Welcome to Spirit of Empire!

Sky Knights - Spirit of Empire, Book Four
Chapter One


A bright sun shone down on the small gathering of farmers standing in the field. Under other circumstances it would have been a fine day, the smell of freshly cut hay always stirring feelings of wholesomeness within him. But not today.

Sir Galborae dismounted and the crowd parted, not needing to be told to stand aside for the big man. Dressed all in black, his aging, waist-length chain mail shone dully beneath a heavy, unbuttoned cloak. Worry lines deepened around his wide-set, brown eyes as details of the dead body came into view. Something had flayed skin and muscle right down through the bones, ripping organs from the chest. The single eye remaining in the torn face appeared locked in a rictus of horror.

He ran a hand through his closely cropped brown beard. A wild animal could have done this he thought as he knelt beside the body, but animals usually killed to eat. Not so, here. A few chosen morsels had been ripped from the chest, but nothing that approached a meal. Still, he doubted if a person could have inflicted this kind of total destruction, even a deranged person. No, it had to have been an animal.

A grieving woman stepped forward with two boys clutched hard to her sides. Galborae stood and gathered them in his arms, sharing their grief, then he released them and spoke to the crowd.

“He is the third to die in as many days. My men and I will hunt down whatever did this, but it could be a long hunt. Lord Boral asks that you join him in town until it’s safe to return to your fields.”

To the two boys, almost young men, he said, “You’re the men of the house now. See that you take care of your mother.” To the woman, he said, “I’m sorry, but I must be away. I’ll say my words now instead of waiting for the burial.”

He sang the song of the dead, his voice gruff but soothing and steady, then he spoke the traditional words. When he was done, he gave the two boys a firm look and turned toward his gorlac, raising his voice to the crowd. “Bury him, then follow my guards to town. Night is nearly upon us, so do not delay. I am not anxious to sing again.”

He organized the guards who would escort the farmers to town, then he took the reins of his gorlac and led his mount across the field toward Sir Brael who waited patiently. When he saw the imprint that Brael guarded, he crouched down with a furrowed brow. The imprint was larger than his own booted foot, and he was a large man. Well-defined claw marks extended forward from the imprint. Brael pointed out additional footprints, and after just a little study both men turned to each other, their faces grim.

“It walks on two feet,” Galborae said, the words testing the very fabric of his life’s experience.

“And it has claws, big ones,” Brael added. “I’ve never seen anything like this. Whatever it is, it’s not from around here.”

“It’s smart,” Galborae added. “Two killings happened in broad daylight with people around and no one saw anything. This last one was more isolated. It’s not going to stop until we stop it. Let’s go.”

He issued a mental command to his meld, Limam, a tawny-colored cat who stood thigh high to him, to track the creature. She let him know she had anticipated his need and had already picked up the scent. Her five companion melds followed her.

He mounted and pushed a thought to his gorlac to follow Limam across the field. The rest of his men, two knights and their three personal squires, all of them mounted on gorlacs, followed.

The knights pulled up beside him, each of them equipped for fighting with a broadsword and several knives. Shields hung from their accustomed places on each gorlac, and Sir Morlan’s heavy, double-bladed axe, a weapon that had frightened many a criminal into surrender over the years, slapped against his thigh from time to time. Each of them was dressed identically—black leather and mail covered by a heavy cloak, elbow-length gloves, and high boots. They all wore beards, Morlan’s the longest and most grand. Brael and Galborae had chosen to trim their beards close.

Their fighting gear made for a lot of extra weight, but living this way had become second nature to them and, in fact, provided a sense of security. Helmets had been left behind since they did not anticipate armed conflict, but the more Galborae saw of the wounds inflicted by the creature, the more he questioned his decision.
 The squires rode abreast behind the knights, each of them armed with bows and knives and dressed in layers of tough, brown leather.

The six of them had become brothers during years of service to Lord Borel. Rarely did they fight other soldiers, but settling disputes and tracking down criminals was a never-ending business.

As they approached the forest, Galborae looked to the sun and frowned, knowing they would not make it back to town tonight.

Brael saw the frown and knew what it meant. “We grew up in these woods. We know our way around.”

Galborae stared at him, his frown deeper. “It’s not the woods I’m worried about.”

Brael just shrugged. It would be what it would be. “It doesn’t look like rain. The melds will pick up the trail in the morning, never fear.”

Galborae shrugged his shoulders in reply and pulled ahead as he entered the forest, not needing to order his men to follow in single file and spread out. They knew the drill.

He sent a thought out to his meld: still on the trail? The answer came back instantly. She was not happy. The scent was new to her and it was a bad scent.
The mind connection with his meld conveyed emotions and simple thoughts, not detailed conversations, so that information was about all he would get from her at the moment. He smiled inwardly at the sense of companionship the connection provided. He had melded with Limam shortly after her birth. He had been a young man then, just beginning training with the sword. He had expected the black spots in her tawny colored fur to disappear with maturity, but they had not. Now, as her fur lightened, the spots had become bolder and more beautiful. He loved her and she him. Only rarely was she absent from his side.

Traveling through the forest even on a well known trail required attention. Sitting atop a gorlac meant that overhanging branches were a constant threat. Besides that, the gorlac sensed the creature they followed and it was nervous, constantly licking it’s sharp teeth and salivating as if in anticipation of putting up a defense. Legs ending in sharp-nailed paws padded softly along the trail, but between his equipment and the brush, they still made plenty of noise. He wondered if the noise would scare away their prey, then considering the nervousness of his gorlac and Limam, he wondered if it was he who should be scared.

He patted the animal’s soft, hairless hide and sent calming thoughts, but gorlac melding was weak. Only the simplest commands and feelings could be sent, and the close, personal connection he had with Limam was never present. In some ways the weak melding was a benefit—gorlacs melded with anyone, not just one.

The prey traveled in the general direction of Waerton, his home. As darkness fell, he called his meld back, and the other melds followed her. He led the party to a familiar clearing where they set up camp, but at a gruff command from Galborae they stayed dressed in their armor. Darkness fed ancient instincts, and he was uneasy, wondering if he was hunter or prey. When he got no argument from his men, he knew they felt the same. Ordinarily a good hunt would be welcomed, but this hunt had the feel of a nightmare.

They settled in for the night, man/meld teams handing off the watch every couple of hours, though no one slept well. One moon set and the other was just rising in the early morning hours when nightmare became reality. The melds were the first to sense the creature, though they had no memories of the smell and their thoughts were confused. They woke up the men with silent thoughts of uncertainty—they knew something was here, but they could not find it.

Galborae wasted no time, ordering more fires to be set in a circle around the men, but his order came too late. Melds began snarling, then leaping at something only they could sense. Galborae shared the melds’ confusion—there was nothing there, but as he watched in horror, wounded melds began flying in all directions, their coats torn and bloody.

He moved in on the general area with his sword sweeping high and wide, but it found only air. Brael joined him, the two big men fighting shoulder to shoulder, but they could not find a target. Suddenly, Brael let loose a scream that froze Galborae’s soul. The skin on his face shredded right before Galborae’s eyes, then Brael was lifted up as if by invisible hands and tossed through the air toward the edge of the clearing.

Galborae struck at the air, swinging horizontally in hopes of hitting something, and this time he connected, but it was not a clean strike. He looked in horror as blood ran down his sword from some invisible creature. He lifted his sword high to strike again, but before he could swing, strong arms seized him. Warm, fetid breath filled his nostrils, then claws penetrated his chainmail and tore into his flesh. He tried to cry out, but the arms constricted his chest so hard that he had no breath.

His sword was already lifted, his arm free of the embrace, but he was too close to swing the blade. Instead, he brought the butt of the sword crashing into whatever held him. It seemed to have no affect.

He dropped the sword and reached over his shoulder, drawing his dagger from its scabbard as his world darkened. A sense of doom engulfed him as claws continued to rip, the injuries so severe he did not yet feel the pain. Knowing the creature had killed him, anger drove his arm to move, and the dagger struck deeply into flesh.

Sharp teeth, followed by the dark, mottled face of a creature from hell materialized inches away, its amber eyes staring into his own in triumph. With every ounce of his waning energy, he pulled the blade free and thrust it into an eye at an angle, twisting. The creature shrieked, the sound filling Galborae’s world for a moment, then the creature tossed him aside like a rag doll. His world faded to black.

The creature he had fought, now visible, stumbled off into the forest to die. Sir Morlan and the three squires, frozen into inactivity at the horror that had unfolded so quickly, suddenly came alive as their wounded melds leaped snarling and growling onto a second target. Squires sent arrows in the general direction of their attack and one struck something, seeming to float in mid-air. The knight leaped toward it with his sword slicing down toward the arrow, but his intended target moved aside. It caught him up and ripped at his chain mail, nearly severing the arm holding the sword.

A strange blue light lit the clearing for an instant and the creature suddenly became visible, a hulking giant with four arms and a mouthful of wicked teeth. The squires sent arrows into the thing, then with deadly swiftness they sent more arrows, but the creature was fast, incredibly fast. Two arrows sunk into its flesh, then the knight fell on it again with his axe. The creature slashed hard at the knight, ripping his throat out, then it turned to the squires. Four arms flailed in a wild frenzy, the creature’s eyes glowing in triumph as it sliced through flesh and sent bodies flying.

The clearing lit with blue light again, the light more intense this time as it struck the creature. The look of triumph in its eyes shifted to confusion as it collapsed to the ground. A moment later, sharp blasts sounded from the sky, tearing gaping wounds in the body of the creature and killing it.

A deathly silence fell over the killing field. The sound of men’s voices filtered down from above, then a harsh white light filled the clearing. A dark, ominous shape blotted out the stars, then the light disappeared.

