The Scrolls of Icaria by Jamie
Book 2 – 'War of the Angels'
Part II - Prince of Mondele Royale
The warm sun-drenched afternoon was ablaze with light, the sky a bold sweep of brightest azure, unbroken by clouds. Far away from the shore a receding darkness still lingered to the east, serving as a reminder of the squalls that had swept through earlier in the day. Jamie stood at the edge of the cliff, face turned to the sea, and staring at the shimmering water of Dragon’s Cove Inlet far in the distance. The glare of the sun off the water was too bright and the distance from the cliffs too great to allow him to see the Gates of Safros, but he continued to search for them as he looked beyond the inlet to the Sea of Infinity that stretched away to an ill-defined horizon.
Though his eyes continued to search for the Gates, his mind was elsewhere. The past few weeks had been full of intensive studies and near impossible mental exercises for him. Between Mobley, his father, his own clandestine research, and the time he set aside for Charlie, his waking hours were full. Just a few days before, red-eyed and exhausted, he’d fallen asleep in front of the informatics screen at his workstation and hadn't awoken until the rising sun began to light the sky – luckily for him, it had been a night Charlie stayed in his own bed, otherwise his brother might have become concerned, waking up and not finding his older brother laying next to him.
He was trying to be brave not only for Father, but also for Charlie. Yet the more he learned, the more his own mind and heart were troubled – and frightened. The real history of Altinestra he was now learning seemed something out of a great opera with a hundred – no, a thousand - acts. He shook his head when he thought of his earlier resistance to studying history – no story, no fiction could rival the truth he was learning. If he added in all the other factors he’d been presented with - the overthrow of the First Republic, the Council of Public Safety, the rise and fall of the Second Republic and the Third so-called ‘Golden Republic,' the Empire, the wars of succession, the first and second Kalorian rebellions, and finally the Ghröum massacre which had mandated the fourth and final censure from the Confederated Worlds, leading inevitably to The Interdiction of Isolation and ultimately the shutdown of the Exogates – the grand view he’d been shown was so incredible it was almost beyond belief. But everything he’d recently learned really wasn’t a grand opera – it was the truth.
The final piece had been Father’s session on the Plague, which he’d presented more like a simple lesson than the crisis it was. Jamie’d listened to the story with rapt attention, and when his father concluded his presentation and asked his son if he had any questions, Jamie remained silent. Yes, he had questions, of course he did – a million of them – far too many to expect answers. And even though Father kept supplying him with ever more information, he couldn’t believe how he and Charlie – two little boys from Isewier – could possibly fit into the torturous maze of seemingly conflicting events, despite knowing that they were supposed to be key players therein. In fact, where his father – the eminent Edwin Croal – saw them as figures in a grand scheme, he felt more like a fly caught in a spider's web, struggling to get free while the hungry spider scurried toward him, greedy to suck the juices from his body and throw its empty husk aside.
But in the end, it was his love for the cool logic of mathematics that helped him create and grasp the hierarchy he knew he must follow, no matter what. That, and the fact that at twelve, he was intelligent enough to know that he was still far to young to perform the tasks Father asked of him. If events unfolded the way Father predicted they might, his most important task would be to save and protect Charlie. Accomplishing that - no small task in itself - he would then have to wait. It was that simple – and he knew it.
He’d questioned his father as to how Croal had been able to perform his many clandestine experiments at Gold Glass without generating so much as a hint of suspicion – let alone being discovered. He'd also quizzed Croal on how he was able to build such a grand laboratory under the very noses of those who controlled the empire. Croal had told him – explained it in great detail, since he’d vowed to hide nothing from his son – and out of that explanation, Jamie formulated a plan.
“I did it all in full view of everyone,” Croal had said, during one of his many sessions with Jamie. “I remained calm, acting with confidence and conviction. I never skulked about, or walked down hallways looking over my back. A suspicious man breeds suspicion. A frightened man breeds fear. A stupid man breeds stupidity,” he’d told Jamie.
The boy could understand his father far better than Croal may have thought. After all, he’d broken into his father’s lab many times. He’d discovered codes, tapped into the net, and even discovered some things his father didn’t know about. Jamie had always acted boldly, himself – even if it was simply disobeying one of Castor’s many rules, or getting his way at something he really desired. Never one to hide, he often acted with wild abandon – maybe a bit too wildly, sometimes. As his weeks of training wore on, he began working on a plan. For once, he’d been open – even told Father, who’d agreed with it and offered to help him.
“If it comes to that, I’ll have to hide,” he thought, feeling the hot sun on his skin. “I’ll have to hide in front of them. They'll have to see me, but become so used to seeing me – or what they think is me – that they won’t really see me. I have to wait, and watch, and learn. But first, I have to protect Charlie and make sure he’s safe. After that, I’ll hide and wait until both of us are older.”
His thoughts were interrupted when Charlie came soaring by, calling out for him to join him. Unfurling his wings, he prepared to take a bold leap when another thought – one that he’d been pondering for some time - boiled up. “And I have to find that boy, and the other one – if either of them are still alive.”
That they were out of the villa, enjoying some time for leisure and play, was a relief to both boys. Initially, their playtime had been restricted by their studies, but Castor - concerned that the intensity of Croal’s crash program was causing the boys too much stress - gently reminded their father that children also needed play, and free time to flourish. At first Croal resisted, but Castor’s gentle persuasion became more forceful, and after Castor played the feeds showing an anxious and fearful Charlie coming to Jamie’s room night after night, Croal relented.
“He’s only a little boy, a ten-year old child. You see how worried he is – how frightened? He’s sensitive. You, of all people, should see that. And Jamie’s only two years older; he’s trying to be brave for his brother, but even that can only last so long,” Castor had said angrily. "Yes, they’re more intelligent and well-spoken than many humans three times their age – that’s part of their genetics. But nevertheless, they are children.”
