CHAPTER 1—CONSULTING AN EXILE
At a farmhouse between merging rivers, Montague La-Rose knotted the last rope that held together the bags he’d stacked on his wagon. The farmer twisted and pulled the jute twine tight in the morning sun as its waxing light peaked in the sky. He was five miles from the capital, already late to deliver the herbs and spices he’d promised the king of Illyrium.
It was odd enough to sleep past sunrise when he always woke at first light, especially on one of two most important days of the year. But the fact that he felt nauseous worried him. Many people throughout Illyrium had become sick and bedridden, and the cause was unknown. As winds changed to winter, Montague’s medicine became highly sought. This single shipment could save hundreds of lives. His crops included some of the rarest plants in the world of Naan, and his arrival at the capital was most anticipated.
The bags on top were double wrapped in oilcloth, reminding him just how important it was that he made it to the rendezvous. They were for the princess. He’d received word from the castle that the king’s daughter, Olivia Volpi, began to hallucinate. It was a symptom of the recent foodborne illness. She was one of the first infected. But since the royal family did not want it known that a member of their bloodline was sick her condition was kept from the public.
As the high noon bell tolled, he climbed to the seat of his wagon.
“Let’s go, Earl,” he said to his donkey. Montague wiggled the bolt that held the splinter bar to make sure it was secure. “We’re finally on our way, three kingdoms to visit. I know you like that Graleon hay.”
Twice a year Montague delivered a share’s worth of goods to the high, rich castles of the United Kingdoms of Naan: Grale, Mern, and Illyrium, the first city and capital of Men. He also made sure to share with the dirt-bottom street dwellers throughout each kingdom until he was left with a small supply he kept for himself. Because of the situation with the princess, the king had arranged an early delivery with Montague, nearly a month before schedule. He’d bunker down at the stables for a week or two before leaving for Grale. In total, his trip would take four weeks. He felt proud about making his contribution to the rest of society, but it was also payday for Montague. The profit had to last for eight months until the next harvest.
For the past six weeks Montague had been secretly providing the castle with various herbal concoctions that helped ease Olivia’s discomfort. He was trusted by the king so much that the royal family had fired their own private healer and left the medical decisions for Olivia’s case up to Montague.
Most, if not all herbs Montague grew, were known to have healing properties. Peasants who couldn’t afford medicinal attention praised him. Since his family’s land was the only successful place nutwood and pigroot would grow, both known to produce oils that fight the deadliest infections, it was his responsibility to provide a healthy supply of those in particular to the healers across three islands. Although he wasn’t considered a healer himself, he still played an important role in public healthcare.
A recurring dizziness came upon him. But the urge to heave was gone.
The journey to Illyrium would take an hour if he traveled north along the coast of the Noahl River. But if the shore was blocked by fallen rock from the Gory Hills he would be forced to cross at the shallows to the other side, adding at least a half hour to his arrival time. Earl refused to walk through water that came above his hooves without snacks to tempt him. If Montague could only afford a horse, things would be much easier. Luckily, the path lit by a golden, midday sun was smooth at the onset of the voyage. There were no rocks and the fallen trees had been cleared by the woodsmen as they did before every first frost. He was more grateful than ever for the men’s hard work. But unfortunately there was nothing the woodsmen could do about the scattered puddles of fly-infested mud that were leaking into low-lying areas of the path. The odor was pungent. And since Earl’s feet got wet, the donkey was slow to maneuver.
Suddenly, Montague heard a wheel snap as the wagon slammed down on one side. The displacement caused the stack of bags to shift, tearing the bonnet covering the herbs and hurling the burlap across the malodorous terrain. When the wagon toppled over, the farmer rolled out from the crash.
Earl stood there entangled in his reins. But the donkey didn’t fall.
What a disaster, Montague thought. Six months of arduous work were on the verge of being lost. Out of a total of twenty-five, there were only ten dry bags left resting on top of fifteen others which were soaked. If the herbs and spices weren’t already contaminated by bacteria, the moisture would surely promote mold before they could be properly dried.
He held his hands to his broken heart. Montague was devastated, but he needed to keep moving. There was only one bag left of the precious nutwood and pigroot. Reflexively, he stuffed it under his arm so he could hold it tight. The princess, he thought. With each dry bag weighing thirty pounds, the middle-aged farmer could only carry one other dry bag on his own. He loaded as many as five on Earl’s back before the ass’s legs began to shake. So Montague took one off to ease his trouble. The rest would have to be left behind. Maybe, Montague thought if animals didn’t scoff it all up before his trip home he could salvage more. He covered the stack of herbs with the bonnet of the wagon.
Montague pulled the donkey through a mile of soft, cold dirt before they came to the edge of the dense forests leading to Illyrium.
Only minutes into the vine-choked path, Earl paused and his ears stood high. The sound of scattering in the long grass warned Montague that a pack of heavy-footed animals had surrounded them and were closing in fast. When a gibbering pig grunted, Earl trembled. Three pudgy faces with opaque eyes peeked through the long grass, their mouths drooling thick yellow mucus. The donkey brayed then rose up on his back legs, dropping the four bags he carried, and ran off into the woods, leaving Montague on his own.
But Montague had met feral broom pigs before. They became vicious over black radish, one of the twenty plants he had packed. This time he carried pounds of it. The pigs must have caught the scent, he thought. They could charge, kill him, and eat everything. Fall deliveries were the most difficult. The weather and animals were unpredictable.
Although Montague was a mere farmer, he was quite capable of defending himself with a sword. But his hands were full, carrying two bags of herbs. If he should need his sword, he would have to sacrifice one to grip it.
