Gillian did not want to move. The darkness had at last closed over him, blotting out his memories and leaving him in a void where nothing mattered. He heard a voice. It sounded vaguely familiar. He wished whoever it was would leave him alone. The torture was over; his mind was his again, but someone was shaking him.
. "Leave me alone!" It sounded like the right thing to say, but he couldn't make himself speak the words aloud.
"Father, wake up!" Father? Was he a father? He couldn't quite grasp the idea as being real.
"Aaron, what is wrong with Gillian?" A female voice this time. It was deep and heavily accented, but still recognizably feminine. Had she called him Aaron? Was that right?
"You saw it! He couldn't breathe!" He wasn't breathing? That couldn't be good.
"He was thrashing around like a netted fish," a deep male voice said, "But he's stopped now."
"He is breathing again too," the female said. "Hrahavon believes that he is awake."
"No, he is not," Gillian tried to say. More shaking. He groaned.
"Maybe he was dreaming," the woman said.
Dreaming? Of course. He was on a boat. He was heading for the island of Gonfayous. He, and his son, and Raven of the Nobu tribe, whose real name he couldn't quite pronounce. They were on what would probably turn out to be a suicide run, but it was their last chance to stop that mad heathen, Pious Akilis from subjugating everyone to his corrupt beliefs.
"Father!" The shaking grew more earnest.
Gillian willed his eyes open. It was not an easy task. Every time the memories took over, he could barely make his body respond, even when he tried.
"He's awake." Aaron sounded immensely relieved. Gillian knew how that felt; he was relieved himself. He was starting to become more aware of things. The last three years of his life had been full of times like this. He was sick of it. He hadn't been on good terms with the spirits, to say nothing of the White, but now he prayed that the tide of war would be turned this day. It would have to be! The Blood of the Virtuous would take everything and everyone under their "protective" façade, and execute anyone who opposed them in the name of Aluron the White. He would die before he let that happen; memories be cursed.
Irritating morning light smothered the darkness as his eyes finally came open. He looked around. His vision was blurry. He wiped a hand across his eyes; they were wet. It hardly surprised him. He peered up at the people around him. These were Whalen's last hope, the remnant who had managed to survive this long.
He sat up, rolling his neck and shoulders to work out the stiffness. He hadn't been sleeping in the most comfortable position. Falling on his face during one of his "dreams" certainly hadn't helped.
Aaron was kneeling on the floor of the boat next to where he sat and looking anxious. His concerned frown did not become his handsome face. A boy his age should be training back at the home he grew up in, smiling and enjoying life, not embarking on such a dangerous mission with his feelings clouding his mind. It hadn't been that long ago that Aaron had been still a boy and getting into all sorts of trouble in the Aurist's tower with Marcus … Marcus … it was thanks to that self-indulgent traitor that Aaron wasn't thinking rationally, but now was not the time to dwell on that.
"Good morning, my boy," Gillian said, trying to smile.
"Don't "good morning" me, Father," Aaron scolded. "Are you alright?"
"I'm alright, now anyway." Gillian got unsteadily to his feet. The floor of the long boat swayed in time with the gently rippling waves. Aaron caught his wrist to steady him.
"Careful, father. You should really sit down. You look very pale."
"Stop treating me like an old man, I said I'm fine." Aaron hastily withdrew his hand and bowed his head. Gillian put a hand on his son's shoulder and gently squeezed it. "I'm sorry, my boy. I'm alright. Just a little groggy, that's all."
"Alright, Father, I'm sorry. It's just that you weren't breathing for a moment. We were so worried about you."
"No need to worry now." Gillian took a long slow breath of the salty sea air and then let it out, smiling more naturally.
"Did you dream, Gillian?"
He sat heavily on the rough wooden bench that ran the length of the boat and looked over at Raven. The woman's large brow was creased in a frown. He nodded. "Another dream. Spirits be cursed, I'm getting so tired of them."
She nodded. "Hrahavon knows how Gillian feels about his dreams. Hrahavon is the spirit mother of the Nobu. She has many dreams that she does not wish to have. Did you see spirits of your own, Gillian?"
"Just some old ghosts," he muttered.