“I know, Castor, but Jamie is fine and he’ll continue to be; that’s why he came first,” Croal said to the old Kalorian he’d come to call his closest friend. “First I made the shield, then I made the weapon. The weapon need perform only one function. The shield, though – the shield must be strong. It must be prepared for every type of attack.”
“They’re you’re children – your sons!” Castor eyes flashed anger and disbelief. “They aren’t objects to be hurled like spears into the charging hordes.”
“Aren’t they, Castor?” he said, disgusted more at his recent manipulative ways and dark thoughts than the unspoken judgment in Castor’s tone. “Aren’t we all chattel? Piles of chaff to be burned in the fire for whatever purpose they choose? You, above all others, Castor, know this – or has slavery been such a comfort to you?”
The look Castor gave him was answer enough.
“I’ve let him experiment. I’ve let him evolve. You've seen how his abilities have grown – how he’s been able subvert the rules you established as he’s gotten older. How many times did he break into the lab? He’s learned every access code. And now he can access Ajax Prime itself – with just a thought!
“He’s never accepted anything at face value – always making his own way – I’ve seen to that. Who would have ever thought to do what he did after his first flight. By the emperor’s stones, he smuggled Charlie to Ajax for that little adventure! When he breaks the rules he just doesn’t sneak around them, he boldly smashes them. I’ve cultivated and encouraged that personality for nine years – ever since he was decanted. Even in his punishments, he doesn’t try to hide or make excuses. He’s performed every unpleasant task thoroughly – the stalls were never as clean as the month he was in charge of mucking them out. Why do you think Avrum risked all to get me what I needed? Why do you think I went to the direct line of de Valèn instead of some watered down version these so-called aristocrats call noble blood?
“Everything he’s done, Castor, everything he’s managed to accomplish, shows I’ve been successful. He creates his own rules and when he’s caught he’s smart enough to know when to be truthful, or when to lie. He can give you the look of an innocent angel or bore into you with those eyes of his like the very devil come to claim your soul. He can play the scared little boy. He can play the cunning brigand. His kindness and warmth can melt stone. His temper can boil a lake, and through it all his intellect is working, creating, processing. When he confronts a problem, he doesn’t try to go around it, he blasts through it and that’s what will be needed to flush the rotting stench of the empire away."
“You talk about him as if he were a rat in a maze,” Castor grimaced, “like he’s one of your many experiments.”
“It sounds that way, doesn’t it, Castor? In an Empire full of manipulative bastards, it sounds like I’ve been the most manipulative bastard of them all, and maybe I have been. But I love him so much – I love them both. They’re my sons, after all. If there were another way, even the thinnest thread, I’d grasp it. If you, old friend, know of one, then tell me now and I’ll seize it – even if the chances of failure are high. What loving father throws his child to the jackals for sport? But then, what loving father doesn’t want his son prepared if he should fall into the middle of a pack of them?”
For a few seconds Castor remained silent, but gave Croal a hard look – one that would earn the slave in any other noble household a quick slap across the face and then a hard lashing while bound to a post in the central courtyard, with the rest of the slaves in attendance. Croal, though, hung his head at Castor’s reproachful gaze.
“Is that why you made him so beautiful?” Castor asked.
“I tried to give him every possible advantage, and beauty is an advantage. A pretty face can sometimes unlock a door that reasoned logic, great intelligence, or even force of arms can’t budge. That’s one of the reasons I made both of them beautiful. But I can’t take full credit. The histories all say Jacques de Valèn was a beautiful boy who grew into a handsome man. But yes, I did do some enhancements to the original genetic stock.”
“And what happens when you’re gone?”
“He’s thrown into the middle of a maelstrom," Croal sighed, and his shoulders sagged. “His strength will surface and he’ll do what he must to survive – of that I’m sure. I just hope it’s enough for him to succeed.”
“Jamie, let’s land and explore some of the caves,” Charlie called out from across the sky, catching Jamie’s attention after he’d executed a series of rolls and turns. “Its getting warmer and I’m starting to get tired,” Charlie added.
Without saying anything, Jamie did a fast turn and spin and headed for the red cliffs. Speeding toward the ground, he did a quick tuck and roll that ended in an impressive aerial dismount just to show off for Charlie. When his little brother giggled with delight he smiled, pleased that he’d accomplished his goal. In the tension filled days of the past few weeks he’d looked for any occasion he could find to make his younger brother smile and laugh. After taking a few minutes to cool down, they made their way to the caves.
“You’re right Charlie, it is getting hotter and the caves will be cool, although eventually even they’ll warm up after the sun beats down on them for a few more hours. So we’d better do it now. "
“I want to go to the one where I found the bead.” Charlie said eagerly. “When Father examined it, he said it might be Ghröum – I’d like to see if I can find some more. Maybe I can make a necklace from them."
“Ok, turn on your glow torch and we’ll take a look.”
Charlie smiled and took out his torch, flicking it on as he entered the cave. Once the boys were a few feet inside, they could feel the cool air against their skin. The cliffs of Isewier and the caves that dotted them had been formed over a period of countless centuries of turbulent geological changes. Frequent volcanic activity, combined with a number of ice ages and normal erosion had produced a variety of unique formations. The red cliffs of Isewier, with their hundreds of caves, was just one of many distinctive geological sites that could be found throughout the continent.
The space they entered had a higher ceiling than most – it was one of the reasons Charlie’d first entered it during their last expedition. It offered enough space for boys with wings to maneuver without getting stuck or injured.
“I think it’s over here, Jam,” Charlie said. He’d gone ahead of his brother and was now standing in the back of one of the caves. At first glance it appeared to be a dead end – terminating abruptly where it presented a solid wall of rock to the casual explorer. Charlie motioned to Jamie to follow him around a large outcropping of rock along the right wall. Once both boys were around the formation, Jamie could see a narrow opening.