The sounder ran straight for the bags that Earl had left behind. Driven by the raging hunger of a broom swine, they didn’t even acknowledge Montague. In their ignorance, he stepped back into the brush far enough that he was able to reach another path, one parallel to where the pigs had ambushed him and his donkey. He went unnoticed by the gang of pigs now ravaging the majority of his supply. But Montague knew he wasn’t out of trouble yet. He heard heavy, congested breathing behind him. A fourth pig stood in the outskirts of the feast, right where Montague was trying to escape. The boar’s hair puffed. It sniffed in the rich scent of a light breeze through its sopping nostrils, then charged.
Montague had to make a decision; either drop the bags on the high grass to handle his sword and defend himself and the last two bags of medicine, or try to outrun the beast while carrying sixty extra pounds of weight. There was a choice that was plausible. He placed one bag on top of the thick, stalky grass for a cushion, keeping the herbs marginally elevated from the ground’s moisture. The farmer couldn’t part with the bag that contained the princess’s medicine. It was too valuable. So Montague held onto it.
Unsheathing his blade with his right hand, he gripped the handle tight and close to the cross-guard. In the broken columns of waning light shining down between the trees, the pig appeared massive. Montague knew that if it charged he had only one chance to stop it before it trampled him. He took a step back, then another. As he distanced himself from the herbs the pig moved closer. But it stopped about ten feet away, took its eyes from Montague and snapped at the bag. The swine gobbled the herbs, snorting between bites.
With the beast occupied, Montague trudged onward to his destination. Now in the valley’s eastern shadow where giant sequoia trees lead to the land of Illyrium, he knew he was only minutes away. It was a good thing he held onto the more important of the two bags, he thought. The farmer was tired and his muscles were sore.
The last bag of rare herbs and spices was worth only enough coin to buy a new wagon and pay the blacksmith for new rakes and to sharpen worn sickles. Montague didn’t have enough to spare for the street folk at the markets. Nor would he keep any for himself. There were others that needed it more. He just didn’t know how he would pay for goods and taxes for the next seven months. Perhaps the king would cut him a break, he thought. Just before Montague’s father died, more than ten years ago, he had been to the castle with his parents for dinner. The royal Volpis liked his family very much and wanted to publicly thank them and other farmhouse names for providing the kingdom with the necessities of life. During the king’s words before the meal that night, he looked at Montague’s father and said, “You can always tell the quality of a family by the soil beneath a man’s home.” The La-Roses were blessed with fertile land.
The trails leading to the capital were usually patrolled by officers of the king. But today, Montague saw none. And when he finally arrived at the northern gates, he didn’t see Sully, the man who had always accepted the La-Rose deliveries since his father’s time. Nor did Montague recognize the three armored men guarding the gates. He only knew the gate tender, an orphaned boy named Sam.
“Good noon. I’ve had some trouble this morning. I deeply apologize for my tardiness,” Montague said, catching his breath. The officers, strangers to him, remained silent and stared blankly. “Sully, has he gone home?”
The king had specifically instructed Montague to give the herbs to Sully and only Sully during unscheduled deliveries. He peered through the lines of light between the wooden trunks of the gate, hoping to glimpse another shadow. But there was no one else walking the grounds.
“He got reassigned,” replied a guard who Montague heard the others call Gums. His brown teeth and thick gum line were permanently exposed.
Montague was cautious. The guard didn’t look like an officer of Illyrium; none of them did. And Sam, who would exchange a joke with Montague whenever he’d see him, wouldn’t even make eye-contact. “My wagon broke and I lost my donkey along with most of my supply. I need—”
The men giggled and pouted, mocking him as if Montague were a whining child. Their breaths reeked of ale. The king would feel disrespected if he knew that his officers were drunk during duty, Montague thought.
“Please, I need to speak to the king.”
“And who are you? What’s your business in Illyrium?” the guard was stern in his questioning.
“I am Montague La-Rose. I have herbs and spices for the kingdom—medicines. But, I’ve had a terrible time along the way. All but one bag of my supply was spoiled.”
“You think a king would take time out of his busy schedule just to hear about a farmer’s bad day?” Gums pursed his lips. “And that’s it? One dirty bag is all you have for an entire kingdom?”
The farmer glanced at what little he had to offer. At that, he became even more disappointed in himself. “The wheel on my wagon broke along the river bed, dumping my supply. This is all I was able to salvage.” With such little product to sell, he wouldn’t even bother making the trips to Grale or Mern. Illyrium would be the only kingdom to reap the benefits of Montague’s rare herbs.
Gums scanned him from forehead to foot. “Is that why you look like a dog covered in shit?”
The guards laughed.
Montague regarded his attire and realized how sweaty and dirty he was from his unfortunate morning. Noticing the pommel of his sword tilting out of his robe, he pulled the wool across his chest, making sure the handle and scabbard were concealed. These men had already proved to be hostile and they obviously thought Montague was a fool. If they noticed that he was armed, they might feel threatened. The farmer wanted to avoid conflict at all cost.
“Ben Paddett delivered a wagon full of herbs along with another two wagons of salted cattle carcasses. Like you said yourself—too late. Now piss off,” said Gums.
The guards turned. They must have assumed that Montague would just walk away after they’d ordered him off, but he didn’t. He couldn’t. Not without getting his herbs to the sick princess. If they only knew that Montague had been treating her with these plants, they would reconsider, he thought. But he chose not to speak of her health. He was sworn to secrecy.
“Didn’t you hear me farmer?” Gums asked, the veins in his forehead now bulging.
“Please,” Montague cried, holding out the burlap bags, “I have nutwood and pigroot. They are extremely rare and valuable. And I am the only one who can provide them. You need to get these to the castle. The king dubs them high priority items.”
“Ordering me, are you?” Gums frowned. “I’ll decide what needs to be done. And paying you for a dirty sack of herbs doesn’t seem like a likely option. I don’t care how rare they are. How much do you think a bag is actually worth?”
