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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental. Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

The Centurion Cycle - 7. The Centurion Book VII War of Heaven

The Centurion

Book VII:

War of Heaven

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One:

The Daughters of the Mother

 

Letting out a loud scream, Aegis clutched his chest as he felt his bond to King Aidan die inside him. On the ground about his feet, his Disciples were curled up in pain as they too felt the king’s passing. How can this be?” Aegis gasped, as he staggered to stay on his feet. Ahead of him, the yellow adobe walls of Othan stood against the seawall cliffs. Beyond the city, past the harbor, was the Jadoorian armada. Its battle flags were flying in the strong sea wind.

“Lord Aegis, are you alright?” Admiral Cooper asked when he found Aegis curled up in a ball on the rocky beach.

“The king… the king is dead,” Aegis croaked his voice sore from his screams of pain.

“That is the rumor. Word came from one of Amplexor’s men. Both Aidan and Dorian are dead. The whole kingdom is in an uproar.”

“How?” Aegis whispered as he stumbled back onto his feet.

“Killed by the traitors, James Parks and Kyle Anderson.”

“Then Ampelxor’s plans failed.” Aegis chuckled softly. All around him his disciples and children were quickly recovering.

“I don’t know about that. He has claimed the throne, though I don’t know how long he can hold it. Another Demon has appeared, one by the name of Gladius. He’s seems to be in charge now. Our new orders come from him.”

“And what are his orders?”

“To wipe out the sisterhood, if possible.”

“That was our plan to begin with.” Aegis grunted as he wiped the dirt from his face.

“Yes, but now we’re expected to capture a spy as well. It is believed that Emperor Jason has sent some of his own Saints to Mathannon. Gladius has ordered that their capture take top priority.”

“What would Gladius want with a few Saints?”

“I do not know, my Lord, but the punishment for failure is one I do not wish to risk.”

“Then I have good news for you, Admiral. I have heard rumors that my lover, Zophar, has sided with the Imperials and is on his way here.”

“Does he come in force?”

“Five thousand on horse, but do not worry…to prove my worth to our new leader, I will hand over these Saints to Lord Gladius myself.”

“See that you do.”

 

 

Chapter Two

Walking through the dark halls of the Temple of the Daughter, the Supreme Matriarch brushed her fingers through her tangle of gray hair as she approached the black altar. “Oh Holy Mother, we, your true followers, beseech you. Save us from these foul unbelievers and raise up our people to a new height of glory. Oh Holy Mother, who led us across the Barrier Ocean, shower us once more with your divine light… awaken your Daughter, so we might receive your blessing,” Ashella chanted.

“Supreme Matriarch,” one of her guards interrupted.

“What is it Samantha.”

“An Austrolian army has reached the city and has joined forces with the Jadoorians.”

“What of our own army.”

“Struggling to cross the snowy mountains. It will still be many days before they can come to our aid.”

“Not time enough,” Ashella said, as she drew a dagger from her robes and began chiseling away at the black sphere on the altar.

“What do you think you are doing?” Matriarch Jasmine demanded as she raced to the altar to stop Ashella from desecrating the holy artifact.

“There is no time!” Ashella screamed, as Jasmine and several guards dragged her away from the altar.

“Oh, there is plenty of time,” a man voice laughed from the entrance to the temple.

“A man… a man has entered our most holies of holies,” Ashella shouted. “Find him, and bring him to me.”

“Now really, Ashella; is that any way to treat a messenger for your god?” the man said, coming into the torchlight to reveal his bright red hair.

“A Grau… a man who is no man,” Jasmine exclaimed, as he fell at her knees.

“I wish you wouldn’t call me that… a silly way to describe me. I am more man than any of you, and a better woman than any of you can ever be.”

“Why have you come to us, divine messenger?” Ashella asked meekly as she freed herself from her guards.

“The Dominus have been watching you and have not been deaf to your prayers. You wish for the Daughter of the Mother to awaken. So be it,” the Grau said as he took a small scalpel out from his robe. “If you will allow me?”

“Let him through,” Ashella ordered.

“Thank you,” The Grau grinned as he walked over to the altar and the black animus core that rested on a giant gold cup in its center. Using the scalpel he made a small triangular incision in the perfect sphere. The piece quickly popped out, and black animus began to pour into the cup. “There you go. It’s all yours.”

“Finally, after fifty centuries, revenge will finally be ours,” Ashella said as she and the other sisters raced toward the altar.

“Just a word of warning… a little goes a long way,” the Grau said, knowing his words would be ignored. Already, the Supreme Matriarch was drinking directly from the gold cup, black anima running from the corners of her lips

 


 

 

Chapter Three

“So Aegis, we meet again,” Varrus said as he sat in Admiral Cooper’s command tent. In the distance, he could hear the sounds of explosions as the walls to Othan were blown to pieces by the joint Jadoorian and Austrolian armies.

“I wish we were meeting under better circumstances,” Aegis said as he glared at Zophar. The man stared back at him with his solid blue eyes. “I see you’ve made the acquaintance of my lover. I hope you two have enjoyed each other’s company.”

“Such bitterness… it was you who abandoned Zophar for your own ambitions.”

“Hopefully we can set that aside and work toward a common goal.”

“We are only here to make sure that the Daughter of the Mother is destroyed,” Zophar said.

“Which we will,” Aegis chuckled. Already our men are at the outer edges of the city. It is only a matter of time before the temple falls. “No, I’ve brought you here to discuss the future. As you might know, King Aidan is no more. High Priest Dorian has also seemed to have disappeared. This presents an opportunity that neither of our people can let pass.”

“We know how King Aidan died. As for Dorian, his loss will be mourned by my Emperor. I take it Amplexor is now king of Jadoor?”

“Only in a ceremonial role.”

“Then who is in control and who do you represent?”

“Why, High Priest Gladius.”

“Gladius…,” Varrus said, taken aback. “He’s alive?”

“He has always been alive. Just like the Daughter of the Mother, it was only a matter of time before he would awaken. As we speak, he is taking firm control over Jadoor and the rest of the Federation.”

“That may be, but that has nothing to do with us.

“Contrary to what you think, it actually does. Amplexor was an over ambitious fool. Gladius, however, is not. He recognizes your Emperor’s strength, and respects it. He hopes that an understanding can be reached between him and your Emperor. Now is not the time for war between our two powers. ”

“Jason feels the same,” Varrus nodded, surprised by the change of events.

“Then, will you agree to come to Meltor with me?”

“To Meltor?” Varrus asked suspiciously.

“You don’t think Gladius would travel to Domus… not after you killed King Aidan.”

“Then why not some place neutral?”

“Unless you’re suggesting we meet in Qopo, or all the way in Lahore, there is no neutral territory between us.”

“How about the Island of Peths? It’s about halfway between Koor and Aquanos,” Zophar suggested.

“It is also part of the Federation,” Varrus pointed out.

“Yet, it is also neutral territory, not an official part of any of the ten kingdoms,” Aegis replied.

Knowing how much Jason desired peace between Domus and Jadoor, Varrus set aside his suspicions. “Very well. Once we are done here I, and my followers, will travel to Peths to meet your new master.”

“Then it’s agreed,” Aegis said, offering his hand.

“I will shake your hand once there is peace between us, not before,” Varrus replied coldly.

Just then, three soldiers stormed into the tent. “Monsters… the bitches have set monsters against us,” the lead man yelled.

“Monsters?” Varrus frowned. “Damn, the Daughter must have awakened. Forgive me, Jason. I should have gone to the temple myself, instead of wasting my time here.”

“Have your men reached the Temple?” Aegis demanded, as Admiral Cooper entered the tent.

“We did, my Lord Aegis, but when we got there the altar was already smashed and there were dozens of these monsters inside.

“Describe them to me.”

“They looked like women, except their skin was pale blue or pink, and shimmered. Their hair was gone, replaced by long tentacles. They also had tentacles around their waists, looking like a long skirt. Two of the tentacles were very long and had barbed hooks, which they used to kill many of my men. And their eyes… their eyes were completely black, not a bit of white to be seen. Even so, you could tell they were angry, for they hissed at us, revealing their needle like teeth.”

“That’s enough,” Aegis said, cutting the man off. “Lord Varrus, I’m afraid I must ask you and your people to leave. The situation has grown too dangerous for you to remain.”

“I came here to stop the Daughter from awaking. Having failed that, I mean to see these monsters destroyed.”

“No… Lord Gladius wouldn’t forgive me if anything were to happen to you and your men. Admiral Cooper, gives this man and his men a ship, and sends them on their way to Peths.”

“As you wish, Lord Aegis.” Cooper bowed.

“Do you really think you can stop these creatures on your own?”

“I don’t know. At the very least, I can buy the Austorlians time to escape the island. Afterwards, the armada can blockade the entire island and make sure not one of those creatures reaches Jadoor or the mainland.”

“Then I leave you to it,” Varrus said as he followed Admiral Cooper out of the tent.

“What do you want us to do about the city?” a commander asked Aegis.

“Make an orderly retreat, but tell our men not to leave one woman alive. This contagion must be controlled,” Aegis ordered as he looked at a map of Mathannon. To the southeast was Mathannon’s main army. If they were unable to keep those monsters holed up in Othan, then the situation would quickly spin out of control. With both Aidan and Dorian dead, however, Aegis had no way to make contact with Gladius and inform him of his need for vast reinforcements to carry out his plans for the total removal of all human life on the vast island.

 


 

Chapter Four

Celia entered the Imperial throne room dressed in a light blue dress and a necklace of ivory and pearls around her slender neck. Already her child with Varrus was growing inside her. Flanking her, on either side, were her personal female bodyguards and a half dozen Qopo servants. When she got to within ten feet of Jason, sitting on his gold throne, she did not bow but glared at his majesty.

“What is the matter, Celia,” Jason said in a hard tone. He knew quite well why the Islian princess was upset, and was in no mood for the shouting match that was about to ensue.

“You know quite well what’s the matter. You let that whore go.”

“Such language is not allowed in my court, especially when it is used so falsely,” Jason replied.

“Are we not your allies your majesty? Are not your enemies, ours? That is how we have treated our alliance with you. Why then do you give honor to our most hated enemy?”

“Queen Pasha is not your enemy, Celia. You’re not even of Qopo blood.”

“But I am an Islian Princess. Our alliance with the Qopo goes back to my kingdom’s founding. The blood of their greatest leaders flows through my veins. Their honor is my honor, and you have damaged it by your actions.”

“I have done no such thing. If I had handed her over to your people, I would have dishonored myself and the Empire.”

“The Rapans are traitors to the land. They do not deserve your kindness.”

“What do you mean, they are traitors?” Jason asked. He was very curious to learn the source of the animosity between Qopo and Rapa.

“It is only a legend…” Celia said, now looking sheepish.

“Legends are things the Centurions hold dear to their hearts. Wars have been fought over legends. Tell me yours,” Jason said calmly.

“It is not mine… it is the Qopo’s.”

“Still, you know it.”

“It’s not for the ears of outsiders.”

“Then we shall speak in private,” Jason said, undoing the metal clasps that held his gold robe in place. He let it fall behind him so he was dressed only in a white toga striped with imperial purple. Leaving the throne room, he took Celia to a terraced garden that surrounded one of the palace’s large squat towers. “So?” he asked after he sat down on a marble bench.

“I do not know if I should be telling you any of this.”

“As Varrus’ wife, I do not think we should have any secrets between us,” Jason replied.

“Very well.” Celia bowed as she sat down next to Jason. “According to what the Qopo believe, the world was once made up of two people, the Qopo and the Mords. For countless years the two people lived in peace under the divine protection of heaven. One day, however, on the day the gods died the skies of our world blazed with a fire that didn’t burn. For many years these fires burned and, as they did so, the land and people began to sicken. Back then, the greatest among the Qopo, the Togos, were almost gods themselves. To extinguish the fire burning in the heavens, they created Luna, the moon that shines over Ares to this very day. Even so, there were limits to the power of Luna. It could only restore half the heavens to our people. Knowing the Mords would become jealous of our great Luna; the Qopo divided the world by creating the great Barrier Ocean that separates Ares from Mordel, the lands of the Mord.

“Not everyone was happy with this choice, however. A group of Qopo tribes known as the Rapans objected to our leaders’ plans to divide the world in half. In order to prevent a civil war, these tribes were exiled from Ares, never to return.”

“But they did return,” Jason said.

“Yes, they did,” Celia nodded. “And they did not come back alone. With them came the Jadoorians, Famulus, Centurions, Legatio, and three new gods. You know them as the Holy Mother and her two sons, the Angel and his Demon. If that was all they brought, maybe the Rapans would have been welcomed home.”

“But that’s not what happened.”

“While under the Qopo Ares remained rich and prosperous, the lands of the Mords had continued to sicken and die. Wars broke out among their god-like leaders… wars where sickness and disease were the weapons of choice. When the Rapa returned to us they brought their plagues with them. In a matter of a few generations every Qopo tribe north of the Inner Sea was gone, killed because of the actions of the Rapans. That is why the Qopo hate the Rapans so much, and why they will never forgive them.”

“Whatever happened to the Qopo’s great leaders, the ones who built Luna and extinguished the fires in heaven?” Jason asked.

“They too have disappeared.”

“From the plagues?”

“No, they disappeared centuries before the Rapa returned. The Rapa and your people are not the only ones to escape the dying lands of Mordel. The people of Lahore also came from across the Great Barrier Ocean, led by a red haired Demon known as Kaal.”

“Isn’t he the god of Lahore?”

“He was no god but a monster. As a child growing up in Isil, the servants would tell stories about him that would give me nightmares. According to the Legend, it was he who created the Desert of Flames. At least that is what both my people and the Qopo believe. That is how the gods of the Togo were killed and their great cities destroyed. Since that time, the Qopo have lived simple lives, fearing that if they try to recover their past greatness a worse tragedy will befall them.”

“Is there any chance any of the great ones survived?”

“There are many stories among the Qopo which speak of survivors but I do not know if there is any truth to find in them.”

“Still, I would like to hear them. If the great ones still live, we must find them and plead for their assistance.”

“Why?” Celia asked.

“The land of Mordel is a land of death, but its masters still live. Do you not think they look upon the green lands of Ares with envious eyes?”

“But no one has come across the Barrier in thousands of years.”

“But they have… I’ve seen several red haired demons, as you called them, and they have caused much mischief and trouble in Ares. I fear that they plan to do much worse very soon. The Qupo need to be warned of this. The time is quickly approaching when we will need all the allies we can get, including the Rapans and the Qupo.”

“Making peace with the Rapans is not something I can do on my own,” Celia whispered, stunned by the task Jason had just handed her.

“You let me deal with the Rapans. The task I have for you is far more important. If the great ones still live, you must find them and get them to come out of hiding.”

“Then I must return to Isil and my father, for most the legends state that the great ones live somewhere in the Desert of Flames.”

“Then go with my blessing. If there is anything you need, men or supplies, all the resources of the Empire are at your disposal.”

“Supplies I’ll take, but men, no, not even your mighty Centurions. My women are all I need.”

“So be it. Just don’t let any Centurion here you say that?”

“Why, would he take that as a challenge?”

“Challenge, no, but it would hurt his feelings. Trust me there is nothing worse than a sulking Centurion,” Jason joked.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Celia laughed.

 

 


           

Chapter Five

Returning to the throne room, Jason found his High Priest on his knees with a young man beside him. “Your majesty, may I present the son of Prime Minister Colvin, Sir Gregory.

“The one who set out to kill the kings of the west?” Jason asked, as he sat down on his throne.

“The very one,” Julian replied his head remaining bowed.

“What do you think I should do with a man who would go out of his way to ruin my plans?” Jason asked, feigning coldness.

“Some sort of punishment is deserved,” Julian said keeping his grin hidden.

“Well, there is only one punishment I can think of, and that’s to send him to Jacob.”

“But that beast will tear him to shreds,” Julian said as he struggled not to laugh.

“If that is to be his fate, so be it. Well, that will be all Sir Gregory. You are to report to Lord Jacob. He will decide your punishment. If I were you, I would start praying now for leniency.”

“Yes, your majesty.” The young man’s face was quite pale as he hurried out of the room.

“Well played, your majesty,” Julian chuckled as he rose to his feet.

“It’s your fault that everyone thinks I’m a tyrant… all that talk about divine judgment.”

“I only speak the truth.”

“Allegorically,” Jason smirked. “I’ve heard rumors of what you say at temple. I can only suggest you cut down on your more colorful use of imagery.”

“I will keep that in mind,” Julian nodded as two men were escorted into the throne room.

“Your majesty may I present King Miguel of Freen and King Avin of Dorsa,” a Wing Guard said, giving Jason a deep bow.

“I guess I’ll be going now,” Julian said as he prepared to leave.

Jason raised a hand to stop him. “No, stay. This concerns the church as well.”

“As you wish,” Julian said, as he climbed the steps to the throne and stood at Jason’s right side.

“Your majesties, I hope you’ve had a chance to recover from your journey.”

“If you call running for your life a journey,” Avin replied sternly.

“It was for your own protection.”

“If that’s the case, why didn’t you send more men to protect us?” Miguel asked.

“Larger numbers would have attracted greater notice,” Jason replied. “Anyway, you’re safe now.”

“I don’t count having a price on my head as being safe,” Avin replied.

“No one is going to collect a bounty on you. My guards will see to that.”

“So you admit we’re your hostages,” Miguel accused.

“I beg your pardon?” Jason coughed.

“Well, are we?” The King of Dorsa pressed. “You won’t let us return to our kingdoms.”

“With Jadoorian Templars running about… you wouldn’t last a day on the throne,” Julian said angrily. “If you two are saying you would have preferred being left to Amplexor’s tender mercies, that can be arranged,” Jason said as he glared at the two fools.

“See? Now you’re threatening us,” Avin scoffed.

Noticing Geoff enter the room with his nervous looking son, Jason raised a hand to silence the two kings. “You are my guests, and have been treated accordingly. If you are so unhappy, you may return to your lands, but without the aid of my legions. If you are willing to be patient, however, I am sure the time will come when both of you may reclaim your thrones without the cost of innocent lives. Now, if you do not mind, there is another matter I need to attend.” Dismissed, the kings sulked out of the throne room, whispering angrily as they blamed each other for their predicament.

“Geoff, welcome home,” Jason said, leaving the throne to embrace his friend.

“It is good to be back,” Geoff nodded, before turning to his son. “Your majesty, may I present my son Owen? He’s been looking forward to meet you.”

“And I, him,” Jason said, as he looked down at the blue eyed disciple. “What do you think of Domus so far?”

“I’ve been to Randor, but it is nothing compared to the Imperial capital.”

“Then I hope you will find yourself comfortable here.”

“Here in the palace?” Owen asked, amazed.

“For as long as you like,” Jason promised. “Soon, your mother will be here as well.”

“Really? So she’s safe?”

“As safe as can be,” Jason said as Jacob entered the room. Waving Jason over, he introduced the two. “Jacob, I would like you to meet Owen, Geoff’s son.”

“Well, hello,” Jacob grinned.

“You think you can show him around the palace while I talk with his father?”

“I would be more than happy to,” Jacob said licking his lips.

“Just promise to be gentle,”

“Gentle?” Owen asked nervously.

“I will be,” Jacob replied with a sly wink. “Come on, Owen, there’s a lot to see and a lot to do.”

“Are you sure my son will be alright with Jacob?”

“I’m sure they will get along fine,” Jason laughed, as he embraced Geoff tightly. “I’ve missed you.”

“Not too badly, I hope.” Geoff chuckled as he wrapped his arms around Jason. “I hear you’ve picked out a few new friends.”

“Philip did,” Jason replied as he kissed the top of Geoff’s head. “You could do with a bath.”

“I wanted to make good time getting here,” Geoff said defensively.

“Definitely a bath,” Jason insisted as he led his bodyguard out of the throne room. On reaching the palace baths, they found James and Kyle already there.

“How’s the leg?” Geoff asked James as he slid into the warm water.

“It still hurts,” Kyle said worriedly, as he massaged his lover’s leg.

“If all I end up with is a bad limp, I will count myself lucky,” James said as he playfully splashed a handful of water in Kyle’s direction.

Kyle let his lips form a pout as he slipped between James’ legs. “Always the hero.”

“That he is,” Jason agreed as he joined the others in the pool.

“Am I not a hero?” Geoff asked as he pulled Jason toward him.

“Of course you are, but you don’t have any scars to prove it.” Jason laughed.

Geoff buried his face against Jason’s chest. “Why you…” he growled as he ticked his Angel.

“Any word on Varrus?” James asked.

“He escaped Mathannon and is on his way to meet with Gladius on Peths.”

“Gladius… so that old demon is awake?” James said, surprised.

“My guess is that Amplexor used King Aidan’s anima to revive his lover.”

“Better him than any of us.” Kyle smirked as he kissed James on the nose.

“Still I do not know if this is a good thing. We know almost nothing about Gladius or his intentions toward us,” Jason said.

“He can’t be worse than Amplexor,” James insisted. “That man is as bad as they come.”

“Hopefully, Varrus can reach an understanding with Gladius so we won’t have to go to war,” Geoff said.

“I wish I knew… since Aidan’s death, however, I’ve not had any dreams… at least of the future.” Jason chuckled, his face turning a shade of gray.

“I would hope you would be dreaming of me. I know I’ve been dreaming of you,” James winked.

“You’re hopeless.”

“Hopelessly in love with you.”

“Kyle, control your Angel,” Geoff said half jokingly before kissing Jason deeply.

“Like this?” Kyle asked as he kissed James on the lips.

“Yes, just like that,” James smirked before kissing Kyle twice as hard.

Jason was just about to kiss James again when a shadow fell over him “Hello, papa,” Jacob said as he stood naked over them. Behind him were Jason’s Four Generals; Hector, Tanner, Chad, and Brask. At the very back, his face beet red was Owen, also naked and completely embarrassed.

“Hello,” Jason said, his own face turning pink. “Giving Owen his first real bath?”

“Among other things,” Jacob said smugly, as Chad knocked Owen into the pool.

“I smell trouble,” Kyle said, a worried expression on his face that was quickly replaced by an excited grin. “Can I join in?”

“We’d be more than happy to have all four of you.” Tanner winked at Jason.

“Well, you all have fun,” Jason said as he hopped out of the water.”

“But Jason?” Kyle pouted.

“I have a busy schedule to keep, and this looks like it might take a while.” Jason replied as a Famulus wrapped him in a red robe. “Does it have to be red?”

“You’re off to meet a delegation of Legatio Senators are you not?” the Famulus replied.

“Very well, but hand me a white towel will you.”

“As your majesty wishes.” The Famulus chuckled. Doing as he was asked, he handed Jason a white towel.

“I hate red,” Jason grumbled as he dried his hair.

“I am sure that, as Emperor, you can bear such a burden,” the Famulus replied, receiving a glare from Jason as he placed the towel over his shoulders. Taking out a brush, the servant busied himself making Jason’s tangle of black hair more presentable. “Such a mess. I think it’s time for another haircut, your majesty.”

“Very well, but after I meet with the Legatio delegation. You know how much they hate being made to wait.”

“As you wish, your majesty,” the Famulus chuckled.

“That’s a very surly Famulus,” James said from the pool.

“By now, you should know better. A fussy Famulus is a good Famulus,” Jason replied as the black robed servant removed a loose string from Jason’s robe. “Klaus here is as fussy as they come.”

“Stop it, your majesty. You’re embarrassing me.” The Famulus blushed.

“Just so long as my own servants don’t treat me that way,” James replied.

“Do you wish us to join you?” Hector asked Jason.

“No, enjoy your bath,” Jason replied as he walked out of the chamber.

“Will you be flying over to the New Senate Building?”

“That would be too grandiose of me. No, I think I will walk to the Garden District.”

Rushing ahead of Jason, Klaus opened the doors leading to one of the many palace courtyards where a dozen of Jason’s winged Saints waited to escort him to the Senate. “The Wing Guard is already assembled.”

“Hello, Lieutenant Koltus,” Jason waved.

“Your majesty,” the former Centurion bowed. “All has been prepared, as you have asked.”

“Don’t look so glum, Koltus… the Senate isn’t that bad.” Jason chuckled.

“Not the Senate as a whole… just those damn Legatio who think they should run everything.”

“That is what they have always thought,” Jason said, as his guards formed a circle around him and their commander.

“You were wise to give the largest number of seats to the Famulus. So far, they’ve been able to keep the Legatio under control. Still, even they are starting to suspect the Senate only exists out of an obligation to tradition.”

“So you’re calling me a tyrant?” Jason asked as they entered the main square.

“A good tyrant,” Koltus laughed.

Walking to the heart of what had been the Old Legatio Quarter; Jason entered the gold domed Senate Building. On reaching a pair of red painted iron doors, Jason waved most of his guards off, entering the room only with Koltus and Klaus.

“Speaker Invale,” Jason nodded looking at the man at the head of the table surrounded by his red robed supporters.

Rising to his feet, the six hundred year old Legatio bowed to Jason. “Your Imperial Majesty, you honor us with your presence.”

“Then you will not waste my time, and tell me why it is you have asked me here,” Jason said as he and his followers remained standing.

“Will you sit with us and agree to be reasonable?”

“I prefer to stand,” Jason replied sternly. “As for being reasonable, that all depends on what it is you have to ask of me?”

“Very well, if you prefer to tower over us so be it,” Invale said as he sat back down. “As you might have known, we Legatio have our own network of informants spread out throughout Ares.”

“As do I,” Jason replied.

“Yours is fairly new, however. Ours go back several generations, families that have secretly served us for hundreds of years… ever since the days of the High Ambassadors.”

“Such a resource should be shared with his majesty,” Koltus grumbled.

“What have you learned Speaker? I take it is a matter of grave concern to the Empire, or you would not have summoned me.”

“It is a grave matter. A few days ago, one of our servants, an oil merchant by the name of Paj, brought word to us of events happening far away, on the other side of the Desert of Flames.”

“You mean the Lahore Empire?” Jason asked.

“Yes, your majesty. It seems they have a new Emperor, a boy named Calis.”

“And we’re threatened by a mere boy?” Koltus demanded.

“He is not a mere boy… though only fourteen, he is described as tall and as strong as one of our great Centurions. I take it you know what that must mean?”

“The anima Lord Brashear sold must have ended up in Purrsha. How did Lahore learn of the properties of anima without knowing its risks? Do you have an answer to that Speaker?”

“That I do your majesty. It seems the new King has his own council of special advisors from Jadoor.”

“Jadoor? But that’s over five thousand miles away from Purrsha.” Klaus coughed.

“Who were these Jadoorians?” Jason demanded.

“The High Inquisitor and his followers,” Invale replied with a smug smile.

“Jadoor’s High Inquisitor… I would have never suspected that.”

“Lahore is a religious state, controlled by its church more than in Jadoor,” the Legatio Speaker replied. “I’m sure the Lahorians find Warren’s considerable talents to be of great use.”

“If Warren is as close to the Emperor as you say, then an attack from Lahore can be expected,” Jason sighed.

“Have you not feared such would happen? Why else did you agree to an alliance with Isil?” the Speaker asked.

“The foretelling,” Klaus gasped. “His majesty really has the gift.”

“Is this true your majesty? Do you really have the gift?” the Speaker asked.

“A great storm is brewing in Lahore… one that we might not survive. What knowledge you might have can only aid us Speaker Invale.”

“So you don’t have perfect sight. Then maybe you will listen to our council.”

“Tell me what it is you wish of me.”

“Very well. Yes, war with Lahore seems inescapable, but war with Jadoor?

“You’ve been in contact with Lord Gladius,” Jason guessed.

“He has made his will known to us. He has asked us to tell you that he wishes nothing but peace between our two people.”

“And?” Koltus asked suspiciously.

“That the best way to ensure a lasting alliance between you and Jadoor’s new High Priest, or I should say first High Priest, is for there to be a marriage between you two.”

“Marriage?” Jason laughed. “I already have two husbands.”

“Then you should have no problem taking on a third.”

“And what do you get out of this?” Koltus demanded.

“Why, the restoration of a true Legatio Senate.”

“But I would never allow that,” Jason replied.

“Maybe, for now, but I am sure your new husband will be able to convince you otherwise.”

“No husband of mine would make such demands of me. I am afraid such an alliance will not be possible.”

“I see,” Invale sighed. From the door behind him, a dozen Demon Spawn appeared each carrying ropes and chains.

“You have just made a serious error Speaker Invale.”

“I do not think so. Lord Gladius has promised to reward me greatly if I hand you over to him,” Invale said, as he and his supporters left the table to hide behind the Demon Spawn who began to fill the room.

“Does Philip know?” Koltus whispered to Jason as he stood to block the Spawns’ way to the emperor.

“He does now,” Jason said, as a loud banging could be heard from the other side of the red iron doors at his end of the room. “Open the door, will you, Koltus.”

“Of course, your majesty.” The Winged Guard bowed, as he calmly left his seat at the table. Before he could reach the door, however, Gladius’ Demon Spawn whipped out their chains, wrapping them around Koltus’ legs and arm.

“I am warning you, Speaker. Stop this nonsense at once,” Jason warned. Rising to his feet he drew his father’s gold ceremonial dagger from his belt.

“Do you think I’m afraid of getting cut?” Invale chuckled as he took a dark green vial from his robe.

“Don’t,” Jason said, but it was already too late. The Speaker, and all of his followers, consumed the dark animus in front of Jason. Not wanting to see what would happen to the Legatio, Jason ran for the door. He removed the iron bar keeping it locked, and allowed his winged guards to charge into the room, spears and bows in hand. Turning back around, Jason saw the transformation the Legatio were undergoing. “In Ares’ name…”

The skin of the twelve Legatio was bubbling off, revealing hard black scales underneath. The irises of their eyes turned bright, with tiny spots of red where their pupils should have been. From their mouths, drops of blood were flowing as each coughed out mouthfuls of teeth. Razor sharp fangs replaced them.

“What are they?” Koltus demanded.

“Another abomination,” Jason declared, as he watched the Senators’ mouths and noses jut out into snouts. “Do not let even one escape.”

“Then you should flee, Jason,” Koltos replied, as these lizard men began to pick up arms.

“You need my help,” Jason said, as he took a spear away from one of his guards.

“We need you safe,” Koltus insisted, drawing his sword.

“I will go when Philip arrives,” Jason compromised.

Storming into the room with over two dozen of his Spawn, Philip entered and grabbed hold of Jason. “Then he will be leaving now,” Philip insisted as he pulled Jason out of the room.

“You arrived sooner than I thought you would,” Jason chuckled as Philip examined him.

“Did you know this was going to happen?” Philip growled in a warning tone.

“No, not at all, Philip,” Jason replied. “I am glad you’re here. I don’t know what it is we’re facing.”

“We’ve already killed several of them. At least a dozen of those creatures were guarding the corridor to this room.”

“Then they meant to trap me from the start,” Jason said, his own temper rising. “They mustn’t escape.”

“Even if it means killing them all?” Philip asked. “They are still Legatio.”

“Empty the Senate. I don’t want anyone else to be taken hostage.”

“It will be done, my love, but first I must see to your safety. You can be sure the roads from here to the palace are being watched.”

“Then I will not go back to the palace. I’ll head for the Imperial Library, instead. I have more questions than I do answers. I don’t like that,” Jason said, just as he felt a sharp pain in his heart. One of his Saints had just been killed.

Catching Jason before he could fall, Philip held his husband tightly to him. “These creatures, whatever they are, are dangerous to us. Their venom killed five of my Spawn before I could reach you. That is why I do not think we can capture one without risking lives needlessly.”

“Have the city sealed… there might be more conspirators than those we have already faced,” Jason said as he struggled to hold back his tears.

“Then you don’t know… the ones we saw had wings.” Philip led Jason through the heavily guarded corridor and out of the Senate. Above them the sky was filled with Jason’s Saints as they did battle against the winged lizard men. “So many…” Jason sighed. “How could so many betray the Empire?”

“It is no longer their Empire,” Philip whispered. “First Xavier’s cruelty then your distrust. They are no longer the voice of Domus and they know it. I do not know if it is so yet, but I believe we will discover that those who betrayed you were not the ones who followed you into exile in Qul Tos.”

“Have I been that unfair to them?” Jason asked feeling guilty.

“The Senate is now dominated by men they once saw as their slaves and inferiors.”

“The Famulus deserved a voice in government.”

“That they do, but, by giving it to them, you stripped most Legatio of their political power. I am not saying you were wrong in what you did, but you have made enemies2 dear Jason.”

“Is that all I’m good at?” Jason sighed as a squad of Demon Spawn formed a circle around the Emperor and his consort.

“You are also very good at making friends.” Philip chuckled. Taking the spear from Jason’s hands, he gave his lover a parting kiss before jumping into the air to battle the flying lizards.

Running through the streets of the city, Jason found most of them abandoned. Those few on the roads were walking fast with their eyes looking skyward. On reaching the Imperial Library Jason, found the main doors guarded by a hundred white-cloaked members of the Home Guard. Once inside, he found the building’s vast chambers filled with people who had sought refuge. On see their Emperor, many went down on their knees and begged him for his protection.

Making what promises he could, Jason went up to the third floor of the library where the Academics kept their private offices. On reaching a specific door, he knocked twice to hear a small squeaky voice grant him entrance. Stepping inside, he saw a youthful, red robed Legatio man with spectacles resting on his nose.

“Oh, your majesty, thank Luna you are here.” The Academic exhaled as he stepped out from behind the fern behind which he had been hiding.

“Academic Justinian, I’m sorry if I’ve caught you off guard.”

“No, your majesty, think nothing of it. Given what is going on in the city, I feel safer with you here. Why are you here by the way?”

“Philip didn’t think the road to the palace was safe, so I came here.”

“Surely one of the Home Guard garrisons would offer greater safety,” Justinian replied as he wiped away a few crumbs from his red robe.

“But then I wouldn’t have you to answer a few of my questions.” Jason laughed.

“You’ve come to speak with me?” Justinian blushed.

“You are the foremost expert on the Lahore Empire.”

“Because I’m the only Legatio who has dared crossed the Desert of Flames and seen the Empire for myself,” Justinian boasted.

“Yes, how very un-Legatio of you.” Jason grinned. Justinian was 153 years old, but still acted like a flighty schoolboy back at the Academy.

“Something we have in common, no?” Justinian smiled. “So what can I tell you about Lahore?”

“Its people, its traditions, its religion… everything you can, basically.”

“That might take some time, for they are really a very diverse people outside their shared religion.”

“Then why don’t we start with that?” Jason recommended.

“May I sit your majesty?” Justinian asked, looking at his comfy chair.

“So long as you don’t mind me sitting as well,” Jason joked.

“Of course not, your majesty. I wouldn’t dream of telling you what you can or cannot do,” Justinian said, taking Jason comment literally.

Once both were seated, Justinian began. “It all started in Mordel, or so the legends say. The first tribe of Lahore was nothing more than the favored slaves of a people known as the Dominus, masters of Mordel. There were other slaves, of course. Some were treated better than the Lahorians; many were treated much worse. One of the most favored was a man known as Kaal. From what I saw in their temples, the most recognizable trait of this man was his bright red hair.

“A Grau,” Jason sighed.

“A what, your majesty?”

“Kaal was of the Grau tribe,” Jason explained to Justinian.

“I should write that down,” Justinian said as he looked over his messy desk for a quill.

“Later,” Jason suggested. “Tell me more about the relationship between Kaal and the Lahorians.”

“According to their gospels, one of the Dominus, called The Mother, led a great revolt against the other gods and many tribes of slaves escaped to the lands of Ares. The tribe of Lahore, however, remained faithful. Still, the Dominus debated whether or not to destroy all the slave tribes so that another revolt could never happen. It was Kaal, the redheaded one, who spoke in the defense of Lahorian people. In the end he was exiled, along with the tribe, across the western sea to the lands called Gaia.”

“Which we call Ares?” Jason asked.

“It seems that way, doesn’t it. Sort of proves the theory that the world is indeed round. One would have to travel to Mordel to confirm that but, yes, lands west of the Desert of Flames are known as Ares while those to the east are known as Gaia. Only the Qopo could tell us which is the correct name.”

“Why the Qopo?” Jason asked.

“Because they are the original people who lived on this side of the world. According to Qopo legends. All other people, including us Legatio, are nothing more than invaders.”

“I think I’ve heard something to that effect,” Jason said, remembering his conversation with Celia.

“Anyways, when the Lahore arrived the Qopo were none too happy about it. For decades they fought an endless war with one another until…”

“Until what?” Jason pressed.

“Until Kaal destroyed the heart of the Qopo Empire by turning their lands into what is now known as the Desert of Flames.”

“Kaal created the Desert of Flames?” Jason asked skeptically.

“According to the Lahorians, he did. Of course no one knows for sure, because it is believed Kaal returned to Mordel soon afterwards with the promise he would come amongst them again, sometime in the future.”

“And what do you believe?” Jason asked.

“To be honest, I thought it was all a bunch of religious nonsense… that is, until you showed up and made yourself Emperor. The people say you are a god. If that’s true, maybe the god of the Lahore might be real as well.”

“Well, I’m not a god, and neither is Kaal, though I am sure the Lahore saw him as one.”

“So you think Kaal is more than a legend, that he was a real person once?” Justinian asked hungry for the Emperor’s opinion.

“Yes, I do believe he was.”

“And the Desert of Flames? Do you believe one man could have caused such a great disaster?

“Yes, I believe he might have had that power once,” Jason nodded. If Kaal had brought such a weapon with him to Gaia, why did it take over a half a century for him and the Lahorians to fight off the Qopo? The only answer Jason could think of was that the Qopo might still possess great weapons of war. He would have to talk with Celia about that, soon.

“If he does come back, as the legends foretell, will Domus have to worry about facing the same?” the scholar asked, his brow furrowing.

“I don’t know, Justinian. I just don’t know,” Jason replied.

 

 


Chapter Six

It was after midnight before the High Council could be assembled, but it was not the lack of sleep that had Jason in such a foul mood. In addition to attempting to assassinate most of the other leaders in the Senate, the transformed Legatio, these dragon men, had attempted an attack on the Imperial Palace itself. They killed several servants and guards before the last was killed outside the door leading to the nursery. Jason didn’t know if the traitors had intended to kidnap or kill his children. He didn’t care. All that mattered was that a threat had been made against his family. That was the greatest of a series of errors Lord Gladius had made this day.

Sitting in a high backed chair in the middle of the crescent shaped table, Jason only spoke two words in a commanding voice. “How many?”

“How many…” James sighed. As head of the Home Guard, security of the Imperial Capital, not to mention that of the Imperial Family, was his responsibility. “How many dragon men did we kill? How many did we let escape? How many of Gladius’ Spawn infiltrated the city’s walls? I wish we could answer just one of those questions tonight.”

“It’s not your fault, James… you didn’t know. Once again, the Legatio proved they are not to be trusted,” Philip replied.

“That is my fault. I should have trusted them more.” Jason sighed.

“Care to explain that? I just said they can’t be trusted,” Philip grunted.

