Tiari Zora opened her eyes and sat up on the narrow, rough pallet that served as her bed. She was relieved to be alone in the tiny hut that had been her home for almost as long as she could remember. She hated waking up to the sound of Una’s harsh voice, harsh words, and harsh presence. She folded the thin, worn scrap of cloth that was her only blanket, then stood up and made her way across the cold stone floor in the darkness. Una had covered the tiny window that was the hut’s only source of natural light so long ago that Tiari barely remembered that it existed. Darkness had been her nearly constant companion since the day of her birth just over nineteen years earlier, so she didn’t really mind.
She knelt down before the fireplace, reached for the ironwood poker and stirred the ash covered coals that remained from the previous night’s fire. There was just enough wood left in the pile to get a small fire going. Once that was done, she got up and went to the table which held a bucket half full of water, and the teapot. She filled the teapot, hung it on the tripod over the fire, and fixed herself a meal of dark bread and cheese, moving around the hut with confidence in the utter darkness. The fire provided light, but it was not enough for Tiari to see. For that, she needed the natural light of the sun.
She settled herself before the fire on a straw mat that she’d woven herself, enjoying the fire’s warmth as she ate her meager meal. When she was finished she refilled her cup and tried to decide what to do with her day. She had some wheat stalks soaking in a basket that should be ready for weaving. She’d been working out a new pattern in her mind that she thought would be interesting to try. But she didn’t really feel like doing that today.
She wondered when Una would come, and whether she should sweep the floor and scrub the hearth, but decided she didn’t feel like cleaning, either. Una would scream at her, call her names, maybe even strike her, but Tiari had grown used to that just as she’d grown used to being alone. It was simply a part of her life. Besides, she’d long since learned that it didn’t matter if she scrubbed the little one room hut all day and all night, Una would still find some reason to rail at her. Tiari had a natural desire for cleanliness and order, so she cleaned when she felt the need, but never in an effort to please Una.
She remembered that she’d torn a seam in her other shift, and considered mending it. But that didn’t appeal to her any more than weaving or cleaning had. She sighed, wondering what was wrong with her. There was very little for her to do to occupy herself in the confines of the hut aside from sewing, which she hated, or weaving, which she loved. She felt nervous and unsettled for some reason. What she really wanted, she decided, was to be outside. She wanted to feel the sun on her face, the earth beneath her feet, and breathe fresh air. Maybe Una would come today and let her out long enough to gather fresh grass for her pallet, and some fresh pine needles as well. She could get those while she gathered wood for her fire and fetched water from the creek.
Tiari finished her tea and stood up, hesitating for a moment before using some of her remaining water to rinse her cup. If Una didn’t come, she’d need that water for drinking. She shuddered as she remembered the time Una had not come out to the hut for ten days. Tiari had tried everything she could think of to break out of the hut before weakness from lack of food and water had prevented her from doing more than lying on her pallet, waiting to die. She’d been eleven years old at the time, but remembered it as if it had been yesterday. She never took her food and water for granted any more.
She set her cup down on the table without rinsing it, reminding herself that if worse came to worse, there was water in the soaking basket. It would taste bad after having wheat stalks soaking in it for days to make them soft enough for weaving, but water was water.
Feeling a little better about the water situation, she made her way to the corner where she kept her baskets and tools for gathering. She selected several sturdy baskets, two lengths of rope that she’d woven from sword grass, and a couple of bags made from heavy, coarse cloth. She would gather wood, fresh grass for her pallet, stalks and some of the tall, wide bladed sword grass for weaving. And pine cones. The season was just right for them to begin falling in the forest but, if she wasn’t fast enough, the animals would get all of them before she got a share. The thought of rich pine nuts made her mouth water.
She piled her supplies near the door, then went to the shelf beside her pallet for her shoes. Once soft, warm leather, they were now thin and shiny from wear, but they still offered some protection from the bare ground. Just as she finished tying the leather thongs around her ankles, she heard the familiar sound of the bar on the door being lifted. As always, she felt an intense mixture of both relief and dread at the sound. Relief that she had not been forgotten. And dread because Una was, quite simply, not a nice person.
