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Sky Knights - Spirit of Empire, Book Four

Chapter One

 

 

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 eager 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 its 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 effect.

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 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 had 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 treetops. 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 from 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.