The Portals of Summer

Davin Blackthorn, now called Marek, is now the leader of the Sudo and Nortes Republics. But two of the countries in the plains refuse to acknowledge his leadership and the Elitos have allied with an alien species who covet Davin’s world for an expansion of their empire. Can he defeat this massive alliance, forced to fight on multiple fronts? Or has he finally reached the limit of God’s Power?

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Davin Blackthorn, now called Marek, has gone from being the always-disappointing second son of General Kel Blackthorn to tyhe leader of the Sudo and Nortes Republics. Once a shy, willowy scholar, he has become, due to his manipulation of God’s Power, a giant of a man, with incredible abilities and the capacity to rule the known world.

But he faces a multitude of problems. Two of the countries in the plains refuse to acknowledge his leadership. The Elitos, a northern faction of the mountain-dwelling Chanche nation, where Davin learned to subdue and control his abilities, have declared war on their southern brethren and refuse to ally with the rest of the nation to support Davin.

Davin prepares armies to face those of the eastern plains nations, and their Elito allies in the mountains. Complicating the situation, the Elitos have also allied with an alien species who exist in another dimension, and who covet Davin’s world for an expansion of their empire. Can he defeat this massive alliance, forced to fight on multiple fronts? Or has he finally reached the limit of God’s Power?

Enemies Conspire

First, there was no one there, and then there was: a tall, angular man with a hard, bony face, glossy black hair and agate eyes, who stood surveying the bleak winter landscape. He dressed warmly, with heavy black woolen trousers, rough leather shirt, and a sheepskin longcoat. An exception to his simple clothing was polished leather boots. Despite bitter cold and a sharp wind which wailed unceasingly out of the north, the fur collar on his coat was turned down, his head bare.

Fingering a tiny, golden ovoid that hung around his neck on a heavy golden chain, he stared out at a barren forest of denuded oak trees, limbs covered with a crystalline layer of ice. In many places on the forest floor, dark tree limbs lay strewn on the snow-covered ground amid glassy shards, torn away from massive trunks by the unsupportable weight of ice. Scattered through the trees were scenes of disaster, great boles shattered and split open as the inner strength of the wood gave way to the enormous burden that winter had conferred.

The man turned slowly, the view behind him swinging into his field of vision as he pivoted on the icy surface, a plowed field, now covered in a half-meter of snow and most recently, a frozen shell as thick as a man’s finger. Underfoot, the crust cracked and sank the toe-tops of his boots below the glistening cover as he completed a full circle back to the forest. Khemar, exalted leader of the northern mountain people, might delegate many assignments, but he always made meetings with a representative of the Velgan-za a personal errand.

Despite the uneven footing, Khemar moved forward easily across the field, boots crunching through the surface. At the beginning of the trees, he paused as though expecting something to happen, but nothing did. The wind moaned and cried through a million glass-like branches, which protested this harsh treatment with creaks and rattles like dried bones rubbing together.

High above, gauzy clouds fleeing to the south streaked the blue sky, filtering the orange sunlight to a dirty brown.

Reaching beneath his cloak, Khemar withdrew a wand of brass. Waving it ahead, he turned it in a circular manner, as a fine beam of the Power, invisible except to him, sprang from the end of the rod. Almost immediately, a small vertical circle sprang into existence with a combination of popping noises and a high-pitched shriek, enlarging until it spanned more than the height of a tall man. At first, the opening filled with mist and yellow plumes of fog. Gradually it cleared, although tongues of vapor continued to leak over the lower lip of the opening.

Khemar examined the portal with a look of expectation on his face, but the opening remained vacant. After a moment, he turned to face the field again and settled himself, leaning against one of the ice-covered trunks. Someone watching closely might have seen a sudden change in his appearance, and indeed, had they possessed the Talent, they would have seen his body glow with an unearthly light. Immediately, as the glow faded, his outline appeared to be covered with fine lace. Settled into this leaning pose, the ghost-figure stared out across the white expanse and the portal before him, his eyes occasionally swinging right and left, body absolutely still.

He waited with growing impatience as the sun crept down several degrees toward the waiting horizon. Early afternoon gave way to mid-afternoon as the sun faded to a grayish blob behind thickening clouds.

Eventually, a figure appeared in the door in the air. Man-like, it clambered over the lip of the hole and dropped to the ground. The figure approached in a shambling walk, as though tired, or intoxicated, or perhaps taxed by the very gravity of the world beneath it. It halted a good three meters from the man. Khemar found the Velgan-zan to be personally repulsive. They could be useful as allies, however, and he preferred to use them as first-line soldiers to preserve the ranks of his own warriors.

Up close, the creature appeared only vaguely human, with short arms, long legs, and a face as gray as the metallic outer clothing it wore. Its head bore a helmet of the metal stuff, the face protruding through the front of the helmet, although a hinged mask connected to the left of the face.

The face sealed the impression of alien-ness, all angles and sharp edges, alabaster-polished and shiny, the gray cheeks ridged and chiseled as though cut from marble, the cat’s eyes a steely charcoal with pupils as large as a child’s marbles. The mouth extended beneath a thin and protruding nose, almost like a beak, the ears merely mounds of flesh with a large, uneven opening in their center. The face regarded the human with interest, but it did not speak.

Abruptly the man’s body lost its hazy texture and he addressed the visitor.

“Man-tok-gee, Areithera aengto?”

The reply was harsh and fuzzy, the ill-pronounced words intermixed with pants and clicks, but it was more or less in plains-Sudo. “Let us speak your language. I still need prastise—practice—to become more able.”

The man smiled, or perhaps sneered. “It is not my language, Man-tok, but I will speak it if you wish, as I know it well. What word do you bring me?”

The humanoid paused a moment, the face displaying a total lack of emotion, although the eyes, darting back and forth in a feral rhythm, seemed to radiate a sense of expression that might be loathing, or simply distaste. Finally it spoke in the broken plains-Sudo that it used. “I have carried your… concerns… to the Urzacht. That is, the Council. They were not pleased.”

The sneer widened. “I do not care, Man-tok, whether they were pleased or not. What was their answer?”