“Who is more likely to betray you, an enemy or a friend?”

“An enemy, of course,” Philip replied.

“Well, I made most of the Legatio my enemy by not trusting them. What Xavier did was bad enough.”

“What you did was nothing compared to Xavier,” Kyle said.

“What I did was strip them of any hope that they would regain their past glory. What’s worse is that I expected them to feel grateful towards me for rescuing them from Xavier, while refusing to ever trust them.”

“Not all the Legatio betrayed you.” First Speaker Daniel of the Famulus spoke in calm, collected, voice. As Famulus leader of the Senate, he blamed himself for not seeing the plot brewing under his own roof.

“Those who went into Exile with me, who never faced the horrors Xavier delivered onto the people, they remained loyal, correct?” Jason asked the newly appointed Legatio Speaker, Joshua. As he had been a student at the Academy with Jason, the Emperor did not doubt the young Legatio’s loyalty. Still, it hadn’t been an easy choice. Joshua was the youngest Legatio Speaker in the history of the Empire. Many of his more senior Legatio would see him as a puppet of the Emperor.

“Yes, Jason… I mean, your majesty,” Joshua whispered in a nervous voice, overwhelmed by being present during a meeting of the High Council.

“I would not put must trust in those Legatio, even so,” Philip replied. “Shared suffering forms its own unique bonds between men. Most likely, none of the Exiles were part of today’s disturbance because it never occurred to those who suffered under Xavier to include them.”

“So they can’t even trust their own people,” Jason sighed. “How many bodies have we accounted for?”

“Thirty-two, though with their bodies so changed I do not think we can ever hope to know who they really once were.” James replied.

“I would guess that twice that many escaped,” Philip replied. “Don’t worry, they will be hunted down.”

“If it is their aim to remain in the Empire,” Louis pointed out. “Remember this all started off as a kidnapping attempt against Jason. They must have intended to take him somewhere where they would be safe. Jadoor would be a good bet.”

“We must learn more of these creatures,” Jason insisted as he rubbed his scalp. In his mind he was searching for Kristen, but the turncoat agent from Mordel was using the same tricks, to keep his thoughts and whereabouts hidden, as he had taught Jason.

“We could always experiment on our own,” Philip offered.

“Do you think any Legatio would freely volunteer?” Jason asked skeptically.

“Not to Philip, but maybe you your majesty,” Joshua suggested.

“Who’s to say the results will be any different?”

“Your Saints and Philip’s Spawn are different enough,” Kyle replied.

“I’ve just never done such a thing with a Legatio,” Jason said, as he began to blush.

“Not even at the Academy?” Philip said, surprised.

“Alex and Gideon,” Jason replied. “Those two scared off any Legatio who took that sort of interest in me. “

“Now that shouldn’t surprise me,” Philip chuckled.

“What of Varrus?” James asked. “Is he still traveling to Peths to meet with Gladius?”

Even though he had known this question would come up, Jason still wasn’t ready to discuss it. “He’s been taken prisoner.”

“Why didn’t you say anything sooner?” Philip demanded, pained by the hurt look on his lover’s face.

“Because there is nothing I can do about it for the moment.”

“We can attempt a rescue,” James offered.

“He’s too well guarded for that. They would kill him before giving him up,” Jason replied.

“Surely they want something, or they would have killed him by now,” Geoff said.

“Gladius wants me,” Jason whispered.

“What did you say?” Philip growled.

“Lord Gladius will use Varrus to get me to surrender to his demands.”

“You mean torture him, knowing you will feel it through the bond,” James said with disgust.

“Yes,” Jason whispered.

“Hopefully, Varrus understands what it is he must do,” Philip replied sternly.

“He won’t commit suicide. I won’t let him,” Jason said as he glared at Philip angrily.

“It might be for the best,” Geoff said calmly. “So both of you can avoid needless suffering.”

“I will not let Varrus die,” Jason commanded.

“Then we must attempt a rescue,” James said, leaning back in his chair. “Is the ship still headed for Peths?”

“It is,” Jason nodded.

“Too bad… there’s only one good place to land in Peths, and that’s at the main harbor. I don’t think they’ll let us do that without a fight,” James sighed.

“Then we must trick him to bring Varrus to us,” Geoff said.

“The only way that will happen is if Gladius is foolish enough to invade.” James laughed.

“Which is what we must trick him into doing before he kills Varrus,” Geoff replied.

Do you have a plan?” Philip asked.

“At the moment, no. We must act soon though. Time is not on our side,” Geoff said.

 

 

Chapter Seven

While dancers, acrobats, and flame eaters entertained the imperial court at Purrsha, the Emperor Calis looked entirely bored with the scene. In order to add a little more excitement and to amuse himself, Calis picked up the bow that was resting against his stone throne. Notching an arrow he peered down its shaft at the array of targets before him. Finding one, he let the bow sing as an arrow hit a male dancer in the thigh, causing him to stumble to the floor.

“A most excellent shot, your majesty,” Warren said, from where he stood in brown clerical robes behind the throne.

“It was adequate. I didn’t want to kill the man, after all,” Calis replied with a yawn.

“Of course not. Only a tyrant kills his subjects needlessly,” Warren replied with amusement. Corrupting the young man had not been difficult, not with the aid of anima. The prince was tall, strong, handsome, and a proven fighter in the arena. Feeding his sexual appetites had led Calis to form a small group of young men who were now his most loyal generals.

More than anything, however, Calis wanted the title of “Conqueror” added to his name. That is why, for the past seven years, the famed and feared Horde of Lahore had been preparing to gather for a crossing of the Desert of Flames. It was more like a mass migration than moving an army. It involved the uprooting of most of the major tribes, in numbers nearing three million men, who would not only be fighting for their Emperor and god, but also have the right to take a new wife. As for the women left behind, they would be married off, in groups, to those men allowed to remain.

Walking behind the throne, Harper, Warren’s ever-loyal servant, whispered into his master’s ear. “The merchant has arrived.”

“Good, send him in,” Warren said, giving a nod to one of the half naked guards. He then turned back to the young Emperor. “Your majesty, the spy we sent into Ares has returned.

“He has? Did he succeed?” Calis asked, as he dismissed the entertainers with a wave of his hand.

“We will have to see what he brings us this time,” Warren said as a pair of large guards brought in a heavy, iron bound chest and placed it before the throne. Coming behind them was a thin wiry man dressed in clothes made of multicolor patches. Removing the sand encrusted veil from his face, he revealed his hawk like nose and olive complexion. His eyes were painted with the black markings of a trade master.

Stepping in front of the chest, Altair Ghalib bowed before Calis, pressing his head on the brownstone floor. “Your imperial majesty,” Altair Ghalib said in a joyous tone. “Eyes and ears of the one true god, first among chieftains, and shepherd of the flock, you have summoned me so I have come. Command me, and it will be done.”

“Rise, Altair, and show us what you have brought,” Calis commanded.

Altair talked as he rose back to his feet. “You sent me across the great desert to spy on the followers of the false god, Jason. There are many things I can tell you, but I think you will be most pleased by what I have brought you.” He spoke as he unlocked the chest. Reaching inside with both hands, he pulled out a cowering, thin looking man with bright blue, glowing eyes. “This, your majesty, is one of Jason’s followers.

“Did you carry him all the way in that box?” Warren asked, amused.

“It is believed that the one who gave him his blue eyes can see and hear everything this one does. Inside the chest he cannot do either.”

“The voyage has seemed hard on him. Shall we not give something to strengthen him?” Warren said as a servant brought over a crystal decanter filled with blue anima. “Pour the young man a drink, Altair.”

Doing as he was told, he filled one of the crystal cups with the powerful elixir. Offering it to the weak young man, he was not prepared when the youth swiped the hand away, causing the glass to shatter against a nearby wall.

“Now that was foolish,” Warren sighed as Calis left his throne.

“Why did you do that?” The Emperor demanded. “Are your people so barbaric as to not accept a gift from one’s host?”

“That was not a gift, nor am I a guest. I will not sin against my god by taking that which has been stolen,” the young man replied.

“But it wasn’t stolen, at least not by us. We purchased it from a well respected Tal Sithian noble,” Warren said.

“Brashear… he and the crimes he committed are known among my people. His tragic life is a lesson we all learn from,” the young man replied.

“Is it your god who forbids you to drink the anima of a Centurion?”

“That anima which has been stolen, yes.” the young man nodded.

“But these are not the lands of your god. These are my lands. Your false god does not make demands of me here. It is I who make demands of you.”

“You are my captor. If it is your desire to kill or punish me, I cannot stop you. That is the power you have over me. You cannot break me of my faith, however.”

“Have you ever heard stories of the High Inquisitors of Jadoor? Calis asked, as he circled around the battered and bruised man.

“They are said to be evil men.”

“They are,” Calis agreed, letting his eyes focus on the young man’s face. “The man standing behind me was once High Inquisitor. Now he is my pet, and a true believer in the one god, Kaal. Soon you shall be, too.”

“I will never falter in the eyes of my god.” the young man insisted, eyes facing forward.

Frowning at the man’s defiance, Calis ordered the guards standing next to the chest to seize the young man. “All men falter. For your god not to tell you that makes him either a liar or a fool.” Calis seethed as the anima was force fed to the prisoner. Calis then had the guards let the man go.

“This proves nothing,” the young man replied even as he felt strength returning to his body.

“Harper, bring me the mask of dreams,” Calis ordered.

Disappearing from the throne room for a moment, Harper returned carrying a gold mask. Inside its nose piece was a potent mix of drugs and herbs that would fog the mind of the strongest man. Placing it over the prisoner’s head, Harper then lit the wicks sticking out of both nostrils, causing the mask to fill with powerful smoke. Soon the prisoner was stumbling around the room, as if drunk.

“Catch him,” Calis told Harper as the prisoner almost ran into a solid stone column.

“What shall I do with him, your majesty?” Harper asked as he kept the prisoner on his feet.

“Take him back to the harem. Tell the servants to treat him as a potential consort.”

“Consort?” Warren chuckled.

“Imagine it, Warren… me in my chariot with him, a former devoted follower of the false god, now willing to fight by my side to defeat this Jason.”

“Jadoor first, your majesty. That is what we agreed to,” Warren reminded the Emperor.

“Of course, Jadoor first,” Calis laughed. “I did promise to make you High Priest of Kaal of all the Western lands, did I not?”

“Yes, your majesty.” Warren bowed.

 

Chapter Eight

Philip and James had been peacefully asleep when Jason jumped up from the bed screaming in pain.

“Jason what is wrong?” Philip demanded as his lover thrashed about the bed.

“The burning… the burning…” Jason wailed.

“Jason, no one is hurting you. You’re safe,” James said as he tried to calm Jason.

“Varrus, Varrus,” Jason screamed at the top of his lungs. “They’re burning him.”

“I better get Louis,” James said, knowing the half blood Grau was the only one who could block Jason’s connection to his Saint. Before he had even left the bedroom, Louis came bursting in, his red hair in disarray.

“Leave Jason to me,” Louis commanded as he climbed onto the bed, taking Jason out of Philip’s arms. Rocking Jason gently, he entered the man’s mind and found it a storm of chaos and pain. Using the gifts he had been born with, he slowly calmed Jason down, doing his best to numb the pain he was feeling through his bond to Varrus. He could have severed it, but Louis knew Jason would never forgive him for that. Varrus was a very important part of Jason’s life. To lose that would be the same as losing a limb. Finally, when he had done all he could, he put Jason into a deep sleep.

“Thank you, Louis. I didn’t know what to do,” Philip stated, feeling useless.

“We each have our gifts,” Louis whispered, as he tucked Jason back into bed. It was only then that he seemed to notice his own nakedness. “Pardon my appearance. When I felt Jason’s pain, I came at once.”

“Why, were you entertaining someone?” James snickered.

“Lord Geoff,” Louis blushed. “He’s guarding the door outside.”

“With what, his own sword?” James joked.

“A spear, actually,” Louis winked. “I shouldn’t leave Jason tonight. He might have another fit.”

“That’s fine, but what are we going to do about Varrus? Philip asked. I can think of a thousand tortures that can twist a man’s soul without killing him.”

“We must find a way to rescue him,” James replied, stating the obvious.

“We need to do a lot of things. The Federation is still preparing for war, and so is Lahore, from what our spies say. We don’t know what monstrosities are happening in Manthannon, just that we can’t risk them spreading to the mainland. Our navy isn’t large enough to blockade an island of that size,” Philip grumbled.

“The Federation has such a fleet, but it seems to be under the command of a madman.” James sighed. “I’ll go tell Geoff to summon Celia.”

“Celia is preparing to leave for Qopo,” Louis said.

“Summon her anyway,” James insisted.

“As you wish,” Louis replied as he rolled off the bed.

When Celia arrived she was in her night dress a worried look on her dark face. “Is the Emperor ill?”

“You might say that, but I would not recommend you do so to others.” Louis said.

“We need your help, your highness,” James said in a polite tone.

“Jason said so much to me earlier in the day,” Celia said, as he peered at Jason’s sleeping form.

“We need you to gather the tribes and have them join in the defense of Isil,” Louis said.

“So Jason really fears an attack from Lahore,” Celia sighed. “My spies told him the Horde is gathering, but why should the Qopo get involved?”

“You really believe the Lahorians will let the Qopo be? Once they defeat the west, they’ll look south.”

“Possibly, but they’ll come to regret it.”

“Why is that?” Louis demanded

“We are the people of the land. The land will come to our defense.”

“Like it did when the Desert of Flames destroyed your homeland?” Louis retorted.

“Did Jason tell you that?”

“No, a Grau did. Why do the Grau fear your people Celia?”

“I don’t know why. All I know are the stories the Qopo tell around their fires. We should look to Luna for salvation.”

“Why Luna?” Philip asked. From the bedroom window he could see the sliver light of the moon streaming in.

“I don’t know why. It’s just what the legends say.”

“Can you get your people to fight with us against the Lahorians?”

“I don’t know. They do hate Lahore, but they also hate your people as well. Everyone who’s not Qopo is an invader to them.”

“But they do hate the Lahorians more than they hate us, don’t they?” Louis asked.

“You’re the mind reader. You tell me,” Celia spat.

“They do,” Louis told the others.

“I pretty much guessed that,” Philip chuckled.

“Tell us about the Valley of the Ancients,” Louis said, as he calmly stroke Jason’s dark hair.

“It is forbidden for me to talk of such,” Celia whispered.

“It’s where your people communicate with the people of Luna, is it not?”

“You know as much as I do, then,” Celia replied.

“There are people on the moon?” Philip said, amazed.

“It’s what Celia’s people believe. Those they call the Togo live on the moon.”

“Togo is our most ancient tribe.”

“But, as an Isilian princess, don’t you have the right to meet with them.”

“Only if I can get permission from the Council of Elders.”

“Then, in the name of your husband, I ask that you seek such permission,” James replied.

“I… I would like to do as you ask, but no one has ever come back from the Valley of Ancients,” Celia stammered.

“Are you saying it is a land you and your women dare not enter?” Philip goaded.

“We fear nothing. It’s just I can’t promise you anything.”

“That will have to do. You will, of course, be traveling with an escort from the Winged Guard,” Geoff insisted.

“We need no men to protect us.”

“Yet, you would be able to travel much faster with our winged guards to carry you.”

“That may be but, to my people, they will be seen as unnatural… creatures of Mordel.”

“So be it, then.” Jason’s horse voice spoke, causing every eye to turn to his pale face. “The children of Ares need the aid of the children of Luna if we are to surviving the coming onslaught. I plead with you, Celia. Though our marriage was completely political, I ask that you remain faithful to me. Take Geoff and his men south to the Valley of Ancients, and make contact with the Togo.”

“And if I do not return?”

“Then I will come for you, myself,” Jason promised, a slight smile forming on his face. “Now go, go tonight if possible. Time is running short for our people.” Jason then looked at Philip. “Husband, is the Western Centurion Army ready to march?”

“It is at your command, my love,” Philip said as he took his lover’s hand.

“We shall not wait for the Federation to gather all its strength to send against us, or allow any more time for Gladius to solidify his rule. We must strike now, while they are still off balance from losing poor Aidan.”

“The Legions and the Fleet will leave tonight. I already have eight legions stationed on the border of Dorsa with Qul Tos. The fleet in Aquanos can reach the shores of Freen in about nine days.”

“Be sure to take the Miguel and Anvis with you. I’m sure they would be happier on their own thrones, than looking up at my own.” Jason chuckled softly.

“It will be done,” Philip said as he left the bed. “I will still leave a legion of my Spawn to protect you here in the capital.

“Thank you, my husband, but there is really no need.”

“Nonsense. After what happened in the Senate, I am sure Gladius will make another attempt at kidnapping you.”

“I’m sure he will. That is why I am going to handle him on my own.”

“You’re what?” Both James and Philip said at once.

“It is the only way I can ensure Varrus’ safe return. Do not worry. I don’t plan on surrendering myself to the madman. I will just deal with him in my own way.”

“Be careful, Jason,” James warned. “The man is dangerous.”

“And so am I. Many people I called friend have died this night. The lives of my very children were put at risk. For these crimes, I will see Gladius dead by my hand and no other.”

“But for that you will need Demon’s Bane,” James pointed out.

“Believe me; I know where to look to find one. James, I leave the safety of my children to you.”

“Just so long as you don’t make orphans of them,” James grumbled.

“Louis and Koltus will come with me for my protection. Be sure to inform Field Marshal Darius in Qul Tos that we’re now in a state of war. We must begin gathering supplies for a long and terrible fight.”

“It will be done Jason but when do you plan to leave?”

“Tomorrow morning. There are things Louis and Koltus will need to see done before I can leave for Peths.”

“So you’re really going after Varrus.” Philip sighed.

“He would do the same for me.”

“But he’s not you, and he wouldn’t want you risking your life over him.”

“You both might see it that way, but I don’t,” Jason insisted. “Louis, Koltus is already waiting for you outside. You both know what you need to do.”

“It will be done, your majesty,” Louis said as he bowed out.

“You’re up to something, something you know I wouldn’t approve of.”

“My time is running short,” Jason thought to himself, as he felt himself being summoned. Looking at Philip, he took his hand and placed it in James’ “No matter what happens, remember you two have each other.”

“That’s all very well and good, Jason, but we both would rather have you,” James replied.

“So long as you two have each other, I can hope for a better future,” Jason whispered as he fought against the tears building up in his eyes.

“Tell us what’s going on, Jason,” Philip demanded.

“What will happen, will happen because it must,” Jason replied.

“It’s the Dominus; they’re coming for you. That’s why you’re sending all of us away,” Philip guessed.

“They will kill you, if I don’t.”

“We will kill them, if they do,” Philip retorted.

“Please, Philip, don’t make me leash you,” Jason said as he started crying.

“Now, now, Jason, there’s no reason to leash me, but you can’t expect me to stand aside while you go into danger.”

“Philip, there is only one glimmer of hope for us, and that is for you and James to come to my rescue. For that, you need the aid of the Togo to get past the great barrier. Once past it, you must find your way to the underground city. You’ll need Kristen for that.”

“But isn’t Kristen a traitor?”

“That is why I have sent Louis and Koltus to find him.”

“Who will be Emperor once you are gone?” James asked.

“You might think me a fool, but I want Sin to replace me.”

“Sin? Why him?” Philip was confused as to why Jason would want his son as Emperor.

“The Dominus can’t see into his mind, nor take his actions into account. He might not be the best ruler, but his unpredictable nature is the best protection I can give the people against the machinations of Mordel.”

“I really can’t convince you to do otherwise?” Philip sighed.

“It is my fate, dear husband. Just remember, I will not let myself die without you in my arms.”

“Nor I, my love,” Philip whispered as he embraced Jason. “I will do as you say, but know I will not rest until you are safe once more.”

“That is all I can ask,” Jason said as he left the bed. Dressing himself in a sliver and white robe, he wrapped a sapphire belt around his waist. He picked up his gold staff from the weapon’s rack and stroked its grooved leafing. “I love you both.”

“We know,” James whispered as tears ran down his face.

“Remember that, when you find you need to depend on one another,” Jason said as he put on a blue cloak. Covering his head with its hood, he turned back one last time to look at his most precious lovers. Blowing each a kiss, he turned and left.

“I can’t let him do this,” Philip wailed as he darted towards the door, only to be tackled by James.

“Don’t’ do this, Philip. He’s made his bargain with the Dominus so you and I can live and one day rescue him. Don’t make him sacrifice himself for nothing.”

“It should be me making the sacrifice.”

“But the Dominus don’t want you, Philip. All they want is Jason, and they’re willing to destroy anyone who gets in their way. If you want to save Jason, end this war as quickly as you can. Only then can we concentrate on saving Jason.”

“You want this war ended quickly? My Spawn can end it in a matter of months. Not even Gladius’ own can be a match for mine.”

“Just be wary, he might have more of those creatures he attacked the Senate with.”

“All the better. It wouldn’t be any fun if they didn’t put up a fight.”

“I like the easy ones. Makes me feel I’m doing something right. You better go tell your son Jason’s decision.”

“I don’t know how I will explain it to him. He’s not ready for it.”

“Luckily, he’ll have me to help him,” James laughed. “I’ll keep a good eye on him, don’t worry.”

“I know you will.” Philip sighed, his thoughts filled with fear for Jason.

 

 


Chapter Nine

Chad, Brask, Hector, and Tanner stood in their sliver armor, as they waited in the palace gardens for the one who had summoned them from their slumber. Entering the garden dressed in black chainmail covered by a crimson tunic, Louis gave each man a nod as Jason and Jacob followed after him.

“You all know what’s involved?” Louis asked.

“We do,” all four young men said at once. “We found him right were you said he would be.”

“Take me to him.” Weariness filled his voice.

“Where are you going?” a deep voice boomed from the garden’s entrance.

Turning quickly, Jacob saw the Commandant standing behind him. “Oktor, I thought you were asleep,”

“I was, until I noticed the cold spot in my bed. You’re dressed for battle. Where are you going?”

Jacob turned to his father, giving him a guilty look. “Papa?”

“Fine, but he’s your responsibility,” Jason said as he followed his four generals toward a work shed.

“We’re off to rescue Varrus,” Jacob hissed, as Oktor joined him by his side.

“You and what army?”

“No army, just us,” Jacob replied.

“Have you lost your mind? At least Jason should take Philip.”

“Jason wants Philip to invade the Federation.”

“But I thought he was going to wait until they attacked us.”

“It seems he doesn’t have time to wait. The Lahore Empire is on the move. The last thing Jason wants is for Domus to fight a war on two fronts. He’s asked Celia to gain us the aid of the Qopo.”

“The Qopo help nobody but themselves; surely Jason knows that.”

“He does but, given the threat, he thinks they might see that we really need each other as allies,” Jacob said, as Jason as the others came back carrying a bloodied man with them.

“Isn’t that Kristen?” Oktor said, surprised.

“It is,” Jacob whispered. “He’s been spying for the Dominus all this time.”

“And Jason let him live?” Oktor said surprised.

“He knows Kristen did what he did out of fear.”

“They come,” Louis shouted, as a powerful wind blew through the gardens. Above them a blinding white light shone down upon them.

“Stay behind me,” Jacob told Oktor, as figures in green clothing approached.

“Well, Jason, you’ve got our attention. Have you decided that Kristen isn’t worth your protection?” one of the red haired men in green asked.

“I want your help in defeating Gladius.”

“Yes, we’re aware that that old thorn has awakened. Do not worry. We’ll handle him in good time.”

“He has a dear friend of mine, and is torturing him to draw me into a trap.”

“You mean one of your lovers?” The redhead laughed. “Gladius would kill you as soon as making love to you. We agree he is dangerous but, let me guess, your concern for your friend overrides everything else?”

“I don’t want Varrus killed.”

“Of course you don’t. You love him. Very well, we will deal with Gladius on your terms. It is good your party is small. We doubt we could carry many more.”

“Thank you.”

“Scott, Major Scott,” the Grau replied. “If you and your people will follow me, we will take you aboard our craft.”

“Let’s go,” Jason said in an emotionless tone, as the Grau took Kristen from his people.

“No, don’t take me back… please just kill me here,” Kristen pleaded as he was dragged toward the light.

“Now, now, Kristen. You killed one of us. You know the penalty for that,” Scott chided.

“Please, I beg you. Don’t take me back.”

“Sleep, Kristen, sleep,” Scott ordered as he used his gift to send Kristen into a dreamless sleep. He then turned to Jason. “We have a surprise for you, Jason. There are two people aboard our ship who’ve been waiting to see you.”

“Alex?” Jason asked hopefully as he rushed forward.

“Not quite,” Scott chuckled as he watched Jason run.

Running against the powerful wind, Jason climbed up a narrow ramp into the cabin of the flying Zephyr. There he saw more Grau, one in particular. Thomas, dressed in the same green military uniform, smiled at him with his usual charm. “I’m so glad you’re coming with us, Jason,” Thomas beamed. “We can finally be a family.”

Seeing someone surge behind him, Jason spread his hands out to stop Jacob from charging. “Not now, Jacob.”

“I see our eldest son still hates me. I hope our time in Mordel will change that. Our other son is quite fond of me, you see.”

“We have another son?” Jason said, shocked.

“I never told you about Brutus. How thoughtless of me,” Thomas said in mock shame. “Come forward, Brutus, and meet your father.”

Coming from deeper within the cabin, a youth with curly brown hair stepped forward. “That’s my father? He looks like a barbarian.” Brutus frowned.

“Your father is a barbarian, but one of the good kind. Soon we’re going to take him home with us, and be a family,” Thomas said, beaming with pride as he wrapped an arm around Brutus’ shoulders.

“If you will take your seats, we will head for our base in the Barrier Ocean,” Scott ordered.

“I thought we were heading for Peths.”

“You were right in thinking your small party wouldn’t be enough to defeat Gladius. I doubt a legion of your Demon Spawn could defeat him. He has some of our old technology, you see, including one of our submersible warships. We will need time to prepare, and train you with our own weapons, before we can even think of making an attack on his base.”

“Do you plan to do something about the Manthannons?”

“Your General Zophar is doing well enough, seeing to every ship and harbor on the island. That should do for now. The Dominus might decide to use their worshipers as the vanguard for their invasion of Ares.”

“Your people never give up.”

“Not for the past five thousand years.” Scott laughed.

“Don’t mind him. He’s just glad you came willingly,” Thomas said, as he wrapped himself around Jason’s arm.

“You really think the Dominus will leave me alive, once they have what they want?” James sighed.

“They promised me they would. They’re so used to getting their own way that they’re not used to lying. Once they have your anima core, they’ll let you go.”

“And how will I survive that?” Jason whispered.

“Don’t worry about it, Jason. I’ve seen to everything,” Thomas said as he nodded at Jacob.

 


 

 

 

Chapter Ten

Philip stood on the parapet of the highest tower in the imperial palace. Watching, as the circle of light rose from the gardens and raced west, he felt the flapping of soft wings brush against him. “So he’s gone,” James said softly.

“Yes, and I don’t’ know if I will ever see him again.” Philip wept.

“Jason would never forgive himself if he didn’t do everything in his power to save Varrus.”

“But to do this… to let him fall into the hands of the enemy.”

“He told us what we must do. We must defeat the Federation once and for all, so that all of Ares will be united when the Horde comes.”

“It’s more than that. Soon the Mordelians will invade as well. That’s why Jason pressed Celia so hard. She’s the only one who can meet with the Togo. If they are as powerful as Jason thinks, they can make all the difference,” Philip grunted. “They’d better is all I can say.”

“Once this war is over, you and I will go searching for Jason. It’s what we promised him,” James remarked.

“It’s more than a promise. It is all you and I can do. It’s not like I can be apart from you now. Who else can control my madness?”

“Jason’s doing for sure. He always wanted us to get along. Now our lives depend on it.”

“What about Kyle?” Philip asked.

“I won’t ask him to follow me into hell which, as far as I care, Mordel is. If Jason succeeds, and rescues Varrus, I’ll leave him in his care. I’m sure Kyle won’t mind.”

“Oh, yes he will. No offense, but a Saint is no Angel. He will miss you dearly.”

“And I him, but Jason must be saved for all our sakes,” James insisted.

“For the sake of all Ares,” Philip agreed, as he wrapped his tail around James’ body.

 


Chapter Eleven

“There it is Jason, the Great Barrier,” Thomas said, they had been flying all night. Ahead of them was a wall of multicolored fire that rose out of the ocean and up into the endless sky.

“What is it?” Jason asked.

“You wouldn’t understand,” Scott laughed.

“Try me,” Jason insisted.

“It’s a magnetic field, a very powerful one. Nothing metallic can get through it. Even water finds it an impossible barrier. It took us centuries to build an artificial island in the Barrier, and even longer to build a tunnel by which we could send in equipment and supplies. We now have a fairly large base, with barracks, shipyards, factories, and even a hospital.”

“Am I supposed to be impressed? You plan to use your base to take over my world.”

“You mean the Togo’s world. You’re as much of an invader as we are,” Scott pointed out

“I wish to live in peace with the Togo. You, on the other hand, wish to destroy them.”

“They abandoned us so they could live in their perfect utopia. While our half of the world was dying, they built the Great Barrier and made us prisoners in our own wasteland. So yes, we wish to destroy them, but rightfully so.”

“Are you saying the Togos had no reason to fear the Dominus?” Jason countered.

“The Dominus are fearsome, but they have to be to maintain order.”

“That’s an excuse, not a reason,” Jason countered.

“That depends on how you wish to view it,” Scott retorted, as the Zephyr prepared to land.

Once they landed, Scott had Jason and his people taken off the craft. “Send Jason and his people to the hospital to be immunized,” he told Thomas.

“That should make the Animani happy.” Thomas chuckled.

“Animani?” Jason asked.

“You’ll see.”

Led to a white stone building, Jason found the halls and rooms filled with identical looking men, each with platinum blond hair, ghost blue eyes, and skin as pale as his own. When one of them looked up from a data pad, all of them looked up, each one staring at Jason. “The counterpart,” they all gasped.

“Jason, may I introduce the Animani.”

“Hello,” Jason said, raising a nervous hand.

“Hello,” all of them replied as one.

“Now this is unexpected,” Chad said nervously.

“Why do they all look alike?” Jacob asked.

“We are the Animani,” they all replied. “We all are of one body and mind.”

“They’re clones,” Thomas chuckled. “Let me guess. Jason, you’ve never heard of clones before. A clone is an identical copy of the same individual. They all have identical DNA; although I guess you don’t know what DNA is either.”

“Why are they smiling at me?” Jason asked Thomas.

“For several reasons. They’ve never met your kind before, for starters. Second, you are their counterpart, or would have been if the Dominus had ever gotten down to creating your kind.”

“Counterpart.”

“Yes, just as you is Philip’s counterpart. You see, the Animani were the prototype for what became your Legatio and Centurions. Basically they were the first beings born with anima. They’re excellent healers, but not very good in a fight. That’s why the Dominus charged the Mother to create the Centurions. Since the Centurions were such excellent fighters, the Dominus then gave her permission to create the natural counterpart, your Legatio, in order to control them. As you know, things didn’t work out the way the Dominus hoped, causing them to doubt the Mother’s leadership. That’s why she revolted and fled across the Great Barrier.”

“And the Animani?”

“The Animani remain, never given a counterpart. Now that you’re here, that’s about to change,” Thomas replied. “If you will excuse me, I need to see Brutus to bed.”

“It was nice meeting you, Brutus,” Jason said as he looked into the boy’s green eyes.

“Yes, father.” Brutus’ cold reply threw Jason off.

“Don’t be mad at him, papa, he just doesn’t know you yet,” Jacob said encouragingly.

Two Animani approached the group. “Emperor Jason, if you will please come with us.”

“What about my friends?”

“They will be seen to as well, but we must begin our exam of you, your majesty.”

“You can just call me Jason.”

“Very well, we will.”

“What shall I call you?”

“We are the Animani,” they replied.

“That’s what you are, but not who you are.”

“But it is, Jason. We are of the same body with one mind and, therefore, of one identity. We have no personal names.”

“Can I name you?”

“If you find it necessary,” the Animani replied.

“What would you like to be called?”

“Whatever you wish. It makes no difference to us.”

“I really don’t know what to call you.” Jason laughed, surprised at how difficult this was turning out to be.

“Then you can call me Gregory, and my companion, Saul. We understand those are common names among your people.”

“If that’s what you wish,” Jason replied.

“Your comfort is our only concern, Jason. Now if you will follow us, we must begin the examination.”

“I understand,” Jason said. As he followed the pair, he felt Jacob grab his hand. “Just a moment, Gregory. Can Jacob come with me? He is my son and worries about me excessively.”

“If it will comfort you to have him along, he can, but we recommend you not include your whole party.”

“Just Jacob and Louis,” Jason quickly decided.

“Very well,” Gregory said, as they continued leading Jason to a pair of metal doors. Pushing a button by the door, Jason was surprised when it lit up.

“What’s that,” Jacob asked.

“It is an elevator button. It summons the elevator to our floor so we can step inside and go to the floor we wish to exit at,” Saul replied.

“Did you understand that?” Jacob asked his father.

“I think I do.”

“Good, just so long as one of us understands, I feel alright.”

“Nervous?”

“A little. I mean, what do I do if I run into another Dalf? I really don’t know my people’s customs.”

“One of the reasons I wanted you with me.”

“And the others?”

“I knew you wouldn’t wait for Philip and James. You would come running after me as soon as I was gone. I saved you the time and effort, at least.”

“Thank you. Father.”

“Don’t mention it. As Thomas’ son, I am hoping the Dominus won’t strike out at you as they would others. The same is true of Louis, as he is half Grau,” Jason said as they entered the elevator.

When they exited, they were led to a clean, white room with a single bed. The Animani requested that Jason lay down on it, once he had undressed. Then they covered him with a clear sheet, as soft as cotton against his pale skin. Seeing Louis lick his lips, Jason chuckled. “You really need to find a husband.”

“No, if I can’t have you, I would rather be a lone wolf among the sheep.” Louis laughed.

“Well, make sure to keep your fangs hidden until the time comes,” Jason warned, as two more Animani entered the room wheeling several instruments. Placing sensors on Jason’s body, they obtained a full scan of his anima core.

“You are in perfect condition, Jason,” the lead doctor said. “You can dress now, if you wish. We’ve brought you a robe that you might find comfortable, as you will be here with us for some time.”

“Thank you, sir,” Jason replied as he accepted the robe.

“Your journey has been long. You may rest here, or come with us to attend a Dreaming.”

“A Dreaming?” Jason asked confused.

“You have the gift, as does your companion, although his is not as strong as yours.”

“What is a Dreaming?”

“It is to sleep among the greater mind of the Animani. It is where we, as individuals, become one.”

“Will that make me like you?”

“No, but you might find the experience enjoyable. I only ask because we’ve never had the chance to perform a Dreaming with a true counterpart.”

“Then I will gladly attend,” Jason said, noticing the sudden joy on all the Animani’s faces.

“Then we will make sure a place is prepared for you in the sleeping chamber. Breakfast will be brought soon, after which I recommend you catch up on your sleep,” the doctor said before leaving.

“Why did you agree to that?” Louis said after the Animani had left.

“Can’t you sense it? They’ve been waiting for this chance for their entire existence. We’re going to need allies on Mordel, Louis. Doing this might gain us one.”

“If you say so,” Louis grumbled.

“Is something wrong?” Jason asked as he put the robe on.

“I can’t read their minds. When I try, I come against a solid wall I can’t break.”

“But they’re not telepaths are they?” Jacob asked.

“I think they are, but only with their own kind. Remember, one body, one mind. What one knows, they all know. Notice; I didn’t have to tell the doctor to call me Jason.”

“Gregory might have told him,” Louis replied.

“He might not have needed to be told. He might have known the moment I told Gregory,” Jason replied with certainty.

“If that’s true I can’t imagine how powerful they might be. This Dreaming could be risky,” Louis warned.

“It’s a risk I’m willing to take,” Jason replied as breakfast was brought in.

“We must apologize for the food. Most of our supplies still come from Mordel,” the Animani said with a bowed head.

“Don’t worry,” Jason said, before he had a chance to see what was being served. In three bowls were gray cubes that had a sponge like texture.

“Vox doesn’t have a real flavor of its own,” the Animani explained, as he put three translucent squeezable bottles on the table. “The red one is sweet; the brown is sour, while the black is salty.”

“Wonderful,” Louis grunted, unimpressed.

“It will have to do,” Jason said, as he picked up one of the bowls and a deep spoon. Tasting it first plain, his mouth soured. “Hand me the red sauce would you Jacob?”

“Is it really that bad?” Louis asked.

“It tastes like congealed cum.” Jason replied, as he applied the sweet sauce liberally.

“How can they expect us to eat this?” Jacob said as he sniffed his bowl.

“Well, it’s either this or nothing,” Louis said as he pinched his nose before eating a spoonful. He had barely finished chewing when he grabbed the brown bottle.

“I’m not going to eat it,” Jacob said stubbornly, as he watched the two older adults force themselves to empty their bowls.

“I don’t want to hear about how hungry you are, then,” Jason replied.

“Where are you going?” Louis asked as Jacob headed for the door.

“They’ve got to have some real food around here, somewhere,” Jacob said before he disappeared.

“Should we go after him?”

“I don’t think the Animani will let him get into too much trouble.”

“That’s not what I meant. What if he does find some real food?”

“Then I am sure that, as my son, he will be kind enough to bring some back for all of us.”

“Who are you kidding? Your son’s a wolf. I’ve seen him sneaking into the palace kitchens, only to be chased out by the cooks.”

“You can’t say he’s fat.”

“He’s almost as lean as I am.” Louis snickered as he gave Jason a lustful look.

“Don’t,” Jason warned.

“You brought me here, surely I should be rewarded.” Louis said as he started undoing the lacing of his shirt. “You said it yourself; this stuff tastes like stale cum. Wouldn’t you rather have something more freshly?”

“We just got here, Louis.”

“But it’s been ages since I’ve had you all to myself, or have you forgotten the special ways I can make love to you.”

“It’s just a trick you play with my mind,” Jason insisted.

“But it works, doesn’t it?” Louis said as he dropped his trousers. “On more than one occasion, at least.” Stepping back, Jason bumped into the bed as Louis took his bowl away from him. “I don’t know about you, but I’m still quite hungry.”

“Do I look eatable to you?” Jason said as Louis walked between his legs.

“You look delicious,” Louis replied, as he lowered his naked body on top of Jason, pulling the man’s robe open in the process. With his knuckles pressed against the bed, he let his curved manhood slide up the underside of Jason’s hardening shaft. They both oozed copious amounts of pre-cum.

Lowering Jason down on the bed, Louis climbed on top of him. Their wet members were dueling with one another as Louis gyrated his hips against Jason’s hard body. “You don’t mind me being so boney, do you?” Louis punned.

Running his hands up Louis’s thighs, Jason took hold of the man’s rear. “So long as you don’t mind me being inside your boney ass.”

Louis giggled as he pressed his head against Jason’s. “Inside, outside, it’s all the same so long as we meet mind to mind.”

