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Chapter 1: Aeron
The Zarn finally decided that if he did not get the matter settled, he was never going to be able to get any sleep.
It was not a decision that came lightly to him. The Zarn was a proud individual, and disliked intensely having to admit to any shortcomings or weaknesses. Certainly not being able to slumber was one such. Furthermore, he was going to have to seek aid from the Zarna, who had the temerity to lie peacefully next to him, snoring away contentedly. She had denied any number of times that she snored, and he had insisted with equal vigor that he, and not she, would be in a superior position to make such a determination. Such was the female's intransigence, however, that she refused to accept his word -- his word -- of this particular shortcoming of hers. Yet there she stubbornly lay, snoring blithely away. He wished, not for the first time, that there was a way to put an end to her snoring, and he further wished that he was not so besotted with her, even after all this time, that he could not bring himself to deal in any harsh manner with her.
The Zarn rolled over, studying the shape of her pale back, the jutting spine ridge exposed and alluring as ever. He ran his elegant fingers along it, not with a steady, brushing touch, but instead a series of light taps along the edges that he knew would rouse her, even in her sleep. Her hips twisted slightly with subconscious pleasure, and she made a little humming sound. "What are you doing?" she yawned thickly, but with the slightest sound of amusement in her voice.
"Nothing," replied the Zarn, sounding utterly innocent. He made no pretense of his own wakefulness, but instead simply lay there with his head propped on one hand. "I am doing nothing except regarding the magnificence that is your body."
"Mm-hmm," she said, in a tone that both managed to convey that she Was Not Amused, and yet simultaneously made him aware that she did, indeed, find it just ever so slightly funny. She wasn't looking at him, instead keeping the spine presented. It was a provocative decision, and she knew it to be so, but acted as if it wasn't. She managed to push the last vestiges of sleep from her voice. Her dark green eyes, solid and pupil-less, glowed in the darkness with that eerie luminescence so characteristic of the Aeron race. "All right, my husband...you have awakened me. Satisfied?"
"I? I intended no such thing," he assured her, sounding suitably stricken. He wasn't fooling her for a moment, of course, but after so many years together, they had developed little verbal rhythms that were as much a part of their union as sex or trust or anything else. "What sort of husband would I be if I thought I could disturb your much-needed rest whenever it suited my fancy?"
"You would be a ruling husband," she pointed out, "a Zarn, to be specific. And I would be your endlessly patient Zarna, wondering why she had been awakened while miraculously keeping a level tone."
He touched the fluttering membrane at the base of her throat in a vaguely suggestive manner, but she gently pushed his hand away. "Enough of that," she said firmly. "You did not rouse me from a perfectly sound slumber simply to feign interest in play."
"It's hardly feigned."
"Perhaps," she allowed, "but neither is it your concern. I know you too well." She now sat up, curling her knees to just under her chin. "Speak to me of what is truly on your mind."
"If you know me as well as you claim, then you should know without my having to tell you."
"Very well," said the Zarna evenly. "You're worried about our eldest son."
The Zarn looked at her with open admiration. "I am well and truly impressed," he admitted.
"It was not that impressive a feat, much as I would like to pretend otherwise." All of the banter, the teasing amusement in her voice had given way to seriousness. She was nude in bed next to her husband, and yet one would have thought from her deportment that she was fully robed and gowned, and seated in her Place of Discernment in the main court- room. "The relationship between you and the Zarnon has become more strained with each passing day. The Zarnon is no fool. He knows that you are disappointed in him."
"My disappointment arises from his own conduct and my judgment thereof." The Zarn swung his legs out of the gentle liquid bubble that served as their bed and stepped onto the floor. Even in the warmth of the Palace, the coldness of the night could be felt in the air. He slid his feet into slippers that sat near the edge of the bed, and pulled on his dressing gown, which hung nearby. His wife, the Zarna, clearly preferred the warmth of the liquid bed, and made no move to exit it. "He knows his duties, and appears unable to live up to them. In theory, he is to become Zarn after me...."