“How did you every get in there?”
“It’s a bit wider than it looks,” Charlie replied. “If you fold your wings back and come in sideways, you can move around.” And then, to show his brother what he meant, he did just that.
Still slightly skeptical, Jamie followed Charlie’s example and soon found himself following his brother further into the narrow side cave.
“It was just around here,” Charlie said.
“Well, I certainly don’t see anything,” Jamie said. “Are you sure this was the cave?”
“Fairly sure, Jam. Maybe we have to go a little further."
“Further, until we get stuck,” Jamie replied, his tone clearly indicating his skepticism, though he continued to follow.
“No, I’m sure,” Charlie replied, as if his sudden attestation of confidence made it so.
“This is a dead end, Charlie, and we better back ourselves out of here before we really do get into trouble.”
Ignoring his older brother, Charlie pushed ahead. “It’s getting wider the further back I go. I think it’s opening up into something bigger.”
“Charlie, just because your trying to convince yourself doesn’t mean you’re convincing me.”
“No Jam… really… it is opening up,” Charlie insisted.
Making his way down the tunnel a few feet further he suddenly found he could turn and, instead of inching ahead by sidling along sideways, he could easily walk forward into the ever-expanding space. Pausing, he turned up the power on the glow torch as a smile came to his face.
“I was right,” he shouted back triumphantly to his brother, “there’s a large cavern in here.”
Jamie wasn’t too far behind, and soon both boys were standing in a large cavernous space – far larger than anything they’d ever come across before during their exploration of the cliffs. Even with their two powerful torches, it was impossible to take in the entire space. Carefully they made their way forward into the cavern, holding out their glow torches in front of them. The interior of the cave was composed of the same red rock of the cliffs. It was rough and pitted, and Charlie could see streaks of color in the walls that appeared to be veins of minerals – although he had no idea what they were.
“Over there,” Charlie said, pointing to the left. “It looks like there’s some light.”
Slowly approaching two glowing balls of light that seemed to hang in the darkness, Charlie stopped when Jamie put his hand on his shoulder.
“Hey, why are you stopping me?”
“No, Charlie, look,” Jamie said. “Those two lights are our lights, shining back at us. I’ve noticed that every time we move them they move the same way. There’s something over there reflecting our own lights back to us.”
Inching further ahead, they watched the light grow as they advanced toward it. Each of them raised and lowered their torches then waved them to the right and left. Just as Jamie had predicted, each movement was matched. After a few more seconds of forward movement they stopped, looking at each other and then at the two winged boys facing them, each holding a glow torch – their images, reflected in the large mirror standing before them – a mirror gate.
“What’s this doing here?” Charlie asked, walking up to it and placing a hand on the simple black moulding that framed the mirror. The instant he did, he withdrew it and grimaced at his hand, now covered with dust. Brushing his hands together to remove the grime, he sneezed at the small cloud of dust he’d raised. “What do you think, Jamie?” he asked.
Stepping up beside his brother, Jamie studied the misplaced mirror for a moment, not answering his brother's query. Charlie approached and was about to speak when he noticed his brother’s far away stare. Realizing Jamie was accessing the coordinates of the mirror, he stood quietly, waiting for him to come out of his trance-like state.
“Strange,” Jamie said softly.
“What is it, Jam?”
“This gate only has one coordinate - it only goes one place. It’s not linked to any other gate, and the gate it’s linked to is only linked to this gate.”
While some gates were universal, most weren’t – linked only to a certain number of locations. In some cases, those locations numbered into the hundreds, but it was the first time he’d encountered a gate that had only one single, specific destination programmed into it.
“So, what do you think?”
“I think we go through it.”
“Really?” Charlie asked in surprise
“Yes,” he said, giving Charlie an unblinking look, and the younger boy realized that while his brother might be looking directly at him, his mind was far off in thought.
Although Jamie often took risks, the prospect of stepping through a gate locked into a single, unnamed location might have given him pause a few weeks ago, but that was before the private sessions with his father. Now, he felt the need to explore every option, grasp at any handhold that presented itself, and seize all opportunities.
Turning back to the mirror, he closed his eyes and began the mental exercise he’d become quite proficient at – although he still thought of the sequence of thoughts as an incantation, the term allowing him to wrap his mind around something that really couldn’t be explained.
The mirror began to glow as its reflective surface slowly disappeared. Just as Jamie was ready to step through, Charlie pushed ahead of him and fell through. Shocked at his brother’s actions he quickly jumped through the opening. Once on the other side he found himself face to face with Charlie. Although he rarely lost his temper with his brother, Jamie’s anger boiled over.
“I can’t believe you did that, Charlie,” he shouted. “What if this opened up into the heart of a volcano, or a place where there wasn’t any oxygen?”
“I would have died,” Charlie said quietly, then quickly added, “just like you would have. And besides I’m supposed to go first anyway, no?”
“Normally yes Charlie, but this an untried gate,” Jamie barked harshly. “I wanted to go first and see if it was safe for you to enter. Its one thing to go through the gate in the lab and come out at the one on beach or at the cliffs but quite another to venture to a place we have no knowledge of.”
“But nothing! I’m supposed to be looking out for you, not putting you in danger.”
Charlie bowed his head and although he was prepared to continue his scolding of his brother, Jamie stopped as he suddenly became aware of his surroundings. The mirror they’d emerged from was set into a stone wall, and they were standing on a flat stone landing that had once been part of a large stairway. As it was, the landing simply jutted out from the mirror and hung high in the air. The stairs that should have been attached to the landing were gone. Standing where they were, at least a hundred feet in the air, the boys turned and looked back at the mirror.
