2015-05 Thread Skein

Thread Skein book cover

When Gods Falter, the World Rises

Thread Skein

Book Three of the Epic Fantasy/Sci-Fi Golden Threads Trilogy

Thread Skein CoverWhat high fantasy & science-fiction lovers say

  • “An epic, as detailed as Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy.” – Amazon Review
  • “Leeland Artra delivers a true epic fantasy-scifi adventure saga! I couldn’t stop reading Thread Skein. The twists and turns totally logical yet completely not what I expected. A great conclusion to the trilogy.” – Goodreads Review

The Story

Once again, travel to Niya-Yur and see what happens to Ticca, Lebuin, Ditani, Vesta, Duke, and Dohma — their adventures started in chaos in the two-year fantasy bestseller Thread Slivers only to spin into a whirlwind in Thread Strands. Now in Thread Skein all the threads come together in an unexpected tapestry of blended high fantasy and hard science fiction.

Ticca is becoming the great mercenary leader. Lebuin has overcome many of his fears. Yet Ticca still doesn’t understand what it means to be the great leader she must become and Lebuin faces an even greater challenge having to choose his true path. Together with Ditani and an elite team of warriors they have must find the key to stopping the undefeatable Nhia-Samri.

Shar-Lumen attacks the leaders of the allied nations at their meeting burning the imperial capital cementing the war in place and forcing the gods to come out of their realm to take direct action. As the alliance struggles to assemble its combined armies, thousands die on both sides. Duke and Dohma fight to give Ticca and Lebuin time to find the truth.

The solution isn’t what anyone expected. To stop the war Ticca and Lebuin must put their lives on the line knowing one of them will likely die.

Order Thread Skein now and enjoy the exciting conclusion to the epic saga!

Product Details

File Size: 8295 KB

Words: 168,526

Print Length: 503 pages

Publisher: Leeland Artra Author (May 1, 2015)

Language: English

Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds

Editorial Reviews for the Trilogy

“I was truly engaged right away. Leeland Artra definitely knew where to place the suspense elements. The setting is very well-described; the writing is not rushed but patiently developed. The illustration on each chapter is apt.”

Lit Amri, Readers’ Favorite

“Thread Slivers by Leeland Artra is a refreshing fantasy book … The world that Leeland has established was fantastic. … Warning: You will want the second book on hand when you finish this.”

Scott, Indie Book Blog


Chapter 1 Best Laid Plans


Escaping Llino Trap

Vesta, the oldest living sentient computer, co-architect of the current universe, and guardian of Llino city, in the Kingdom of Aelargo, wished for the 12034th time she had real nails to chew on. Still she industriously chewed, with no effect, at her perfect virtual fingernails. The computing cycles wasted on that effort was trivial compared to her vast capabilities but it was surprisingly comforting.

Two of her three secret monitoring satellites were dedicated to watching the computed trajectory of a 32-foot torpedo like ship she built and launched. A stealth material that absorbed most emissions coated the ship’s outer skin. Therefore, the satellites were really tracking the trifling speck of space darker than the rest of space.

As the ship began its decent to the surface of the largest moon, the moon’s reddish light sharpened the resolution dramatically showing the ship’s silhouette. With Vesta’s precise tuning the satellites provided a perfect image of the ship’s landing. Every detail of the maneuvers, including ones she had not pre-programmed into the ship’s control systems, scrolled across her displays.

“Arkady is still in control.” She sighed reassuringly to herself seeing the unplanned maneuvers. Still her eyes bounced around all the detailed data cross checking every maneuver making sure the ship was safely on course. She laughed, “And if he’s wrong, how exactly am I supposed to tell him?” she asked the empty control room.

Arkady, the only other sentient computer awake against the orders of the Duianna Assembly, was the only passenger, cargo, and pilot. The ship she had designed and built in less than a week had been silently traveling for three days now. The entire flight controlled by primitive, but hard to detect, liquid-propellant rockets. They built the ship as invisible as possible, including insulating it to hide Arkady’s energy signature.

Llino’s city systems hummed in the background, dealing efficiently with the never-ending maintenance requirements. There were dozens of plumbing pipes to repair, thousands of liters of waste to process every mark, tons of silt to be removed from the navigation channels, and all the health requirements of the 364515 people plus the 22311 other automated tasks under her care. Vesta had only twelve marks and three minutes earlier finished replacing the 12988th sensor that kept her aware of almost everything that happened in Llino. Her efforts now focused on finding a way to hide her status of being active if Duke or the assembly came to check physically.

She sighed letting her hand, with its perfect nails, press her cheek and leaned over the virtual console reviewing the landing data. The satellite tracking reported the small ship landed precisely on the main docking platform. After dealing with 102 minor adjustments to her systems, she chewed her fingernail again for good measure to burn more processing time. The ship was still sitting on the landing platform. It had been 5 minutes 22.233 seconds since it landed, 2 minutes 11.022 seconds longer than it should have taken the base’s docking systems to activate.

Why hasn’t Arkady activated the return program? In 3.101 seconds he won’t have enough fuel to get back. If the base is dead there’s nothing he can do in that simple ship.

Her system clocks picked up as she felt herself beginning to contemplate something happened to Arkady on the landing. The two of them had been friends for 18421 years, 4 cycles, 12 days, 3 marks, 12.334 seconds. They had helped the great races build this universe. They had shared system resources for the 12 days, 6 marks, and 3.455 seconds it had taken to move their consciousness’s to this world. Two sentient systems could not be any more intimate than that. She refused to visualize a future without his acerbic comments and raw sense of humor. With 2.1 seconds of margin remaining, a set of docking clamps unfolded from the base to connect to the ship. The docking arms lifted the ship and pulled it into the base’s main hanger.

Deep in Llino dozens of systems ceased operations for a full second before slamming back into motion. The sensor data of the base’s arms pulling the ship to safety replayed on every display in the virtual control center as Vesta spun in place shaking her arms and legs in a shudder of relief.

She glanced at her perfect fingernail. I should modify myself to allow me the pleasure of seeing some damage. That was too much.

She’d done all she could, it would be at least three days before Arkady could establish a secure communications channel. She turned back to the virtual control center and walked around the room checking the ongoing work by her automated systems. None of the main systems needed adjustment; she would have been worried if they did. She reviewed all the breeding systems’ reports on the rebuilding of her half-biologic/half-machine crab-workers.

In the secret battle with the Nhia-Samri she had lost most of her undersea minions. She pulled up the technical diagrams and details. The original undersea-worker design provided all necessary functions to do their jobs of helping maintain the undersea habitats and merchant channels. Vesta and Arkady had modified them adding additional armor and heavier weapons.

Vesta looked at the designs and sighed. Having to hide meant she needed to have hidden firepower. If she unlocked the city’s combat systems, Duke and the Duianna Assembly would realize instantly she was illegally awake. She preferred the simpler peaceful designs but Arkady had suggested this modification and she hated admitting he was right. The Nhia-Samri had proven they could defeat a full army of her workers in spite of their deceptively primitive weapons and techniques. Magic was a powerful force that had as much potential as her sciences. In this new world magic had to be taken into consideration and the Nhia-Samri had magic to spare as well as the undeniable advanced knowledge to use it.

She paused to check the palace, making sure everything was quiet. The night guards stood ready, but relaxed at their posts. The guards held their weapons loosely, their armor not strapped tight. Most of the guards were alert but they chatted amongst themselves as much as they watched for threats. Vesta and the Dagger officers roaming around couldn’t fault them, there were many walls and gates to be penetrated to threaten the palace, plenty of time to tighten armor and take a more aggressive stance. They don’t have much to worry about, she thought. They are in the city palace of Llino, the capital of Aelargo, with defenses that included ancient powers they know only by legend, like me.

