— 1 —
THE CRATER, even at seven clicks distance, was clearly visible from space. The destructive forced needed to have created the dent on such a large scale was phenomenal. It was as if someone, some ancient God, had taken a gigantic hammer and hit it the moon on one side. Gasps had echoed around the darkened command bridge as images had popped into life on the master screens up above.
Whispers now endured as commands were given and ‘Aye-ayes’ of acknowledgment barked in reply. The bridge was alive with subdued activity but no one, busy at console or board, could concentrate for more than a moment before they glanced back up at the slowly looming mass of the devastated moon.
The moon itself was now on a rather awkward ellipse towards a small planet—that held it in its thrall—one of three uninhabitable desolate rocks that orbited the system’s star. There was every possibility it would crash into the small planet causing yet more local devastation, and who knew what sort of long term repercussions that would have in the future for the local area.
The Kigva, and her small flotilla of ships, had taken a number of hours to pass through just one of the many debris fields that littered this whole area of space, inbound toward the desolate moon.
Inbound to what, though. Arianrhod thought, as she paced a tiny section of the bridge in front of her chair. The Castellan’s chair. The central of three. She quietly paced back and forth, occasionally glancing up at the screens, as with each passing hour the moon grew in size as the crater grew in size. Her mind never stopped calculating, analysing, thinking. Static crackled from her, and a tiny spark flew off into the gloom. It brought subverted glance from round the bridge. Stillness settled in, and heads turned back to their workstations.
Arianrhod brushed a stray curl back into place displaced by the effect. Her thick black mass of hair was plaited and held into place with a single item of colour in the darkness. A red ribbon. It stood out in stark contrast to the jet-black hair and black uniform she wore. She sparked once more. The tiny burst of golden energy lit up her face for a fraction of a second illuminating the curve of sculptured face and pale freckled skin. Her almond eyes almost as dark in colour as her hair.
The Castellan muttered under her breath and sat in her chair. She surveyed the crew who were all busy trying to look busy. Though in truth no one could do much, not at this stage, not till they came in for some sort of orbit. If, in fact, an orbit could be achieved. She looked back up at the screens and, uncharacteristically, sighed.
Several hours of discussions back and forth between ships captains and the analysts and still no one could come up with a suitable explanation or scenario for the devastation that they were all now witnessing.
How. When. Why. Who and, of course, what had achieved such devastation? She had gone through them all. When was easy. They knew an ‘event’ had occurred courtesy of all the crazy communications chatter they’d picked up, one sector over from where their miniature fleet was on patrol in the Dorin sector. A relatively empty desolate area that boarded their space. Only twelve hours out and just inside the Dead Zone.
Arianrhod, without waiting for consultation or even approval from the Navarch, let alone Moth—head of the Bright Worlds Council—had responded immediately. It was the first positive thing she had been able to do in the last several Ileuad.
The Castellan stood and walked to the centre of the bustling bridge. Her posture still ramrod straight. She stared up at the moon splayed across several screens as if it might reveal its secrets from here. What could it tell her? Finally she returned to her seat and sat, lost in thought.
She hoped to find some answers to all the questions posed by going to the moon’s surface. If they could get dirt-side, that is. Llew was still adamant that it wasn’t the safest thing to attempt, given the moon’s current instability. She had no intention of being dissuaded, though.
The possible ‘Who’ behind the catastrophic event she had already surmised, as they all had the previous day, in discussions. It had to be this new, as yet unseen, enemy, the one they were calling the Destroyer. Who else had that power? Who else had the capability? Who else went around destroying entire planets and their populations?
Everyone thought they had the answer.
Arianrhod thought to wait and see.
This would mark only the second time He, or part of his Battle group, had ventured this close to Bright Worlds space. So far he had held off coming into their territory. Held off any attacks upon them or their Allied planets. A ploy without a doubt, Arianrhod had argued to Moth, in order to forestall the peace-loving Bright World’s council from taking action. Stop them from retaliating against him and his slowly growing Armada of destruction and death. Retaliation was not their way.
That had been a rebuke for her.