The wall the mirror was set in had once been part of a large building – a building that, for the most part, no longer existed. The wall that held the mirror was made of large stones, carefully cut and laid. Black scorches covered its surface, obscuring most of the original dark brown color. Walking back to the mirror, Jamie could see that the frame was blackened, and in some places the stone itself had been subjected to a temperature so fiercely hot that it had melted and run before returning once again to its solid state – its flowing surface, now hardened back to solid stone, reminded him of the hot, pulled taffy Aralane sometimes made for them as a treat. Looking about at their location, he came to realize that the wall itself was one of the few large structures actually standing and somewhat identifiable.
Moving from the mirror to the edge of the landing, both boys looked out onto a blasted, lifeless landscape. From atop their high perch, they were afforded a panoramic view that revealed a scene of total destruction. As the building that once held the mirror was mostly gone, so too was almost everything else their eyes fell upon. As far as they could see, the scene before them offered up the crushed bones and broken shards of a thoroughly destroyed city. Massive piles of rubble - the remnants of a once great civilization - could be seen stretching out to the horizon. From the sheer quantity of debris, it was clear that many of the city’s countless structures had been large and quite grand. Parts of walls and the occasional outline of a foundation were the only things still visible on the broad and barren plain. Standing in the warm sunlight of the late afternoon, Jamie outlined the foundations of the building the wall had once been a part of. Although they tried to find even the smallest structure still intact, blackened stone, and the stubby, skeletal remnants of jagged walls pushing skyward were all that was left of the great city.
“What is this place?” Charlie asked, giving Jamie a surprised, wide-eyed look.
For a few seconds his brother didn’t speak, and Charlie could sense Jamie’s brain processing the sight before him. Jamie, for his part, stood silently looking at the eerie landscape as he recalled the lessons of his father from the past few weeks.
“It has to be,” he finally said to himself as he emerged from his mental reflection. “Charlie,” he said, his voice taking on a tone of surprised excitement, “This has to be Vara Domann, the capital of the Ghröum Kingdom.”
At Jamie’s words, Charlie’s eyes grew wider and brighter.
“But the Ghröum were a primitive people who became extinct before…”
“A lie, Charlie,” Jamie said swiftly, interrupting his brother. “A total lie. Father told me the true story. They were a great civilization, and we destroyed them.”
“Father told me not to tell anyone, but I guess it’s too late for that now. Here’s what I’ve learned.” And with that Jamie and Charlie’s minds locked as they exchanged thoughts.
“Is this really true?”
“Father showed me everything, including all the data he extracted from the central neural net, and when I accessed the secret imperial records kept on Ajax Prime, I realized even he didn’t know the whole story. Besides the written accounts left by General Tesson there were a lot of vid files and pictures. In fact…”
But he stopped when Charlie surprised him by suddenly stroking his wings; with a small hop from the landing, he began a slow glide to the ground. Quickly following his younger brother, his feet touched the ground a few seconds after Charlie’s. Once they were on the ground, the ruins of the city loomed around them.
“Another foolish move, Charlie,” Jamie said, giving his brother a scowl. “And Father always accuses me of taking too many chances. Don’t go just flying off like that again. You could get hurt here. We can’t be sure how safe it is.”
“There isn’t much left around here to hurt us, Jamie,” Charlie answered in a defensive tone. “And as far as people… well…”
But he stopped when a deep, loud growl erupted from behind them and vibrated against their skin, causing both of them to freeze. Their backs were to the source of the sound, and they startled when it once again crested over them like a wave. Slowly Charlie turned to face Jamie. When he did, all he had to do was look over his brother’s shoulder to see where the sound was coming from. And while Jamie remained where he stood and couldn’t see its source, he knew from the terrified look on Charlie’s face that whatever they’d walked into couldn’t be good.
After carefully studying Charlie’s face, Jamie swallowed hard and did a slow pivot. Turning toward the source of the sound, he found himself staring at what appeared to be a large, gray statue, but then the statue growled and raised an arm out toward him; he backed up at least four paces, halting only when his retreat was blocked when he backed into his little brother. As Jamie’s eyes took in the sight before him, he swallowed hard again. The creature – almost two times taller then he and Charlie – was mostly naked, except for the breeches-like pants it was wearing. Jutting from its back were two short, thick, and stubby protrusions – vestigial remnants of wings that would never support flight.
Because of his lessons under the tutelage of Mobley, Jamie immediately recognized that it was a Ghröum – one of the many now extinct native species on the planet - except the Ghröum standing in front of him was very much alive, and far from extinct. Both boys stood frozen, expecting the worst. Charlie was so afraid his mind raced out to Jamie's, calling for help and shouting that they had to run. Jamie's thoughts reached out to calm his brother, telling him to get ready to fly, but just as the two Icarian boys turned to run and leap into the air, they froze as a wave of pure, calm thought flooded their minds.
“Don’t run. I won’t hurt you.”
The boys turned and looked at each other, both their faces wearing equally surprised looks when the Ghröum’s thoughts entered their minds.
“I won’t hurt you,” the thought repeated. “Please don’t run away; I could sense your thoughts. It’s been so long. Is it indeed true that you understand me?”
Wide-eyed, Jamie and Charlie looked again at each other, and then turned back toward the Ghröum.
“I won’t hurt you,” the thought once again entered their minds and because it was from one completely open mind to another, the thought had a calming and soothing effect on the boys.
“Who are you?” Charlie’s sometimes erratic thoughts, still not completely under his control, raced out to the strange creature, and the young Icarian took a step backward, his fear escalating under the watchful eye of the creature who’d unexpectedly come upon them.
“I am Ga’tann,” the Ghröum called out with his mind. “There are only a few of us left. It has been a long time since we’ve encountered someone other than our own kind. You both seem so like, and yet quite different from, the Destroyers, and you can communicate as we do.”