Another pause. The creature seemed to be struggling with the reply. Almost as though it did not want to reveal the answer. Finally it spoke.

“The… Council… approved your request. It is settled and… guaranteed. But,” the eyes swung up to catch and hold the man’s stare. Looking into Khemar’s hard, black orbs apparently rattled its composure, as it quickly looked toward the great, circular hole still perched in mid-air.

Eventually it spoke, hesitantly. “But… in return, there must be a… a levy.”

The man’s eyebrows drew up, the crown of his nose creased. “Oh? How so?” The tensing of his body was palpable. The creature stepped back a pace, its face revealing a hint of fear.

The man tossed off an amused snort. “Don’t worry Man-tok. I do not harm my allies when I am angry at them, so long as they remain true. What levy does your council demand?” Despite his words, Khemar felt a cold anger. These aliens, who coveted the world of ice that Khemar and the rest of the human race inhabited, had failed him several times. That they would demand a single extra condition made him furious. He might have to consider closing off their access more quickly that he had first planned.

The figure seemed to relax a fraction. “We need laborers, as those who fight must be trained ext… extensively. We need… trainers also, those who can work with the xerecht, those that your people call malitos. As we begin to settle, we will need even more workers. Even now we need… hundreds, maybe thousands.”

Khemar considered, gazing out across the sea of ice momentarily. For a moment, he paid no attention to the metal-clad figure, mainly to let his anger dissipate. The metal-clad alien waited, if not patiently, then with only barely detectable agitation.

Khemar nodded. “Very well. When the time comes, if you are successful, I will guarantee that at least five hundred captives can be relocated. Initially, that is. More might be provided later. But to work, Man-tok, to work and serve. Find your own food for your killers.”

The mouth-beak of the creature widened somewhat. Could that be a smile? Saliva dripped from the opening, and it wiped its face with a six-fingered hand. “Of course. We do not feed servants to the xerecht. A few prisoners, perhaps, and those condemned.”

Khemar’s face twisted in amusement. “Such restraint.” He gazed out again at the opening in the air. It had shrunk, but it still spanned more than a tall man’s height, hovering in silence above the snow-covered ground, mist and fumes finally vanished from its lower lip. Bringing his attention back to the creature, Khemar straightened again and rubbed his hands. “We must set a meeting of our leadership to solidify the plan. I propose to meet in Beldro within seven of our days.”

His counterpart’s eyes shifted. “Our leaders invite you to Aikonai to… discuss these details. Seven days would be a reasonable… sheddule. A reasonable schedule.”

The man’s eyes became slits. “Aikonai?” He barked a short laugh. “We have visited your capital city, Man-tok. And we know we are defenseless there. You have begun to train those of your kind in our practices. Beldro. Beldro alone. Your leaders can bring up to half a hundred of their guards if they feel uncertain or afraid.”

Whether or not he had expected an outraged response, none came. The metal-covered head simply nodded, and the hands raised in a semi-shrug. “As you wish it. I will inform the… Council, and then relay their wishes to you. In seven of your days. Here?”

Khemar made an off-handed gesture. “It is as good as any. Seven days, at this same time and place. And Man-Tok, for our next meeting, be on time.”

His counterpart simply nodded, showing neither displeasure or reaction to the reproof, and turned to go. At the great circular portal, he stood looking up, and other figures clad similarly appeared in the opening. A simple metal ladder appeared, lowered to the level of the snowy field. With surprising dexterity, the clumsy figure scampered up the extended stair and it was quickly drawn out of view. Khemar pulled out the small rod of brass, the portal wand, and pointed it toward the opening. Instantly it began to shrink. When it had shrunk to the size of a large window, it collapsed with another shriek and a loud popping noise, and Khemar stood alone on the field.

For a moment he stared out at the spot the round portal had occupied. Then he lifted the wand again and gestured in a circular manner. In only a moment, a second portal popped into view. He crossed to it and passed through, and like the first portal it vanished almost immediately. The only remnants of his meeting were the footprints through the icy crust into the packed snow beneath.

The sun had long disappeared, and gloom crept west. Overhead, a few of the brighter stars shone through the hazy clouds, each one surrounded by a halo of mist. The wind gradually died, and there was, finally, no sound but the wail of an occasional coyote and the creaks and groans of the ice-clad forest as night cloaked the land.

Encounters in Late Winter

Oil lamps set to a low flame provided the only dim illumination along the upper hallway of Aldronne, gray light of the burgeoning dawn still far too faint to add any brightness from the small window at the end of the stairs. Renak Bayn climbed the final steps softly, aware that all but a few of the house servants were still either asleep or in the process of rising. A tall, handsome blond in his late thirties, Bayn’s gray eyes were now red with weariness. Pausing at the top of the stairs, he ran a hand through stubble and across a face that showed the strain of too many late meetings and far too little rest. The plans for the eastern campaign were going well, but there were countless things to consider, and many of them could not be relegated to his generals or his staff until a goodly number of imponderables and unknowns were quantified.

Now, however, he must sleep, at least a little. He had given his aide Captain Rolph strict instructions to wake him no later than first nine, and he hoped Rolph would obey. Lately, the old captain had begun to act quite independently when it came to Bayn’s sleep, refusing to wake him until noon a few days previously when he had worked nearly the night through. Bayn shook his head. He had always had an accurate internal alarm that would wake him whenever he chose, but these last few months, the alarm seemed to be getting increasingly faulty.

His room sat near the end of the hall, situated across the hallway and only a few doors down from the room of his commander, Marek, the Preparer. Marek had insisted that Bayn be close, and Marek usually got his way, although some family rooms had had to be rearranged. Marek’s sister had been affronted at first, but she had moved eventually, when even their father had not chosen to intervene. Marek still slept in the room in which he had grown up, although many of the treasures of his childhood had been removed from it and stored, according to Paco, his manservant.

Thoughts of Marek caused another shake of Bayn’s head. His leader and friend experienced dark moods, and his better days of lighter disposition were simply less sad.