"In theory," the Zarna pointed out. "But to the Zarnon, it is not quite as easy as all that."
"Why not?" demanded the Zarn with irritation. "He is given the best of everything. The best teachers, the best training. All his young life, he has been provided every opportunity to live up to that which is his birthright. He should be proud. Instead he...seems to resent me. I do not understand."
"Tell me, my husband," the Zarna said slowly, apparently aware that she was treading on delicate ground. "How did you feel...about your own father?"
The Zarn shrugged indifferently. "I felt nothing for him one way or the other. He was my father and taught me my duty. I lived up to it. I ask nothing more of my own son." His pale face flushed with slight annoyance. "Are you now claiming that I have been an inadequate father? For if you are, I cannot help but take offense. I have labored mightily to be a far better father to the Zarnon than ever my father was to me."
"And you have succeeded," she assured him soothingly. "There is a very close bond between you and your son...deeper, perhaps, than even you know or understand. And in that bond may lie the problem."
He stared at her blankly. "I do not follow."
"All of the duties for which he is trained," she explained, "are predicated upon one thing: his assuming your duties after you are no longer capable of doing so, either because of incapacitation or death. Apparently our gentle son does not desire to dwell on such things."
The Zarn was not a stupid person, and even though it took him a few moments to process what the Zarna was saying to him, in time he finally understood. "He does not wish to dwell on my passing."
She nodded. "That is exactly right."
He stood in the middle of the dimly lit room. It was ornately furnished with many ceremonial trappings from the long line of Zarns who had preceded him in office: robes and headdresses and similar adornments, all carefully mounted and labeled with gleaming plaques beneath them. It had never occurred to the Zarn that being part of that line was not the greatest honor that any creature could hope for. He had often said that death held no terror for him, for in many ways he was already immortal. No matter what happened, he would join the line of illustrious Zarns who had overseen the fortunes of the planet Aeron, a marvelous little globe of blue and green hanging in the depths of what had once been called Thallonian space. It now appeared, though, that his successor, the Zarnon, felt differently.
The reality of it was a good deal for the Zarn to take in all at once. He eased himself down onto the edge of the bed, shaking his head. "I find that...difficult to believe...."
"Why so difficult? You have worked hard to be a caring and supportive father. The Zarnon wants only to please you, to gain your approval. And yet his greatest opportunity to do so can only occur after you are in no position to grant that approval. He is conflicted and frustrated. To his mind, he is being groomed for a position, for a duty, that will commence with failure. You will not be able to tell him that he is a good Zarn, nor will he be able to show you what he is capable of."
"He has overanalyzed the situation," the Zarn said, but he sounded a bit uncertain, and that was most unusual for him. He loathed any hint of uncertainty; he would rather make a wrong decision quickly than a considered decision slowly. "He has created in his mind a no-win scenario. That is hardly worthy of a ruler."
"He is not the ruler. Titles such as 'Zarnon' aside, he is simply a frustrated young man who wants to make his father proud, and has no true idea how to go about doing so."
"Well, what would you suggest...?"
"I am but the humble Zarna. You are our esteemed ruler. It is for you to decide."
He had no ready answer. He simply lay back on the bed, still in his dressing gown, his hands behind his head. He considered the matter for a considerable length of time, during which his wife's steady breathing did little to convince him that she had gone to sleep. When he finally spoke again, it was half an hour later. "I know what you are suggesting."
"Do you?" she said with amusement in her voice, making no pretense of having been slumbering.
"You do not fool me in the least."
"I don't?" Her tone had not changed.
"You are suggesting that I retire as Zarn. That I step aside and hand the office over to the Zarnon." His eyes narrowed as he spoke, and he did not sound any too pleased at the notion.
"I have suggested no such thing," replied his wife.