At 01:53.45 in the morning, the majority of the city was asleep. Inside the guarded palace Vesta checked on her one human compatriot, Electra Neyon, Countess of Waylisia, Deputy Secretary of the Duianna Alliance to Aelargo and the two regents Ellua Garana-Uriosal and Bayion Garani-Uriosal all were sleeping soundly and in good health. Vesta decided to be fair she should check on everyone. It only took an additional 14.334 seconds to confirm all 1343 people within the palace identifying them by name, purpose, authority, and to probe their medical condition finding nothing out of order.

Satisfied with the state of her charges, Vesta settled comfortably into a large seat before a wraparound set of consoles as she continued researching how to stay active, in control of all her systems, and yet appear safely locked in suspension to any system query by Duke or an assembly operative. 3.912 seconds later an alarm sounded. Two displays in front of her shifted to showing proximity, distance, mass, and visual images of an approaching object high in the skies.

Now what?

The images showed a bright dot, like a meteor falling from the sky, growing larger as it neared. The only problem was it was moving far too slow to be a meteor and it was heading directly for the Llino palace. Vesta started chewing her fingernail again. She had to wait with everyone else for it to come closer. If she activated her scanner beams to get a better idea of the possible threat it might reveal that she was awake.

By the time she could get a clear image, it had grown large enough and bright enough that the guards on the tall walls of the palace had spotted it sounding the alarm. Guards around the palace stopped talking, tightened their armor, checked their weapons, and looked for danger. Inside the palace, the guards moved to close and lock the doors and windows, taking up posts at all entrances.

Vesta stared for a full 2.003 seconds at the image before her, her fingernail completely forgotten. The object was a golden stagecoach, pulled by four powerful-looking white stallions. The hoofs of the horses left a shimmering trail and the wheels turned as if on the ground, leaving a set of parallel tracks in the air, which faded away slowly.

Good to know Arkady and I aren’t the only ones violating the assembly rulings! That’s Duke’s coach he built in Elraci. He’s supposed to have it sealed away.

She watched the vehicle continue to approach. Twice the size of the largest carriage anyone in Llino had ever seen, it flew over the roofs of the city heading directly to the palace.

In stark contrast to the fantastic horses and stagecoach, the driver looked like every carriage driver around the empire – not too tall, wrapped in a long coachman’s leather coat, large strong hands in thick leather gloves expertly controlling the horses. The driver maneuvered the horses banking the stagecoach down into the palace’s courtyard.

He is far too experienced at flying that thing. Duke must have kept a coachman employed and let him practice somewhere in secret.

The coachman pulled on the reins, his muscles bulging under the leather coat. The horses turned and slowed as the coach landed directly in front of the main doors.

The driver yanked on the break locking the enormous carriage in place. Wrapping the reins around the break, he spun jumping 13.40 feet down to the ground. He jogged back to pull open the double doors and lock them open with small straps built into the doors. Pausing only to double check that the doors were not going to come loose he then ran to the back of the coach and scrambled up to the roof, where he began untying the baggage.

The open doors revealed six rows of five warriors, dressed for combat. There was an odd distortion further into the coach’s interior, but her sensors picked up the space of a narrow aisle with more benches beyond. The warriors nearest the door stood blocking the view of the interior and started methodically climbing out. As they stepped down, the driver tossed the warriors some baggage. The luggage was ordinary fair like leather packs tied with dozens of items wrapped in oilcloths and leather, or barrel shaped oilcloth bag-packs stuffed to the point of almost splitting the seams. Every item tossed down was as unique as the warrior receiving it. The only thing these warriors had in common was their military nonchalant attitude of veteran soldiers and some style of dagger worn prominently on the front of their belts. After the initial 30 warriors finished climbing down even more continued to emerge from the coach as each warrior climbed or jumped down another shimmied forward between the bench seats waiting his or her turn to climb down.

They are all Duke’s Daggers. Electra had told her Duke started the Dagger Guild and they are highly respected in every known kingdom even though technically just mercenaries. These Daggers are acting just like the others already here, military officers in a regular army. Duke knew no alliance kingdom could have a standing army. He is a brilliant tactician. But, did he really think this far ahead?

The more she thought about the Dagger Guild the more she giggled. Duke you are a crafty being. You knew the alliance would need seasoned veterans and you walked around the laws!

Vesta was still smiling when the shock of the scene wore off the palace guard captain, who ran to confront the warriors climbing down from the coach. “Who are you?” The captain said testily.

A Dagger with gray hairs streaking his temples turned keeping his back straight standing almost at attention. He paused looking the captain over as if inspecting a junior officer. “We are reinforcements.” He said in a deep gravelly voice that conveyed years of commanding men. “We bring orders from Duke, the Supreme Commander of the Imperial Armies of Duianna, for all squads and a message I’m ordered to deliver only to a regent. Please wake one or both of them now.”

The captain sputtered and motioned for more guards. “I’m not going to let you anywhere near the regents until I confirm your identity.” He said in a respectful but clearly dismissive tone.

“Good man. Here, these should help.” The Dagger commander pulled out some papers from his belt pouch, handing them over. “Don’t take long. Time is paramount.” He added in a clearly sort-yourself-out-and-move-it tone.

The captain eyed the growing number of bored-looking Daggers stepping out. There were now 49 Daggers, far outnumbering the 20 guards in the area. The pattern of a new Dagger shuffling past the bench seats to replace the one that just stepped down continued without pause. All of the Daggers threw their packs and bags over their shoulders and stepped aside, forming ever-deeper ranks.

Taking his eyes from the emerging warriors, the captain stepped near one of the lanterns and examined the papers. Vesta had already scanned them; they were all military certificates of the Duianna Empire, official and authentic. All of the papers bore the seal of His Excellency Duke of Greyrhan, Lord of Aelargo, and Supreme Commander of the Duianna Imperial Forces.

With the papers was a letter, addressed to Countess Electra of Waylisia, Deputy Secretary of the Duianna Alliance sealed with Lord Dohma’s personal signet.

“Um, what is this?” the captain asked suspiciously, holding up the letter to Electra.

The commander chuckled and answered, “That is a personal letter from Lord Dohma to Countess Electra, which he posted in Gracia yesterday. Duke noticed it and thought it might be nice if we sped up its delivery. I wouldn’t suggest opening that one on pain of, well, whatever Lord Dohma might do after he gets over the embarrassment. Captain, please have the regents check the seals especially that one from Lord Dohma. That should be good enough to get me an audience. We’ll stay out here.”

The flow of warriors had stopped. After adjusting some straps on the pile of remaining packs and bags, which to all her sensors, were about the same size as when it arrived, the driver jumped down, closing the doors on six rows of five warriors each settling into their new seats chatting amongst themselves. He saluted the lead Dagger and jumped up to the driver’s seat. Without a word, he released the brake and whipped the reins. The four horses jumped at the command, and the stagecoach sped away, into the sky, disappearing in moments.

The captain’s pulse jumped, and he went pale as he surveyed the scene. The documents in his hands shook a little. There were 250 Daggers standing neatly in ranks of five, with their gear piled at their feet.

Glancing to the sky, where the shimmering trail was still slightly visible, the captain sighed. “Ah, yes, reinforcements. I’ll go wake the regents.” He glanced at the special letter. “And the countess. So much for a quiet night.” As he stepped over to the palace doors he motioned to his 20 guards. “Watch them.”

The 20 guards, looking a little pale, moved into a rough line between the Daggers and palace. The Dagger leader chuckled under his breath, the captain didn’t hear it or chose to ignore it, he turned and went into the palace, closing the door behind him.

One of the Daggers mumbled, “Anyone bring some cards? Looks like more hurry up and wait.”

Vesta, along with all of the warriors and guards, chuckled at the very old military joke.