“Taliesin!” Arianrhod uttered the single word under her breath and stood. She began pacing again. She blamed Moth for allowing this, listening to those who preached caution and mediation. Moth, of all the Elders, of all the Elementals, should know that this man, this being, would come. Would come for them all, it was just a matter of time. Then they would have to make a stand, then what? Who would be with them, who would be left to stand beside them? All the worlds they had let fall…all those poor souls sucked up into The Destroyer’s nightmare?
It was simply a matter of time before he came. Planet after planet had fallen in the outer regions. If they didn’t act and act soon, they wouldn’t be able to defend even the Bright Worlds themselves. There was only one possibility, one scenario that played out in her mind, almost continually, as to why he hadn’t attacked the richest prize of all. The thought made her heart constrict.
Just what had happened? What bargain had she made with the very Devil himself?
Anger flared. She sparked across the bridge. Little dancing lights of energy. Then, rebuking herself for her outburst, Arianrhod dampened her field. The energy, harmless, quickly dissipated. She wondered if the Elementals alone would be able to stand against him, stand against him and win? They were so few of them and with each passing decade fewer were being born. They had become a dying race.
A thousand years of ennui.
Her attention was drawn across the bridge by the hiss of the doors opening. Llew, her Centrefi, entered like a dark-clad knight from out the bright light of the corridor beyond, into the semi-gloom. His military uniform was stretched tight across his frame, his dark features, as always, grave. Arianrhod thought he looked like he was about to burst a seam or a blood vessel. So far, neither event had occurred. She wondered idly if any of those he commanded were taking bets, as the bulk of the man crossed the deck in a handful of strides.
“It’s done.” The man slid into the chair on Arianrhod’s left.
“You could have messaged me.” She faced him. There was something he wasn’t saying.
“I needed the exercise.”
Subtext then. She nodded. ‘He needed exercise’ meant he was still unhappy about the up coming mission and was still prepared to argue with her till the last minute but, had done as he’d been commanded. His team for the Mission were ready, prepped and waiting on standby. As were those of Keira ap Arvon, the ships’ chief physician and healer. Who, the Castellan thought, was probably still down below, in her own domain, monitoring the incoming bio-data.
Along with the live Vid-feed displayed on the main screens, the drones and probes they had sent out ahead were feeding them some unusual data. One was via Bio-Med that said something was alive on the Moon. Barely alive, but nonetheless, alive. The signal originated in the heart of the blast crater. In the heart of where the massive explosion had occurred.
It was just another piece to this strange enigma.
“If something,” Arianrhod corrected herself, “if someone is still alive down there, on the surface, they may have answers.” She wanted answers, answers to many puzzling questions. But for now, like everyone else, she had to wait. Wait and worry that this wasn’t some elaborate trap like the one that had successfully snared her Mother and, quite possibly, killed her.
* * *
Like strangely clad and colour insects three distinct teams emptied from the belly of the landing craft. One after the other each team moved slowly across the blasted terrain intent on their objective, including the crater’s centre a few hundred yards away. The bizarre and persistent acrid precipitation fell making the going tough.
Communications chatter bandied back and forth between the Centref units as they fanned out doing reconnaissance, securing their position even though every probe and surveillance drone had said there was nothing on the blasted ground in any direction.
Arianrhod listened in but said nothing. This was Llew’s mission; she was there—against everyone’s advice and despite several very heated arguments—to see for herself.
Lagging behind the pair, Keira sweated in her suit despite the cooling unit being on high. The rangy healer always felt claustrophobic at the best of times, more so at this moment as she followed with her team, trailing in Arianrhod’s wake. They still had no idea what to expect and, accordingly, she’d brought the best she could under the circumstances.
What they found shocked even the normally placid healer to the core.
The Castellan and his lead team came round one lone piece of structure left standing and saw the body, the corpse, whatever the mutilated form was, laying atop what looked like a stainless-steel autopsy table. It stood on the only section of concrete still preserved as if someone had dropped the whole piece into the centre of the destruction zone.
His immediate response was to warn the others of the grisly sight. It didn’t help. There was an audible gasp from the two Centref with him as they got closer. Maddox, the first up, immediately turned away and began to dry retch in his suit. Owain did no better, turning instead towards his Commander, his face concealed by his shimmering gold visor.