The door to Marek’s room opened and a slight figure appeared, closing the door carefully and then turning toward him. Not Marek; he was several centimeters taller than Bayn. This person was slight and small, almost waif-like, and slender, except for her bosom. She turned to him, and the gasp that came out was nearly a cry of fear. In the dim light, Bayn recognized the features of Edora. She served as healer and counselor to Marek, and lover as well, Bayn suspected. His heart felt squeezed in a vise.

The surprise and fear melted as she recognized him; she put out a hand to his arm and swallowed. “Deos mie. I did not hear you, and you are so tall…”

“Not so tall as Marek,” he said softly.

Her breath caught. The arm drew back.

Bayn knew he shouldn’t continue, but he did. “Do you come to him often, at his beck and call? Or do you go on your own? Or are you here every night?”

Even in the faint light, he could see the anger and ice in her eyes. “I am not his slave. I am the woman he now clings to, as he fights the depression and loss that has nearly killed him. He is alienated from most of his family. He has no one but the child, whom he hardly knows how to approach, because of the memories that are invoked. And you, and Quito, and Geron and Angelo and Kalet, of course. But only me that he can cling to in the night when others sleep the sleep of peace and his mind is racked with nightmares.”

“But… You sleep with him, when I, the man to whom you have declared your love, stand in agony outside his door! How can you do that?” The words ended in a high, thin quaver, as though a child’s voice was trying to break through his deep bass.

For a moment her face softened and she moved toward him the step she had retreated. Her mouth opened and closed twice, as though she tried but the words would not issue forth. Finally, she said in a voice barely above a whisper, “Donaia, his wife. Do you know that she saw her own death months before the encounter with the army of the north? She told me. She wanted to tell him, ached to tell him. But the vision she had—and she had it several times—was very clear. If she told him, she would live. But he would die.

“So she had a choice to make: tell him and hope that they could remake the future together. Or, she could trust her visions, which had never failed, and believe that if she did tell him, she would seal his fate and that of the world. So she stayed to her course, and died, and the world now has a chance to be whole once more, and survive the New Change.

“Do you think that I could do any less than she did? Yes, I love you, so I have told you. But I love him also, and he needs me far more than you do.”

He grabbed her shoulders and hugged her to his massive form. After a moment of resistance, she subsided against him and, after another moment, opened her mouth to his. Finally, she began to push away, and eventually he released her.

“How can you say that I need you less, when my hunger is so great that I scarcely think of anything else, even though every day brings us closer to the time when I may have to lead the army east?”

A flicker of a smile played across her face; wry, sad, but a smile. “Your hunger is the hunger of passion. His is… not a hunger really, it is much more than that. It is the desperation of a man hanging above a great abyss, struggling to cling to the slightest of roots or clefts in the rock, trying to hold on—to himself, to his sanity, before he falls into the depths.

“You say that I sleep with him, but what you accuse me of is sharing my body with him. And so I have, if he will have it, but not many nights. More often than not he is asleep when I come to his bed, fitful and disturbed, groaning in pain. A pain that I cannot heal.

She looked up into his face, as though searching, hoping to find a bit of understanding. “Sometimes he wakes in terror when I join him, thinking I am her that he loved, thinking that I am in danger. What follows is almost always the same. Not desire for my body but a yearning for someone to hold close, who will whisper that the nightmares will eventually cease, that his life will, someday, return to a semblance of order and meaning.

“For now, he has little hope. Only his mission sustains him. That and perhaps the knowledge that the child needs him as he once needed a father. A need that his father never fulfilled.”

Bayn listened in silence, trying to keep the discomfort and anger from his face. Of course he could not argue with her, but it did not make his pain any less.

“Did I not love him nearly so dearly as you, I would try to take you away. Regardless of what he said, even if he sought to kill me.”

Her faint smile returned. “He would not harm you. In fact, he would gladly let me go, at least, as gladly as he does anything. For he loves you as well. But if I left, it might kill him. He clings to me now as he wishes he could to her.”

“Does he love you?” Even the question stirred Bayn’s blood.

She shook her head sadly. “No. Not as he loved her. But he needs me, and I will not leave him so long as he is a danger to himself. Sometimes, I think, he simply wishes to let go, to end his existence and be free of all that weighs him down. I must strive with him to prevent that, to help him make his life worthwhile again.”

“Dear Deos,” he muttered, “A mad Preparer is the last thing that we need. I thought, after the rebellion, that he was past all that! What if he does lose control? He could destroy the world!”

Another shake of her head. “No. I think he is a danger only to himself, not to us. And the danger is abating bit by small bit. During the day, as you have seen, he is in full control. But in the night, there is still a great need for someone to be there beside him, and I will attend him as long as I must. The only real danger to us is that he will not be there when the world needs him the most, should he lose his sanity. That is what I am striving to prevent.”

At that he made a choking noise. She drew close again and put an arm around him. “I do grieve for your pain, my love. If he releases me, if his recovery warrants, I will come to you. I will even marry you if you wish, for he will never have me as his wife. That is, if you will take a soiled woman, one who has given herself to another man without the marriage vow.”

He shivered. “Your past will not matter to me. You comfort one whom I love as my own brother. But the pain of this… situation is very great, and I still fear that I will lose you. When his grief fades, and it will, you will be there beside him, and he does have great affection for you. I worry that he may change his mind, and yours, so that I will lose you forever. What man would not want to be by your side every waking moment?”

That last sentence, spoken mournfully, brought a faint smile to her face. “He will not take me to wife, regardless of your fears. Believe me, I know. But now, he must be my focus, the core of my existence. For if he fails, we all will suffer.” The last was spoken almost as if to herself.

Looking up at him, she tried to smile again. “I am sorry. But for now, Donaia must be my inspiration. What must be most important to me is duty, not desire.”

He stared down at her a long moment in the dimness. “You give me little but a faint hope. But I will grasp that frail expectation and cling to it, as it is all that I have.” With that, he brushed past her and strode unsteadily to the door of his bedroom, opening it and stepping inside.

✽✽✽

Alone, she stared at his door, tears creeping into her eyes. She did love Bayn. As she did Davin, he that they now called Marek. But duty came first, and Davin’s need was enormous and consuming. She had lied a little to Bayn, to assuage his pride. Sometimes, Davin took her body in great, hungry lust, his energy and passion so consuming that he almost overwhelmed her. But it was empty lust, an attempt to curb or at least alleviate pain, nothing else. And many a night, if not at first, then eventually he wept himself to sleep in her arms.