“My family has been providing the three kingdoms with these herbs for decades. The king requests them. If I can only discuss it with him at the castle—”
“You’ll discuss it with me!”
In all forty-four years of his life, Montague had been inside the castle three times. He admired the architecture and enjoyed the fragrant smells of burnt-brown sugar and carrot butter. The last two visits he’d made to Illyrium were not traditional deliveries; they were for medical examinations and treatment plans for the princess. He thought that maybe he could persuade the king to pay him at a healer’s wage, which was much more than a farmer’s income and would last him well beyond the next harvest.
“My lords,” Montague said. They were no lords, but he hoped that flattering them with high titles would alleviate the tension. He kneeled and offered the bag. “My apologies, I meant no disrespect. I shall leave it as a gift for the king.”
“You’re awful insistent, a little suspicious if I were to say. No one gives away anything for free,” said Gums. “Didn’t you say that they were valuable?”
“It’s more important for our lords and ladies to have it than me. I can always grow more. I promise you I have no ill intent towards the royal family.”
For a moment Gums studied Montague, squinted, then relaxed his interrogating eyes and said, “No, I don’t think you do. But I still don’t trust you.” He turned to the other guards, “Let’s see if there is anything hidden inside.”
Gums grabbed the sack. He poked at it over and over again, spewing the fresh greens onto wet ground, laughing.
Montague watched the last fruits of his labor go to waste. Finally, he turned away, disgusted.
“Hey!” Gums bellowed. “Let me at least get you a cup of wine to warm your bones before the journey home, huh.” The guards snickered. “See? We are decent fellows.” Gums looked to the gate tender, Sam, and said, “Bring him some wine.”
The boy ran out with a pitcher and a mug. Without acknowledging their friendship, Sam handed Montague the mug and poured a dark red wine into it; still no eye-contact. Under the mug, Montague felt a small piece of paper. By the anxious look on Sam’s face, it was obvious that he didn’t want the guards to know about the transaction. Was Sam trying to tell him that the wine was drugged or poisoned? Montague wondered. But the report of a dead farmer at the gates of the capital of Men would stir more trouble for the simple-minded guards than they would want.
His thirst overrode his caution. Furtively, Montague lifted the note with his fingers, up his sleeve into the fold of his homemade wool coat and chugged the sweet plum liquor. As hope faded, the farmer chose to let fate determine his future.
After a few sips, Sam pulled the mug from Montague’s mouth as he was drinking and ran back inside the gate.
“Now off with ya. Better luck with the spring harvest, farmer,” Gums said.
On the way home Montague stopped at the broken wagon to see if Earl was still wandering around somewhere close, but there was no sign of him. He’s better off free than living with me now.
There were no immediate effects from the wine: hallucinations, sudden blackouts, or any illnesses whatsoever. If anything, it helped numb the pain. Fortunately, it wasn’t poisoned. Or maybe, he thought, he was a dead man already. He’d woken up late, crashed his wagon, been ambushed by wild pigs, and failed to deliver his precious herbs. Not even a trace of them were left, the swine had eaten every leaf, stem, root, and seed. The possibility of losing everything now became a probability; his land, his home, his animals. Without speaking to the king for a pardon, he couldn’t pay his taxes and The Temple would seize his land.
The Temple, Montague thought. He cringed at the sound of the word. In the summer months when priests amass for the annual pilgrimage across the mainland and pass by his farm on their way south, he felt paranoid. Although Montague had never been accused of any crime against the kingdoms of Naan, he had a secret—a secret that would cause the rest of the world, including the king of Men, to turn on him and cast him out of civilization forever if it was exposed. And The Temple had eyes and ears everywhere.
Montague was anxious to read the letter that Sam, the gate tender, had placed in his palm. It was still in the fold of his sleeve. When he opened the parchment it read: We need to speak.
Everything suddenly made sense. There was no name attached to the writing, but Montague knew that the letter was from his mentor, Burton Lang, and he knew exactly where to meet him. Burton had been banished from the three kingdoms of Men almost forty years ago for speaking against the word of The Temple. Illyrium must know his secret, Montague thought. That was why the guards acted so harshly to him and why Sam couldn’t look at him. The farmer believed that The Temple knew he was consulting an exile.
CHAPTER 2—A CALL FOR HELP
Montague La-Rose stepped into the darkness. A cold wind screamed from the belly of the mountain, carrying black sediment that thickened the air. Rain from the surface dripped down through the cavern’s stone ceilings. With the dwindling light of his torch, he listened to the black space around him and followed the running water, knowing that with each step he was descending closer to the core of Planet Naan, where an underground network of tunnels reached across the lands. This network was connected to the heart of the planet where a message station, created long ago by entities of the higher dimensions, enabled communication with the heavens and the other four known worlds. Each planet had been equipped with these intricate machines, as delicate and powerful as the human mind.
Just beyond the cave’s entrance were a series of possible tunnels. Fire-light twinkled from the one. Montague followed it and found his teacher, Burton Lang, kneeling in front of a wall covered with ancient paintings. The fall air was much too cold for the skinny old man, bundled in layers. He had short, curly, snow-white hair with white and gray scruff. But he was no mere man. Montague’s teacher had come from the sky. Burton was an incarnated angel, a wizard.
At first, Montague didn’t speak. He listened and watched his mentor ramble on about arbitrary what-ifs and what-nots while tracing his fingers across the pictures. Recently the old man had been telling him the same old stories over and over again. Montague was getting worried about him, especially since he’d summoned him far west to the Kejin Mountains, a rocky range of steep cliffs and deep caverns. They hadn’t met here for decades. But he had to tell Burton about what happened at the capital gates today.