"Zarns retire when they are incapacitated. When they are unfit and unable to serve in the office."
"That is true," she allowed, but then added after a moment's thought, "However, that is not any sort of a rule. Merely a custom...and an unfortunate one at that."
"Unfortunate?" He was thunderstruck. The Zarna had always been second-to-none when it came to respect for traditions on Aeron. "Why unfortunate?"
"It is not my place to -- "
"Bellanaria," he said abruptly.
It brought her up short. The Zarna could not remember the last time he had addressed her by her true name. It made her realize just how much they had lost sight of that which they once were, and instead become simple extensions of their offices. Perhaps, she mused, that was part of the problem. As parents they knew what was right and true, almost instinctively. As Zarn and Zarna, every decision they made had to factor in what was best for the world of Aeron.
He had spoken sharply, and when he repeated the shortened version of her name, a more gentle "Bell," it was with as much compassion as he was capable of mustering. "Bell...why do you say it's unfortunate?"
Normally the Zarn did not like to hear anything against the traditions of their world, but it was quite clear to the Zarna that he was making an exception this time. She knew she had to speak as carefully as possible; who knew how long his mood would last? "Well," she said after several moments' consideration, "you really need look no further than the history of our world, do you? The beginning of a young Zarn's reign is always fraught with difficulties. Skirmishes, wars always seem to break out, until such time as the new Zarn gets a more secure grip on his people."
"Isn't that unavoidable, though? No matter how carefully a successor may be trained, there still has to be a time for him to learn, correct?"
"Yes, but look who he learns from: those who were advisors to the Zarn before him. Advisors who always seemed to act in the best interests of the Zarn and Aeron while the Zarn was alive...but once the Zarn they initially served passes, they always strive to grab whatever personal power they can. It happens time after time, and each Zarn, later in his career, appoints people who he thinks won't fall prey to such self-serving motivations. Yet it recurs. Such is Aeron nature, I suppose."
"And what would you suggest," he asked, "to break this cycle?" But he said it with the air of someone who knew the answer before he asked the question.
She took a deep breath, feeling as if she were launching herself off a precipice. "Step aside for your son. Instead of ruling as Zarn, be content to serve in an advisory capacity." She saw the expression on his face then, which spoke volumes in its silence. It seemed to say, You think I'm not doing the job. You've lost faith in me. It almost broke her heart to see that in him, and she made certain to keep a tone of love, affection, and respect uppermost in her voice. "You would not be driven by desire for power, because you would already have walked away from power, set it aside willingly. Other advisors and chancellors will not attempt to foist their own agendas upon the Zarnon...I'm sorry, the new Zarn. You will be able to guide the young Zarn in the ways of his office. Help give him the sort of on-the-job training that is the only way a new Zarn can truly come to understand his duties. As opposed to previous Zarns, who have always had to weigh the self-interest of their advisors into decisions, the new Zarn will be able to trust you -- his father -- implicitly. And in turn, it will give him the opportunity to show you what he can do. To earn your respect, your approval, while you are still here to give it."
"And when he has no need of me?" asked the Zarn. "Sooner or later, my presence will cease to be a comfort, and instead be a shadow that he cannot escape. That is certainly not desirable."
"When that time comes," she replied readily, "why...
then you will just have to focus your attention on the rest of your family. We do have other sons, as well as two daughters. And a wife...a wife who enjoyed hearing you speak her true name just now." She stroked his arm, gently, adoringly. "A wife who would very much appreciate the opportunity to have you all to herself. Sometimes when I climb into bed with you, I feel as if I'm here with the entire population of Aeron, for your attention is split in so many directions at once. If, on the other hand, it were just us, oh, the pleasure that would bring me. And for that matter, the pleasure I could bring you..." She let her voice trail off, but there was a teasing look on her face.
"You present a very...compelling argument," he said after a time. He had been propping himself up on one elbow, watching her as she had spoken, and she'd felt as if that gaze were boring deep into her soul, dissecting her molecule by molecule. Then, to her utter astonishment, he said, "I will do it."