A few minutes later the light reappeared and the tops of the trees broke under the pressure of a descending saucer-shaped ship. A ramp extended to the ground and three large cats emerged to secure the clearing. Two men followed behind them, checking for survivors. At a sharp call, another man exited the ship pushing a floater. The three of them lifted Sir Galborae’s nearly dead body onto the floater, everyone disappeared up the ramp, the light went out as the ramp closed, and the ship left.



Chapter Two

When Galborae awoke, his first thoughts were those of his last: the feeling of dying. He sat up and looked around at a familiar setting, the clearing in the forest where he had died. The campfire still burned. He looked for his men, but they were not here. He felt alone, and he felt a certain unreality: there were no sounds or smells, and the air had a chill to it. He felt confused, but that seemed reasonable after dying.

His eyes suddenly fell on those of a stranger, a very large, dark-skinned man with eyes so bright they looked like white beacons in the darkness. He could have sworn the man had not been there a moment ago.

He instantly went into a crouch as his eyes swept the clearing for any other threats, then returned to the man. He was on his feet in the blink of an eye, his sword hissing from its scabbard. The man, certainly a demon since Galborae had crossed into the place that came after death, rose with him, his own sword clearing its scabbard right behind Galborae’s.

Galborae shuffled around the fire with his sword held ready, trying to sort through confused senses. His eyes clearly beheld an adversary, but in his mind he sensed that the man was not an adversary. When the man raised his sword to the ready, signifying intent, Galborae ignored what his mind was telling him and picked his move.

He leaped directly across the fire. Sword met sword, the clash of sound jarringly out of place in the stillness. To his surprise, the dark man’s strength was greater than his own, something he rarely encountered. He knew it the moment the swords met and he adjusted his plan, accepting the fact that brute strength would not win this death match. He swept his foot to drop the man, but the man twisted to the side, sliding his sword up the blade of Galborae’s sword and disengaging. Galborae stepped back, but the man followed, close enough to strike. Galborae capitalized on the mistake and swung his sword with both hands, but the man was as quick as he was strong. Swords clashed again, then Galborae twisted and struck again with a killing thrust. The man dodged just in time and parried with a slash that Galborae was ready for. He parried easily.

The dark man spoke. “Well met.”

Galborae did not hesitate. Only novices took the time to speak. With a hard grin, he raised his sword in both hands and slashed down toward the man’s neck.

The man stepped aside and Galborae’s sword struck nothing but air, but now Galborae was slightly off balance. The man knew and moved in with his sword down, holding the tip of Galborae’s sword to the ground. He lashed out with a heavy foot, but Galborae twisted to take the brunt of the kick on his thigh and pulled his sword free. He swung up and around, then down at the man’s neck again.

The man stepped inside his swing and struck Galborae on the head with the butt of his sword. Galborae’s eyes vibrated, but he shook it off, knowing he was in a fight for his life. Both swords met again as the man kept moving, then he stepped right up to Galborae and gave him a hard push. Galborae was forced to step back to keep his balance.

A true swordsman would have stepped into the void, but to Galborae’s amazement, the man backed away and placed the tip of his sword on the ground. When he leaned on his sword and drove the tip into the ground, Galborae interpreted the odd move as a sign of quarter.

“Enough?” the dark man asked, those stark, white eyes staring at him from across the fire.

Galborae shook his head in confusion. “Who are you?” he demanded.

“The man who killed the beast that killed your men.”

“You kill demons?” he asked, his confusion deepening.

“It was not a demon, just a beast,” the dark man replied.

“You were there?” Galborae asked in disbelief.

“I was.”

Though confused, Galborae had his priorities. “My men?” he asked.

“All dead. I’m sorry. I was not in time.”

“I was sure I’d killed the demon.”

The man cocked his head to the side in thought. “Hmm. I did not see your fight. There might have been a second beast.”

Galborae stared at the man, but his thoughts turned to his friends. After a time he shook his head and lowered the tip of his own sword. “I’m dead, too,” he said sadly.

“You’re not dead, but you nearly were. Look at your armor.”

Galborae looked down, then took hold of the shredded chain mail and moved it aside to feel his wounds. It should have hurt, hurt horribly, but he felt no pain, and his wounds appeared to be well along in the healing process.

“How is this possible?” he asked. Then he answered his own question with a shrug. “I suppose anything is possible in the place that comes after death. I don’t know you,” he said to the man.

“Nor I you, but together we fought the beasts and won.”

“So you say. I don’t call it a win when everyone’s dead. Are there more beasts?”

“Many more.”

“Who are you?”

“An outsider who has come to help. Will you sit and talk with me?”

“Why? We’re dead.”

“Neither of us is dead. I’m a warrior just like you. Join me and I will help your people fight the beasts.”

“My people? Not your people?”

The man looked away for a moment, then back to Galborae. “I’m an outsider. Work with me and I’ll show you they are just beasts you can kill.”

“How? I never even saw what I was fighting.”

“Do you believe in dreams?”

The change of subject surprised Galborae. After just a little thought, he knew the truth. “This is a dream?”

“In a way. Consider your armor. Your wounds were fatal, yet you live and your wounds are healing.”

Galborae’s hand went unconsciously to his mid-section again. “Only in the dream.”

“When we leave this place, a place we call the net, the dream will end and you will still have your wounds, but I have bound them up and saved you.”

“Why?”

“Because I need a partner if I am to continue fighting the beasts.”

“You are but one man.”

“I am many men. Listen to me and I’ll explain, but first we have to put down our swords. I ask you to do this in the name of your people. They need you to hear what I have to say.”

Galborae stared at the man while he considered. He did not doubt for a moment that the man was a warrior, possibly even a great warrior, but could he fight creatures he could not see? It made no sense. On the other hand, neither did the dream. Since he was dead, he had no more lives to give and nothing more to lose. He lowered the tip of his sword to the ground, but he was not willing to set it down.

He sensed that the man understood. The man’s sword dropped to the ground as an act of good faith, though how Galborae knew that, he could not say. Understanding just seemed to come.

The man stepped away from his sword and up to Galborae. “I’m a friend. I speak for others when I say we will not leave you to the demons on your own. I have many friends, and if you and I can come to an accord, they will help you.”

“You can fight them?” He thought about what he had just said and added, “You can find them?”

“I do. I can. Sit with me and let me explain.” The dark man stepped to the fire and sat down. Galborae, still uneasy, sat across from him with his sword within easy reach.

“What is your name?” the dark man asked.

“I am Sir Galborae.”

“I am Terry Washburn.”

“We have not met. You’re a stranger here.”

“I am, and that’s part of my story.” Washburn looked up to the stars and asked, “What do you see there?”

Galborae looked up, but he saw nothing unusual. “Just the night sky.”

“And the tiny lights?”

“Just tiny lights.”

“This is where it gets hard,” Washburn said. “Each of those tiny lights is a place far, far away where people live.”

Galborae rolled his eyes. “You make no sense, but this is, after all, just a dream.”

“I’m from there,” the man said, pointing to the night sky. Galborae frowned, then the man added, “So, too, are the beasts.”

Galborae nodded, not because he understood but because something finally made sense. “The beasts appeared suddenly. I cannot say from where they come, but they are not from here. The gods must have sent them.”

“What, you’re so terrible that you must suffer for your sins?”

Galborae decided that the man finally understood. “Just so,” he said, nodding his head.

“No, it is not so. They are beasts, and they have come from another place. My enemies brought them here.”

Galborae reached a hand up to rub his eyes, then he lowered the hand to his mid-section and remembered he had died and they were in a dream. Did any of this matter?

“Why would they do that?” he asked the strange man.

“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. I wage battles on many fronts. This is just one of them. My battles do not concern you, but the beasts do. I am prepared to give you the tools to defeat them, but you will be sorely pressed. Will you open your mind to new ideas?”

“I serve my King. If defeating the beasts requires new ideas, I will learn new ideas, but I can’t fight them from a dream.”

“The dream will end. When it does, I will teach you how to fight them. My presence here is a terrible danger to your world. My very existence will threaten your most fundamental beliefs, but I cannot defeat the beasts without your help. I’m talking about the survival of your people. Does anything else matter?”

“You speak of armies. You must be a great warrior to command so many.”

The man called Washburn shook his head. “I’m just a scout. In time you might command such armies in the name of your people.”

None of this made sense to Galborae, but as he looked down at his sword, he suddenly realized swords would not be enough against these nightmare creatures, these demons who he could not even see. He had no idea what would work, he just knew the sword would not.

“You’re telling me my sword is a relic. I agree.”

“I would not call it a relic. Keep it and wear it proudly, but I will give you different weapons to fight the beasts. In return, you will guide my people as they fight beside your own. Everything I have spoken of is for the sake of your people and your king. My reason for meeting you here in the dream was only to open your mind. If I have, it’s time to end the dream.”

“If ending the dream helps to save my people from these demons, then end the dream. If you can.”

“When you wake up, you will know the dream has ended. Your wounds will hurt and you will be in a strange place. Outside the dream I cannot speak your language, but I will stay by your side and guide you through the strangeness. Just give me a chance, and in a short time you will have a fuller understanding.”

They stood, and Galborae placed his sword back in its scabbard. While he did so, Terry Washburn dissolved before his very eyes.

* * * * *
 
When Galborae awoke, his body left no doubt in his mind that the dream had ended. He let his mind feel the wounds, feel the harsh pain emanating from them, then he brought a hand to his midsection and felt. His chain mail was missing, probably removed. He felt a thin fabric covering himself, but he felt no poultices beneath that fabric.

He opened his eyes to a whiteness that made him wonder if he was in a new dream, but his wounds assured him he was awake. He focused his eyes, first on the white ceiling, then the walls. He moved his head to his right, where the wall was very close. He turned toward his feet and found them covered by a thin blanket. When he turned to his left, his eyes met those of the stranger from his dream.

They stared at each other, then the dark man stood and held out Galborae’s sword which was still encased in its scabbard. Galborae understood the offer and struggled to a sitting position. The pain was severe, but he pushed it aside. He reached out for the sword and took it, then looked around the strange white room again. His gaze returned to Washburn and he nodded, then placed the sword beside himself on the bed.