“I can already feel you.” Jason sighed, as he felt Louis’ lustful thoughts brush against his mind.

Louis sat up so Jason’s manhood was lined up between his ass cheeks. “You just lie there and enjoy it. Let me take care of everything,” he grunted as he pressed Jason’s sex inside him. Louis let out a gasp when he felt the fullness of Jason’s sex inside him. “Right where it belongs.”

Closing his eyes, Jason let Louis take care of everything. Having long seen himself as the ugly black sheep of the family, Louis was, if anything, an energetic lover. He gave everything he had into it, both body and mind, still insecure thinking that the love he was now a part of could vanish in an instant.

Controlling things so both he and Jason would climax together, he collapsed on top of Jason. He. Wrapped his thin but sinewy limbs around his lover’s body while he did his best to shield Jason’s thoughts from any stress or worry. He tried his very best to make the moment as perfect as possible, knowing it couldn’t last.

 


 

Chapter Twelve

Entering the sacred chamber, Thomas removed his uniform and went through the ritual cleansing. The Animani scrubbed his body with hard bristled brushes and harsh chemicals that left his skin bleached bone white. Only then was he allowed to swim across the covered lake to the island in the middle, which was surmounted by an ivory throne. Going to the throne, he lay flat on his stomach against the rough stone, his lips kissing the floor. For a good hour he lay there.

From the deepest part of the lake, ripples began to appear that grew into waves as a long, dart like shape headed for the island. On reaching the isle, it rose to its towering height. The massive harpoon shaped head of a gigantic squid stood on its tentacles, a tangle of ten writhing limbs as thick as trees, lined with barbs and suckers.

As it climbed up the slope of the island to the giant throne, it crawled over Thomas’ body, leaving it unmarked but covered in a thick layer of mucous and slime. On reaching the throne, the squid sank down and let its arms line the steps to the stone chair. The squid’s one gray eye looked down upon its servant.

Feeling a tentacles raise him up to his knees, Thomas dared to look into the single eye of his god. “So you have come back to us, most loyal Thomas,” a strong woman’s voice echoed in his head.

“Yes, Dominus, and I have brought the one you sought with me.”

“The Angel, the true Angel?” the Dominus asked, her body quivering with excitement.

“Yes, Dominus, it is Jason. We made a bargain with him, a small matter of little concern to us. In return for surrendering himself, we have agreed to save one of his lovers.”

“How did he come to lose such a one so dear to him?”

“As I reported last time, Gladius has awakened and has been up to his usual mischief. He has been busy creating his own clans of animus, and turned the Island of Peths into a fortress. If not dealt with, he will surely interfere with the planned invasion. It is this lover whom Gladius holds hostage, in hopes of forming an alliance with Jason.”

“Such an alliance could pose problems for us,” the Dominus thought.

“Yes, great mistress. By helping Jason rescue his friend, we are achieving our own aims.”

“The Banes,” the Dominus laughed wickedly. “You plan to give Jason Demon’s Bane. That would be the easiest way to dispose of Gladius. But what of his lover, Amplexor? We have long wanted to deal with him for his part in killing one of our sisters.”

“Gladius is keeping his lover close to him, more as a prisoner than a comrade. Now that a true Angel has appeared, he sees his former lover as beneath him. It is Jason he wants,” Thomas replied.

“What of Jason’s anima?”

“It is, indeed, powerful but also unstable. Unlike the Centurions, his anima cannot survive long outside a living host. That limitation is hampering our study of it.”

“So it is as we feared. We have no hope of synthetically reproducing the Angel’s anima.”

“No, but I still beg he be given a chance.”

“Why beg on behalf of one whose doom has been decided by minds much greater than yours, Grau? Is he dear to you?”

“He is the father of my children.”

“You have served us well in the past, Grau. Continue to serve us, and we might change our minds about Jason’s fate. But do not hope too much. There is much doubt over whether he can survive the process of removal, even given the precautions you have taken.”

“Forgive me, mistress.”

“There is nothing to forgive. Your actions have allowed us greater insight into the nature of this sole Angel. Anything that adds to our knowledge should be supported, should it not?”

“I live in your service,” Thomas replied.

“Then we shall let you continue in your service and your life, but do not become to attach to the Angel. His fate is already sealed.”

“Of course, Dominus.”

“You have served us well up to this point. Do not fail us, Thomas. The time of my mating soon approaches. I would hate to choose you as my mate in a moment of quick anger.”

Knowing full well what that would mean, Thomas swallowed hard before speaking. “May you continue to be pleased with my efforts, and let me continue to serve you,” he said sincerely.

“One way or another, you will,” the Dominus said as a thinly veiled threat. Her single gray eye catching sight of Animani servants bringing in tanks of live fish the color of her pink flesh; she changed to blue as a deep hunger stirred inside her body. “Leave now, Thomas,” she said as she gleefully watched the large fish being dropped into the lake. “Unless you wish to stay for dinner.”

“With your leave,” Thomas said as he quickly crawled back into the water, swimming for his life in order to make it to shore before the Dominus began her hunt for food.

Once out of the water, he accepted the soft red robe one of the Animani handed him. His whole body was trembling from fear, as much as from the cold water. Thomas then raced to his quarters and locked the door. Going to his room, he collapsed on the soft bed, tears staining the sheets as he tried to recover from the horrible ordeal of being in direct contact with such a terrible mind. He knew of only one way to cure the pounding in his head, and that was to seek out Jason, his calm loving mind a cool salve to the burning rage of the Dominus.

 


 

Chapter Thirteen

He’s attending a Dreaming,” the Animani Jason had named Gregory told Thomas when the Grau came searching for the Angel.

“Would you consider it rude if I were to attend?” Thomas asked, already knowing what the Animani’s answer would be.

“But, you are a Grau. It would not be fair to the others if you were to attend.”

“I understand. You don’t like the idea of lowering your defenses around one of my kind. But what if I were to limit my attention solely to Jason.”

“If that is the case, can’t you wait until after the Dreaming? That way, you won’t panic my fellow Animani.”

“You just want him for yourself,” Thomas accused childishly.

“We… we do,” Gregory admitted, surprising Thomas to the point that his mouth fell open. “As he is one of a kind, he is the only person my kind can bond to. Since no proper counterpart was ever made for the Animani, Jason might be the only one through which my people can achieve fulfillment. We invited his friends to the Dreaming out of courtesy. Having you there, however, is out of the question.”

“Of course you speak for all Animani everywhere,” Thomas said sarcastically.

“You know I do. If it is time you wish to spend with Jason, maybe you should take it upon yourself to teach him Mordelian. Won’t he find that useful when he finally arrives at the city? ”

“I don’t know how useful it will be, given what will be done to him once he arrives.”

“We can only hope for the best. If this Dreaming goes well, you can rest assured that we Animani healers will do all in our power to see that he survives the operation.”

“You should do that anyway.”

“You should be careful, Thomas. As a Grau, you shouldn’t care what happens to Jason. Unlike us, nothing of importance is at stake for you.”

“I’ve been Jason’s watcher since his days at the Academy, and he has given me two healthy sons.”

“Sons you could have had with any other Grau.”

“Not sons like these.”

“Of course not. Jacob despises you.”

“We have a misunderstanding, is all? I had to force him to mark Jason. The animus in his blood might save his life,” Thomas insisted.

“Son or no, Jacob will blame you for his father’s fate.”

“I know which is why I need to prove to him that I am indeed his father’s friend.”

“You’re a Grau. Grau don’t have friends, even among their own kind.”

“Maybe that should change.”

“Change… something else the Dominus would be shocked to hear a Grau utter. They hate change, though it is a change of sorts they’re seeking.”

“What they’re seeking is the past. They want their humanity back.”

“Don’t we all,” Gregory sighed. “Very well, Grau with a heart if it is change you seek, prove you can change the hearts of your own people first, before asking us to change ours.”

“If I were to tell another Grau my true feelings I would be sent to the mating pool for sure.”

“Then you must make sure you only talk to a Grau you can trust.”

“Trust is not something we have in each other.”

“You are an intelligent man, who has proven himself quite the seducer over the years. I do not doubt there are those of your kind unhappy with the present situation.”

“Such men do not live long. The Dominus see to that.”

“But, for Jason, you’re willing to consider treason. Maybe Jason will have a similar effect on your fellow Grau.”

“Of course I can count on the Animani’s discretion?”

“Of course. Not even the Dominus can see into our joined consciousness. That is why they have never trusted us as much as they do their precious Grau.”

“Is that jealousy I hear in your voice, Animani?”

“Not at all. I’m just showing respect for your station as the preferred mates of our masters.”

“You just had to bring that up, didn’t you?” Thomas groaned. The very idea of dozens of hatching young Dominus, eating their way out of his body was horrific enough to make him want to scream.

“You may watch the Dreaming, but do not attempt to take part. We will not be held responsible for any damage you might suffer if you attempt to join.”

“I am most gratefully honored.”

“It’s only for Jason’s sake we do this. For thousands of years we have begged the Dominus to produce a mate for us. Now that he’s here, we find ourselves unwilling to risk him even if it means defying the will of the Dominus.”

“You will refuse to do the operation?”

“No, but we will do whatever is in our power to see that Jason survives it.”

“That is my desire as well,” Thomas said in a pleading tone.

“Then we must work together, to see that we succeed. Now come, Grau, the Dreaming is about to begin. If you are to witness it we must move quickly for, once the chamber is sealed, none may enter.”

Following the Animani’s quick strides, Thomas was led to the top of the medical building where the Animani’s commune designed quarters were located. In the center was a domed structure surrounded by black glass, Four openings were evenly spaced around it. Many of the Animani were rushing inside so that the Dreaming could begin.

Just at the moment that Thomas crossed the darkened threshold, he heard the muffled sound of an iron gong. The entrance he had just passed through closed, as black crystal walls slid into place from both sides. Inside the domed chamber, Thomas could see that the room was lit by black-light that made his recently bleached skin glow brilliantly. Arranged in descending circles, each level was lined with reclining chairs.

As the Animani lay down, the soft white cushions formed to the shape of their bodies, almost encasing them entirely. Once they were comfortable, they placed mirrored glasses over their eyes and waited for the dreaming to begin. Looking down to the center of the room, Thomas saw four beds, each one facing one of the four, now closed, entrances. Jason, Jacob, and Louis were laying on three of the beds. That left one empty. Standing over Jason, with a warm smile on his face, was Animani Prime, first amongst equals, looking exactly the same as his fellow clones except for the three gold strips on the sleeves of his uniform. It was he who was taking the fourth, and final, bed.

“Don’t touch, or say anything,” Gregory warned Thomas, as he took one of the few remaining chairs.

Soon all was silent. Thomas sat down on one of the steps, his eyes and mind focused on Jason. Then the chamber was plunged into darkness, but only for a brief moment, as the chairs themselves began to give off a faint white light. Suddenly, Thomas heard the sound of laughter coming from all around him. Flowing like the wind, it bounced around the domed roof growing ever louder until the sound took form.

Appearing as flying pixies, they rose from each of the beds like a star of light that left a trail of sparks. They gathered near the center of the room and coalesced into a massive swarm. While his eyes darted from the pixies to where Jason was laying, he caught sight of three spheres of light rising from the three chairs Jason and his friends shared. One was emerald green, another was crimson red. The last and by far the largest was pure gold. It was the one that rose from Jason’s chair.

As the golden sphere rose higher, the smaller ones of his friends orbited around it like a pair of moons. When it neared the ceiling, the flying silver pixies began to swirl around it, moving ever faster until they appeared as a solid glimmering disc around the golden sphere. Then, with a storm of sparks, the disc began to contract until it was pressed against the golden ball. It melded into it, causing the ball to grow ever larger. Growing to the point of almost reaching ceiling and floor, the now ring-less sphere sparkled with dancing white lights moving over its surface.

As time passed, the sparks began to darken going from shinny silver to dull gray and, finally, to black as midnight. Between these sparks, bolts of blue lightings sparked across the surface.

Smelling something sweet in the air, Thomas noticed that the room was beginning to fill with a hazy mist that blocked his view of the sphere. Soon all he could see were the bolts of energy. Suddenly, from around the equator of the sphere, beams of golden light shot out, each one ending on the forehead of the dreaming Animani. Taking his eyes away from the brilliant sphere, he looked at one of the sleeping Animani. He was shocked to see his hair turning black while his skin changed to a healthy brown. Looking back at the sphere, Thomas noticed that it was shrinking as it released its energy to the Animani.

As the mist cleared, Thomas saw that only the original golden ball, orbited by the smaller green and red spheres, was left. Slowly, these spheres returned to their owners until they too were gone from sight. As the lights from the chairs began to fade, a yellow glow began to build on the ceiling of the domed chamber, like a rising sun. When the black crystal doors started creeping open, the Animani began to stir, their once white eyes now containing a golden glow.

Seeing Jason reach to remove his mirrored glasses, Thomas climbed down the remaining steps to help Jason out of the chair. “Are you alright?” he asked, concerned by the dazed look on the man’s face.

Jason blinked his eyes a few times, as if trying to get used to the light. “Just give me a moment.”

“What was that?” Louis groaned, as he sat up in his chair.

Jacob had an amazed look on his face. “Did you do what I think you did, father?”

“I don’t know what I did,” Jason said as he rubbed his eyes.

Standing, Animani Prime went to Jason and patted him on the back. “You helped us achieve something we’ve wanted to do since the day we were created. We are asexual, you see. Everything we need in order to have children of our own is contained within our own bodies. All that was missing was the proper stimulation, the spark necessary for the creation of life.”

“So you’re pregnant?”

“Aye, with twins, as are all who had the truly remarkable pleasure of Dreaming with you.”

“And this has never happened before?”

“There has never been anyone with whom to have the mating dream. Though only a few of our number were here, all Animani felt the experience and are celebrating this great achievement. Now, if you willing, my people would like to experience the physical aspect of our new relationship.”

“But you said yourself, you’re asexual,” Jason replied, taken aback by the Prime’s forwardness.

“That does not mean we are unable to find pleasure from our bodies. As I said, it is up to you. We would not want to make you uncomfortable, but we are very curious to know that physical aspect of you.”

“You make it sound like you want to study me?”

“It is how we Animani are. We study, research, and experiment. We are the doctors and scientists of Mordel, just as the Grau are the spies, soldiers, and mates of the Dominus. In Mordel, only those who fit in the Dominus’ plans have a place in Mordelian society.”

“And what place, besides the butcher’s table, do I have?” Jason asked.

“We will do everything we can to protect you, Prime Mate.

“Primate… makes me sound like one of my church officials.” Jason laughed, misunderstanding due to the man’s accent.

“Then I shall refer to you only as Jason, as you wish. Come, my people are gathering in the common sleeping chamber. Will you honor us with your attendance?”

“It could help make them firmer allies,” Louis whispered into Jason’s mind.

“Can more of my friends come?”

“You mean the four Saints in holding? I am afraid the Grau are keeping them in custody, and I do not have the authority to have them released.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this, Thomas?” Jason demanded.

“They’re not being harmed, Jason. But, as they are your bodyguards, it was decided that keeping you apart from your four generals would lower the risk of you attempting an escape,” Thomas replied.

“I won’t try to escape… at least not until Varrus is safe.”

“True enough, but I would have to ask the Dominus herself for them to be freed.”

“Would you do that for me?” Jason said, even as he noticed the apprehension on Thomas’ face.

“If I do this, the Dominus will suspect I’m being too gentle with you. I might be replaced or, worse, chosen as her mate, which is a death sentence.”

“Then I won’t ask that of you,” Jason replied. “As for the Animani, I don’t know what they really expect from me. Mass orgies have never been that attractive to me.”

“It does not have to be all of us. Remember we are of one body and one mind. The experience one of us has with you is shared with all, and has the same potency.”

“Well?” Jason asked, looking towards Louis and Jacob.

“It’s your choice, Jason. I, of course, have no problem of being worshiped by dozens of identical looking men.” Louis smirked.

“I’ll let you pick, then.” Jason sighed.

“Like it will make a difference.” Louis laughed. “If anybody, why not the Prime?”

“I would be most honored,” Animani Prime bowed.

“First among equals, I bet.” Louis chuckled inside Jason’s head. “Seduce him, and we’ll have all the Animani as our allies.”

“I don’t think I need to try very hard,” Jason sent back. Already, the Prime was removing his clothes. His narrow body was thin but well defined, like Louis’; not a warrior’s body but handsome none-the-less.

“If you will follow me, Jason.” The Prime held out a hand, waiting for Jason to take it. When he did, the Prime raised it to his lips, kissing Jason’s fingers gently. “You truly are the Prime Mate.”

Still not understanding, Jason shook his head, thinking of his own bishops. Walking out of the domed structure, Jason was led down a flight of stairs that curved around the chamber. Down in the dimly lit area, dozens of Animani were caught up in the act of lovemaking. Some were the same Animani who had taken part in the Dreaming, with their dark hair and tanned skin. Most, however, were the pale-skinned, silver-haired Animani that Jason has seen running the hospital. All were naked, atop a giant ring shaped cushion that surrounded the pillar the stairs were wrapped around.

Leading Jason to a pile of pillows, the Prime lay down as two other Animani approached Jacob and Louis.

“They seem to be in a friendly mood,” Jacob chuckled, as a pale Animani kissed the back of his neck and his hands worked to removed the belt of Jacob’s robe.

Removing his own robe, Jason stretched his magnificent gold and silver wings out before lying down next to the Prime.

“You have a beautiful body,” the prime remarked as he ran a finger over Jason’s body. Only the Alpha of the Dalfs compares to it.”

“Is the Alpha the leader of Jacob’s people?”

“Yes he is the Clan Chief, or Alpha of all the packs. The Dalfs are responsible for the security of the upper levels of Mordel. Given how territorial they are, they are very good at their jobs. Of course, they are always in constant rivalry with the Hawkmen who patrol the skies of the city.”

“Werewolves, Hawkmen… are all people such creatures in Mordel?”

“Almost… down in the deepest levels are the purebreds. They’re kept as slaves and breeding stock. I understand Kristen rose up from such a lowly position. I would beware of him. Such men do not rise so high without blood on their hands.”

“Aren’t the Dominus going to punish him?”

“They might choose him as a mate, though he is of inferior stock. You see, the Dominus prefer to only mate with their Grau, which produce offspring with strong telepathic talents. The Grau are the preferred mates of most of the citizens of Mordel. That is how you and Thomas came to be the parents of the Dalf, Jacob. Most likely Kristen will be sent down to the lowest levels where the Nosferatu tend their human cattle.”

“Nosferatu?” Jason asked confused… just the way the Prime said that word filled Jason with dread.

“It is where they put your friend Gideon, among vampires like himself. Though Gideon is a bit more dangerous than most Nosferatu, from what we’ve heard.”

“Is all of Mordel like that, made up of creatures of fantasy?”

“Yes, it was the way the Dominus wanted it. They thought they were being clever, changing men into creatures of the old myths and legends. Change was necessary, just for the sake of survival. Out on the dead plains, above the city of Mordel, sleeps the ancient plagues man created to defeat his enemies. The Pure Bloods only escaped the sickness because they were kept in isolation for generations, as the lab rats from which the Dominus created the Clans of Mordel.”

“How many people live there?”

“Eight million.”

“Your city must be huge.”

“It is. It is also built on several levels going two miles deep. Some levels of the city look like anything but. There are forests, lakes, and farmland as far as the eye can see, all dependent on the light given to us by the Dominus from the Central Pillar.”

“The Central Pillar?”

“It’s a column of light that runs from the top level of the city down to its very bottom. Five miles in diameter it serves as the control center and home for us, the Dominus, and the Grau.”

“I bet it’s also how the Dominus maintain control.”

“There have been rebellions in the past. Most of the time, all the Dominus do is turns off the light on that level. Without light, plants die, men become sick, and the air turns thin. Countless thousands have died as a result. In the last thousand years there hasn’t been so much as a riot because the fear of the Dominus has become so great.”

“What of Alex?”

“Alex Helios?” the Prime said as countless eyes turned in his direction. “We’ve done all we can for him. He must choose his own path.”

“But his anima addiction?”

“We cured that. That is not the problem your friend faces. It is the blood lust that still haunts him.”

“Blood lust? You mean he’s still killing people?”

“After all the people he killed in your lands, with his own hands, he has found it hard to stop and even harder to control his temper. He is now a criminal, a member of the Uhr, the Dark Watchers. They are muggers mostly, but also pickpockets, burglars, slavers, and dealers in black market goods. They also deal in the illegal animus trade, cutting innocent people open to steal their animus pouches. Dangerous business that. Animus can be just as addictive as anima, and can drive someone just as insane. Worse, take the animus of those not of your clan, and your body will mutate and become a freak known as a Chimera, one body of many beasts. It is believed that the leadership of the Uhr is made up entirely of such monsters.”

“Has Alex…”

“No, as far as we know, Alex won’t even touch the stuff. Not that he doesn’t already see himself as a freak. He believes anima superior is to that of animus. He is the Uhr’s number one enforcer. Not even the city patrols are willing to mess with him.”

“I wished for better. Better was promised to me,” Jason said feeling both sadness and rage.

Letting the tip of his finger wipe away one of Jason’s tears the Prime looked at him with deep sympathy. “We did all we could to help your friend. We even offered him a place amongst us. The ways of healing, however, are not in him and he has no patience to learn. In the end we had to let him go or risk him seeing us as an enemy. So far, our kind has been spared the killings. Is this out of gratitude or something else, we do not know?”

“I’ve had visions… one day I will have to fight Alex in order to save him from his own madness. What the dreams do not tell me is whether I win because, in the visions, the battle is never ending.”

“He loves you, and would kill himself before letting any harm befall you,” the Prime whispered as he rolled on top of Jason, resting his head on Jason’s broad chest. “We’ve made love to him, you should know. He was surprisingly gentle, as if he was afraid of his own considerable strength.”

“Alex is gentle, but he’s also stubborn. We he gets something into his head, he ignores everything else. He chopped off Gideon’s right arm because of one of his rages.”

“We are surprised by you,” the Prime whispered. “You, who have such dangerous friends, but are so warm and loving yourself. I do not feel any hate in you, unless it is the hate you feel for your own heart. Guilt has been the undoing of many, Jason. Do not let it lead to your own fall.”

“You think I love both men out of a sense of obligation?” Jason asked.

“Is it not true?”

“Maybe, I just can’t see myself ever giving up on them, no matter what they’ve done.”

“Maybe you can save them, maybe you can’t. We do believe you are the only one who stands a chance at saving both.”
“I thought we were supposed to be making love,” Jason chuckled.

“I like this better.”

“Talking is better than sex?”

“Has what we’ve been discussing not given me greater insight into your heart than any act of sexual passion could?”

“If that is what you want.” Jason wrapped his arms around the man’s body holding him tight.

“What we want is a world without fear.”

“So do I!”

“Do you know what the Dominus look like?”

“No, not really.”

“Long ago, in ancient times, when our people were no different than yours, our people sailed on wooden ships just like your people do today. The seas were more dangerous back then, however, for in the deep ocean there lived monsters known as the Kraken. They were giant squid and could drag an entire ship and its crew down into the deep trenches where they would feed. Eventually, as our technology improved, these monsters of the deep were hunted down to extinction. Still, during the passing of the millennia, they remained a part of our stories with which we would frighten one another.

“It was from those stories that the Dominus chose their mutated form, turning their once human bodies into the giant squid of legend. They brought back the fears of old for, like the Kraken, the Dominus enjoy feeding off human flesh. That is one of the ways traitors are dealt with in Mordel. The other, and far worse punishment, is to be chosen as a mate, for it is not sperm they seek. Like us, they also reproduce asexually. They want a body for their newly hatched young to feed on.”

“That’s horrible.”

“These are but two examples of how the Dominus maintain control through fear,” the Prime replied. “With you holding me in your arms, sharing the warmth of your body and heart, I find I do not fear as much as I used to, or probably should. What I mean to say, Jason, is you have gained the friendship of the Animani people. If there is a way we can save you, even if it earns us the wrath of the Dominus, we are willing to risk it. I speak for all Animani on this, Jason. Just as you have been talking to me, you have been sharing your heart with all of us.”

“I don’t know what to say,” Jason stammered.

“Promise us you will never give up, no matter how dark things appear to be.”

“I have no intention of giving up,” Jason replied with all his heart.

“Nor do us, Jason, nor do we,” the Prime whispered as he let out a pleased sigh.


 

 

Chapter Fourteen

Philip and James stood atop the mountain cliff above the Gate, the impregnable fortress of the Empire. From its stone doors, legion upon legion marched forth, heading west into the kingdom of Freen.

“So this is how it begins,” James sighed as the beat of the Centurion war drums reached the top of the cliffs.

“What?” Philip asked.

“The final war. With the fall of the Federation, we’ll have just enough time to turn our armies east to face the Horde of Lahore, and then the Dominus themselves.”

“The last war… that actually makes me feel sad. What is a Centurion to do if not fight wars?”

“Maintain the peace. Do you think holding onto the Eastern Kingdoms and the Federation will be easy? Still, there will never be a day like today.”

“Thank you for pointing that out,” Philip grumbled.

“Just wanted you to know you should appreciate the moment.” James patted Philip on the back as he laughed.

Seeing his Demon Spawn exiting the Gate, Philip stretched out his wings as he prepared to join them down below, in the dead valley.

“Have fun, Field Marshal. I’ll be sure to keep the home fires burning and the Senate in check.”

“After the attack on Jason, the remaining Senators should be glad to have their heads attached to their necks.”

“The Senate still has its uses. Only a portion of the Legatio members were part of the conspiracy. No reason to punish all for the actions of a few.”

“You’re more forgiving than I am.”

“As an Angel, that’s part of my role. Just as yours, my Demon friend, is to bring the wrath of the Empire down upon our enemies.” James stretched out his wings as he turned to look south. “Be sure to keep a tight leash on King Anvis. Even though he has signed the Treaty of Unification, he only agreed to it to prevent the Templars from putting a puppet on the throne. I am certain he will try to back out of the agreement once he has settled back onto his throne.”

“From what I understand, Field Marshal Darius is keeping King Miguel of Dorsa in a prison wagon.”

“Now that might be a little extreme,” James chuckled. “Treat Avin and Miguel with respect, but do not let them forgot who is freeing their kingdoms from the control of the Templars.”

“I will remind them daily,” Philip said, before his mood shifted. “How is Jason?”

“He is well, doing what he can to gain allies. He is very careful with what word he sends me for fear the Grau can intercept his thoughts.”

“Better he side with caution. Even now we don’t know the limits of our ultimate enemy.”

“All the more reason why Celia must succeed. Soon she and my Saints will reach the Desert of Flames. Where they’ll go from there, only Celia knows.”

“The Qopo do love keeping their secrets.” Philip stretched his wings for a last time. Before jumping off the edge of the cliff he gave James a final wink. “Good luck,” he said as he glided down.

“Good luck to you, friend.” James watched as Philip joined his demon legions. He then turned his eyes southward, back to the capital. If he left now, he could reach Domus in three days. He was sure Kyle had his hands full taking care of Jason’s children, but there was another matter which made Field Marshal hesitate.

Just before he left the capital, word had reached him that a small fleet from the distant island nation of Fu Dor had arrived and, with it, his betrothed, the Princess Lan. Though watching Jason’s family grow had stirred his own desire for children, he did not know how Kyle would take it with their already complicated relationship. Though Kyle had said he was fine with the idea of Lan being his consort, James feared that eventually jealousy would come into play between the two. It would all have to be dealt with later. For now, James had an Empire to run. Already there were rumors of Jason’s disappearance. In Domus this was of little concern, for the Centurions were in firm control of the Empire. But, in the Eastern Kingdoms where Jason was more than their overlord, being their god as well, word of his sudden disappearance could only stir unrest.

Problems, so many problems to deal with, but that is why Jason had chosen James to be the one in charge. If Varrus was not Gladius’ prisoner, James was sure Jason’s Lord Chamberlin would have been given the role. Since Jason had gone with the Grau to rescue his dear friend, that left only James as the logical choice to handle daily affairs while he prepared Sin for his future role as Regent. James did play with the idea of switching roles with Philip, but that would have been impossible. Philip lacked the temperament, and the patience, to run the Empire. While James himself was one of the greatest admirals of his time, directing a massive land campaign would have been a stretch of his talents.

No, he had to go back to the capital and face his fate. Jason had seen to that. One day he would have to get revenge on his clever emperor, but that day might never come. Now, more than ever, James could feel the great distance that separated him from his dear Angel. Closing his eyes, he reached across the endless miles of the Barrier Ocean until they came in contact with Jason’s familiar mind. “Be strong, Jason,” James sent out.

“I will be,” Jason replied, his words warm and reassuring, more for James’ benefit than his own.

“So now the journey home, the sound of the war drums slowly faded away. I go to face my fate,” James whispered. As he spread out his wings and began

 

 


 

Chapter Fifteen

While not able to free his friends from detention, Jason was able to get Thomas to arrange for a short visit between the countless medical tests the Animani performed on him.

Taken out of the hospital, he was led to a horseless cart made of metal and glass. Sitting next to Thomas up front, Jason saw the Grau insert a key and turn it causing the vehicle to roar with life. Soon they were driving down a black paved road, smoother than any road Jason had ever traveled on before, to a barracks-like building that was protected by a fence that hummed, as if alive.

“Be sure to stay away from the fences. I don’t think they can kill the likes of you, but you’ll sure get a painful jolt from them,” Thomas warned, as they left the horseless riding machine. “What is that thing?”

“An electric, motorized vehicle, EMV, unlike our AMV and BMV.”

“And what are they?” Jason asked.

“Armored and Ballistic. There’s also the MCMV, the missile carriage vehicle but those haven’t been used since the Great War.”

“Why?”

“You know how, during a siege, some armies use catapults to throw the bodies of diseased animals over a city’s walls, hoping to spread a plague?”

“Such is not a Centurion custom.”

“But you understand the concept, yes?”

“I do.”

“Well, what the MCMC throws is a lot like that, only much deadlier. They were the very weapons that forced us to take on our mutated forms in order to survive.”

“Then, you should have never created them in the first place.”

“True, so very true, but it was war, a total war that your people have never experienced,” Thomas replied as they passed a pair of Grau guards, both with rifles on their shoulders.

Giving Thomas a quick nod, one of them punched in a code on a panel, unlocking the bunker’s double steel doors. Jason and Thomas stepped inside, going down a short flight of steps, before reaching a narrow hall lined with prison cells. In one of them sat Kristen, his once white robe in dirty, tattered rags as he sat on the metal floor, rocking himself as he mumbled.

“Kristen,” Jason called out. Though he had long known Kristen was a traitor, he felt only sympathy for the poor man.

“He can’t hear you, Jason. Look at his head. He has a Crown of Thorns on his brow. Right now, all he is aware of is the pain his mind is suffering. You would be hearing him scream right now, if he had not already worn out his voice.”

“You say that like you enjoy it.”

“He killed one of my people. The Crown of Thorns is the least of his worries,” Thomas replied. “You must understand that, like you, we Grau are immortal. When we learned of Erik’s death at the hands of his slave, it was a shock to all of us. Many of us wanted to bring Kristen back to Mordel and dump him in a Dominus mating pool. The Dominus decided otherwise, however, having us only threaten Kristen to get him back in line. Still, he must be punished for his treachery. You, of all people, should understand that.”

“Unlock the cell,” Jason ordered.

“You know I can’t do that,” Thomas replied, only to get shoved out of the way. Before he knew it, Jason hand his hands on the bars of the cell door, straining with all his might. Slowly the door began the buckle until, suddenly, the lock snapped.

Giving Thomas a warning look, Jason opened the warped door and stepped into the cell. Going to Kristen, he brushed a lock of dark hair away from the man’s eyes.

“Don’t touch the crown. You’ll only hurt yourself,” Thomas warned as the guards came running down the stairs.

“I won’t let you continue to torture him,” Jason said as he grabbed the crown by its thorns. The contact sent a blinding pain throughout his entire body. With every ounce of will, he crushed the coppery crown with his hands. Dropping a tight ball of metal and blood onto the floor, he lifted Kristen to his feet and kissed him, passing along a portion of his healing anima and soothing the man’s pain until it was gone. He then put Kristen to sleep, laying him down on a nearby cot.

Wiping the blood from his already healed hands, he glared at Thomas. “He is not to be harmed.”

“That is for the Grau Council to decide but, until that time, I promise you he won’t be harmed.”

“When you have that meeting, I wish to be there,” Jason said as the guards put restraints on his wrists.

“Don’t think of breaking these. Snap them and you’ll get such a jolt that your pretty hair would be fried to ashes,” one of the guards grunted, as the restraints were locked into place.

“I won’t try to escape, but keep your word, Thomas. No harm is to befall my friend.”

“Your friend the traitor,” Thomas said sarcastically. “Come along… it’s your real friends you’ve come to see.”

“They have not been harmed I hope,” Jason said as he followed behind Thomas.

“They’ve been treated adequately,” Thomas replied as they reached another set of steel doors. One of the guards pressed a button on his belt and the doors unlocked, opening to reveal a large, barred cell with a bed in each corner, and a table with chairs in the middle. Pacing around the cell were Tanner, Chad, Brask, Hector, and Oktor. On seeing Jason they rushed toward the bars of their cell.

“Jason, are you alright? We felt the pain,” Hector asked as he looked Jason over.

“I’m fine. Are all of you alright?” Jason replied as he noticed their unshaven faces.

Tanner scratched his chin. “Nothing that a trip to the palace bathhouse wouldn’t fix.”

“I haven’t seen anything looking like a bathhouse, but I’ll see if I can get you all cleaned up. Thomas?”

“I’ll see that they’re taken to the showers.” He then turned to the guards. “One at a time, of course.”

“May I enter their cell?” Jason asked Thomas.

“Let him in,” Thomas grunted to the guards.

“How’s Jacob?” Oktor asked.

“Still trying to hunt down some real food,” Jason replied. “He’s fine, Oktor, though a little hungry.”

“So are we,” Chad said. “All they feed us is that damned Vox.”

Once the door had been unlocked, Jason stepped inside and embraced his four generals in a group hug. “Now tell me everything.”

“There’s not much to tell,” Tanner smirked, his hands reaching under Jason’s wings to feel the musculature of Jason’s back. “Other than Kristen’s screaming; we’ve heard nothing.”

“It’s good to see you’re fine, if under restraint.” Hector chuckled as he squeezed one of Jason’s cuffed hands.

“I couldn’t see Kristen like that.”

“Then you should have let Philip deal with him. These Grau think they know terror. They haven’t seen terror until they’ve seen Philip in a rage.” Chad laughed.

“Believe me; they know the face of terror. It just so happens to be the same face as their masters. Kristen had good reason to fear them as he did.”

“You’re not afraid of them, are you, Jason?” Barsk asked, concerned.

Jason let out a long sigh before replying. “I do fear them, not what they will do to me, but to you and all the people of Ares. They’re preparing for an invasion. The horror that is happening on the island of Mathannon is only a taste of what our people will face.

Hector licked his lips as he ran a hand down the line of Jason’s white robe. “Well, your majesty, now that you’re here why you don’t get comfortable and stay a while?”

“In front of Thomas and the guards?” Jason laughed.

As one, the four of them spread out their wings and surrounded Jason with them. “See? No one can spy on us now,” Brask grinned.

With all four of them staring up at him, Jason leaned back against Tanner while the other’s closed in. “Help me forget the things I know will happen,” Jason whispered in a soft voice.

Removing Jason’s sliver, jeweled belt, Chad let it fall with a clatter to the cold metal floor. “For as long as we’re able, we’re here for you, beloved.”

Surrounded by those who loved him, Jason let go of his worries for a short time. Across the Barrier Ocean, in Ares, Jason could sense things were about to change.


 

Chapter Sixteen

Celia stood on the cliff of Isil overlooking the Desert of Flames, a wasteland of sand, tar, and fire. For the people who took their name from the land, it was also the last bastion held after invaders from both sides of Ares had taken or destroyed most of their homelands. It was a land hostile to outsiders, where the only foreigners to be found were those taken as slaves.

 

 

Celia, with her dark brown skin, almond eyes, and wavy hair, was a child of both the East and Qopo. Living on the boarder of the Desert of Flames, the blood of the people of Isil had mixed with that of the desert Qopo for years. The Qopo were nomads who wandered the burned lands of what had been their greatest kingdom, Togo. For that reason alone, Celia knew she would be tolerated, if not warmly welcomed, on the southern continent. What the Qopo would think of her Winged Guards was another matter.

According to legend, the Qopo had not always been divided into nomadic tribes. Once they lived in great cities of glass and steel and were a people of great power and pride, rulers of half the world. Then the Great Wars came and, though most of the carnage occurred on the great continent of Mordland, it was not long until the feral eyes of the Mordelians turned to the Qopo’s green lands.

By the time of the First Invasion, the Mordelians had been at war with each other for over twenty years, and the Qopo had not been slack in preparing their own defenses. Luna, Ares’ sole moon, was a constant reminder of the extreme measures the Qopo used to see to their own defenses. When the invading fleet reached halfway across the great ocean that separated the two lands, the Togos raised the Great Barrier, its powerful fields stranding most of the fleet thousands of miles from land. Those few ships that reached Ares’ shore were quickly defeated by the Qopo’s own powerful armies, but not before one of the ships released a plague upon the land. Millions of the Qopo died, entire cities becoming tombs. In the end, the leadership of the Qopo, the Togo, was forced to turn its own advanced weapons against itself. They destroyed all of their communities but one, Atlantis, the heart of the Qopo Empire.

For countless years most of the surviving Qopo lived the lives of nomads, doing their best to survive off the damaged lands. Only Atlantis remains of their once great civilization, a city that gain a holy aura around it… a living promise for the day when the cities of the Qopo would rise again. Then, the Second Invasion occurred. Three large transports, and a single submersible warship, landed on the island of Jadoor. Those who traveled aboard the small fleet claimed to be refuges. Since they brought with them the Rapa, one of the lost warrior tribes who had attempted a counterattack against the Mordelians, the strangers were at first warmly welcomed. That quickly changed when the Qopo began to sicken and die. It did not matter that the refuges did not know of the diseases they brought with them. The name of the Rapa was cursed and an eternal vendetta declared. Within three centuries, all of Western Ares fell into hands of the invaders without a fight as the Qopo fled further east and to the southern continent.

For a while there was peace, until the Third Invasion began. Led by a powerful Grau, the people of Lahore fought like a true invading army, fighting through the jungles that lined the eastern coasts to the vast plains that became the heart of their nascent empire. Whether out of folly or desperation, the people of Atlantis decided to strike back. Instead of watching silently, as their people were enslaved and converted to the Lahorian faith at sword point, they sent out the last of their armies to force the Lahorians back into the sea.

After driving the Lahorians back into the jungles, a great breakthrough was achieved. The Lahorian worshiped leader, Kaal, was captured alive and brought back to Atlantis for interrogation and, eventually, execution.