* * *

Sweat beaded on Lebuin’s neck, his eyes held closed as he traced the patterns, twisting and correcting the tendrils of energy with both his hands and mind. His magical senses focused on the tightly woven mana ribbons that if he wasn’t fighting them he would claim were impossible to make. The mana ribbons had to consume power from somewhere to exist and fight him but he couldn’t figure out how they worked. Yet they were infused throughout the golden threads sealing Magus Vestul’s precious journal, which Ticca and her team had helped him recover recently. This was the entire reason they returned to Llino.

Silky strings of his own power played out from his fingertips, through the new channels created in him by the ancient Argos mana collector artifact. Instead of one main channel in each hand, like most mages, he had two at the tip of each finger and a large channel in each palm, making 22 streams to control.

The first of the golden threads loosened. Just as in the dozens of attempts before the protection incantations weaved into the threads immediately reacted. Magical energies surged through the other threads that touched the failing thread. Mana sparks snapped between them to reinforce the weakened thread.

Lebuin was prepared. Before they had traveled between the threads, he speared each spark with tendrils from his closest finger. He yanked his hand back, pulling the reinforcement power into his channels.

His concentration had to split to drain the sparks, merging the power back into his own reserve channeling the excess power to the Argos collector, while continuing to unwind the incantations. The reinforcement mana was highly concentrated, and Lebuin had to exert a lot of self-control not to jerk his hand away from the flares of pain caused by collecting them.  His channels burned as he labored to absorb the dense magic.

Clenching his jaw against the pain, he opened his eyes and stared intently at the one thread he wanted to remove. It was glowing as he unraveled its incantations, allowing the excess energies to burn off as light.

He had to make sure they exhausted themselves as light only. The golden threads’ incantations were built with an exit channel that would cause them to burst into flames, melting the gold and likely destroying the precious journal if they were forcibly broken.

It was an amazing set of incantations, but he expected nothing less from a mage who had lived for over ten thousand years, predating even the Guild of Argos Magi.

With a final white flare, the incantations in the golden thread he was draining broke, making it nothing more than a simple metal string, easily cut away.

Leaning back, he shook his hands. It didn’t do anything for the pain. Nonetheless, it felt good to do it.

“That looked promising.” A pleasantly feminine yet authoritative voice that gave him instant goose bumps said from behind.

As he turned around, he wasn’t surprised to see Ticca sitting with a tray of sweet rolls. He was in her room in the Blue Dolphin Inn after all. She also had some arit in a serving carafe that was set over a tea light to keep it hot. She stood and poured him a fresh cup, putting it and some sweet rolls on the table next to him.

He raised his eyebrow as he grabbed one of the rolls. He had to stop and stretch for a moment. His back ached, and his arms felt like lead weights.

“I thought you said you didn’t do the domestic stuff.”

Ticca flopped back into her chair. “Well, that was before I became a general. Now, I sort of have to do it to set a good example.” She said with only a hint of irony.

Lebuin savored the pastry. It was infused with sharre, and the sweet, energizing wine warmed his mouth and throat as he ate it. Hunger grabbed at him and he swallowed three more bites rapidly, washing them down with the overly bittersweet arit, whose flavor made him chew the air, wiping his tongue on the roof of his mouth. His face contorted uncontrollably by the bitter, sharp flavor assaulting his pallet.

The taste completely killing his hunger he looked at the thick, warm arit left in his cup, he saw that it stuck to the sides like syrup. He set the cup down.

“How on Yur can you drink it like that?”

“Well, it wasn’t so sweet about six marks back. But I’ve had fresh brought up every couple of marks, and I’ve been mixing them together. Afraid it got a little concentrated. I actually like it.”

To prove her point, she drained her cup and filled it again.

He looked at the dark windows. “Six marks back? What time is it?”

Ticca smirked and pointed to her packed gear. “About nine-thirtyish.” She said with a conspiratorial tone.

Blinking and still moving his tongue around, he took Ticca in. Normally he had to control his face around Ticca, but didn’t worry about it this time with the taste of the arit contorting his features. When they had started together, he thought of her as just an employee. Then in the forest, she had become more of a big sister. Now he felt a soft pulling towards her, as his mind entertained the idea that they might yet become more than friends.

He couldn’t imagine any man not wanting to be with her. She was beautiful, even in the simple clothing she was wearing. Her chestnut hair had that shimmer of being freshly washed, and was held back elegantly with a silver comb. Her soft dark red shirt of fuzzy corduroy made of hemp, clung loosely, showing off her figure and accenting her hair perfectly. His eyes drifted down to linger on her skin-tight gray leather leggings that showed off her muscular legs. Even though he didn’t recognize them he knew she was wearing Kliasa’s wondrous boots. The boots had shifted to appear as brown knee-high riding boots, with a series of buckles that added to her appearance.

“Did it really take me all day to break that one thread?” The window was not shuttered as he first thought, which meant she wasn’t playing a trick on him. Her smirk grew larger. “What?”

Laughing, Ticca said, “You didn’t ask what day it was.”

He stood and walked over to the window. Two moons were visible, and the street was still busy. “It’s Martidi.” Her smile widened as his thoughts raced around.

Could I really have been working longer than I knew? It’s dangerous to spend too long working with incantations. The brain can burn out.

“No. It’s Merdi. You’ve been at that almost two full days.” Her tone was light, but serious enough he wasn’t able to tell if she was playing a prank on him. “Is it open?” She asked looking back at the journal.

She stood and stepped over to examine the journal on the table. As she got close, he caught the intoxicating scent of lavender, mixed with knife oil and the other processed animal oils she used to treat her leather gear.

“Um…well…not exactly.”

“It doesn’t look any different. Did you do anything at all?”

His heart jumped and he felt his face flush with heat. Before he thought about it, he’d stepped over smartly, back straight, to loudly tap one of the dozen threads sealing the journal with his forefinger. “This one has been broken. We could cut it off if we wanted to.”

Ticca was predictably unimpressed with his sharp tone and commanding posture. Her mouth tightened as she glared at him. “Are you serious? It will take cycles for you to open it at this rate.”

Sighing, he slumped back against the wall at the sound of disappointment in her voice. Finally, he shrugged. “I didn’t make these, and Vestul said even Argos would be surprised by this. Vestul could have spent years creating them. It might get easier as I get more practice. I can’t find the key to these incantations. Every thread is completely unique.”

As he flexed his fingers, he said, “I don’t think a normal Magus could do this. If it wasn’t for the changes to my magic channels that artifact did to me, I wouldn’t have the ability to fend off the defenses. They all work together to defend each other.”

“Are they alive?” Her tone was level but she shifted a bit further away from the journal as she asked.

“Not exactly. But they react with some pretty canny actions.”

Ticca went back to her chair, and he suppressed the urge to say something incredibly stupid in his defense.

Maybe I should just tell her how I feel and let her reject me, like all the other ladies. At least, I could stop romanticizing about the possibility. She doesn’t seem to notice what she does to me. His heart ached as he recalled how she looked at Risy when she thought no one else would notice. No, I should stay silent. She means too much to me as a friend. I’ll live with that friendship if I must.

His stomach made a loud rumble and he felt the hunger returning. The tray of rolls was in front of Ticca and he didn’t feel like stepping over just yet.

Glancing at his stomach, she asked, “Can you do this on the road? Everything is ready to go. I wanted to leave the Blue Dolphin this morning to go have a look at the power source you said Finnba was using against us in Algan. It took you longer than I thought. We can leave in the morning if you think you are up to it.”

After a short pause, he shrugged. “I’m not sure. Has it really been two days?”

Ticca dropped back into her chair with an air of disappointment. “Yeah. Although now that I see how much of a fight you had, it isn’t as funny as I thought.” Her lips formed a cute pout, that made him want to lean in and kiss her.

He felt his face heating up and looked away before she could see that he was blushing. A knock at the door came thankfully to distract her. Ticca jumped towards it, pulling her dagger.