"What?" she managed to get out. "You...you don't wish to discuss something of such importance with..."
"With others? Those who might feel disenfranchised, or believe that I am making decisions based on lack of trust in their abilities? No, I see no need to discuss it with them." He was nodding, although it seemed more to himself than to anyone else. "I am the Zarn. I am the leader of the Aeron. I am the one who makes the decisions, and once a decision is made, I see no reason at all to consult others. The things you've said to me make infinite sense; why should I waste time discussing the matter with those who will make less sense? Or who will strive to explain to me why you are wrong? I do not think you are wrong, and furthermore, if you are...I do not wish to know about it."
"You will really do it?" she asked wonderingly. "Our son means that much to you?"
"Do you really have to ask that? Or are you simply looking to me to affirm that which you already know?"
She laughed at that. "The latter, I imagine. I suppose I'm just that transparent. If I were any more so, you'd be able to see right through me."
"That would be most unfortunate, considering that I am quite pleased with what I am seeing now."
"Oh, are you?" said the Zarna teasingly, even as she arched her back and pressed her nude body against his, bringing the sensitive spine ridges within easy reach of his hand. She brought her lips down on his exposed belly, which she knew he liked.
He smiled and moaned softly even as he said, "Tomorrow is going to begin a new and extraordinary day in the history of Aeron."
"I have a suggestion," she said, lifting her lips momentarily. "How would it be if we made a little history of our own tonight?"
"Such as...endurance records?"
"I was thinking that very thing."
He moved against her, wanting her, needing her, hiding well his nervousness over the prospect of turning over the ultimate authority on Aeron but -- at the same time -- not regretting it for so much as an instant.
So involved with one another were they that, at first, they didn't notice the crackling in the air. But then it caught their attention, and the Zarn sat up, drawing his dressing gown tightly around him even as he tried to locate the source of the sound. "I have never heard anything like that before...." he said, looking to the Zarna for confirmation. She shook her head, similarly befuddled.
Then the noise, which had seemed to be coming from everywhere, abruptly coalesced into one section of the room, approximately ten feet away. The air rippled and the Zarn and Zarna gaped as, incredibly, a hole appeared to open up right there in front of them. It seemed about seven feet across, rippling, and although it was still possible to see the opposite side of the chamber through the hole, the distortion of the air itself gave it an opaque look.
All of it happened within seconds, and even as the Zarn shouted for his guards, even as he heard the comforting pounding of feet toward the doors of the bedchamber, the center of the hole darkened, and armed and armored men charged through. There were ten, no, fifteen of them, maybe more, and the sigil painted on the armor could not have been more familiar to the Zarn. Serpent-like creatures intertwined with one another, heads back and ready to spear each other with jagged fangs.
"Markanians!" he shouted, clearly still not believing what he was seeing. The Zarna looked back and forth frantically between the intruders and her husband, even as she gathered the sheet around herself.
The soldiers, adjusting to the dimness of the room, turned and trained their sights on the Zarn. Their helmets were all- encompassing, obscuring their features and making them seem that much more formidable. The Zarn, for his part, was startled but unafraid. "How did you get here?" he demanded. "What is this...this bizarre gateway that brought you here? You will depart immediately; I will not tolerate this -- "
He got no further. The foremost Markanians extended their armored fists, and there was just enough time to see the glinting barrels mounted on them. Then they roared to life even as they spit out death. The pulse blasts hammered into the Zarn, sending him flying off his feet, the screeching weapons-fire drowning out the screeching of the Zarna. The Zarn slammed against the far wall and was grotesquely supported there a moment, several feet off the ground, by nothing except the sustained impact of the shots that were pounding his helpless body. It had taken mere seconds for his white dressing gown to become thick with blackness. They continued to fire, following his body down as it slid to the ground, turning it into a mass of flesh and bone and sinew that was barely recognizable as anything sentient, much less something that had until moments before been the supreme ruler of the world.