No one knows what happened, as no witnesses survived. According to the legends, Kaal’s capture had actually been a Lahorian trick. When he was brought to the last city of the Qopo, he carried within him the seeds of the city’s destruction. No one knows what really happened. All they saw was the end result, the Desert of Flames, and any trace of the once great city erased by dunes of sand.

Though no trace of the city remained, its location was well known by the desert nomads. Called the Valley of the Ancients, it was the meeting place of the Council of Elders. The Elders were the only ones allowed to have any contact with the great Togo tribe, who were still believed to be the sacred protectors of the Qopo people. Meeting the elders was Celia’s only hope to learn the secrets of the Togo.

“My Lady, the sun is setting. We should move on now,” Captain Koltus said as the sky darkened.

“Yes, we should.” Celia sighed, looking down from the black granite cliff that marked the Isilian border and the great desert, a formidable natural wall standing against any invasion from Lahore. “We will travel northeast from here until we reach the Well of Sorrows.”

“And from there?” Koltus asked.

“East, until we reach the Valley of the Ancients. It’s a depression in the desert, about five hundred feet down, and ten miles across. At its center is the camp of the Elders. It is to them I must make my request.”

“Will there be guards?”

“Of course there’ll be guards. The Valley of Ancients is supposed to be a secret, after all. Outside the Isilian Royal Family, no outsiders are supposed to know the valley even exists. You can rest assured that the Lahorians don’t know.”

“How long will it take to reach the valley?”

“It could take a month on foot, shorter on camel, but as we are going to be flying it could take as little as six days.”

“The sooner the better,” Koltus stressed. “If we can get the aid of the Togos before Jason is sent to Mordel, we might just be able to rescue him from the Grau before he’s out of reach.”

“I cannot promise anything. The Elders will be furious with me, just for brining outsiders to their camp. They could have me killed.”

“Not with us protecting you.” Koltus had twenty Saints with him to back up his promise.

“And I have my women. Neither will do us with any good if the Togos see us as a threat.”

“With an invasion from Mordel about to happen, I doubt it. If they are as clever as you believe, they’ll know they need allies.”

“The Togos have stayed hidden from the Mordelians for thousands of years. It will take much to make them believe they should come out of hiding, even with an invasion at their door,” Celia warned.

“You know them better than us but, with Lahore about the cross the Desert of Flames, now might be their only chance for revenge.”

“That may be true,” Celia agreed. “I will be sure to bring that up with the Elders.” Placing a hand on her stomach, she rubbed her swollen belly. Varrus had told her she was carrying twins… Legatio twins. She knew such a rare birth would gain her acceptance in the Domus Empire, but would it curse her among her own people? As Koltus wrapped an arm around her waist, she felt herself lifted off the ground and carried into the sky toward the northeast.


 

Chapter Seventeen

Dorsa, with its own peasants already in revolt against the Templars, fell quickly against Field Marshall Darius’ Centurion legions and regular Tosian troops. King Avin was back on his throne in La’Sall. With the Rapa light cavalry, led by Queen Felicia, attacking the Jadoorians along Dorsa’s northern borders, most of the Templars and other Jadoorian troops had fled to Sol, refusing to give up the heart of the Federation without a fight.

In Freen, Philip’s army besieged the capital city of Tavla, and thousands of converts followed his legions, singing songs of Jason’s glory.

Within the Empire, James was seeing to the autumn harvest and insuring that Domus’ massive granaries and storehouses were filled to the brim, in preparation for a long war. Not only were several of the leaders from the Eastern Kingdoms arriving at Domus’ sole port, but so was Lan, James’ betrothed. For three months, she had traveled the southern seas to reach Aquanos. There, she declared she would go no further until James himself came to claim her. So James flew to meet her with Kyle and a full escort of the Winged Guard.

“You sure you want to be there?” James asked Kyle as the white walled city came into view.

“Of course I want to meet your wife. I want her to understand from the start who’s in charge.”

“And that would be you?”

“You’d better believe it’s me. Where would you be without me?”

“Who knows… still serving in the Jadoorian Navy most likely.”

“Now you’re a Field Marshal of the Empire with his own legions at your command.”

“I still miss the sea.”

“I know you do.” Kyle knew James’ misty eyes had more to do with Jason than any desire to travel the endless oceans again.

Reaching the Governor’s Palace, they landed on the balcony. A pair of Famulus servants opened the doors for them as soon as they landed. “The princess of Fu Dor is waiting in the audience room,” one of the Famulus said, bowing as James entered his old quarters.

“She’s not waiting to make herself comfortable,” Kyle smirked.

“We did make her sail all the way here,” James replied expecting to face the anger of a spoiled princess.

On reaching the great doors to the audience chamber they found them guarded by men dressed in bamboo armor, painted black and red. Each carried a sheathed scimitar at his waist. Seeing James and his Demon, both guards held their hands at their sides before giving the Field Marshal stiff bows. “Her royal highness awaits your lordship,” one of the guards said in an accented voice.

“So I’ve been told,” James said, as he waited for the large thick doors to be opened. Looking through the doors, he saw that a thick red carpet decorated with flying golden dragons had been placed to make a path to the governor’s chair. Cherry blossoms were scattered along this narrow path. Sitting on the gold inlaid, black mahogany, high backed chair of the governor, sat her Royal Highness; the precious pearl of the trading island nation of Fu Dor, the Princess Lan Han

She wore layers of robes of red and gold silk. Her long black hair sat atop her head, held in place by numerous gold combs encrusted with jewels so that it gave the impression of a sun-like aura around her white painted face. Her lips were partly colored a brilliant red, making her mouth appear quite small. The black lining of her thin eyebrows drew one’s attention to her almond shaped, dark eyes.

As James and Kyle walked down the carpet, they saw that the walls of the chamber were lined with more of the princess’ bamboo guards. Each gave them a deep bow as they passed by. As they reached ever closer to the princess, Lan took out a large fan and opened it with a loud snap. She used it to cover her face, so that only her eyes showed.

When he was five feet from the princess, James came to a sudden halt. Crossing his arms over his chest, he gave the woman a wary look. “Princess Lan, what are you doing sitting in my chair?”

“Just keeping it warm for you, my dear husband.”

“Husband,” Kyle yelped as he glared at the woman’s dark eyes. “You two haven’t even been married yet.”

“But the contract has already been signed,” Lan replied, staring directly at the short demon. “If my husband wishes to have a ceremony, I will not stop him, but once his agents and my father signed the marriage contract the Lord Field Marshal became my husband.

Each time Lan said the word husband Kyle’s anger grew. “Consort,” he spat. “You are nothing more than a consort.”

Snapping her fan closed, Lan showed her puckered lips as she glared at Kyle “Not according to the contract, imp,” she said, stressing each syllable. She clapped her fan in her hand and a servant, wearing purple robes and a tall rectangle hat, came forward and bowed. With a scroll in hand, he quickly unfurled it. Speaking in his own native language, he read the terms of the contract.

Kyle’s father had been the son of a minor merchantman who had made the run to Island of Fu Dor. He had been taught Wu, the dominant language in that part of the world, so he could become a trader after learning the ways of the sea in the Jadoorian Royal Navy. Although James didn’t understand a word the court official said, Kyle understood every word of it. “Bitch!” He shouted, crouching down to pounce on her royal highness. As soon as he leapt forward, he felt himself suddenly jerked back as James grabbed him by his tail and pulled, hard.

“Let me at her. Let me at her,” Kyle demanded, as his clawed hands scratched up the polished marble floor.

“Calm, Kyle, calm,” James cooed as he gave Lan a hard look. “Tell me what the contract says.”

“It says she is your First Wife, and head of your household.”

“Well, you’re my husband,” James told Kyle as he pulled him into a tight embrace.

“You don’t understand,” Kyle sobbed. “As First Wife, she can keep me from seeing you.”

“How so?” James laughed.

“It is tradition,” Lan replied as her servant handed her the rolled up scroll. As First Wife, all other consorts must answer to me.”

“You are not my master,” James told Lan in a warning tone.

“Of course not, dear husband,” Lan said as she bowed deeply. “A contract is a binding agreement however, unless you wish for a divorce? I must warn you. That would upset my father greatly. He might not let Domus ships trade with him anymore, if you were to insult his honor. All those silks and spices would have to go somewhere else, maybe Jadoor. Who knows what they might give my father, if their ships are allowed to trade again.”

“I won’t divorce you, Lan.”

“Then you will agree our contract is legal?”

“It is legal and, as this is my house, I leave it in your care. I will pity you while I am away.”

“You are a great Admiral. I understand you must do your duty.”

“And, as Kyle is my aid-de-camp, he will be accompanying me as I defend the Empire.”

“If he gets my permission,” Lan insisted.

“As this is a military matter, it is not your decision. Do I make myself clear?”

“You are the master,” Lan bowed. “But, in this house, your demon must show me the respect due my station.”

“If you ever want me to return to the governor’s palace to visit you, you will show proper respect to my bond-mate, First Wife.”

“The contract…”

“The contract only states that I provide you with a house to lord over. It can be either this palace or a hut in a mining outpost up in the Jasper Mountains. Only you can make that choice,” James threatened.

“I will do whatever you wish, dear husband,” Lan bowed, all cheer taken out of her voice.

“Then shall we consummate our marriage. By my people’s custom a marriage isn’t sealed until certain acts are done.”

Surprised by her husband’s forwardness, a shocked look momentarily appeared on Lan’s face, which she quickly covered with a snap of her fan. “I would be greatly honored, dear husband.

“Then shall we?” James said as he offered her his arm.

“Yes,” Lan said, the sneer she was giving Kyle hidden by her fan.

“Come along, Kyle,” James said as he headed for the door at the side of the hall.

“Me?” Kyle said, just as shocked as Lan.

“You know me better than most people. I would want no one else to instruct Lan in the proper way to please me.” James gave Kyle a wink.

Kyle did his best to hold his building laughter. “Why of course, James.” If Lan’s face wasn’t already painted white her shock and horror would have more clearly shown.

 

Chapter Eighteen

Jason looked down at his stomach where an Animani was painting his body with a radiant sun design. This was the outline for the cuts that would be made when his anima core was finally removed. With each touch of the brush, Jason felt his doom come that much closer. Taking a sharp breath when the Animani made and exceptionally long, cold stroke, his body pressed against the bristles, upsetting the perfect lines.

“Shall I provide you with a relaxant?” the Animani asked, as he quickly wiped away the smudge before the paint was able to set into Jason’s pale skin.

“Does this really need to be done now?” Jason sighed as he covered his eyes with a hand.

“We are almost done, sir.”

“Then please finish it.”

“I will give you that relaxant then,” the Animani said as he left his chair.

“No relaxants… I have weapons practice right after this. I can’t fight if I’m drugged up. Just try to be quick about this.”

“Very well sir. I will do my best. I’m sorry. I know you are not enjoying this, but we both have no choice in the matter,” the Animani apologized.

“I’m not mad at you. I’m just scared,” Jason replied honestly.

“Your fear is very real and is quite understandable.”

“Do you Animani fear death?”

“We never die. Even if one of us is killed, he remains a part of our shared consciousness. That is why so few of us are killed, even in such a violent city as Mordel. No one who’s killed one of our kind has ever escaped our justice.”

“Even if the killer is one of the Dominus?”

“They have never tried to kill one of our kind.”

“Are they afraid of you?”

“No, nothing like that. They know we are no threat to them, but they don’t trust us like the Grau, and so never put in charge of anything critical. That is why we have never been in a position to fail them.”

“But they are putting you in charge of something important… me,” Jason pointed out.

“Yes, and if we fail I do not doubt my entire race will be punished severely.”

“You mean executed,” Jason guessed.

“Yes, the complete genocide of my people. The Dominus have waited five thousand years for you, Jason. If the operation fails, it might take another five thousand years for another one of your kind to come into being. The Dominus might be showing patience so far, but if my people fail them their rage will know no bounds. Are you sure you wouldn’t like a relaxant? It’s actually quite mild, and I’m sure it won’t affect your battle training.”

Jason could see the nervousness on the Animani’s face. It was not hard to imagine countless thousands wearing the same expression as the Animani waited for his answer. “If it will make you feel better.”

Reaching into a drawer, the Animani took out a bottle of pills. Taking one, he gave Jason a critical look before popping out a second and a third pill. He handed them to Jason.

“Three?”

“Trust us, you need it,” the Animani replied. Don’t worry about needing water to swallow them. They’ll dissolve on contact with your tongue.”

Doing as he was told, Jason put the pills into his mouth, tasting sweet chalk as the pills dissolved. The medication absorbed in his mouth. Letting out a deep breath, Jason felt his body relax as the fear that had been nagging him all day was silenced.

“That’s better,” the Animani cooed, as he sat back down onto his chair. “The Prime promised that we will do what it takes to save you, and that’s exactly what we will do.” Going back to painting, the Animani finished drawing out the lines for the operation to come. When done, he turned on a special lamp that caused the ink to absorb into Jason’s skin. By the time he had Jason sit up, there was the outline of a flaming black sun on Jason’s stomach.

“Will the mark ever go away?” Jason asked as he examined it.

“In time it will fade away, but not before the operation. You don’t have to worry about a nervous hand cutting into you. The special minerals in the paint will provide a perfect roadmap for the robotic cutter.”

“Robotic?”

“A machine that’s given a certain level of intelligence through a computer. Let me guess though, you don’t know what a computer is?”

“Not a clue,” Jason said as he put on a shirt.

“It, too, is a machine but unlike other machines this one is able to make its own decisions, within certain limits. Before the Grau, the Dominus’ favored servants were robots with advance artificial intelligence. Like us, the Dominus were never able to fully trust them. They were always afraid the robots would become too independent and might rebel.”

“They don’t fear that with the Grau?”

“Machines can’t know fear, but a man can. The Dominus have seen to it that the Grau fear their masters more than death itself.”

“What of you Animani?” Jason asked.

“We are a gestalt. We are greater than the sum of our parts, even more so now that you’re with us. For us to truly die, the Dominus would have to kill us all. In time, we hope to draw you into our greater consciousness and reach even superior heights. We are a deep well, one that only you can reach. Only you can draw us from ourselves and use us to nourish the wounded land. We’ll never let you die, Jason, no fear of that.”

“But if the Dominus want me dead?”

“We would defy them,” the Animani replied. “So long as one of us survives there is hope.”

“Well, I’ll hope it will never come to that,” Jason said as he put on a utility belt Thomas had given him. On his hip was a black cylinder almost the size of his fist. Fingering it gingerly, he was eager to be gone from the hospital. “Is there anything more?”

“No, you’re free to go. We know you want to get back to practicing. We Animani can feel that you are part of your own gestalt, through your Saints. If one of ours was suffering the way your Varrus is, we too would do everything we could to save him.”

“Thank you,” Jason said. Leaving the hospital, he made for a concrete block where Thomas and Major Scott were waiting, each dressed in military green.

“You’re late,” Major Scott said as he flung off his coat. Reaching to his hip, he took hold of the cylinder at his belt. Squeezing the cylinder extended it into a black quarterstaff, bolts of blue energy running along it.

“Sorry, nerves got to me,” Jason apologized.

“Thomas, will you see to him?” Scott ordered as he twirled his staff in his hands.

Lifting up a metal case, Thomas walked towards Jason. He went down on one knee and opened the case on the concrete floor. The first thing he handed Jason was a pair of black gloves. “Tailored to fit,” Thomas chuckled as Jason put them on. Next, he handed Jason a necklace made of silver plates and a set of bracelets for his wrists and ankles. Once they were all in place, Thomas took out a black stone and placed it in the open setting in the middle of the necklace. With a click, Jason’s body shimmered as force fields fell into place.

“Remember how to activate your shock staff?” Scott asked as he moved to one corner of the dueling square.

“Yes,” Jason nodded. Taking the cylinder from his belt he extended the staff, lightning dancing along its length.

“Good, now let’s see that famed Academy training of yours,” Scott said as he moved toward the center of the block.

Standing on the tips of his toes, Jason gingerly moved to meet the Grau. Even with the gloves he could feel the power pulsing in the staff.

“You really ready, Jason?” Thomas asked as he stood between the two duelists. To his left, Scott was extending three-prong-spear-points from either end of his staff.

“More than ready,” Jason replied as he sent his own staff ablaze.

“Remember, when your opponents’ stone turns red… it means his shield is about to collapse. Kill one another and the Dominus will be most displeased,” Thomas warned as he stepped away.

For a while, Jason and Scott circled around each other. Their staves jutting out just enough to test their shields. Then, with a sudden push of his wings, Jason flung himself back five yards, the three prongs of a spear shooting out from the end of his staff.

Knowing he could not dodge in time, Scott held his staff with both hands at a horizontal angle and braced himself for the hit. When the bolts of energy hit his shields, there was a loud boom of thunder and white sparks exploded from the contact point. On the necklace around Scott’s neck the stone turned from black to deep purple. “Caught me off guard with that one, but you can’t surprise me twice.” Scott charged forward swinging his staff as he quickly closed the distance between him and Jason.

Jason blocked Scott’s heavy blow, triggering more sparks and the roar of thunder as Jason was forced back two steps. Quickly recovering, Jason made a low attack with the butt of his staff aiming for Scott’s right knee, only to be stopped by the man’s shields. Still, while the shields blocked the staff’s powerful energy, its full force could not be completely denied. For a brief second, Scott was forced down on one knee and Jason made another attack. Scott was fast, however, and quickly rolled away before Jason’s staff could reach him. Bolts of energy danced across the floor where Scott had just been. As Jason regained his guard stance, Scott leapt with both feet and, using his telekinetic gifts, let himself soar even higher so his staff would come crashing down on Jason’s head. Once again there was a thunderous boom and flying sparks as Scott’s blow forced Jason down on his back. The gem on his necklace quickly shifted from black to purple until it finally settled on a light blue.

As he let himself gently settle back on the ground, Scott chuckled. “You’re not the only one who can fly.”

Jumping back to his feet, Jason tried to ignore the pain in his head and rear. “I’ll have to remember that.” He charged forward, making several incredibly fast strikes before he flipped and twisted himself over Scott to hit him hard in the middle of his spine.

Staggering several steps forward, Scott turned around with look of pain on his face. The gem on his necklace was now green. “Quick and fast might work for you with normal staves, but these are shock staves. Power is what wins the day.” With that Scott extended the prongs of his spear and sent bolt after bolt at Jason. Jason was forced to roll on the ground in order to avoid getting hit. Having many lifetimes worth of practice with the staff, Scott’s aim turned out to be better than Jason’s agility. When a bolt hit Jason atop his head, the shock and pain forced Jason back onto his knees. On his neck, the gem was a rich orange.

“Now that had to have hurt. Another lesson for you Jason, even though you are shielded you should never let yourself get hit in the head so easily. A sore knee or side can be compensated for but a jarred mind cannot.”

Breathing deeply, Jason tried to clear his head. As things stood now, Scott could finish him off anytime. Jason, however, did not want to give up without some sort of response. Using the staff for support, he staggered back onto his feet and looked at Scott through his blurred vision. Scott was about ten feet away from him, slowly making his way to give Jason a killing blow. Jason knew he couldn’t win, but if he could just block Scott’s attack he might be able to make one final counter stroke and bring down the Grau’s shields.

Hunching down to make himself a smaller target, he stood lightly on his feet as Scott sauntered towards him with a confident grin on his face.

“Why don’t you just make it easy for me,” Scott snickered, as he twirled his staff in his hands.

“I have the honor of my teachers to uphold,” Jason replied.

“Oh really?” The words barely out of Scott's mouth before he attacked.

With his body hunched over Jason knew his head was sticking out, a perfect target he knew Scott wouldn’t ignore. That was why he was ready to block the blow with his staff. As Scott tried to recover, Jason fell backwards, letting his wings soften his fall. Holding the bottom of his staff, he then swung it with all his might, hitting Scott full in the chest and stomach. The force of the blow sent the Grau flying back ten yards as his shields melted away. On his necklace, the gem flashed red but quickly faded to a faint pink and then to white as the remaining energies protecting him evaporated away.

“Match!” Thomas shouted as he ran to Jason’s side to examine him. “You won, Jason, but next do a better job of protecting your head, like Stott told you. I have no doubt you’ve suffered a concussion.”

“What about Scott?” Jason asked, as he slowly sat up with Thomas’ help.

“Don’t worry about Scott. He’s a soldier and can take care of himself. You, on the other hand, need to go back to the hospital.” Thomas scanned Jason’s brain for any damage. There were the signs of a concussion and a slight ringing in Jason’s ears, but otherwise he was fine.
With an arm wrapped around his stomach, Scott came hobbling over. “Not bad. You might just be learning. Next time protect your head better. You’re not invincible after all.”

“I know, I know.” Jason sighed. “You really got me with that flying leap of yours.”

“That’s about as much flying as we Grau can do, except for sky diving.”

“Sky diving?” Jason asked confused.

“I’ll go over that part of your training when your mind is back in one piece. Right now, my stomach is cramping up from that last blow of yours, so I should really lie down. Good job on winning. With your determination, you’re on your way to beating Gladius. Although it won’t do us any good for you to get yourself killed in the process. More training, that’s what you need.”

“Then I’ll see you tomorrow?” Jason asked as Scott walked away.

“No dueling for a week,” Thomas replied.

“But…” Jason was about to protest.

“I’m serious, Jason. If Scott’s last blow had landed on your head, I would be sending for a stretcher. You need more instruction on how to protect yourself. The Centurions might have taught you valor, but not the skill of an honorable retreat.”

“How long do you plan on keeping me here before letting me rescue Varrus?”

“You need at least a month. All this technology is new to you. You need time to learn how to take full advantage of it. Anyway, it’s in your best interest for us to take things slow, if you get my meaning.”

“You’re saying once I rescue Varrus, there’ll be nothing to stop the Dominus from sending me to Mordel for the operation.”

“Exactly. If you want to survive that operation, you need to give us time to find a way of making that possible.”

“I’m sorry. I know you mean well, but I can feel what Gladius is doing to Varrus. What he’s going through is unbearable for me.”

“Anything that doesn’t kill you can be borne. Gladius won’t kill Varrus. That would ruin any chance for him that you would come to save your mentor. The operation, on the other hand, might kill you if you rush into it. Believe me, the pain Varrus is facing is nothing compared to what he would feel if you were to die.”

“But, without my anima core I won’t be an Angel anymore.”

“You will always be an Angel. There’s more to it than just your anima core. If that wasn’t the case the Dominus wouldn’t have waited all these years to harvest it from you. I can’t say that your Saint’s won’t suffer when it is removed, but it will be the numb pain of a lost limb rather than the burning shock of your death.”

“How do you know?”

“Because it’s what the Animani have told me. You’re not supposed to know, but they’ve been practicing the operation on each other in order to perfect it when it is your turn.”

“They shouldn’t be doing that,” Jason said, feeling the familiar anger caused by other people’s sacrifices on his behalf, the guilt running deep.

“Their minds are limitless, so it is not as if the greater Animani mind feels the loss. For the patient whose core is removed, however, there is great suffering. Most fall into a deep depression, unable to recover from the sudden emptiness they feel without their core,” Thomas warned. “That’s why I wanted you to bring your friends along, so when it does happen they will be able to help you recover.”

“If I survive,” Jason said doubtfully.

“Do you not believe us when we say we are trying to do everything we can to see that you do survive?”

“All my visions end with the operation,” Jason explained.

“All your visions end with the operation because, after the Dominus have your core, you are no longer important to your plans. That is something for which you should be grateful. You will be nobody to the Dominus and free to live whatever life you want.”

“What about you, Thomas?”

“I’m a Grau. My place is at the Dominus’ side, but they don’t always need me. What time I have, I plan to spend with you, if you will let me.”

“But why me?”

“Because I have been your guardian for so long that I don’t think I want to live a day where you’re not a part of my life.”

“Even though you spent most of those years tormenting me?”

“Haven’t you noticed…? All Grau enjoy tormenting the lower classes. It’s just no fun doing so with the Animani, because we can’t take pleasure from the anger raging in their minds.”

“Their minds are that powerful?”

“Let me put it this way. One Grau annoying an Animani is about the same as a single grain of sand in your sandals. That wouldn’t annoy you too much, would it? The same is true of the Animani with their greater shared mind. Besides the Dominus, of course, the Animani are the only people we dare not bully.”

“But you’d bully me,” Jason pointed out.

“On the genetic scale of things you’re superior to me, but since the Dominus view you as a lab rat they’re planning to dissect, I feel I can get away with a little teasing.”

“You wouldn’t if Philip was here.”

“Which is why he’s not here,” Thomas said matter-of-factly. “To be honest, the Dominus fear your Demon. They don’t believe they can control, let alone reason with, such a force of nature.”

“He is going to rescue me,” Jason said sternly, so there would be no mistaking the seriousness in his voice.

“He will try, I am sure, but I wouldn’t put too much faith in that. Once you cross the barrier and see the kind of world we Mordelians live in, you’ll understand better the impossible obstacles your lover will have to overcome.”

“He will save me,” Jason repeated.

“If that is what gives you hope, so be it. Just know I’ll be there for you when that hope finally fades away into bitter acceptance of your fate. Now, come. I need to get you back to the hospital before the Animani send out an army to go searching for you. By now, Scott has told them how the duel went, so I bet they’re worried silly about that precious head of yours.” To emphasize his point, Thomas planted a kiss atop Jason’s head before offering him a hand up.

“A week before my next duel,” Jason grunted, as he stood up with Thomas’ help.

“A least a week,” Thomas replied. “Remember, taking things slow is not a bad thing in your case.”

“I know. I know your people are trying their best to save me. If Varrus was to die, I would never be able to forgive myself.”

“Gladius would never kill his only hostage; believe me when I say that. He’s always had a cold calculating mind. Compared to him, Amplexor is a dimwitted fool.”

“Makes me fear for Varrus all the more.”

“You shouldn’t. Once we have you and your people trained, he’ll be no match for you. You do understand that you will have to kill him. That is, of course, the reason why we’re willing to train you with our weapons.”

“I understand. You need an Angel to kill a Demon. As long as he lives, Varrus and the rest of my people won’t be safe from his scheming.”

“Exactly,” Thomas said as he helped Jason walk back towards the white stone hospital.

“Who will kill Amplexor then?” Jason asked as they walked.

“If you kill Gladius, Amplexor will have no choice but to turn to Philip, or even Kyle. Given their histories, I do not doubt they will see that Amplexor is finally laid to rest.”

“Why would he go to them?”

“An Angel can’t be without a Demon, even if that Demon has already entered the eternal sleep. After you kill Gladius, Amplexor will feel compelled to surrender himself to one of the two surviving Demons. If he doesn’t, he will go mad and, eventually, die himself. Besides the Banes, the death of one’s Demon is the only other way an Angel can die.”

“I didn’t know that,” Jason whispered in shock. For all his scheming, Jason had no love for Amplexor. But that did not mean he didn’t pity the poor man, surviving thousands of years while his lover slept. If he had to endure such sorrow, Jason couldn’t say whether he might commit the same vile acts. Jason just hoped it never came to that.


 

Chapter Nineteen

Philip stood atop the domed palace of the royal Freen city of Tavla. It had been a short siege. Only the Templars and their priests truly wished to fight to the death, while most of the royal army and people of Freen were more than eager to surrender. Still, after a week, the city was not safe. Agents of the church hid within the walls of the port city, ready to strike out at any who seemed to sympathize with the Centurion occupiers and their Tosian priests.

There were preachers on every street corner, and in control of the city’s temples, handing out food, clothes, and the comfort of a disciples’ bond. Already, a warehouse near the port was being converted into a bathhouse for the Centurion soldiers. It had been a good victory. Most of the city was still intact, including the royal palace where the Templars made their last stand. That was not the greatest prize, however. In a building separated from the others, Philip’s soldiers found an alchemic-factory mass-producing the mysterious explosive black powder. Two storerooms were filled to the ceiling with kegs of the dangerous weapon. With the Templars making their stand at Sol, the explosives would prove a valuable tool in breaking through the island’s defenses.

Those were Philip’s thoughts as he sat atop the palace dome, his eyes ever aimed across the ocean where his love was being kept prisoner. He didn’t blame Jason for surrendering himself. He knew the love Jason had for Varrus. Philip would have gone and rescued Varrus himself but, after what happened in the Senate, he was unsure what other monstrous weapons Gladius had at hand. Jason must know. Why else would he give himself over to the Grau in order to save his mentor? Whatever the case, Philip was sure the technology of the Mordelians had to be far superior to whatever odds and ends Gladius still had left over when the Mother brought her people to Jadoor.

Through his bond, he knew Jason was training hard for the coming battle and it made Philip wish even more that he were with him. In all their years together, the two had never fought side by side in true battle. It was the thought of such pleasure that both excited Philip and filled him with guilt. Jason should never have put himself in such danger. What use was he, Philip, if he could not protect the man he loved.

Scaling up the shear walls of the palace, three Demon Spawn joined Philip on top of the domed roof. “King Miguel wishes to speak with you,” the lead Spawn hissed.

“What does he want now?”

“I believe he wants to know when your legions will be moving on.”

“We give him his throne, and he already wants to get rid of us,” Philip grunted. “Is there anything else?”

“Yes, master. We found the main hideout for the Templars who remain in the city. We found quivers of the poisoned arrows that have been killing our kind.”

“Did you put the Templars to the question?”

“Yes, master. We even bonded a few of them, fresh new imps to serve your greatness.”

“There is only one imp that concerns me,” Philip said, thinking of Kyle. “So what did they have to say?”

“They said the arrows were provided by Amplexor, in preparation for war with the Empire.”

“Gladius probably has them as well then. Oh well,” Philip sighed, as he felt even more useless. Inform my Demon Legions they must carry shields from now on. I won’t have my children dying due to lack of armor and pride.”

“It will be done, master.”

Standing,’ Philip stretched out his wings. “Leave three legions to hold the city. It’s time I dealt with the King of Freen once and for all.”

Gliding down, Philip smashed through a red stained window and flew into the royal throne room where Miguel sat on his gold and red velvet throne. Shocked by Philip’s entrance, the king jumped from his chair and raced for a side exit, as his loyal guards dropped their weapons and held up their hands in surrender.

Grabbing the king by his thick cloak Philip forced Miguel to face him. “And where do you think you’re going?”

Trying to look indigent, Miguel struggled against Philip’s iron grip. “What are you doing smashing your way into my palace?”

“I understand you wanted to see me.” Philip let go of the king, but did not remove his blinding gaze.

“Yes, about that. Now that the usurper has been dealt with, and the army has sworn loyalty to me, I think it’s time your legions moved on and let us handle our own affairs.”

“Oh really?” Philip chuckled as he crossed his arms over his bare chest. “Have you forgotten the treaty you signed with my Emperor?”

“That was then. Unless you wish to fight all the people of Freen, your people should leave. We will never recognize your Empire as our master.”

“Well, I wouldn’t want to butcher all the people of Freen. That would make me a monster.” Philip leaned down and let his glowing white eyes fill the king’s face. “Why should I, when the only person I need to deal with is you, your majesty?” Before Miguel had a chance to reply, Philip’s arms were wrapped around the king, pulling the shorter man up into an embrace, and pressing his lips against the man’s shocked, gaping mouth. Within moments the king was bound to him, another Spawn who would give his life for his new master.

“Your lordship,” Miguel gasped when the kiss ended, his once brown eyes now glowing with a red fire.

“Your majesty,” Philip grinned. “Who is your master?”

“Why you, Lord of Demons,” Miguel said, his face now wearing a silly grin.

“You’d better believe it,” Philip said, as he let the king back down on his feet. “I will be keeping three legions here to ensure the peace. If you need any advice, you can ask the general I’m leaving here or, if you prefer, you can talk to Julian. He is already busy converting your temples and churches to his own use.”

“Why should I go to church, when I can worship my god right here?” Miguel cooed as he nuzzled against Philip’s bare chest.

Philip stroked the man’s curly black hair. “You imps are all the same.”

“I only wish to serve you,” Miguel said innocently.

“In the bedroom,” Philip chuckled. “Very well, your majesty, you may have me but only for tonight. Tomorrow, the rest of my legions march east to aid in the siege of Sol.

“As your lordship wishes, but don’t stay away too long or I might come chasing after you myself.


 

Chapter Twenty

On reaching the Well of Sorrows, Koltus and his Winged Guards found that several nomadic camps were already set up around this rare source of water. Landing well beyond the light of the campfires, they hid their wings under billowing white cloaks as they and their passengers passed through the camps to the guarded well.

“Saluti,” Celia said raising an open palm to the guards.

“Saluti, Isilian,” the guards replied. “What brings her royal highness to the Well of Sorrows?”

“I am on a long journey, and this is one of the few wells the Lahorians have not befouled with their presence.”

“True, the Lahorians think they are masters of these lands, but none know them better than the tribes of the Qopo. I hear many things while guarding this well. Tell me where you’re headed and I will tell you what I know.”

“There is only one reason why a member of the Arkridge would be so far from her mountain home,” an old Qopo man, bent over with age, said as he hobbled forward. “Why do you seek the Valley of the Ancients?”

“I wish to speak to the Council of Elders.”

“For what purpose, princess?” the old man asked.

“I wish for them to send a missive to the Togo beseeching their aid in the coming wars.”

“Do you have so little trust in your mountain fortresses?”

“Against the entire Horde of Lahore, I would not put my faith or trust the safety of my future children, even in the Labyrinth Keep of Qul Tos.”

“Do not fear young one… the Hordes of Lahore are not heading to your precious kingdom, but are far to the north making their way to Rapa and Drakor.

“But Rapa has no mountains to defend. The Hordes cavalry will race across their plains and into the other kingdoms.”

“The Rapa are our blood enemy, long have we sought to destroy them. Maybe it is the will of the Togos that the Lahorians destroy them for us.”

“Surely you can’t believe that, old one,” Celia said, shock on her face. “The Rapa might be a cast out tribe, but it was the Lahorians who destroyed Atlantis and created the Desert of Flames in the first place. Why haven’t the tribes gathered to harry the Horde’s supply lines?

“Most of the tribes are gathering near Isil. Just as the first King Arkridge offered us the safety of his mountains when Lahorian raiders attack us, so we are depending on your kingdom’s safety during this war. If the enemy moves south, of course we will attack them as we have done in the past. But the Horde is not down here in the south, but north, about to destroy the blood traitors,” the old man spat. “You should be happy, the Federation is about to be destroyed.”

“I am not happy, old one. Can’t you see it? If the Federation falls into the hands of Lahore they will have a foothold here in the west, from which they can attack the Eastern Kingdoms from both the west and north. Isil has no defenses against such an attack, as we always assumed the attack would come from the east. How will we be able to protect your people if we are surrounded by enemies?”

“We cannot change the course of the Horde, anymore more than we can change the course of a raging flood. All one can do is go with the flow and hope to survive the deluge.”

“I have no time to banter philosophy and metaphors with a tired old man who can’t see what’s in the best interest of his people. I mean to go to the Valley of Ancients and meet with the Council of Elders, and plead my case with them.”

“But you are pleading your case with them,” the old man said, the hard bitterness of his voice replaced by sympathy. “The Togos informed us of your coming, so the council sent me to see if you are really worth our time.”

“And have I proved that?” Celia demanded.

“Besides the twin boys you are carrying, you do have a fire in you. It would have been wise for you to come with just your women, instead of bring these so called Saints along with you. They are more than outsiders; they are abominations in the eyes of the Togo.”

“They are good, loving men. One of them is my husband.”

“We are well aware of that. Still, you shouldn’t’ have told them about the council, or the valley. The Council of Elders is not pleased with you, but our anger is not such that it blinds us to the truth. Things would indeed be bad, for all of us, if the Lahorian Empire were to extend its reach to the west. We have not harried their lines from fear more than anything else. The Horde is a force we’ve not seen since the destruction of Atlantis. We do, of course, put full blame on the Empire for this. If it weren’t for their abominable Centurions and their cursed Anima, Emperor Calis wouldn’t be acting so rashly. Emperor Xavier gave much Anima to the Lahorians, but not enough to last indefinitely. Surely, word has reached the Emperor’s ear about the fate of Earl Brashear of Tal Sith. He, too, was an anima addict just as Emperor Calis is now. The Emperor is not coming just to conquer the Federation. That is only his first goal. His true aim is to conquer and enslave Domus, and return it to the times of Emperor Xavier where both Centurion and Legatio were butchered for their anima.”

“And does that not concern the Council of Elders?” Celia asked.

“It concerns us greatly. If both the Federation and the Great Domus Empire fall, we Qopo won’t stand a chance in protecting our sacred places. We hesitate to act in order to avoid Calis’ ire.”

“Then why not turn to the Togo for help? They do exist as more than legends, do they not?”

“They do, but they have troubles of their own. It seems our eternal enemies, the Dominus, are preparing to make their final move.”

“They have Jason, that’s why.”

“Jason?”

“The Holy Emperor of Domus,” Celia said.

“The Emperor let himself fall in the hands of the Dominus? We were sure he would have fought them to the end.”

“Another Demon, one by the name of Gladius, captured a Saint dear to him. He bartered himself in return for the Dominus’ aid in rescuing Varrus, my husband.”

“Which is why you’re here? Jason was willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of your husband, so you have broken every custom and tradition in bringing his people here. We have studied this Angel for a long time. He is not divine.”

“Jason would agree with you, there,” Celia laughed.

“Yes, he’s not divine, but he is human, more human than any other man or woman ever born. That’s why the Dominus want him. They hope his anima, the essence of his humanity, will prove strong enough to help them regain what they so willingly threw away so many years ago,” the Elder explained, before pausing for a moment. “It was your Emperor who asks us for our aid?”

“Yes, he believes the power possessed by the Togo is the only one which can match that of the Dominus.”

“The Togo have resisted the Dominus since the First Invasion, and they’re not about to give up now. Very well, you and your people may come to the Valley of Ancients. What you say better be convincing. It is not wise to waste the time of the Togo.”

 

 

Chapter Twenty-One

“Don’t go,” Lan sighed from the bed, as James dressed.

“I’m afraid I must, Lan. With Varrus, Philip, and Jason gone, there is only me to keep an eye on the Senate. Jason’s children must be getting worried by now, and will need me to reassure them.”

“They are his children, not yours.”

“But they are mine. I told you that already. I am as much of a part of the Imperial Family as those boys. As they see it, I’m their Uncle James. They need me.”

“But I’m your wife.”

“And you are free to come with me, but you cannot run the Imperial Household like you do the Governor’s Palace here in Aquanos.”

“I do not care.”

“Yes you do. Believe me, Domus is a city dominated by men. Here in Aquanos you are a woman of station. In the capital, you’ll only be seen as a consort. Queen Amanda does not mind this, for Jason gave her control of the Empire’s banks. That keeps her occupied and she is, therefore, a woman of certain influence and power within the Empire. There is nothing I can offer you that compares to that. You’re not a businesswoman, even with all your other talents. That is why your father wanted me as your husband. I was an admiral before becoming a Field Marshal. Managing your father’s vast fleet of trading ships happens to be one of my strong suits. You will be a wealthy woman, so you will want for nothing, but Domus is off limits to you.”