“Sir…” The lone word almost pleaded. The sickened tone said it all.
Llew stepped past them both and held his own gasp, grinding his teeth in disgust and contempt as he took in the full measure of the destruction wrought on one small body. How could anyone do this to another human being? To what had once been human and now looked like nothing more than raw flesh…soaked raw flesh. It clung to the bones. And where the eyes should have been, nothing. Small pieces of flesh had been torn, here and there, along the torso, leaving jagged little edges flapping under the pressure of the strange precipitation.
He stared, unable to tear his eyes away.
“I think a rescue might be too late Castellan…” His voice was taut. He could feel his jaw muscles twitching to suppress the anger building in him. He wanted to rage, call down the Gods on the thing that had done this. But with the utmost control, he held himself in check.
Keira was annoyed that she and her team brought up the rear. As if the precautions had all been necessary given their Intel on the situation, especially as they had Arianrhod along for good measure. She charged passed everyone, including Arianrhod, straight for the Centrefi’s side. Arianrhod was a heartbeat behind her when she heard the strangled cry the woman let out over the live communications channel.
“By the Twelve…”
Keira seem to sag against Llew who put out an arm to steady the healer. The rest of the medical crew stood in mute silence behind them.
Arianrhod had to fight her own emotions and the urge to do, as Llew had wanted, rage aloud for the whole Universe to hear. She stepped up to the table, flipped up her gold visor to see better and, in one deft motion, and unclipped the glove from her right hand. She stretched it out over the body. She had to do something.
Intricate patterns beneath her taut skin began to glow all of their own volition. A soft subtle power danced across bare flesh, as Arianrhod ran her hand a few inches above the body. Across the chest first then quickly up to the head, letting her hand hover over where the eyes should have been till it came to rest over the cranium.
“They are alive, breathing and have function.” She snapped in a controlled voice. Her hand flashed as a delicate light penetrated the soft flesh, seeking. She poured a part of herself into the body. Flowing energy lines fluttered, fed by her will.
Without warning, taking them all by surprise, the body suddenly convulsed and began to shake violently, it was as if Arianrhod had switched it on.
“Goddeau bryn!” Dylan of the medical team gasped, retching.
Keira and the rest of her team who, as if suddenly awakened from a trance, moved into action. Arianrhod stepped aside and out the way, moving off to one side. Llew joined her. No one else spoke for good few minutes as the medical team busied themselves. The Centref began to erect a makeshift tent so they could work in stabilising the body before moving it.
Arianrhod reigned in her emotions, thoroughly disturbed to her core. How could this being, this fragment of humanity, still be alive after what they had endured?
Answers, she realised, might be a long time in coming. If at all. At least from this source.
“Initial analysis?” She asked Llew some time later. He’d just finished receiving brief reports from the two roving teams, who were now heading back to regroup at their position.
“Nothing that will tell us anything definitive or that we didn’t already know.” She nodded.
“As for that?” The normally rock-solid soldier betrayed a hint of emotion as he stared back at the autopsy table, now surrounded by people and equipment.
“I’ve seen everything…but never, never have I seen something so—” He couldn’t finish his words.
Arianrhod put a gloved hand on his suit. The whole sight had stabbed her through the chest too. The sight gave her a measure of what this Destroyer was capable of but, she knew, knew in her heart, that they didn’t know the half of it. Didn’t know the full import of what he could do, what he would do.
“If this indeed is His handy work,” Llew spoke, “or at least that of one of his henchmen, then they are being daring, even out here in this wasteland of space…he’s arrogant.” He added the last with a spit of anger.
“Why here?” Arianrhod heard herself say.
Why had the man or his people been here? And what was special about this wreck of a human being? Why had they survived where everything else had been so obviously destroyed? There was nothing in every direction but desolation and destruction. Bio had confirmed everything had been consumed in a conflagration.
Arianrhod knew only two people, both Elementals, who were capable of such a conflagration of this size and scale, other than maybe the Destroyer Himself.
Herself and her mother.