Without any physical indication that Burton was aware of Montague’s presence, he spoke. “It feels like yesterday I sat just here explaining the great deception of Man to those who were willing to accept the truth, yet it was centuries ago,” Burton said. He stopped his finger on a small circle that represented Naan’s second moon.
Montague was well aware of what it represented. It was a rogue sphere unnatural to their sky.
A dotted web was drawn out from the foreign moon and across the circular world map, encapsulating the whole picture. Burton had called it the mouth of the beast; a symbol for the artificial quarantine placed around the planet by an invasive alien species called the Nekrums. The second moon was the home of the Nekrums, a craft capable of supporting millions of beings. And the quarantine was meant to keep any divine being from intruding on the Nekrums’ arcane affairs. With this veil of darkness in place, spiritual beings of light, or angels as they were called, could not penetrate the barrier and descend into the physical realm. But because Burton had descended to the planet before the Nekrums had arrived, they couldn’t attempt an all-out invasion while an awakened angel was there guarding it.
The farmer approached the painting, feeling the history rush through him. The rich yellows, deep blues, and bright-green inks mapped the historical timeline of Man—events that Burton had been exposing to him since he was a boy; events that were different than the official stories documented in the sacred scriptures of mankind.
Burton continued, “Some of my first students, founders of the Resistance, passed this information on to their children. Others were afraid, retreating to life on the waters far from the mainland, or digging down deep into the underground to escape the eye of the Nekrums. But no one is truly beyond their reach. The Nekrums have invaded other worlds before.”
“The emigrants,” Montague said, still staring at the painting. “That’s how the islands of Grale and Mern were colonized.”
“Exactly,” Burton said.
Montague knew all of this. Burton had told him many times before. But it was obvious that Burton, not having many friends nowadays, felt better talking about it. Montague’s mentor had known that the murderous Nekrums would find this planet one day. And that day had come sooner than he’d anticipated. The aliens had been lurking in the sky within an incandescent biosphere, posing as a second moon for over four hundred years, waiting for the perfect time to strike—when the angel was caught off guard.
As Montague stood, still waiting to tell his teacher about what happened at the kingdom, he felt a trembling fear. Perhaps the terrifying ‘future events’ that Burton had told him would come to pass were finally happening. Montague dreaded the day. Suddenly, his problems with the kingdom seemed small. He tried to keep himself as balanced as his mentor had taught him, but he sensed that Burton was picking up on his discomfort.
“The king cut me off,” Montague said loudly. His voice echoed within the dark, wet cavern.
Burton turned to him, lifting one brow.
“There were men at the gates I’ve never seen before. The boy, Sam, wouldn’t even look at me. They turned me away. They know, Sensei…they know that you’ve been teaching me. They’ll—”
Burton interjected, “Do you not remember what happened to me?”
“Of course I remember,” said Montague.
When the Nekrums infiltrated The Temple five hundred years ago, they set fire to the institution’s library, destroying every copy of the sacred document known as Gabriel’s Diary. It contained the true histories and origin stories of mankind before its arrival on Planet Naan.
Although Burton secured the original, he had faced a problem that was harder to solve than he had ever expected or prepared for. The newer generations of the world were accepting a changing belief system about their race’s origins that eventually became not only false, but misleading, promoting a narrow-minded way of thinking. The Nekrums were successful in deceiving the human masses into believing a false story of creation. That false story was promoted by The Temple from a new sacred document titled, The Book of Volpi. Over time, many verses were written and re-written by corrupt priests who were manipulated by the Nekrums. As many copies had come to pass throughout the ages, truth was deleted and lies were inserted. The Temple declared The Book of Volpi as the official history of Naan. It was assumed to be written by a god named Gabriel Volpi, explaining the story of Man’s creation. Descendants of that creator became the royal family destined to rule over mankind.
But Burton told a different story. He claimed that Gabriel was no god, but a human being who came from another planet.
Some of the very people who Burton taught long ago had joined the exiles and used his knowledge to form a cult against the three kingdoms. The technology he was trying to share had been turned into deadly weapons. Some exiles were known to use illusions to manipulate people and powders to kill or control people. They were called ‘mages’. Dangerous to anyone who wasn’t a part of their cult, they even participated in human and animal sacrifices to appease their gods, the Nekrums, to gain, what the mages called, spiritual power.
The event that made The Temple present their case against Burton happened on a cold, snowy night at Illyrium’s four hundred and fiftieth anniversary festival. It was tradition to collapse and burn the remains of an old, dilapidated structure to make way for the new; usually a house or stable that had been built during the first rising of civilization. When Burton had lit the bonfire, it exploded into a fireball that shot straight into the sky, scorching it. There had been three days of darkness to follow, creating an end-of-the-world trepidation among many. Because of the incident, the Illyrium council blamed the phenomenon on Burton and ruled that such mystical acts or anything unknown to scientists would from that moment on be considered ‘witchcraft’. If the accused was convicted, he or she would be banished from the land. The people of the world had turned on Burton, who’d once led the construction of civilization. But Montague’s sensei had sworn to him that he was set up. He claimed that the wood had been soaked in rosstic acid, an explosive compound derived from a desert rose. Burton tasted it on the charred residue after the event that night.
Aside from his lasting contribution to the three kingdoms of Naan, Burton had been cast out and dubbed an evil sorcerer among men who perverted the ways of the civilized world. Although he still had friends inside the Kingdom of Illyrium, his visits were now short, and secret.
“With the best spies coins can buy The Temple is the first to know everything and if they knew that you were affiliated with me, you wouldn’t have been allowed to leave. They would have arrested you and locked you away to await a trial that would guarantee banishment, or death. I don’t know who those men were, but the king most certainly did not cut you off. The kingdom is compromised. In fear for your life, I tried to stop you from going to the castle. The enemy is making a move.”