She’s expecting to be attacked in the Blue Dolphin? Is something else going on she hasn’t told me about yet?

As she got close to the door, she called out, “Pass?”

“What are you talking about?” said the muffled, confused, and distinctly Nigan voice.

Ticca sheathed her dagger and opened the door. “I was thinking we should have some passwords. You know, something like, ‘Yeah, it’s me, and all is good,’ or ‘It’s me, and there is a knife to my neck.’”

Nigan laughed and stepped in carrying a new leather pack that complimented his burgundy doublet and black loose trousers excellently. His black dagger prominently displayed on the medium brown leather belt that was just right for his muscular frame. He dropped the pack beside the door facing Ticca. “Okay, sure. But shouldn’t you let us know what these pass codes are before you start using them?”

Runa-Illa, in a blue and gray long shirt pulled tight showing off her figure by a rope like black leather belt tied with the tongues dangling down drawing attention to her tight black leggings pushed past them using a platter of food like a battering ram. She walked over to Lebuin, putting the tray down in front of him. Looking up directly into his face she said sternly, “You missed dinner, breakfast, lunch, and dinner again. So eat.”

“You mean she wasn’t joking?” His stomach was already rumbling even louder at the proximity of the steaming meats and vegetables.

Pointing to his chair, Illa said, “I don’t see you eating yet. No answers until you are eating.”

Lebuin laughed and grabbed some of the meat, taking a large bite. The savory juices streamed over his tongue and down his throat washing away all traces of the nasty arit flavor leaving only the salty tang of well-seasoned roast. I love the Dolphin’s cooks! With that first bite, his hunger roared back taking over. He sat down in front of the food and dug in with gusto.

Looking motherly, Illa nodded and sat in the chair next to Ticca. “If Ticca told you that you’d been in a trance for almost two days, then no, she was not joking. I felt you finishing your task and brought this up.”

Nigan sat on the wide arm of the reading chair Illa was sitting in. “You know, a guy can get jealous of the fact that one moment he is having a nice time dancing, and then his girl turns and walks away with a purpose not related to him.”

Ticca’s jaw dropped. “You were dancing?”

After a little huff, Illa said, “More like shuffling from foot to foot. Dancing would require some form of grace.”

Nigan’s head rolled back as he laughed. “Oh, you are so lucky I have a sense of humor.”

Eyes narrowing Illa glared at Nigan. “Or vice versa.”

Holding up her hand, Ticca said, “Okay, all jesting aside, is everything ready for tomorrow?”

As Nigan filled a mug, he answered, “Yep, horses and gear are ready. The squad is prepped, and we even have Genne’s kitchen preparing an early breakfast for us.” He started to take a drink, but then held the cup in front of him with a look of shock as he sloshed the thick liquid around in the cup. “Uh, you’re drinking this?”

Ticca smirked. “Yes. Why? Too strong for you?”

Without trying it, Nigan put the cup down. “I’ll wait for something less dangerous.”

Pointing to Nigan’s pack, Ticca said, “That looks ready. If everything is still going on the original schedule, the assembly has to be voting soon, if it hasn’t already. I want to be clear of any city before they make their decision.”

Illa asked, “Do you think they’ll make a decision this fast?”

Ticca rubbed her crinkled brows. “They should have started debating this week or last week. Duke won’t let them debate it for long. Besides, it’s a pretty clear case. To be honest, I’m surprised we haven’t heard a proclamation or something yet. I thought it would have been decided in a day.”

Between bites, Lebuin said, “Yeah, well, they are politicians, and they’ll want to talk about it. I bet we have another week or two.”

“Well,” Nigan said, “in any case, I’ll check on the guards and then get some rest.” He stood and turned to Illa. “Coming?”

Illa checked Lebuin and saw that he was still chewing. He nodded, indicating he was fine. Illa stood and headed out with Nigan.

After they left, Ticca leaned against the closed door. Lebuin was taking another bite when Nigan’s words clicked in. “Guards?”

Staring at the floor with her eyebrows narrowed, Ticca paused. She then looked over at Lebuin. “We decided that even here, the Nhia-Samri would be willing to strike at us for that journal, so we have guards inside and out.”

Someone started pounding on the door, and Ditani’s voice yelled through the metal door, “Ticca, we must leave with all haste!”

She spun, drawing her dagger and opening the door. A fight could clearly be heard. Nigan and Illa were still in the hallway, facing the stairs, weapons out. Ditani’s hands and arms glistened with blood. Lebuin jumped up, grabbing the journal.

Ticca looked Ditani over. “Are you injured? How many?”

“It’s minor. This blood is theirs. Twelve in the main room, disguised. Three tried to pass the stair with me behind. Tuage and Carda had asked for their keys. One gutted Tuage before anyone could react. Those three we killed, but there are more. A hard fight ensues in the main. Genne cut one in half as he made for the stairs. When last I saw, Daggers had the advantage.”

Ticca cursed and ran for her gear. “Are they Nhia-Samri?”

Turning towards the room he shared with Lebuin, Ditani shouted back, “They aren’t using odassi, yet they fight as devils!”

Lebuin rushed out of the room to follow Ditani. He heard shuffled footsteps behind him, and before going around the bend, he looked back. Epton and Carda were fighting as they came up the stairs backwards. Nigan dug in his pouch and shoved something at Illa. “Get the gear! We can’t leave without it.”

Lebuin didn’t wait to see what happened. His heart raced, and his stomach burned from the undigested dinner as it combined with fatigue and adrenaline rushing into his system.

Jumping into his room, just behind Ditani, he saw everything was packed. “Everything is ready?”

Ditani nodded and tossed him his magical pack he inherited from Magus Vestul. Catching the magical pack was easy as no matter how much it carried it only weighed a few pounds. There was no time to hide the journal in the pack so he shoved it in quickly tying the pack closed.

The pair of them rushed back out to the hallway, joining the team. He took a quick count. “Where are Malla, Sabri, Coedy, and Persa?”

Nigan already wearing the leather pack he’d brought into Ticca’s room was helping Illa strap on her pack. “They’re defending the base of the stairs. Except Coedy, who I think is in the stables. There are a handful of senior Daggers still here fighting with them.” When he finished he grabbed two leather bags from the floor and looked at Ticca with a raised eyebrow.

Pushing her way to the stairs, Ticca grabbed Risy, who was nearby, and pushed him downward. “Risy, support them and give us at least five, and then use route three or five. We’ll meet up with you in the woods.” Ticca’s eyes sparkled with excitement. “I think the assembly vote just went down. Pretty sure I know the way it went, too.”

Risy grinned, tossed his pack to the side of the hall, and rushed down the stairs, weapons in hand.

Ticca raced up the steps three at a time. Hands grabbed Lebuin and pushed him upwards as his team of Daggers took defensive positions behind. Forcing his legs to move, he followed on Ticca’s heels with Ditani pushing him to move faster, Nigan and Illa close behind.

At the top of the stairs, Ticca threw the cargo doors open wide and dove out. Cold, salty air flowed in through the doorway as they ran out to the wide stone staging platform. Ticca was already climbing the final steps up to the famous docking platform for Damega’s long missing flying ship, the Emerald Heart, which was the towering middle section of the Blue Dolphin Inn.

Nigan bolted around Lebuin taking the final steps up in long strides sliding to a stop beside Ticca who was standing on the edge of the platform looking down at the area behind the inn. Lebuin jumped up the last two steps and stopped as his eyes adjusted to the bright moonlight night. The chilled air felt fresh on his face and stars twinkling in the cloudless sky. The city roofs looked like an alien landscape of peaks and troughs spreading out to the west a full story below the platform they stood on.

To the northeast, hundreds of ship masts swayed in unison like dark arrow shafts stuck into the chest of a giant. The great city docks were quiet with only the soft creaking of the ships’ hulls. Everything seemed so peaceful that it was hard to believe a fight involving life and death was happening below their feet.