The main chamber door was locked and was bending inward under the pummeling of the guards outside. The Zarna leaped off the bed, blanket still around her, lunging for the door to open it. It was happening so quickly, so quickly, that the Zarna thought for a moment that it was all a dream. That she had unknowingly slid back into slumber, and a nightmare was playing itself out for her. This belief sustained itself for exactly as long as it took the Markanians to train their weaponry upon her and rip her to pieces. The sheet slipped away, but it didn't matter as the blasts shredded her lovely body, which seemed to explode upon the blasts' impact. She wanted to scream Not my children, leave my children alone! And perhaps somewhere in her head she did so with such force and gusto that she actually thought she'd said it. But she hadn't. Instead, all that emerged from her throat was a muted, vague mewling sound. She tried to crawl over to her husband, everything else forgotten -- her own life, her children, all of it. The only thing she was thinking at that point was how much she wanted to touch his hand one final time. Then she heard one final shriek of blaster fire that seemed concentrated on her head, and oblivion claimed her.
At that precise moment, the doors to the imperial bedchamber were smashed open, splintering upon the impact of the guards' bodies. There were three of them, and they had pump-action pulsers under their arms. But they were clad in light armor, largely ceremonial in nature, and they stood no chance against Markanian shock troops outfitted in heavy-duty battlewear. Plus they were frozen in shock for crucial seconds as they beheld the horrific scene awaiting them: the shattered bodies of the Zarn and Zarna upon the ground, blood everywhere, and the assassins who somehow had managed to slip past the mansion's security systems as if they simply weren't there.
They brought their pulsers to bear, even managed to get off a couple of shots, although all they did was glance harmlessly off the Markanian armor. The Markanians, for their part, only required seconds more to dispatch the Aeron guards than they had needed to murder the Zarn and his wife.
The lead Markanian wasted no time. "There will be more, and they won't be as easy as these were," he said. "Don't get cocky. Let's finish this and leave."
The Zarnon was up and out of bed, hearing the shots, looking around in confusion. He was a young man, slim, with coiled muscles, and normally a look of quiet intelligence, which had -- in this case -- been replaced by a look of barely controlled panic.
Then the door to his chambers was blasted open and he lost control of the panic, along with several bodily functions. He did not, however, have to live long in that disgrace, as the Markanians cut him down where he stood.
Kreb and Toran, the twin boys just in their teens, huddled on a bed, clutching each other. There was a scrabbling under their bed, and Kreb hissed at the source of the noise. "Stay under there!"
"Come here, too!" came back the female voice from beneath. "There's...there's shooting and killing all over -- ! Can't you hear -- ?"
"We don't run, Tsana," said Toran firmly. "You stay there. No matter what happens, don't make a -- "
The door burst open. The boys looked startled, then relaxed for an instant...and then two precisely placed blasts hammered through their faces. They pitched backward off the bed and lay silent.
Moments later, quick footsteps moved away from the room...and from under the bed scrambled a young and terrified girl. She knew she should have stayed under the bed...but thick liquid was dripping down and coalescing under it, and she knew what that liquid was, and she'd rather die than huddle in a pool of her brothers' blood.
Her mind already shutting down at all she had seen, Tsana staggered away.
The Markanians burst apart several more doors, killed several retainers and a clothier who had the misfortune to be a guest for the night, and then blasted open yet another room to see a teenaged girl clambering out the window. She was halfway out, and froze, the wind whipping her long hair, and there was quiet pleading in her eyes, but it was clear from the set of her mouth that not a word of begging for her life was going to emerge from between her lips. She wore a thigh-cut nightgown that revealed muscular legs. The lead Markanian took a step forward, tilting his head slightly, assessing her.
"You look like your mother," he said at last.
"Did you kill her, too?" The question was asked flatly, without emotion.