He stood again and stretched. He hoped nobody else heard his old bones popping. It wouldn't do to have them think he was getting old. He swept an observant gaze around, taking everything in. About fifty people were on the boat with him. Two wooden benches ran down its length. A center isle served as an armoury. Weapons of all kinds lay in an organized mess. Most of his companions were soldiers from all over Whalen. They struggled with long wooden paddles. Many wore red or green tunics which reached to their waists and were overlaid with breastplates of studded leather that creaked as they paddled. The early sunrise glinted off barbed steel greaves around their forearms. A few of the soldiers wore what looked to be polished silver body armour. It rippled and shifted as they moved, conforming to their movements as only organic metal could. Some of the soldiers wore it tight against their bulging muscles where it looked like a second skin. It would protect them from all but the strongest blows. Unfortunately, anyone highly skilled in aurury could unravel organic metal like wool.
Six people sitting near the front of the boat were also clad in organic metal which was hidden under long navy-blue robes. Wide, gold sashes, interwoven with elaborate brocade crossed over their right shoulders and were synched at their left hips. They all sat rigidly, staring straight ahead. These were six of the nine remaining Aurists; two men who were Gillian's age, one young man already ordained by the priestesses and two young students who were yet to pass their final ordinance tests. They were deep in concentration. The phosphorescent and vaguely crimson water churned around the boat as the aura within it was bent to their will, making it, and the two others flanking it faster and easier to paddle.
Gillian's gaze rested on the man sitting next to Aaron. Even sitting, he loomed over almost everyone else. His wind-swept red hair and bushy beard framed what Gillian thought to be both the hardest and kindest face he had ever seen. "Jackthar old boy, where abouts are we?"
Jackthar turned and smiled without smiling. "About ten miles off the coast of Gonfayous. Almost time now, isn't it?" He pulled his paddle out of the water and stood it beside him. Crimson droplets from the Firelight Ocean dripped from the wet wood and glinted as they caught the light of the sun. It looked far too much like dripping blood for so early in the morning.
"Almost time." Gillian studied the big man's face. A white scar stood out against his tanned skin from brow to chin. He idly scratched it as he clenched his teeth.
"It's about time. I hate these waters.
Gillian returned the humorless smile. "You hate all water."
"I'll drink the stuff, but if I'd have been made to float, I'd be a fish."
Jackthar Ilrak had been the King of Silverstone, and the soldiers wearing the organic metal were his elite protectors, men who had committed their lives to his preservation. He had ruled better than anyone had ever expected for his young age. He had not been content to sit idly while the east lands were ravaged. . Instead, he'd led his army into the worst of the fray to help liberate many of the conquered cities. It had not gone well. While they hadn't been without their victories, the Blood of the Virtuous had eventually overwhelmed them by sheer numbers. Since Silverstone had dared oppose his cause, Father Pious Akilis had used an unfathomable weapon to make an example out of the city. Gillian had only seen the aftermath of his attack. It had looked like a great wind had torn the middle of the city apart. The Castle of High Power had been reduced to an unrecognizable mass of rock. The outer city had been spared the brunt of the attack, but many of the buildings had still collapsed. Even the dead had no doubt been incinerated by the blast, for there was no trace of them. Only the crumbling buildings were a testament that people had once inhabited the area.
Jackthar hadn't been the same since that day nearly six months ago. Although he'd needed to grow up fast after inheriting the throne, he'd retained a Boy's enthusiasm, even when marching off to war. Gillian understood completely; Jackthar, like all young people, thought he was immortal, and so he'd put everything he had into ridding Whalen of the Blood. When his army was overwhelmed, he'd had to retreat back to Silverstone, only to find it laid to waste. The rotting head of his wife, Queen Celina had been mounted on a pike outside the city's collapsing east gate. A note had been stuffed in her mouth. "Your queen loved a sinner, but your daughter has seen the light." It hadn't been long before they'd found the ones responsible for leaving that message. Not far off, the remains of a hastily broken camp were found. They hadn't had to follow the trail made by its inhabitants long before they came upon the dwindled remains of a detachment of the blood. The men had quite happily confessed to everything, except the whereabouts of Jackthar's daughter Alicia.