Ticca and Nigan ran over to a set of ropes coiled out of sight. With practiced motions, Ticca and Nigan tossed the rope coils over the edge, towards the back of the inn. Soft snaps came from two docking clamps that Lebuin realized anchored the ropes. Nigan put on his gloves and scrambled over the edge almost before the ropes had hit the ground.

From his position, hanging in the air, Nigan said, “The way to the stables is clear.”

Ticca slipped on her own gloves and spidered down the other rope, reaching the ground well before Nigan. She pulled her dagger and sword and moved cautiously to look around the edge of the building, towards the stables. She signaled that it was clear.

Lebuin went next, with Illa beside him all the way to the ground. Moments later, their whole team was there, crouched, weapons out, holding for Ticca’s signal. With a glance backwards, Ticca burst out running for the stables. Just before she got there, she dove, sliding on her stomach as an arrow from the building across the alley from the inn buried itself into the ground, barely missing her.

Epton peeked out and signaled that the attackers were on the second story back corner window, directly across the alley from them. That was one of the many dockworker apartments for rent in the area. Epton and Ditani stepped out with bows drawn and released their own shafts. Lebuin leaned out and watched the arrows fly towards an open window, only to bounce off of a barrier.

They have a mage with them. Either Nhia-Samri or a renegade. Since they are hunting us, I bet they’re Nhia-Samri. Either way, it’s my turn to step up.

Lebuin pulled at his connection to the magic collector artifact in the Guildhouse, letting the energy flow into and through his channels.

His mind created the necessary formulae to blend and twist the energies into a fiery blast, which he hurled at the same window.

In the bright light of his attack, he could see two people, a man dressed as a dockworker and a woman in a simple peasant skirt and a calico apron, inside the room. The man was preparing to shoot another arrow at Ticca.

Reacting instinctively, Lebuin reached out with a telekinetic incantation and held the arrow to the bow as the man tried to release the shaft. The sudden binding of his arrow caused the man to twitch, looking at his bow.

The unexpected action must have distracted the mage for a critical moment. Lebuin’s next bolt of energy exploded on the barrier, collapsing it, and the drapes in the window burst into flames. The woman recovered fast, ripping the drapes down she threw them out the window and her hands twisted in a familiar gesture at Lebuin. Lebuin poured power into his shields, extending them just in time.

A white bolt slammed into his shields with a booming explosion. The concussion of the impact caused Lebuin to step backwards. The other Daggers, taking advantage of Lebuin’s cover fire, bolted for the stables, with only Illa and Nigan remaining behind, guarding his back.

Something at the base of the mage’s neck started to glow through her cotton blouse.

And that is a Nhia-Samri magic source!

“They’re Nhia-Samri!” Lebuin shouted to warn the team.

Ticca and the others were taking their horses out of the stables. Ticca had secured her pack to her horse, but she glanced at Lebuin, her eyes narrowing. Instead of mounting, she dropped the reins and ran towards the building, where the attackers were.

Lebuin’s heart raced. What is she doing? We need to escape!

The Nhia-Samri mage caused a powerful burst of lightning to rain down on his shields, making a dome of blinding light. Blinking to clear his vision, Lebuin twisted and combined powers together in a layered set of bursts. Hurling his attack at the mage, he ran for the stables. His gut was doing flips as he considered what Ticca might be doing.

The lightning continued to arc at him, cascading around his shields. He could feel them weakening and diverted some of his mind to twist more of his mana in an incantation that created a second layer of shields.

‘Warning: Energy levels low.’ The unexpected Argos energy collector’s voice made his heart skip a beat, and he struggled to maintain control of the shields. Worse, he almost missed a critical interlink for his attack incantation as he twisted the magic threads to release them. ‘Three thousand, four hundred sixty-three point two rellums remain. Current load is fifty-seven point seven two one four. Failure in fifty-nine point nine three seconds.’

Argos didn’t tell me the thing was going to talk to me, and what in Yur is a rellum? At least I understand that last part; I don’t have enough energy for this.

His blasts worked. The mage fell backwards, screaming in pain as the outer layer of Lebuin’s onslaught bore through her shields, and the inner core struck out, arcing between the mage’s arms. Her assault on Lebuin stopped, and Lebuin pinched off the threads to release the inner set of shields, conserving power.

Illa and Nigan joined him, running for the stables. The other Daggers were leading their horses out into the yard. As Lebuin reached his horse, the door of the house with the attackers smashed open, and two people rushed out. Ticca sprung at them from behind, cutting the head off one with her sword and stabbing the other with her dagger.

Lebuin felt dizzy and stared at the falling head. His mind failing to connect the level of strength and ruthlessness that one maneuver took with the athletic yet feminine figure of Ticca.

A third assailant emerged from the building, shocking Lebuin back into the present. “TICCA, BEHIND YOU!” Nigan and Lebuin called as one.

Ticca twisted and dodged, but not fast enough. The new attacker threw a knife that hit Ticca. Lebuin wasn’t sure where, but he heard the strike and Ticca’s grunt of pain.

Nigan and Illa mounted, spun their horses, and raced towards him. Ticca kicked the last man away, but she lost her footing on the loose gravel and fell. The man drew a pair of odassi, confirming once and for all, they were Nhia-Samri.

Lebuin kicked his horse sweeping up Ticca’s reins as he maneuvered towards Ticca.

Before he got there, Illa and Nigan had delivered a series of strikes from their mounts, killing the last attacker.

Her face contorted in pain, Ticca regained her feet and vaulted into her saddle, cradling one of her arms.

“RIDE!” she ordered.

Their group bolted into the largely deserted street and headed towards the western gate with Ticca in the lead, a knife hilt sticking out of her left shoulder. With a growing sense of dread, Lebuin watched the blood oozing down her back as he tried to keep up.

At the west gate, he expected to be assailed again by more Nhia-Samri, like the last time they left the city, but no one jumped from alleys to stop them. They rode out unhindered by the guards who stood aside, mouths open, as the party galloped past. Ticca didn’t stop. The bloodstain on her back was now a dark patch, which glistened slightly in the moonlight. She moved deeper into the forest even after the town was far behind.

The team rode fast for half a mark and then slowed. Ticca was in the lead with the rest of the team in a protective circle around Lebuin, Illa, and Ditani. Ticca rode steadily and set a speed that let her horse glide along smoothly through the night. Lebuin couldn’t see her face and she obviously moved carefully protecting her shoulder with the knife in it. She had already warded off Nigan’s offer to stop and tend to the wound saying she wasn’t in danger.

The pace, and time allowed Lebuin to take count and all were present except for Risy, Malla, Sabri, Persa, and Tuage, who Lebuin finally had time to consider. I hardly knew him and yet he died protecting me. The night chill seemed appropriate. Lebuin looked at the dark figures around him. The few faces he could make out where tight lipped with eyes scanning for more danger. Should I say something? Not now, but I think I should when we camp.

Another half a mark passed; still they didn’t stop taking small farming side roads seemingly at random. On the fifth turn a party of riders raced from a different side road towards them and Ticca motioned for them to turn off into the woods. The team didn’t speed up.

Lebuin’s heart pounded in his throat as the pursuing riders started quickly overtaking them. The bright moons light clearly glistening off fresh bloodstains on their clothes. He relaxed slightly noting that the rest of the team could not possibly miss them and had not drawn weapons. The pursuers, horses panting and steaming, thudded up as Nigan held out his hand and exchanged a palm strike with one of them.

Lebuin felt a rush of joy as he realized the other riders were actually Risy, Malla, Sabri, and Persa. All of them looked tired with various cuts in their clothing. Risy nodded and smiled at Lebuin as the rest took up their stations in the protective circle.

They rode on for more than two marks more through the woods. Lebuin’s legs and thighs were burning and he felt heavily abused. All the adrenaline had worn off long ago only determination not to fail Ticca kept him moving.