“The dream has ended,” he said.

Washburn held out his hands in the age old gesture of helplessness, a move that made no sense to Galborae. His lips thinned, then he said, “You heard me. Have you changed your mind?”

Washburn shook his head, then pointed to himself, saying, “Terry Washburn.” He pointed to Galborae and said, “Sir Galborae.” He motioned for Galborae to get up, then he stepped closer and offered his hand.

Galborae declined the offered hand. He brought his legs to the floor and stood, then wished he had not. He nearly fainted. Washburn steadied him, then put an arm around his waist and led him from the room. Galborae found himself in a corridor, again all-white. Did these people have no color in their lives, he wondered? The walls were not made of stone or wood but something else, and he reached out to touch one. It felt almost like skin, perfectly smooth. Washburn led him down the corridor step by step until reaching the next room. Galborae looked into the room, again all-white, and noticed several plates and bowls holding food set out on a white table. When Washburn nodded, he shuffled into the room and sat gingerly.

The bowl held soup. When he lifted it to his nose, the aroma brought his taste buds alive painfully and he realized with a sense of unreality that this was the first odor he had smelled in this all-white place. There were no smells of the forest or even of earth or the air, nor did there seem to be any sounds. Had it not been for his wounds screaming at him non-stop, he would have wondered if he was still in a dream. After all, he’d died at the hands of the demon-beast.

He lifted the bowl to his lips and drank a clear but tasty broth, then selected another bowl containing something different. He tasted it with his finger and was startled at the cold and sweetness of the creamy substance. Following Washburn’s example, he dug into it with a spoon and finished it while studying the room. When he was done, he looked to Washburn for more but the dark man shook his head and pointed to Galborae’s wounded stomach.

The two of them returned to Galborae’s bed where he quickly fell asleep.

When he awoke, he sensed that a long period of time had passed. He sent his thoughts out to Limam, his meld, but he received no response. He blinked, wondering if his companion of many years had survived the demon’s attack, then he thought about his dead friends. They had not survived. They were the best soldiers in the town, and he worried about what might be happening there in his absence. There were more demons. He needed to learn how Washburn fought them.

Washburn entered the room with a helmet in his hands. Galborae sat up and lifted his legs toward the floor to stand, but Washburn motioned for him to stay where he was. He handed Galborae the helm and motioned putting it on, which of course made no sense. Why would you wear a helm unless imminent danger threatened? Washburn’s body language intimated that such was not the case, so Galborae put the helm on and lay back down. Washburn leaned over the bed and lowered a visor on the helm to restrict his view.

Shortly after putting the helm on, he found himself back in the dream. Washburn joined him, and it was just the two of them again. They were back in the same clearing, but this time it was daylight.

“We can talk now,” Washburn said.

“I like this dream better,” Galborae said. “It doesn’t hurt as much and it has color.”

Washburn smiled. “But no smells. The one who creates the dream cannot smell. Our healer tells me your wounds are healing well. She is a great healer.”

“I would like to thank her.”

“Not yet. For the moment I’m your only contact here. I’ll introduce her when she believes it appropriate.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I know you don’t. Today, some of your questions will be answered. There is more strangeness, I’m sorry to say, and you will be sorely tested. It’s important that you remember you are among friends. Know also that we speak true and that our purpose includes freeing your world of the beasts.”

“They’re far worse than beasts. They’re demons.”

“When you have seen what I have to show you, you will understand that they are not demons. Mortal men will vanquish them.”

“Where am I?”

“You are on a ship, a great ship. I want to show you your home as it really is, but first I want to prove to you that I can kill the beasts.” Galborae looked at him in silence, so he continued. “In this dream you will be able to see my memories. You will see me kill the beast.”

“I believed you when I thought I was dead, but I’m no longer certain I’m dead. How can I see your memories if I’m not dead.”

“Just watch. Even if you feel yourself not believing, do me the courtesy of watching until the memory ends. It’s best if we don’t talk during the memory.” He paused, then added, “I’m sorry, but my dream includes your men dying. You will feel like you’re right there and will want to help, but you cannot.”

“Get on with it.”

Galborae did not feel like he had moved, but it suddenly turned dark and he was looking down on the clearing from the height of the tree tops. He watched and heard Morlan and the three squires fight the demon, he watched them die, he saw the two strange blue lights, and he saw and heard blasts that somehow killed the demon.

He suddenly found himself back with Washburn, both of them in the same clearing as before. Washburn gave Galborae time to deal with his grief, then he stood up and stepped over to Galborae, taking his shoulder in his grasp.

“I’m sorry. Did you know them well?”

“Know them?” Galborae asked, offended. “I grew up with them. We were as close as brothers, closer than many brothers.”

Washburn nodded and stepped away with his back to Galborae, giving him some privacy. A moment later he felt a hand on his shoulder.

“At least I know now. Thank you for that. We should move on.”

Washburn nodded. “You saw the blue light, and you heard the blasts. It is how we kill demons. We kill from afar. I’m certain you can appreciate the value of that.”

“Will you teach me?”

“I will, but not today. I want to show you other things today.”

“More of your dreams?”

“Yes. I want to show you your home as I see it, as I saw it when I came here.”

“I know my home. I’m ready to return.”

“I’ll take you back if you insist, but if you return now, there will be no one to lead your people in their fight against the demons. The problem is much larger than you know. There are many kingdoms in your land, and all of them are fighting the demons.”

Galborae stepped away from Washburn while he pondered. When he turned back, he asked, “Many?”

Washburn nodded, but he did not wait. The dream changed and Galborae suddenly found himself in a small room with windows. He looked to Washburn with a hint of fear in his eyes, but then he remembered he was in the dream.

“We are still in the dream, but only because you have the helmet on,” Washburn said. “When you take the helmet off, the dream ends and your pain will return. What you’re going to see now will be hard, but it’s part of learning how to defeat the demons. We’re going to fly like a bird, but because it’s a dream we cannot fall and we cannot be hurt. Unless, that is, it drives you crazy.”

“I am crazy. None of this makes sense, but if it helps my people to kill demons, get on with it.” Chairs appeared in the dream and Galborae sank into one.

The room lifted them slowly until they were just above the trees. Fear shot through Galborae and he tightened his grip on his seat, but he forced himself to look out the windows. Washburn waited patiently, and when the room did not move any more, Galborae relaxed slightly.

“Amazing,” he grumbled.

“It gets more amazing. We’re going higher, then we will visit your home.”

The room moved higher, incredibly high as far as Galborae was concerned. He gripped the seat hard and set his jaw as the room moved across the land, his fear nearly overcome by the amazing view. Trees, lakes, rivers, and hills sped by. In no time at all, they approached a fortress. The room lowered and stopped above the main gates, then hovered slowly across the town.

Galborae stared at the awesome view. “It’s my home,” he suddenly said in amazement. “I recognize the people. Why do they not see us?”

“We’re in a dream, remember?”

Galborae nodded, deflated. “Just as I thought. Be honest with me—admit we’re in the place we go after death.”

“No, we are not. We’re just in the dream, and what you’re seeing is a memory. We’re leaving now and going higher, much higher. It might be difficult for you, but you have to understand the true nature of your home before you can understand my place here. Are you ready?”

Galborae was not, but he nodded grimly, his hands tight about his seat again as the room rose higher into the sky. The town remained in view, but it eventually became just a scar on the surface. Roads and fields became harder and harder to make out, then mountains, high mountains, came into view. A little later, he saw the great ocean.

“Do you know where you are?” Washburn asked.

“I have been to the great mountains but not beyond. I have heard of the great ocean.”

“This is your home, Galborae, but there is more to it.”

The room moved across the land and the shoreline of the great ocean came under them. Land fell away behind them, and it seemed like an eternity before more land appeared before them. They crossed that land for a long time, various fortresses and cities passing under them on a regular basis.

“This is tedious,” Galborae decided. “Does it go forever?”

“No. I just want you to know how big it is.”

“It’s big, I agree. I have seen many kingdoms.”

The room rose higher, then higher still until a definite curve could be seen and vast cloud patterns hid the land. It continued higher, then suddenly the true shape of the planet became known to Galborae. He stared in utter confusion.

“This is your home, my friend,” Washburn said. “We call it a world. We are seeing it from high in the same sky we looked at last night in the dream, the place with all the lights I call stars.”

Galborae rose from his chair to stare down at his world, then he lifted his eyes up to look at his sun. He stared for a while, then moved to the other side of the room and looked out on the stars, his mind trying to make sense of it.

Washburn moved to his side and said, “Those stars are so far away that they look small, but each one of them is bigger than your world. What’s important for you to understand is that each one of them has worlds similar to your own. Your world is just one among many.”

Galborae considered Washburn’s words and came to a logical conclusion. “You come from one of them,” he said.

“I do. So did the demons. They were not sent by the gods, they were brought here by my enemies.”

“In ships like this one.”

“Yes.” Washburn paused, then added, “I know you think you’ve passed beyond life to the afterlife, but you’re wrong. All of this is real even if it’s just a memory. The only reason we’re doing this in the dream is so that I can talk to you. The words you use for speaking are different than the words I learned to speak as a child. Within the dream, we don’t need words. We understand thoughts and feelings, and it is almost impossible to lie to anyone here in the dream. Outside the dream, we only understand words and sometimes impressions, and it’s easy to lie. I believe you sense my truth.”

Galborae nodded thoughtfully. “If I’m not dead, then we need to stop wasting time. The demons are not idle. People are dying. Are the demons everywhere on my world?”

“They are, and they are incredibly efficient killers. I don’t see how you were able to fight them at all.”

“I wouldn’t call it fighting. I did no more than flail around with my sword. Our melds helped.”

“Those were the cats we saw attacking the beast?”

Galborae shrugged. “They don’t see the demons either, but they sense them in ways we cannot. They guided us.”