Although tendrils of fear blossomed and began to wrap around his consciousness and his heart pounded wildly in his chest, Jamie stepped protectively in front of Charlie. If there was even a small chance of escape for at least one of them, he’d see to it that it was Charlie.
“I was told that there were none of you left,” Jamie said, and as the thought went out from him to the Ghröum, he was grateful that he could communicate mentally with the creature, because his mouth felt as if it was full of sand and he knew that even if he tried to speak, nothing more than a squeak would emerge.
“Not true, as you can see, but we are only a few,” Ga’tann replied, and even in the creature's mental voice, Jamie could feel the smile. “Come with me, and I will show you.”
Looking to each other in wide-eyed fear, Jamie and Charlie remained as still as statues. Sensing the boys apprehension, the large Ghröum slowly crouched down in front of them, and as Jamie observed the Ghröum’s descent to their level, he thought of an avalanche moving in slow motion.
“You can’t stay here, for it’s far too dangerous. If you don’t trust me and are truly afraid, then return to where you come from. I’ll not harm you or try to stop you, but I’d prefer to know you. I sense your fear, but it’s unfounded. We are peaceful. It proved our undoing, and that is why so few of us are left. You know my thoughts, and I know yours. Our minds are open to each other and you can see I offer no deception – just as I know you offer none to me. You know I will not do anything to harm you. Just as I know that while you resemble the Destroyers, you will not hurt me. Please come with me, or leave this place now. You cannot remain here; as I’ve told you, it is far too dangerous.”
“Why?” Charlie asked aloud.
“This place carries a sickness. It is the result of the war that led to our destruction. One cannot remain here for very long. If you remain, you will succumb to the sickness and die. You must leave and go back to where you came from, or come with me. I’d like you to come with me, but I’ll not force you. If you choose to come with me, I’ll take you to a safe place where the sickness will not harm you, and neither I nor any other will harm you. There are others there, and I know they’ll be pleased to see you and to learn more about you. They, like me, are peaceful and won’t harm you. I would like my brothers to see you and learn of you. You may leave at any time, but you will be safe with us, I give you my promise.”
Ga’tann’s mind was so open to them that Jamie and Charlie knew he was indeed being truthful. Within seconds the two boys' minds melded and a quick discussion ensued. After a minute of mental conversation they both agreed. Ga’tann s face took on a frightening look and he growled loudly, and although they both jumped, it was clear from Ga’tann s thoughts that he was pleased with their decision.
“Follow me,” he replied, and then turned and strode off through the city, skirting the largest of the ruins.
Running to keep up with the broad strides of the Ghröum, they quickly reached the remnants of another building. Making their way through the rubble, Ga’tann stopped when he came to what remained of a stone wall. Like most of the rubble surrounding it, the wall was scorched, and had been subjected to such intense temperature its surface was partially melted. Built into the wall was an arched opening, forming an alcove that terminated in a mirror gate.
“This gate, the one you passed through, the one we are going to and one other are the only ones that remain,” Ga’tann said, looking down at them. “And just like the one you came through, it only goes to one place.”
Turning from the boys to the mirror, Ga’tann paused and stood silently. Soon the mirrors surface lost its reflection and turned translucent.
“He can activate the mirror through thought, Jam, just like you do,” Charlie said in a tone of amazement.
Ga’tann’s continued to stare into the mirror, then motioned for both boys to pass through. By now they were used to traveling the gates, so without hesitation they walked into the shimmering wall of light. An instant later they were through the mirror and standing in a dimly lit room. Further examination revealed that it wasn’t a room, but a small cave. Distinctive tool marks coursed the rough walls, indicating that the space had been carved out of solid rock. Seconds after they arrived, Ga’tann stepped through to stand beside them.
With Ga’tann leading the way, they exited the rock-hewn chamber through a broad tunnel. After walking several hundred yards, they emerged onto a rocky landing high in the air. Before them was a grand cavern that went on as far as they could see, and within the cavern lay a dark and quiet city.
“We’re deep below the city,” Ga’tann’s thoughts broadcast to them. “This was created before the war; it’s an underground city under the city – sadly, only a few of us survived, so it’s mostly abandoned. Please remain with me and don’t go off on your own; it’s easy to get lost here.”
A long and broad staircase with intermittent landings had been carved from the wall of the cavern and gracefully wound down from the first landing where they stood, all the way to the floor hundreds of feet below. Stepping off the landing and onto the steps, Ga’tann led them down to the floor of the cavern and the city that lay beyond. When they got to the second landing, Charlie’s couldn’t keep his thoughts to himself.
“I wonder if I could fly down?” The thought flew from his mind. Looking up at the Ghröum towering over him, the little Icarian gave the large creature a shy smile. The innocent thought had been broadcast before Charlie could get it in check and he blushed lightly when he realized it had gone out to the Ghröum and his brother.
“Of course, little one,” Ga’tann replied and although his face twisted into a look giving him the appearance that he was about to reach out and eat Charlie, Jamie was beginning to recognize that the oft repeated grimace was in fact the Ghröum equivalent of a kind and gentle smile. Charlie looked eager and excited, and Jamie was surprised that his younger brother – normally more fearful than himself – appeared relaxed and calm in the Ghröum’s presence. He watched as Charlie unfurled his wings and took a forceful leap from the landing. Since they were already high in the air and the object was to reach the ground, strenuous flight was unnecessary, and Jamie couldn't help smiling as his brother gently glided down, spiraling his way to the ground in a lazy yet elegant corkscrew maneuver.
Getting ready to follow Charlie’s example, Jamie turned toward Ga’tann but stopped and froze as a surprised look bloomed on his face. Seconds before preparing to leap from the landing, he’d glanced over to look at the Ghröum just in time to see Ga’tann shake his thick and stubby wings; incredibly, they began to unfold until they were larger than Jamie’s. Blinking in near disbelief, he could see that Ga’tann’s featherless and scale-like wings in many ways resembled those of Spinoza, his garga lizard. What was even more surprising was how thin and light they were, and he suddenly understood why they could be folded in the manner they were. But the most amazing thing of all occurred when the huge, heavy, and densely muscular Ghröum simply stepped off the landing, gave two mighty strokes of his now greatly expanded wings and began to glide to the cavern floor below as if he were weightless.