In a single year he had attempted, under the tutelage of the Chanche, to totally alter both his mind and his body, and he had, to large part, succeeded. He had become the Leader of two countries and soon would be, she hoped, the leader of all the known world and the center of this frozen land in which they lived, the focus of civilization’s efforts to survive the inevitable changes to come. But he still held some of the uncertainty and timidity that had penetrated the spirit of the young Davin Blackthorn, scorned for most of his life by father and kin alike. Somehow she must help his maturation, delayed all these years, to occur while trying to assuage the fears, doubts, and guilt that Donaia’s death had brought. She held many doubts that she could do it, but try she must.

Turning, she headed down the stairs, to her own room. Her heart felt close to breaking not only for Davin, but for her own dilemma and for Bayn, but she hardened her resolve and marched down the steps as thought proceeding to her own execution. Women were, after all, less romantic and more practical than men. Bayn would survive, despite his pain and longing. Davin? For now, he remained her primary task. Only time would tell, but she remained hopeful. What she needed most was resolve. She must not waiver, even for an instant. A good thing that women were so strong, she thought. A good thing.

Which did not explain why, in her bed alone, sleep did not come as the dawn bloomed, leaving her drained and exhausted when she finally arose to face the day.

✽✽✽

There was nothing like the mountains, Quito thought, to harden a man, to make him ready for battle. He watched as nearly two hundred of his comrades, far above him, scaled heights that not even a mountain goat would brave. Skipping from tiny rock outcroppings to sliver-like cracks in the rock face, they made their way up the vertical cliff, so steep that it hid the mountain peak behind, while Quito observed. To his left, Angelo watched as well, counting to himself, keeping time with his heartbeat, willing the warriors silently to hasten, to beat their former pace.

Two sabieos waited close to the base of the precipice, poised for rescue should anyone fall. A fall rarely happened, but someone had dropped nearly 40 feet yesterday, and only quick action had saved his life. Both sabieos were Talented healers, not simply Gifted, and their ability could save someone on the very brink of death.

Angelo gazed at the purple-gray peaks to the far west, some still snow-capped, and the green-clad, steep slopes hidden by stands of fir and spruce to the east. Quito could hear, as he said to himself in hardly more than a whisper, “They’re tired; their time is not even near that of yesterday. We are going to have to give them a day to recover.”

Quito found himself nodding without giving a direct answer, agreeing with Angelo’s observations. The chosen, about 260 all told, two full squadras, were training to travel with the Preparer’s army when it moved east. Not all those in training would make that journey, but the Preparer had made it clear that he wanted a large pool of candidates to draw from.

Quito found himself with mixed feelings about the assignment. With their new baby only months old, his wife ReeQuia faced caring for the baby with little help from Quito, and evenings at home lately had not been pleasant. His mother and mother-in-law were standing in as nannies, but Quito’s heavy responsibilities meant that time at home came infrequently.

Consequently, those evenings that he got to spend with ReeQuia were often stressful. At this point, Quito frequently felt ready to look for excuses to schedule training exercises. When she finally learned how little time he had left, he might have to ask Angelo to put him up until they departed. As he turned to Angelo, he realize that his fellow Quezho had a similar problem—the question of how Raika, his new wife, felt about their assignment.

He scratched his head and stood, agreeing with Angelo’s comment. “You’re right. Not only are they tired, their concentration is bad. This is our fifteenth day in a row without so much as six hours sleep. Besides, we will be in the flatlands anyway, where endurance is less of an issue. We can afford to take a bit of time off.”

Angelo nodded. “You and I know that. But you heard what Marek told us. And Bayn agreed. These will be the elite fighters, the scouts, the teams that will be trusted with two of the rods of Power. Bayn and Marek expect the best.” He got up from his crouching position and waved, signaling his line leaders to call the exercise off. There were shouts and an answering wave about halfway up the cliff. He turned to Quito.

“Anyway, I think we’re ready.”

Quito returned his nod. “I do too.”

Standing beside Angelo, Quito looked almost small enough to be a child. Short, perhaps twenty centimeters under two meters, his compact and wiry body held the energy of a coiled steel spring. His skin a deep tan, his eyes blue, wide-spaced, and inquisitive, he resembled most Chanche warriors except for his height. Like his brother warriors, he rarely showed any expression, but his eyes never stopped moving, assessing. Barely into his twenty-third year, he held scant resemblance to the timid, quiet outcast that had returned to the mountains a little less than two years ago with Marek. A squadra leader, he commanded more than a hundred men, his station earned with abilities that few of his peers could match, although Angelo came close.

Angelo was not even Chanche. A Sudo of the plains, he had followed Marek and Quito here with nothing more in mind than helping Marek evade some of the church hierarchy that had pursued him. Now, a year and a half later, he found himself a squadra leader as well (something almost unheard-of in Chanche history) and serving alongside Quito as special aide to Marek. This rapid and circuitous route from Sudo cattle rancher to military leader in the Chanche nation made sense only within the Chanche warrior hierarchy. Quito knew that it still amazed Angelo, but as one became accustomed to the pronouncements of the seers, it seemed a bit less absurd.

Quito and Angelo were very good at what they did, but even top warriors normally took several years to become leaders of an entire squadra. Marek had, however, designated them both as his special liaison to the Chanche nation and to the sabieos as well. That being the case, it made sense to accelerate their advancement to Quezho, or squadra leader, especially as both had been the top members of their training class.

Astoundingly, not a Chanche under their commands had voiced a complaint at their rapid advancement. Quito found himself and Angelo cast in the roles of major participants in the holy war of the Final Judge, Marek, the Preparer, He That Goes Before. What else could they do but ride this wild horse of destiny and hope for the best?

Together, the squadra commanders walked down the path to their base of operations. Quito said little and Angelo remained quiet as well, both scanning the cliff face frequently, keeping a close watch as the warriors descended, making sure that every member of their teams got safely down. This done, they joined the sabieo at the center of the growing group of warriors, in a little clearing surrounded by fir trees on three sides, and on the fourth, by the massive vertical mountain face that had been the scene of their exercise. That mountain and its brethren in the eastern range separated Akzo, the Chanche “City of Cities,” from the plains below.

