Book One: Salomé “The Prophecy”Salomé’s power-hungry uncle, Archlord Dorath, has declared martial law in the domain of Doreh and imprisoned her best friend for treason. Outraged and fearing for the safety of her vassal friends, Salomé teleports in secret from her palace apartments out to the vassals’ quarters of Damaska City – and lands in the middle of a bloody insurrection:
It was stifling and Salomé gasped for air. Keeping as close to the dwellings as possible, she edged her way toward the tumult of shouting. When she rounded the corner she found a growing crowd of angry Damaskans, yelling abuse at the police. Their hovels were being searched for “agitators,” women and children dragged outside, their meager possessions rifled and thrown on to the street. Several vassals were being taken prisoner and violence erupted as protesters attempted to free their comrades. It was total chaos. Salomé tried to help an old woman who was being viciously beaten by three policemen, but one of them threw her aside. She went sprawling into the dust and landed on her injured arm with a hiss of pain. Dragging herself to her feet, she stumbled her way to the edge of the crowd, only to have a huge gloved hand grab her by the scruff of her neck. Salomé twisted around with a dancer’s skill, kneeing her attacker as hard as she could in the groin. His grip slackened and she tore herself loose and managed to scramble away through the turmoil.
Disappearing into the nearest dark side street she stood, bent over and panting, struggling to get her breath and her bearings. Her arm ached abominably. This was insane! She berated herself for having come out here without any plan or forethought, but realized she was wasting time with self-reproach. Fearful for her friends, and outraged at what she was witnessing, Salomé left her cover and made her way as inconspicuously as she could to Sa’ud and Miryam’s dwelling. Another scene of devastation awaited her.
The hovel was burning and the distraught family was outside, watching helplessly as their existence went up in flames. Jasim was trying to shield the others with his huge bulk. Sa’ud held his mother-in-law’s fire-disfigured corpse in his arms and Miryam knelt cradling her dead son Asad, keening pitifully while little Chaya clung to her mother’s skirts in terror. The heat and glow from the flames gave their agonized, sweat-dripping faces a ghastly, surreal quality.
Salomé knew she had to act quickly, before the marauding militia could do any more damage. She grabbed Sa’ud, restraining herself from turning her face away at the sight of Rivka’s poor body. “Let’s get the family away from here!” Still in shock, he didn’t even recognize her. “Sa’ud, it’s me! Salomé!” She shook him and he finally turned to her, horrified.
“Highness! You’ll be killed!”
“Come, Sa’ud! I’ll hide you all!” she urged as more shots fell and an explosion shook the ground under them.
Sa’ud nodded and they took the grandmother’s body as far out of harm’s way as they could, then he went to Miryam. She wouldn’t budge from Asad’s body. He turned frantically to Salomé and she knelt by the grieving mother.
“Miryam,” she coaxed, taking the woman’s face in her hands, “he’s gone. We have to go!”
If it hadn’t been for Jasim, she might not have moved. The big man came and tenderly removed Asad from her arms. Sa’ud wept disconsolately as he took his son’s body and laid it to rest next to Rivka, then helped Miryam to her feet.
“Quickly! Down here!” Salomé urged the family past the house and into a narrow alleyway that led to a neighboring street. Her first thought was to get them away from the center of the chaos. With a jolt, she realized she hadn’t really thought much further than that, and she might very well be leading them to their deaths. But if they stayed where they were, they would die anyway. To give them a fighting chance, she had to get them to the districts. Surely people there would help. She prayed fervently that she was right. If all else failed, she would take them to the cellar in the abandoned bakery concealing the passageway to the palace. It held storerooms and bunkers along its path that hadn’t been used in decades; it was risky, but if there was no other alternative she would hide the family there until the unrest died down. For now, she simply had to keep going.
Just as she and Jasim had ushered them into the passage, a shadow fell and a tall figure raised his weapon and fired twice. Salomé cried out and clamped her hand to her shoulder, feeling the sting of a projectile graze her already injured arm. Chaya crumpled to the ground beside her mother. Miryam let out a blood-curdling scream and fell across her fragile little body. Salomé whipped around to see a militiaman standing silhouetted by the fire’s glow, his gun raised and ready to fire again. Grasping her bleeding shoulder, she stalked toward him, her rage a pulsing field of energy radiating from her as she approached him. All he saw was a column of blinding light coming at him and he froze, terrified, his weapon crumbling to dust in his nerveless hands. With a yell, he turned and ran back the way he had come.
