half a mile of protected lands like an accordion. Its silver exterior marred by scorches and the thick orange foam used to put out the flames. The last car in line had been ripped open, its contents carried away while those guarding it had been left in a bloody heap in the corner. The terrorists had left forty people dead and stolen military grade communications technology.
“There’s another reason to stop traveling for the SEF.” Talia rubbed the stone necklace resting at her throat.
She didn’t want to look at the bodies so she focused on the surrounding wilderness. Trees, grass, everything near the tracks had been burned. The reporter rambled on about the environmental disaster as if no one had lost their lives. Talia was relieved when the news feed was interrupted by the house computer, “Incoming call, SEF President Cahal.”
Talia stood and smoothed her hair back. “Accept call.”
The disturbing images were replaced by a gray-haired man in his sixties, sitting at a desk overflowing with books and papers. His normally kind face looked ashen.
“Miss Zaryn, have you been watching the news nets?”
“Good. The program has taken a hit that puts us months, maybe a year behind schedule.”
“I can begin work on another satellite as soon as the parts are delivered.”
“Not this time. The board has decided it would be safer to bring you here. The parts are waiting for you and this time you’ll have a skilled team to help. I’ve purchased a ticket from Gneledar to Joharadin for nine rising tomorrow. Your apartment will be ready by the time you arrive.”
Talia’s knees weakened. She stepped behind the couch and leaned on the back of it for support. Her vision blurred and then she remembered to breathe.
“I can’t move to Joharadin.”
“Sure you can. You’ve traveled to other locations for us, and it’s about time you stayed here for a while. Who knows, maybe we’ll finally convince you to make this your permanent home.”
It would be permanent all right. Death always was. She squeezed the couch tighter to keep her hands from trembling. There was no way out of it and no way to explain. At least not in a way a man of science could understand or accept, but Cahal had given in to her before. She had to try one more time.
"Sir, I've always worked remotely from my living room. There's no need for me to move to Joharadin."
"Miss Zaryn, this is about more than a few attacks and setbacks. The Royalists are making a big deal out of this. They’ve started an investigation into the SEF because they think we’re leaking critical information to some unnamed terrorist group.”
“You know I’m not the leak. I don’t have access to transport details.”
“It doesn’t matter what I think. The Royalists are insisting that every member of our team be present in a face-to-face presentation." Cahal clasped his hands in front of him and leaned toward her from his desk. "That includes you. Either you can move here for the next year of your own free will, or the Royalists will arrest you and drag you here anyway.”
“Yes, sir.” Talia’s shoulders sagged. “Cahal, can I ship a personal project I’m working on as well?”
“You can send anything you like, as long as you’re on that tram tomorrow. Unless I can convince you to take an aeroflyer?" His eyebrows lifted in hope.
Talia sighed, "I'll be on the tram. You know I prefer to stay close to the ground."
"I know, but you're going to have to get over that. The environmentalists have been trying to phase out the tram lines for years, and these attacks have added fuel to their cause. The aeroflyers will soon be the only way to travel."
"I'll cross that bridge when I have to."
"Very well. I'm meeting you myself, so there's no backing out. I’ll come all the way to Gneledar before I let the Royalists bring you in." He winked at her and let the ghost of a smile twitch the corners of his lips. With a wave of his hand the Space Exploration Foundation's emblem replaced his image.
Talia collapsed on the couch and stared at the phoenix rising into a star filled sky. After a moment, the screen shut off and she rested her head in her hands. Joharadin, capital of Algodova. There were plenty of reasons to stay as far away from there as possible but no way to explain them to Cahal. Sometimes he exuded a grandfatherly attitude toward her, but he was still a man of science. Talk of prophetic dreams would not go over well, especially as an excuse.
A small furry creature shot from under the table and bounced onto her lap. He nuzzled his way under her arms and Talia stroked his back and fluffy tail. With each movement he fanned his tail wider and purred in contentment.
"Keeta, you always know how to make me smile. Don't worry, you're coming with me." She stared into his bulging black eyes that swiveled back and forth. "Maybe I should set you free instead."
Keeta trilled, spun in a circle, and lay down in her lap. With a laugh, Talia set him down on the couch. She knew she could never leave him behind.
"Raise blinds." Talia spoke the command and the house computer obeyed.
She rose from the couch and walked to the window. The trees blocked the view of the city, but she knew it was there. Her hometown.
Generally, she welcomed traveling to other cities for the SEF. The weeks and months in the company of co-workers offered a semblance of a social life not available to her at home. But not Joharadin. Just the thought of the city from her nightmares caused her skin to crawl and her heart to race. A dull ache formed behind her eyes and she rubbed at her temple.
The light from Sendek's double suns filtered through the trees and into her living room. Flecks of gold danced with the shimmery green across the floor. The movement imitated her nerves. It was already starting.
I'll dream tonight. Talia sent her thoughts out into the trees and waited for their answer. Keeta's head popped up as if he were listening as well.
We will be here when you do. The trees sang back.
A wave of comfort washed over her, and she relished it as she turned away from the peaceful view to pack her things. The satellite in the spare room needed to be disassembled and packed into crates. She also needed to pack her clothes, which she did while trying not to think of her nightmares. How many times had she worn the red outfit in them? Perhaps she should leave it and pack something she had never worn in the dream? Would that give her a better chance of escaping fate?