“How?”

“We know their thoughts.”

“You read their minds?” Washburn asked in awe.

“No, but we share their thoughts when they want us to. Actually, I hear the thoughts of just one meld. They bond to us when they’re born, and they partner with us for as long as they live. Mine is a she-meld.”

“You’re telling me you know the thoughts of one particular meld?”

Galborae nodded. I do. Only one. Her name is Limam. Why do you ask? You have melds as well. I saw them in the memory.”

Washburn stared at him as his mind considered possibilities. “Uh, not exactly. What you saw were Great Cats. They are ancient warriors, lethal beyond belief, but they rarely fight wars. They protect us, and we call them Protectors. We do not bond mind to mind with them. Are you in touch with Limam right now?”

“No. I think we’re far from her, maybe too far, though she might have died at the hands of the demon.”

“Does Limam have hands? Can she hold a weapon?”

“No, but she is not defenseless. She can be vicious when she senses the need.”

“We’re going on a long journey. If she’s alive, can she be separated from you for a long period of time?”

Galborae’s brow furrowed while he considered, then he shrugged. “I don’t know. When one of us dies, our meld usually follows shortly thereafter, so probably not. How long a journey?”

“Hmm. I think your lesson is over for today. I need to meet with my fellow warriors.”

“Can they join us in our dream? I would like to know what you discuss even if I don’t understand all of it.”

“They could, but you’re not ready to meet them, my friend. Remember, we come from many different worlds, and not all of us look like you and me. We have some very strange creatures on this ship.”

Galborae took a deep breath. “If meeting them is part of killing the demons, I will meet them.”

“Not yet. It’s too soon. When you do meet them, I think it will be here in the dream. When we’re in the net . . . I mean when we’re in the dream, you’ll sense their feelings and know they mean you no harm. Let’s end this dream now. We can return later. As before, when you awaken, we will not be in the dream and we will not be able to speak to each other. That will change in a few days, but for now it would be best if you stay in your room.”

“Just lock the door.”

“I can, but I won’t. You’re a guest here, not a prisoner. I just don’t want you frightened by my crew. I promise to introduce them to you in good time.”
“What’s going to change in a few days?”

Washburn looked away thoughtfully, then said, “I’m not sure how to explain. We’re building a tiny little machine that will translate our speech, but it’s not ready yet. We need a larger sampling of your speech. More time in the dream will help, and feel free to talk to yourself here in your room. Every little bit helps.”

Galborae just stared at him.

“I know,” Washburn said as he stood up. He clapped Galborae on the shoulder on his way out, saying, “Have patience, my friend.”



Chapter Three

The crew spent that night killing every single gleason in the vicinity of Waerton, Galborae’s home town. The presence of strange lights and sounds in the night probably frightened everyone down below, but there was no other way. When they judged the area safe, they landed with the saucer’s leading edge a hundred meters from the main gate. Galborae, dressed in a new cloak, walked down the ramp beside Washburn.

Smells were the first thing Galborae noticed, wonderful smells he had spent a lifetime taking for granted. Rich colors and sounds came next, filling him with a sense of normalcy. He stepped down the ramp feeling like he was putting on an old cloak, but the feeling quickly ended. Above his head, a great burnished metal surface extended a full hundred meters ahead of him. When he stepped to the side of the ramp and looked aft a similar distance, the true proportions of the saucer-shaped ship became known.

He sent an accusing look to Washburn. “You told me I was on a ship. I had imagined sails.”

Washburn could not understand what Galborae said, but he felt like he knew the intent. He shrugged his shoulders. He lifted an arm suggestively and the two of them walked out to the edge of the ship and up to the main gate.

No one was in sight, but Galborae knew people were there. He called loudly, “Open the gate. You know me. I am Sir Galborae.”

A brave voice responded. “You come from the place of the gods. We do not speak with the dead.”

“You know me, Lord Boral. I am not dead. I have come for Limam. She will know I am true. Set her free and I will leave. It is safe to open the door. There are no demons near.”

Galborae waited patiently. Eventually a small people-sized door opened and Limam leaped out and raced for Galborae. Behind Limam, a sturdy woman stepped through the door wearing a heavy, hooded cloak. Though he could not see her face, he knew it was Milae, his wife.

Despite the presence of the ship, Limam perceived no fear from Galborae. She reached him and stopped while he knelt gingerly on one knee, then her tongue came out to lick his face, her large green eyes and erect ears telegraphing her happiness so clearly that even Washburn saw it. Galborae embraced her, brushing the speckled fur on her head, and her eyes closed. Washburn heard a steady, low growl deep in her throat and knew it was a growl of pleasure.

Milae stepped more hesitantly toward Galborae, her deep set eyes shifting nervously between Galborae, Washburn, and the ship. Galborae stood up and went to her, understanding her hesitation. When his arms went around her, that hesitation did not matter for the moment. Limam stayed with him, never losing touch with his leg.

When Milae relaxed her hold and stepped back, her focus was only Galborae. “I had thought you dead,” she said, her voice trembling as she swiped at tears running down her cheeks. “Are you?”

Galborae reached out and placed both hands around her face, then kissed her long. When he released her lips, he said, “Does that feel like I’m dead? I should be dead, but the man over there saved me, and his healer saw to my wounds.”

She pulled his cloak aside and lifted his shirt, staring at his wounds, then touching the repairs. “She must be a great healer. I could not heal these wounds.” Her eyes lifted to him in sadness, then went to Washburn. “Is he a god?” she asked Galborae.

Galborae started to shake his head, but the movement turned into a confused mix of nodding and shaking. In the end, he said, “He claims to be a man just like me. I believe he speaks true, but I can’t be certain. He claims he has come from far away to help us fight the demons.”

“We found your men. Why weren’t they rescued with you?”

“They were already dead. I wish I could have sung for them, but I was taken away. I’m sorry, but I have to leave again.”

“Where are you going?”

“I have no idea. Somewhere far away. When I return, I’m told I will bring an army of foreigners armed with new weapons to kill demons.”

“You should hurry. It’s very bad.”

He reached out and touched her face again. “Will you go with me?”

She stepped back from him in shock. “And leave the town without a healer? Now? No! You’ll have to manage without me this time. Just hurry.”

She turned deep, brown eyes to Washburn, eyes full of gratitude. She was not ready to get closer to the god, but she owed him. “Thank you for saving my husband,” she said.

Washburn replied with something in his own language. Neither Galborae or Milae understood the words, but they understood the intent of those words. She nodded and returned her attention to her husband. She put her arms around him, more gently this time in consideration of his wounds, and lifted her lips to his.

When they parted, she reached a hand out to Limam and touched her, then stepped back. “Hurry,” she said.

“I’ll be as quick as I can,” Galborae said.

She reached a hand up once more to caress his cheek. “I know you will. You’ve spent your entire adult life protecting us no matter the cost to you, and everyone knows it. I’m so sorry for the loss of your friends. Go with my love, and go swiftly.”

He nodded. “Tell Lord Boral I’ll be back.”

She nodded, unable to speak further. She pulled her cloak tight about her and turned back to the gate. Galborae watched her until the door closed behind her, then he turned back toward Washburn with a hand resting on the fur of Limam’s neck. Would he ever see her again, he wondered? The demons would not likely discriminate in their choices of prey.

Limam’s nose tested all the new smells, and her hackles lifted as they stepped up the ramp. With a calming thought and his touch on her neck, she settled down, but she remained alert.

The ramp closed behind them, and he knew his home would soon be farther than far.

* * * * *

Galborae was stretching on the floor of his room when a knock sounded at the door. Washburn came through, holding out a piece of shiny, gold jewelry. He attached the thing to Galborae’s ear and spoke. Galborae heard the words Washburn spoke, but he instantly heard words he understood as well, though they sounded as if Washburn had spoken them.

“We finally finished the translator device,” Washburn said to him. “My language is known as Galactic High Standard. I’m not sure we have a name for your language yet, but this thing will let you understand my words, and the one I’m wearing will let me understand yours. Get it?”

Galborae fingered the thing on his ear suspiciously. It struck him as magical, and he and his people feared the powers of magic. Then he considered everything else he had experienced within the ship and sighed. Everywhere he turned, he could not distinguish magic from reality. He ran a hand over his wounds to remind him that he was presently in reality even if things around him were not.

Take his room, for example. There wasn’t a window or a single candle, yet there was light. The door opened with just a spoken command. He had been assured that the ship was not alive, but he was not certain he believed Washburn. Magic was everywhere.

He set the thought aside—his concern at the moment was his meld. To Washburn, he said, “Limam smells the others. She has grown accustomed to you, but not to your crew. Her anxiety grows. It’s time we met them.”

Washburn reached out to Limam and ruffled the fur around her neck. “I wish we had a translator device for you,” he said to the cat. He looked over to Galborae. “This will challenge you more than anything you have yet seen or done. I had hoped to do it in the dream, but we can’t bring Limam into the dream with us. Let’s bring in your healer.”

Unknown to Galborae, the ship’s artificial intelligence, George, was listening to everything. Washburn’s last words were a command to George.

Doctor Natai appeared in the doorway, the first new person of the crew Galborae had met. She took one step into the room and stopped, giving him time to consider her. She was as human as Galborae, and he felt no discomfort at meeting her.

He stood up and bowed, wincing only a little. “Thank you,” he said, peering deeply into her eyes to communicate his heartfelt thanks.

Her mouth widened in a smile. “Those are the best words a healer ever hears. You are welcome, and be welcome to our home.”

“My wife is our healer. She asked me to thank you for her. She would like to meet you and perhaps learn from you.”

Natai nodded. “All things are possible, or at least we like to think they are. Right now, you are our focus. I’m the easy one to meet. Some of the others will require as much fortitude from you as you needed when we showed you your world. Are you ready?”

“I am ready for whatever it takes to free my world from the demons. Get on with it.”