Quickly leaping from the landing in hot pursuit of Ga’tann, Jamie maneuvered himself so that he was gliding directly above the Ghröum. Careful to mimic the Ghröum’s actions so as to keep Ga’tann closely in his sight, Jamie focused his critical, scientific vision on the large creature's every action and movement. As he watched Ga’tann’s flight, his mind was reeling. Rapidly making a series of mental calculations based on his estimation of the weight of the Ghröum, along with the shape, size and surface of his wings, he then factored into account drag, air speed and lift, then shook his head in disbelief. Evolution had somehow figured out how to make this large creature fly with effortless ease and in such an elegant way that Jamie couldn’t help but smile. Once they were on the ground Ga’tann stepped away from the boys and his wings quickly and easily returned to their resting position – folding again and again as effortlessly and efficiently as one of the many large fold-up maps his father often consulted when instructing he and Charlie about the geography of the continent.
“That’s amazing,” Charlie said out loud. He’d landed ahead of Ga’tann and Jamie and had turned to look upward to watch his brother's descent. What he saw instead was the huge Ghröum gliding to the ground – his wingspan so large it blocked his view of Jamie. And from the look on his face, Jamie knew that Charlie was just as surprised as he’d been to witness such an unexpected sight.
“It is amazing,” Jamie said, seconding Charlie’s statement. But Ga’tann seemed to take no notice, for as soon as his wings were folded into their resting position, he urged the boys to follow him. Leading the way, he was unaware of the looks of amazement the boys shot each other.
“He floated like a feather,” Charlie said, putting his hand to his mouth and whispering to Jamie.
“It’s not surprising when you do the mathematics,” Jamie whispered back in the most matter of fact tone he could muster. But even though he’d done the coldly objective calculations and knew without a doubt that it was all a matter of aerodynamics, the excitement in his voice betrayed a sense of awe and surprise.
At the word mathematics, Charlie’s face screwed up into a most unattractive scowl and Jamie almost laughed out loud seeing how Charlie’s grimace had the exact opposite meaning of Ga’tann’s fiercesome gaze. Ready to give his brother a stir, he was stopped when his eyes began to take in his surroundings. The underground city was large – that was clear enough from the air – but now that they were on the ground and close to the structures, he was surprised at their shape and construction. Although the city of Vara Domann hundreds of feet above their heads had been almost completely destroyed, it was clear from the rubble, debris and the skeletal remains of those building still standing that it had most likely been a beautiful city. Many of stones he’d seen had been artfully carved and everywhere he looked the surrounding piles of rubble were comprised of the chunks and shards of what had once been rich, elaborate and interesting architectural features. Studying the buildings now surrounding them, he could see that they were of a simple design and Jamie immediately guessed that their utilitarian structure arose from the fact that they’d built in great haste.
“We did what we could in a short time,” the Ghröum replied in answer to Jamie’s thoughts. Jamie blinked in surprise as a series of mental images showing the rapid construction of the underground city bloomed in his consciousness. As he absorbed the images, a realization took hold of him: if all Ghröum were like Ga’tann, there would be no keeping of secrets from, or between, these creatures.
“Thousands of us worked ceaselessly to build it, but in the end our efforts were futile. Merciless treachery was the greatest weapon used against us. You saw the results on the surface, and see it again here, in this barren and deserted place.”
Ga’tann stopped and Jamie thought he was going to address them, but instead the huge Ghröum bent down and crouched close to the ground. Jamie watch Ga’tann reach out and touch something with his hand; when he arose he turned to Charlie and gave his brother what Jamie surmised was his warmest smile yet – a truly murderous expression that, had he not gotten somewhat used to such by now, would have caused him to grab Charlie by the arm and flee for their lives. Instead, he stood and watched Ga’tann reach out to Charlie. In the Ghröum’s hand was a brightly colored flower.
“It’s one of the few beautiful things that will grow here,” he said, and his thoughts grew so sad that both boys could feel the deep hurt and pain behind them.
“We call it a Sh’arhan flower,” Charlie said softly, smiling as he looked up at Ga’tann, but his look of delight faded when the profound sadness emanating from Ga’tann washed over him. Solemnly, he reached out and gently took it from the Ghröum’s large hand.
“I didn’t think such a thing was possible,” Jamie said, recalling his botany lessons with Mobley. “Isn’t it too dark down here for plants to grow – unless there’s an artificial source of light?
“Normally, yes,” Ga’tann replied, his thoughts still wrapped in sorrow and sadness. “It will gather its energy using photosynthesis when exposed to light, but if little or no light is present, it has the ability to alter its metabolic functions and convert the nutrients and water it receives into energy by a different means. There are caverns down here that are covered with them.”
Once again, Charlie smiled at Ga’tann. Jamie simply nodded his head, musing upon the fact that this wild looking brute of a creature was giving him a discourse on photosynthesis and the metabolic functions of the Sh’arhan. It was almost beyond his comprehension.
Turning away without comment, the Ghröum resumed his trek, and the boys broke into a fast jog in order to catch up with him. As they did, Charlie looked at Jamie and their thoughts came together. Both boys were amazed that this fearsome looking creature, who’d first appeared little more than a wild beast who was probably intent on killing them, was so gentle and kind. What was more, it was clear that while Ga’tann speech only consisted of grunts and growls of varying duration and intensity, his thoughts were those of a highly evolved and intelligent being.