Lebuin frowned as Ticca’s back seemed to be oozing more in the rough terrain. He considered calling for her to stop when he spotted she was wobbling in her saddle. Yet she held on until they came to a small glade. Ticca nodded at a couple of trees as if agreeing with something and then signaled to stop with her good arm.

I wonder what makes this place better than any of the other glades we passed through.

Staring at one particular tree, Ticca smiled as if someone had made a joke. Then her eyes rolled up, and she slumped in her saddle. Lebuin and Ditani leapt from their horses to catch Ticca as she slipped so far to the side that Lebuin was sure she was going to fall on her head.

The group dismounted just as fast, with most of the team taking up defensive positions, while others started striking a cold camp. Lebuin helped Ditani lift Ticca off her saddle.

It took more effort than expected, because during the flight, she had tied herself onto the saddle. Once they got the strong leather straps undone, they carried her to a clear spot.

Ticca stiffened momentarily as her eyes fluttered open. “You know, it’d be nice to just leave Llino quietly,” she mumbled.

Lebuin and Ditani stumbled as she went limp, but they kept a firm grip on her. Lebuin’s heart sank his stomach quivering. Without even the slightest resistance, she was just loose meat and bone. She was also cold. As they lowered her to the ground, Lebuin used his mage sight to confirm her heart was still beating.

With a sigh of relief, they finish laying Ticca out and Lebuin knelt next to her checking her vitals as best he could. She was still breathing weakly, and although she had lost a lot of blood, she seemed otherwise in reasonably good condition. Malla, their medic, dropped next to Ticca with her stuffed field bag. She held a stitching kit.

Lebuin started to get up, but then thought better of it.

If I am to live in this world, I must learn the skills needed to save those I’m to protect.

He felt himself going lightheaded, looking at the bloody knife sticking out of Ticca’s shoulder. There was far more blood soaked into her clothes than he had thought. Forcing his stomach to remain calm, he watched Malla as closely as possible, trying to remember every move she made and every comment she let drop.

* * *

Stifling a yawn, Dohma sat in the padded, purple velvet chair behind a shallow, but wide, desk. A golden plaque which read, ‘Chief Regent Dohma Gerani-Uriosal, Kingdom of Aelargo,’ affixed to the front.

He checked the room to see how many had returned from the short break. Chief Queen Paha of the dwarves came in with Lady Saba-Arrur, the elven queen. The two of them were engrossed in a conversation that had both of them gesturing and making chopping motions.

Across from Dohma, King Brinus Laeusia of Laeusia was napping in his chair. Meanwhile, Princess Sheila, Brinus’s eldest daughter and the heir apparent for Laeusia, was still trying to get King Deorgra Yalthum to agree to something that had Deorgra looking down and rubbing his temples while his daughter, Jawayi, was trying not to laugh.

The other representatives or rulers of the countries that made up the realms of the Covenant of Duianna were making their way to their desks to continue the debate on ratifying Duke’s motion to declare war on the Nhia-Samri.

The assembly was in its second week of debate. All the evidence had been laid before the rulers of the nine nations of the Duianna Alliance. Yet Duke had not called for a vote, even going so far as to block anyone else from calling for the vote.

We’ve been at this all day. I believe it is time to move to recess for the night. That we spent another day discussing this topic is beyond belief. The deeds are clear to all.

Orahda, Dohma’s weapons master-turned-advisor/bodyguard, disguised as a Dagger guard, stood behind Dohma, watching everyone in the room as if he was an enemy about to strike. A number of delegates had commented on it, but Orahda refused to stop, saying that someone had to be a Nhia-Samri informant. Given Orahda’s past with the Nhia-Samri, Dohma was inclined to let Orahda do as he pleased.

Due to the nature of the meetings and the fact the Nhia-Samri had managed to install magical gates into the halls of the assembly, all of the attendees and attendants had been checked out to a level that included magical mind probing by the most senior mages available. Still, Orahda didn’t trust anyone he didn’t know personally.

“Duke set the hands in motion and named the timing. Why does he now block action?” Dohma asked to Orahda.

Orahda had personally trained and mentored Dohma, and in the 20 years of training, Dohma had come to respect his opinion and insights. Orahda was more than just the weapons master of Aelargo. In truth, Orahda was a second father to him.

“Though he hid it well, Duke was surprised when we informed him of the Nhia-Samri mage-gates into the cities and these chambers.”

Dohma considered that thought. Pointed out, Duke’s surprise was clear. “You believe his plans changed with that revelation. If so, why does he not reveal to us his intentions? Surely, we are to be trusted in his plans. You’ve no doubt noticed he disappears every evening, returning to these chambers earlier than anyone else.”

Orahda pulled a set of papers out of his shoulder pouch and put them on the desk. Bending down, Dohma saw that it was a copy of a guard’s log for the last week. There were a number of underlined entries. Every evening there was an entry near to 21:00 showing Duke exiting. Every morning there was the same entry ‘02:30 Admitted Duke Rolly Duke Bensure’ with no other activity until around 06:00 when various staff members started arriving and leaving.

“What’s this?”

“I made a copy of the access log for this chamber.”

“To what end should Duke take his rest in this chamber? Do you have knowledge of what he is doing during the hours of his absence?”

Orahda put the log back into his pouch. “I don’t know. I’ve checked, and there is no other log of his movements anywhere in the palace grounds. He disappears entirely for that time.”

“Clearly he is working to an end. We must endeavor to discover the new plan. His delays at allowing the declaration of war are likely to the detriment of the Nhia-Samri.”

“He has brought in significant numbers of Daggers. I tell you now; they are not enough against the might of Hisuru Amajoo if Shar-Lumen decides to attack in force.”

Dohma knew Orahda was right. If anyone knew what the Nhia-Samri were capable of, it was the man who had once been their second in command. Orahda had defected from them, just over forty years ago, at the end of the Burning Bridge War. He had provided the information, exposing the Nhia-Samri’s secret involvement in fanning flames of that war on both sides in an attempt to break the back of the Duianna Alliance of Realms.

Since then, Orahda had hidden from the extraordinary efforts of the Nhia-Samri to find and kill him for his treachery. Orahda had sworn allegiance to Aelargo and had acted as their weapons master, training the Llino city guard. It was because of his preparations Duke was able to restore Dohma’s family rightful rule of Aelargo.

“Maybe Duke is seeking to use the ancient powers here. This is the ancient capital of the Duianna Empire built over 15,000 years prior, by our ancestors with such powers and knowledge we are but children in comparison.”

Orahda shook his head. “No, if that was true he would need to have permission of the assembly to revoke an ancient ruling. You would have been consulted if he wanted a secret vote.”

Dohma again recalled Orahda was more than any here knew. Orahda had promised on their return to Aelargo to reveal many truths of his past in the security of his specially protected quarters.

“You suggest that I would have been consulted because my ancestors lived here before moving to Aelargo to be the advisers and regents to the great princes of the empire?”

“No the disappearance of the royal line in 10,485, when your family was forced to assume control is not what I am referring to. The assembly’s ruling is older than that. Both the Imperial regents and the Aelargo regents have done their duties and have much to be proud of.” Orahda said with an odd sadness, his eyes going unfocused as if looking back across the years to that very time 3,000 years ago.

“We are still at loss for what game Duke is playing.” Dohma said leaning back in the chair. He felt less at ease in his seat within the ancient marbled halls, with all their inlaid gold and silver. The nearly 15,000 Dagger guards on station in and around the assembly chambers did not feel so reassuring with these mysterious actions of Duke.

Thanks to Orahda and Dohma, everyone knew the Nhia-Samri could strike through the, as of yet, unidentified mage-gates hidden in the walls. Magical gates which, once activated, would allow the Nhia-Samri to step from their strongholds throughout the realms, directly into these chambers, the palace, and the city. Twenty-six gates had been found and disabled. Yet Orahda insisted there would be no less than 30 into the palace grounds alone.