Sir Bredon of the House of Bauron, sat in a shallow cave he’d stumbled across quite by chance after his headlong flight from the village of the Sirelina. He’d pushed his diplo to the end of its strength, and would have pushed harder except that the poor beast simply could not go on. He’d dismounted and continued on foot, leading the diplo by the reins. He’d considered leaving it behind, but changed his mind. He would need the animal later if he didn’t want to travel on foot.
Now, as he sat and gazed into the flames of his campfire, he remembered the moment he felt Marene’s tainted soul blast its way into his body, and he recoiled with disgust. He’d known three things at once as he stood there on the beach, frozen in shock.
The first was that Marene had, somehow, become wholly evil. The second, she was exhausted, unable to do more than curl up in the back of his mind, a dark, icy presence that he felt as clearly as he felt his own hands. The third, he was not cin-sahib.
The last fact allowed his heart to resume beating, and his mind to begin thinking. Though Marene was weak and tired now, there was no telling what she would be able to do with his body once she regained her strength. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps anything. Which meant that the first thing he had to do was get as far from his own people, most especially Kapia, and the Sirelina, as he could before she awoke.
He’d raced away from the beach, his heart aching at the thought of Kapia’s reaction when she returned to find him gone. But he had no choice. Above all things, at all costs, she must be kept safe. He’d ordered his diplo saddled and spent precious minutes preparing a pack for himself with a bedroll, Hunter’s rations and other necessities.
He was relieved that none of the other Hunters had noticed his preparations, and none of the servants had the rank to question him. He’d considered pulling Sir Garundel aside and telling him what had happened, but decided against it. It was possible that Garundel would decide that the quickest solution to the problem would be to kill him, and Bredon was not ready to die. Not when he had a future that included Kapia. He’d also considered leaving a written message for Kapia, but decided against that as well. He didn’t know how Marene had managed to invade his body and mind, but he was beginning to have his suspicions, and they were not things he was prepared to admit to Kapia.
Bredon fed the fire from the pile of dried wood he had gathered, then got up to check on his diplo. The shallow cave he’d found was barely large enough for himself and a small fire, but the diplo was resting happily on its picket among the nearby trees. It had grass and leaves to eat, a collapsible water bucket to drink from, and it was close enough for Bredon to reach it quickly should it be threatened. Not that many animals would attack a healthy diplo in its prime. As gentle as they were with most people, they could be formidable when threatened.
He returned to his fire and dug into his pack for some kinsaki, a mixture of shredded meat, nuts, berries, and fat that was shaped into small cakes and dried quickly in the desert sun of Isiben. High in protein, fat and other nutrients, a Hunter could live for weeks on a diet of kinsaki and water if necessary. Bredon pulled out a cake and considered crumbling it into some water for a hot broth, but decided against it. For tonight, cold kinsaki and hot tea would serve.
As he chewed slowly on the tough kinsaki he tried to imagine what had prompted Marene to do what she’d done. Had she died, he wondered, and sought him out as a means to extend her own life? That made a sort of sense, given what he knew of Marene. But how had she become so evil? And why? He’d never liked Marene. Few did. She was cold, calculating, and completely self-centered. But not evil.
That Marene dabbled in magic was an open secret that most believed, but no one knew for certain. Her invasion of his body had to be magic of the darkest sort. As far as he knew only demons could do such things. Or, he remembered suddenly, those who practiced demon arts. Had Marene gone that far? If so, why? She was wealthy, beautiful, and even though she had little rank, she had power.
Bredon shook his head. What difference did it make why she’d done it? The important question was, what would she, or better, what could she do when she woke up? Would she have the power to control his body? If so, to what extent? What would she do, or make him do? Would he be aware of her then as he was now? Would he be able to fight her?
He had so many questions, and no answers. Who could he turn to? Who could possibly understand what had happened to him, and help him to fix it without attempting to kill him?