Intercepting their mental conversation, Ga’tann turned to the boys and gave a deep growl. “To you, I’m sure we look like monsters,” his thoughts projected to them, “but you can see, when you look into my mind, that we are peaceful.” And indeed Jamie and Charlie sensed and understood this.
Walking down quiet and deserted streets, Ga’tann continued to lead the way. Neither boy could detect any further thoughts or emotions from the Ghröum as they processed up one street and down the next. What surprised Charlie the most was how deserted the place seemed.
Eventually they came to a square bordered with plain and simple buildings. To their right, the dull yellow light of glow torches radiated from the windows of one squat building. Ga’tann walked toward it, and told the boys to follow him. Approaching the door, he passed through it and then held it open for Jamie and Charlie. As they stepped inside, they were surprised to see a number of Ghröum conversing silently in thought among themselves. Upon their entrance, all of the Ghröum stopped and turned to Ga’tann and the two winged boys in his company. A rapid conversation ensued as thoughts flew back and forth amongst the small group of Ghröum.
Finally, when Ga’tann was finished with his explanation, he introduced Jamie and Charlie to his companions. Jamie had expected his mind to be barraged with waves of probing thoughts from the Ghröum and prepared to shield himself from what he feared would be an onslaught of intense mental examination. Instead he was met with silence. Only a few soft grunts and an occasional groan issued from the group as they approached and began to examine the boys.
Forming a circle, a few reached out to touch them. One laid a finger on the elbow of one of Charlie’s wings, which caused it to give a slight shudder. Quickly pulling his hand back, the Ghröum who’d touched Charlie’s wing then stood as motionless as a statue and simply stared at Charlie. Another put a large hand on Jamie’s head and gently stroked his hair. An errant thought let Jamie know that the Ghröum was most interested in its light blond color. But it was when another put his hand to one of Charlie’s ears and gave a low growl that all of them suddenly ignored Jamie and anxiously crowded around the younger Icarian. Still silent in their thoughts and one by one, each Ghröum carefully examined and then touched Charlie’s slightly pointed ears.
“They are of our blood.” The thought, broadcast from the mind of one of the Ghröum to the rest of his companions, was greeted with nods.
“Do you really think so, Ga’dhat?” asked another of the Ghröum standing directly in front of Charlie.
“Yes, I do, Am’am,” Ga’dhat replied. “Their wings, the ears of the little one, their ability to communicate with us and, if I’m correct…” Ga’dhat paused, turned to Jamie, and placed his hand on the boy’s chest. Jamie could feel the warmth from the tough, leathery skin of Gh’dhat’s hand through the cloth of his tunic. The Ghröum’s hand was so large it easily covered Jamie’s whole chest.
"… just as I thought,” he broadcast to the rest of his companions, “two hearts.”
There were more growls and grunts among the Ghröum as a rapid burst of thoughts flew about.
“I’m not sure, Ta’vrun.”
“They would have had to…”
“The man… one of the Destroyers… don’t you remember?” Ga’dhat's thoughts shouted out. “The one I found wandering Vara Domann years ago!”
“You told us he claimed to be a scientist… and peaceful,” Am’am said.
“He told me he was deeply sorry for what happened. He said it was wrong and wanted to make amends. He thought he could help, so I let him take some samples of my skin, and some of my blood as he’d requested.”
“I remember,” Ta’vrun interrupted. “What was he called?”
“Almanun, Allanden?” Ga’dhat replied
“Almuron?” Jamie’s shouted out as he recalled one of his lessons with his father. “Was it Terrot Almuron?”
“Maybe… yes… I think it could be… it was a very long time ago… many years after the war of the Destroyers,” Gh’dhat’s rapid-fire thoughts shot into Jamie’s mind. He turned to Charlie, who was giving him a puzzled look.
“Terrot Almuron, Charlie,” Jamie said. “He’s talking about Terrot Almuron, the Father of Archimorphic Genetics, I’m sure of it. He was one of the Cohort of Twenty-four who first proposed Ajax Prime, and he was the founder of Gold Glass,” Jamie continued. “His ashes are interred in the Crypt of Honor in the Hall of Heroes on Ajax, along with those of the rest of the Cohort. They were all considered so important, Father told me that all of them were memorialized on the panels of a great bronze door in the Hall of Archives on Ajax. Father told me he saw it himself. I think they emerged as The Imperial Scientific Advisory Cohort after… uhm… one of those latter secessionist wars, but I can never remember which one.”
“The War of the Madmen,” Charlie quickly piped up – his voice taking on an excited and animated tone. “It was the fifth and final war of succession. So titled because of the terrifying weapons each side used against the other. Janum Vos, Duke of Cassaire and Edward Crew, Duke of Arbuss battled each other for over ten years until Enrick Blackwell’s surprising appearance and his equally surprising blood claim to the title and inheritance of the Duchy of Sommerton. He was only sixteen at the time, but since the entire Blackwell clan was been killed off in the Third War of Succession there was no one to dispute his claim – except his enemies. How he was able to gather an army and gain the key political alliances he needed has always been a source of debate, clouded as it is in rumor and innuendo, but Enrick defeated both Vos and Crew and established the Empire. And the scientific cohort was organized almost fifty years later, under Emperor Enrick the First’s son, Enrick the Second. In fact…”
“Yes, you’re right… you’re always right when it comes to history and politics, Charlie,” Jamie said, cutting short Charlie’s history lesson while raising an eyebrow and giving his younger brother a glance of feigned annoyance over Charlie’s quick and razor sharp response – one that stood in sharp contrast to his own lame attempts at grasping the turbulent historical period known as the Wars of Succession that Mobley had diligently tried, without success, to teach him. But Charlie’s grasp of history was indeed a gift, and while his younger brother often voiced envy at Jamie’s seemingly effortless grasp of biology, chemistry, physics and especially mathematics, Jamie was equally in awe of Charlie’s vast knowledge and understanding of history and geopolitics. But it wasn’t only his brother’s knowledge of such things that amazed him. The real reason for Jamie’s admiration was that Charlie, in spite of his age, understood it all in a very special way – the same way highly experienced and skillfully leaders did who were over four times the little boy’s age.