She knew this wasn’t her own doing and, as far as she knew, as far as anyone from the Bright Worlds system knew, her mother was dead. Had died seven months ago.
“I need answers,” she muttered aloud. She saw Llew’s head move.
“Aye, Castellan,” was all he said.
* * *
Arianrhod sat in one of the hard plastique chairs in the dimly lit tank room. It was only the second time she had ever been in this particular room, the first time was when she’d inadvertently burnt herself trying to save a Centref. The lone tank sat squarely in the middle of the room. A raw pink body floated in the centre, suspended in healing liquids live with bacteria. A tiny network of fine filaments penetrated the body, here and there, feeding and sustaining it. Arianrhod could only watch and wait. The waiting chafed on her.
The redheaded healer, along with a nurse, fussed over some data at the Nursing station terminal. Keira spoke in a hushed tone, almost as if she didn’t want to wake the patient in the tank. Didn’t want to disturb the mysterious body they had recovered.
It had been several rotations and Arianrhod was frustrated from all the talk with little substance. They couldn’t even confirm if the moon’s destruction had, in fact, been anything to do with the Destroyer and his people or if, indeed, this was something entirely new.
She felt annoyed by the restraints put on her by having to return to her side of the Dorin sector. Moth hadn’t been pleased with her actions, nor had the Navarch. But they at least, while not overtly condoning her or her actions, had at least agreed with her. However, they would never outwardly go against the Council. None of them would. A thousand years of memory told them where that could lead.
And so, she’d found herself taking the ship back to Bright Worlds space and reconnaissance duties. Back to those she’d left behind doing her task, alone. All the while hoping that the healer and her staff could do the impossible. Reconstruct the woman while keeping her alive.
That at least was one fact she knew for sure. The body was female.
Arianrhod glanced through the report, a light purple flimsy that Keira had given her to read. Most of it meant nothing. Stats, figures, estimates, details of treatments needed. The woman was going to be in the tank for the next several six-days, if not longer, Keira had told her.
More waiting. Added to that, Graal, the Earth Element who was also their clinical psychologist, had told her that where the body might heal, the mind was more than likely going to be fractured beyond all help.
It was quite possible the woman would be clinically insane. Of course, that was his worse-case opinion.
Arianrhod felt that stab in her heart again and stared into the tank. As if with sight alone she could penetrate the thick healing live-gel surrounding the frail body. Penetrate what was left of the re-growing skin and see deep into the heart of the woman, into her soul.
Keira had banned her from probing.
“I expressly forbid anyone to go in there till we have her fully stabilised. Heaven alone knows what other damage we could do,” she had said to Graal, but Arianrhod knew the message was meant for her in particular.
What she hadn’t told the good doctor was she had already probed in those first few minutes back on the moon’s surface. She had even broken an Elemental taboo. Arianrhod had put something in the woman. A tiny piece of herself. An eternal flame. Had placed it at the edge of some great darkness she’d seen, briefly. It had been an instant gift of compassion, a tiny light in the long night of the woman’s soul.
“So, are you going to come here every evening after shift and annoy me?” Keira’s lanky frame was beside her, pulling up a chair. The healer sat and stared at the tank. “It will be a long, boring vigil.” She added, turning to her friend and Castellan.
“I know.” Arianrhod sighed. “It’s not like I have anything better to do than read reports every evening.” She had a pile at her feet, it was a nightly ritual. “I can do this in my day-room, or I can do it here.”
Keira suspected that it would be more comfortable in the Castellan’s day-room, but said nothing. She knew exactly how stubborn Arianrhod could be. Once she’d made up her mind there was no going back. The woman had obviously made up her mind.
“Okay, if you’re going to stay, will you at least eat?” And added, “I usually grab a bite, as you know, in our little dining room.” The two women had often shared a meal together, late into the night, chewing over the problems of the day. A release for them both.
Arianrhod smiled and nodded. “Sure, what’s on the menu?”
“Oh…how about a Moth grilling, a Council rebuke, and quite possibly, a demoting slap on the wrist. Did I miss anything?” Keira’s eyes danced and teased.
“No…No you didn’t miss a thing.” Arianrhod managed to say through a smile. The two women rose in unison and went to eat.