In the end, she stuffed shirts and slacks in the bag without looking at them. It wouldn't really matter. One time she had recycled all of her clothes, purchased new ones, and then dreamed about each outfit over the course of two months. The dreams changed to fit whatever she owned.
The last thing she did before crawling into bed was set out her journal and a pen. When the vision came she would be ready to record it. Keeta curled up at her feet, and Talia hoped that this time she could change the ending to her nightmare.
* * *
Death lurked in the shadows. Talia's shaking fingers clenched into a fist.
Where's the door to the library?
Her breath came in shallow bursts as she ran beneath the circles of light cast by the bulbs dangling from the ceiling. The dim glow reflected off the water filling the hall as she splashed through the underground tunnel.
I have to find it before I wake. Talia ran her hands along the stone wall, bits of dirt and moss crumbling from her touch. There was no sign of the door.
The cold seeped through her blouse and she shivered. The ache in her chest felt real enough. Her confidence that this was the dream wavered until the two men stumbled into view.
Long black robes hung heavy around their legs. The men paused in a circle of light while the fatter of the two gasped for breath. He leaned against the wall, ready to collapse.
No, not yet. Talia slapped the stone wall.
"I need more time," she screamed down the corridor, but the men ignored her.
They always did.
Her mouth moved in sync with the man's words, "It's too late. They're here."
Talia's body reacted immediately. Dream or not, her heart beat quickened as three huge creatures walked out of the shadows. They moved in silence, barely disturbing the water with their smooth motion. Two legs, but definitely not human. The creatures towered over the men by several feet. They had elongated faces traced with ridgelines surrounding yellow-green eyes. The ridges accented a muscular thickness that lined the shoulders and moved up the neck. Their skin had a peculiar opalescent sheen making it hard to decide the color in this weak lighting, but she knew from other dreams that it was a deep green.
Talia had dubbed them Scalies during her childhood years. Now as an adult, they still evoked a hopeless dread deep within her soul.
Calm down. The silent mantra did nothing for her nerves. Every particle of her being ached to run.
"You know there is no escape from the Draguman," one Scaly spoke to the men in a low smooth voice.
Talia stiffened. Draguman? Is that their name?
They had never spoken before. The deeply accented voice resonated to her core, but a grating harshness lay under the warm tones. Fighting the urge to run, she inched along the wall toward escape.
A Scaly pointed his staff-like pole at the two men and fired. The tunnel glowed red-orange, burning their deaths into her memory—fire and scorched bones. She hung her head as their ashes floated past. How many times had she watched similar scenes?
"Now we will take care of our other problem."
Talia's head snapped up in time to see the red light rushing toward her. She gasped and flung her arms up to defend herself.
She was back in her own bed.
Stupid. Flesh doesn't block plasma weapons.
Talia stared at the ceiling and tried to catch her breath. Every muscle in her body tensed and cramped from the running. Her skin burned and she knew it was turning an angry red. If she was lucky, she wouldn't get blisters this time.
Keeta crawled up to the pillow beside her and whimpered.
"Sorry to wake you." It came out a whisper.
Keeta wiggled his backside at the sound of her voice and moved in to lick Talia's shoulder. Her arms and legs twitched as they relaxed. The feverish heat drained into the air, leaving only sticky cold perspiration. Then came the shivering she could never control. She closed her eyes and waited for the shaking to stop, trying to concentrate on the little tongue licking the inside of her elbow. Sometimes Keeta's saliva eased the ache of cuts and scrapes she received from the dream, but she doubted it would help the blistering.
This nightmare had always been a part of her life. Although the locations and method of death changed, each dream took place within one city—Joharadin. Talia had accepted she would never be free from the visions until the Scalies found her or she found them. It might be pointless, but she would keep searching for clues. This one had brought a new piece of information she could record.
"Lights." Talia flinched as the lights flared on. "Dim fifty percent." The room automatically adjusted to the command.
The leather journal waited on the bedside table. It was cool in her hands as she hugged it close for a moment. She flipped through and glanced at the other dreams she had recorded. The last time she had stood in that tunnel she found a secret library. Unfortunately, the Scalies, no, the Draguman, had found her before she could read any of the ancient texts on the shelves. Talia turned to a new page. She wrote the day, time, and setting before writing:
Tonight they spoke. They called themselves the Draguman. What's more it seems they are aware of me. Perhaps searching for me? Whatever the case, they think I'm a problem. One they won't have any trouble disposing of.
A new shaking started. In twenty-eight years of dreaming Talia had never considered they might be hunting her. She let Keeta crawl under the blanket to curl up next to her. His soft fur and rhythmic breathing continued to calm her while she tried to ignore the way the sheet chaffed her tender skin.
"The sunsrise won't come soon enough."
Keeta sighed, and Talia knew he was already asleep. She held him close and waited. He might calm her spirit, but only the energy from Sendek's binary suns could heal her body.
Read the rest of THE MAGIC WAKES
Read some deleted scenes Here.
The sequel DAWN OF THE MAGES is also available.