He finished his kinsaki and banked the fire before lying down on his bedroll. He stared at the dying flames for a long time, the same questions chasing each other around and around in his mind. Just as his eyes began to close, he realized there was someone he could go to. Someone who might be able to help him. Worrow. If there was anyone who might have answers for him, it was Worrow, Zamon of the Sirelina, their physical and spiritual healer. He would have to wait until the Orb Quest left the Sirelina’s village before he dared approach Worrow, though. He could not risk going near Kapia with Marene coiled inside of him like a snake waiting to strike. But, he could go back toward the village so that the moment they left, he could go straight to Worrow. Once Worrow rid him of Marene, he could easily catch up to the Orb Quest. Satisfied with his plan, Bredon closed his eyes and relaxed, allowing himself to drift off to sleep.
The fire crackled and snapped, a bit of resin on a small branch flared up brightly until it broke in half and fell into the coals below it. The diplo snorted a few yards away, and a night bird called out in triumph after a successful hunt. Suddenly, Bredon’s eyes, once green as spring grass, now a dark, muddy brown, flew open, and Marene looked around warily.
When she was satisfied that she was alone, she sat up, moving slowly and awkwardly. She raised Bredon’s hands up and gazed at them by the faint light of the glowing coals and smiled. Bredon’s large, calloused hands were neither the slender, delicate hands she’d once had, nor the powerful hands of a dark witch that she’d earned for herself these past weeks, but they were strong and tough. They would do, for now. She lowered the hands to her lap and stared into the darkness for long minutes as she considered her options, and worked out her next step.
The fire cooled further while she sat there, the coals now dull with ash. Finally, she nodded slowly to herself, lips stretching into a smile that had never before been seen on Bredon’s face. She reached out and picked up a few sticks of the wood remaining in the pile Bredon had gathered and placed them on the coals, stirring the fire back to life with slow, clumsy movements. Spotting Bredon’s pack nearby, she pulled it closer and began rummaging through it, dropping the contents haphazardly on the ground. Finding nothing of use, she shoved everything back in, and pushed it away. Then she reached down to the belt wrapped around Bredon’s waist, and found what she was looking for. A knife.
She slid the knife from its sheath and tested the edge with a thumb, smiling with satisfaction when the thick, calloused flesh parted easily and several drops of blood welled up. She set the knife down and added more wood to the fire, building it up so that it would burn for a while without her having to feed it. When she was satisfied, she sat up straight, took a deep breath, stared into the fire, and began chanting.
Tahzel made his way through the long burning tunnels carved into the mighty mountain of Nariq-Qu, home of ShaiTyan, King of the Fire Djinn of Skiatos. Tahzel was familiar with ShaiTyan, though none could be said to know him. The Fire-King preferred to keep his own counsel, and had no need, or want, of confidants, counselors, or friends.
It was a long walk from the entrance of Nariq-Qu to ShaiTyan’s private sanctuary, but it gave Tahzel time to think. His news could be taken either well or ill, depending on his delivery of it. He hoped that he was able to assist ShaiTyan in seeing the benefit of this latest development across the Gate, but one never knew how ShaiTyan would react to anything. He’d been in a foul mood for a thousand years now, ever since the last High King of the Djinn had taken the Zatroa across the Gate and foolishly gotten himself, and the Zatroa, stranded there. Without the Zatroa, the sacred scepter of the four clans, the coveted title of High King of the Djinn could not be claimed.
At last Tahzel reached the rokkeli, two creatures of fire and stone created by ShaiTyan himself to guard the entrance to his personal chamber. As the creatures glared at him with glowing eyes, their fiery nostrils flaring, Tahzel wondered, not for the first time, what it was they looked for. It wasn’t as though any other than Fire Djinn could enter Nariq-Qu without being burned to a cinder. And what Fire Djinn would ever consider attacking ShaiTyan?
The rokkeli finished their inspection of Tahzel and moved aside, allowing him entrance into ShaiTyan’s chamber. Tahzel spent one last moment ordering his thoughts, and then took a single step inside before going to his knees and placing his forehead against the stone floor. He heard the rokkeli move back into place, blocking the entrance behind him, and he shivered with the knowledge that he would leave this place only by ShaiTyan’s order.
“Stand and tell me your news, Tahzel of the Fire Djinn,” the Fire-King commanded, his booming voice echoing around the gigantic cave.
Tahzel rose, his eyes flicking around in search of ShaiTyan. The chamber glowed a dull red from the heat of the rock it was carved out of, but ShaiTyan was not to be seen. Tahzel shivered again. If ShaiTyan could not be seen, that meant he was burning as red as the cave around him, which was not a good sign.
