By the pricking in my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.

I hear Sword of Shadows will be live on Sunday. Yay! This being the case, there is another little snippet of the first chapter.

Five hours later, Arthur and the exhausted Submariners finished dragging all the Terran warriors into a vast, air-filled cavern under Dozary Lake. Looking up, he just managed to grab the wrist of a weary man about to remove stasis devices.

“No. Leave them, Huber. They are getting the rest they need.” Arthur’s hand shook where it gripped the Submariner. He forced it to stillness. “They have just lost a battle advantage. They do not need time to brood over it.”

“Will you leave them here, Arthur?” Huber sank to his knees, trembling with the same fatigue. The raw scent of ketones, the by-product of protein breakdown, wafted through the air around him.

“All of us must rest.” Arthur looked around at what he could see of their dank and noise-some bolthole. It offered little beyond safety. He faced a decision he did not want to make. “Then we visit Avalon.”

When his Submariners crawled to sleeping places in the sand, Arthur used every last ounce of his willpower to stand and walk to his own bedroll. He knew it as a pointless gesture when he added to the scent of ketones on the air. He also guessed at the nature of the reception he could expect from the rulers of Avalon and his mother after an absence of two years. Tomorrow they would board the submersible vessel and return to the place of its theft, under the southern ocean. Sleep came as a soothing blanket of darkness.

***

Transport lights gave the empty ocean a blue hue, for at this depth few life forms could withstand the crushing pressure. Arthur’s thoughts drifted as Kai piloted the craft. Their journey, with Terrans still in stasis, from the cavern to this transport had further drained his Submariners. They lay sleeping at the back of the cabin. Arthur felt his own need, yet resisted. Guilt colored his reasons because he wanted a genuine excuse to escape from his mother’s expected chilling wrath.

Over the past two years, many messages from her regarding his abrupt departure reached him through a variety of messengers. However phrased, each one held the same command, ‘Come back immediately.’ He knew Kai shouldered a similar burden of demands from her. Neither of them replied and so risked giving a clue to their location. Now they must face her.

A brighter blue glow appeared ahead, signaling their proximity to Avalon. He glanced across at Kai. His brother’s face remained expressionless. Information of their discovery must be shared despite any personal cost. The lethal storm had remained anchored over the earrings while the group made their escape. Without the earrings and their strange emissions, all the Outcasts were helpless to fend off a mind attack from the Nestines. If the earrings no longer worked, then the Outcasts might be used to kill their Submariner allies.

“Avalon wants an identification code.” Kai passed the information relayed through his earpiece in an offhand tone as if it didn’t matter. The sound of his voice roused Submariners into reluctant wakefulness.

“Break comm-silence.” Arthur glanced back at his unit, seeing the strain and fatigue showing on each face. “Tell control who we are. At least some of us can hope for a shower and a hot meal.”

“Commander?” Haystack, an Outcast with untidy blond hair edged closer to Arthur. “What will happen to us now?”

“You all get a respite for a time.” Arthur looked towards Kai, who only shrugged. Respite was their personal code for nothing changed.

“No.” Haystack looked tense, unusual for any of the Brethren. “I meant this unit including our leaders.”

“Unknown.” Arthur pushed aside his own misgivings to appear confident. “No Brethren, whether born into the state or created an Outcast, can function on the surface without risking his comrades until this is resolved.”

Haystack looked back towards the others. Subtle adjustments of posture among Brethren and slight nods from Submariners seemed to give him input. “We won’t go to Rowan. We will share whatever punishment is decreed for those we trust.”

“The strength of the valorous,” Kai quipped, catching Arthur’s eye.

“Sir?” Haystack raised one eyebrow.

“Keys to the Kingdom.” Arthur struggled to keep his voice steady as a fierce pride in his fighting men surged through him. “One mainstay of any kingdom, however small, is the strength of the valorous.”

“The cries of the oppressed demand the wisdom of the wise,” Stalker joined in, coming to stand beside Haystack.

“Who dares lock the doors of wisdom?” Merrick, a Submariner, continued this surface-world game of children’s logic, gaining himself a startled glance from the Brethren.

“Those who wish to suppress truth,” Kai continued on to the next phase, looking hard at Arthur.

“Shall the truth be hidden from those oppressed?” Stalker jumped a level, leading them closer to the final gambit.

“The people cry out for justice from those who must judge,” Haystack responded, also looking at Arthur.

“The valorous must fight to ensure truth is given to the one who must hold the keys to the kingdom.” Kai smiled the slow smile of Brethren.

“Who is the one?” Haystack matched Kai in expressions.

“He who would sacrifice his all for the sake of the oppressed.” Merrick finished the game.

“We will not stand down. We will not be dispersed. We will continue our mission together.”