The loss of his wife and daughter, more than the loss of his city was what had broken something within Jackthar. He had lost much of his youthful cheerfulness and given up all hope of victory. Now, vengeance was his one desire. He took no pleasure in useless violence, but he had vowed to see every member of the Blood on the end of a blade. Gillian understood. Still, Jackthar's abrupt transformation had been frightening to witness.
Raven clapped Jackthar on the arm. Her long black hair was braided and fell over one bare shoulder. She was only a forehead shorter than him, and as muscular as any of the biggest men on the boat. Her skin was deeply tanned and unblemished. Despite her own tragic loss, she hid her grief beneath a radiant smile. Gillian admired Raven for still being able to smile so honestly. She had suffered just as much as everyone else, and though she too was determined to end the threat to her people and their way of life, she went about doing so casually. Her apparent lack of concern worried Gillian sometimes, but he couldn't deny that her joking and teasing helped ease the tension a little.
When she squeezed Jackthar's arm, her blue eyes twinkled. A pair of six inch steel pincers hung from a silver chain that was wound around her thick wrist. They oscillated lazily. "You were not a cat in your previous life, were you?"
Jackthar only shrugged. Raven poked him in the side. Her finger caused a small ripple in the organic metal he wore. "Jackthar should cheer up. We are very close to Akilis. This time, it will be he who bleeds. Hrahavon will make sure he bleeds a lot." She winked at him. "If you behave, Hrahavon may even let you remove his brain for her." Her smile widened when Jackthar grimaced.
"Just what is it with you and brains, Raven? "Aaron asked.
She grinned. "The brain is the home of the soul."
The sharp smack of a paddle hitting the water cut off Raven's answer. Crimson droplets splattered Gillian's face. The man responsible for the disturbance turned towards them. He was a Magnian, one of the races of Cyrom, a species created by Aluron in the beginning, before humans were even an idea. Organic metal hung loose on his chest and legs. His body was covered with a thick black fur which glistened in the sunlight. He held his paddle across his broad chest and grinned humorlessly down at Aaron, showing his white teeth.
"And," he said in a contemptuous gravelly voice, "this woman and her band of savages pick the brains out of the skulls of the people they kill and eat them. They think the brain meat gives them the strength of their enemies."
Raven's smile disappeared and she rose to her full height. "Hrahavon and her people do not "pick" the brains out, Chenris. We use our swords to carve off the top of their skull, and then we use a doba quan like this one to cut and pull them out like you would pull noodles out of a pot." She shook her wrist and the chain holding the steel pincers jingled.
"Yes, disgusting, isn't it?" the man named Chenris said. The large brown eye in the middle of his forehead narrowed. "If it were just an excuse to mutilate their enemies, that would be fine by me." He shook a finger at Raven. "But these people actually believe it improves their lives. It makes me sick."
Gillian expected a sarcastic reply; Raven was not easily provoked. What he did not expect was for her to flick her wrist. The doba quan spun around her arm, and she caught it in her fist. It was a Nobu challenge which meant that someone was going to bleed. She pointed the spread pincers at Chenris. "Who are you to question the way of Hrahavon's people, Magnian? You who takes such pleasure in spilling blood." The sudden menace in her voice sent a chill through Gillian. "It is the way of the Nobu to use the strength of those who would harm us and turn it back at them. We take strength from our enemies to preserve the lives of those dear to us, not because we enjoy butchering the ones who hate us."
The fur on Chenris's face and arms bristled, and his ears, which were longer than a human's and pointed at their tops quivered. His tail thumped the side of the boat. "Well aren't those pretty words? How many times have you recited that script? Is that the first thing the Spirit mother of the Nobu needs to master? Oh wait, of course not, it's how to turn your back on the world by laughing and smiling."
"How dare you –"
Chenris waved his hand, cutting off her words. "Oh, you don't have to explain it to me of all people. But tell me, when your village was attacked by the Blood, how many of your loyal Nobu sacrificed themselves so that you could escape? How many of your men were butchered? How many of your women were taken as slaves? Oh, that's right, your people would throw themselves on their own spears before allowing themselves to be ordered around, but here you sit, alive and well, laughing and smiling while thousands of people all over Whalen are put to death for living their lives."