Doctor Natai nodded. “We’ve considered this and believe it’s best for you to meet them in the dream. You’ll know their feelings and emotions, meaning you’ll know they intend you no harm.”

Galborae looked to Washburn. “You told me everyone on this ship is a warrior. I will meet them man to man.”

Washburn’s brow furrowed. “It might work for you, but Limam is a problem. Some of our warriors resemble ferocious beasts, and to their enemies they are ferocious.”

“Then I’ll meet them first, without Limam. I’ll introduce her when I’m able to gentle her.”

* * * * *

Limam stayed in the room when Galborae followed Washburn and Doctor Natai down passageways which they referred to as corridors. The white walls disappeared as soon as he left the healer’s area, replaced by warm, comfortable surroundings. He quickly became lost, but that was the least of his concerns.

He believed he could accept whomever he was about to meet, but his admiration for Washburn had grown during the past days. If Washburn was worried, he should probably worry as well.

No amount of preparation could have prepared him for what awaited him. On the right side of the room, five enormous, vicious looking cat-like creatures lay on the floor. A sixth cat sat on its haunches before them, its gaze locked on Galborae. Beside the cats, a dragon—a real dragon—stood with his head brushing the ceiling. Shiny purple scales tipped in yellow adorned the dragon from head to tail. When he moved, light reflecting from the scales made it look like he was flowing.

Eight people stood beside the dragon, each of them instantly recognizable to Galborae as regular people. On closer inspection, their hardness convinced him they were soldiers. Beside them a man and a woman towered over them. He would have considered them regular people except for the fact that they each had four arms. Despite that, he recognized them as soldiers as well.

Two people stood in front of the line-up: one a tall, spare, black-haired woman; the other a tall, muscular, blond-headed man. In front of them, a creature he could only describe as an insect about four feet long with brown shriveled skin, multiple legs, two long antennae, and sharp mandibles stood or lay on the floor. Because of its short legs, it was not readily apparent whether it was standing or lying. Bulbous eyes stuck out from its head, and its forward hands feverishly preened the whiskers covering its head.

Galborae let out a long breath and felt his body deflating along with his mind. He had managed to keep his wits about him through everything that had happened to him aboard the ship, but this final item had him teetering on the edge. He sensed Limam’s anxiety and her need to come to him, and he sent her the most calming thoughts he could conjure, though he knew it was a feeble attempt. His hand moved of its own accord to the hilt of his sword, but he deliberately pulled the hand back. These creatures, regardless of how they looked, had saved his life.

Everyone gave Galborae time to deal with his feelings, then the leader cat sauntered over to him and sat, the silence in the room deep enough that its claws clicked against the deck with each step. It stared at him silently like cats do so well. The cat resembled Limam in some ways, but this creature made Limam, a vicious predator when necessary, look like a family pet. Much larger than Limam, it had tufted ears and tail and four hands instead of paws. Yellow eyes glared at Galborae from above a muzzle much longer than Limam’s, the hairless skin on its face colored red and black and orange. This creature literally reeked of savagery.

“I greet you as one warrior to another,” the cat said. “Welcome to our home. I am called Borg.”

When the cat spoke, Galborae’s mouth opened in amazement. He had trouble finding his voice and looked to Washburn for guidance.

“He and his brothers are known as Great Cats,” Washburn explained. “They are possibly the most lethal warriors ever, but their purpose is not to wage war, it is to protect. They have killed a number of demons on your world.”

Galborae suddenly found his voice. “You fight demons? You are lethal, indeed. Are there more of you?”

“There are, but not nearby and not in the numbers you need. The demons are our ancient enemies. You, too, killed a demon, something we will not forget. I’m sorry this has happened to you and your people.”

Galborae bowed in response, but it was only a slight bow. He was not willing to place himself in an indefensible position before this ferocious-looking creature yet despite knowing it had come to his rescue. “I would ask that you kill more of them.”

“We will, but not today or tomorrow. Already, we have traveled far from your home. When you return, it will be with a great army.”

Galborae acknowledged the cat’s words, but his eyes kept straying to the dragon, a creature of myth among his people.

Borg noticed. When he held out a hand to introduce the dragon, Galborae looked closer at the hand. Similar to his own, just larger and clawed, it was truly a hand with an opposing thumb, and the cat had four of them. Real hands tipped the scales, making the cat a more formidable opponent than he had first thought. Here was a warrior who could not only be savage but could use weapons. He sucked in a breath. “You truly are not a beast,” he said.

Borg’s lips lifted in a smile, causing Galborae to take an unconscious step backward. “But I can be when I choose,” he said. “Come, meet my captain.”

He led Galborae closer to the group, but Galborae stopped short when the dragon’s head swung down to his own level, purple eyes that matched his scales focused fully on him. Galborae had eyes mostly for its snout lined with formidable teeth and tipped with enormous nostrils.

“Sir Galborae, let me introduce Stven, captain of this great ship,” Borg growled. “He comes from one of the most ancient and revered people in our Empire and is probably smarter than all of us.”

The dragon stepped forward, forcing Galborae to make a decision. He chose to hold his ground.

“Welcome aboard, Sir Galborae,” Stven said. “I regret the presence of demons on your world. You have a hard fight ahead of you, and after that it gets even more difficult.”

Galborae’s brow furrowed. “How so?” he asked.

“Your people do not even comprehend the fullness of their own world, and now they have to deal with us, strangers from the stars. Our presence will change them just as it is changing you.”

“Just kill the demons. We’ll deal with the rest later.”

Stven nodded, his whole neck rippling as lights reflected off his scales. “We will kill the demons. As important, we will teach you and your people how to kill them.” He swung his head toward the giant insect. “May I introduce M’Sada, our pilot? He, too, is a great warrior. In fact, it was he who taught us how to kill the demons.”

The insect rose to it’s full height, which was not very high, his multifaceted eyes reflecting the light and his upper hands busily preening his whiskers. The preening suddenly stopped and he spoke. “Greetings, Sir Galborae,” he said, “and welcome aboard our great ship. You have no need to fear me—humans are not my preferred food.”

Galborae had thought he could not be further surprised, but the creature had actually spoken to him. “You speak, and you have hands?” he blurted out in amazement.
“I do, ten of them, the better for fighting, eh?” M’Sada clicked his mandibles together, his way of laughing, though Galborae completely missed that little nuance. “As strange as I might seem to you—and I am not offended in the least that you consider me strange—there are others among our Empire who are even stranger. We’ll do our best to limit your exposure. You’ve seen enough already. We know it has not been easy.”

“I have seen much, but I cannot put my hands around it yet.”

“I believe you. Your adjustment to us is going much better than we thought it would. Be proud of yourself, sir. May I introduce our leaders?” He turned his head to the two humans standing right behind himself. “Meet Lady Krys and Sir Tarn, Knights of the Realm. They are truly great ones among our people.”

Galborae bowed, this time more deeply. “You must have been the ones who decided to stay and help me. Thank you.”

Lady Krys spoke, her eyes moving to him but not in the normal way. He suddenly realized she could not see him, that she was blind. He wondered how a blind person could be a great one, but he understood that he had a lot to learn about these strangers. This was but a tiny piece of the whole.

“Among our people, such a decision is not really a choice,” Lady Krys said. “We regret the need for our presence, but we will never abandon you. That’s our way. We’re taking you to another world where you will meet more warriors. There, you will train with them to kill the demons. When you are ready, you will lead them back to your world.”

Galborae looked around the room and wondered if the warriors would be like the ones here. He considered for a while, deciding that he could probably fight beside them despite their strangeness.

“I will do my part, M’Lady.”

She cocked her head to the side. “And what exactly will your part be? You are a warrior, but what your people really need is someone to explain us to them, someone to lead them through the changes that are coming. Are you that person?”

Galborae lifted an eyebrow and said thoughtfully, “Before you came, my kingdom was the only world I knew. I have seen with my own eyes that there are many kingdoms. They do not know me, and I do not know them.”

“But once you learn how to kill the demons, these other kingdoms will listen to you if only to learn how to fight beside you.”

He nodded his agreement. “That much is true.”

“You should know about the civilization we’re bringing you to. Will you please take a seat while I explain?”

Sir Tarn pulled a hard chair over to him, judging it would be the easiest for him with his wounds. The rest of the people either left on other duties or scattered around the room and made themselves comfortable.

“Our Empire is ruled by a Queen,” Lady Krys began. Galborae raised his eyebrows, but she could not see him so she did not know, nor would she have cared. “She is one of the Chosen, a small group of women from one blood line. The Chosen are born with certain Traits found nowhere else in our Empire, chief among those Traits the ability to see into the mind of every known creature.”

“They reads minds?” Galborae asked with a frown, not certain how he felt about that.

“No, not exactly, but they have the ability to determine the Truth of a person. It is mainly because of that trait that the Chosen have been called to rule, a rule which has lasted for many, many generations. Our Empire has benefited from their creatively in resolving the most complex disputes.”

Krys paused, knowing that what she was about to say was not Galborae’s problem, but Empire resources would have a bearing on how quickly the gleason problem was resolved on Tranxte.

“We are in the midst of a vast rebellion,” she said. “Rebels banded together with another civilization from outside our borders and have essentially taken over our Empire. This other civilization, we call them the Chessori, wields a horrible mind weapon that completely incapacitates every creature within our Empire. Because of that mind weapon we have been unable to fight back against the rebels despite an almost unlimited supply of soldiers and ships and weapons.”

Galborae looked at Washburn. The dark man had intimated that he fought battles on many fronts. This must be what he meant.

Krys continued. “Just as your people are at the mercy of the demons, we were completely at the mercy of these Chessori until discovering another civilization from outside our Empire. We call them an emerging civilization, just as we call your world of Tranxte emerging. We classify civilizations as emerging when they do not have the ability to travel between worlds. We have a complete hands-off policy toward such worlds because we do not want to sway their development.”