The warriors gave way as Quito and Angelo approached, conversation diminishing and most sitting down cross-legged in rows, awaiting the inevitable assessment. Quito looked at Aradia, who nodded. Facing the warriors, Quito purposely spoke softly enough that all conversation ceased and those near the rear had to strain to catch the words.

“We’ve been pushing hard for two weeks now. We’re well-trained, but we’re tired, and our performance shows it. Effectively immediately, all warriors are granted three days’ rest and recovery.” Angelo’s brows went up at that; they had only talked of one day, but Quito knew how hard these men and women had worked, knew that they deserved a little time off before the deployment to come. Besides, it would give him time off as well, and he owed that to ReeQuia as much as he owed it to his squadra, at least if he were to try to save his marriage. He continued. “Report to the Akzo training station for final instructions on cinkei d’ Martze. Questions?”

There was a stirring and a few grins. Quito dismissed them with a wave, and Angelo simply echoed his gesture. With a minimum of speech and milling around, the group arose and dispersed. After a few words with their sección commanders, Quito and Angelo turned to Aradia.

“Perhaps an ale in the headquarters offices as you offer your critique?” Quito asked. Aradia nodded curtly, the only way Aradia knew how to nod, and the old man turned on his heel and limped slowly down the path through the trees. They entered a side street on the eastern edge of Akzo, and soon after they climbed the steps to warrior headquarters.

Quito could tell that Aradia looked none too pleased. Quito had not consulted him at all on the brief liberty for his charges. He was not required to do so, but most sabieos, when advising a group of warriors, expected such as a courtesy. Besides, the morning exercise had not been a particularly high point on which to end their current training.

Angelo followed Quito, muttering to himself, and clearly getting moodier as they went. Quito knew what Aradia’s stance would be, and he knew Angelo did as well: another stern reminder about the importance of their new mission and Marek’s insistence on a very strenuous level of training. Quito didn’t look forward to Aradia’s lecture, but the idea of a glass of ale did perk him up a bit.

A Change of Priorities

Kalet, as sabieo of the mountain people, sat regarding Marek the Preparer, chosen of Deos, who made the summer palace his home, having evicted the Governor of the Nortes Republic, the former tenant.

Multicolored sunlight speckled the granite floor of the meeting room, shining through a stained glass window high in the east wall. For years the Assembly hall had served the Governor of the Nortes Republic, only down a long hallway from his residence apartments in the summer palace. Now it served Marek.

The hall itself lay not far inside the palace, off the main hallway to the left and not far from the massive double entry doors on the front landing of the Governor’s summer home. Roughly hemispherical, it held tiers of chairs that could hold several dozen attendees to important governmental meetings, although less of them were held during the Governor’s summer residence. On the lowest floor stood a massive oak conference table, an oval some ten meters long and perhaps four wide at its broadest point.

Marek presided at the head of the conference table, the heavy oak chairs that surrounded it filled with generals, advisors, and special confidants. For the moment, he and the other attendees focused on Kelar, a bent and aged Chanche male who sat by two of his fellow sabieos. He had answered questions put to him by many at the table, but mainly by Marek and Kalet. Kalet, one of Marek’s closest advisors, focused on Kelar’s answers and the reaction of his nephew. His underlying concern, now that Marek’s wife Donaia had left this earth to be with Maria, Daughter of Deos, remained the mental health and vigor of his nephew. Marek had only recently begun to recover from the murder of his wife by soldiers of his older brother.

“You are certain?” Marek’s voice sounded as hard as marble. “There are no disagreements?”

“None.”

“And the timeline is well established.”

“Inescapably.” The old man twisted in his chair, next to the Preparer, as though his bones ached and he wished to end his torment, and Kalet felt a fleeting sympathy. “I have experienced it the most clearly, but Randofo substantiates all the milestones I have tabulated, and most of the other seers have seen visions that parallel my own. I do not believe there can be any doubt.”

Kalet’s colleague, Aradia, stirred. Even older and nearly as rheumy as the seer being questioned, his face twisted in a scowl, a normal expression for the crusty old sabieo, but even more harsh than usual. “I think you are being more positive than our experiences warrant,” he rasped. He turned to Marek. “I too have seen some of the landmarks in my visions that Kelar describes. I do not like to be so… definitive in an assessment.” He grunted and turned to Kalet, voice softening a fraction. “Nevertheless, the signs seem to align, and the multiple experiences are encouraging. I believe at the least we have unanimity.”

“Mmm.” Marek arose. The tallest man in the room, twenty centimeters more than two meters tall, he had a head of black hair falling to his shoulders, sprinkled with a smattering of white. a heavy but well-trimmed beard, his eyes were deep blue. They were pinched at the corners, as though he were in pain. Although he was young man, barely having twenty-three years, he looked decades older. He never stayed seated long, choosing instead to be up and about the room, peppering those in attendance with questions, soliciting opinions, digging deeply into the rationale of plans that were now coming into focus. Kalet sometimes had trouble deciding whether or not this surfeit of energy was a curse or blessing to his nephew.

Marek strode back and forth to the refreshment table twice before pouring coffee from a silver urn and adding cream and honey. Turning, he nodded at Kalet. “Could you summarize then, Uncle?”

Kalet blinked once, again surprised at the familial term, though Marek often used it now. At first, Kalet had been somewhat affronted at his nephew’s use of the name; after all, these meetings were formal proceedings! However, he had begun to suspect that Marek simply did it for fun. Since this was one of the few bits of humor that Marek had displayed since his wife’s death, Kalet had forborne the obvious lecture and swallowed his irritation. After all, the term was accurate, if out of place.

Kalet dipped his head, trying to bury any irritation. “I would defer to Aradia, as he is the master of the cleth of Seers.” Sabieos were divided into groups, cleths, ordered by their Gifts and Talents in the Power.