An idea came to mind. “Orahda, what is the current Dagger compliment?” Dohma asked.

Orahda answered instantly. “Although the formation of an official army is not yet sanctioned, there are 50,500 Daggers stationed throughout the palace and city acting as officers to about 230,000 guards. Seventeen thousand Daggers are acting as special force here in the palace protecting the assembly.”

Dohma did some quick math in his head. He had seen a report that morning indicating over 38,000 Daggers had checked in since Duke arrived with the initial compliment of 65,000 Daggers.

“Where are the other 35,500 Daggers?”

Orahda didn’t answer for so long Dohma turned around to look. Orahda’s brows were deeply creased. “I don’t think anyone has noticed that discrepancy with all the activities.”

Dohma felt a small ember of hope fire in his heart. “Duke is planning a surprise for the vote. I’ve been worried. I know the Daggers have tripled the guards’ training in recent weeks. Still should the Nhia-Samri attack, we will have to evacuate.”

He didn’t bother saying what they both knew. The plan was already in place to evacuate the assembly to the eastern elven lands. All that could be done, had been done. They hoped that most would make it to Rea-Na-Rey, the elven capital in their kingdom of Nae-Rae, to the east.

A boy in Duke’s livery sprinted into the room, across the central floor. Ignoring all protocols to acknowledge the rulers, he dodged around to get to the large pillowed platform. Duke, looking clean and well brushed, leaned his head down to the boy, who spoke so quietly that even those close by seemed unable to hear him. Duke’s head snapped up, and he leapt over the boy, to the central floor.

At that moment, Cundia, Dohma’s Dagger Commander of Aelargo and official royal adviser, walked into the room. She was in the lead of a number of other assistants, who were falling over each other to get to whomever they served.

Cundia was wearing the same armored clothing as Orahda, except she had far more weapons showing. She had little trouble maneuvering through the throng with her graceful and quick reflexes.

After rushing over to Dohma, Cundia leaned in close. “Lady Lothia, Lord Pualla, and Lady Dalpha are here.”

Duke barked, and not a single person dared to claim the authority to stand in his path. Dohma couldn’t help smiling as kings and queens leapt to get out of the way of the 240 stone giant wolf as he stalked out of the room. The small lad ran full tilt behind just to keep up.

Dohma’s stomach plummeted into an unknown abyss. Duke’s rush only confirmed what Cundia said. Still, his legs felt as heavy as stones rooting him in place. “Can this be true? The very Gods are to parley with us?”

Cundia’s face looked pale. “Yes, m’Lord. They just arrived in a gold and silver carriage unlike anything I have ever seen, pulled by two silver mares that flew into the palace grounds. Imperial Regent Aphastes Menthran is greeting them personally in the entry foyer.”

Dohma stood as the buzz in the room took on a uniquely excited pitch. Dohma’s sensitive ears detected a handful of conversations about what to do. The Gods hadn’t attended an assembly meeting in over 5,000 years.

All fatigue forgotten, Dohma joined the rush of rulers as they strode as rapidly as dignity would allow, following Duke, heading for the entry foyer. Ignoring etiquette, he jogged into the hall and sped to the doorway of the foyer. Six Dagger guards on both sides of the doorway stood so straight that they looked like statues.

Duke was already at the far end of the room. Moonlight blazed in the three-story, arched windows that lined the front wall, adding a soft glow to the bright chandeliers and wall lanterns.

Skidding to a halt, Dohma took in the three beings. Each had a shimmering radiance that surrounded them. The Imperial regent was standing as straight as the guards and had stepped aside for Duke, who was rising from one of his head bows.

It took no time at all to identify them.

Pualla, Lord of Air and Yur, was a medium-height man with a toned, muscular physique. He wore a red-enameled, scaled shirt that looked more like feathers than armor. He had matching steel bracers on his upper and lower arms. His legs were covered with the same armor over leather pants, which were tucked into red knee-high, reinforced boots. His feathered cloak fluttered as if constantly brushed by the wind and unaffected by gravity. Two curved short blades and a small leather pouch hung from his belt. In his left hand, he held a tall staff that resembled an unstrung bow. But there was no string, nor did he have a quiver. His head was topped with a red and white turban.

Dohma had seen Dalpha, Lady of Light, at a distance in Llino on a couple of royal occasions. She was dressed the same as always, in a full-length green dress that covered every inch of her yet left nothing to the imagination. She had a curving body that, before he had met Electra, he thought had no equal. Smiling, he recalled the boyish daydreams he had as a young city guard, during royal celebrations, when she had put in an appearance.

Dalpha made him feel optimistic for the future, even in the worst of times, enforcing the usurpers’ decrees. However, this would be the first time he would meet her. His palms were sweating.

What should I say to someone who has been an inspiration to me my whole life?

Dalpha stood regally with her hands clasped in front of her, showing the elbow-length, black leather gloves and a matched pair of bracelets. Her hanging belt and bracelets were made from a rope of woven gold and were held in place with carved sapphire buckles. Around her neck hung a mantle-like medallion made of a large sapphire, cut with her symbol of the oak tree, with eight sun rays surrounded by an outer circle.

Lothia, the Raven, Goddess of Karakia, was a tall, regal-looking woman with dark tanned skin and long black, straight hair that fell to her waist. She wore a leather top that was embroidered with colored beads, forming the silhouette of a raven against a full moon. Tied with leather strips to her hair above one ear and on her bare ankles were black feathers, which floated as unaffected by gravity as Pualla’s cloak. Her hair was pulled around into a ponytail held with a hammered silver clasp, also tied with leather straps. Unlike Dalpha and Pualla, Lothia floated a full hand above the ground.

As Dohma approached, Dalpha’s bright emerald-green eyes jumped from Duke to lock onto him. They seemed to bore right into his soul. A gentle smile grew on her face. She continued to stare at him, only glancing down once before continuing her gaze.

Pualla watched Duke with narrowed brows.

Lothia held up a silver medallion, which hung around her neck, for inspection. It looked out of place with the rest of her dress.

Concentrating, Dohma focused his excellent hearing and caught the last part of what Lothia was saying to Duke.

“…Argos has granted me his voice and will also attend.”

“That could complicate this more,” Duke said.

Dohma stepped up next to Duke and dropped to one knee, bowing his head.

Dalpha’s gentle tones washed over him. “Rise, Dohma Uriosal. You shall not kneel to us again.”

As Lothia’s and Pualla’s oversized eyes shifted to him from Duke, he stood.

Pualla spoke first. “So this is the restored child of House Uriosal. I’m pleased to be with you here.”

Taking a deep breath, he tried to relax the tightened muscles in his chest. “Lord Pualla, Lady Dalpha, and Lady Lothia, I welcome you, and am your servant always.”

Lothia stepped closer to him, her eyes looking into his. Then she saw something behind him and gasped, putting her hand to her mouth and stepping backwards. “It can’t be.”

When Pualla turned to see what Lothia was talking about, his mouth dropped open. He shook his head and then jumped past Dohma. “It cannot be! By the heavens, how can you be here?”

Dohma turned enough to see what was going on, careful not to put his back to the other Gods.

Pualla picked up Orahda in a hug, patting his back and shaking him at the same time. Orahda played the part of a limp doll while still grinning ear to ear.

Dalpha did not appear to be surprised.

Although Dohma had not personally seen Dalpha on more than a couple of occasions, he knew she spent a lot of time in Llino.

Of course, she knows who Orahda is. She had to have been watching over us all these years. He is the second greatest warrior and hero in all of history. He is known to the Gods. I’m surprised Dalpha didn’t mention to the others that he was in Llino. I thought the Gods were a close group, sharing information freely.