Mentally scolding himself for getting off track, Jamie turned back to Ga’dhat. “Yes, I think the man you’ve told us of was Terrot Almuron, one of our great scientists. And it sounds like he might have used some of your genetic material in our creation, although I can’t understand why.”
“Maybe it was out of guilt, maybe it was for another reason,” Ga’dhat said, “but it is long in the past.”
“It would have to be,” Charlie added, “Enrick the First established the Empire over five hundred years ago.”
“But wait,” Jamie interrupted looking over to Am’am. “You said Almuron took your blood, but that would have been about four hundred and fifty years ago.”
“Yes, that is correct,” Am’am, replied. “It was a long time ago, but I clearly remember it.”
“But then how old are you?”
“I have lived over six hundred cycles,” Am’am responded, “but I’m far from the oldest. Ga’dhat holds that honor - he has over eight hundred cycles.”
Jamie turned to Ga’dhat, “Is that correct?”
“Yes,” Ga’dhat said, and his open mind relayed his truthfulness. “Our lives are at least a thousand cycles. But I suspect since part of us is in you, your kind might also survive for many cycles – far more than the brief lives of the Destroyers.”
“Ah yes…” Jamie replied his thoughts now clouded in a haze as his mind struggled with a surprising concept he’d never thought of before, “I… guess… uhm, well… I guess it’s possible.”
“That it is,” Ga’dhat added.
“Does that mean that we will live longer than humans?” Charlie asked eagerly.
“Maybe… I don’t know… well… I can’t say, Charlie,” Jamie countered still trying to process what he’d just learned. “I mean… I just don’t know,” he added, sounding both puzzled and surprised.
Then, as if hit from the sky with a bolt of lightning, he startled and put a hand to his head. “OH NO! I’m so stupid! Charlie, we’ve got to go… NOW! We’ve already stayed here longer than we should have. I can’t believe I forgot tonight’s Solstice Fete at the Kalorian settlement, and Castor specifically told me to make sure we weren’t late. Of course, he won’t put any blame on you, even though it was your idea to explore the caves. If we don’t leave right now and get back to the villa, he’ll pluck out my feathers one by one.”
Quickly explaining their need to go, the boys promised they would return in a few days and began to take their leave.
“Do you know the way?” Ga’dhat asked.
“Yes,” Jamie replied, “we’ll just retrace our steps, I remember the way and the gates are only keyed to one coordinate. But we’ll come back. I promise.”
“Wait,” Ga’tann called out, and both boys froze.
Fearing the worse – that the Ghröum had indeed deceived them and would hold them prisoners – Jamie tuned to face them, ready to shout at Charlie to run for his life.
“Yes?” he asked in a quiet and cautious tone of voice.
“Just one thing we ask,” Ga’tann continued. “Please, tell no one of our existence. There are so few of us left, and we are defenseless.”
“We won’t tell anyone,” Jamie said, “we promise.” And although he understood Ga’tann’s meaning, he still found it hard to believe that such large and fearsome creatures could truly be called defenseless.
“I promise too,” Charlie nodded giving the small band of Ghröum a shy smile.
“We accept your word, for I sense no deception” Ga’tann said, “Now go, I can sense your worry regarding the obligation you must perform. You will not be harmed?”
“Not an obligation, and not harmed,” Jamie said, “but maybe punished, by not being allowed to go to Solstice Fete. It only comes but once a year.” And as he spoke, he concentrated hard before sending a rich and colorful image to Ga’tann.
The Ghröum made a horrifying face and grunted loudly. Jamie was slightly startled and a bit shocked by the sight, until he realized that Ga’tann was laughing.
“I see,” he said, his grunts coming in rapid succession, “a grand celebration. And you not being allowed to attend because of disobedience.”
“Yes, you understand the nature of what our punishment might be.”
“Then hurry,” Ga’tann said still softly grunting.
Rushing out the door, both boys vanished. As the door slammed behind them, Ga’dhat turned to Ga’tann. Happy to see tears of laughter in the eyes of one who hadn’t laughed for a very long time, Ga’dhat spoke. “I’m glad you found them, Ga’tann. They could have died had they remained in Vara Domann, and we would never have learned anything more about them. But tell me brother, why were you above ground in the city?”
Ga’tann reddish eyes met Gh’dhat’s, and his face instantly changed, and although they exchanged no thoughts. Ga’tann’s look spoke volumes to the other Ghröum.
“After all this time, brother, you still blame yourself,” Am’am thoughts echoed through their minds. “Will you never accept that it was not your fault?”
“No,” Ga’tann replied, “because it was.” He turned away.
“Please brother, promise us you won’t do it again,” Ta’vrun asked in almost a pleading tone. “Killing yourself will do no good. Your death will not change the past. We would have been greatly grieved by your absence from our circle.”
“Yes, promise us,” Ga’dhat added. “After what you have discovered, you must see that we need you more now than ever.”
“I will promise – for now,” Ga’tann said. “Finding these two has lit a small spark of hope in my heart. I don’t know why it should be so, but it has. I would like to learn more about them – and teach them.”
“Ah brother, I think we all know why,” Ga’dhat said. “The very young one, surely you could feel it as strongly as I did? I didn’t think it possible. He is indeed special. It is like standing before the sun.”
“Yes, brother,” Am’am replied, “we all felt it. He is like nothing I have ever seen. And the golden one, the very air around him churns constantly, like the sea in a storm. He guards the other like a fire cat guards its lair of cubs.”
“And his claws are much sharper,” Ta’vrun replied.
“And far deadlier,” Ga’tann added.