Raven backhanded the Magnian. His head snapped back and the doba quan was suddenly an inch from his eye. Chenris did not flinch. Gillian didn't understand. Chenris certainly wasn't the most likable Magnian he'd ever met, but he had a good heart, and a lot of compassion for people who sided with him, even if the sight of his enemies' blood did excite him. To see Chenris so eager to provoke Raven was unnerving. The relationship between human and cyrom had sometimes been turbulent, but today was not a day for petty arguing.
"That's enough, both of you." They both glared at him. "I mean it! We're all on the same side, and we have no chance of taking out Akilis if we're fighting among ourselves. Now what's wrong, Chenris? It's not like you to be so hostile."
Chenris grunted, but said nothing. Raven's glare softened into the kind of expression Gillian would have given a dog with its leg caught in a bear trap. She let go of her doba quan.
"Hrahavon feels sorry for you, Chenris. You live with only hate in your heart, and you let that hatred make you forget yourself. Hrahavon knows that you feel sorrow for the people the Blood of the Virtuous have killed, but you also take so much pleasure in killing others. You are a torn man, and Hrahavon understands. She has lost her home, her spirit mate and many of her people. Hrahavon has thought she has no more reason to live, but the first thing any Nobu learns is that life is the most precious thing. We are here to be happy. Hrahavon feels the pain in her heart, and the rage burning in her soul, but she will not stop living, and she will not stop smiling when there are still good things ahead. ."
Chenris's ears and fur wilted. He looked away. "I don't know what came over me, Raven. I'm sorry I said that about you and your people. So many people have been murdered because Akilis has willed it. One man has been responsible for so much death, and I can't understand how that could be. I can't be happy. The only things that give me pleasure are the feel of blood in my fur and the death cries of those who disturb the peace of others' lives. I know that's not good, but I can't help the way I am."
Raven patted Chenris's shoulder. "Hrahavon is sorry too. Hrahavon will forgive you, if you will remember that the Nobu are not savages. That is the way the Blood of the Virtuous think of us. That is why they hate us most of all."
"I guess not," Chenris said, "but do you really believe that eating brains makes you stronger?"
Before Raven could answer, Jackthar spoke up. "We're getting a little too close to Gonfayous, and we still don't know how much resistance to expect. Maybe it's time for Riana to scout ahead for us?"
Gillian nodded, thankful for the abrupt change of subject. "That's a fine idea."
Aaron frowned at him. "Father, is it really necessary for Riana to do that? What if Akilis senses her spirit? He could kill her!"
Behind Aaron, a girl no older than he was turned and smiled at him. She was dressed in the navy-blue robes of an aurist. "Did I hear my name?"
Aaron blushed. "I thought you were helping the other six with the boat."
"I was, but …" she looked away, "I sort of dozed off …" She ran a hand through her blonde hair. It fell over her cheek, but not before everyone saw the radiant blush. "I guess I'll never be anything more than a spirit seeker."
Aaron, still blushing, managed to smile. "There's nothing wrong with being a spirit seeker. I wish I could do it, but my father won't teach me." He glanced at Gillian and winked meaningfully.
"That's because you're too impatient to learn. Can't even focus long enough to clear your mind." He wanted to add that Aaron couldn't keep his eyes off a certain blonde-haired student, but he was growing anxious. The time for joking was over. He turned serious. "Riana, we're almost there."
"Really?" she said, a little too eagerly for Gillian. "Is it time for me to do some spying?"
"Yes. We don't know anything about Gonfayous, other than that Akilis is there."
"How do we actually know that, Father?" Aaron said.
"The dragons," Gillian said, trying to remain patient. About fifteen of them were guarding Abalesque, and ever since Akilis got his hands on that weapon, he has barely left its walls."
Aaron snapped his fingers and beamed. "And since all dragons share a spiritual connection, it would have been easy for one of the gold dragons to search for a gathering of so many of its kind!"
"Exactly," Gillian said smiling. Aaron really could be bright when he wanted to be. "The mother of the gold dragons, Lucrecia told us that Akilis was still aboard Abalesque, right before Aluron opened the door to the hub of existence and pulled all the dragons through."