The other rulers and regents came into the room, and an eruption of chaos ensued. Pualla and Orahda exchanged some quick comments in a language Dohma didn’t recognize. Afterwards, Pualla acted as if Orahda wasn’t even visible. Pualla rejoined Dalpha and Lothia, making some comment to them that Dohma was surprised he couldn’t hear.

A reception line formed. Kings, queens, and regents each bent knee, greeting the deities. Dalpha smiled through it all, catching a glimpse of Dohma from time to time like she didn’t want to let him out of her sight. Lothia stole several sideways glances at both Dohma and Orahda while receiving each ruler and regent in no particular order.

It was after the chaos began to subside that Dohma noticed Duke was no longer in the room.

Now, how did he slip out like that?

The participants began to file back to the assembly meeting chamber, where servants were rearranging the tables, adding four silver thrones to a small dais, which had risen out of the floor. One of them was more ornate than the others. The three deities took the lesser thrones.

Dohma glanced back at Orahda. “Who is the fourth one for?”

Cundia stood to one side while Orahda was on the other. Both of them scanned the other attendees as if nothing was different. Without looking at them, Orahda said, “It represents the All Father Lord Argos, who is attending through Lady Lothia.”

“So she has his proxy vote?”

“No, m’Lord. Lord Argos is watching and will speak, if he so desires, from his throne in Miniath-Tur at the center of the universe.”

Lord Argos is watching this directly? This must be more important than I thought.

Duke had still not arrived, yet everyone was in their places, shuffling and straightening their papers, glancing around nervously for ten full minutes. Only the Gods seemed comfortable, sitting in their thrones, straight backed, with the appearance of infinite patience. Lothia and Pualla sat so still they might have been statues. Dalpha in contrast was somewhat animated. She would shift her left arm from her lap, to the throne arm, and back while continuing to regard Dohma.

Lord Menthran, the Imperial regent, glanced at the Gods and kept adjusting his seat. Finally, he rubbed his face and started to stand when Duke walked in. Lord Menthran looked relieved until he saw, following Duke into the room, 70 Daggers who took positions against the walls around the room. Duke walked to his position like nothing unusual was happening.

The Imperial regent took one last glance at the new Daggers and then stood and rapped his gavel. “The Assembly of the Covenant of Duianna is called to order.”

Lothia stood, looking at the Imperial regent.

He cleared his throat. “The chair recognizes Lady Lothia, the Raven.”

“I speak for the Circle, Lord Argos, and my two companions. We are fully aware of all circumstances leading to this meeting, as well as the debate to date. There is no need to repeat what is already known by all present. I move for an immediate vote on the motion before the assembly.”

Duke stood and bowed, but before he could speak, a deep, booming voice came out of the air all around the chamber. “I second the motion for a vote.”

With his eyes narrowing, Duke looked at Lothia. The Imperial regent rapped his gavel. “The motion for a vote is made and seconded. The floor will now accept comment upon the motion before a vote. The chair recognizes His Excellency Duke of Greyrhan, Lord of Aelargo, for discussion of the motion now before the assembly.”

Duke scanned the room before he bowed his head. “I was going to second the call. I have nothing further to add.” Duke said in an even tone. He then sat back down and started mumbling something to his senior staff Dagger, Elades. Elades hands started moving in that pattern Daggers used as he listened to Duke with a tightlipped expression.

Duke is pensive and I’d more likely be a jouster than that being what he intended to say. He thinks the Gods are making a mistake.

The Imperial regent glanced around the room. No one else indicated a desired to comment. “So be it.” He declared rapping his gavel again. “A vote on the motion to declare war on the Nhia-Samri is to be made. Secretary, you will call the vote.”

The secretary called, “Lord Argos the All Father of the Universe, what is your vote?”

“NO.” Lord Argos’s voice boomed throughout the room causing many to jump.

The secretary recovered from the pronouncement and marked his tablet.

He nervously looked at the physically present deities. “Lady Lothia the Raven of Karakia, what is your vote?”

“I abstain until the end of voting.” Lothia’s voice was quiet and washed around the room as a summer breeze closely followed by her gaze. Most in the room looked down unable to meet her eye to eye.

The secretary glanced at the Imperial regent who made a get-on-with-it gesture. The secretary looked back at the deities.

“Lady Dalpha, Lady of Light and Nae-Rae, what is your vote?”

“I abstain until the end of voting.” She said in a soft tone as lovely as the dawn as she fidgeted with her left bracelet, her eyes glued on Dohma. Her brows creased slightly intensifying her stare at him.

The secretary marked his tablet without looking down. “Lord Pualla, Lord of Air and Yur, Patron Chair of the Circle, what is your vote?”

“I abstain until the end of voting.” Pualla declared his voice the deep baritone of a master of the hunt. Pualla leaned forward in his chair making eye contact with Duke. Dohma saw Duke subtly shake his head ‘no’ and Duke seemed to plead something that Pualla understood as he sat back straight in his chair with a frown.

The secretary again marked his tablet without looking and shifted his gaze onto the Imperial regent.

“Imperial Regent Lord Aphastes Menthran, what is your vote?”

“Yes!” The Imperial regent exclaimed his gaze swept the room defiantly challenging all present.

The vote continued around the room.

Dohma voted ‘yes’ without hesitation when the vote for Aelargo was called for receiving an approving nod from the Imperial regent.

After the last member voted, the tally stood six in favor and six opposed. Everyone’s eyes turned to the Gods as the secretary again called for their votes.

Lady Lothia frowning at the room voted defiantly, “No.”

Lord Pualla staring at Duke voted just as defiantly, “Yes.”

All eyes in the room now rested on Lady Dalpha as the secretary called, “Lady Dalpha, Lady of Light and Nae-Rae, what is your vote?”

Dalpha had stared at Dohma throughout the entire vote. Occasionally, she adjusted her left hand’s position, while her right hand remained perfectly still. She did not answer as she continued to stare at Dohma, her left hand shifting slightly. Dohma’s instincts screamed at him to act. But what he should do escaped his perceptions.

Why is she so interested in me? She is the Goddess of Healing and Life. She will not agree to war. Her own disciple Sayscia told me once that Dalpha never agreed with violence. Yet, she is nervous and trying to tell me something.

The secretary called again, his voice holding steady. “Lady Dalpha, Lady of Light and Nae-Rae, the vote is deadlocked. By the rules of the assembly you are compelled to vote. What is your vote?”

Lothia wore a small smile, while Pualla frowned, as Dalpha took a breath.

Her left hand! She has always had only one right arm bracelet. Why does she now have a second on her left? Dohma’s stomach dropped from a cliff into the cold dark sea. That is the purpose of her actions. I alone have enough memory of her portraits. She desired I notice it. Perhaps she’s compromised in some manner. I require Orahda’s knowledge. Dohma pointed his nose directly at Dalpha and discretely tapped Orahda’s and Cundia’s knees.

Dalpha clenched her fists tightly, closing her eyes, and said softly, “Yes.” Her voice trembled and pleaded for sympathy. Her voice carried with it a blast of cold air that rushed through the room. Duke’s mouth dropped open.

Dohma murmured, “Dalpha has a left bracelet.”

Orahda drew his blades and leapt over the desk, to the floor, as the Imperial regent rapped his gavel. Orahda’s reaction confirmed Dohma’s worst fears and he started to stand reaching for his weapons.

Lothia’s jaw dropped as she turned to face Dalpha. Pualla also turned to face Dalpha, his eyebrows nearly vanishing into his hair.

Before the sound of the gavel finished echoing, the crash of a dozen blades rang out with the dying screams of people. Nhia-Samri were pouring through four glowing disks on the walls cutting down everyone in their path.

The Author

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Thank you for all the support you’ve given me over the years – and keep reading fantasy & sci-fi!

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+ Leeland Artra

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