He saw no reason to sugarcoat it at this point. "Yes. And now we're going to kill you."
Her face hardened and the pleading vanished from her eyes, to be replaced by utter contempt. "No, you won't," she informed them. She turned quickly, thrust outward with those muscular legs, and vanished from the window. The Markanians dashed across the room, their heavy boots cracking the delicate tiling, and they looked out and down. The young woman was lying in the courtyard eighty feet below, dark liquid pooling beneath her, her body twisted in such a way that it was clear, even from up there, that she had not survived the fall. Nor, obviously, had she expected to.
"She wished to die on her own terms," muttered the lead Markanian. "Something to be said for that."
"And for that as well!" said the trooper right behind him, pointing. Then they all saw it: a squad of Aerons, charging across the courtyard, and, unlike the palace guards, these were clearly from some sort of standing army. They were heavily armed and outnumbered the Markanians by at least three to one.
"Time to leave," said the leader.
But the trooper behind him was hesitant. "I think there was one more," he said. "We might not have gotten the entire family."
"I said it was time to leave, Pmarr," the leader repeated, more forcefully this time.
"But we might not have gotten all of them! I think there are others -- "
"Our intelligence on the matter is uncertain at best. We were fortunate that the plans of the mansion were as accurate as they were, or we wouldn't have gotten this far." His voice rising in anger, he said, "We need to keep our priorities in order. Now come along!"
He did not stand there and debate it further with Pmarr, for the soldiers below had entered the building and even now their footsteps could be heard echoing up the steps. The Markanians bolted back down the corridor, not even glancing at the destruction they had left in their wake. The floor was littered with shards of doors smashed open, and pieces of the wall carved out by blasts littered the floor. They all crunched underfoot as the Markanians passed.
But as they approached the former chambers of the Zarn and Zarna, Pmarr slowed. "What do you think you're doing!" shouted the leader.
"I thought I saw someone behind us...."
"Yes! The damned soldiers! Now get to the Gateway! I told you, we need to keep our priorities in order!"
"I think it was something else," Pmarr insisted. "Smaller...a child..."
"I think it was a girl...."
"Leave her, then! Our job here is done -- !"
"Not while even one of the imperials lives!" Pmarr shot back hotly. He yanked off his helmet and faced the leader. His skin was mottled blue, as was typical for his race, and his crescent-shaped eyes blinked furiously sideways. His hair was thin, gold strands that almost looked like a skeletal hand spread across the top of his head. "That was the plan! Perhaps you have lost sight of that fact, but I have not! It will not take long to -- "
"It will take just long enough to get someone killed. One of the goals of this endeavor was to subject our people to minimum risk...even fools such as you, Pmarr! And I have spent more than enough time here talking about it! Now come!"
He did not hesitate, but instead crowded in with the others to the bedchamber. "Pmarr!" he shouted over his shoulder. "We are not going to wait for you! We are not going to hold the Gateway open! You come now, or you do not come at all!"
Pmarr started to turn toward the bedchamber, toward the glowing escape-way through which the other Markanians were dashing. Each time one would pass through, the Gateway would glow slightly and emit a little hum of energy, as if it was cheerfully consuming those passing through instead of simply transporting them back to their point of origin. And then he saw it again -- the small form at the end of the corridor. A girl, yes, definitely a girl, and he took a few steps toward her. She was staring at him in wonder, as if she couldn't quite believe that she was seeing what she was seeing. The fact that he was about to kill her didn't even seem to register. The child appeared to be in shock. Well, that was hardly surprising, what with her entire family dying around her. The fortunate thing was that she wasn't going to have to be in shock for very long.