Aradia struggled to his feet. Shorter than Kalet, and far older than his fellow sabieo’s one hundred thirty-one years, his health had become less robust than in times past, but his determination remained no less steely. Like Kalet and Kelar, he dressed in the eternal fall colors of the Chanche sabieo, dark brown, rough-leather trousers, gray woolen shirt, tan sleeveless vest. He let his eyes roam over the assembly. “Well, let’s see. First, the flickering of the sun is done. There will be no near-term loss of Deos’ Power for a good while.”

Before he could go on, Marek interrupted impatiently. “What is a ‘good while’?”

“Hmmph.” Aradia had not liked being interrupted when Marek was his student, and he appeared to like it no better now. Despite the deepening of his omnipresent scowl, he answered politely enough. “Two years for certain, possibly as much as five. But the Power will be less – and before you ask ‘How much less?’ I must say that not a single seer can agree on that. To summarize, for the time being, much as the Power feels today, which is certainly not at its previous levels. Falling after that, but not sporadically. Almost linearly.”

Kalet agreed with the assessment. He could feel the difference markedly, and he had heard Marek remark more than once that the feel of the “ocean of Power,” as Marek often referred to it, now resembled more a low tide than a high tide. He glanced up at the tiny mural-pieces of glass through which the sun streamed, the bright assemblage of colored, transparent pieces depicting Maria’s descent from Heaven to save mankind from its own evil and sinful nature. Those rays of sunlight were brighter by far than any living person had seen up to a year ago, and the “feel” of the Power correspondingly less. Kalet’s gaze shifted to Marek, who seemed to flinch before turning back to his mentors.

“And when… does it disappear forever?”

“Ahh…” Aradia smiled sorrowfully. “That… That is known only to Deos.” He paused a moment for effect. “But you want an answer anyway, so I will give the best one that I can. Again, this is a distillation of what has been seen in visions by many. An average, not a certainty. I would say that in two decades, the Power will be gone forever. In half that, its intensity will be much diminished. But for at least those two years, and for perhaps five, we will have a good level of the Power to support our efforts and the defense of our people, though nothing like what we once were able to experience.”

Aradia managed what passed for him as a jovial expression. “There is some good news in this, as hard to believe as it is.” He sat down as Marek returned to the table.

Kalet had no idea what Aradia referred to. As he glanced back at Marek, the ghost of a smile played across his nephew’s features. A welcome change of expression; Marek rarely smiled at all. “A little good news? My, old friend, you are growing soft and maudlin in your old age. Rarely have I ever heard you proclaim good news of any sort.” The smile turned the slightest bit mischievous as Aradia frowned, then faded, as though Marek had suddenly felt a sharp pain in some undisclosed portion of his body.

Sadly, Kalet knew the source of that pain. Marek continued: “And the good news is…?”

Aradia harrumphed again. After a moment he said, “Our adversaries do not have the numbers that control the Power that we do. Our Talents are much greater as well. The Norteanos still have precious few that can wield a portal maker, and fewer still of the portal wands. Further, they have no rods of Power that we are aware of. Their ability in stealth is still fearsome, but their ability to fight all-out war is considerably diminished.”

“I see.” Marek surveyed those facing him. He paused a moment. “My thanks, Kelar. You words are heartening, and you bring us hope we hardly dared to harbor before.” Kelar nodded.

Marek’s demeanor darkened. He frowned at General Bayn again, looking as though he did not want to continue the previous discussion that had been proceeding rather loudly when Kelar arrived. He must, Kalet knew, do it anyway.

“Well, General. You were about to assess our plans in terms of the disquieting knowledge delivered to us a few weeks ago. Let me review the situation for our benefit: A month ago, my brother disappeared from his prison, proof that the Elitos are still active. Shortly before that, we received word that the Governor’s negotiation with the Kingdom of the East has been spectacularly unsuccessful, and that he was essentially sent packing by King Herrold himself, despite some of the ‘wonders’ our warriors displayed for him.

“This diplomatic slap in our collective faces is a dare. He sticks out his tongue at us and challenges us to attack. Even though we have been prepared to move, we were hoping that an invasion could be avoided. Now we know it cannot. We can now be fairly sure that this recent change in the king’s attitude is due to surreptitious help from the Elitos. Further, we cannot say definitely if the Governor himself is fully aligned with us, and with Kel’s kidnapping, there is the potential of his joining our opposition and putting their armies under Kel’s command. What is your assessment?”

Bayn looked determined to conduct that assessment at length, and he did. The morning sun had disappeared from the stained glass windows and noon was already past when his voice, and those of both critics and supporters, finally faded. The gist of his comments, and those of the debaters, was that involved or no, the presence of the Chanche renegades changed nothing. The invasion must proceed. Though he agreed, Kalet surveyed the scene grimly as did his nephew.

“The consensus is that we have no choice but to move,” Marek said.

The room was quiet. Finally, General Carlos muttered, almost to himself, “We are well prepared.”

Marek’s eyes shifted to General Bayn’s deputy commander, then back to the sabieos. “So we are. May Deos bless our efforts. Any last comments?”

He let his gaze trace the perimeter of the table, the opposite-end chair vacant but the positions to both sides well filled. To his immediate left was Kelar, followed by Kalet and Aradia, then Geron, a sabieo trainee and life-long friend of Marek. Continuing down that side of the table were General Bayn, Marek’s army commander, and General Carlos, commander of the Sudo division. To his right were Quito, Angelo Martine, another childhood friend of the Preparer, and Edora McIlvane.

Edora has said little, surveying the table and especially Renak Bayn, who studiously avoided her glances. Edora was a healer and might have seemed out of place to some in this meeting of men preparing to send an army to war, but she was in fact a member of the most powerful family in the Nortes Republic and knowledgeable about both politics and functions of state. Marek had taken to asking her to attend his staff meetings as an advisor (a surrogate, Kalet thought, for his late wife) and she had hesitantly agreed. She said little, but Kalet knew that her advice, often given in private, after listening and observing in the regular meetings Marek assembled, was both sage and wise beyond her age. Edora had only 20 years.