She took a deep breath, then said, “Out of all the worlds known to us, this particular emerging civilization is immune to the Chessori mind weapon. They are the only ones who are immune. Think about what that means.”

Galborae frowned as he considered, but he did not have the knowledge to take her words to the next level. She gave him that knowledge.

“They are not advanced enough to build ships and weapons, but they don’t have to know how to build them or even how they work—they only have to know how to use them, and we have trained them. They’re flying our ships, they’re using our weapons to fight with those ships, and they’ve sent soldiers to clear the Chessori from some of our command centers. Finally, we’re fighting back.”

Her eyes lifted and looked toward him. “We can do the same for you. We can teach you to fight demons with our weapons.”

“You expect me to captain one of these great ships?” Galborae asked in astonishment.

“No. We have plenty of our own people to do that, but we do not have enough soldiers to fight the demons across your whole world. We can, however, supply you with weapons and teach you how to use those weapons.”

Galborae considered, then said, “I have not seen your weapons, but I’m willing to try.”

She nodded. “At the outset of our rebellion, every single Chosen except one was killed. The sole remaining Chosen is our Queen now. She rules with the aid of a few Knights of the Realm like Tarn and myself. You can see that I’m blind. I wasn’t always blind. The Chessori mind weapon incapacitates people by causing unbelievable pain, but for me it physically wounds. It is what caused my blindness.”

“You have personally fought your enemies?”

Her lips thinned. “No. I’m from the Empire and am powerless against the mind weapon. However, my crew and I have fought gleasons, your demons. We understand what you’re up against.”

Galborae rubbed his chin. “I can’t say I do,” he eventually said.”

Krys nodded. “All of us have a long fight ahead of us. Mine is against the rebels while yours is against the demons, and I must confess to you that resources are a problem. We’ll provide help, but most of our resources are committed to fighting our rebellion. In addition to fighting the rebels, we believe the Chessori have found the home of this other emerging civilization which has partnered with us. Protecting that world is our highest priority since without them we cannot fight back at all. Can you see how protecting that world is even crucial to Tranxte?”

Galborae considered what she meant. He nodded, then remembered she could not see him. “I do, M’Lady. My world needs them to survive so that you can survive to help us.”

She nodded. “So now you have some idea of what we’re bringing you into. We have very serious problems of our own, but despite those problems, we will do whatever we can to rid your world of the demons.”

“The demons are not your fault.”

“True, but I have accepted this obligation in the name of our Queen, of our Empire. We will not abandon you in your time of need.”

Galborae stood up, then with some difficulty went to a knee. “Thank you, M’Lady. I know nothing about your weapons, but I know we will not survive against these creatures with swords and arrows.”

“I cannot promise your survival even with our weapons. The demons, we call them gleasons, are truly the stuff of nightmares. The fight will be horrible.”

Washburn went to Galborae’s side and helped him back to his feet. Krys looked toward him and said, “We have prepared a meal. Will you join us?”

“I will, but my meld grows anxious. She should meet you.”

“We’re a little concerned about that. Will you be able to control her?”

“She will sense my feelings, but that might not be enough. Her kind tends to be protective.”

Washburn led Galborae back to his room where they gathered up Limam. Galborae did his best to calm her and send his feelings about the others to her, but in truth his feelings had not solidified. The people were easy, but bridging the gap to Great Cats, dragons, and insects would take time. He said as much to Washburn.

Washburn did not hesitate. “I had the same issues when I first met them. Now I just think of them as regular people, even the ones who don’t look like us. I hope you can bridge that divide some day.”

“When you first met them? You haven’t known them your whole life?”

Washburn stopped with a hand on Galborae’s arm. “In a lot of ways I’m just like you. Remember Lady Krys’ story about the other emerging world? I’m from there.”
Galborae blinked as he took in this new piece of information. “You fight her enemies?” he asked.

“I do,” Washburn said, nodding. “I do not feel the mind weapon except as a slight buzzing in my head. I was an elite soldier on my home world. When I came here, the Great Cats trained me to be a Protector, almost a super soldier. My sole purpose now is to protect the two Knights on this ship. Have we told you what it means to be a Knight?”

“I’m a knight. It means you lead soldiers.”

“Our Knights lead more than just soldiers. There are an enormous number of civilizations within the Empire, but only one Queen and only a couple of handfuls of Knights to rule them. An Imperial Senate represents the people and makes the laws. The Queen, her Knights, and her military forces uphold those laws, but there are so many worlds and so few Knights that she has empowered her Knights to speak for her. Their words are her command on all worlds of the Empire. The words of a Knight literally bind the Queen.”

Galborae thought about speaking words that would bind his own king and shook his head. Such a thing would never happen. “The insect said they were Great Ones,” he said. “I’m beginning to see what he meant.”

Washburn nodded. “The sole purpose of everyone on this ship is to protect those two Knights. Your world, Tranxte, is fortunate to have them on your side.”

Galborae did his best to convey that sense to Limam as they continued toward the meeting room. When they reached the door, Washburn entered first and stepped to the side. His hand was not on his weapon, but so fast were his reflexes that it did not need to be. If the cat lost control, he would do his best to stun her, not kill her.

Galborae entered with a hand resting lightly on Limam’s neck and his thoughts focused completely on her. He took two steps into the room and stopped, ordering Limam to lay on the deck.

Limam did not obey. With one foot lifted and her ears pointed forward, every one of her senses were at full peak. She registered each person in the room and sniffed the air, then she stared at Borg, the Great Cat who was sitting at attention in front of Lady Krys and Sir Tarn.

Borg’s eyes narrowed and his head reached out toward Limam as he returned the look, then he said in amazement, “I sense her. So do my brothers. She senses us as well.”

Limam shook off Galborae’s hand and padded deliberately across the room, her attention shifting between Borg and the other Great Cats. Absolute silence reigned, and most held their breaths waiting to see what would happen.

Limam stopped directly in front of Borg and stared up at him, both cats taking the measure of the other as Borg looked down on her from his sitting position while she remained standing. Galborae felt himself locked out of her thoughts, something he had felt only rarely and then only when Limam was on the attack. His hopes plummeted, but he held to one critical shred of evidence—her back had not arched.

Limam broke eye contact with Borg, then she padded to his side and joined him, sitting with her eyes taking in the whole room with her ears pitched forward.

Borg’s gaze went to Galborae, then to Washburn. “She protects,” he said. His amber eyes brightened for a moment, then he turned his head to Limam and growled low in his throat.

She tossed her head and returned the growl with a soft snarl, then stood up. Borg also stood and padded over to the other Great Cats, passing before them. Limam followed, looking each of them in the eye as she passed. When Borg continued toward Stven, the dragon, Limam did not hesitate, though she had opened her thoughts to him again and he sensed her unease. He also sensed her trust in Borg. The two of them passed before each member of the crew with Limam making eye contact with each, then Borg returned to Galborae’s side.

Galborae placed a hand on Limam’s neck, and she got the message and sat beside him, but her gaze remained on everyone in the room, not threatening but protecting. The room itself almost seemed to breath a sigh of relief.

“This is a first for me and my brothers,” Borg said.

“For me, as well,” Galborae said. “She sensed the demons and guided us to them. As you can see, her wounds are still healing.”

“We see,” Borg said. “She is welcome here.”



Chapter Four

Galborae had been on Aldebaran I for three months, and his patience was at an end. All the marines wanted him to do was train, train, train. They seemed to have no other purpose in life. He had done everything they asked of him: learned to use their stunners and blasters, the combat armor and visor, and he had kept up with his unit during the grueling exercise periods despite his still-healing wounds. In return, they ignored his demands for action. He neither heard or sensed any urgency concerning Tranxte.

He barged into General Stymes’ office with Limam close on his heels, her ears flattened to her head. Despite Galborae’s constant mental reassurances during the preceding months, the cat still projected anxiety when among certain aliens, especially when Galborae was, himself, upset. He crossed through the general’s conference area—comfortable, padded chairs he had occupied on a sporadic basis during planning meetings—and in just a few more steps reached the general’s desk.

The general had his back to him and was deep in discussion with another man, both of them dressed in immaculate, white uniforms, their hands shifting several computer projections through the air. Both of them were big men, the general blond-headed and barrel-chested while the man next to him was darker complected and trimmer with hair just starting to turn silver.

“I have to get back,” Galborae said, the tone of his voice brooking no argument.

Both men turned. When Stymes saw the look on Galborae’s face, he reached into a pocket for his translator. He attached it to his ear, handed one to the other man, then looked a question at Galborae.

“I have to get back, General. Even now, there might not be anyone left to get back to,” Galborae insisted.

Stymes nodded his understanding. “I know, but we’re not ready. I won’t let my men go up against gleasons unprepared. I want at least a thousand shuttles, and I’ve only modified 21 so far. There’s some big operation in the works for the Queen, and they’re tying up all our resources. Ships especially are in short supply. I’m sorry, but we need patience until the Queen completes whatever it is she’s up to.”

Galborae leaned forward, planting both fists on the general’s desk. “Don’t you get it? My people are dying. Let me go with what you have. Please. Any help is better than nothing.”

Stymes glanced to the man beside him, then glared back at Galborae. “No. These are gleasons we’re talking about. I want to hit them all at once, everywhere on the planet. So far as I know they’re loners, but I’m not certain. I won’t give them any opportunities to organize against me.” He sighed, softening his glare. “Have patience, Galborae. If we do this right, more of your people will live in the long run. So will more of mine.”

Galborae’s gaze darkened. “You’re wrong. You haven’t tested your modifications against a gleason, and you haven’t tested your tactics. What if they don’t work? It’s more lost time. Let me test them. Send me with what you have now, then send the rest when you can.”

“A small strike force wouldn’t stand a chance. Don’t forget, gleasons communicate mind to mind.”

“If your men are as good as you claim they are, it won’t matter. Every day we wait costs lives, lots of lives.” Galborae was rapidly running out of arguments. He straightened up and used his best weapon. “Your Knight made a promise to me. I’m told that a promise from her is a promise from the Queen.”