“I have helpful news, Master,” Tahzel said with all the conviction he could put into his voice. He would never go so far as to say the news was good. That would be foolish in the extreme.
“I would not be adverse to helpful news,” ShaiTyan replied, “should it be given in a timely manner.”
Tahzel swallowed nervously at the reprimand, a further sign of ShaiTyan’s poor mood.
“A female of power such as we have not yet seen in those across the Gate, has recently come to our side,” he said.
“You may explain further,” ShaiTyan said after a long moment.
“She has long dabbled in dark magics, as her mother did before her, but she resisted all efforts to recruit her until a short time ago. She swore the oath of aid in return for enhancement of her power, but did not become cin-sahib. We called on her to steal the first orb when it was found, and granted to her an air demon and a warrior cin-sahib for the purpose. The cin-sahib was lost in battle, as was the female, but she was able to possess the air demon.”
“Wait,” ShaiTyan interrupted. “Did you say the female possessed the air demon?”
“Yes, Master, that is what she did,” Tahzel replied, trying not to sound as shocked as he still felt over the matter.
“She was not cin-sahib?” ShaiTyan asked.
“No, Master, she was not cin-sahib,” Tahzel said. “She chose the path of Myrkur, instead.”
“It is too bad she now possesses the body of an air demon,” ShaiTyan said. “One such as that may have been of some use.”
“She no longer possesses the air demon, Master,” Tahzel said. “The air demon was destroyed almost the moment she took possession of it, before she had a chance to control it.”
“I assume there is more to this story, Tahzel.”
“Of course, Master,” Tahzel replied, hearing the warning. “When the air demon was destroyed she managed to possess the body of her fudaso, a male of high rank in the army of those who defy us.”
ShaiTyan chuckled, a harsh, grating sound of rocks grinding against each other. “Yes, she is one of power to manage such a feat as that. The question is, will she put that power to use for us?”
“She has her own desires, of course,” Tahzel replied. “She begs to do your bidding in exchange.”
“What is it that she asks...or should I say, demands?” ShaiTyan asked.
“She wants the body of a demon to possess,” Tahzel replied. “One that is large and strong. She cannot fully possess the human male she is currently riding.”
“Of course not,” ShaiTyan said, and Tahzel heard the humor in his voice. “Not only is he not cin-sahib, he is her fudaso, the one she used to make her offering, and bind her to the light. She is wily enough to recognize her limitations. Perhaps some use can be made of this female.”
ShaiTyan fell silent for a long time. Tahzel remained motionless, knowing better than to interrupt his Master with questions or movements while he was thinking. He had no idea how long he waited, nor did it matter to him. Time in this dark, crowded realm meant nothing.
“Tell this female...what is her name?” ShaiTyan asked.
“Ma-Rene,” Tahzel replied.
“Tell this Ma-Rene that she will have the body of one of the most fearsome of all demons, but only upon completion of the task I set for her,” ShaiTyan said. “Be certain that the word demon is used, Tahzel. Not Djinn.”
“Of course, Master,” Tahzel replied. It was a critically important distinction. There was no possibility that he would forget it.
“When she accepts, tell her this,” ShaiTyan said.
Tahzel closed his eyes, knowing what was coming, accepting the pain of it before it began. When he opened his eyes sometime later he was lying sprawled upon the floor with ShaiTyan’s plan burned into his mind. He struggled to his feet and bowed before turning to leave, knowing he’d been dismissed the moment his eyes had opened. As he stepped through the narrow opening between the rokkeli, ShaiTyan began to laugh, but this time the sound grew and grew until all of Nariq-Qu began to shake around them.
Worrow, Zamon of the Sirelina, watched with a peculiar mix of fear and excitement as the tiny boat carrying Princess Kapia, Prince Zakiel, and his bride of one day, Karma, the Lady Techu, drifted slowly toward him. Several men, both Hunters and Sirelina, waded into the water to guide the boat the rest of the way to shore, but it was done silently. None of those in the boat offered to speak of their journey, and none of those in the water asked. Worrow’s tension went up a notch. Wouldn’t they be excited if they’d succeeded? The fate of Rathira itself rested on their success. Why did no one speak?