“What do you mean, you tried to stop me?” Montague was confused. He hadn’t seen Burton in over a month.
“I did what was necessary to try and prevent you from reaching Illyrium.”
Montague pressed. “You did what, exactly?” He didn’t like Burton’s vague explanations, considering the trouble he’d been through.
“First I relaxed you to make sure you would sleep in, past the rendezvous.”
“Relaxed me? You mean drugged me? When? Last night?” Montague asked. He almost wasn’t surprised.
“In your tea, yes,” he said matter-of-factly. “Then I cracked the wheel on your wagon so that it would break. I’m sorry, but I was only trying to protect you.”
“But the princess,” Montague said. “She needs medicine. And I have none left.”
“I already gave Gretchen some pigroot and ginger algae. Olivia will be fine for now.”
Gretchen was Princess Olivia’s handmaid, also guilty of consorting with Burton, an exile.
“Why couldn’t you have just told me not to go?” Montague wondered.
“At the time, I wasn’t confident enough of what was happening to alert you, so I simply set up obstacles, hoping that you would have just delayed your travels for the day until I returned from visiting some of the farms.”
“Every choice we face in life is a test, Montague. And we make countless decisions every day.”
Perturbed by his teacher’s confession, Montague had to ask. “And the pigs, did you round them up as well?”
“Pigs?” Burton laughed. “No. I’m not that mean. But with all of the obstacles I put in place, you still reached Illyrium, didn’t you? When you arrived, I sensed it. You have a hard head. A ‘testa dura’ you are. I should have known that even I couldn’t stop you.”
“Then if no one suspects me then why did we have to meet here for you to tell me this?”
“Because I need you to help me send an important message,” Burton said.
“Since when do we travel almost a hundred miles to send a message when you can contact anyone or anything with your mind?” Montague had once witnessed Burton summoning a family of foxes from miles away to deliver messages to different people in different towns. One of many miracles he had seen his teacher perform.
Burton took his eyes from the cave drawings and looked Montague in the eyes. “I’m growing old, Montague. My mind has become withered, making it hard for me to function in this body.”
Montague had suspected that Burton’s ability to tap into infinite knowledge was diminishing. In recent years he’d become forgetful. The old man would have to physically search for answers now, and he was not fond of constant travel.
A gust of wind followed Burton’s hand as he waved it across the small pyre. It went out. He led Montague further into the depths to another cave system.
Here, there were more paintings. Burton pointed to the ceiling above them. Drawings of dead bodies, stacked, with corn husks coming out from the tops of the pile, represented the first portent of the Fall of Mankind. “The Nekrum invasion will begin with a great sickness.”
“I’ll wager you can guess who, or should I say, what, drew this,” Burton said.
“The one that the Nekrums control, the host,” Montague replied. “This shows the plague from the prophecies, written in The Book of Volpi.”
When the Nekrums would take control of a human body, that host was manipulated by a technology based on microorganic intelligence that could operate the human body. The aliens were much more advanced than the primitive humans of Naan.
“Yes. The Nekrums ordered their host to insert prophecies into all the copies of The Book of Volpi being reproduced, drawing out the Nekrums’ plan for invasion, knowing that there was nothing the people could do about it. The Nekrums find it entertaining to see people in fear of what is yet to pass. But the Nekrums left out certain details to mislead me. These scenarios are only possible futures. If the majority of mankind believes in those possibilities, those beliefs could generate enough mental energy to feed the destructive force of the events prophesized. The Nekrums are trying to get mankind to help create its own demise by believing these prophecies. The human collective consciousness is more powerful than an incarnated angel. That’s the Nekrums’ greatest weapon. When people are afraid, or sick, it makes them easier to control. And recently, our people have been feeling ill after every meal. The last produce and spice shipment was tainted by a substance created by something other than nature.” Burton gave Montague a hard stare. “If one of the farmers is compromised, then our enemies have already made their move.”
Because of his teacher, Montague knew what the Nekrums were going to do, but Burton didn’t know when they would do it. Following the laws of chaos to keep their enemies guessing, the Nekrums remained completely random in their time of attack. They believed that an enemy who based his war strategy on ceremonial dates was weak.
Burton coughed, holding his chest.
“You told me that the Nekrums wouldn’t invade while you were here. I was born into my life with you in it, and I’ve studied beside you since I could read. And I never saw you ill. What are you not telling me?”
Burton looked to his feet. He seemed hesitant about what he was going to say. But then his mentor spoke the words that Montague never thought he would hear.
“I’m dying,” said Burton. “Just days ago, for the first time, I bled from a wound that I couldn’t heal.”
Montague took a deep breath. “But you can’t die. If you are right about the Nekrums…we’ll need you.”
“I can’t live much longer. Don’t you see? That is why the Nekrums are starting the invasion now. They know that after half a millennium I can’t stabilize this body for much longer. I might linger on for a few more years as a withering old man, but with my power being anything less than at full potential, I am useless. In this condition I cannot protect the Volpi bloodline. If I’m gone before we stop the Nekrums’ puppet, you must carry out the plan, Montague. Since no one will believe me about what is happening, we need to call for help,” Burton said.
“Help? From Grale and Mern? What will three iron-age armies do against an enemy who has the potential to annihilate an entire species overnight and can travel the skies?” Montague asked.
“We have something they need to acquire first—Volpi blood. But this will only delay their plans. If we had three kingdoms united together to fight for the same belief, the mind can transcend any kind of magic in all the worlds of Men. Awareness is a powerful tool, more than any human realizes. However, I’m not talking about help from anyone on this planet. Only an ascended master can help defend a misguided civilization, and since the Nekrums’ quarantine acts to prevent my kind from traveling in or out of the planet, we need help from a being powerful enough to break through. I was lucky to incarnate before the quarantine was placed.”