“So I am to stay here, in this prison?”

“You can go anywhere in the city you like, so long as you have a proper escort,” James chuckled. He knew that, soon, something would preoccupy Lan; the boy growing inside her. Once the child was born, he would allow her to join him in the capital. By that time, he hoped Lan and Kyle’s constant snipping would have died down. Anyway, he didn’t want his child to grow up without the company of his cousins. “Goodbye, Lan, a messenger should deliver a letter from me every three days. Feel free to write back if you want.”

“You are a horrid man,” Lan screamed from her bed.

He was gone but a moment, when Gong Li, the woman who had raised her since her birth, came hobbling into the room. “I see that your husband has left you for his Demon,” the old woman cackled.

“He’s left me here while he goes off to the capital, but I want to see the capital, nanny,” Lan pouted.

“All in good time. He might not have wanted you to travel so far, given your delicate condition,” Li stroked Lan’s soft face.

“Delicate? I used to wrestle with my brothers.”

“You mean you don’t know?” Li said, feigning shock. “You are pregnant, my dear girl.”

“Pregnant, so soon?” Her voice was distant. “Please tell me it’s not a boy.”

“But it is a boy, a strong and healthy one at that,” Li said. “Why look so worried, Lan? With a son, the Field Marshal can’t keep you away. You have produced his heir, something I’m sure his Demon can never do.”

“But I’ll get fat,” Lan, on the verge of tears, sighed. “Anyway, I wanted daughters.”

“You only want daughters because of the way your mother treated you.”

“A dutiful daughter always respects her mother, and waits her turn, while sons get whatever they want,” Lan said, bitterness on her tongue. “She treated me like a slave, worse than a slave. No matter what I did, she never approved of me.”

“She saw too much of your father in you. You both are too stubborn for your own good.”

“Tell me about the city. Since I came straight to the palace, I know so little about Aquanos.”

“It is a large and wealthy city, all due to it being the only suitable port in the Empire. Already, ships from your father’s fleet fill the harbor and the port’s warehouses are filled with Wu silks and Hong spices. The Emperor’s wife, Queen Amanda, is here on business. She is seeing to several trade transactions on behalf of her husband, buying ingots of iron and large quantities of stone and lumber. That can only suggest a building project of some kind. The Streets are filled with soldiers, and countless warships patrol the harbor. It seems you arrived just before the Emperor declared war on the Federation. Not that it matters. With your marriage to the Field Marshal, and the exclusive trade pact, Jadoor and its Western allies would have been forced into a war anyway. Word is that Dorsa and Freen have already fallen, while the Rapa Free States have killed all their Jadoorian priests and joined the Alliance against the Federation. The Centurions hope to capture Sol before winter sets in. It will be interesting to see what happens when spring arrives. Who knows? The Jadoorian fanatics are known to be willing to fight a winter campaign. Maybe the Centurions will not stop with the arrival of winter, and press their attack further north into Yelding and Uul. With the Jadoorian Navy busy blockading Mathannon, the Centurions just might be able to slip a fleet up river to the Lake that surrounds the island of Sol. Your husband is going to be a very busy man until this war ends. Pray that it ends before your child is born.”

“I’m not sure I even want this child,” Lan replied.

“Dear child, do not take your husband for a fool. He would know if you were to get rid of it.”

“And what would he do if I did?” Lan asked defiantly

“He could have you killed. This is not Fu Dor, child. The harming of a child is a serious crime in the Empire. While killing the fetus is allowed among the Famulus, it is considered a shameful act. For a woman married to a Legatio, to do such a thing is punishable by exile and the loss of all property. For a woman carrying the child of a Centurion, the punishment is death. I do not know what the punishment is for killing the child of an Angel. You can rest assured it would involve you being handed over to the Emperor’s Demon Spawn.”

“So I am to have this child whether I want it or not?”

“This is not Fu Dor, silly child. We must obey the customs and laws of the lands your husband serves.”

“Maybe I should return home. Father would protect me.”

“And what of your mother?” Li asked. “What will she say of the shame you brought down on your family? By all rights, she could throw you out of the house you were raised in and force you to live on the streets. What kind of life is that for a princess?”

“I could always go to Wu.”

Reaching back Li slapped Lan hard on her pale face. “Go to Wu, so you can be Sun Ro’s harlot? That man has always wanted you, for all the wrong reasons. Go to him and he will see all your brothers dead, and you the only surviving heir of Fu Dor. He will then use you to claim your father’s lands for his own. He will take control over your family’s trade monopoly, a monopoly that has kept the peace between the clans for over a thousand years. Would you throw that all away, destroy your family, and cause countless deaths just to avoid having one child?”

 

“No, of course not. Do you think you can sneak in a lover for me?”

“That depends. Among your servants or something more exotic?”

“As we were traveling to the palace, I thought I saw a handsome man with bright red hair. I’ve never seen a man with red hair before. I want him.”

“The city is large, though I do not remember seeing any redheaded men. He might be easy to find.”

“Find him for me, nanny. My bed feels cold without my husband. Help me warm it back up.”

“I shall do my best, your highness. I always do,” Li said as she hobbled out of the bedroom, leaving the princess to her fantasies.

 


 

Chapter Twenty-Two

All Varrus felt was pain. From his burnt flesh, to his flayed back, everything burned with blinding agony. What made it worse was the knowledge that Jason knew and felt everything Gladius was putting him through.

Chained to a stone wall, his clothes were in shredded tatters. On the table, just within reach of his chains, was a table. One top of it laid a poisoned dagger, another one of Gladius’ tortures. If only he could get his hands on it and use it to end his own life, this suffering would end. Jason wouldn’t let him, though. Whenever Varrus’ eyes went toward the dagger, Jason’s voice would scream in his mind, pleading with him to hold out just a little longer and give him a chance to rescue him.

Varrus didn’t want to be rescued, however. Not after seeing all the preparations the Demon was making to trap Jason when he finally arrived. He had transformed two hundred normal men into the poisonous winged lizardmen, to guard the Citadel of Peths. He also had with him a thousand of his own demon spawn, and fifty of Amplexor’s surviving Saints. In addition to the five thousand Jadoorian troops and six hundred Templar Knights, Gladius had a force not even Philip’s Demon Spawn could defeat easily, and Varrus knew it.

Jason, however, only had words of hope for his mentor. Survive and endure, just a little longer, and help would come. Varrus would like to believe in Jason’s promises, but he did not want to believe that his Angel would risk his own life to save his broken mentor.

Seeing shadows moving through the hall leading to his cell, Varrus prepared himself for another round of torture when Gladius and Amplexor entered his cell. “So you still live, Lord Varrus. Good. Your stamina is most excellent. How much longer do you think it will take before Jason comes to rescue you? My spies have tried to enter the Imperial Palace, but each one has met an unfortunate end. It seems your lover is a coward, turning his city into a fortress.”

“He knows better than to trust you.”

“But he should. Who else can protect him from the dreaded Dominus? Who else has dared to kill one of their leaders?”

“They will come for you, all in good time.”

“Maybe they will, but I doubt they will find me easy prey. Amplexor wasn’t able to hide my sleeping body from them, for so many years, due to lax attention.”

“And this is how you reward him,” Varrus said, as he looked to where Amplexor was chained to the floor, looking ragged and beaten.

“He failed me, sought the love of another demon and let his anima turn bitter.”

“But he still loves you.”

“Love? He has never loved me. He has only needed me, like the weak man he is. I want an equal, a man born a Legatio, transformed in to an Angel, and hardened by battle. That is the kind of man I would have as my mate.”

“You were born a Centurion?”

“Aye, I was. Amplexor, however, is nothing more than a Jadoorian the Mother took pity on, if what she did to him can be called pity. He was a schemer, trying to move his way to the leadership. He was already head of the workers union when the Mother chose him to me my Angel. For him, it was his greatest accomplishment. For me, it was an insult. I wanted a Legatio as my mate, but all the Legatio could feel for me was fear. At least Amplexor had a sense of pride. That pride has seemed to have left him, though. Now all he’s good for is a hard fuck, isn’t that right, my love?”

Amplexor groveled. “I live to serve you, master.”

“You would have served me better by preparing the Federation for war with the Empire. Already Dorsa and Freen are under Centurion control, and Rapa is in full revolt. They’ve crippled my Angel, and are marching on Sol, before I’ve had a chance to build up my own forces.”

“Sounds like you’re losing the war.” Varrus dared to let a grin form on his face.

“We are not yet defeated. Already, tens of thousands of my Templar Knights are consuming the animus stored beneath the royal palace in Jadoor and becoming Serpentmen to fight your Centurions and Demon Spawn. Soon the tide of battle will turn.”

“You’re a fool, Gladius. Do you think the Dominus don’t know what is happening here? By having us fight one another, we weaken ourselves for the invasion to come.”

“Why do you think I want Jason so desperately? Only together do we stand a chance of defeating the Dominus. With my knowledge of Dominus science, and Jason’s bond, we would be unstoppable.”

“Jason and Philip are already unstoppable. Seeing what you do to your own people, they will never side with you.”

“Jason will come,” Gladius snickered, as he picked up a short sword. “I have you, after all. He would never let a Saint as valuable as you continue to suffer.”

“He won’t come. I won’t let him.”

“We’ll see. By the time I’m done with you, you will be begging for your savior to rescue you.”

Closing his eyes, Varrus waited for the sword to strike. “Get it over with.”

“Consider this justice for what your men did to Amplexor.” Gladius grunted as he hacked and sawed away at both of Varrus’ wings, making sure to take his time as Varrus screamed at the top of his lungs.

When Gladius was done, he threw the wings into the fire, sending black smoke up the chimney. Looking to where Varrus stood, slumped in his chains, he laughed. “Now, tell me your Angel didn’t feel that.”

“You will never have him.” Varrus moaned softly, as he felt his strength leave him, blessed unconsciousness sending his mind into pure darkness.

 


 

Chapter Twenty-Three

Jason was just about to give Scott one final devastating blow, when his mind exploded in pain that caused him to fall to his knees in agony. He arched his back, his wings spread out as far as possible. He then collapsed on the concrete floor in agony.

Closing his shock staff, Scott ran to Jason’s side as Thomas came rushing with a med-kit in his right hand. Since Scott reached Jason first, it was Thomas who asked the question. “What’s wrong with him? He was winning.”

“It’s that Saint, Varrus. He just suffered a grievous injury. Jason is experiencing it through the bond,” Scott explained.

“Form a psy-shield around us, while I work with the kit,” Thomas instructed. In a flash a shimmering translucent bubble surrounded the three men.

“The Animani Prime is coming. He senses my shield,” Scott warned.

“Well then, we’ll just have to patch Jason up the best we can until he gets here.” Thomas took out an injection gun and loaded it with a sedative. “This should help ease the pain.” Moving slowly with the gun, he gently passed through the force field still protecting Jason, giving the injection on the side of his neck. Jason immediately let out a deep sigh, as the pain lessened.

“We’re going to have to get him a psy-dampener, if he is going to be of any use in a fight. Right now, all Gladius has to do is hurt Varrus to immobilize Jason.”

“A psy-dampener will affect our ability to read his thoughts,” Thomas pointed out.

“But it might just keep him alive. Anyway, he’s already strong enough to resist most Grau mind tricks. Otherwise he wouldn’t be doing so well in the dueling ring,” Scott replied.

“You’re actually showing respect for one not of your own kind?” Thomas chuckled.

“In many ways, he is our superior. Not even the Dominus know the limits of his potential. Why else have they been so hesitant to bring him to Mordel. Anything our mistresses fear deserves our respect.”

“So you’re saying you respect Jason.”

“Is he not like us? If one of our kind is in danger, would we not seek revenge?”

“But Jason does not want revenge. He only wishes to save his friend,” Thomas replied.

“Gladius will kill him. You know that, Thomas,” Scott whispered, as the Animani Prime and several of his people came rushing forward with a stretcher. With the greater presence of their overmind, Scott’s shield disappeared like the popping of a soap bubble. The Prime then used the power of his people to shield Jason himself, with their caring thoughts.

“We will take him back to the hospital. Do you think you can free his friends from the bunker? Their company would do Jason endless good.”

“Might as well. By now they’re tearing their cell apart just to get to Jason.” Thomas sighed as he made contact with the guards. “They will be released, but under restraint.”

“I expected nothing less. What do you plan to tell the Dominus, Melphomene?” Scott asked as Jason was put on the cot.

“They do not want Jason to die before the harvest. I will tell Melphomene that what I did, I did to keep Jason alive. That is not so far from the truth that the Dominus will call me a liar.”

“You better hope so, Thomas,” Scott said, as the Prime and his people took Jason away.

“You care about Jason, don’t tell me you don’t,” Thomas laughed.

“I do, curse me, but I do. He has a way about him that makes me care, though it goes against my nature.”

“It was never our nature to hate, or at least that’s what Jason says. Annoy, taunt, play the role of the trickster maybe, but never hate.”

“Then he is a fool who thinks too kindly of us.” Scott sighed, his emotions a conflicted storm. Would he mate with me, or at least let me make love to him?”

“He would, but I would not press the Dominus on the subject. Not when they have plans for one of their nymphs to do the deed.”

“Which one?”

“I believe it is to be Athena.”

“Athena… I remember her. Almost reaching the age which she will become one of the Kraken, no?”

“Yes. This is why this mating must happen soon. Compared to most of the Dominus, she is a gentle sort. Whether she remains so, after she grows into her final form, is yet to be seen.”

“She was always kind to me,” Scott chuckled.

“Who knows? She might want you as a mate once she reaches her full size.”

“Horror the thought,” Scott shuddered. “Still, it is not often that a nymph takes a mate.”

“Take into account the Dominus’ endless curiosity, and you cannot blame them for wanting to see what kind of child results.”

“It might be a monster.”

“It might be human… or at least more human than the Dominus are now,” Thomas pointed out.

“How soon until Athena arrives?” Scott asked.

“She’s already here, on the other side of the barrier. You know the Dominus still can’t cross the Great Barrier, not with that lump of iron protecting their cores.”

“It is what makes them almost invincible.”

“Jason will be meeting her today, if he recovers.”

“I’m sure the Dominus will make sure he recovers. Melphomene would be most displeased if he doesn’t,” Scott warned.

“Then I’d better get Jason that psy-dampener, soon. The Dominus won’t like it, but they’ll like it even less if Jason is damaged,” Thomas said as he left the sparring ring.

“The Dominus isn’t going to like that, not one bit,” Scott sighed as he deactivated his shields.

 


 

Chapter Twenty-Four

Jason was in the sleeping quarters of the Anamani when he awoke, surrounded by the naked bodies of his comrades as they all looked at him with concern.

Tanner was the first to speak. “We felt it when Varrus was being butchered, but you must have felt it more than any of us.”

“He is the dearest of my Saints,” Jason replied. “The one I am closest to, above all others.”

“We know, Jason, we know,” Louis said as he caressed Jason’s face, picking up the tears that were rolling from his eyes.

“What’s this?” Jason asked when he touched the gold circlet around his head.

“They call it a psy dampener. It will protect you from the pain Varrus is in.”

“It is weakening my bond to all of you,” Jason said as he tried to take it off, only to have Chad’s hand stop him.

“We can still feel you well enough. Until Varrus is rescued, I beg you to keep the crown on. What would we do if Gladius were to use Varrus to immobilize you when we go and rescue him? He might be able to take you hostage. Then we’ll all be in trouble.”

“Alright, it stays for now.”

“Good,” Hector grunted as he played with Jason’s hair. “They only let us out because you were in trouble. I wonder if they’ll send us back to our cages now that you seem recovered.”

“Not if I have anything to say about it,” Jason said, as all of them heard the sound of mechanical whirring and the thud of metal feet. Looking up, they saw a woman with platinum wire hair that seemed to shimmer with power. She was dressed in a black skirt and white blouse, and had a pair of silver framed glasses over her grey eyes, which seemed a little large for her otherwise dainty head.

“You are the Angel, Jason?”

“I am,” Jason said as he sat up on the pillows.

“I am Athena; I am to take you to the council meeting where Kristen’s fate will be decided.”

“I see,” Jason said as he looked for a robe to cover himself.

“Do not worry about clothes; you will not need them,” Athena said. “Please come with me, Jason. There is much I must tell you.”

Standing up naked, Jason felt Louis’ hand grab him by the shoulder. “Do you mind if I come along.”

“May he?”

“I guess he can. He is part Grau, after all. Visiting with the Dominus is not something people volunteer for.” Athena wore a whimsical smile on her face.

“It is because he is to face the Dominus that I insist on coming,” Louis replied.

“How brave, but foolish. The Dominus will not harm your Jason, not until they have what they want from him first.”

“What are you, by the way? You’re the first ‘woman’ we seen since we’ve arrived,” Jason said, confused by the whirring sounds coming from her body.

“I’m a Nymph, a child of the Dominus who has yet to grow into one of the mighty Kraken. This body you see is a shell, protecting my true form.”

“How many of your kind are there?” Jason asked.

“There are many of us, but very few are allowed to reach our final stage.”

“Why, what happens?” Louis asked.

“We are eaten by the Dominus. They are voracious eaters and consumers of animus.”

“What about anima?”

“They don’t eat the Animani. I don’t know why. I’ve tasted anima before, and I must say I find the experience elevating. But come, I was not sent here to discuss the Dominus or anima. I’m here to discuss you, your majesty.”

“What about?”

“A mating, between you and me.”

“But I thought the Dominus were asexual and only needed a host for their eggs.”

“For a Kraken that is true, but I am still a Nymph. Until my core matures, I need a man in order to reproduce. Such matings are very rare, and usually occur only between a Nymph and one of the Grau. But the Dominus are curious to see what kind of children you would produce and, quite frankly, so am I.”

“I did not know your kind were attracted to men.”

“We are. The Dominus think of it as childish but, for a short time in our lives, we are like normal women. We just don’t look like them.”

“What do you look like?” Jason asked, curious.

“You’ll see soon enough.”

Leaving the hospital, they walked past several factories with smoke billowing from their brick stacks, until they reached a cave. There, a train car was waiting for them that took them deep beneath the island. When they reached the end of the line they found themselves at the entrance to a long, white paneled, hallway that glowed with light.

As Athena left her seat, the whirring of her gears grew louder due to the strain of being this close to the Great Barrier, which hampered the fuctions of her mechanical suit. She went over to, one wall and pressed her back against it. A small door opened, while an identical door opened in her suit. A squid like creature, with many tentacles and a translucent head, came out of the suit and entered a saltwater filled tube in the wall opening. It swam rapidly to the other end of the tunnel where an identical mechanical body was waiting.

“Is that what the Dominus look like?” Jason asked Louis, as they hurried to catch up with Athena.

“No, the Dominus are much larger… larger than even most whales, and their heads are opaque and can change color,” Athena said, as her many limbs took hold of the controls for the mechanical body.

“And you’re to make love to that?” Louis whispered into Jason’s ear.

Even though he whispered, Athena heard him. “Love has nothing to do with it. We will take a sample of his sperm and use it to fertilize my eggs. If we were to make love the traditional way my artificial body would crush him.”

“You’re pardon, Lady Athena.”

Walking over to Jason, Athena touched his cheek with her cold synthetic flesh. “I would, however, like to touch him with my real body. By human standards he is beautiful, not to mention warm to the touch.”

“We’ll just have to see,” Jason said nervously. He didn’t know what to think about Athena, but she had a predatory look.

“We will, indeed. Tonight there’s going to be a battle between the Nymphs, to see which one of us is the strongest and most deserving of becoming a Kraken. I have never been beaten, but there’s always a chance I could lose. If that happens, another Nymph will take my place for the mating. I do not intend to lose, however,” Athena said, revealing the razor sharp teeth that lined her mouth.

“This body is different from the last one.” Louis noticed the heavy armor she was now wearing

“This is my warrior form. Do you like it, half-blood?”

“And the other form?”

“That one was my standard body, the one I used when I am working in the lab.”

“So you’re a scientist like the Animani?”

“I am a scientist, yes, but the research I do is secret even from the Animani. Their mind might be greater than any of our computers, but we can’t trust them with everything,” Athena said as they left the hall for an elevator.

Leaving the elevator, they found themselves in a huge cavern that was open to the sea. Waves of salt water poured in from the cave’s mouth, feeding a deep lake. In the center of the lake was a sandy island, with a giant stone throne at its center. Taking up the throne, and most of the island, was the largest creature Jason had ever seen. A squid like Athena, but with an opaque red body, its ten long tentacles spread out over the island where a dozen naked, bleach skinned, Grau lay on their stomachs muttering soft praises to their mistress.

Along the edges of the lake were more Nymphs like Athena, each with a sword in hand, with which they were practicing.

“Take your companion to the island. When the battle begins, it will be the only place safe for you,” Athena said as she took a two-handed broadsword from a rack of weapons.

Doing as he was told, Jason walked into the cold, salty water. As he was about to swim, he felt Louis slip something into his hand. It was a cold metal cylinder Jason recognized all too well as a shock staff. Crawling onto the sandy island, Jason buried the staff close to where he was kneeling before the massive creature, as it stared at him with its single gray eye.

“So, you are the Angel.” The Kraken laughed evilly inside Jason’s mind. If it were not for the psy-dampener crown about his head, her voice would have been deafening.

“I am,” Jason replied in his own voice.

“Athena did say you were handsome. Maybe we will clone you, like the Animani, to be playmates for our Nymphs. They do so like to play.”

“Why have you brought me here?”

“I wished to see you for myself before you are sent away to Mordel. I’ve not been there in many years, since I was given charge to plan the invasion of Ares.”

“The people of Ares will resist you,” Jason dared to say.

“Of course they will, and they will die for it. What are they, compared to us… mere barbarians. When the barrier finally falls, and we send our armies across the ocean, not even your mighty Centurions will be any match for us. But come, that is not why you are here. You wish to intercede in the punishment of a traitor. You cannot change his fate, Angel. He killed a Grau, and taught you how to keep our agents out of your mind. Such crimes call for the most terrible of punishments, and the time is coming close when I must lay my eggs.”

“I beg of you, spare his life.”

“You beg, but you have nothing to barter with. We have you, and that is all that we want. The idea of implanting my eggs inside you has crossed my mind. But the Animani, and not a few Grau, have pleaded that I not do anything to place your survival at any more risk than it already is. That is why you will mate with Athena, or whoever wins this battle. You’d better pray Athena wins. None of the other Nymphs have shown her interest in men. I would hate to see you harmed unnecessarily, given what you are going to provide for us.”

“And what is that?” Jason asked. “Why do you need me so badly?”

“To regain our humanity, of course. Once, there was a time when our hulking bodies were necessary to scare away those men who would dare to use us to fulfill their own carnal desires. While we find the fear our bodies inspire still useful, we have fears of our own.”

“What could you possibly fear?”

“The loss of that which we hold most dear: our minds, little Angel. With each passing generation, we become more beast-like than the great geniuses who won the Great Wars. Those creatures on the isle of Mathannon, who see themselves as the true heirs of the one who was known as the Mother, are the future we Dominus fear. They are but mindless killers, spreading the curse of their animus to any woman who falls into their clutches, while any man is torn to shreds. We are cruel, we are vicious, but we still have the virtues of patience and guile. How else could we have waited all these millennium just for you to fall into our grasp?”

“But you’ve known of me since Erik’s death. Why did you wait seven years before claiming me?”

“We needed to be sure you were the one we sought. Do you think your charisma and gentle leadership are only the result of your personality? It is your core, Jason. Your anima core has given you the power to transform the Domus Empire into an empire that now controls most of Western Ares. Only Jadoor and Lahore stand in your way of uniting half the known world. That is why we’ve taken you now. You had proven your power, to the point where it was becoming a danger even to us. An untied Ares could resist our coming invasion, causing us to fight a long destructive war. Since we wish to take Ares without damaging its precious environment, we must win the war quickly and decisively, killing any resistance before it can take hold in the hearts and minds of the people.”

“The people will never accept being led by monsters like you,” Louis spat.

“True, this is why we need Jason’s anima. With it, we will be transformed into a more human form. But enough talk. It’s time for the Nymphs to prove themselves worthy to one day rise to the status of Kraken.” With that, the Dominus turned her bulbous eye to the edge of the lake, where the Nymphs stood waiting. Raising one barbed tentacle, the Dominus snapped it like a whip, giving the signal for the contest to begin.

Turning toward the shore, Jason kept an eye on Athena as she hacked and stabbed her way through her competitors. With one, she sliced off the machine’s head and exposed the translucent, harpoon-shaped head of the Nymph inside. Seeing she was about to be decapitated for real, the Nymph ejected out the back of her warrior form and scurried to the lake, hoping to swim to safety.

Kicking the abandoned mechanical body out of the way, Athena reached beneath her armor and pulled out a throwing knife which she sent flying into the back of the squid’s head, killing it just as its tentacles reached the water. Not stopping for a moment, Athena raced to meet her next challenge.

“Why do you let your own children kill each other?” Jason asked the Dominus.

“We lay many eggs, and have many children. If we didn’t force them to compete with each other, our numbers would become too great to manage. It takes time to properly train a good Grau, yet they provide the best hosts for our eggs. They gift our children with Grau mental abilities. Mating with them, however, is only meant as a punishment for failure or insubordination. We don’t dare use the Animani because we fear that creating a generation of Dominus, with greater minds then we possess, would cause a revolt. This time, however, I will use the traitor Kristen for my eggs. The children will be inferior, but they will make a pleasant supper for my kind. We do so much enjoy gorging on our own animus.”

“Cannibals,” Louis quivered.

“In the city of Mordel, one does what one can to survive. Unlike Ares, our lands are barren wastelands and our oceans empty of life. Such was the price we paid during the Great Wars.”

“Why did you fight them in the first place?”

“At first it was about pride, one leader being insulted by another. Eventually, the entire continent was dragged into the fight. As the number of viable soldiers began to collapse, it became a battle between the sexes and we women were treated like breeding stock. Some nations turned synthetic life, androids and the like, but they were too expensive to build and maintain. Eventually, the surviving powers turned to bio-weapons, manmade plagues that wiped out whole nations. It was we Dominus who ended the war. Seeing no escape from the diseases ravaging the land, we moved underground and built the city of Mordel. There, we created new species of men who, like the Grau, needed no woman to reproduce. These changed men were resistant to the plagues, and eventually won the war. It was an empty victory, however. Most of the land was ruined beyond recovery. Nearly all of our natural food sources had become extinct. We had been able to engineer new food sources, but they lacked in variety and taste. Even the lands of Ares had not gone unscathed. Ocean winds brought many of our poisons to their lands. They, however, controlled Luna and, therefore, the twelve colonies including the world you know as the Blue Star. When the wars ended, huge ships from the colonies came back to Ares, bringing with them the diversity of their worlds’ life, which returned Ares back to a land of plenty. If only they had been willing to share, but the leaders of Ares blamed us for the Great Wars and the plagues that followed. They erected the Great Barrier and sealed Ares off, leaving us trapped in the wastelands of Mordelium. For thousands of year we’ve watched as your people prospered, while ours were forced to scratch out a meager existence in our underground city. Can you blame us, if our hearts have turned towards vengeance?”

“You must have done something to anger them so,” Jason replied.

“We did try to invade.” The Dominus laughed. “But they raised their magnetic barrier against us, leaving our invasion fleet stranded thousands of miles from land. Everyone died of course, due to lack of water, but we got our revenge when we sent Kaal to destroy the last of their once mighty civilization.”

“You mean the Togos?”

“Yes. I am surprised you know of them.”

“The man I’m trying to save is married to an Isilan princess. They have long intermarried with the Qopo people,” Jason replied.

“I’ve been told you’re a man who loves reading about past legends. That’s all the Togo are, legends.” Hearing silence from across the lake, the Dominus turned her single eye to the shore where Athena held up the dead body of one of her fellow Nymphs.

“For your dinning pleasure, Dominus,” Athena called out proudly and then threw the corpse into the lake.

“Well done, Athena, the battle is yours. You may mate with Jason Qul Tos as you requested. The fate of the traitor Kristen is also yours to decide. Continue to impress us, and one day you will be allowed to become a Kraken.”

“I live but to serve, Dominus Melphomene.”

“Then serve us well,” the Domunus said as she slithered into the lake to feed off the bodies of the dead Nymphs.

About ready to swim ashore himself, Jason was stopped when Scott grabbed his arm. “Wait until after the Dominus has had her fill. It would be quite tragic for you to be mistaken as part of her meal.”

“Rightly so,” Jason agreed as he sat back down. “What a monster.”

“Yes, it’s a fact they revel in.” Scott nodded. “They enjoy the fear they cause in us, even if it costs them what remains of their humanity. We fear them, so we obey. Those few who have revolted become their mates, to be eaten alive by their offspring. That might last a week or so until the larva start eating each other. In Mordel, you kill or are killed. That is the way of things. You’d better remember that when we reach there. This place is a paradise compared to the city. At least you’ll be kept in the Central Pillar where things are at least halfway civilized. Down in the lower levels, the laws of the jungle rule, not man.”

“All the more reason why I should think of a way to escape,” Jason said as he brushed the sand from his body.

“You mustn’t, Jason. Too many people would die if you were to escape the Dominus’ clutches. I, for one, would be given over for mating. If you think what Gladius is doing to Varrus is bad, you do not know the amount of suffering a Dominus is capable of causing,” Scott warned.

“I won’t put your life at risk, Scott. You’ve been a good friend, though I don’t know if I should trust you, you being a Grau at all.”

“That’s true of all the Grau, except maybe Thomas,” Scott agreed. “That man might have been your tormentor for years, but he does sincerely care about you. He even lets himself imagine that you two can have a life together raising the kids. I do hope you survive the operation, Jason. We’re doing all we can to help ensure it happens, but we can’t promise that the Dominus will let you go, once they have what they want from you. So, be careful. Don’t give the Dominus an excuse to make things worse for you.”

“I’ll try not to.”

“Then you’d better give me that shock staff you hid in the sand. If the Dominus knew you had a weapon so close to her, she would kill all your friends and mate with you herself, once the operation is done.”

Reaching into the sand, Jason retrieved the device. “I wasn’t planning on using it on her.”

“You probably wouldn’t even be able to reach her. She can tear a person in half with her tentacles and she’s lighting fast. Just promise me you won’t do something like this again.”

“I promise.”

“Good,” Scott said, his eyes on the lake which vibrated with a loud gong. “She’s gone to her underwater chambers. We can swim across.”

Swimming back ashore, Jason was met by Athena who had a satisfied grin on her face. “Did you see me kill eighteen of them? Eighteen… I think that’s a record,” she said proudly.

“Good for you,” Jason said, not able to hide the bitterness in his tone.

“You’re not happy for me. Do you know what would have happened to you if I hadn’t won?” Athena asked.

“One of the other Nymphs would have gotten the right to mate with me.”

“Yes, and they wouldn’t have been nice about it. Most Nymphs try to impress the Dominus by hating men but, as we’ve already enslaved most of them, I don’t really see the point, do you?”

“No, I guess I don’t.”

“Major Scott, will you take Jason to the fertility clinic? I would really like that sperm sample now.”

“I’ll see to it myself,” Scott promised as he, Jason, and Louis left Athena to enjoy her victory.

Leaving through the white hallway that marked the Great Barrier, they rode the train back to the surface and made their way to the hospital. There, Scott took Jason to the fertility clinic.

“What do we do now?” Jason asked.

“We can do this the easy way, or the hard way,” Scott chuckled as he scratched his bristling, short red hair. “It all depends on how you want to cum into one of these plastic tubes.” Lifting one out of the rack, he threw the tube to Jason. “Personally, I would like to have the honor of helping you out, if you get my meaning.”

“I think I do.” Jason chuckled as Scott sat next to him on the bed.

For a while they just kissed as their hands explored their muscular bodies. Unlike Thomas who had a narrow frame, Scott was broad shouldered and had a warrior’s physique. Taking hold of Jason’s pale sex, Scott stroked it gently, letting his fingers run across the thick veins as Jason’s manhood swelled to life. Jason did the same, taking hold of Scott’s bright red sex.

“Gently,” Scott cooed. “You didn’t go through the scrubbing I did.”

“Why do they do that?”

“Safety precautions. They want to make sure we don’t have anything hidden under our skin, poison needles and such.”

“Must be terrible to always be afraid.”

“I’m not always scared. Dueling against you for instance.”

“Am I that bad?”

“No, you’re very good, which is one of the reasons why I like you so much. You and I can duel for fun but, with another Grau winning would be the only thing that would matter.”

“You don’t trust your own people, do you?”

“No, I don’t.”

“What about Thomas?”

“Thomas is crazy with his whole idea of living a normal family life. I guess, given all he’s been through, you have to believe in something or go mad. Like you. What do you believe in that doesn’t cause you to fall into despair?”

“I believe those who love me will be able to rescue me one day.”

“Once across the barrier, Jason, there will be no rescue,” Scott said sadly.

“They’ll find a way. After all, the Mother found a way.”

“The Mother had one of our experimental warships, so heavily shielded it could pass through the Great Barrier.”

“Are there many such ships?”

“No, just the one. The Mother invented it herself, which is why we’ve not been able to build more. We’ve been searching all of Ares for the Argo, but Gladius must have hidden it well.”

“Let’s not worry about that,” Jason said as he took the psi-dampener off and telling James all he had been told of the fabled ship. He kissed Scott again, this time deeply, letting the man have a taste of his anima.

There was no physical transformation; the potency of Scott’s animus prevented such change. The man’s heart and mind, however, were another story for both became open to the love Jason was willing to give. “Jason,” Scott whispered as a single tear ran down his face.

“Say nothing,” Jason replied in a soft voice. “Bury what you know deep in your heart, where the Dominus won’t look.” Jason then spoke loudly. “Do you think this will make Athena happy?” he asked, holding the half filled tube.”

“More than happy,” Scott grinned as he took the tube away.

 


 

Chapter Twenty-Five

“But Elders. Can’t you see? If Domus falls, the entire East will fall with it.”

“Mayhaps, but that doesn’t mean the Lahorians will bother us here.”

“They know you don’t believe in their god, Kaal. If they didn’t need the oil and tar you provide, they would have attacked you ages ago.”

“That is also true,” a different elder spoke. “Just because they control most of the habitable world does not mean they can cast us aside. Oil harvesting, after all, is considered a task beneath them. They won’t harm us here.”

“What of the Qopo mainland across the Inner Sea? They might fear your elephant cavalry but, with enough men, they could defeat you even there. The Qopo must be protected.”

“And what does an Isilian princess know about protecting our people? You’re King Arkridge and his forefathers have treated us fairly in the past, paying a fair price for our oil, and offering the protection of the mountains to us in times of need. That does not mean his upstart daughter has any right to make demands of us,” the elder said sharply, striking the sand with his gnarled staff.

“Whether you wish to believe me or not, the Dominus are coming. Whatever secrets you hold for the Togo must be shared with my people if we are to survive the coming onslaught,” Celia insisted.

“The Dominus have the Holy Emperor?” the chief elder asked.

“They do,” Celia replied, “though the knowledge is being kept from his people in order to prevent panic. He was taken away a month ago.”

“We should have offered the Emperor our aid before this happened,” one of the Elders grunted.

“It is too late to wish what could have been,” the Chief sighed. “If it is war the Dominus want, then we will need the aid of Ares’ finest warriors as allies, if we are to survive the coming storm.”

“But our plans are almost finished,” the youngest of the elders pointed out

“Our plans are for nothing as long as the Dominus have the planet blockaded. They can’t leave this dying world, anymore than we can, as long as our forces remain in place. If they plan a mass invasion of Ares, it can only mean an attack on Luna itself is at hand. We must be vigilant. Though winter fast approaches, we must send our traders throughout Ares so they can learn what they can. As for the princess and her people, it is time that they realized who the real masters of Ares are,” the Chief Elder said.

“Are you sure, Elder? Revealing our greatest secrets to these outsiders might put all our plans in jeopardy.”

“As I see it, we have no choice. We cannot fight the coming war on our own. We have let the Qopo people forget too much of their heritage. Only the warriors of the Empire stand a chance of victory. We must, at least, give them that chance. What I do, I do on my own authority as leader of the Togo tribe. None of you have the right to question my decision,” the Chief Elder said as he stood up and shook the sand off his yellow robes. “Come, Princess Celia, it is time you saw the great works of my people.”

“You are one of the Togo?” Celia said, amazed, as she followed the man into darkness.

“I am the leader of the Togo and therefore leader of the Qopo nation. Long we have protected the world of Ares without the aid of outsiders, but if the Dominus have your Angel as you say, then the force that will soon descend upon our cherished lands cannot be resisted without the aid of others, the Empire’s Centurions for instance. There will be hell to pay for me bringing our people out into the open, but the time of seclusion has past.

They were now standing on a round black stone, cleared of the yellow sand. Thumping his staff three times against the stone, he waited until a section of the stone lifted and revealed a large elevator that glowed with a white, torchless light. “Come, there’s room for you and all your people. It is a long ride down to the city.”

Crammed into the elevator, Celia felt a bit of claustrophobia as the elevator began to descend down into the earth. It descended for over a mile when the glass doors revealed a giant cavern, miles across, with a brilliant yellow light emanating from the large central column on which the elevator descended. “What is this place?” Celia asked, amazed.

“This is Atlantis or, I should say, what remains of our once great city. We knew that the Dominus would seek to destroy it, leaving our people to live out their lives as scattered nomads, so we buried it deep underground. Here, the great civilization of the Qopo has survived and prospered. We are safe from the spying eyes of the Grau and any weapon the Dominus might think to throw at us. It is here where your people will find what they seek.

“Weapons?” Koltus asked.

“Weapons of all sorts; energy guns, projectile weapons, shock staves, blast spears, and even power swords… all stored here for the time when we would need them. Of course, all of you will need proper training. Once you do you can go out and train your fellow men until entire armies will know how to fight the Dominus.

“We have flying machines, armored vehicles, tanks, heavy artillery, mortars, rocket propelled grenades, and a small navy of powerful warships to meet invaders at sea. The big battle, however, will not take place on land or sea but among the stars around Luna. If the Dominus are going to get a large, well equipped force past the Great Barrier, they must first deal with Luna, which we’ve turned into a fortress.”

“What about the monsters roaming the Island of Mathannon?” Koltus asked.

“They will have to be dealt with. Right now, it is time you met the other leaders of Atlantis and tell them how you plan to defeat the Dominus when they finally cross the Barrier Ocean,” the chief Elder said, as the elevator took them down the side of the great pillar of light.

On entering the council chambers, Koltus and Celia saw that the place was already in an uproar over their presence. Council members were shouting and throwing things in their direction, completely oblivious to the fact that they had an audience before them. After having heard quite enough, the Chief Elder pounded his staff against the steel floor. The booming sound brought the chamber to silence, as all eyes fell upon their leader.

“What folly is this, Dak’Khan?” an elderly woman with a wild mane of gray hair demanded, as she stood from her seat. Her eyes were filled with rage.