Worrow waited on the beach, his calm demeanor revealing nothing of his inner turmoil. The men pushed the boat up onto the beach so that those inside of it could get out without stepping into the water. Prince Zakiel rose to his feet, and held his hand out to Karma. Once she was out of the boat he turned to his sister, Kapia, then followed after her, Nikura the Sphin leaping lightly to the sand behind him. Worrow noticed that Kapia was carrying something wrapped in what appeared to be Karma’s vest, and he allowed himself to relax just a little. She stood on the beach for a long moment, looking around at those who had gathered to await their return. Then she dropped her gaze to the sand in front of her feet and did not look up again.
Worrow studied the small party as they walked toward him, noting their tired, drawn expressions. Something had gone badly, that much seemed clear. But if they had the Moon Orb, as it appeared, what could possibly be so bad that it dimmed what should have been such a triumph?
“Greetings, Zamon Worrow,” Prince Zakiel said as they stopped in front of him.
“Greetings, Highness,” Worrow replied. “I imagine you are all hungry and tired after your long day. Would you like to come to my home for a hot meal?”
“Yes, thank you,” Prince Zakiel said after glancing at Karma and seeing her tiny nod. “We would very much appreciate that.”
Worrow turned and led the way off the beach and into the village, keeping his step slower than usual in deference to those following him. He’d sent his apprentice ahead with a wave so that by the time they reached his home, the table was set and the hot food that he’d ordered prepared in advance was waiting. He noticed that Kapia kept her bundle in her lap when she sat at the table, and was further assured that it contained the Moon Orb. So why were his young, brave friends so unhappy?
As curious as he was, he waited until his guests had eaten and had a hot drink. Then Zakiel turned to him and sighed heavily. “Do you wish to know what happened, Worrow?” he asked.
“Yes, Highness, I do,” Worrow replied. “If you wish to tell me, of course.”
“It is not a story I am pleased to tell,” Zakiel said. “But you should know what happened.”
“Forgive my curiosity, Highness, but may I first ask, did you succeed in collecting the Moon Orb?”
“Yes, Worrow, in that we were successful,” Zakiel said with a tired smile.
“For myself, and the people of Rathira, I am grateful,” Worrow said. “But I can see that there is much that weighs upon your spirits. I would be honored if you would share that burden with me.”
Zakiel began to speak, telling of their long journey across the ocean, and their meeting with the guardian of the atoll, Karaken. He told of the arrival of Marene, her demon steed, and the cin-sahib who had once been a Hunter named Saigar. He told of Marene’s dark powers that had allowed her to entrap Nikura, and the battle that followed. When he told of Marene’s death, and her possession of the demon beast she had ridden, Worrow was stunned. When he told of the possessed demon’s destruction, Worrow was relieved. But when he told of their belief that Marene was not truly dead, that they were almost certain she had managed to possess Sir Bredon, Worrow was both horrified and saddened. Now he understood. More than he wanted to.
“I must tell you that Sir Bredon is no longer here,” he said when Zakiel was finished speaking. Suddenly all eyes were on him, including Nikura’s.
“Tell us,” Kapia demanded in a soft voice. “We must know. I must know.”
“For most of the day Sir Bredon waited on the beach, along with many others, including myself. I just happened to be looking in his direction when I saw him suddenly stiffen, then turn and run away, back towards camp. I thought little of it, I confess, assuming he’d suddenly remembered some duty or other. A short while later Sir Garundel approached me. He told me that Sir Bredon had left without explanation. He’d ordered his diplo saddled, packed a few things, and ridden away. Sir Garundel wanted to know if he’d said anything to me, or if I’d seen anything that might explain Sir Bredon’s departure, but I had nothing to tell him. He considered sending trackers after him, but decided to wait until your return.”
“He left to keep us safe,” Kapia said.
“I think you are correct, Sister,” Zakiel said. “He knew what was happening. Somehow, he knew.”
“I think Marene’s soul, or spirit, whatever she is now, was exhausted by the time she got to Bredon,” Karma said. “She was probably too weak and tired to take control of him the way she did the demon.”