He started to raise his gauntlet blaster, and suddenly, from down the corridor, there was the high-pitched whine of an Aeron weapon. A split-second later, a glowing ball of light came from behind the girl, miraculously bypassing her and homing straight in on Pmarr like a lethal sprite. He tried to run, his bravado suddenly disappearing as his jeopardy became far more real to him, but it was too late. The energy ball grazed the corridor slightly, ricocheting off it to gain speed and power, and then smashed into his upper thigh. He felt the impact even through his battle armor. He staggered, dragging the numbed leg, and then a second blast whipped around the corridor and slammed into him in nearly the exact same place as the first one. The thigh armor cracked, and so did Pmarr's upper thigh bone, and he went down with an outraged screech.
It was his last, desperate determination to try and annihilate the child at the far end of the corridor, but then soldiers pounding down the hall toward him blocked her from view. He started to bring his weaponry up, but the lead soldier shouted, "Don't move!" and Pmarr, much to his own annoyance, complied with the harsh order. He lay there, immobile, already planning what he was going to say when grilled for information. There was no doubt in his mind that he was going to tell them absolutely nothing. The secrets of the Markanians were going to remain secrets with him. Let them do to him what they will; he would not bow nor crumble in the face of adversity.
The lead soldiers charged into the bedchamber of the Zarn and Zarna, vaulting over the fallen bodies of the palace guards, and Pmarr grinned ruthlessly as he heard the wails and lamentations that issued from within. The Aerons make mewling sounds like so many women, he thought grimly. How they ever stood up to us for any length of time, I haven't the faintest idea.
"How did they get in here? How was it possible?!" The soldiers were shouting at one another in utter frustration, and Pmarr understood instantly. The Gateway had closed, leaving no trace of their entrance or exit. He had been left behind. He felt a flash of anger toward his leader, but quickly had to admit that he had brought it upon himself. The simple truth was that he was just going to have to make the best of it.
The soldiers reemerged, and one of them, who bore markings on his armor that appeared to indicate some sort of higher rank, shouted briskly, "Search the building! See where they've gone!"
"You won't find them," Pmarr informed him. He felt proud saying that. He was giving nothing away on that score. He wasn't going to tell them how he knew that they had disappeared. He wanted to taunt them with the knowledge. Make them aware that no matter how they begged him, or threatened him, or tortured him -- yes, even tortured him -- no matter what they did, he was going to give them no details into the masterful plan that had allowed the Markanians to lay low their ancient enemy.
The ranking soldier looked down at him. His helmet encompassed his face completely, as did the Markanian helmet, though the frontpiece was clear. Yet, despite the transparency, most of the commander's face was cloaked in shadow. Only his eyes were clearly visible, burning with an ominous inner light...which would, of course, have frightened Pmarr if he'd been of a mind to be frightened. Which he wasn't.
"No, you won't find them," Pmarr went on, "no matter where you look, no matter how hard you search. And I will not tell you a thing of how -- "
The commander took two quick steps forward and kicked Pmarr twice in the face, savagely. The first blow smashed in his nose and cheeks; the second broke his entire lower jaw and knocked out five teeth.
At that moment, Pmarr suddenly wanted nothing more than to tell the Aerons anything they wanted to know. Unfortunately, the Aerons displayed no interest in anything that Pmarr had to say, nor would he have been capable of communicating, beyond incomprehensible grunts.
Desperately, Pmarr started to raise his arms, to try and aim the weapons that were atop the gauntlets. He never even saw the slash of the bladed weapon, which had been pulled from its scabbard by the second-in-command (not that Pmarr recognized him as such from his markings). The bladed weapon was customarily utilized only for ceremony, but the second-in-command kept the blade so sharp that any hair that chanced to float across the blade would be neatly bisected.
It was that sharpness that made the difference as the blade sliced through the air and through Pmarr's gloved wrists. There was the acrid smell of something burning -- circuitry in the gloves -- and then Pmarr's hands fell off. The cut had been so smooth that it was slow to register on him. Once the reality sank in, a good few seconds later, that was when his screaming began.