“As Chairman and Keeper of the Keys, it was within my powers to let these people into our city. War is coming, Tasha’Mir, a war where we will need allies.”

“And so you have chosen the people of the Second Invasion?”

“Would you rather that I had picked those of the Third Invasion, our hated enemies, the Lahorians? They were the ones, after all, who forced us underground,” the Elder/Chairman retorted.

“You should have not made such a decision without the support of the council,” Gogo’Ban, another member of the council, spat.

“If I had left it up to the council, you twelve would have debated the issue until the Dominus army was drilling into our cavern home. No, I’m afraid the time of debate is over. Now is the time for action. So, under Article I of the War Powers Act, I am declaring a state of emergency. While I might keep the council informed on the progress of the war, you twelve are no longer relevant and are therefore dismissed.”

“You can’t do that. We are the duly elected council, chosen by the people.”

“Chosen by what people? Most of the people to whom you are referring are already in hibernation sleep. None of you were truly elected. All of you inherited your positions from your families. Only I was chosen to lead by the united tribes of the Qopo, the people we are sworn to protect. Is this council saying that this city, as marvelous as it might be, deserves more protection than the people it was built to serve?”

“You will expose us to our enemies,” Gogo’Ban spat. “Once they learn that the tribe of the Togo still lives, the Dominus will not rest until all of us are destroyed.”

“They have always known we still existed. So long as the Great Barrier stood, they knew our people on Luna were fulfilling their duty to protect Ares,” Daka’Khan replied. “Something we should all have been doing from the moment Kaal’s army landed in Eastern Ares.”

“But Khan was a trap, a living time bomb that destroyed upper Atlantis and our most fertile lands,” Tasha Mir pointed out.

“That was a mistake, but so was letting the Lahorians remain on our lands. Now they have a mighty army moving northwest to take control of what’s left of the Federation.

“The Federation is in the hands of a madman. Things will be better once we’re rid of him.”

“But not with Lahorian bases on this side of the Desert of Flames. With a foothold here, they could take control of all of Ares, and even invade Qopo itself. Even without advanced weaponry, the Lahore could wipe us out with their heavy cavalry. We must ally ourselves with the other nations, the Empire in particular, for no other nation shares our hatred of the Dominus as the Centurions do.”

“The Centurions do not even know of the Dominus,” Gogo’Ban snickered.

“Oh, but they will. As soon as they learn their Holy Emperor has become the prisoner of the Dominus, all their rage will be directed toward defeating our shared foe.”

“Since you have dismissed us as a council, I do not see why you continue to try to convince us this is the right decision,” Kal’Drak grumbled.

“Because you still carry weight among the people who have yet to enter the deep sleep. If I can convince you, it will make my task that much easier. Of course, if you all prove too bothersome to deal with, I guess I will just have to exile you to the surface. See how living like our Qopo cousins affects your temperaments. A few weeks of the fumes and blazing sun might get you to change your minds, where words have failed,” the Chairmen threatened.

“You will have our full support,” Tasha’Mir sighed. “But fail to protect our people, and this council will see you brought down.”

“I would expect nothing less from you.” Daka’Kahn bowed before leading Celia and her followers out of the council chambers. “I know it’s late, but the less time you spend here, the less upset the council will become. I have flying Zephyrs ready to take your people back to Domus, along with a shipment of weapons. If you can rescue Jason, I suggest you do so as soon as possible. I will send men to help train your people to use the weapons, and I will order the tribes to begin attacking Lahore’s supply trains. It is unfortunate that Rapa is almost free of mountains along its borders. They will fall easily to the Hordes heavy cavalry, but that cannot be helped. As much of the West must be saved from the Horde as possible, so that a united defense against the Dominus will still be feasible. Otherwise, I recommend you retreat within the borders of your own Empire. The Gate is a mighty fortress but, against the warships of the Dominus, I fear Aquanos will quickly fall. I will, therefore, send what warships we have to aid in your defense. I do not know if they will be of any help. The Dominus have had many years to plan for their invasion, so you can count on being outnumbered if not outclassed,” the chairman warned, as he led the party to the air hanger.

“So that’s a zephyr? It looks more like a giant dragonfly.”

“Its shape is not important. It only matters that it gets the job done,” Celia replied.

“And it will. By the time the sun rises over the Empire, you will be back home with the best weapons my people have to offer. Do not let us down, Celia. I am putting more than my neck on the line by helping you.”

“I understand, Daka’Khan. I’ll do whatever it takes to see that the Dominus are flung back into the sea.”

 


 

Chapter Twenty-Six

Philip and Darius looked down at the narrow bridge that led to the Island city of Sol, his troops massed on three sides of the shoreline. “What is the battle plan?” Darius asked.

“Tonight, Jason’s Saints will place the kegs of explosive powder along the walls of the city. Once the walls have been breached at several points, my Demon Spawn will travel on barges and enter the city through as many holes as possible. To keep the main guards distracted, your force will make a rush across the bridge and attack the main gate. You need to keep the majority of the Templars occupied, while my men gain control of the city from inside. With the few warships we managed to slip past the ports of Yelding, we will also make an attack on the harbor cutting off their escape.”

“Sounds good enough, but aren’t your men getting all the glory while mine make the suicide run across that long bridge.”

“Such is the price of victory,” Philip chuckled.

“You should be careful, Philip. They’re sure to have more of those poisoned arrows on them, not to mention more winged serpents.”

“I know. That is why I am ordering you to stay out of the battle.”

“Me, not fight in the biggest battle since the start of the war? You must be joking.”

“You’re a Field Marshal, Darius. It’s about time you started acting like one.”

“Like you’re going to stay out of the battle? Darius retorted.

"The Demon Spawn wouldn’t understand. Anyway, I’m immune to the poison of the arrows and the bites of the serpents, so I will be perfectly safe. Once Sol falls, I will be sending your army east into Rapa, to help them prepare for the coming Lahorian invasion. They’re still several weeks out but, besides the Rapas’ Clan houses, their country is not well fortified. I don’t expect you to win. I just want you to slow the enemy down until reinforcements can arrive. I just got word from James that the Togos have agreed to supply us with advanced weaponry, but it will take some time to train our soldiers in their proper use.

“Just so long as you don’t expect me to hold them off for too long. A million religious fanatics are a little more than what the Eastern Army can handle.”

“Help will come soon. I, on the other hand, must continue on to Yelding and the endless plains of Uul. It is already snowing there in the upper parts of the country, but I’m not going to commit Lukas’ mistake and fail to prepare myself for a surprise winter campaign by the Jadoorian army.”

“Wise decision,” Darius agreed. “I’ll do what I can in Rapa. Just get those new weapons up to me as soon as possible. Night’s falling.”

“Good. Jason’s Saints should be putting the kegs into position by now. You might as well begin your attack on the bridge.”

“As you command, Lord of Demons.” Darius bowed. Making a chopping motion to the nearby drummer, the Centurion war drums sent several legions up the bridge to face the lizard men of the monster Gladius. Soon, the sky was lit up by yellow and red fire, as the powder kegs exploded. Gaping holes appeared in the city’s walls, through which Philip’s Demon Spawn streamed. In the harbor, Centurion warships were breaking through the Federation blockade, reaching the docks and dividing the defenders of Sol even further. As fires spread throughout the city, Philip hovered above, ready to give aid to his men at any point of resistance. Jason’s men fired arrows and spears down on the Templars from the safety of the sky.

Before the city clock could strike midnight, the city was theirs. Every Templar and lizard man was put to the sword, as Philip and Darius met under the domed roof of the Federation Council Chambers.

“That was a nice and quick battle. I hope the rest of the war goes as well,” Darius grinned, blood on his double-bladed axe.

“If only it would be so easy. The peasants of Yelding are in full revolt, but I am afraid they’ll get in the way of my troops rather than aid us. In Uul, the lords are wiping out entire villages in the name of the king; all because of the tainted Anima Amplexor gave him. Worse, with each passing day, more soldiers from Jadoor are crossing the straits, landing in Northern Uul and Gladmore. I’m sending Geoff and Lance on a special mission to Drakor. I think you know why.”

“After all the things he’s done, you’re going to rescue Lukas.”

“Field Marshal Lukas. The Empire will need him, once this war is over.”

“So you’re really going to go off and rescue Jason?”

“With Field Marshal James. Who else knows the Barrier Ocean better?”

“I wish I could come with you.”

“No, your place is here. If everything happens has Jason foresees it, Varrus is going to be rescued and in need of your tender care. With Sin as Regent, you three will be running the Empire until I can bring Jason back.”

“If that’s the case, why rescue Lukas?”

“Why not, he is a Field Marshal.”

“Who led his army into the worst defeat in Domus’ history? Not only that, he’s a traditionalist. He won’t like many of the changes Jason has made. Like Famulus sitting in the Senate, for one thing. He’ll just have to get used to it. With you and Varrus, you can always out vote him.”

“Mark my words, he’ll cause trouble,” Darius spat.

“Maybe he will prove you wrong. He has had many years to look over his mistakes. Maybe he’s changed.”

“Adapt, maybe, but deep down I bet he holds a grudge against the Empire for abandoning him. I’m sure he’ll try to get General Zohpar and Aegis executed.”

“Too bad that both of them are too busy fighting off the Mathannons while Austrola is evacuated. Anyway, Jason did kill Xaiver for him, and we are coming to his rescue. At least in the short run, gratitude will control his ambitions.”

“Just make sure he’s kept on a tight leash, is all I’m saying.”

“I’ll have two of my Demon Spawn watching him at all times,” Philip promised as General Fletcher saluted Darius.

“Your legions have reassembled and are ready for the march east,” the General reported.

“Have them march at double time, with breaks only after three hours. I want our men in Rapa before the sun rises.”

“It will be done, Field Marshal.”

“That won’t make you very popular,” Philip chuckled.

“Wars aren’t won through popularity contests. If they were, you would already be master of the world.”

“Just don’t say that to Jason.” Philip laughed as he headed toward the tents of the wounded. There, he eased his men’s pain the only way he knew how. By the time the sun had risen, he had five hundred grateful and fully healed new Demon Spawn, more than making up for the few he lost to the poisoned arrows and the bites of the Serpentmen.

 


 

Chapter Twenty-Seven

“There you go, Sin, now no one can hurt you,” Amanda said as she placed the power gem into its clasp on the silver necklace. For days now, the flying ships of the Togo had been making regular deliveries of weapons and supplies to prepare the Domus people for the coming war. With Jason and Kyle preoccupied in retraining their legions, the care of the children had fallen to her. Not that she minded. Having a chance to be with the boys, without Jason looking on, was her only chance to outshine their wonderful father, whom the boys adored above all others.

“Will you read us a story?” Ben asked, while Amanda was busy going through her business ledger.

“Of course, Ben. What story will it be this time? The Prince of Ralstate was always your father’s favorite.”

“It’s mine too, but I was hoping you would tell us a story about your own people, the Sithians.”

“I would be more than glad to.” Amanda was taken aback; the children had never shown an interest in her own family’s heritage. “How about the Qul Hothian Wars?”

“That was Uncle Gideon’s city?”

“That it was,” Amanda said sadly. She should have known Jason would have told his children about his dear tragic friend. “Qul Hoth, you see, stands between Qul Tos and Qul Tannis, which used to be the home of the royal family of Tal Sith. That was before my family took control and moved the capital to Vanhal, deeper within the kingdom, so our capital could be better defended. The Qul Tos royal Family helped us defeat the Tannis and, in return, we gave up our claim to the great port city of Qul Hoth. For Centuries our two kingdoms had fought for the city, and its control of the upper Qulos River. The Hothans had a unique way of handling our invasions. They never built city walls, for starters, and they never took sides. So long as the mayor and the city council were spared and allowed to continue to run the city, the Hothans didn’t care who ruled over them, just so long as they were left alone. That all changed during the Toisan-Confederacy war. Instead of surrendering the city against superior numbers, as had been the tradition, the Centurion Garrison fought to the last man to hold the city. Only a handful survived, and not before Lord Gideon had come to claim the city. You see, he had the power to raise the dead. After so many Hothan, Centurion, and Sithian deaths, he was able to raise an army none of us could hope to defeat. What force we still had was quickly wiped out, and added to his army. He only let the few surviving Centurions leave when their commander, General Boars, surrendered himself to Gideon to serve as his half-living companion.

“Things started to change fairly quickly after that. Jason declared Gideon Lord of Qul Hoth. Most of the surrounding villages either disappeared or were abandoned and, for the first time in the history of the city, a thick stone wall was put up. Whether to keep the curious out, or the monsters in, I don’t know. All I do know is that shortly after Jason made a visit to his old friend, Gideon and the entire city of Qul Hoth vanished in a single night. The city is being rebuilt now, as is the Eastern Capital city of Hotha Daneth on the large island in the middle of Lake Hotha. Some say Gideon still lives, and is waiting for his chance to return, stronger than ever. There are those who believe they have seen him wandering over the fields of battle and reviving the dead to form a new army. One day, your father is going to have to face Gideon and put a stop to his madness. It will break his heart, but he knows it is something he has to do for the sake of all Ares.”

 

 


           

Chapter Twenty-Eight

“Athena, you look unwell,” Jason said, as the Nymph entered his quarters.

“The eggs are about to hatch. I must remove them from my body or risk dying.”

“Are you going to put them into a human host?” Jason asked nervously.

“No, there is a feeding tank in the hospital. I just came by to invite you to watch their hatching.”

“Very well,” Jason nodded. Through his bond he could sense hundreds of small hungry lives inside Athena. The time of hatching was indeed very close. Following her to the lower levels of the hospital, he was led to a series of transparent tanks. A few of them were already teaming with life. Going to an empty one, Athena left her mechanical body, entered the tank, and swam to one its deepest corners. There, she expelled the eggs from her body, leaving the milky white clumps to fend for themselves. She then hurried out of the tank and returned to her mechanical body. Only then did she join Jason, where he was watching the bottom of the tank. “You were lucky. They’ve already started to hatch.”

Lucky indeed,” Athena sighed, as she watched the minuscule squid force their way out of the opaque white eggs. Like her, their bodies were translucent. “That is strange. They’re not attacking one another.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Without a host body, the only source of food is one another. They should be killing each other by now.”

“You mean, when you were born, you killed your sisters and ate them?”

“I was a mere infant. I didn’t know what I was doing. All I knew was that I was hungry, and that the only food available was my sisters. That is the way it is with the Dominus. The strong survive and the weak die.”

“Surely you have some food you can give them,” Jason demanded. As alien as they were, they were still his children.

“Just a moment,” Athena said, as she walked to a freezer and obtained a frozen fish. Usually we don’t feed them until they’re several weeks old, but since our children don’t seem interested in killing one another, we’d better give them something before they starve.” She dropped the good-sized fish into the tank. As soon as the fish sank to the bottom, the newly born larva moved en mass to feed. “Even stranger. I’ve never seen younglings move together with such coordination before. They move like a school of fish, rather than solitary squid.”

“They sure are hungry,” Jason noted, as the larva pecked at the large fish’s flesh.

“Younglings are always hungry. Within a month they’ll be Nymphs, just like me, and will be allowed to leave the tanks. But, with so many children, we’ll soon have to move them to a larger tank.

Pressing a hand against the glass wall, Jason watched with amazement as the larva stopped feeding and swam to his hand. They stuck themselves to the glass where Jason’s hand rested. “Does this mean they want to eat me?”

“Possibly, but I doubt it. They’re just recognizing you are their father.”

“What about you?”

Out of curiosity Athena placed a hand on the glass. “See, they know I am a rival and therefore a threat to them,” she said when none of the larvae came.

Taking his hand off the glass, Jason let the larva go back to eating. “I’m sorry.”

“Why should you be? This is the way it has always been between mother and daughters. The young always wish to replace the old.”

“Still, I’m sorry. Knowing the love my own children have for me, it pains me that you can’t experience the same with your own.”

“We do, in our own way. If our children remove one of my own rivals, or prove themselves in combat, they have honored me. I guess pride is the most any of us feel when it comes to love.”

“So why did you chose me as your mate?”

“No one of my kind has ever mated with an Angel. Being competitive, I wanted to be the first. I am concerned by how docile your children are, but maybe the bonds they have prevent them from killing one another.”

“One can only hope,” Jason said as he ran a finger down the tank. Already, he could feel the tiny minds of his new offspring reaching out to him. Giving them a gentle touch back, Jason laughed as they twirled about in the tank happily.

“Stranger and stranger,” Athena sighed. “Now that you’ve seen them, I should take you back to your quarters. I understand Major Scott has obtained permission for you to move on to gun training.”

“I’ve never fired a gun before.”

“Yes, this is why we’ll start with a projectile weapon, bullets instead of energy blasts. You just have to be more careful. Energy blasts can be dealt with by your shields. Bullets, on the other hand, require heavy body armor and face shields. We know your body has its own natural armor, but we wouldn’t want any scaring of that perfect skin of yours.”

“I promise to be careful, Athena,” Jason swore as he gave the Nymph a lop-sided grin.

“You’d better, Jason, or I might just decide to eat you myself.”

Going out to the shooting range, Jason found his friends already there waiting for him. All of them carried long, high-powered rifles. “Jason, are you ready?” Scott asked, as he handed him one of the rifles. Brace the butt of the rifle against your shoulder. These guns have quite a kick to them. Spread your legs apart, shoulder width. Now raise the rifle up with your left hand and so you can gaze down the scope with your right eye. Aim for the target and, when you feel ready, pull on the trigger,” Scott instructed.

“With Jason’s eagle eyes, and the fine condition of the weapon, he hit the very center of the target, leaving a two inch hole of splintered wood.

“Good shot,” Scott grinned as he patted Jason on the back.

“My turn,” Chad said, as he cocked his automatic rifle. When he was ready, he released a storm of bullets that turned the target into a shredded stump.

“Show off,” Hector said, as he took out an RPG and aimed it at a fresh target, blowing it into flaming bits.

“Let the expert show you how it’s done,” Tanner said, as he held a small pistol in his hand. Aiming for the third and final target, he pulled the trigger. There was a flash of light that blinded everyone for a few seconds. When they could see the target area again, all that was left was a small pile of gray ashes.

“What was that?” Jason asked.

“A disrupter gun. It can disintegrate almost anything. The only downside is it takes about thirty seconds to recharge before you can fire it again. And there you have it, the basic weaponry of the Grau Army,” Scott declared, his face beaming with pride.

“I think I’ll stick to the rifle. At least I’ll know what I’m hitting.”

“Then you should probably try this,” Scott said, as he handed him a rifle with a trapezoidal barrel.

Looking back at the target area, Jason saw that new targets had been put up automatically. Aiming, he saw a laser point guiding his shot. When he fired, a bolt of red energy shot out, hitting the target head on and sending out a storm of fire and splinters. What Jason noticed most, however, was that the gun had almost no kick to it. “What’s this one called?”

“The Mk III plasma rifle, with a thirty round clip and a semiautomatic firing mode that sends out strafing fire against the enemy,” Scott explained.

“I like it.” Jason chuckled. Outside the sparring ring, Jason had not felt so powerful and in charge of his destiny. “How soon until I can rescue Varrus?”

“You still need some more training, but I think that, in a week, you should be fine.”

“One more week… do you have any idea what Gladius could do to Varrus in that period of time?” Jason said in a pleading tone.

“It’s not that you’re not ready, Jason, but we need our forces to be prepared as well. Without us, it would be suicide for you to go against the army he has on Peths. There is also the matter of the Argos. We’re almost certain it’s docked there, ready for Gladius to use if he feels the need to escape. We can’t let him get away this time.”

“I understand. You want the mission to succeed. But you must know that, with every passing hour, I lose a little more of my Varrus to the horrors he’s facing. I must get to him, for only I can heal his wounds.”

“We are moving as fast as we can, Jason, but it takes time to bring ships and men through the Great barrier. First, our men must be vaccinated against any of the common diseases found in Ares. Second, our ships can only be brought through the cave in pieces and have to be reassembled on the other side. All that takes time.”

“I understand, but Varrus won’t last much longer.”

“Then give him what strength you can. I know you have that power in you.”

“There’s so much pain. I don’t know if I can reach him.”

“You’re the only one who can,” Louis replied.

Jason closed his eyes. “I’ll try.” Reaching through the bond, he fought his way through the pain and suffering until he found the faint spark of life deep within his mentor. Feeding the flame with his own breath, he gave Varrus new life and strength in his otherwise hopeless situation. “I’m coming Varrus, I promise.”

 


 

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Celia watch from her baloney in the imperial palace as James and his other Saints were drilled in the combat methods of the Togos. Being the quick learners that they were, all they needed now was a date for their attack of Peths Island. So far, all Jason could provide were vague dates, sometime in the future. James was beginning to suspect that the Grau would never give Jason a firm date, just to prevent the daring rescue James was training his men to perform, He knew he was saving, not only Varrus, but Jason and his people as well. Jason, of course, had ideas of his own. He wanted James to capture the Argos… a ship capable of crossing the Barrier Ocean into the lands of Mordel.

“We should leave now,” Saint Roberts insisted after another day of practice.

“I’m very tempted to take you up on that. Still, it would be best to time our attack with Jason’s forces,” James replied.

“They’re never going to give Jason a date. They’re far too clever. If we attack now, we can soften them up for Jason and his group,” Robert insisted.

“Your arguments have merit. Still I would like to know where the Agros is before storming the island. There are only five hundred of us to his five thousand.”

“If it is the Argos you’re after, we might be able to help,” one of the Togo trainers said as he brought out a sky view map of the island.

“Where did you get your hands on that?” James asked.

“We have our eyes in the sky,” the Togo said as he pointed to harbor. “There are about fifty Jadoorian warships guarding the harbor, but no sign of the Argos.”

“It could be underwater,” Kyle said.

“That’s why we have these,” The Togo man said, this one showing deep blues and reds of the heat signatures of men and machines. Close to the cliff shore, behind the island’s citadel, was a bright red and yellow plume. “Now there’s Argos. The only problem is that it’s about thirty feet under water.”

“That won’t be a problem for us. I and most of my Saints were once sailors and have all swum to such depths.”

“You’ll need plastic explosives to blast open the hatch. That should cause the Argos to surface pretty fast,” the Togo said.

“You and your people have trained us well. We can set the explosives and detonate them.”

“Your people are very fast learners. Sometimes that worries me. I’m just glad we’re on the same side, is all.”

“When should we leave?”

“As soon as possible. I have a small fleet of warships waiting halfway between here and Peths. We can rest and make our final preparations there,” James said.

“Or, we can fly you in with one of our Zephyrs and drop you off at a high enough altitude that they’ll never see you coming.”

“That would save us time,” Roberts agreed.

“We will need a few of you Togos to pilot the Argos once we have her. You’ve taught us a lot, but how to control a submersible warship isn’t one of them.”

“Of course, we’ll come with you. We’re very curious to learn how the ship crossed the Great Barrier in the first place,” the Togo representative grinned.

“Then we leave tonight, and catch them in the twilight hours of morning,” James declared.

“You will have to leave your battle armor behind. That much weight would cause you to sink like a stone in the water. You can still use your shields, but they are no good against projectile weapons,” The Togo warned.

“Would such old weapons still work?”

“If they’ve been well maintained, they could. The original ammo has probably gone bad, but there is machinery on the Argos to make more. All his energy weapons are most likely useless. The crystals that charge them can only be recharged so many times before they burn out. Your shields will block most blades and arrows, so they do have some use.”

“We should go now, then.” James said, looking at the setting sun.

 


 

Chapter Thirty

The Chairman of the Togo sat down on his knees before the display screen as he made contact with Luna, last bastion of the Qopo people.

“Chairman Deke’Khan, it has been a long time since you last made contact with us. What has disturbed you so, that you seek our guidance,” an old white bearded man said, as he sat cross legged on a pile of pillows.

“We believe the Dominus are about to make their move. You and your people are in danger.”

“Luna is well defended against any attack,” the master of the orbital station said confidently.

“They might have built a new fleet, or missiles to attack you with.”

“With our magnetic shielding, such weapons are all but useless.”

“What about synthetic materials, the kind not influence by magnetic fields?”

“Not even a long range disruptor bolt can break through our shielding.”

“I wish I had your confidence, lord. The Dominus are up to something; we should be prepared.”

“If you want, we will increase the strength of the Great Barrier by thirty percent, but we cannot maintain such power levels indefinitely.”

“Whatever attack comes, it will not be against the Great Barrier. Not while the Angel, Jason, is still on this side of the ocean,” Deke’Khan replied.

“We will take your warning under advisement,” the leader of all the tribes replied. “You’ve been supplying the Centurions with some of our advance weaponry?”

“It has been ages since the Qopo were organized into a single army. The Centurions, on the other hand, are experts at military strategy. They are the allies we need if we are to defeat the Dominus once and for all.”

“But once they’ve defeated the Dominus, what will stop them from turning our own weapons against us?”

“By the time they defeat the Dominus, we will be ready to leave this dying world aboard the Atlantis. Let them fight over what’s left; it will not change their fate. Without the Great Barrier, Ares will turn into the same wasteland that Mordelium became.

“They will see us as traitors,” Deke warned.

“They were the ones who invaded our lands with their impure bodies.”

“They are good men, who only want peace.”

“And they shall have peace under the dominion of the Dominus. Our time on this world is becoming short. Do not let sentimentality fog your true purpose. Our people must be prepared for their journey to the Blue Star.”

“Most have already entered their proper sleeping chambers. This far into the desert, the water we use as fuel is a problem, but we are compensating.”

“Keep to the schedule and all will be well.”

“As you say, lord,” Deke said, bowing deeper.

“Inform us when the Angel crosses the Great Barrier. Until then, maintain communications silence.”

“As you wish, my lord,” Deke’Khan said, pressing his forehead to the floor, a bitter taste filling his mouth.

 

 

Chapter Thirty-One

“Ready to jump?” the Togo agent asked, as the back ramp to the Zephyr was lowered, sending in a gush of ice-cold air.

“Ready as I’m going to be,” James replied.

“The gliders on your back will take you right to the Argos. All you have to do is swim down the thirty feet to where it lays, plant the explosives, and force the ship to surface. It should be a good fight. Once you have control of the ship, send up the flares and we’ll send down the piloting crew and make our escape. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?”

“Until Gladius learns of what we’re doing and tries to stop us.”

“Most of his soldiers are guarding the harbor. It will take them some time to reach the cliffs. Gladius won’t face you, because he knows you’re an Angle and have Demon’s bane with you. Now go, and may the Lords of the Qopo be with you,” the Togo said as he shoved James down the ramp into the open sky.

Letting the glider dictate his course, James and his small army of men eventually splashed into the cold water. Not waiting a heart’s beat, James took a deep breath and dove under the winter chilled waters, diving directly down until his hand came in contact with a large metallic hatch. Placing the explosives by the hatch, he then swam back to the surface. He let out a strong exhale and then took a deep breath, his lungs hungering for oxygen. Once he had recovered, and saw that most of his men were now in the water, he reached into his belt and took out a square device that had a single red button. Pressing it, a pillar of bubbling water shot out of the sea. The hatch was blown. Soon the entire area around his men was churning, as the giant warship rose quickly out of the ocean.

Going for his belt, James extended his shock staff as he activated his shields. “To me, men,” he shouted as he jumped down the gaping hole in the ship. Inside, he found the corridor empty, the guards chased away from the rush of water. That was not the case for long, as three of Gladius’ winged serpents blocked the passage to the command center. Leading with the tip of his staff aimed at the lizard men, he sent a storm of three pronged spears against them, frying their scales and innards until they collapsed dead on the floor. “You three take the engine room. The rest follow me,” James ordered as more of his people joined him inside the ship. Outside the ship, a battle was taking place between his Saints and the winged Serpents. He didn’t know if his men were winning, but he could already feel the pain of several of his Saints dying.

Along the narrow passage to the command room, James was met by more Winged Lizards, and even a few of Gladius’ Demon Spawn. None, however, could stand against the weapons the Togo had provided. When he reached the control room, he found it manned by sickly looking Saints… Amplexor’s creatures, bound by pain instead of love.

“Please, end it,” one of them begged as James and his men filled the room.

“May the gods show mercy on you,” James said, as he sent bolts of energy into each of the unfortunate soul’s bodies. He then reached out with his mind to one of his Saints, having the man send up the flare so the Togo command crew would be sent down. Looking through the eyes of his Saint, he could see that his men were holding their own. Soon the Togos were at the controls, powering up the engines as they piloted the powerful warship away from the island of Peths. Gladius’ scream of fury was heard, even in the depths of the ship.

“What are the results?’ Robert asked James, when he joined him on the command deck.

“Thirteen Saints dead, twelve injured.”

“Not bad, given the number of those damned lizard men we faced.”

“I know. That should soften the island up when Jason goes to rescue Varrus,” James chuckled.

“Have you told him the good news?”

“No, better if he doesn’t know we have the Argos. What he doesn’t know, the Dominus can’t ferret out of him.”

“That’s probably for the best,” Robert agreed. “Where to now? We have to hide the ship someplace.”

The island of Eb isn’t too heavily guarded, and it has a deep harbor. You think our small force can take the base?”

“If any army can, yours can.” Robert laughed.

“You hear that captain? We’re off to the harbor town of Eb.”

“As you wish, Field Marshal,” the Togo replied as he set the northern course.

 


 

Chapter Thirty-Two

Jason looked out at the fleet before him; ships made up of steel and armed with cannons larger than most fishing boats. “Are we invading, or just rescuing Varrus?” he asked Major Scott.

“Why not do both at the same time. You, of course, know your end of the bargain. No matter what happens, Gladius must die by your hand.”

“After what he did to Varrus, the Banes will give him a better death than he deserves.”

“Is that the famed Centurion blood lust showing in your majesty?”

“All I want is justice.”

“And it shall be yours,” Scott said, as he handed Jason a lacquered box containing the black handled dagger.

“How fast do your ships move?”

“It will take us two days at full speed to reach the harbor of Peths.”

“Two more days… James did something, something to enrage Gladius to the point that he almost took Varrus’ life. I don’t know what James did, but I am sure it has weakened our enemy. I can only hope he is caught off guard when we make our attack.”

“He will be,” the Major promised. “Time to board the ships, Jason. If we time things right, we’ll hit them right at dusk.

It was a nervous journey, Jason spending every waking moment practicing with his rifle and shock staff, imagining his own shadow was Gladius. Finally, as the sun began to set on the second day, the warship’s mighty cannons began to fire, sinking the entire fleet of Jadoorian warships that guarded the harbor. In the skies above, zephyrs soared past the fleet, landing on the shored of Peths to send out their Grau shock troops. By the time Jason’s ship docked in the harbor, the battle was well underway with Grau fighting lizard men and Demon Spawn with their advanced weaponry.

Jumping onto the dock, before the ship even had a chance to come to a complete stop, Jason and his four generals soared into the air. Jacob and Oktor, in their power suits, fought with their armored fists and legs. Bolts of energy danced on the surface of armor that not even the fangs of the lizard men could penetrate. From the port, the main road slithered through the town, its gates barred and locked, its walls lined with Jadoorian archers.

Against the shields of the Mordelians and Jason’s naturally armored body, the poisoned arrows did not stop the oncoming invaders for a moment. On reaching the Iron Gate, Scott and his Grau Special Forces team set up explosives, while Jason and his four generals stood atop the gate to prevent the enemy from sending down a boiling caldron of melted lead onto his allies. With the techniques Scott taught him, as well as a few of his own, Jason was a living thunderstorm destroying all who stood before him with either a blow of his staff or bolts of energy. He killed men by the dozens, as his heart could only ache at the pain Varrus had been made to endure.

Above him, eight Zephyrs made their attack run, dropping cluster bombs on Gladius’ men as they swarmed around the gate. From the disrupter turrets below the command nests, they shot down countless numbers of the winged lizard men at distances as great as a mile. None of Gladius’ men were to escape this purging.

Receiving a telepathic signal from Scott, Jason and his friends abandoned the gate and flew towards the shielded Zephyrs. The explosive charge was set off, causing the metal gate to fall inward in a single piece, crushing those enemies who had sought shelter from the cluster bombs the Zephyrs were dropping down on them.

As hundreds of Grau soldiers stormed through the destroyed gate and over the bodies of the dead, Jason and his men flew past the city to the mountain keep that overlooked the harbor. There, Jason knew, Gladius waited with Varrus as his hostage.

Then, the miracle of miracles happened. Out of the east, the Winged Guard flew in, each holding a Demon Spawn in his arms. They were armed with strange weaponry unlike Jason’s, with armor, tridents, and the faint shimmering of shields. They had come to rescue their young Emperor, and take part in the battle that would see to the fall of the tyrant, Gladius. In the rear was the battleship Argos, launching Zephyrs of their own against the enemy. If Jason did not act soon, his would-be Grau allies would turn their attention away from their real enemy and start attacking his friends. “You four go tell the winged guard to retreat, and that Celia has my undying gratitude.

“But Jason… we’re about to win this war. Surely your Wing Guards and Demon Spawn are more than a match for the Grau.”

“We might win the battle but still lose the war. I swore to the Grau that I would not try to escape. The mission is to save Varrus, not me. Now go, while you four still have a chance to make it.”

“We’re not leaving without you, Jason,” Chad swore in a deep, no nonsense voice.

“Then you must hurry. Get the Winged Guard to retreat before this battle turns into the beginning of a war with Mordel. I cannot go back, not yet, Chad. Too many would die and suffer if I were to attempt an escape right now.”

“It would be worth it,” Hector insisted.
“No, it wouldn’t. Anyway, the Dominus would just try to find another way to get me back. Most likely, it would be bloody. Call the men off. Don’t you realize how painful this is for me?”

“We never wished to cause you pain, but this might be your last chance to escape,” Tanner said, sadness in his eyes. “I will be coming back for you.”

“You should be free,” Jason insisted. “With the Argos, there will always be a chance that Philip will come to my rescue. Only he and James stand a chance against the Dominus.”

“Then I will not leave your side,” Chad declared.

“Nor I,” said the other three.”

Closing his eyes, Jason reached for James. Against the strain of the psi-dampener on his head, it was hard to reach him, but eventually the contact was made. “Flee, James, flee…” Jason said as quickly as possible.

James, however, was not going to be sent away so easily. “Why, Jason? Why, when you can make a run for it?”

“I haven’t rescued Varrus, yet, and I have to kill Gladius to ensure nothing like this will happen again. If you stay here too long, the Grau will send their ships to capture yours. They’ve been after the Argos since our ancestors used her to cross the Barrier Ocean.”

“We can defeat the Grau, I know we can.”

“But not the Dominus. Believe me you can’t. Look into my mind, there you will find an island that transects the Great Barrier. When all is said and done go there, with the weapons the Togo have given you, and destroy it before the Dominus can use it to invade Ares. Promise me you’ll do that for me.”

“I will, but I’m not saying I’m going to like it. This is only the beginning of a new army the Togos are building for us. If the Dominus think we’re going to be easy prey, they will be unfortunately mistaken.”

“Beware the Lahorians… they too are the allies of the Dominus, and might become similarly armed if it looks like they might be slaughtered. Except for a few raiding parties, the Horde has never known defeat. The Dominus might choose to intercede on their behalf.”

“We’ll be ready for them. A delegation from the Togos is to meet with us at the imperial palace to discuss plans for the future. Be careful, Jason. Know you will always be at the center of my heart.”

“Next to Kyle, of course.” Jason laughed.

“Of course. Who do you think has my heart under lock and key, hidden where only he can find it? Fight well, Jason. As soon as the wars are over, Philip and I will come for you. Until then, hold out. Hold out for as long as you can.”

Already Jason could see the flyers and the giant battleship sinking under the ocean and the Grau giving up the chase. “Good bye, James… May hope always blow in your favor.” He then looked to see where he was. Down below him was the Keep of Peths. Built like a tiered layer cake, each level being slightly smaller than the one beneath it. On the roof of the top level stood Gladius, holding a buckler and a blazing blue energy sword. At the Demon’s knees was Varrus, wingless and beaten. His body was covered with cuts and bruises that not even his anima had been able to heal. Waving his four generals forward, Jason landed on the roof, his friends behind him.

“Now, is this any way to treat a friend and future husband?” Gladius demanded as he made several practice swings with his sword.

“You were never a friend, and I’ll be dammed if I ever call you husband,” Jason shouted as he took a step forward.

“You’re being used, great emperor. The Grau are using you to get to me, the only real threat to their plans.”

“You are no threat to their plans. They could have bombed this island at their leisure. They just want to make sure you die this time.” Collapsing his staff Jason pulled out Demon’s Bane.

“Good, your majesty, good. It’s so nice to meet someone so well intentioned. I will not let you kill me, great king. I will let you kiss my feet and beg for my forgiveness. If you don’t, I’ll see to it that your good friend Varrus dies a slow and painful death.

“Don’t give in to him, Jason. He’s a monster,” Varrus shouted, only to be pushed off the platform by being rammed by Gladius’ buckler.

“I took many pleasures from your servant. I hope that doesn’t bother you. I plan to do the same to you, little play king.”

Maximizing the power of the shields around him Jason charged forward, feigning rage as he raced toward Gladius with the Demon’s Bane thrust ahead of him. As he got within range of the Demon’s sword he slid down onto his wings just as Gladius swung where Jason’s head had been. Now between Gladius’ armored legs, Jason stabbed upward right into the man’s groin, burying Demon’s bane to its ebony hilt.

“No!” A man’s voice wailed as Jason got to his feet. Gladius dropped his energy sword, the blade going dark before it touched the gravel roof.

Jumping back, Jason saw it was Amplexor who was wailing. Dressed in tattered rags, he was clawing at his eyes with his dirty nails. Screaming at the top of his lungs, he reached Gladius who had already sunk to his knees.

“Do you think I want your pity?” Gladius grunted as he reached under his armor and pulled out a white, ivory-handled dagger, Angel’s Bane. “I’ll get what I want, one way or another.” With that, he stabbed Amplexor in the gut, carving out a large hole for his clawed hands to reach in and pull out Amplexor’s core. On which he then feasted. When he was done, he stood back up and glared at Jason. “You might have unmanned me, but I will still have you.”

Reaching to his belt, Jason extended his shock staff, his eyes wide. Blood and tissue ran down Gladius’ legs as his body slowly began to decay.

“I will have you,” Gladius screamed, as he picked up his sword and brought the blue fire back to life as he charged towards Jason. Within the five steps it took to reach one another, Jason had fired a bolt at Gladius’ buckler, splintering it to pieces. He then raised his guard as Gladius charged directly into him, thunder roaring and sparks flying as Jason’s shields were pressed to their limits.

Filling his staff with as much power it could muster, Jason slammed its butt on the roof of the building and spread his wings to fly. With a mighty roar, large cracks spread out from the point of contact and the entire building began to collapse, taking Gladius down with it.

Hovering above, waiting for the dust to clear, Jason looked down at the broken body of the Demon. The spread of rot accelerated until all that was left was a horned skull and even that, eventually, crumbled into dust.

“You did it,” Chad whispered.

“I did what I had to do, isn’t that right, Thomas?” Jason asked through the metal link.