“It is coming from the vassals’ quarters now!” Magnate Hadaki exclaimed.
The Magnates gathered at one portion of the walls, trying to pinpoint what Hadaki was seeing. Images blurred in and out of focus, seeming not to want to settle on any one location. The past few hours had been spent jumping at phantoms as the Plexus flashed and the walls fluctuated and blurred. At first it seemed to be emanating from Bath Noor, then it was nowhere near the palace. They could find no explanation for the erratic movement from one location to another. Tempers were wearing thin.
“We cannot even distinguish whether the disturbance is coming from one source or many!” Devos growled.
Only Doreh seemed relatively unperturbed. “Let us presume its main source is in the vassals’ quarters. If we blanket the area, we may be able to isolate it.”
They returned to the table around the Plexus and placed their hands on their insignia.
Salomé returned to the family. They were staring at her in awe. She knelt by Chaya and the hysterical mother. The child was bleeding profusely from a wound in her side. It looked serious but she was still alive.
“Miryam, let me,” the princess ripped off another strip from her garment and wrapped it around the unconscious little girl, hoping it might at least stop the bleeding. Then she scooped her up, disregarding her own injuries, and shoved her way past frantic vassals coming from the opposite direction, out the other end of the passageway with Jasim, Sa’ud and a distracted Miryam in tow.
Suddenly, she looked up. Tendrils of blackness having nothing to do with fire or smoke were descending, covering all the sky she could see and seeping down into the alleyway. She could feel the foreign energy pulsing there. The Magnates! It was the second time this night and her spirit quailed before the evil bearing down upon her from above. Knowing she couldn’t possibly hope to stave them off all on her own, her mind reached out for the one being in the world who could help her. Elijah!
Out in the desert between monoliths of stone Elijah stood alert. The glow from the burning vassals’ quarters was visible in the distance, fading the stars closest to the horizon. He knew Salomé was out there, but her image was unclear. Her energy had flared first in one place, then in another. He had no way of knowing where she would appear next and could only guess she would want to help her vassal friends. But when her call echoed in the silence he instantly felt the threat and the darkness directed toward the wounded city and the young woman making her way through the turmoil of battle. He braced himself between two standing stones and prayed he would be able to locate Jack.
Disguised in ragged vassal garments with small backpacks concealed underneath, Jack and Skip had submerged themselves in the melee of the vassals’ quarters. Tay and two younger cameramen were reporting officially for GNN, covering the demonstrations taking place at the gates between the vassals’ quarters and the districts, but Jack and Skip had opted to be in the thick of things, laying low and getting as much footage as they could for their next pirate broadcast: burning hovels and wounded, desperate vassals searching for their loved ones, removing charred bodies from the ruins of their homes, being brutalized by police and militia. The noise was deafening and the pungent smell of bodies stifling. Skip had just managed to find a spot where Jack could film the insanity, unseen by the rampaging military when, from out of nowhere, a vassal with torn and singed clothing thrust his enraged visage in front of the mini-cam. He wore a bloodied bandana with a crudely drawn moon-sun symbol on his brow and seemed completely deranged. Fist upraised and obviously not caring who saw or heard him, he yelled, “Death to the Governing Body!” and disappeared as abruptly as he had come.
Gunshots erupted nearby, followed by screams as the panicked crowd tried to move away from their source. Frightened vassals shoved themselves between him and Jack, and Skip was afraid they would be separated. An elbow jabbed him viciously in the back. He would have been thrown onto his face if Jack hadn’t grabbed his arm.
“This is useless!” Jack shouted to make himself heard over the multitude.
“We’ll be crushed here, or shot!” Mini-cam hooked over his shoulder so it would film as they went along, he pulled Skip steadily to the borders of the street, just as militia converged from all sides and fired into the wall of human bodies. Howls of pain and fear tore the air. Many fell. Those who were still able to run scattered. Jack finally broke clear of the surging masses, dragging Skip behind him.
“In here!” Jack backed into the doorway of a gutted hovel.