Arthur looked from one trusting and resolute face to another, aware of the same commitment from all. For the first time, it hit him how much they knew of the burden he bore. Looking into those eyes, he saw acceptance. It made him want to kneel before them and beg their forgiveness. A lump formed in his throat.

Kai’s console began blinking with an incoming message that diffused the moment. He reattached his earpiece.

“They say they are sending a security detail to ‘assist’ us in debriefing. Once we dock, we are to exit the submersible and wait for further instructions.” Kai terminated the connection. “How much assistance are we prepared to let them give us?”

“We stay together,” Merrick answered for all of them, and then a slow smile peculiar to Brethren lighted a Submariner face.

A slight thud warned them all of docking clamps securing their transport. The faint hiss of airway breathers activating brought a smell of dust and mold to Arthur. His nostrils flared in protest at this contamination of their clean if recycled air, with Avalon’s best offering. It smelled of home to him and his Submariners, but he knew how much the Brethren Outcasts hated this stink of ages as he also did now. He suppressed a yearning for the fresh bite of a keen, crisp wind on his face, bringing with it a rich aroma of growth and life. How many years must he live without experiencing the full array of natural odors this time?

Automatic processes thudded, entrapping their craft and preparing to open it like a hapless clamshell. Faint stirrings behind Arthur told him the men formed up into position for disembarkation. Tiny betrayals of sound indicated that they moved into fighting triads. He isolated the creak of Brethren leather clothing from the almost soundless rustle of Submariner water-repellent garments. Not one footfall though, not from these stealth-trained warriors. By the deeps, he must be wound to snapping point to notice these niceties.

Kai closed down all engines and came to stand at his side, an unspoken question in those violet eyes that matched his own, down to the color and shape. He guessed Kai sensed his tension since he shared the concerns and consequences. Even as he took that first deep breath to start a calming mantra, Kai’s muscles slid into the fluid stance of battle-ready Brethren. They turned to move as one as if sharing the same soul. Icy chills washed over Arthur as he recalled when this happened in fact. No one had ever survived a gestalt before.

The main doors opened onto a deserted docking bay. Metal walkways gleamed in the perpetual day of Avalon. Buildings cast harsh shadows in their thrust upward to the transparent bubble of plas-glass that kept out the crush of water, fathoms deep and fading into blackness. Arthur moved his hand in Brethren sign language to order halt and scan.

His flesh crept in the unnatural quiet of the area. No ground runners rumbled by carrying workers. No railpods hissed from overhead tracks. No people walked to their destinations as they should during a day split into multiple shifts. Faint sounds in the distance warned him of an area cleared for combat.

“I can’t sense any change, yet there is something.” Kai caught at his arm, looking as if he concentrated. “I’m beginning to feel very sleepy.”

“Stop probing ahead.” Arthur caught sight of a partial shadow in an alleyway. “We have a shy welcoming committee. Some of them are Seers.”

“They set an ambush?” Kai hawked and spat. An action calculated to upset the social instincts of any Seer. He grinned at Arthur.

“If I find that a primitive example of coarse behavior, the Seers who witnessed will want to roast you over a slow fire.” Arthur matched his smile. “We wait.” Behind him, he heard similar expulsions, normally against his expressed orders. Brethren knew how and when to disgust others to their own advantage. Liquid sounds splashed against a hard surface and the smell of fresh urine made his nostrils flare.

With hypersensitive olfactory organs possessed by most of the Seers, the aroma must reach them soon if they hadn’t already connected the sound with the action. No one in Avalon had ever before witnessed Brethren living up to their role of insentient animals ascribed to them by forts. The sound of a similar splashing to the right of the first sound caused him to check a laugh. This aroma held the pheromones of a Submariner. Was it going to take the formation of an outside urinal to make Seers break?

Pile all your weapons in a heap and move away from them, a multi-toned voice in Arthur’s head whispered. An octet of Seers and he guessed Elite trooper backups. He eased his hand behind his back to sign for more offensive behavior. Two more of his unit obliged.

We can order you shot down where you stand.The tone of the multiple voices held a note of anger.

And forgo the benefit of information brought to you at personal risk?Arthur let traces of amused irony infuse his return thoughts.

A scream of pain spun him around. Haystack thrashed on the ground, frothing in his agony. Arthur linked with him to feel a white-hot rod of flame piercing into his head for the moment it took to trace the attack back to its perpetrators. Then he counter-struck.

Two howls sounded from around the corner of a building. A brief glimpse of a leg in spasm appeared, to be pulled back from view with some speed. Haystack groaned shaking his head and easing up to his former battle stance.

Care to try that again? Arthur taunted his unseen enemies.

We have a combined psi factor strong enough to destroy you,the multi-toned voice warned.

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