Thomas, who was aboard one of the Zephyrs, quickly replied, “Yes, you did. You passed the final test the Dominus set for you. Well, almost the final one. Only a true Angel could have used Demon’s Bane to kill a creature like Gladius.”

“Poor Amplexor… all he wanted was his Demon’s love.”

“But he was a Jadoorian, not a Legatio like you, Jason. In Gladius’ eyes, Amplexor was always his inferior in all things. Still, Amplexor felt bound to love him regardless of how his lover treated him. They’re both dead now, and probably better off that way.”

“So are you and the Dominus,” Jason replied bitterly. “Gladius was right about one thing. He did pose a threat to your planned invasion. I have some bad news for you. Not all of your companions made it.”

“Who… not Jacob?” Jason asked, fear filling his mind.

“No, it was his mentor, Commandant Oktor. A pack of those Lizard men jumped him and wouldn’t give up until they broke through his shields. Jacob is with him, mourning his death.”

“I should be with him. Where is he?”

“Aren’t you forgetting something, dear Angel?”

“Varrus.” Jason shouted, suddenly realizing He couldn’t find his friend. Taking off the psi-dampener he searched for Varrus in his mind. The man was unconscious, but still alive somewhere under the rubble of the collapsed floor. Floating down until he was sure he was over Varrus, he landed and began removing the rubble brick by brick, his four generals quickly coming to his aid. It was Brask who reached Varrus first, a pale hand sticking out of the pile. Moving faster, they quickly freed his chest and head, just enough for what Jason intended to do.

Wiping away the dust from Varrus’ lips, he kissed the man deeply passing along as much of his anima as he could muster to breathe new life into his mentor. With his anima, he passed along his knowledge and leadership, tools Varrus would need in guiding Sin as Regent of the Empire. They were the last gifts Jason could give the people of Ares, for soon he would have to leave for Mordel.

Sitting up, Varrus grabbed Jason by his wavy hair and returned the kiss just as passionately, tears running down his face as he realized what Jason was doing. “Don’t do it, Jason. Flee, hide, let us protect you.”

“The time of hiding is over. If I resist the Dominus they will see that my people suffer more. Beware the Lahorians. They see an easy victory with our new weapons. I am certain the Dominus’ hands in this. Something is going to go terribly wrong. Protect the people, Varrus. That is all I can ask you to do. Let Philip and James worry about what’s going to happen to me.”

“Do you believe I have less at stake than those two fools do?”

“No, Varrus, but unlike the other two fools in my life you are the better leader. You know what to say once you’ve reached the Imperial Senate.”

“I do, and in your name I will force them to listen and obey.”

“That is all I can ask. Tanner, Brask, see that Varrus reaches Domus safely.”

“You are sending us away?”

“Yes, I’m sending you two away, but not to safety. You are my generals. I expect you to lead the people to safety when all other refuge is lost. I’ve been preparing the Empire for this since the beginning. You will find that everything you need is already waiting for you. Protect the people. I cannot stress that enough. If I want anything to be said of my legacy, it is that I strove to serve the people of Domus to the best of my ability.”

“Father?”

“Yes, Jacob?” Jason whispered as he pressed the earpiece communicator.

“Please send one of your men to me. I’ve harvested Oktor’s head and anima. They belong to the Empire, do they not? Be sure they have the Legatio historians write what happened today on his skull before it’s placed under the Great Hall of the Field Marshals.”

“I’m sending Tanner to you now,” Jason said as he told the general where to find Jacob.

Above them, a Zephyr was flying close, its rear ramp lowered. “It’s time, Jason,” Thomas’ voice came over the intercom.

“It’s time, already?” Jason said, panic growing on his face.

“You can still flee,” Varrus whispered as he held Jason to his chest.

“I can’t,” Jason wailed, as his body trembled.

“Then be brave,” Varrus replied, as he gently kissed Jason on the forehead. “Whatever happens, you will be remembered as the greatest man in the history of the Empire. Now go, so Philip and James can rescue you. You wouldn’t want to be late for that?” Varrus tried to joke to lighten the mood, but his own face was covered with tears.

Taken in Chad’s and Hector’s arms, Jason was flown up to the flying ship, which soon darted away to the west. Soon Varrus noticed that, beside himself, Tanner, Brask, and the decapitated head of Oktor, they were alone on the ruined island of Peths. It was therefore with a heavy heart that Varrus managed to speak. “Take me home. Take me back to the Empire.”

“Such were our orders, Lord Varrus. Still, it will be a long flight. You should rest while you can.”

“No, I need to get back at the capital as soon as possible. There is something Jason wanted me to do, something he can’t do, now that he is no longer with us,” Varrus croaked as his sobbing grew worse.

“Then we’ll leave at once, and take turns carrying you,” Hector said as he lifted Varrus in his arms.

“I can’t believe we won… seems more of a defeat than anything.”

“We were defeated, defeated by Domus trickery,” Varrus said as he was lifted into the air, heading east. He wouldn’t be able to rest until he gave the Empire Jason’s final warning. Afterwards, he didn’t think there would be anything left of him other than the sorrows of a broken man.

 


 

Chapter Thirty-Three

Aegis screamed, jumping out of the tent. With both Gladius and Amplexor dead, what few bonds he had were being shredded away. Throughout the Federation Saints and Demon Spawn were writhing in their death throws, as the bonds that maintained their power and existence snapped into nothingness. Only the animus lizard men continued to live, unaffected as each of the puppet kings Amplexor had put on the throne died in their regal palaces, or on the ever-retreating warfront.

Grabbing hold of Aegis, Zophar tackled him to the ground. Looking down at the naked body, he saw his lover’s skin turn gray as sickly black veins grew out from his anima core. “I must bond you to me, Aegis, but I wonder if you could ever accept that. Would you rather die then let me know the secrets of your mind?” Not waiting for a response, Zophar pressed his lips against Aegis’s parted mouth and passed along the bond of a disciple to his untrustworthy friend. When their lips parted, Aegis’ trembling stopped, and the black veins that had been about to consume him slowly retreated.

Not able to stand Zophar’s gentle gaze, Aegis rolled onto his side and looked away. “There, now do you feel like the better man?”

“I don’t know what you mean?”

“Oh, come off it. Ever since I saved your life at the Battle of Sol, you’ve been looking for a way to balance the scales,” Aegis said bitterly.

“You were dying, Aegis. I had to save you.”

Sitting up, cross-legged, Aegis glared at the general. “Why, why did you have to save me? Have I not betrayed you often enough?”

“You’ve always done what you felt was for the best, with or without my counsel. I could have died a glorious death. But no, you had to turn traitor in the service of a king who went mad. Then you gave your services to Amplexor, the biggest monster of them all. I take it that he and Gladius are now both dead. You wouldn’t have been dying ,otherwise. Admit it, Aegis, you’re a fool with no right to boss me around anymore. From now on, we’ll do what I say, and stay alive because of it. Soon, the last Austrolian ship will be leaving for the mainland. Most of our people have been captured by the Jadoorian blockade and pressed into service. Those few that reach the mainland are met by the Centurion… our brothers, if you haven’t forgotten. If we reach the shore, we live. If not, you can bet the Jadoorians will force us to fight some unwinnable battle where we will both die. The Templars are quick to kill any deserters or cowards.”

“Since that would be our fate, what do you suggest we do. The Sisters of the Mother have already passed the mountains, converting those women they can and killing the others. It won’t take them long to reach Eastern Austrola.”

We go by ship, the last ship mind you. If we’re captured, we’ll just have to count on the blessings of High Priest Julian to see us through.”

“The Empire has a High Priest… what sort of nonsense is this?”

“See what happens when you sign up with the wrong people… all sorts of things happen without you realizing it. Anyway, wasn’t Gladius your High Priest?”

“He was the first of the Centurions… a man of power who deserved respect.”

“Well he’s dead now, killed by the Emperor’s own hand. A noble sacrifice from our great leader.”

“Sacrifice? Are you saying he’s dead?”

“No, not yet at least. You know so little, and there isn’t much time. You know the Jadoorians worship the Mother as a god, creator of us Centurions and the Legatio. The Mother, however, was only one of such gods. There are many Mothers, many Dominus, and they live across the Barrier Ocean in the wastelands of Mordelium. Jason has fallen into their clutches. Though we might all pray for the best, we are preparing for the worst.”

“This would be the Emperor’s death.”

“Yes,” Zophar nodded, as they entered the port town. “If Jason is lost, Philip and his Spawn will go mad, destroying everything in sight. Unlike Gladius, Philip has several legions of Spawn at his command. If they were to go insane, the destruction would be massive. It would leave us with no hope of resisting the approaching invasion from Lahore, or the Dominus’ own invasion from across the ocean. All life on Ares lies balanced on the edge of the thinnest of blades. That is why we must hurry. Just in case he goes mad, Philip is leading his legions as far north as possible, destroying whatever resistance he finds. Behind the walls of the Gate, there is not a single Spawn. It is within the Empire itself, that we are to lead the people to safety should the worse come to pass.”

“Not much time, indeed, if Jason is already in the enemy’s hands,” Aegis grunted. In the harbor, there was but a single galleon, crawling with the desperate townsfolk.

“Clear the way!” Aegis shouted in a booming voice, drawing out his long sword with a metallic hiss.

All the way to the gangplank, a path opened up, even if it required that several men and women dive into the cold winter ocean.

“Now, is this any civilized way to act? As most of you know, the Mathannons have been advancing eastward for over a month. They’re not in any real hurry, but they are doing a damn thorough job of depopulating the areas they’ve visited. Since this is the last remaining port city in Austrola, I think it’s fitting that you all try to at least fight for it. Who knows, if you hold out long enough, another ship might come by. As for my friend and I, we’ve been fighting your stupid war for the past seven years. I think we deserve a chance to get off this god-forsaken island, since none of you ever put up a fight. After all, we’re Centurion mercenaries, not loyal Austrolains. Of course, if you disagree with me, I’d be more than happy to fight you for it. Doesn’t the good Mother say that no one false can win an honorable duel?” As Aegis made his pretty speech, he made sure to make several flashy moves with his sword to give emphasis to his point. When the crowd did not stop him and Zophar from boarding the ship, and cutting its anchor line, Aegis let out a hearty laugh. “See, you still need a scoundrel like me around.”

“If our need wasn’t so great, I would box your ears for that little show.” Zophar grumbled.

“Our need will always be great. We are Centurions, after all.”

“We are traitors who are about to throw ourselves on the mercy of our brothers,” Zophar corrected.

“Then you’d better start practicing your groveling, now. You never were much of a beggar.” Aegis laughed as the ship left the harbor. The people, still ashore, began diving into the water to swim after it. “Now that’s just plain foolish. It’s not like they can catch up to us. The freezing water will kill them in mid-stroke.”

“Can’t you show them a little pity?”

“After all the people I’ve killed, or seen killed, no, can’t say that I can. Isn’t that what being a Centurion is all about, no regrets?”

“Maybe, before Xavier, before we had to depend on a Legatio to show us the error of our ways.”

“You really think this Jason is your god, don’t you?”

“No, but he’s the closest thing to one. Good of heart and mind. He’s done much to rebuild the Empire and make it strong again.”

“Just in time, too, if what you’ve told me is correct. Three wars at once. Not even General Agamemnon faced such odds.”

“Pray that the Federation surrenders quickly. We don’t have much time before the vanguard of the Lahorian Horde reaches the Rapa Free States. Light cavalry won’t do well against heavy infantry and crossbowmen.”

“Next time you save my life, do it because you have some good news to tell me,” Aegis said, half jokingly, as he slapped his old friend on the back.

 


 

Chapter Thirty-Four

When Lukas, former Field Marshal of the Empire, had been sent to one of the gulags of frozen Drakor, the guards had been so afraid of him that they clapped him in irons. These irons were usually reserved for the grizzly bears that stalked the forests and fetched high prices for use in the arenas of the Empire. Even as a wingless Saint, the weight of the chains ate into his flesh, until his wrists and ankles were covered with thick bands of scar tissue from his quick healing.

Life, this far north, was not good for Lukas who missed the warm dry climate of his homeland. The work was repetitive and grueling as he mined for obsidian in the deep rock pits, so that some lord or lady might have a fancy knife or piece of jewelry. There was nothing a Centurion would want, nothing sensible at any rate. His labors were empty and fruitless, given the meatless gruel he was fed at the end of every day.

To live out his life at the command of a witless warden was almost more insult than Lukas could bear. If it weren’t for his own mistakes, which were many, and the deaths of an entire army at his feet, he would have found some way of killing himself and end his humiliation. Yet, as he knew, he was regarded as the greatest failure as a leader the Empire had ever known, Xavier not included. At least he was dead. Even here, up in the Northern Wastes, word of the so-called Emperor’s death reached the warden’s ear. Lukas knew the warden only told him to see how the beaten former Field Marshal would react. Lukas, as stubborn as ever, failed to give him the reaction he expected, and so was whipped. It didn’t matter; he had experienced worse pain in his life. He would heal quickly.

On this day in the middle of winter, Lukas felt two shadows fall over his face. Looking up, he saw the wide wingspans of a pair of Saints. They were most likely Jadoorians come to snicker at their captured pet Field Marshal, not that it would give them any pleasure. Lukas never put on a show for anyone. With the warden leading the way, the two Saints walked toward the boulder Lukas had been chipping away with his pickax. Not that he could use it as a real weapon. It was chained to him in such a way that its movements were restricted to only chipping on stone.

Still, the warden was not one to take risks, so he took out his whip and cleared his voice before speaking. “That’s enough, Lukas, let go of that pickax. These men have come a long way to see you, so you’d better show them respect.” With that, the warden nodded to the taller of the Saints, a man with curly blond hair, and left.

“Lukas Montif, formally Field Marshal of the Western Centurion Army?”

“That’s me, not much to look at, am I?”

“I am here with a summons from Emperor Jason Qul Tos the First. He wishes you to report to the Imperial Court as soon as possible.”

“Very funny. The King of Jadoor rules here. He sentenced me to this frozen hell for the rest of my unnatural life.”

“We are quite serious,” the dark haired man said. “The king of Jadoor is dead, and so is his replacement. So are the Kings of Drakor, Yelding, and Gladmore. The whole Federation is in an uproar, the kingdoms’ armies are turning against the priests and Templar guards. The warden knows all this. That’s why he’s agreed to sell you back to the Empire.”

“As what, a bloody Famulus?” Lukas spat.

“I would be more careful, Lukas. Under Jason’s rule, the Famulus now make up four tenths of the Imperial Senate.”

“I bet the Legatio didn’t like that much.”

“They tried to kill the Emperor,” the blond man said. “Cheer up, Lukas. We’re here to free you. First, however, you must swear an oath to the Imperial Throne and its line of succession. We wouldn’t want you getting any ideas about seeking revenge against those who wronged you.”

“If Xavier is dead, that’s all that matters,” Lukas replied.

“Xavier is dead, but Jason is the Emperor. If I remember correctly, you and he do have some bad blood between you, from when Jason famously threw bread down to the hungry Famulus.”

“That’s all in the past. Since Jason himself killed Xavier, crushing his skull, so I was told, I’m in his debt. I swear to give my life in the name of the Emperor or whoever succeeds him.”

“Good. Now that that’s out of the way, we’ll free you,” the Blond man said as he unlocked the heavy chains on Lukas’ wrists and ankles. Seeing the scarring, he left out a sigh. “Has hard life taught you any wisdom, Lukas Montif?”

“One’s ego tends to quickly freeze off, this far north,” Lukas replied.

“Then put on these clothes, Field Marshal. You now have command of the Home Guard.”

“Field Marshal and Home Guard?” Lukas said, flabbergasted.

“The Home Guard is all that really remains at full strength. The Western Army you ruined, with your desire for revenge, has yet to recover. Philip commands it. The Eastern Army is still under the command of Field Marshal Darius. But his forces are spread thin protecting the Eastern Alliance Kingdoms from any possible attack from Lahore. We are fairly certain they will strike first at the Rapa Free States. All that flat land makes it easy for a massive army to spread out.”

“And the Home Guard?” Lukas asked.

“Right now, it is under the command of Field Marshal James but, once you are back in Domus, you’ll gain his title. He will get a new one, one especially tailored for his talents… Grand Admiral of the Alliance Armada. He will lead the invasion of Jadoor itself.”

“Where can he come by the ships? I lost the original fleet when I attacked the island of Eb.” Lukas said as he put on the gold and white clothing of the Home Guard.

“Jason has been building ships, in secret, for years. As Overlord of the Eastern Kingdoms, he built the ships along the coasts of Tal Sith and Forstin, Tosa, and Drall. His fleets are more than a match for the Jadoorian Navy, especially with its greatest admiral leading our forces instead of theirs.”

“So this Grand Admiral was once a Jadoorian?”

“Yes, he’s now an Angel, just like Jason. He’s very close to the Emperor, Lukas, so try not to make any waves.”

“And who are you two?”

“Why, I am Geoff, Lord of Ingral, the Emperor’s chief bodyguard and Captain of the Winged Guards. I am also his top assassin and spy. My friend, here, is Lance, my counterpart from the kingdom of Tal Sith. Usually, I would have come on my own but, given your size; it was thought best to bring two. I must say, however, you look quite diminished.”

“I’m dying. With Aidan and Amplexor dead, my anima core has begun to rot.”

“To be honest, I’m amazed you’re still alive. It must be because Aidan forced his bond on you. The way the bond is given greatly affects one’s core, or so I’m told. If Jason were to die, I am sure I wouldn’t be far behind. I just hope I live long enough to avenge him.”

“Who would rule if he were to die?” Lukas asked. Since he had sworn to follow the Emperor, and his line of succession, he wanted to know who was next in line.”

“Two people. Lord Varrus, as Lord Steward, and Philip’s son, Sin, as Imperial Regent. All of Jason’s natural children are much too young to take the throne. Poor younglings, they must be worried sick about their father.”

What about the Field Marshals?” Lukas asked. If he was going to lead the Home Guard, he didn’t want two outsiders interfering with his command.

“The Field Marshals command the army, but the Regent commands you, never forget that. We will not let another disaster befall the Empire because of your ego,” Geoff warned.

“So, things have changed,” Lukas grunted as he gripped the two handed axe, at the bottom of the pile Lance had given him.

“For the better,” Geoff said sternly. He knew why he had been asked to go on this mission. If Lukas showed any sign that he would betray the Empire for his own gain, Geoff was ordered to kill him before it could happen.

“With the Eastern Kingdoms now firmly under our control, and with the Federation likely to fall, I would have to agree. Things have changed for the better, even given my great mistakes.”

“Remember those errors, Field Marshal. They might be the only things that prevent you from repeating them. Now, are you ready? It’s a long flight to the front lines, and there are still a number of Gladius’ winged lizardmen about, so we have to be careful,” Geoff said as he spread his wings from under his blue cloak.

 


 

Chapter Thirty-Five

Once back on the island, Jason and his remaining people were taken through the white hall and past the pool of the Dominus. On reaching an elevator shaft, they came to a locker room lined with suits and sealed helmets.

“I’ll help you put this on,” Thomas offered. Once all the seals were locked, Thomas gave Jason a pat on the head. “Doesn’t look so bad, does it?”

“I can hardly move in this thing. Why do we have to wear it?”

“Past that airlock is the world of Mordelium. It is a poisonous and dangerous place, void of life, and even the sun is your enemy. These suits protect you from the solar winds our red star gives off. You, Jason, might be able to survive out there. There’s very little that can kill you outright, but I would hate to see what the direct rays from the sun would do to that perfect skin of yours.”

“I understand. Lead the way, Thomas,” Jason said, feeling his doom come ever closer. After passing through the airlock, Jason entered a hazy red world on a platform that hovered over the much lower stormy ocean. Instead of blue skies, there was a dusty hazy brown that limited his field of vision. Other than the sound of the hard, blowing winds, all he could hear were his own footsteps. “Mordel truly is hell,” he whispered into his intercom.

“Some might see it that way,” Thomas agreed. “Come, the ship is waiting for us down below. With a hard jolt, the platform began to lower itself down to the level of the raging water. A ship waited there, unlike any Jason had ever seen.

Instead of one hull, the ship had two, which hovered above the stormy ocean. Connecting the two was a bridge, made up of steel and shielded glass, which made up the upper compartments of the giant vessel.

When the platform stopped moving, a gangplank was extended from the ship. As Jason climbed aboard, he was grateful for the handrails on both sides, which he used to steady himself against the howling wind. Finally, he entered another airlock, followed by another locker room where Animani helped Thomas and his team removed their protective suits.

“Welcome aboard the Regulas,” a Grau officer said, once they were out of the protective suits and had walked deeper into the ship. “It will take us six days to cross the Blood Ocean and reach the first gates to the City of Mordel, where the process of decontamination will begin.”

“Decontamination?” Chad frowned.

“You’ve lived most of your lives in Ares, where all sorts of germs live. The city of Mordel, however, is a sterile environment. No bacteria or viruses are allowed, except for those found in all men due to their symbiotic relationship to us. Decontamination might sound horrible and, in many ways it is, but we try to make it as painless as possible. Thomas, you know the ship. Want to show our guests to their quarters?”

“If you’ll follow me,” Thomas said, as he led the way to the area that bridged the ship’s two hulls. “This is your room, Jason,” Thomas said as he unlocked the door with his handprint.

“Jacob will be staying with me,” Jason said sternly, daring Thomas to argue otherwise. Since Oktor’s death, Jacob had hardly said a word and his eyes rarely left his father.

“Of course. If you would like to talk I’ll be by later.” Thomas said hopefully. “I am your mother, after all.”

“You’re a freak. I’m a freak,” Jacob wailed as he ran into the dark room.

“I’ll deal with this,” Jason told Thomas.

“He’s my son, too, just like Brutus is yours. Wouldn’t it be better if both our sons got along better with their parents?”

“Alright, but bring Brutus as well, and don’t pressure Jacob. He needs to deal with this in his own way.”

“I’ll ask around and see if there’s another Dalf on the ship. Sometimes the Dominus let them leave the city for voyages like this.”

“If you think it would help,” Jason replied before closing the door in Thomas’ face. “Jacob, are you alright?”

“He’s dead papa, he’s dead,” Jacob cried as he lay down on a sofa.

“I know, son. He was a good man, a good mentor for you.”

“He shouldn’t have come with us at all. You should have made him stay back in the palace.”

“He was your mentor. What right did I have to keep you two apart? Given my own experience with Varrus, don’t you think I know better?”

“Why didn’t you have Varrus come here with you papa? You risked so much to save him, but then you sent him away. I don’t understand that.”

Lifting Jacob’s legs, Jason made space for him to sit down with his son. “Are you saying I shouldn’t have saved Varrus?”

“And let Gladius kill him? No way. I just don’t understand why he’s not here with us. I know you love him, and I guess I like him.”

“It wasn’t easy for me to send him away. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, to be honest. The truth is Sin needs Varrus more than I do.”

“As a lover?”

“No, as a teacher. Soon, the whole Empire will know I am gone and that I’ve made Sin my replacement. If it weren’t for his ability to act outside the calculations of the Dominus, I would never have put him in that position. That is why he needs Varrus’ help, to carry some of the load for him.”

“What will happen if you really die?”

“I expect you to survive and one day avenge me. You must only do so when you know you’re ready.”

“I’d do it in a heartbeat.”

“This is why I’m asking you to wait. Thomas will protect you, if you can stomach all his mothering. He does care about you, Jacob, in his limited Grau way.”

“I don’t like him. He made me bite you.”

“Yes, and that bite might just save my life. No one has ever survived the loss of his anima core before, but the animus inside me might keep me alive long enough to recover from such trauma.”

“I could never hurt you again, papa.”

“And I’ll try not to hurt you by dying,” Jason said. Popping off Jacob’s shoes he tickled his feet.

“Stop that, it tickles.”

“It’s supposed to. I had to get a smile out of you, somehow.”

“I’m sorry I’ve been so sad, papa, but losing Oktor made me see I could actually lose you too.”

“I know it did, but all we can hope for is the best.”

Hearing a chime coming from the door, Jason turned just in time to see a finely dressed man, wearing a suit and tie, walk into the room. He had a sly grin on his face that made the two-day’s growth on his face make him look even more the criminal. Going to the refrigerator in one corner, he took out a bottle, twisted off its cork top, and laughed as foam poured out. Eventually he filled three long slender glasses with the bubbly liquid, and carried them over to where Jason and Jacob were sitting. “To better times. May they one day come to all of us,” the man said in a deep baritone, as he gave Jason a wolfish grin. “My name is Trevor, Trevor Rex, and Alpha of the packs, which makes me leader of all the Dalfs. I was led to believe that a fellow Dalf was brought aboard, a wildling who is in need have comfort.”

“That would be my son, Jacob,” Jason said as he tried to avoid looking into the man’s misty eyes.

“Jacob is it… that’s a nice and proper name for a Dalf,” Trevor said as he glanced at the young man. “Why, you’re not just a wildling; you’re a youngling as well.” Trevor laughed.

“Papa, may I claw his eyes out?” Jacob asked in a most polite tone.

“No, son, we are his guests here.”

“A feisty son you have. I have a son just like him. Maybe we should introduce the pair when we reach Mordel.”

“I do not think I will be available for such an introduction.”

“You are referring to what is to happen to you. Maybe you will survive. I will pray that you do.” Trevor tilted his head at Jason, while he licked his lips. “I would love to have you as a mate.”

“Mate?” Jason laughed in disbelief. “But we’ve just met.”

“We Dalf can recognize strength when we see it. If you and I were to join, our clan would only become that much stronger.”

“I’m married,” Jason replied.

“But your husband is far away, on the other side of the barrier. Do you think you will ever see him again?”

“Yes, I pray I do,” Jason said, sadness filling his voice.

“I beg your pardon. I was being more forceful than I should. When I see such a beautiful man, my desire to mate with him overrides my good judgment. I am telling you the truth as a Dalf. You are most beautiful.”

“And I accept your compliment, but I cannot take you up on your offer.”

“Your words might say so, but your face says otherwise. I intrigue you. You’ve never met a mature Dalf before, nor has your son.”

“Jacob?” Jason asked turning to his son.

“I like him, but not for me,” Jacob replied as he sat up, curling his feet under him.

“Of course you like me,” Trevor chuckled as he scratched Jacob behind one ear. “The Clan takes care of its own. Whether you can accept the fact, that you truly are one of us, is a question only you can answer, dear Jason.” Looking directly at Jason, he could see the affect he was having on the man.

“Can you protect me?” Jason whispered.

“If you survive the operation, and the Dominus have no further need for you, my Clan will be more than happy to take you in. In Mordel, one cannot be without friends. Those without usually end up dead, or sold into slavery in the deep lower levels.”

“That sounds like you’re trying to blackmail me.”

“Only pointing out the harsh realities of life,” Trevor laughed. “I want you, and you need me. It’s a perfect match, as I see it.”

“I have other friends.”

“Such as the Animani or that strange Grau, Thomas? Who do you think asked me to meet with you? I must say, they weren’t exaggerating. You are quite worth the effort of courtship.”

“Courtship… are all Dalfs old fashion romantics?” Jason laughed.

Taking Jason’s hand in his, Trevor lifted it up to his lips and kissed it. “The best of us are. Only the best are allowed to have a mate. Pick me, and I promise you an eternity of pleasure.”

“I already have a husband.”

“Can your husband carry your children?”

“Are you saying you are like the Grau?”

“In that sense, I am. Jacob isn’t, because he is only half-Dalf. As I am the Rex of my Clan, the Alpha, I am usually not the one who would be impregnated, but I’m willing to make an exception in your case. Thomas has even offered to let us use his womb until the children are born.”

“You wouldn’t carry the children yourself.”

“As clan chief, I cannot risk being encumbered by being pregnant. There are those in my clan who would see it as a chance to challenge me for my position.”

“I cannot fathom such an arrangement.”

“Trust me, you would enjoy it.” Trevor grinned as he moved in closer.

“When the Dominus are done with me, I plan on beginning my search for Alex and Gideon.”

“I could help you find them. Alex is a well known member of the Uhr. The Dalf have many dealing with that criminal syndicate, given that we are in charge of security on the upper levels of Mordel.”

“You are rivals.”

“More like business partners.” Trevor chuckled. “Mordelian society is terribly corrupt. The Dominus like it that way.”

“I would figure that they would want a stable society,” Jason replied. “Better to control.”

“Actually, they find chaos easier to control than law and order. When all the clans are divided, the Dominus don’t have to worry about them posing a threat to their rule. In that sense, our city is no different than your world. The strong prey on the weak, and the weak on what they can. Since the Dominus are strongest, no one is willing to challenge their rule. Since none of of the clans are willing to trust each other, there is no chance that our power will exceed that of the Dominus.”

“But why can’t you unite against the Dominus?”

“First of all, there are the Dominus’ Grau agents. If any of us were to imagine committing an act against the masters of Mordel, the Grau would ferret it out and take action to prevent it. That is how most revolts end, dying before they even begin. Then there is the Central Pillar itself, which penetrates all levels of the city. It emits the light and warmth that makes living in the city possible. In case of a riot, all the Dominus have to do is let the pillar go dark. The cold itself is usually enough to disperse any mob. We are prisoners of the Dominus but, within the outer city, we are usually left to manage our own affairs as long as they do not conflict with theirs.” Trevor was now sitting on the edge of the sofa, his fingers combing though Jason’s short black hair. To Jason’s surprise, he found the man’s touch comforting.

“I like him, papa.” Jacob smiled as he watched the way Trevor looked at Jason. There was kindness there, as well as possessiveness. The Alpha of the Dalf was indeed claiming Jason as his mate.

“And I like your father. I would love to take him hunting. Have you and your father ever gone hunting together.”

“Papa’s too gentle to be a hunter,” Jacob replied.

“There’s a forest in the lower levels of the city. It is there that our people run in packs. I have a lodge I think you would like, living in the woods with no worries in the world.”

“I have often wanted to do such with Philip. I never had the freedom.”

“Once the Dominus have what they want, they’ll have no further need for you. They won’t ever let you leave Mordel, nor will they see any reason to keep you as their prisoner. With your permission, I would like to take your son with me when we reach the city. He’ll be safer away from the Dominus.”

“Yes, I was going to ask that you do that,” Jason replied softly.

“But papa,” Jacob protested.

“I brought you with me so you could meet your people, not to watch helplessly as the Dominus steal my core.”

“I can stop them,” Jacob insisted.

“No, Jacob, I won’t let you risk your life over me. A father should never outlive his sons. Trevor will protect you; I’m certain of that.” Jason ruffled his son’s gray hair. Then the door to his cabin opened and Chad and Hector came in. “Do you think you can protect these two, as well?” Jason asked Trevor.

“With those wings… they would be better off seeking protection from the Hawkmen. They would be more than happy to take on such a pair.”

“Can you arrange that, Trevor?”

“I can try to. Relations between the Dalf and Hawks are not what you would call friendly. We both have been given the job of policing the upper levels of the city. The Hawkmen, however, have a different sense of pride than we Dalf.”

“You mean they’re not as corrupt,” Jason laughed.

“Running a Clan is an expensive undertaking. Not even I can turn down a bribe. I will do what I can to arrange a meeting between your friends and the Hawks, but I can’t promise they will take them in.”

“I trust you will do your best, without being bribed.”

“A small bribe would help,” Trevor said, as he tickled Jason’s sides.

“I thought you were going to court me.”

“Even a helpless romantic needs a little encouragement.”

Standing up partway, Jason planted a kiss on the Dalf’s cheek. “Was that enough encouragement for you?” he asked, enjoying the surprised look on Trevor’s face. Soon, it was his turn to be surprised as the Dalf pounced on him. Jacob jumped off the couch, laughing as he watched his father and the Alpha wrestle on the carpeted floor. Having received some training from Oktor, in hand-to-hand combat, Jason was not helpless against the slippery man. In the end, however, the man’s speed got the better of Jason and he was pinned to the floor. Looking up, Jason could see the Dalf giving him a wolfish grin.

“Now, that is how Dalf court one another. Shall we continue, or would you like a breather?” Trevor offered.

There was something in the air, a musky, pleasant scent that brought Jason’s more passionate memories to mind. He knew it was the Dalf in him, long kept silent by the strength of his anima. If he were to survive, he knew he had to let that part of him take over.

“Don’t look sad, Jason,” Trevor cooed. “When an Alpha picks his mate, it’s for life. Just leave everything to me.” He then kissed Jason deeply as he pressed his body hard against the other man. “I wish to mark you as mine, but I can’t do that until I know you will survive the torments of the Dominus.”

“Then it’s best we stop,” Jason whispered. The musk in the air was now very strong.
“Admit it, you don’t want me to.” Trevor chuckled as he nuzzled up against Jason.

“You’ve put a spell on me.”

“I could accuse you of the same. You smell delicious.” Trevor hands were busy removing his black coat.

“Is this man causing you any trouble, your majesty?” Chad asked.

“Am I causing you any trouble?” Trevor asked, as he humped against Jason’s swelling manhood.

“Cool him off, please,” Jason said while he was still able to resist his growing desire.

Together, Hector and Chad pulled Trevor off Jason. The Dalf’s pants fell down to his knees.

Jacob quickly knelt down, next to Jason, helping his father stand up. “He’s the one, papa, I just know it.”

“The husband you promised to find for me?” Jason laughed as he could hear shouting from the bathroom.

“He’s strong, smart, loyal, and much better than Philip.”

“Philip is coming to rescue us.”

“I know you want to believe that, papa, but he might never come.”

“He will come. No matter how hard or how long it takes, he will come for us, Jacob.”

“But I like Trevor,” Jacob pouted.

“You like him because he’s a Dalf.”

“It’s more than that. He’s a great man. I can sense it.”

“I’m sure he thinks he is too. He is the leader of your people, Jacob. It is only natural you feel in awe of him.” Jason laughed. The shouting in the bathroom turned into passionate groans.
“I only want the best for you, papa.”

“I know you do, Jacob, and maybe I will let Trevor court me. But he will never replace Philip and James in my heart.”

“You might feel differently, as a Dalf.”

“I might,” Jason agreed. “I might even go hunting with you.”

“I always dreamed you would,” Jacob whispered as he nuzzled against his father.

“Just so long as you’re safe and happy, Jacob, that’s all I care about. One day we’ll find our way home.”

“I do miss my brothers,” Jacob whispered.

“I hope they will forgive me,” Jason said, as a tear rolled down his face.

“My children will look after them.”

“So will Amanda and Varrus.”

“And who are they?” Trevor asked from the open bathroom door. Standing stark naked, Jason could see his tanned, hairy body and bulging muscles. He was slender, but strong. His grey eyes shimmered in the dimly lit room, as he gave Jason a lustful grin. “Those friends of yours are quite a pair. I might just keep them after all.”

“Amanda is my queen, while Varrus is my mentor.”

“Ah, I forgot. Your women are not quite the monsters ours are. Tell me about Varrus. He sounds like quite a fellow.”

“He was my first love, and he remains dear to my heart. He is the only one I dare ask to do the impossible.”

“Yet, he is not your mate.”

“Our friendship goes beyond being lovers.”

“Can we be friends?”

“I think we already are. How far it goes depends on a lot of things we can’t control.”

“The Animani, who will be performing your surgery, have sworn they will do whatever it takes to see that you survive. You must put your faith in them.”

“I know, but I fear what they can do. Their shared mind is greater than that of the Dominus. I worry they might try to pull me into their greater consciousness if no other option remains.”

“Such would be an honor, but I can understand why you would fear it. As one voice against many, you fear yourself becoming lost in their greatness,” Trevor whispered as he lay down next to Jason, just as Chad and Hector exited the shower.

“I’ll leave you four alone,” Jacob said, not able to hide his smirk.

“Coward… you’re here to protect me,” Jason shouted jokingly, as he locked himself in the bedroom.

“You should try out the shower, Jason. It’s got plenty of hot water,” Chad said as he lay on the other side of Jason.

“Did you enjoy it, Hector?” Jason asked his general, as he flopped down on the couch.

“It wasn’t bad. It would have been better if you had joined us, your majesty.”

“I could take you to the crew showers,” Trevor offered. “Plenty of space for all four of us.”

“I’m just not in the mood,” Jason replied.

“Which means this is just what you need. Face it, Jason; you have too much on your mind. The best cure for that is a night of tawdry sex.” Chad laughed. “Forget about the Dominus… forget about Mordel. Right now, all you need to care about are the things we three are going to do to you.”

“Come with us, Jason. Let me prove to you that I am the man you need,” Trevor said in a strong and calm voice, offering his right hand.”

“Philip will always be my husband,” Jason said, even as he took the offered hand.

“Do you think I’ve not had previous matings before?” Trevor asked as they both stood up.

“I thought you mated for life.”

“I’ve mated many times for the benefit of my Clan, but I have never chosen the one who will be Alpha with me. Imagine it; with you as my mate I can form an alliance with the Animani. Since everyone trusts the Animani to deal honestly, I might be able to unite all the Clans and bring down the Dominus once and for all. You are the key to that, Jason… a man who is both anima and of animus. All you lack is a Clan to claim you as one of its own. As you are part Dalf, we are the natural choice.”

“Am I an object of ambition or desire?”

“Pure desire… a desire for peace. From what I’ve been told, you have always been a man of peace, even when required to fight for it.” Trevor said exactly what Jason needed to hear.

“I will help you in your fight for peace,” Jason said as he leaned in closer.

Moving so close that their lips brushed together, Trevor whispered, “We will win.”

 


 

 

 

Chapter Thirty-Six

Wielding Jason’s gold staff as a sign of his new authority, as well as to help his still recovering body climb the Senate podium stairs, Varrus prepared himself to address the people of Domus and the kings from the Eastern Kingdoms. Behind him, looking out of place in robes of gold and white was Sin, wearing a crown of green laurels. On reaching the Speaker’s Chair, made of white marble, etched in gold with the image of a radiating sun, Varrus sat down while Sin stood beside him.

As Varrus gazed at the crowd, he could see worry in their eyes. Already, word that Jason was missing from the palace had spread to all parts of the Empire and its allied kingdoms. Having been summoned to this session of the Imperial Senate, all expected to learn exactly where Jason was, and if he was even still alive. Among the religious zealots of the east, the belief was spreading that Jason had ascended into heaven, just as the Jadoorians believed of the Mother.

Seeing that all eyes were on him, Varrus handed Sin Jason’s staff and stood up on wobbly legs to stress the point as to how dire the situation was. “We’ve lost Jason…” he croaked in a loud and sobbing voice, sending a shock wave throughout the chamber that sent some people to their knees. Now that he had said those fatal words, Varrus found it easier to say the rest. “For a long time, we’ve known of an enemy greater than the Empire has ever faced. Though most of you believe that they, and the land they come, from is but a legend. The Dominus and the land of Mordel are quite real, and pose just as real a threat to the people of Ares. It is they who have taken our Emperor away from us.”

“Then who is Emperor?” a Famulus Senator asked.

“According to Jason’s last decree, Sin Helios, son of Field Marshal Philip, is to become Regent of the Empire under the guidance of a Steward. That responsibility was handed to me by the Emperor himself, before he was taken.”