The door was hanging from one hinge and had obviously been smashed in, the walls were barely standing, but they were safe for the moment. At least Skip thought so until the air began to vibrate and bits of stone fell around them. He cowered against a wall, petrified, but Jack whipped around with a look of relief on his face as a dim figure materialized in the shadows behind him.
The Prophet lurched and clutched at the cameraman. “Salomé is here!”
“What?” Jack was horrified, but he knew: “Jasim’s family! Let’s go!”
“No!” Elijah rasped. “The Magnates are on alert! They’ve caught her
scent. We mustn’t draw them to her!”
As Elijah conferred in urgent tones with Jack, Skip stood gaping dumbly at the porcelain-skinned, raven-haired youth in classical elegance standing feet away from him. It’s HIM, flashed like neon letters in his mind. He had imagined the Avatar as ancient, with withered skin and long grey hair flowing into a grizzled beard. The guise was so perfect as to be totally disarming, but the piercing blue eyes spoke a different language. It was like gazing into fathomless wells of memory. Skip saw both the power he exuded and the fragility of the chiseled features, stunned that this man— whom the Governing Body feared and hated—could appear vulnerable. He was unable to stop staring. The biggest story of his life was barely feet away, and he was paralyzed.
Skip’s started, realizing that he had just been spoken to.
“I am aware of the risk I am asking you to take,” Elijah’s voice was
subdued, barely a whisper. “But right now, everything depends on whether you and Jack can create a diversion.”
“Diversion?” Skip looked confused.
“Later. We’re moving out.” Jack peered warily around the empty doorway. “Clear!” It seemed the militia was satisfied they had done all the damage they could in this area and had moved on.
“Don’t use the amulet until you reach the border to the districts!” Elijah warned.
Before Skip could ask any more questions, Jack was out the door. Skip only turned briefly to nod at the Avatar, then he followed his partner. It seemed ludicrous under the circumstances, but the thought crossed his mind that they hadn’t even been properly introduced. When they had gone, Elijah searched the debris in the hovel and found some scorched but still wearable vassal garments. Pulling them over his own, he darted out the door and headed in the opposite direction, toward the sounds of battle.
*** *** ***
Book Two: Salomé “Revelation”The fate of two worlds hangs in the balance:
She was falling from a great height, endlessly falling for what might have been eons, and all around her was water and she was dying. Then the light came and swept her away far into the night, a leaf in the storm, tumbling, until gradually its strength began to fail and she plummeted, down, down, finally landing hard on cold sand, the breath knocked out of her. And all was dark and chill, and her consciousness slipped away…
Someone was calling her: from a far distance, out of an endless desert, a familiar voice that seemed to come from the emptiness of a mind trying desperately not to be. Almost, she thought, it whispered her name; but she was neither capable of translating the name into a sound she could comprehend, nor of answering. It haunted her, this voice without a face she could envision. She reached out, searching for a face, a hand to touch, but it was as though the voice wished to remain disembodied, unknown.
A memory flitted delicately through her awareness, like a butterfly, erratic in its flight, irritating in that she was unable to pin it down. Was she the butterfly, flitting through vast spaces where stars flew by like sparks in the wind? No, she was wrapped in a cocoon of light, waiting and waiting until gravity—and the voice—pulled her earthward. Now it was there again and, if she succumbed, it would draw her back to a terrible place. Leave me be! I don’t want to remember!
With a great effort of will she tore herself away to run, fleeing the memories that threatened to smother her. But her limbs were heavy and she seemed to be fighting her way in deepest darkness, through quicksand that dragged at her legs, though unseen thickets whose thorny claws ripped her clothes and skin. She ran, and fought, and fell, to drag herself up and run again. And always she was weeping. She hurt. Everything hurt…
The effects of their gift’s removal from the dark sphere of influence on the other planet were felt on Homeworld immediately, from its outer perimeters to deep in its Core. The energies resumed a semblance of normality, the dimming had lightened, and this was greeted with relief. Yet it had not entirely eliminated the contamination of their sphere. The violation had left its mark. Their people in several sectors were affected in a manner beyond their experience. The people of the other world could have told them: it was sickness.
It seemed one of their children had briefly regained possession of their gift, but now it was gone. Holding council as to what this might signify, the Elders were unable to come to any conclusion. All they could do was reinforce their defenses against further assault—and hope.