The man beside Stymes spoke up before the general had a chance to launch a counterattack. “Sir, I haven’t been part of this project, but he has a point. We really don’t know how to fight gleasons. An advance force might learn enough to make a difference when the rest of us get there.”

Stymes turned to the man. “Us? You’re including yourself?”

“You know I’ve been looking for a change of venue.”

“We’ve been all through that. The answer’s still no. I need you here. Besides, a small force would be overwhelmed.”

The man shook his head. “Not necessarily. It would if we tried to cover the whole planet, but not if we concentrated on just one small area. We could experiment with tactics, fighting mainly from shuttles for safety. Rumor has it we have a sensor that sees gleasons.”

“That’s what the modifications are all about.” Stymes shot a quick glance to Galborae, then said, “Actually, the modification is just software. It’s not the problem. The problem is transporters and shuttles. With the Queen tying up all our resources, we’re at least a year away from being ready, and it will probably be longer than that.”

“Wouldn’t it be nice to have a plan when we get there rather than going in blind?” The man lowered his voice and added, “Sir, the Knight will be back. It’ll be you who has to explain why we’re still waiting.”

Stymes stared at the man. He considered those words for a long time, then he motioned both of them toward the conference area. “Have you two met?” he asked Galborae.

“No, sir,” Galborae answered gruffly, sensing a crack in Stymes determination.

“Sir Galborae, meet Major Havlock. He’s in charge of security at our armories. He has not been part of our planning for Tranxte, but I value his creativity.”

The wide-spaced, dark brown eyes of Galborae’s rounded face met the equally wide spaced, dark brown eyes of Havlock’s longer face and prominent chin. The two sized each other up as two hardened hands grasped each other in a formal greeting.

“Sir?” Havlock asked, turning back to Stymes. “Everyone knows what’s coming, and I’ve been doing some research on gleasons in hopes of going with you. Sir Galborae is right—we know next to nothing about what we’re getting into. Gleasons never accepted the Empire, and we were never able to civilize them. After they nearly wiped out the Great Cats on Brodor 2,000 years ago, we placed their world off limits and maintained the blockade all these years, obviously at no small cost. The Rebels must have eliminated the blockade.”

“Actually, it was the Rebels who brought the gleasons to Tranxte,” Stymes said. “We still don’t know why. I’ve done my homework on the project too, though I’ve focused more on getting people and equipment in place than on the gleasons themselves. What else do you know about them?”

“Our studies of their home world have been conducted from orbit and with drones, not an easy task since gleasons are invisible most of the time.” Havlock rolled his shoulders, knowing he was briefing a man who probably knew everything he would say, but he had to answer the question. He pulled out his pad and found what he was looking for, then held the pad with its face out so both Stymes and Galborae could see it.

“This is a dead gleason.”

Galborae leaned forward, his eyes focused hard on the image. “I didn’t know,” he said gruffly, his eyes darting back and forth across the pad.

His response surprised Havlock. “Rumors claim you’ve fought them.”

Galborae shook his head. “Only one, and I never got a good look at it. I think I killed it, though I’ll never know for sure.”

Havlock frowned, but he pressed on. This meeting was more for his own benefit than Galborae’s. He really wanted a transfer, and if it took fighting gleasons to get it . . . well, he really wanted a transfer.

“They’re sophisticated killing machines,” he said to Stymes. “They have two of almost everything, so normal wounds just slow them down rather than stop them. The mottled skin makes them look like reptiles, but they’re not. They are warm-blooded killers. They have two brains inside one skull, two spinal cords, two circulatory systems including two hearts, four arms and hands with vicious claws, and powerful jaws with teeth designed for ripping apart flesh. They only have two legs, but they’re fast and strong. They can run upright, or they can leap using their legs and arms.”

“That much I knew,” Stymes said. “They’re hideous.”

“Yes, sir. This one’s dead. Imagine it alive, invisible, and sneaking up on you, or worse yet, leaping toward you on two legs and its four hands. It prefers to sneak up on you and tear you to shreds before you even know it’s there, but it’s capable of brutal assaults as well. We never established successful tactics when we fought them on Brodor. We just basically sacrificed soldiers until we killed them all.”

Stymes probably knew all that as well, but Havlock gave him a minute to think about what it would be like to face one of these creatures when it was alive. “Sir, we know they lose their invisibility if seriously wounded, but even then, since their bodies have so many backups, they keep coming and coming. They don’t stop until there’s nothing left of them. On top of that, they see into the infrared spectrum, so night does not hinder their hunting. The only weaknesses we know of are that they have poor vision, they have a strong body odor, and they’re not intelligent.”

Stymes shifted in his chair, clearly uncomfortable with what he was seeing and hearing. After all, he eventually had to fight these creatures. “I guess I have more homework ahead of me,” he said. “Being stupid could be a bonus for them and could make our jobs harder.”

Havlock shook his head slowly. “I’m not sure I’d call them stupid, sir. We believe they prefer to operate independently rather than in organized groups, but we believe they congregate in family units when they’re not hunting, and they have a rudimentary language.”

Stymes sat up straight. “They have a language? I was told they communicate mind-to-mind.”

“They do. What one gleason knows they all know, but they speak to each other as well. I’ve listened to recordings. We speculate that they communicate mind-to-mind on certain things, maybe, for example, while fighting or hunting, and they speak when they’re within their family units. They have crude weapons, though we have reports of them using modern things like knives and blasters when they can get their hands on them.”

“You said they prefer getting up close for the kill.”

“Yes, sir, but we have reports of attacks from longer range. I suppose in that regard they’re a little like us. We prefer to kill from a distance, but we can do it up close when necessary. They’re just the opposite. They can kill from a distance, but they prefer close up. At last report they’ve killed all the local fauna on their home world and have resorted to hunting others of their own kind.”

Stymes nodded grimly. Clearly that piece of information was not new to him.

“If they’re hunting each other, they must be able to turn off the mental communication at will or else they’d never be able to get close,” Havlock finished.

Stymes sat back and considered his subordinate, a man for whom he held immense respect. “You’ve done some serious research.”

“I have, sir.” Havlock hesitated, then made a decision and plunged ahead. “I’d be willing to take an advance force to Tranxte for you.”

“You want to fight these creatures?”

Stymes knew what Havlock was really suggesting. Havlock had lost his entire unit to the Chessori during the battle for Aldebaran I. He had been the sole survivor, and he still blamed himself for the loss of his men. Stymes had stood up for him at the inquest and even put through a promotion, but Havlock’s request to fight gleasons probably fell into the category of penance. In truth, maybe it was.

He stood up and motioned for Havlock to follow him. To Galborae, he said, “I need a few minutes in private. Wait here.”

He and Havlock moved across the room, and Stymes turned to him. “What’s this really about?” he demanded.

“You know very well, sir. I’ve kept nothing from you, including how I feel about my present position. I need something in the field, preferably as far away from here as I can get.”

“You can’t escape your past no matter how far you run, and now you want my men to pay the price?”

“No, sir. Whether I or someone else commands it, you know I’m right about sending an advance force. The Knight will expect us to have acted, and we really do need to find out more about what we’re getting into. There are just too many unknowns to go in blindly. The . . . other thing . . . will not affect my performance.”

Stymes looked at him sharply. “Won’t it? You still blame yourself.”
“How can I not? I lost my entire command.”

“You lost your men to the Chessori. Had you not rallied afterward, the rest of us would be dead. We’ve been over this time and time again. Everyone but you finds you blameless. We’re going to lose men in our fight against the gleasons, and I’m not sure you can accept that. How can I put you in command knowing your decisions might be flawed?”

“You’re right, sir. I will always shoot for zero losses.” He stared into Stymes eyes and said, “I won’t accept losses, but I’ll tolerate them. I tolerated them when I secured the planet here, even with my personal losses so fresh in my mind. Besides, there’s another whole aspect to this: we’re dealing with an emerging world. The Empire’s never done a good job of that. I’d like to be in on the ground floor and try to do a better job this time.”

Stymes brought a hand to his chin in thought and looked away. Eventually he looked back to Havlock with narrowed eyes. “You’re famous for your creativity, but it’s a huge risk, for you personally and for the men.”

Havlock leaned forward. “It is, sir, but it’s a bigger risk to send our main force in blind. We both know that the purpose of an advance force is to gather intelligence, not to win the war.”

“Do you have a plan?”

“I’ve been thinking about it some.”

“How many men would you need?”

“How many shuttles do you have?”

“Twenty-one plus the transporter. The modification center has a few more in line, but I’m waiting on more transporters and shuttles from outlying districts.”

“Give me twenty. I’ll leave one behind that has the mods so your men can train on it.”

Stymes considered Havlock in silence. Most of the marines here on Aldebaran I, including himself, would have perished at the hands of the Chessori had Havlock not done so many things right during the battle. Havlock was the best leader he had, but if he sent Havlock to Tranxte, he and his men would be isolated light-years from help, and they would be fighting gleasons of all things. There were no manuals in existence on how to fight gleasons.

Then he got to wondering—if he had to send someone, who else would he rather send? Marines were not known for their creativity, but Havlock was.

He stared hard at the man. “You can’t go if it’s to prove yourself to yourself.”

Havlock shifted, knowing Stymes was right, but he still felt like he was the right man for the job. “Sir,” he said, “there’s a lot more at stake here than just testing our tactics for fighting gleasons. There are challenges on lots of different levels. We’re talking about rescuing a whole civilization. I’m asking to be a part of that. Send me, and I promise you that you’ll not regret it.”

Stymes frowned, then grumbled, “Leave it to you to be one step ahead of the rest of us.” He considered for a time, then nodded to himself and led Havlock back to Galborae.

“If we do this,” he said to Galborae, “I need your agreement that Major Havlock is in charge. Going up against gleasons is not child’s play. Follow his orders or you’ll get my men killed.”