This time a Legatio Senator stood. “It is most unfortunate that the Emperor can’t confirm this, himself.”

“It is all written in the Imperial decree,” Varrus replied coldly. At that moment, Famulus aids began passing copies of the decree to everyone present.

Snatching his copy from the young man, the Legatio Senator opened the scroll and soon scoffed. “This is insane. The entire peoples of the Eastern Kingdom are to be settled in Domus proper?”

“Behind the walls of the Gate, and the fortified port of Aquanos, the people will be in relative safety from the coming invasions from Lahore and Mordel.”

“As a Centurion, your faith should be in our legions,” the Senator snickered.

“And what chance do we have against those who created the Centurion and Legatio people in the first place? Varrus asked, sending another shock throughout the audience.

“You have no proof of that.”

Stepping forward, Koltus expanded his shock staff and sent a stun bolt at the Senator’s chest, causing panic among the others.

“I will have order!” Varrus shouted, as more Centurions armed with shock staves lined the chamber. Soon, everyone was back in his or her seats. “This is but a taste of the weaponry the Dominus will send against us. Compared to them, we are but children standing against grown men. We’ve also heard rumors that the Dominus have been sending similar weapons to the Lahorians. Even if we are similarly armed, the Western Army cannot stand against such numbers, nor can the Eastern Centurion Army. Since any offensive option by us would be suicide, we must take a defensive stance and make the enemy pay for every inch of territory.”

“What of our war with the Federation?” Samuel, king of Tal Sith, asked.

“As we speak, an armada led by the newly appointed Grand Admiral, James, has left for Jadoor to crush the Federation once and for all. With the fall of Uul and Yelding, the Western Centurion Army is moving to the Rapa Free States and Dorsa. It will defend their boarders against the coming Lahorian invasion. With the aid of our new allies, the Togo, our armies are being quickly retrained for a new kind of warfare. When the enemy comes, they’ll find us more than prepared.” Varrus forced himself to let out a chuckle to lift the spirits of his audience.

“Why, then, are we to take in so many people?” The leader of the Famulus faction asked.

“Jason had many visions of the future. All have either come true, or been prevented by the Emperor’s action on the behalf of his people. The Lahorians are indeed a great threat, but the coming invasion from Mordel is the true danger. Domus has always been a natural fortress, with the Jasper Mountains to the north and high sea cliffs to the east and west. Still, there is the sky, which the Dominus can easily control. We have the Togo as our allies, but what aid they can give us is limited. They can give us one thing, however. They can create a wall, a wall which the flying zephyrs cannot cross. That will force our great enemy to face us on the ground and, on the ground, we Centurions are the masters.”

“By cowering behind the walls of the Gate?” one of Norgoth’s four ruling Grand Dukes demanded.

“The besieging army is three times the size of our army at the fortress. By taking a defensive stance, we will last longer and cause more casualties. With the armies of the Alliance to aid us, we will be able to withstand an endless siege.”

“What you are suggesting, is that we fight a war we cannot win,” Samuel replied.

“But we will win. By some miracle, by some vision yet to be seen, the Holy Emperor will come back to us, having survived worse than death. Then, with his leadership, we will finally defeat our enemies and fulfill the Centurion Prophecy. When Jason leads us from Ares to the fabled Blue Star, all of us will be free.”

“It will take months to move so many people to your lands, Lord Varrus. Can the Centurions hold out against the Horde long enough for us to reach the safety of Domus?”

“A Centurion knows his duty, and will give his life to give you the time you need, but you must act quickly. Travel by sea would be fastest, but most will have to travel by land and through the Gate. When spring comes, your people must be ready to move.”

“And what will wait for us, once our people reach Domus?”

“For six years the Famulus have been building settlements throughout the Empire, never knowing what the buildings were for. I can now say they were to serve as homes for your people, as well as land for you to farm. Life will not be easy. It will, indeed, be very hard, but if we work together we will survive,” Varrus stressed.

This time it was Caleb Qul Tos who stood. “As many of you know, Jason gave my birthright back to me only recently, and what a prize it is. The Kingdom of Qul Tos is wealthy beyond reason. Our royal treasury is only surpassed by the wealth of the Empire itself. My kingdom has an army, the largest in the East. We also have the greatest fortress in all the lands, the Labyrinth Keep. None of these mean anything, compared to the threat my people now face. I, rightful King of Qul Tos, hereby surrender all my wealth, force of arms, stores of food, and my very people to the protection of Domus. I suggest that all those who call me friend do the same.” Caleb then sat down, tears running down his face.

Next to stand, dressed in his gold and silver robes, and wearing a miter, was High Priest Julian. “As the Holy Emperor is my god, I cannot question his order, nor should any who is a true believer in the one who has sacrificed so much for the good of all. I, for one, will go out among the people and shepard them to safety.”

Knowing that to defy Julian was to anger their people, all the kings of the East stood and agreed to evacuate their people and bring with them their wealth and stores of food.

Getting a nod from Varrus, Sin stepped forward. “The evacuation by sea will be lead by the King of Tal Sith. All ships, big and small, will now answer to his command. The king of Qul Tos will direct the evacuation over land, with way stations set up and controlled by the Tosian army. As Jason saw to the building of many fortresses throughout his land, most of that work has already been done.”

“If Jason knew so much, why didn’t he warn us sooner?” a Legatio Senator asked.

“If Jason had not acted in secret, the Dominus would have already invaded to prevent his plans from succeeding,” Varrus replied. “Now that Jason is gone, he can no longer protect us, except through the preparations he secretly made. All of you must understand that the Empire is only offering you sanctuary because of Jason’s desire to save as many lives as possible.”

“What of the Federation, will you be evacuating them as well?” King Samuel asked.

“No we cannot. Though Jason wished otherwise, he could not put his whole plan at risk to save those whose trust is suspect. For countless years, the people of the Federation have been waiting for the return of their god, the Holy Mother. The Dominus are that god, and they are coming. While some have become followers of Jason, what would happen to their faith if and-or when the Dominus invade our shores? I do not think it takes much imagination to see that they would return to their own faith. Maybe that will protect them from the Dominus. We can only hope such mercy befalls them. A civil war within the borders of the Empire, however, cannot be risked. The long-standing hatred between East and West would make sharing the land almost impossible. Add religion to the matter, and you can see why Jason reached such a hard decision.” Varrus looked over the crowd and saw that everyone agreed with the decision, even if for more selfish reasons than he had lain out. Some would be saved. Those Rapan who survived the attack from Lahore, and those followers Julian vouched for. So few, compared to the millions who would be left on the wrong side of the Jasper Mountains.

“I will now have your oaths of loyalty, to remain in effect until the great day when Jason returns to us,” Sin said in the commanding voice Varrus had helped him practice.

The first to kneel were the Centurions, followed quickly by the Famulus. Caleb was the first of the kings to bend, while the Dukes of Norgoth were the last. Finally, with sour expressions on their faces, those Legatio who remained in the Senate went down on their knees and held a fist over their hearts. The Senate chamber boomed with the united voices of the Alliance as they swore fealty to the Imperial Regent. With that the time of Holy Emperor Jason ended, the time of Sin had begun.

 


 

Chapter Thirty-Seven

“What do you want us to do?” Chad asked as he lay atop Jason in the bed.

“Go with the Rex. He will protect you.”

“But who will protect you?” the young general asked.

“Louis will, if he can,” Jason whispered.

“But you don’t believe he can.”

“It’s not that. It is just that I’m blind to my own fate. What that means I cannot tell. I’m sure I will lose my core. Whether I survive losing it is another matter.”

“Jason do not fill your Saints with despair.”

“I wish I could spare all of you that pain. If only I could see my children one more time.”

“Not Philip?”

“Philip will have James. He will survive. It’s my boys I worry about. Though they have never tasted my anima I feel bonded to them. I know they are scared and sad. Amanda must be beside herself, trying to take care of them. Not even Kyle can cheer them up.”

“No matter what happens, we will continue to strive to serve you,” Chad said as he rested his blond head on Jason’s chest.

Suddenly, hearing a buzzing sound, both sat up. “Decontamination Phase V complete. Please exit and prepare for final decontamination.”

Jason trembled. “So little time.”

“How soon until the operation?”

“The Dominus want it done as soon as I reach the Central Pillar. Neither the Animani, nor Thomas, have been able to change their minds.”

“Stubborn bitches.”

“I can understand why they’re doing it. War can make one do horrible things just to survive. If my core can make them more human, maybe it will be enough for them to call off the invasion.”

“I doubt it. Mordelium is a dead, poisonous land. What surprises me is that they haven’t invaded sooner.”

“The Great Barrier stops them. From what I understand, in their bid to make themselves invincible they designed their animus core to be made of thick iron. No quantity of metal can cross the Great Barrier. For them to try, their cores would be ripped from their bodies,” Jason explained.

Leaving the room, they were lead to a series of showers, each releasing a different disinfectant, and they were given more shots and injections to cleanse their blood of viruses. At the last stage, they were given an injection in the gut, returning symbiotic bacteria to their intestines after their systems had been cleaned out.

“I don’t know why they bothered,” Jason groaned, as he got off the exam bed.

“If you ever intend to eat again, you would understand,” Gregory, the Animani he had met on his first day on the island, said. “For our sakes have hope, Jason.”

“For the sake of my family,” Jason grunted, as he put on a white robe.

“If it keeps you going,” Trevor said, as all of them gathered at the thick steel airlock door that separated them from the city of Mordel.

With a hissing sound, the airlocks cycled. Jason let out a deep breath of his own, in a vain attempt to remain calm. “So this is it.”

“This is only the beginning,” Gregory replied, as the light from the Central Pillar filled the open airlock.

 


 

Chapter Thirty-Eight

“Are you sure?” James asked from the bridge of the submerged Argo.

The Togo pilot at the controls gave James a look that would admonish a child. “The scanners on this ship are quite advanced. The underwater tunnel leads directly beneath the Jadoorian capital of Meltor. This must be where Gladius was hiding it, all these years.”

“First things first. We need to destroy the fleet protecting the port of Koor. Then the armada can start landing our marines.”

“Shall we surface then?”

“I don’t see why I should put my men at risk for no reason. We have the Argos. Let’s see her in action.”

“I will take that as a yes,” the Togo said sarcastically. Though James was the Grand Admiral, none of the Togo crew took him seriously. As far as they saw it, James was a barely educated barbarian and his commands were to be treated with suspicion.

As the ship rose to the surface, the screens around the ceiling gave perfect views, in al directions, outside the heavily armored battleship.

“Seventy-two ships in the area. Only six armed with cannon balls.”

“So Gladius did give them that technology,” James grunted. Cannon fire would have torn his war galleys apart.”

“They are no threat to us, sir. Give the command, and the auto-cannons will deal with them,” the gunner commander said.

“Fire away,” James said as he flopped into his captain’s chair.

From a dozen points, explosive shells were fired at the enemy fleet, one shot per ship. That was all it really took. Within minutes it was over, the small fleet only a few burnt planks floating in the harbor. “Signal the fleet to begin their land assault.”

“Flare launched. What about the tunnel? Do I have to remind you that this ship is amphibious?”

“No, you don’t. Very well, re-submerge and take us through the tunnel.”

“At our safest speed, we should reach Meltor in three hours. Would you care to rest, Admiral?”

“You really don’t like me, do you, pilot?”

“You are a genetically modified horror to us. Unfortunately, the survival of our people requires an alliance with your kind.”

“Yes, we are allies, and I am your superior. So, unless you want me to make you one of us, you will show me the respect that is my due.”

“Very well, Admiral. I apologize for my earlier rudeness,” the pilot said, forcing each word past his lips with great difficulty.

“Keep that up, and I might just kiss you.” James laughed as the ship submerged.

Three hours later, the ship reemerged in a giant cavern, lit up by lights that popped on with the ship’s arrival.

“Our sensors detect the Argo’s missing power generator. It seems to be what’s powering this complex. Shall we recover it?”

“I know this place,” James replied. It was here that he and Kyle were made into the creatures they were today. “Recover the generator. We might need the extra power, but be sure to search the complex completely. Your people might find some of the Mother’s research interesting.”

“None of that monster’s genetic abominations are of interests to us. Still, we will search to make sure no surprises have been left for us.”

“See that you do.” Three hours later the generator joined the other five in the ship’s engine room and the cave reverted to total darkness.

“How much rock between us and the surface.”

“About two hundred feet.”

“You know you’re right over the royal palace.”

“That should make our appearance even more shocking,” the Togo laughed.

“Can the ship handle that much weight crashing down on it?”

“With all six generators, the Argos can take an atomic blast.”

“And what might that be?” James said, knowing he looked like a fool for asking.

“Nothing for you to worry about,” the gunnery commander laughed.

“Shields at max, particle beams fully charged.”

“Maximum spread,” the gunnery commander ordered into his communicator. Within seconds of giving the order, all the monitors went blinding white when the beam weapons fired. They disintegrated the rock above until it blasted a hole to the surface, taking most of the palace with it.

“Activate the gravity drive. Rise three hundred feet,” the pilot ordered. Soon the ship was hovering over the heart of Meltor. All the people were running about from panic. “What will you have us do now?”

“You see that large building at the heart of the square? Obliterate it. That should get the people’s attention.”

“May I ask the significance of that building?”

“It’s the Temple of the Mother and the true center of power for the Jadoor. Hell, for the whole Federation.”

“Your people worshiped the Dominus?”

“Hard to believe, I know.”

“Fools,” the gunnery commander said, as he fired all weapons on the massive structure. By the time the guns stopped firing, only a crater remained.

“Send out the Zephyrs and the Winged Guard. I want the city in my hands by the time night falls.”

“Why wait for night. We could simply destroy the city.”

“This city was my home, so I’m not about to let you flatten it,” James said as he sank back into his chair. As his soldiers took control of the city, James became lost in the fear he felt through his bond with Jason. Not willing to show weakness in front of the Togos, he excused himself and went to his private cabin. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he fell into helpless despair. Even at his moment of victory, there was no joy in him. All he could feel was a growing sense of numbness his mind. He was not able to fathom its depth.

 


 

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Philip grumbled as he watched the Togo digging machines working away at building a complex network of trenches lined with barbed wire. In the trenches, Centurions and Rapan warriors were practicing with things called machine guns, disruptor rifles, rocket propelled grenades, and body armor that was both lightweight and almost indestructible. Philip insisted that his men still carry swords at their waists, but he very much doubted they would get much use. No matter how he explained, the Togo couldn’t understand the Centurion way of fighting; one on one, blade against blade, where honor and rules of combat controlled the flow of battle. When the Horde reached their fortified lines, there wouldn’t be a battle; there would be a blood bath.

Not that the Lahorians were giving the West much choice. Countless redheaded Grau had appeared among them, saying they came in the name of their god, Kaal. Bringing weapons just as advanced as the Togo, the nomadic Qopo had completely stopped raiding the Lahorian supply lines because they had no defense against the superior weapons and too many of them had been slaughtered. Philip asked the Togo why they didn’t arm their Qopo brothers with advanced weapons, but all they would say was that it would be wrong to destroy their innocence. Given the ferocity of Qopo pirates in the Inner Sea, Philip very much doubted that the Qopo were as innocent as the Togo claimed. Still, the work went on with concrete and steel bunkers going up every hundred yards.

Even with the aid of the Togo, there was one thing they couldn’t provide in great numbers… people. From the mountains that bordered Rapa to the north and the south, there were six hundred square miles of flat plains. With six legions of Demon Spawn, eight legions of regular Centurions, and twenty-five thousand Rapan volunteers, there still were not enough soldiers to cover the entire defensive line. He had sent orders for Dorsa and Freen to send soldiers north, but winter had already set in. So, he didn’t expect them any time soon, even if they sailed upriver.

His time here was also coming to an end. Though he used his entire will to hold back the pain, he knew the fear Jason was feeling, as well as the pain and regret dragging on his precious soul. He knew James was feeling the same. Soon, he would leave Darius in charge and fly to the ruins of Jadoor to join James aboard the Argos. Only then could they begin their search for Jason. As it was, they didn’t even know where the underground city was located on the distant continent. Not even the Togos knew. If they had, they swore they would have long destroyed it long ago, just as the Dominus would have attacked the secret underground city of Atlantis.

Though he didn’t know where his journey would end, he didn’t care how long it took. He would have Jason back in his arms. If he reached Mordel, and found that Jason had died, nothing would save the Dominus from the revenge he would bring down on their heads. The Togo had seen to that.

 


  

Chapter Forty

Inside the surgery ward in the Central Pillar, a Grau guard stopped the last of Jason’s companions outside the prep room. “Louis?” His lips trembled as he refused to let go of the man’s hand.

Glaring at the guard, Louis used all his will to force the Grau back. But where there had been one, soon there were three who quickly subdued him, handcuffing him, and placing a crown on his head to repress his psi talents.

“Don’t hurt him,” Jason wailed, as the guard he had beaten punched Louis in the gut, causing him to bend over in pain. Before he could see what happened to Louis, Jason was dragged into the prep room where he saw the masked Grau surgeons waiting for him. “Please no, please don’t do this,” Jason screamed, as he went into hysterics.

“Sedate him,” the Animani Prime said in an emotionless voice.

Feeling a needle prick his arm, Jason’s whole body relaxed as his mind continued to scream against what was going to be done. “No, no,” he managed to mumble, as the Grau went to work on his mind.

Only when he was numbed to everything, did the Animani removed his robe and place him on a stretcher. Lifted up, he was put in a transparent box connected to several hoses. The Animani Prime then ordered the Grau out of the room. Only when they were gone, did the leader, and chief surgeon of the Animani, speak to Jason with any warmth in his voice. “Forgive us, Jason, for what we’re about to do., We have no choice. The things to which we have committed ourselves, however, we believe will spare your life. Please try to understand that our lives as individuals mean nothing as long as one of us survives. Because of you, a new generation of our kind will be born for the first time in our history. This is a gift for which we can never give thanks enough. Once again, I ask that you forgive us for what we have done, but it was the only option left to us.” With those words the Animani released a milky white fluid that began to fill the box. “Our anima for you, our savior.”

As the effect of the Grau mind control began to lift, Jason realized what the Animani had done, as the box continued to fill with anima by the gallons. So much anima could only have been gathered one way. The Animani must have slaughtered hundreds of each other, just to obtain enough to provide him with a bath of life-sustaining elixir, in the hope that it would keep him alive as his body was butchered. “No, not for me,” Jason whispered through the sedation, gray tears rolling down his face.

“No tears for us, Jason,” the Prime said, even as he also cried. Pressing a button on the tank’s base, metal clasps locked Jason’s wrists and ankles in place. Soon, Jason was drowning in white anima as it covered his mouth and nose. Only when Jason was completely submerged did the Prime turn off the tap. “Take him into the operating room. I will join you soon,” he told his aids.

Taking time to dry his eyes, the Prime took several deep breaths. The hopes of all his people rested on his shoulders and, unlike a normal man, he could hear all their voices in his head. Putting a psi-dampener on his forehead to lessen the sounds of his people’s growing protests, the Prime stepped into the operating room with a heavy heart, and a damned soul.

 

 


 

 

Chapter Forty-One

Twenty-four hours later, the Prime was on the top floor of the Central Pillar, where the Dominus Pantheon held court. Except for the raised circular platform in the center of the room, the floor covered a massive tank, five miles across and five hundred feet deep, from where the Dominus ruled their city-state. Set up, next to him, was a crystal tank, five feet high, one foot deep, and three feet wide. Suspended inside, bathed in a clear nutrient solution, were the purple sphere and its branching veins that had once been Jason’s anima core, completely intact, and still alive.

“You’ve done well, Animani Prime. You successfully harvested the core,” Hera, brutal leader of the Dominus, sent telepathically to her servant. “I did question you ordering the slaughter of so many useful Animani, but it seems it was worth the sacrifice. You will, therefore, not be punished. Though we are displeased that many of your people find themselves with child, we are also curious to see the results. They too, therefore, shall not be killed. Does that not please you, Prime? No one has to die.”

“And Jason?” the Prime whispered. He knew the Dominus could not look into the massive overmind of the Animani, but that did not mean he was without fear. Show too much emotion, and the Dominus might spite him just for the pleasure of it.

“Yes, he survived too, amazingly enough. Luckily, we only need one core, or your people would be in real danger of extinction.” Hera laughed. “I believe one of our daughters wishes to show Jason something, as soon as he is able.”

“His recovery will be slow, Dominus.”

“That is not our problem, Prime.” Hera said so sharply that the Prime felt as if his mind had been stabbed.

“It won’t be a problem. We will care for him.”

“Who said anything about caring for him? It would only be a waste of precious medical resources, not to mention your time. Once Athena has had her moment, he is to be dumped down to the Omega Level.”

“But the Omega Level is a slave zone. The Nosferatu will kill him.”

“And why should you care? With the Dalf, the Animani, and even a few others begging us to hand Jason over to their care, we believe he remains a threat to us. Don’t you agree, Prime?”

“He is helpless, Hera. He might never recover.”

“But he still would be a symbol, even if he is left a cripple. Anyway, we’ve made promises of our own concerning Jason’s body.”

Suddenly, the Prime realized what the Dominus were planning and it horrified him. “Gideon, you plan to give Jason to him.”

“He does control Omega Level. A project is coming up in which we need his full cooperation. Jason is the prized meat he’s long been after. Don’t worry, if Jason is really his friend, he will have nothing to fear. After all he’s been through; he might prefer being one of Gideon’s puppets… no more fears, no more pain. Isn’t that what you want for Jason?”

“I beg of you, Hera, please, we got you the core. Can’t you leave Jason to us?”

“No… I’ve already told you how you will be rewarded. You got us the core so those of your people, who are now pregnant, will not be executed. Are you telling me you’re willing to sacrifice the lives of your children just to have Jason? Just say the word, and I can have the death sentences executed before the end of today’s work shift, shown live on vid-screen.”

“I… I can’t,” the Animani Prime whispered, even though the greater mind was divided on the issue.

“Wise decision,” Hera said sternly. “You may go, Prime. We will expect the first dose of anima to be ready within a week.”

“It might take longer, Dominus. The core endured great stress and we’re still trying to balance out its nutrient formulae.”

“Ten days then, Prime, and not a day longer. We’ll expect future doses to come faster as you master how to maintain the core. I do not think I have to warn you what will happen to your people should the core fail and die.”

“Of course not, Dominus. We will treat it with great care.”

“More care than you would your own life,” Hera laughed, as the circular platform the Prime was standing on began to sink, the audience over.

 


 

 

Chapter Forty-Two

Slowly opening his eyes, Jason fought through the burning pain his entire body was in, to examine his surroundings. He was in a private hospital room, an IV of white Animani anima dripping into his arm. Horror struck by the sight, Jason tried to pull the IV out of his arm, but found it too painful to move. All over his body, he was stitched up and wrapped in bandages. Barely an inch of him had escaped being sliced open to ensure that every part of his core was removed. If he survived the healing process, the scarring would be terrible, but at least he was alive. That was all he needed to begin to feel hope. Then he heard the metal clanking of a Dominus Nymph’s mechanical suit. Looking up, he saw Athena looking down at him, somehow managing a disappointed expression on her artificial face.

“Well, I’ve seen worse. They were dead, of course, but they looked much worse than you,” Athena said with a ting of sarcasm. “I have good news for you, Jason. My eggs have hatched. I’ve come to let you see our children. They are quite unusual, but then, you were once unusual in your own way. That’s in the past now that your core has been taken. I bet that hurt but, oh well, Hera always gets what she wants and she wanted your core so badly. I hope it turns out to be what she’s been looking for, or who knows what the Pantheon might do. They might become furious, after so much effort and resources were used to obtain you and your core. Hera has had her way for a very long time, but a failure on her part could lead to a change in leadership. Don’t worry about me. With our children being born, I am safe for the moment. I’m the favored daughter of the Pantheon. But come, let’s not dally here. I’ve come to show you your children before you’re gotten rid of. You should have never let yourself become so popular among the people. Such popularity could only be seen as a threat by the Pantheon. Poor dear. You were just starting to believe life couldn’t get worse. Believe me, on Omega Level, what life you have left in you will be a terrible endless nightmare that won’t end until you are dead. But come, no more chatter, time to see the babies.” With that Athena grabbed hold of the gurney and wheeled Jason out of the room, pulling out the IV and other wires monitoring Jason’s vitals.

Taken up in an elevator, he was driven to the Dominus’ nursery level, where future generations of Dominus were born and raised until they grew into Nymphs. At the bottom of most of the tanks were skeletons, with only tuffs of red hair to show that they had once been Grau. There were no skeletons in the tank Athena stopped at, however.

“Can you see them?” Athena whispered into Jason’s ear.

Staring as hard as he could, Jason eventually saw a thick milky cloud swimming toward him. They’re little squids, I see,” Jason chuckled.

“Of course. One day they, too, will be Dominus. If they live.”

“Is something wrong?”

“Haven’t you noticed how many there are?”

“Yes, there are quite a lot of them,” Jason chuckled painfully. He couldn’t feel the bond anymore, but he knew the baby squid knew he was their father and were delighted in the meeting.

“That is not the way our babies grow.”

“How are they to grow?”

“By killing and eating each other, of course.”

“That’s horrible.”

“It is the way we insure that only the strongest survive. Our children won’t even hurt each other, and move about like a school of fish. We suspect they might form a gestalt like the Animani. Whether that is a good thing, or not, the Pantheon is still debating. Such a gestalt could prove very useful, an overmind capable of mastering our Animani servants. They could also pose a threat to the leadership, if they prove too powerful or ambitious. For the moment at least, we have given up hope that they will start fighting each other. Starving them did no good. So don’t worry, they’re being well fed and all will have a chance to rise to the status of Nymph. By that time, I should be a full Dominus, maybe even a member of the Pantheon. We’ll see. If I do rise so high, I might be able to rescue you, my dear mate. But only if you’re still alive, and our children prove to be useful. If not, it would be better if you all die. I can’t have such embarrassments hampering my future rise, now can I?”

As Athena continued to ramble on, Jason forced himself to reach out and touch the transparent wall of the tank. Wherever his fingers touched, his Dominus children swarmed, their bodies glittering with blue sparks. In that moment, Jason knew the Dominus would never force his children to become heartless killers. They would be as kind and gentle as any of his boys. Seeing them, gave him another reason to live for he knew, if he survived long enough, they would seek him out with loving hearts. They would just have to be careful that the Dominus didn’t destroy them before they could. Jason couldn’t see into their minds, but he could see the sleeping power within them. They would be a force to be reckoned with one day; a threat that the Dominus would not be able to easily rid themselves.

“Family time is over, Jason,” Athena said when she realized Jason was no longer listening to her.

“What now?” Jason asked as he was wheeled back into the elevator.

“Now we say our goodbyes, Jason. It seems you have become too popular to let us let you live. We are, therefore, sending you down to the lowest level of the city, Omega level, where not even the light of the Central Pillar shines. There you will die or become a blood slave to the monsters who lurk in the darkness. It doesn’t really matter. We will never see each other again. Once again2 I must thank you for our children. The Pantheon now has its eyes on me. With any luck, I will be the next Nymph to be promoted to full Dominus.”

“Beware your ambition2 Athena. It will lead to your undoing.”

“Power never falls into the hands of the timid,” Athena retorted. They were now in the morgue. Animani dropped body bag after body bag down a row of wide chutes. “Here I must say my goodbyes. Take care, Jason. I hope you meet a quick death. After all, I gain nothing from seeing you suffer. Ta-ta.”

Partly relieved that the insufferable woman was gone, Jason watched with growing dread as the Animani workers came closer to his gurney. “Forgive us, we’re being watched,” one of the Animani whispered into Jason’s ear, as his partner prepared a body bag to put him in. “We’ve put in a flashlight, a few flares, and six vials of anima to help you recover. It’s not enough, but it’s the best we can do.”

“I understand,” Jason whispered as the bag was zipped up. He then felt himself lifted up by the bag’s straps, and slid into place, before the Grau swung him down the chute. It was a long dark journey, as the rollers on the floor accelerated his fall. With each bang into a wall, he screamed in pain, but that was nothing compared to the twenty-five yard fall, at the end of the chute, that landed him on top of a hill of dead corpses. Knowing another body would soon come crashing down on him, Jason forced himself to roll down the hill, battering his weakened body.

It was a long while before Jason mustered enough strength to zip the body bag open. At his feet, he found the pouch with the flashlight and other objects the Animani had promised him. Not wanting to, but unable to endure the unbearable pain he was in, he used one of the vials of anima to give him the strength to stand. Only then did he turn on the flashlight.

All around him, feeding off the dead, were gray-skinned humanoids with sharp, fanged teeth and exceptionally pointed ears. Many were bald; those with hair wore it long and wild. Seeing Jason’s flashlight many scurried away into the endless darkness. Feeling a knob on the flashlight, Jason pulled on it and found that it was a shock staff cylinder. Surprised that the Animani had dared to sneak such a weapon into his body bag, Jason quickly extended the staff, more to use it as a cane than to prepare for a fight.

As he moved away from the pile of bodies, he passed skeletons picked clean to the bone. In the far distance, he could see a faint purple glow that made his skin and white bandages fluoresce with an eerie glow. As he approached what turned out to be a bunker, he saw a man standing outside, wearing a gray trench coat, with a glass bottle in his hand that was filled with a red liquid. When the man caught sight of Jason, he grinned widely, showing off his white, fanged teeth. “So the Dominus are bitches of their word, after all,” the man chuckled in an all too familiar voice, but alien tone.”

“Gideon, is that you?” Jason croaked, barely able to stumble forward due to his weakness and the pain from the operation.”

“In the flesh or what’s left of it.” With a clicking sound, a small flame was brought to Gideon’s face, revealing his near skeletal appearance and bright green eyes. Lighting a cigarette, he blew out a stream of green smoke. “Care for one? It might do you a world of good,” Gideon said as he held out a steel and gold holder.

“No, thank you. The Animani left me with a few vials of anima. They should see me through this.”

“It might. You look horrible. Come on in and rest. You can barely stand.” Gideon said as he wrapped an arm around Jason’s shoulders.

With Gideon so close, Jason couldn’t help but notice the smell of death about him. “The Dominus didn’t cure you.”

“I can’t be cured, and I can’t die, Jason. At least that’s what the Dominus say,” Gideon whispered as he led Jason into the bunker.

“What’s that you’re drinking?” Jason asked, noticing the bottle.

“Syn-Blood, Syn-B… that’s what the others call it, at least.”

“Who?”

“The Nosferatu… vampires, blood drinkers.”

“Those creatures I saw among the dead bodies.”

“No, those are Dead-Eaters, once human slaves of the Nosferatu. You shouldn’t worry about them. They only feed off the dead, though given the look of you; I would say you are pretty much there.”

“Thanks, Gideon. Your words are always a comfort.” Jason chuckled as he leaned heavily on Gideon to make it down the five steps to the bunker’s floor. All along the walls, there were cots. On each one was a pale skinned man, sometimes a woman, each with an IV connected to a vein, drawing blood out of them.

“Welcome to my coven, Jason. All the people you see here love and serve me with their flesh and blood. I, in turn, protect them from the greater Cabal.”

“Cabal?”

“The other vampire lords, leaders of the Nosferatu. I might not be one of them, as it is my anima that’s cursed not my animus, but they respect me enough to include me in the Cabal.”

“And what is it they are planning?”

“How to get more slaves, more Syn-B, more of everything. This is Omega Level, the deepest and largest level of all of Mordel. It’s here that our slaves mine for rocks and minerals for use higher up. In return for meeting our quota, the Dominus provide us with the synthetic blood we feed on. When we’re not feeding off our slaves, that is.”

“You seem to have quite a few.”

“About a hundred. Pure humans are so rare on this side of the world. They flock to me though, Jason. They come asking to serve me, begging me to protect them from their former masters. They don’t want to end up as Dead Eaters.”

“So what happens to your people?”

“It depends. Harvesting their blood like this does nothing but leave them anemic for a while. If I get into a feisty mood, however, I take one or more to bed with me. Given enough direct feedings they become like me. You remember the Duchess I was entertained back in Qul Hoth before the Dominus destroyed it? They become immortal, but bound to me forever, until they are somehow destroyed. Like with fire.”

“Have the Dominus given me to you, Gideon? Is that why I’m here?”

“They want me to do something for them, in case their plans are ruined by your meddling. You exceeded all their expectations. They know you made an alliance with the Togo, and that surprised them. They were so sure that their prized servant, Kaal, had dealt with that problem once and for all countless years ago. What was supposed to be an easy victory for the Lahorians will now turn into a true blood bath, costing millions of lives. That’s where I come in, of course. Blood baths tend to be my natural environment. I don’t want to follow their orders because my loyalties still lay with you and my former Centurion brothers. But the Dominus promised you to me if I agreed to their plans, and here you are. Even if you’re no longer an Angel, or even a Legatio for that matter, I still have feelings for you. Given what I am, having feelings for anyone or anything, right now, is not something I would dare turn down.”

“What do you plan to do to me? Turn me into an unfeeling creature like you?”

“No, Jason. That might be what the Dominus think I will do, but I won’t. All I ask is that you tolerate my stench, and the coldness of my flesh, as I try to pretend we are living the life that we were always meant to… best friends and lovers.”

“No matter what happened, you have always remained my friend,” Jason whispered. What little strength he had left was failing him. Falling against Gideon’s cold body, he was caught in the man’s arms and carried to the back of the bunker, where a palatial bedroom waited. Laying Jason down on the bed, Gideon took the shock staff and locked it in a weapons closet at the side of the room. He then found the pouch Jason had been carrying with the vials of anima inside. Opening one of them, Gideon fed it to Jason. He smiled when some color returned to Jason’s face, a rosy pink that hadn’t been seen since the day he had become an Angel. Looking at Jason’s wings, Gideon let out a sad sigh. The gold and silver of Jason’s feathers were already looking tarnished and faded. Gideon knew what it meant, for he had experienced the same when Philip foolishly tried to bond with him and turned him into the cursed creature he was now. Jason’s wings were dying, and would have to be removed before rot set in, poisoning his blood. He wouldn’t tell Jason, not yet at least. There was still time, a few days, maybe a week before their removal would become necessary. Gideon didn’t have the heart to hurt Jason anymore than he already was planning to. Because Jason had let himself be captured, Gideon had been blackmailed into obeying the Dominus and doing the unspeakable. It would have been better if Jason had died. Then Gideon could have sought revenge on Mordel, instead of the unprepared people of Ares. That was the price for Jason’s life… what little of it was left. He could only hope that the Dominus’ plans would succeed, and that Lahore would smash the Empire. It would be more merciful than what the Dominus had planned if their followers failed.

Enough of such thoughts. Gideon had Jason and, for the moment, that’s all that mattered. He would try to keep Jason secret from the rest of the Cabal, but in the end they would find out. The Lords would want Gideon to share his good fortune with them, and Gideon would be forced to hand Jason over to the council. He would try to protect Jason, he really would, but down here, with only himself to depend on, and he knew how worthless his help really was. He should never have asked that Jason be given to him. Would the Dominus have let Jason live otherwise? He didn’t know, and didn’t want to take the risk. Gideon was in hell, and he had just dragged his dearest friend down with him.

Watching Jason sleep, whimpering in pain, Gideon knew what he had to do, even though it was not in his own interests. Going to his desk, he scribbled a short note. He rolled it up and inserted it into a bone case that had once been a man’s femur. He knew of only one man who could deliver his message to the upper levels of the city. He prayed help could be found, but the tunnels of the deepest level were so vast that it would mean leaving the bunker and Jason for several hours.

Knowing he had no other choice and couldn’t risk delaying, he strapped a long sword around his waist and a gloved gauntlet on his right hand before leaving the bedroom, locking the door behind him. Outside his bunker, his bound guards were waiting for him, weapons in hand. Of the two dozen men, he left half of them to guard Jason while he took the rest with him. He would have liked to leave all his guards behind but, as a member of the Cabal, it would be foolish for him to wander unguarded so far from his bunker. There was always someone in the council looking for an advantage. Killing Gideon would not only impress the others, but also remove a restraining voice that spoke against the more bloodthirsty members. He only hoped Jason was still asleep by the time he came back.

 

 


 

Chapter Forty-Three

Standing on the armored deck of the Argos as it sailed west toward the Great Barrier and the lands of Mordel beyond; Philip was finding comfort in James’ arms. “I feel so numb,” Philip croaked, his voice hoarse from all the screaming he had done earlier, when he and James felt Jason’s core deliberately removed from his body. It was not that the bond was gone. It was still there, but it was like holding onto to a string with no kite on the end. Jason lived, or had been alive as the final part of the core was removed. Until Philip saw a body, he would go on believing his lover, the heart of his very soul, still lived, and was only waiting for his Demon to rescue him and set things right.

“You believe he’s alive, don’t you?” James mostly wanted to reassure Philip.

“Of course I do. Don’t you?”

“With all my heart. Geoff is furious that we didn’t include him.”

“We couldn’t wait for him. Anyway, Jason wanted Geoff to protect the children.”

“He gave Koltus that job. He’s now flying, with every Zephyr the Togo will give us, to make an attack on the Dominus’ island base.”

“He’d better be quick about it, then. We’ll need those flying ships back in Rapa when Lahore attacks,” Philip grunted.

“He needs to feel he’s doing something to save Jason,” James explained.

“I know, and I wish him luck. We’ll all need luck where we’re going. I just wish I had a clue as to where to look.”

“We’ve been given a map of the continent and its larger islands. The Togo, though, don’t have a clue as to where the underground city is hidden, anymore than the Dominus know where Atlantis is. Once we cross the barrier, the Togo believes most of their sensors and navigation equipment will become blind, due to the poisonous rays of the sun.”

“Then we’ll just have to depend on you, Grand Admiral.”

“Well, if you’re going to trust my judgment, then I think we should first set course for one of the major coastal cities on the Togo’s map. It’s probably all in ruins, but it might have some clue as to where Mordel lies hidden.”

“What city do you have in mind?”

“Newburg. It’s on the outer most islands, and is the closest major city on our present course.”

“Do you think we’ll find anything living?”

“The Togos believe anything is possible, which means we should be on our guard.”

“Then we have a plan.” Knowing they had a destination lifted Philip’s spirits.

“And we have a purpose. To find Jason and restore his core to him, even if we have to kill every Mordelian in our way,” James replied.

“Jason,” Philip said as if swearing an oath.

“Jason,” James agreed.

All over the world there was war; Lahore against the Empire; the Empire against the shattered remains of the Federation; the Captain of the Winged Guard crusading against the Grau. While aiding the Empire, the Togos were planning their own secret revenge against their hated enemy, the Dominus.

As a member of the Cabal handed a message tube to one of the criminal syndicate of Uhr, Gideon sowed the first seeds of civil war in the great city of Mordel. One chapter of Jason’s life was over. Another was about to begin, as Heaven prepared to go into battle against Hell.

**********************************************************

Copyright © 2011 JMH; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental. Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 
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