They looked to Worrow to see what he thought of their speculations, and he nodded. “Your reasoning is sound,” he said. “It makes the most sense given all that you have told me.”
“What will happen to Bredon?” Kapia asked. “Can we help him?”
“I do not believe that he is cin-sahib,” Worrow said. “If he were, he would have remained here.”
“That’s a relief,” Zakiel said.
“Yes,” Worrow agreed. “Unfortunately, from what you’ve told me, this Marene is now demon, and a very strong demon at that. He had control enough to leave here, but, whether he will be able to retain that control once she regains her strength, I cannot say. I have never seen nor heard of such a thing as this happening before.”
“There must be a way to save him,” Kapia said. “There must be.”
“Perhaps,” Worrow said gently. “I would have to see him, examine him myself, before I can form an opinion, and even then it would be a guess.”
“I think you will get your chance at that,” Zakiel said.
“Yes?” Worrow asked curiously.
“I know my cousin and friend well,” he said. “Bredon’s first instinct was to remove himself, and Marene, from this place in order to protect the rest of us, most especially Kapia. The next thing he will do will be to attempt to solve the problem. You, Worrow, are the only person we know in this part of the world who may be able to help. Bredon will wait for us to leave, then he will come back to see you. Assuming he is able to, of course.”
“Then we must leave at once,” Kapia said. “The sooner we are gone, the sooner Bredon can get help. If Zamon Worrow will agree to help him, that is.”
“I will help him if I can,” Worrow said. “However, I hope you will not be offended when I say that I do not wish to endanger my own people any more than you wish to endanger yours.”
Zakiel nodded in understanding. “Of course you don’t, Worrow. I will send two of my best trackers to pick up Bredon’s trail. After we leave, perhaps you and some of your men can meet Bredon along his route before he reaches the village.” Zakiel glanced at Kapia, then back to Worrow. “I know it is a lot to ask of you, Worrow, but Bredon is as a brother to me, and more than that to Kapia. We would be very grateful for your help. At the same time, we will understand if you prefer not to take this risk.”
“After all that you are doing to save our very world, I am happy to perform this small task for you,” Worrow said. “When do you wish to leave?”
“In the morning,” Kapia said.
“You don’t want to rest for a day?” Zakiel asked.
“We can rest after we leave the Sirelina,” Kapia insisted. “Please, Brother, for Bredon’s sake.”
“She’s right,” Karma said. “We can travel for half a day in the opposite direction that Bredon went, then make camp and rest if we wish.”
“All right,” Zakiel agreed. “We first need to know where we are going, though. We must next find the Maiden of the Sun.”
“Do you know where we might find this woman?” Karma asked Worrow. He shook his head slowly.
“No, Lady Techu, I’m afraid not.”
“Nikura?” Karma asked the Sphin.
“I am not in the habit of keeping track of human females,” Nikura said with an irritated twitch of his tail. “Or males, for that matter.”
“I didn’t think you knew her location,” Karma said. “I did, however, think that you would have an idea about how we could get the information we need. I suppose we could flip a coin, or find a bird sitting in a tree and go in whatever direction it flies. ”
“Or you could ask Kapia,” Nikura said with just a trace of amusement. “That pretty rock she’s carrying does contain some power. It’s also the only means of obtaining the answers you seek.”
“Thank you, Nikura,” Karma said solemnly, hiding her smile at the smug expression on Nikura’s furry face.
“Kapia,” she said, “Nikura says that only the Moon Orb can reveal the location of the Maiden of the Sun.”
“Did he say how I’m supposed to go about getting that information from it?” Kapia asked doubtfully as she lifted the wrapped bundle from her lap.
“No, he’s not quite that helpful,” Karma said wryly. “Worrow?”
“Unwrap it and hold it in your hands,” he suggested. Kapia set the bundle on the table and unwrapped it, revealing a round diamond twice the size of her fist that glittered and shone brilliantly even in the soft light of the candles on the table. Worrow stared at the orb, committing each facet to memory, knowing he would never see such a sight again in his lifetime. Kapia picked the orb up and held it in the palms of her hands, then, feeling a little silly, she closed her eyes. The orb was so bright that even with her eyes closed she could still see it flashing through her eyelids. She remained motionless, focusing on the phantom lights for long moments. When at last she opened her eyes, she smiled.