Galborae, sensing progress for the first time in months, stood up. “I’ll agree to anything that gets your men to Tranxte.”

Stymes stared hard at the man, trying to get a feel for the depth of his agreement. In the end, he nodded and turned to Havlock. “Very well. You’ve convinced me. I’ll prepare orders placing you in command. They’ll include promotion orders, as well—I can’t have majors commanding 3,000 marines light-years from help. Prepare to ship out, Colonel.”

Havlock’s face lit up. In that moment, his whole future changed. “I’ve heard rumors of fast ships,” he said to Stymes. “Do I get a fast transporter to carry the shuttles?”

“Sorry. The rumors are true, but they’ve only modified capital ships and some fighters so far, and they’re all detailed to the Queen. I want you to load a lot of extra drones onto the transporter. I want regular reports. No one’s ever attempted anything like this before.”

Havlock stared hard into Stymes’ eyes. “Thank you, sir. We’ll make you proud.” He turned and left the office before Stymes could change his mind.

Stymes stared at Galborae. “Havlock doesn’t know it, but he’s a natural leader, one of those lucky ones who people will follow anywhere. Advise him, but listen to him. He knows what he’s doing.”

“I already see that, but he hasn’t fought a gleason. I have.”

Stymes rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “From what I hear, that gleason essentially killed you. Havlock doesn’t have that luxury.” His gaze went to the doorway. “You might want to go after him. I’d hate to see you get left behind.”

Galborae nodded and bowed to the man he still thought of as a mighty officer. “Thank you, sir. My people thank you.”

He caught up to Havlock in a corridor. Shading his eyes from bright sunlight shining in through floor-to-ceiling windows on the right side, he asked, “How soon can we leave?”

Havlock turned and studied Galborae, his eyes boring into the dark pools of Galborae’s eyes and missing nothing. His gaze moved down, taking in the neatly trimmed beard, so out of place here, and the blaster and stunner strapped to the man’s waist. Amazingly, Galborae’s old sword and belt crisscrossed beneath the standard weapons belt. His eyes took in the meld, Limam, then he turned and continued walking, motioning for Galborae to fall in beside him. Both men moved gracefully on heavy frames, but Galborae still listed to the side from old wounds.

“I know your story, but I don’t know you. We need to talk,” Havlock said.

“On the way to Tranxte?” Galborae asked hopefully.

“No. We’ll move as quickly as we can, but I will not rush things. I have to give serious consideration to what supplies we bring. Once we leave here, we’re light-years from support.” He looked to the ceiling, calculating, then said, “We’ll be ready to go in three weeks.”

He saw the glazed expression on Galborae’s face, but he misinterpreted it. “The time won’t be wasted.”

Galborae shook his head. “You don’t strike me as one to waste time. That part I understand.”

Havlock blinked, confused. He ran a hand through close-cropped dark hair that had recently begun turning a premature gray and asked, “What don’t you understand?”

“What’s a light-year? I get the impression it’s far.”

Havlock paused, his hard gaze softening as his eyes moved once again up and down Galborae’s body. “I’ve seen you on the firing range but we haven’t talked. Your aim is good and your stamina is acceptable considering your wounds. I think it’s time we got to know each other a little better. Actually . . . a lot better. I’m in command, but you have to show us around once we get there.”

“We’ll start with my home if I can find it,” Galborae answered with a frown, his eyes betraying an inner doubt.

“You don’t know where your home is? How did you get here?”

“I was rescued by a great warrior who was in service to a Knight. Until meeting them, I’d never been farther from my town than a gorlac could travel in one month.”

Havlock’s eyes went to the ceiling again as a hand rubbed unconsciously across the stubble on his chin. He was one of those unlucky people who always looked like he needed to shave, even right after shaving.

He lifted a communicator to his mouth and spoke. “Zac, I’m volunteering you for a new assignment. We’re shipping out. I need to see you.” He took Galborae’s arm and led him to a side office and waited while Limam crowded in with them. “Let’s talk,” he said. “Tell me about yourself.”

 “I’m a knight. I answer to my liege lord, thence to the King.”

“How many knights are there?”

“When I left, just myself. Gleasons killed the others.”

“How many before the gleasons?”

“Three. Each of us had a squire, and we all had gorlacs and melds.”

“Melds?”

“Like Limam here,” he said, running his hand through the cat’s fur. “They mind-meld with us.”

“So only three knights on the planet?”

Galborae jerked visibly. “No! There were three knights in my town. Most towns have at least one knight. My king commands 72 knights. I’m told some kings command more, but I have not seen it with my own eyes.”

Havlock’s eyes narrowed. “There’s more than one king on your world?”

“There are. Probably many. I can’t speak with certainty. Until the Knight took me aboard her ship, I had no idea how large our world was. I still don’t fully grasp it. What I do understand is that gleasons are everywhere. We will have to kill each and every one of them, not just the ones near my town.”

Major Lebac found them. Havlock introduced Galborae to him and added, “I’m taking an advance force of 20 squads to Tranxte. Want to fight gleasons with me?”

Lebac’s jaw dropped in shock. “We’ve been gearing up to do it, but these are gleasons we’re talking about, Gar. It’ll be bad. Going there was months away. Now you’re telling me it’s . . . right now?”

“We’re leaving as soon as we can pull it together. You and I beat the Rebels with no preparation at all. This time we have time to prepare, but we won’t have easy access to support once we leave. We have to take everything with us. Will you be my second in command?”

“Depends,” Lebac said guardedly. “We waited until the Terrans took out the Chessori before we took on the rebels. We can’t operate that way against gleasons. We’ll be on our own. Besides, you’ve been in a dark mood lately, my friend.”

Havlock shot a furtive glance toward Galborae, then returned a steady gaze to Lebac. “And you know why.”

Lebac frowned. “You see the marines who died. The rest of us look at the marines who lived. General Stymes must believe a change of venue will do you good. I happen to think he’s right, but gleasons?”

“You’ve probably heard we have a life force sensor that can identify gleasons. We’ll do most of our fighting from shuttles.”

Lebac shook his head. “It’s never that simple, Gar, and you know it. It’ll take all of us at our very best.”

Havlock nodded. “It will. I’m already putting the rebellion behind me. Stick with me, Zac. Let’s pull off another win.”

“Only if I get your best.”

“You have my word on it.”

Lebac stuck out a hand with a grin. “Then I’m in. I’m ready for a change, as well.”

“I want all the officers and as many of the enlisted as possible to be volunteers. Find people you can live with, then I’ll interview the officers and senior sergeants.”

The two of them discussed an overall plan, then Lebac left to get started on preparations. Havlock watched his friend go, then he led Galborae and Limam from the building. They strolled down a wide boulevard adjacent to the port, the smell of freshly clipped grasses filling their nostrils. The sun burned fiercely and Galborae felt like removing his tunic, but he’d been with the marines long enough to know they frowned on uniform imperfections. He did not have an actual uniform, but he had been wearing the tunic since his arrival and knew they considered it appropriate for him.

“So you know the lands around your town out to a distance of one month on a gorlac. That’s an animal?” Havlock asked.

“It’s a four-legged beast.”

“What about the rest of your world?” Havlock asked, beginning to get a better handle on the scope of his mission. “You say there are more kingdoms. Do they all speak the same language?”

“I don’t know. I had never heard another language before the Knight’s ship arrived.”

“You ride gorlacs. I take it you have no self-powered vehicles.”

“We don’t.”

“You carry a sword, so you have fire.”

Galborae rolled his eyes. “And wheels. We eat out of bowls. We use spoons and knives. We have roads and castles and homes and healers.”

Havlock reached a hand out to Galborae. “I mean no disrespect. I’m just trying to get my hands around the nature of our mission. How high can you count?”

Galborae blinked, not understanding the question. “What?”

“We have 20 combat shuttles. Each of them carries a twenty-man squad, two pilots, a medic, and an officer. How many soldiers do we have?”

Galborae didn’t hesitate. “Many.”

“How many?”

Galborae knew he was missing something, but the only answer that made any sense to him was many.

Havlock needed no further explanation and he changed the subject. “What will your people think when they see us fighting the gleasons?”

“It would be best if they only see me.”

Havlock shook his head. “No matter how hard we try, we’ll be seen. Rumors will spread.”

“Governor Seeton and the Knight each went to a lot of trouble to explain the consequences to my people of learning there’s an empire of aliens beyond our skies, but that’s your problem. I only care about stopping the dying. Let the rumors spread.”

Havlock studied Galborae for a long time, his mind considering the scope of their mission and Galborae’s part in it, then he shook his head. “You’re wrong. The cost to your people is not my concern. It’s yours.”

“My concern is gleasons.”

“No. You’re a knight. That means you’re a leader. I don’t know how good a leader you are, but your people need you to be a great leader. Your king and all the other kings will need guidance when we arrive. I’m counting on you to lead them through this terrible time. My men and I will deal with the gleasons, and we’ll do our best not to frighten everyone while we do so, but we’re going to fail at that. Many, many, many people will learn of us, and they won’t understand. General Stymes is putting together a program to help them. He’ll bring more soldiers, and he’ll bring scholars and experts to explain things, but those experts will need your help. So will your kings—all of them. I need you to start thinking bigger.”

“My people are stronger than you think.”

“We can’t bring all of them for a ride into space to teach them what you know.”

“They don’t need a ride into space. They need to survive. They’ll be desperate for food by the time we return. Farmers were not able to plant this season.”

“We can’t feed a whole planet.”

“Why not?”

Havlock rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Hmm. I’ll discuss it with General Stymes before we ship out. He might be able to send rations or something, but you’re talking about a whole world starving. To the best of my knowledge, he hasn’t been thinking along those lines. I know I haven’t.”

He clapped Galborae on the back. “See, you’re already helping them, and not just the people in your town. You’re helping everyone on the planet. Keep thinking along those lines.”