Montague had heard this many times before. Burton wanted to conjure a spiritual being, one who had experienced both the depths of darkness and the ascensions of love, into the world. He had told Montague that neutral beings were considered to be the most powerful in the higher dimensions. They were also known as the calmest, most patient, and largely, peaceful beings in the universe. Burton was once part of a spiritual collective with the entity he was trying to contact. Together they’d freed enslaved races from predatory attacks before. And on this day and at this hour, the Kejin Mountain was perfectly aligned with the star cluster in which the message needed to be sent.
“We have one chance. We must do this right. There are both angels and demons eager to enter the physical world. If we succeed, it is up to you to enlighten the angel to truth. If we fail, you must face the demon in my absence.”
Montague started pacing around, rubbing his head. “Now you are talking about dangerous magic. Well, for me. Burton, you are asking me to face a demon, alone. I have never done anything like this before. What if I fail?” he choked up.
“Of all the humans I have met in all the lives I have lived, I have never met anyone as strong as you,” Burton said. “Not physically, but mentally and emotionally.”
“Sensei, don’t be silly. You’ve taught me everything I know.”
“But I haven’t taught you everything that I know. I have kept certain things from you, only to protect you. I am sorry, Montague. I realize now that I was wrong for not trusting you completely. Because I do trust you—I always trusted you.”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Never mind now. I’ll tell you everything at another time. There are few of us left who know and believe the truth. But you are the only one to handle this, Montague. If I could, I would protect this world for all eternity. But I’m afraid the laws of the third dimension will not allow that.”
In the middle of the hollow space there was a large bowl-shaped stone filled to the brim with water. Burton held his hand over the undulating surface and stretched out his fingers. “Do you have Gabriel’s Dairy with you?”
“No. It’s at home in the same place I put it the day you gave it to me. I never take it with me on long journeys—just in case.” Montague remembered that day like it was yesterday. The documentation of Man’s history, preceding Planet Naan, felt ten times heavier when Burton had placed it in his hands. From that moment, he knew that he accepted the responsibility of keeping it hidden from an advanced species that would kill anything that prevented them of finding it. The feeling of becoming the diary’s caretaker had been overwhelming at the least.
“Good. I figured so,” said Burton.
“It can act as a conduit in sending messages far and wide. So now I need you to concentrate, Montague. Hold your hand out over the stone.” Burton closed his eyes and spoke softly under his breath. “Help me imagine what is happening here and everything that I have showed you about the Nekrums.”
The water inside the stone started to glow and bubble violently. The turbulence caused the water to spill out and splash all over their boots, leaving behind an empty concave stone. A radiant light blasted straight up from the empty bowl, passing through their hands and out from the tip of the mountain, up to the sky and beyond the stars, into the heavens. It carried both Burton and Montague’s thought forms of the situation on their planet, Naan, along with one simple request: HELP.
After a few minutes the light abruptly went out. Darkness returned and the wind in the cave subsided.
“Go home,” Burton said. “Secure the diary. I need to check more crop and cattle fields. I’ll fill you in along the way. Keep your mind open. I’ll come find you.”
Without question, Montague picked up his bag and torch with its struggling flame. “I can’t believe I’m asking you this, but given your condition, are you able to get out of here without a light?”
Burton laughed. “I wouldn’t be much of a light being if I couldn’t.”
CHAPTER 3—WATERS RISE
When Burton Lang returned to Illyrium, the place he’d once called home, there was almost nothing left. It was the day after the greatest flood the kingdom had ever seen.
In the royal gardens on the castle hillside, he sank his boots into the sodden soil and watched the bloated bodies drift lifelessly along the surface of the murky water. Where once stood houses, stables, and a marketplace, the landscape was now a swamped wasteland of shattered wood and toppled stone. Human and animal carcasses floated past in the receding current. Only a few homes, part of the Illyrium temple, and the castle held their integrity. There were people here and there scavenging through the musky debris.
It was the first time in almost fifty years that the exile walked on this ground. Now unwelcome, Burton decided to go in secret. He pulled the hood of his robe over his head low enough to shadow his face. If someone recognized him, they might blame him for the disaster. Stories of his powers had been twisted to make people believe he was mad so they would fear him.
Nothing about the disaster appeared natural to Burton. It didn’t make any sense that the Noahl River, one that ran alongside the kingdom, would swell a mile inland within a matter of minutes and without warning from the docks. There hadn’t been a storm or rain on the island for weeks, and the ground hadn’t rumbled in over a year. And as an angel among men, Burton knew it was not a god-sent intervention. The second sign to the Fall of Mankind flashed before his eyes: Water.
I hope Montague is safe, Burton thought. His farm would have been destroyed first. His student’s property was just south of the capital, near merging rivers, where the soil was richest.
The sight strangled his heart. Even an incarnated being of divine light was affected by human emotion, influenced by anger and jealousy, vulnerable to temptation and desire, and destined for death. After living through more than five lives of men, the death that surrounded him was a morbid reminder of the physical mortality of Men and beasts, and his own weakening body.
Burton found it a strange coincidence that this freak incident had happened only days after he’d secretly inspected the farms, trying to understand the recent delivery of spoiled meat and moldy grain. For months, people had been experiencing mild to fatal reactions including headaches, fevers, vomiting, or boils, and, in severe cases, rapid death. But the toxin took days before the infected evinced any symptoms, and that delayed effect made it difficult for Burton to link the sickness to the food.
After the wizard had inspected farmer Ben Paddett’s fields for signs of poison or any kind of dangerous chemical composition, he came up with not a trace, just as he did at all the other farms. But there he’d felt a strange presence. Although Ben had appeared to be inside clearing food from his table while Burton navigated the maze of crops, someone or something seemed to be watching him. When Burton had scraped the last corn stalk for analysis, Ben’s dogs came running out from the house after him. Burton was sure that the farmer knew someone had been searching his property.