“Worrow, are you familiar with a place called Cutter’s Hamlet?” she asked. “It’s either in a forest, or very close to one.”
“It’s in a valley surrounded by forest,” Worrow replied. “About three days travel on your beasts, twice that on foot. Did the orb give you the name of the one you seek?”
“No, just Cutter’s Hamlet,” Kapia replied as she wrapped the orb again.
“Our spiritual leader, Zamori, has been to Cutter’s Hamlet. She has told me stories of a young woman who lives outside the village,” Worrow said. “I believe she may be the one you seek.”
“Why?” Karma asked.
“For one thing, her name is Tiari Zora,” Worrow said. “I confess, that has always captured my interest. Tiara is a word meaning flame of life. Zora means light of dawn.”
“Yes, I see what you mean,” Karma said. “That would be a significant name for the Maiden of the Sun. Can you tell us more about her?”
“Her parents have long passed to the beyond,” Worrow said. “The young lady’s aunt claims that she is a witch, so keeps her locked in a hut in the forest. If she is the Maiden of the Sun, you will free her, which would please me greatly.”
“From what you’ve said, I think we must free her in any case,” Karma said.
“You would do that, even if she is not the one you seek?” Worrow asked.
“I know a woman who was held prisoner for over sixty years,” Karma said. “I will not dishonor Berta, and the sacrifices she once made for a group of women she didn’t even know, by passing by an innocent who is held prisoner without stopping to help if I can.”
“Valia,” Zakiel said in a low voice. “Our quest is to find the orbs, and our time is short. If she is not the woman we seek, we will not have time to rescue her.”
Karma shrugged one shoulder. “Then don’t,” she said. “I will do it on my own and catch up to you later.”
“Karma,” he began, but she held up one hand to stop him.
“Do not think to order me, Zakiel,” she warned. “I love you above all things, but I will do what I believe to be right.”
Zakiel opened his mouth, but Kapia jumped in before he had a chance to speak. “Lets hold off on this argument until we learn whether this is the right woman or not,” she suggested.
Karma nodded, though the look she shot Zakiel warned that she had no intention of changing her mind on the subject. When she was sure Zakiel fully understood her, she turned back to Worrow. “Worrow, do you know where we will find the Sun Orb?”
“I’m afraid not, Lady Techu,” he replied. “The role of the Sirelina in this quest has been fulfilled. We know no more. I believe it will be thus with each orb.”
“I suppose it’s a safety measure to ensure that the orbs were well hidden from the demons,” Karma said. “I only hope that they are not hidden so well that we won’t be able to find them in time.”
“It is a risk,” Worrow agreed. “However, I have faith in the three of you. If Rathira can be saved, you will save it.”
“We will do all that we can to make sure your faith in us is not misplaced, Worrow,” Zakiel said.
“You already have, Prince Zakiel,” Worrow said. He turned to Karma. “Lady Techu, have you tried to summon Techu Samyi?”
“No, not yet,” Karma said shaking her head. “I’ll try it now.”
Karma reached for the Ti-Ank, a long staff with a winged ankh carved from blue stone at the top, and sent a thread of energy into it while sending a polite request to Samyi in her mind. Though she was able to speak with the dead, she did not have the power to summon them. She just hoped that Samyi would hear her call and choose to come. Long moments passed and she was about to give up when a misty figure began to take form beside her. She sent more power into the Ti-Ank so that everyone could see Samyi.
“Greetings, Techu Samyi,” Zakiel said with a deep nod.
“Greetings, Prince of Isiben,” Samyi replied. She turned her misty eyes on Worrow and smiled. “I would thank you, Worrow, Zamon of the Sirelina, for all you have done to assist the Orb Quest.”
Worrow bowed from his chair, his cheeks darkening with pleasure. “The Sirelina are pleased to do our part, and wish only that we could do more.”
“The tasks of the Sirelina are complete, though you, Worrow, still have one thing yet to do,” Samyi said, turning to look at Kapia with sad eyes. “You all have roles to play in the days to come. Some easier than others, but each important.”