The Aerons were not a reticent race, and did not hesitate to express whatever was on their minds. As a result, they went to work on Pmarr with uninhibited gusto. It would have been impossible to say how long he'd actually been dead before they stopped pounding on him, at what point in the battering his soul had actually fled the body. They might have gone on for quite some time longer if a horrified scream hadn't soared above their shouts of fury and interrupted them at their gory pastime.
The scream came from within the bedchamber, and several of the soldiers dashed in, realizing even before they got there that they had completely forgotten about the young girl. Instead, they had allowed themselves to be completely caught up in their bloodthirst. The girl, for her part, was standing in the middle of the room, her arms rigidly at her sides, her fists curled into balls, her face ashen. The scream didn't sound like anything an Aeron female would produce. Instead, it sounded much more like the wounded and horrified howling of a stricken beast.
She was not looking at the tattered remains of her parents. Instead she was staring straight ahead, her eyes not focused on anything. It was as if she were looking deep into herself and saw within images that she knew she would never be able to erase from her mind.
The soldiers looked at each other uncomfortably. They knew who and what she was, but had no idea how to proceed. They were men of war and destruction, not prepared -- by temperament or training -- for dealing gently with a traumatized child. The commander took a tentative step toward her, stretched out a hand. "Tsana," he said.
She kept screaming even as she twisted and spun from him, moving so quickly she might as well have been composed of light. She dashed past them and sprinted down the corridor, still screaming. The soldiers simply stood there until the irritated commander said impatiently, "Go after her!" and then, dissatisfied with the way they were standing there, took off after her himself. Several of his men trailed him.
The girl he'd called Tsana ran into another room, a room that the commander recognized instantly as the bedchamber of the Zarnon. The screaming didn't halt, but instead escalated, and she dashed right back out before the commander could draw near her. He barely gave a glance into the room, knowing that he was going to see the blood-spattered corpse of the Zarnon. It had, after all, been there moments before and wasn't likely to have gone anywhere. "Tsana!" he called again, even as she ran into another bedchamber.
The screaming stopped.
Immediately concerned, the commander and his men ran into the room. There was nobody there. The window was wide open, a steady breeze wafting through and causing the drapes to flap. Three quick, long strides carried the commander across the room and, with trepidation, he looked out and down. He saw the crumbled body of the Zarn's eldest girl, and was relieved to see that Tsana's was not next to it. The commander withdrew into the room and glanced around, trying to determine where the girl might have gone. His attention was immediately drawn to the bed. It was large and ornate, with carefully made yellow sheets, as if the bed was expecting its owner to lie down in it sometime soon.
Two of the soldiers went to either side of the bed, nodded to each other in coordinating the effort, and lifted the bed clear of the floor. And there, on the floor, was the girl. She was curled up, trembling slightly, staring off to that same place that could have been either inside or outside of her head.
It was in the commander's nature to be brusque, but the child's clearly damaged state cut through that demeanor. He gestured for the soldiers to move the bed away completely, which they did, and then crouched near her. "Tsana," he said softly. "It's safe. It's perfectly safe now."
Except he knew it was a lie. Somehow Markanian soldiers had gained entrance into the mansion. It had been cursedly stupid for them to beat the one captured Markanian into a bloody, useless mass; they had given in to the blood-fever of the moment, and now they were going to pay for it, because they were going to remain in ignorance of how the Markanians had achieved the massacre. More than that, though...this little girl, like any other, drew security from her family. But her family lay in bloodstained shreds, and she -- not quite a woman, hovering just on the cusp of it -- would never know anything resembling security again.
Tsana whimpered to herself slightly, giving voice in a light, singsong tone that might have been echoes of a lullaby her mother had sung her, and then lapsed into silence. And nothing that any of the soldiers did could stir her from it. The commander picked her up; her body was stiff, as if death had already claimed it and the muscles had seized up.
"It will be all right," he lied once more, and wondered how anything would be all right for the child, ever again.
Copyright © 2001 by Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.