If her presence made General Bayn uncomfortable, Marek seemed not to notice. He only paid attention, Kalet had come to understand, to those items of immediate concern. Even if he had noticed, his uncle knew, it would have made no difference to him. He desired her observations and wisdom concerning many things that impinged on the welfare of the states he now ruled, and General Bayn’s level of comfort, or discomfort, was unimportant.

After a moment she stirred, appearing to realize that when he had asked for comments in general, he directed the question primarily to her. As Edora was the only one who could offer her advice as soft whispers directly into Marek’s ear at the end of the day, or so Kalet had deduced, she could have held her comments. In this case, however, the sharp blue eyes of Marek edged slowly her way, and Kalet anticipated that he desired that she share her considerable insight.

Kalet knew what Marek wanted. He and Aradia might both be Marek’s most trusted advisors on things political, and Renak Bayn certainly possessed great experience and military acumen. But in this case, Kalet sensed, Marek wanted something more—not from his closest advisors with their normal ways of examining any particular problem, but thoughts and ideas from a unique, external viewpoint.

Unfortunately, Kalet felt that he, his fellow sabieos, and the military advisors had failed to mention something, probably because the sabieos’ expertise with the Power tempered their world-view, and Marek’s officers, imbued with centuries of military tradition, were similarly constrained in their viewpoints. An old saying from the distant past maintained that if one only had a hammer as a tool, every problem looked like a nail. In this case, Marek appeared to desire a different perspective on their problems and perhaps some new tools.

Edora cleared her throat and said, softly, “I have one comment, if I may.” The others turned to look at her, most quizzical, Marek with the slightest suggestion of encouragement at the corners of his mouth.

A first impression of the petite young woman would no doubt be her stunning beauty, for although small even by Nortes standards, Edora was not just beautiful, but exquisite. Quite comely, Kalet thought, though his standard of allure, Chanche females, inclined him to more statuesque, darker-complexioned beauty.

Her voice, Kalet thought with amusement, was the quality that set her apart from any woman he had ever known. Even to those around the table, who heard her conversation in these meetings from time to time, the sound of her speech brought a momentary look of pleasure to almost every face.

Except Renak Bayn.

She hesitated. “We have spoken today of a future with the Power dying bit by bit, and we have discussed the campaign, when our armies will begin to move against the Kingdom of the East. We have made our final plans, and General Bayn will shortly move his armies east to begin the next phase of unification. Well and good. I am concerned about what will happen further into the future, and the fact that we have not even discussed many eventualities, let alone started to make plans for them.”

Aradia looked blankly at Edora; Kalet felt distinctly disturbed, as his understanding of both her and Marek’s concern became validated. He tried to suppress feeling of guilt that he had not brought up the subject himself.

General Bayn said slowly, “Clearly, Madame Advisor (he was always formal in public, not only with Edora but also Marek and even the sabieos), there are many eventualities. But I must say, but with the Kingdom of the East and the Kingdom of the Ocean both subdued, a strong army can keep the peace even as the Gift of Deos is taken from us.”

She regarded him a moment, her expression showing disappointment that the man she loved—one of the men she loved, she had confessed to Kalet in private—saw the outcomes so vaguely. “Can it?” she asked sharply.

Bayn’s brows raised, but she continued. “You seem quite sanguine over your armies, General. What if those from the other world, that world that we know lies beyond the tear in reality that once existed in the mountains of the Chanche, are able to make a breach once again into this world and begin an invasion? They do not seem adept at portal-making, but apparently they were capable at one time of engineering the recurrence of the Rift.

“Can spears and arrows avail against flying machines of war, or against the great self-propelled and armored rolling wagons that Marek and the Chanches have seen? And what about their weapons that throw fire without the aid of the Power? In ten years, twenty at most, we will be a pitiful, backward civilization that can no longer compensate for the lack of understanding of our world with the GodGift we have enjoyed this last three thousand years.

“The Chanche have kept detailed records of the past. Before the Long Winter, a great civilization existed right here in these plains that had mastered mysteries of science that we can only dream of. Something changed when the Winter came, and those secrets of the past were lost. But as conditions of the past return, maybe we can regain the ability to use many of those long-forgotten arts.

“Our forefathers had the ability to generate their own Powers. They had machines of transportation, and instruments of defense that protected all the people. We cannot wait, naked, for these other-worldly invaders to take us unawares, or for evil men in our own world to unearth such secrets before we do.

“Marek has told me that the Chanches have much information in their vaults. Now is the time to begin to explore the secrets of that era long past. When the time comes that we need new defenses, we must be ready, so that we are as secure without the Gift of Deos as we have been with it.”

Kalet saw the admiration and thanks in Marek’s eyes, even as she finished—and the exasperation in the face of General Bayn. He watched as Aradia nodded his head knowingly, as though he had perhaps guessed her intent, while the others, faces surprised, tried to puzzle out her speech. Kalet knew that only he, and perhaps Aradia, understood her comments.

Marek nodded slightly, his face smooth but his eyes still shifting, assessing. Kalet understood that he didn’t like what he saw in the expressions of many of his advisors, and regretted once again that he had not spoken up sooner. Only for an instant. Then he thought, So be it. It is time they began to see the future through new spectacles. And my nephew wanted Edora to get their attention about that.

Marek stood up again, sweeping the assemblage with his gaze. “Thank you. I am glad to have a verification of my concern.” He focused on Kalet. “Does a new keeper, a new Historian, now dwell in the repository?”

Surprised, Kalet said, “No. That is, once Ques died, there was not a good candidate immediately. Every sabieo is more than busy with the change upon us. Only now, as you are beginning to lead the preparations we have planned these many centuries, does such a replacement makes a good deal more sense. Before, we could not be certain when we would need the information stored there.”

“But now we do know.” Marek’s sharp words were about as harsh as Kalet ever heard from his nephew. Marek strode quickly around the table, gathering the attention of his cabinet, holding each face in turn with his steel-blue gaze, making certain that every eye converged on him.

“Listen to me. Edora is exactly right; she has caught the essence of our problem in a nutshell. The two monarchies that we now face are no match for us, even with Elito help. We know that. The only reason they don’t is that we have been more patient than I would have liked, since we did not wish to bring these nations under control with any more bloodshed than is necessary. No matter, our army soon marches, and within a short time they will feel the heat of our Power. Power diminished from what it used to be, but nonetheless still a fearsome weapon. Should all go according to our plans, we will shortly have removed those rulers or obtained their allegiance.