“Is Bredon possessed by Marene?” Kapia asked bluntly.
“Her soul, corrupted as it is, has found an opening into his mind and body, yes,” Samyi replied. “He is not cin-sahib, but more than that, I cannot tell you.”
“Samyi, I’m afraid I have little strength for this after today,” Karma said. “Can you tell us where the Sun Orb is?”
“Once you gather the Maiden of the Sun, she and Kapia must lay their hands upon the Moon Orb together for it to reveal that secret.”
“Thank you, Samyi,” Karma said, realizing that Samyi hadn’t really answered her question, but satisfied with the information anyway.
Samyi smiled as she faded away, along with the last of Karma’s strength. “I’m sorry, I just can’t hold on to her any longer.”
“It’s all right, valia,” Zakiel said. “We learned what we most needed to know.”
“And I now know that I am meant to follow Sir Bredon and offer my aid to him,” Worrow said. “For that, I thank you, Lady Techu. Now, if I may be so bold, you three look as though you’re about to fall over. I suggest you get some rest as you will have an early day tomorrow.”
Kapia sat on her narrow bed and listened as Caral and Lashi climbed into their beds in the front chamber of the tent. The camp around her was quiet, the only sounds coming from the sentries as they circled the tent every few minutes. When she heard the last one walk by, she pulled her blanket up over her head and unwrapped the orb. Even in the darkness it shone brightly, as though lit from within though, oddly, it didn’t hurt her eyes to gaze directly at it.
After the location of the Maiden of the Sun had come to her earlier, she’d wondered if there was a way for her to use it to connect with Bredon. Or, if not connect, at least check on him, make sure that he was all right.
She placed her hands around the orb and closed her eyes as she’d done earlier, this time focusing on Bredon. She forced herself to be patient and wait, but long minutes passed with no result.
Perhaps she was simply too tired, she thought. It had been a very long and trying day. She rewrapped the orb in the thick scarf that Caral had dug out for her so she could return Karma’s vest.
Caral and Lashi had been sworn to secrecy regarding the orb. Everyone with the Orb Quest knew, or assumed, she had it, since that was the purpose of the quest. She didn’t think it would be a good idea to let everyone see it just yet. Caral was making a bag for her to carry the orb in, but for now, she would keep it wrapped in the scarf and sleep with it beside her. As she lay in her bed, waiting to drift off to sleep, she thought of Bredon and, for some reason, the day she’d told him she was to join the Orb Quest.
Kapia left her father’s private audience chamber happier than she could remember being in a very long time. She was all but skipping down the corridors of the palace as she made her way toward Karma’s apartments, eager to share her news.
“You seem very happy, Cousin Kapia,” Bredon said, stepping into the corridor just a few yards in front of her.
Kapia stumbled in surprise, her leather sandals sliding along the polished floor. She lost her balance, stuck out one hand to catch herself against the wall and came to a graceless stop. She felt her face heat with embarrassment. Why did she always make a fool of herself whenever Bredon was around? she wondered.
“I’m sorry, Cousin Kapia,” Bredon said, hurrying forward a few steps as though to help her. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“It’s all right, Sir Bredon,” she replied, taking her hand from the wall and standing up straight, trying to pretend she hadn’t nearly fallen on her rear. “It’s my own fault. But yes, I am very happy. I am to join the Orb Quest.”
“Yes, so I have been told,” Bredon said, his smile fading.
“You don’t approve?” Kapia asked.
“It is not mine to approve or disapprove,” Bredon replied. “The Orb Quest will be a long and perilous journey, though. I am concerned that it will be too difficult for one such as you.”
“One such as me?” Kapia asked, her happiness gone in a flash of hurt and anger. “What does that mean, exactly?”
“Only that you are young and gentle,” Bredon said, uncertain why Kapia seemed upset. “I fear that the hardships we will surely face on this journey will be difficult for you to bear.”
“I am not as young and gentle as you perceive me to be, Sir Bredon,” Kapia retorted. “There are those who see me as I am, rather than as the child I once was and, happily, it is their opinion that is required, not yours.”
With that, Kapia stepped around Bredon and hurried away, wanting only to escape his presence before the tears she was fighting had a chance to fall.