She awoke gradually into her body and for a long time she lay very still, trying hard not to feel. In spite of her efforts, sensation was returning. At first there was only baking heat, dry and oppressive, like the hot breath of some huge animal, and her breathing was heavy and labored. After a while, she began to be aware of her extremities. This was exceedingly strange, as it made her feel as though she consisted merely of hands and feet. Curious, she sent her hands a silent command. One of them jerked slightly, and with its movement the sensation spread up her arm and into her shoulder. She sent more commands: to the other hand, to her feet. Slowly, piece-by-piece, her body again became tangible until she could feel it resting on a firm surface, covered by something scratchy, and with a bit of cushioning beneath her head. Her movements made things rustle, and she realized could hear. She took a few moments to move and listen, then she was still. At first it seemed very quiet where she was but she listened closely, trying to identify the sounds nearby: the flapping of some kind of cloth or hide in the wind; a rough metallic clink; a strange, comical animal sound. The sound made the image of a camel form behind her eyelids, and she became aware that she had eyes. It took a tremendous effort to lift the lids, but when she finally managed it she had to blink from the brightness.
Once her vision cleared, she could see she was in an old makeshift tent, its roof and sides billowing as it was buffeted by the wind. Looking down her body, she found she was lying in a corner on a thick but faded carpet that covered the sand floor, with a shabby woolen blanket draped over her. She perceived the scratchiness came from a thobe of rough bluish cloth she was wearing. Strange. How do I know it’s a thobe? She turned her head slowly to the side and winced as it gave a dull throb. A tiny lizard darted across the carpet and scurried up the leg of a low ornate table at her bedside where an engraved copper pitcher and cup sat by a wide bowl filled with water. Balancing delicately on the edge of the bowl, it began to drink with its sharp darting tongue. Watching the creature made her thirsty, but when she tried to raise herself, she groaned in pain. It seemed there wasn’t a muscle in her body that didn’t ache. She fell back, the first stirrings of fear clutching at her with cold fingers. Where am I? How did I get here? She couldn’t remember. Her simple surroundings seemed suddenly otherworldly and surreal, threatening in the stark light. Her heart began to race, a film of sweat plastering the coarse garment to her skin as her body began to shake, and suddenly she was whimpering uncontrollably.
A flap of the tent opened and woman in a long thobe of deep blue entered. She gave a peculiar little bow, then quickly came to kneel beside her, taking her hand and gently stroking her forehead, singing softly as if to a child. Slowly the trembling calmed. Supporting her head with one arm, the woman poured a cup of water from the jug and held it for her to sip. When she had drunk her fill, she lay back and regarded her benefactor gratefully.
The woman’s head covering, with the hatta rolled to a headband and bound around her brow, framed the strong, weathered face. She bore bluish tribal tattoos on her forehead and under her thick lower lip. She might have been forty or sixty—it was hard to tell. Her hands were the only other visible part of her body and they were wrinkled but solid with short beefy fingers that had known hard work in a hostile environment. The woman tapped her chest and said, “Baheera.”
She nodded and opened her mouth to speak, but stopped short. Her throat tightened and she clutched Baheera’s hand, shaking her head. What was her name? Why couldn’t she remember her name? Who was she? The woman tried to calm her, nodding and speaking reassuringly, to no avail. Panic-stricken, she gasped for air as black spots swam before her eyes until, finally, she blacked out.
Baheera was afraid. It seemed the girl didn’t know who she was. How could this be? She and her solitary bayt—her family unit—consisting of herself, her husband, his two brothers, and their young son, had found her wandering blindly in the desert two days before, delirious and injured, almost dead from thirst, wearing garments no desert-dweller wore. This was strange enough. But then they saw her fine hands and perfect copper skin—who was this girl? Certainly no vassal child. It was her husband Nayif who had spotted the girl’s birthmark and realized with horror that she was in truth the Princess of Doreh. How on earth had she come here? They had heard no word of her being missing. But then they lived secluded and solitary lives, as did the remainder of the scattered Bedouin peoples, each keeping to their own small bayt to be as invisible and untraceable as possible for fear of further pogroms of the New World Order. Now they had a royal princess on their hands and their lives were in danger. For the past several days they had been transporting the unconscious girl on a makeshift pallet dragged by one of their camels, hoping this would not compound her injuries. Though she had finally regained consciousness, she was unaware of her identity. What was to be done?