Now, stamping through dried clumps of algae and mounds of mud, Burton neared the central pillar of the castle. He noticed his old friend at the edge of the retaining wall along the garden walkway. The soil had poured out from a collapsed portion of the interlocking stones.
It puzzled Burton, given the circumstances, to see his former student Demitri Von Cobb, one of the three ministers of science, conducting experiments. As Burton approached, he heard the minister reciting instructions beneath his breath as he cut into the serrated skin of a large gumworm. The bulbous worm was as long as the minister’s forearm. Its skin was scaly between jagged spines.
The anger in Demitri’s voice was guttural and he ground his teeth.
“My friend,” Burton said, clearing the silence.
Demitri remained focused on his knife as he navigated the worm’s internal organs. “Where were you?” he asked coldly.
“You know where I’ve been. I—” Burton began.
“No. I mean, where were you? Didn’t you see this coming?” Demitri’s voice got louder.
Burton couldn’t even answer the question. He hadn’t seen the event coming. And this worried him. After living so long in the same body, his abilities had grown weak. After the body failed, the mind would soon follow, and then he would surely be forced to reincarnate. Even if he was able to reenter the planet, it would take at least six years of physical development before his mind could even begin to remember why he had been sent there. Without the defense of divine power, the Nekrums could rape and conquer the world of Naan in one night.
“The king—Where is the king?” Burton asked, hoping for a quick answer.
Demitri turned back and faced him, sneering. “Where is the king?” he repeated, giggling softly. “I never thought that would be a question you would ever have to ask, my old sensei. How about the queen? Want to know where she is too?” His voice tightened.
Demitri’s wry tone made Burton fear the worst.
“They’re dead,” Demitri said. “Dead.”
The words nearly took the life right out of Burton. His knees began to shake. “And the princess?” he asked. The seconds before Demitri replied felt like a lifetime.
“She’s alive. Gretchen and the other castle servants took her to the belvedere of the castle tower just before the water breached the kingdom walls. They haven’t come down since.” Demitri went right back to looking through his eyeglass at the worm’s insides.
When Burton heard those words, he was relieved—a royal Volpi lives. Although he’d spent generations among the royal family and would grieve them like members of his own, he didn’t feel completely defeated. The twenty-three-year-old princess was safe. She was one of the main reasons Burton Lang had descended to the planet: to protect and defend the Volpi bloodline and the existence of Man.
“What happened?” Burton asked. He massaged his eyes, trying to clear the confusion in his mind.
Demitri rose to his feet. “When the rumbling began, I thought at first it was thunder. So I came outside to look and I saw Montague. I thought it was quite curious to see him on Capital Hill. I knew something was wrong. The river came crashing in from the distance, swallowing the silk forest whole. We made our way to alert everyone in the ballroom. The king and queen were there with council members and representatives from each of the islands. But the doors were locked. They were jammed. We couldn’t open them even with six men before the water began to pool.” He paused for a moment. “I knew from the moment I saw La-Rose that something significant was happening.”
Burton saw the horror in his eyes. Someone must have secured the doors so no one could get in or out. There had to have been an intruder or a traitor in the kingdom. The situation didn’t make sense and solidified his theory of the second attack.
“They were trapped in there. And the screams; I will never forget. My wife was among them.” Demitri bowed his head, wrestling with grief.
“I’m so sorry for your loss. She was a great woman. And she is free now. I’m sure she is traveling the heavens with the rest of her late loved ones.” There was nothing else for Burton to say.
Most natural deaths were followed by festivals where friends and family would celebrate their late loved one’s life. But with the magnitude of devastation that the flood had caused, it was impossible to feel cheerful about the horrifying way the victims had been taken from the living.
“She was the only person who really understood me; understood my passion for my work. And because of my work, I wasn’t there to save her.” Demitri looked up to the sun, shining brighter by the second. “What have I done?” He caught his tear with his finger and took a deep breath. “Am I damned for breaking my vows as a husband? Maybe I was an awful husband. But I loved her.” He looked at Burton. “Am I supposed to live the rest of my life—alone, and unloved? Maybe God has other plans for me.” He took a moment and stared into the void of his future. Without his family, all that remained were dying friendships and his work. “Well, back to the maggot.” Regaining focus, Demitri turned back to his operation.
The human in Burton felt a profound anger rising. “Why was no one guarding the king and queen? Was the royal party unattended? How could this have happened?”
“That’s what I’d like to know!” Demitri seemed furious at the questions, as if Burton was blaming him for the death of the royals. “If you were here, this wouldn’t have happened!”
The thought frightened Burton. It all seemed as if the flood had been planned to occur while he was distracted, investigating the distant farms.
“So again, where were you?” Demitri asked.
Burton remained silent. It was no secret to the Resistance that he was visiting the farms to question the staff about the spoiled food. Although the minister had turned his back on Burton’s teachings, Burton had kept Demitri in the circle of secret information. There was nothing more to say.
“I stayed up last night and found four of these worms, right here within the castle walls,” Demitri said, pointing his cutter at the mucus-covered worm. “They must have washed in. If some unlucky soul stepped on one of these barefoot, their barbs would inject a poison so toxic he would die in less than three seconds.” His eyes rolled up and over and stared straight through Burton. “Yes, the venom that I had been chastised for studying; the one that can disintegrate an army of men. I’d like to have an antidote. You should never make fun of ‘dirt dwellers’ and ‘flying bloodsuckers,’ as you call them. These creatures have developed astonishing defenses through years of evolution.”