Riana sighed. "That must have been an amazing sight. Every dragon being drawn into Celestia to live with Aluron, Gharlyle and the eight spirits. I wish I could have seen it."
"No, my child," Gillian said. He frowned and looked out over the water. "It was not a happy sight. The dragons did not want to leave. Many wept for the world they were forced to leave behind. Even the ones who served Akilis pleaded with Aluron to give them another chance, but they were as corrupt by then as everyone else who had been poisoned by Akilis's words."
"Maybe they could return after this is all over?" Aaron offered hesitantly.
Riana let out an exasperated sigh. "Were you even paying attention during Panthian history?" Aaron looked away. It was all the answer Riana needed. "Honestly, what am I going to do with you, Aaron?"
"You could enlighten me with your eternal wisdom, oh great historian."
"Then you better listen," she said. "Dragons were created to be the guardians of the Cyrom and other living creatures when Aluron and Gharlyle first created Pantheus. Since all dragons share a spiritual bond as you said, and since more than a few of them had turned away from their responsibilities over the centuries, it is logical to assume that, given time, all the dragons would have been gradually affected. But until Akilis came along and managed to sway so many of the dragons into believing in his ideals, there was a balance between dragons loyal to their responsibilities, and those wishing to live freely."
"And so when Akilis won the dragons over, the balance tipped?" Aaron asked.
"In theory," Riana agreed.
"Can we get on with it already?" Chenris suddenly said. "I'd rather know what we're up against BEFORE we fall into their waiting arms."
Riana and Aaron looked sheepish, and Gillian nodded. "Yes, I think it's time. Are you ready Riana?"
Riana nodded, looking out over the ocean. She suddenly tensed. Gillian, Aaron and Raven who had been sitting silently listening followed her gaze. Gillian couldn't make sense out of what he was seeing. A streak of bright red slashed through the clear blue sky just above the horizon. It seemed to shimmer, but that might have simply been a trick of the eye.
"What is that?" Aaron asked. "It looks like a sunset."
"Or an open wound," Raven offered.
"Do I really have to go into that?" Riana's voice came out sounding small.
"Well, if Lelee Fluure is scared," Raven said, winking at the girl. She didn't finish her sentence, but Riana got the hint.
"It's not that," she insisted. "I just wish I knew what it was I was sending my spirit into, that's all." Raven's penetrating blue eyes bore into the girl. Riana held her gaze for a long moment, but then she dropped it and looked down at herself. "I don't want to be a little flower. It makes me seem so small and fragile."
"To be named Lelee Fluure is a great honor, little one. All beings are fragile; it's what it means to be mortal. Lelee Fluure is a beautiful girl. She has wonderful breasts for her size. In times of trouble, she bends but never breaks, like a flower in a strong wind. She also smells beautiful, like roses."
Aaron was looking at Riana and blushing furiously. The girl's robe clung modestly to her slender frame. Gillian nudged Aaron in the ribs. "Stop staring," he mouthed when his son glanced over.
Riana looked up. She was blushing as well. "Alright, Hrahavon, You're right. I won't break. Master Gillian, will you help me start?"
He laid a hand on the girl's shoulder. "Of course, my child." He looked around at everyone. "Please, speak only if necessary, and be as quiet as possible. Let Riana concentrate."
Aaron placed a hand on her other shoulder. Her eyes met his and he gazed out over the ocean. He didn't speak.
Riana put her head in her hands and supported them with an elbow on each knee. Gillian moved closer, and put his lips to her ear. Once she had started, she'd be fine on her own, but in spite of being one of the most talented seekers he'd ever met, she was still young, and sometimes, she needed help starting.
Riana said something, but her hands all but muffled her words. It sounded like "Don't let me fall." Gillian squeezed her shoulder reassuringly.
"Listen to the sound of my voice, Riana," he whispered softly. "Concentrate only on my whisper … Good. Let all emotion flow from your mind, and calm your spirit. Concentrate on the sound of my voice. Feel the ocean rock you in its gentle embrace."
He continued for a time, and gradually, Riana sagged under his hand. A few seconds later, she went limp and slumped forward. Aaron caught her, and that was good. Aaron would not let her fall. Nodding silently to his son, Gillian looked out over the water. The shimmering red slash over the horizon had widened.