“The real problem is not in this world; it is in another. The weakness between our two worlds through which these invaders entered the valley of the Chanches no longer exists, but that does not mean that there are no other possible sites through which a portal could be introduced. As a matter of fact, I am certain that they will return.”

They all stared at him, Kalet feeling as shocked as the expressions on others around the table reflected. The Chanches, the race of Quito, and Kalet, and Marek’s grandmother, who called themselves The People, had fought these invaders for centuries. Now, Marek had just stated that despite his victory, these persistent invaders would return again, something those sitting around the table hated to hear.

Into the silence that fell, Kalet found himself say softly, “How?” He could feel the dread in his voice.

“Over a year ago, my…” Marek paused, swallowing, shaking his head so that the great black mane of hair flew up and down wildly. For a moment, he bowed his head, staring at the table top, blinking rapidly. “That is, before she died, Donaia foresaw their return. And she warned me.”

“How is that possible?” Aradia’s harsh voice broke in, his tone skeptical, his frown stiff and acrid. “Not a seer has reported such a dream or vision. Surely some confirmation would have been made”

“Maybe your seers just aren’t so good anymore,” Marek said flatly, and Kelar and Aradia raised their eyebrows in anger, although Kalet knew the Preparer had adopted his rude emphasis simply to make a point. After a moment, Marek moderated his tone. “After all,” he said more reasonably, “you have said it yourself. The Power is lower in intensity than ever in our lifetimes. My abilities are reduced, some rather severely. How do we know that your visions are not less frequent, and perhaps less accurate, as well?”

Kelar was silent. Aradia shook his head, but did not argue.

Finally, Kalet brought himself to say, “Seers are in fact having fewer visions, Aradia, you have said so yourself. And Donaia had a powerful and insightful ability. Had she lived”—he cast a glance at Marek—“she might have been the best in a millennium.” Still attending Marek with his eyes, he said, “I wish you had mentioned this earlier.”

“It happened long ago, Uncle, or so it now seems, shortly before she died. And I have had much on my mind since. It only occurred to me today, as we sought to solidify our plans. My advisor,” he favored Edora with a swift glance, “has a more piercing analytical bent than I do. She did not have my prior knowledge, and she has still seen to the heart of the problem.” He favored Kalet with a grim smile. “As do you. I noticed your expression as Edora spoke, and I now understand that you as well were concerned. I can only decide that you did not mention your thoughts as you did not want to embarrass me in this meeting. My thanks, but your concern, as you can see, was not necessary.”

Silence permeated the room.

Kalet, registering that his nephew had become much more adept at reading the thoughts of his council, ventured, “What would you have us do?”

Marek maintained the silence for another long moment. When he ultimately spoke, his question astonished Kalet. “Aradia, how old are you, anyway?”

Aradia blinked twice and muttered some more, but Marek held his eyes. “I have two hundred and ninety-two years,” he said in his harsh rasp.

Kalet, of course, knew Aradia’s exact age, but Marek seemed to have trouble concealing his surprise.

Marek paused a moment longer, and Kalet wondered if he needed to weigh in on this delicate subject. Into the silence, Aradia interjected in his usual, gruff voice, “I will go if you wish. It is always a senior sabieo who is selected. Though I by no means match the age or the facility with the Power of my dear old friend Ques, I am senior among those in leadership positions among the sabieo organizations. However, I do not volunteer unless you insist on a curator. There is much here that I need…” He paused, his look suddenly guilty. “That is, there are things I would like to accomplish, given the time. And of course, that is a solitary life. But I will go if you wish.”

Marek’s face broke into a sunny smile, something that rarely happened in this room, or anywhere else, for that matter. Before he could do more than that, Kalet arose to stand behind Aradia and clap him on the back.

“I believe that my colleague would make an excellent curator, nephew. But due to the new importance of such a position, and also to the immediacy of our needs, I do not believe that such a position should remain ‘solitary’ anymore. We do not need a guard or someone to organize files, classify volumes, or keep ancient treasures from gathering dust.

“If I understand your desire, we do not need just a curator, but a group of seekers, who can search for useful knowledge, starting immediately and as rapidly as possible. Knowledge that we can perhaps begin to use as the Power fails us. I agree that Aradia should proceed quickly to the Vault, but not alone. I would suggest that he take a dozen trusted colleagues, including perhaps me as well and some promising junior members of cleths that can assist him. I believe that he can invigorate them, excite them, and turn them into avid hunters for that knowledge which we will need.”

Aradia gave Kalet a perplexed look. “And what knowledge is that?”

At the question, Marek managed another rare grin. “I have no idea, but Kalet is right. You will know it when you see it. Secrets of the ancients’ technologies, things that will help us survive when the Winter is over. Weaponry. Medicine. Technology in general. We must seek the old solutions to problems that we have solved for three thousand years with the Power alone. What, for example, are to be our primary sources of energy, when Deos’ Power is gone? And how can we defend ourselves should the invaders from that other place, wherever it is, choose to reappear? Take friends, take colleagues, take apprentices, for all I care, but I urge you to go as soon as you can make ready.

“Only don’t take Kalet.” Marek turned to regard his uncle with affection, and Kalet could feel his thanks that he too, along with Edora, had understood what the others had overlooked. “I can’t afford to have both of you gone at once. And visit us often. I want regular reports on what you are finding.”

Aradia muttered and mumbled. He had first looked distinctly displeased, but as Marek had continued to talk, he began to appear interested, and by the time Marek was demanding reports, he seemed genuinely intrigued. “That is an… an interesting charter. And a good idea. I can think of several associates who would fit well in such a search.”

As Marek adjourned the meeting, Aradia was still talking with Kalet and Kelar, real excitement in his voice, the list of candidates to accompany him already on his lips for review by his colleagues. Kalet saw Marek catch Edora’s eyes, then disengage himself and hurry out of the meeting room. Clearly he proposed a meeting in private with his advisor.