Demitri had always been known for his brilliance, but his obsession with lethal toxins and his war-mongering lectures warned Burton about the dangers to this kind of thinking. Once part of the Resistance, Demitri had been a devoted student of his teachings and excelled, like Montague. Burton could bend reality and manipulate the rules of nature. That was why it had been so important that he choose his students carefully. These abilities could be dangerous if they awoke in sinister minds. Demitri had become obsessed with becoming more powerful than others. Yes, the minister was thinking about military defenses, but too many discoveries were being turned into weaponry instead of advancing technology for the betterment of mankind. Once Burton was banished, Demitri had turned his back on him and developed new theories of science that conflicted with his old sensei’s teachings.
Yet now, after the suspected attack, Demitri’s delicate work might be of great use. “I never made any jokes,” Burton said. “I simply stressed the risk that if deadly compounds fell into the wrong hands, it could be suicide.”
“I am not privileged to have the power that you do, my dear friend; this magic or advanced science, as you call it. I cannot simply create something out of nothing. I cannot gain respect by simply snapping my fingers or reciting your pretty prayers; not to mention, cleaving off the summit of an entire mountain. I need to use my brain to contribute to society. But one day I will impress even you, the great Burton Lang!” Demitri said dramatically. He held out his hands, lifting them high as if presenting an attraction. He still wasn’t looking Burton in the eye.
“I’m sorry to upset you, old friend. It wasn’t my intention to offend you.” Burton wanted to explain that he could not ‘create something out of nothing,’ but Burton remained silent. He knew it would only lead to further argument.
Demitri put down the cutter, straightened up, and lifted himself to his feet. “No. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—” His words quivered and he broke down again, falling to his knees.
“It’s fine. I understand. There is no need to apologize,” Burton murmured. He placed his hand on Demitri’s shoulder as an overwhelming sadness took the tired soul’s breath.
Burton kneeled alongside his friend, scooped up two pebbles from the assortment of colored rocks along the edge of the path, and dropped them into the pocket of his brown cloak. When he lifted the rocks out again, plump rosy red apples rested within the palm of his hand. Any trace of stone or dirt had vanished. Burton held out a shiny red fruit to Demitri.
Demitri accepted with a blush of reluctance.
Looking his friend in the eyes, Burton truly meant what he was about to say. “You are an extremely respected gentleman and I have been honored to work with you. Every day you amaze me with your keen intellect and knowledge. I meant no offense. I never did.”
Suddenly, a scream ripped through the air. The eerie echo came from the north village, about fifty yards from the castle grounds. Their stomachs turned from a thick, bitter stench floating in the air. It smelled like charred skin. Emergency bells began urgently ringing; more and more shouting and frantic, desperate cries.
“We have to get inside. Now,” Burton cried.
Demitri stumbled into his equipment in a panic, juggling his tools with shaky hands and carefully collecting every remnant of the dissected worm.
The screams grew closer and the heat of the fires began to reach their skin.
“Leave everything!” Burton yelled.
“I can’t leave the worm here exposed, the venom, what if—” Demitri began.
A figure walked toward them, casting a long, twisted shadow. A murder of crows circled the sky. When the shape stepped close enough, Burton recognized the farmer, Ben Paddett. He looked pale and bone-thin with pruned skin, his big teeth clattering as he stood sweating under his hood and foul-smelling robe. He didn’t seem aware of the mayhem surrounding him. He was just as downtrodden as the aimless crows soaring in circles above him.
“Ben!” Burton shouted. But there was no response, no reaction.
The farmer reached out with dusty, black hands and flashed a concerned grin, like he was trying to warn them of something. But before Paddett could speak a word, a sword carved straight through his neck with a seamless swing, spraying blood across Burton and Demitri’s faces. A small glass marble fell from the farmer’s hand and bounced straight to the tip of Demitri’s boot.
Montague La-Rose grounded himself above the headless body, his mighty sword in hand. He addressed Demitri, who looked shocked and horrified. “I know how this must look, but I don’t have time to explain. You need to follow me.”
“Go! I’m almost finished. I’ll be two steps behind you,” Demitri said, anxiously filling his sack with his tools.
Burton and his apprentice left ahead of him. The stone walls of the outer bailey were on fire. The flames ravaged the castle, melting it like wax. Cautiously, Burton and Montague raced against the heat that made them sweat. As Burton looked back to make sure that Demitri was trailing behind, he was distracted by dark cloaks running in and out of the rubble, slaughtering like cattle the leaderless survivors of Illyrium’s army. The massacre was such that it seemed the kingdom’s men-at-arms had no weapons to defend themselves; swords melted in mid-swing, arrows that were released from elkwood bows turned in flight, missing their marks, and steel shields were shattered like dry timber. Horses neighed wildly and raced away from the fire.
The capital’s army was outnumbered.
Since the kingdom had been established as the capital of Men eight hundred years ago, the penalty for murder, rape, and repeated attempts of robbery was banishment to the barren lands of the Great Flats, three thousand square miles of desert winds and minimal vegetation, one hundred miles north of Illyrium. And as crimes against humanity began to rise, the numbers of exiles had slowly surpassed the cultured folk. But the beings who these exiles worshipped were far more dangerous than an army of refugees lurking in the shadow of the land. That evil was preparing to reveal itself with vengeance.
~ ~ ~
UNDER A VEIL OF GODS by R. Anthony Giamusso is available in both print and ebook at fine booksellers everywhere, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, Waterstones, Indiebound, GooglePlay, Kobo, iTunes, and many more.
Also available for purchase through Overdrive for libraries.
Imprint: BHC Press/Indigo
Genre: Sci fi/Fantasy
On Sale: 3/8/2018
Available formats: Trade softcover (5.5 x 8.5) and ebook
Ebook price: $6.99