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Below is the opening scene
THE NIGHT OF SCREAMS
Breckin Draycie pressed his thumb to the bio-meter lock to identify himself before the governor of planet Cig’s office door, hoping the headache medication he’d taken would quickly do its job. He wished the tablets would remove the vision of his fiancee struggling to speak to him from the grave.
He looked down to see himself dressed sloppily, a wrinkled white button-up shirt, supposedly wrinkle-resistant tan pants chosen from the floor of his suite. He tossed overlong white hair from his eyes, dreading everything outside the threshold of his room.
The door whooshed open at his friend’s permission, so Breckin dragged himself into the office, surprised to see Kade sitting before a video screen split and showing important faces. On the right-side screen was Breckin’s cousin, Ty Draycie, the governor of Pygras. On the left screen was Joren Deauxdaytryx, a lifelong friend of Breckin’s and the 12th ruler of ConsulateRhonta, the government serving his four-world kingdom.
Both men on video looked troubled. In fact, so did Kade. Breckin knew all three men well enough to know something big was up. Why else would he have been summoned to Kade’s office during what was supposed to be a vacation? Joren, Ty, Kade, and Breckin had attended Academy together, and each man knew how the others had been trained to think. And Breckin knew those looks.
He sacked down in the plump blue chair opposite Kade’s bulky white-wood desk and cast his sight over the office to see photos and certificates mounted on the walls, a mini-bar tucked in a wall of cabinets, a huge lentawood table with a relief map of Cig carved into its top. Big windows displayed a nice sunny view of Cig’s capital city. Standard office fare. He saw nothing he hadn’t seen before many times.
"Okay," Breckin relented, his voice sounding nearly as lifeless as he felt. Bored already, he propped his chin on his palm and leaned into the arm of the chair. He’d gotten little sleep last night. "Why am I here?"
Joren turned grave blue eyes onto Breckin, a sobriety of expression he’d seldom seen in his friend. "Breckin, every priestess on both Cig and Pygras awoke screaming last night."
Breckin blinked, stunned for a moment to absorb his friend and sovereign’s words. Both Cig and Pygras were worlds populated with the most beautiful pink-eyed, shape-shifting priestesses of a secret religion called Mathari. He sat up in his seat to take on the situation’s gravity.
"You can’t be serious," Breckin muttered, his sight moving to Ty and Kade, whose wives were priestesses. "What would cause that?"
All three men shook their heads.
"Are all the priestesses okay?" Breckin asked, concerned. His fiancée Veena had been a Mathari priestess of the temples.
Ty narrated, "Zia returned from the Pygrian temple minutes ago. The priestesses seem okay physically, but they all reported feeling an overwhelming pain and the clutch of fear and death."
Breckin blinked again at such an odd occurrence on the same night Veena had visited him. He didn’t believe in coincidences. "I had a vision of Veena last night, about the fourth hour before daylight."
"That’s not unusual," Kade put in. "I often have dreams of Willa and her wolf companion-spirit."
"I dream of Zia’s tigress, as well," Ty added.
Joren did not say the same, as he was married to the Pygrian princess, not a priestess-shape-shifter, and did not experience the same connected dreams with his wife the other two men experienced with theirs.
Breckin shook his head. "I haven’t dreamt of Veena’s lioness since the night of her death. I’ve dreamt of Veena but more remembrances than anything else. This wasn’t a dream. I was wide awake, and it ripped my thoughts right out of the teleport redesign dockets, caused a shock through my body like a blood-sugar drop."
Joren pointed out, "The timing of both events are exact."
Wary glances circled the meeting.
"Breckin’s soul must still be entangled with Veena’s. Somehow," Ty hypothesized aloud, "perhaps over some stretch of multiple lives, their souls are still connected to one another... and apparently communicating, though maybe on a subconscious level he’s unaware of. If Breckin had felt some trauma all the priestesses have suffered, that connection is still there."
Or Veena had simply taken Breckin’s soul with her to the Land of the Dead.
"She told me everyone would soon die," Breckin elaborated. "She grasped for my hands, attempting to take me somewhere, but she wasn’t solid, and her hands passed through mine. The vision ended before she could lead me to this trouble. It must be connected to what happened to the priestesses last night."
"I fear so..." Joren mumbled, as he pressed a finger to his lips in disturbed consideration, a sure signal of his strategic mind at work.
The buzz of Kade’s office door sounded. At his permission, the door opened for the governor’s wife Willa, a pale blond-tressed vision of beauty with a sweet nature, and she paced straight to her husband’s side. Her pretty mauvish eyes, a trait all the Pygrian females shared, were distressed. Kade took his wife’s hand, spotting her anxiety as well as Breckin did.
"Greetings, Willa," Joren said to her, and Willa bowed to the young emperor. "What did you learn from the Cig temple?"
"Greetings, Your Excellency. Greetings, Ty and Breckin. The girls are shaken," Willa recounted, and Breckin could hear her voice hinting to her own peace disrupted. "All the priestesses awoke in great physical pain and in fear for their lives, as I had. Some felt profoundly ill for all of a fading ten seconds. They’d described a sudden shocking effect, excruciating and disorientating. I’d felt the same, saw stars at the moment of it."
"Zia had described such," Ty replied, his chin resting on steepled hands supported by his desktop.
Kade, ever the cop he’d been before his assignment of Cig’s governorship, gave a grumble. "Had anything unusual happened earlier last night, before the priestesses retired?"
Willa shook the mass of her spiral locks of blonde with an occasional spring of brown thrown in. "All reported they’d communed with their companion-spirits before retiring, a nightly ritual for them. Each of them had said they’d drifted to sleep with no clue of anything amiss.
"Then sudden pain wrenched them from slumber, their breaths taken. Terrors of death filled them so completely they could only scream until the horrible feeling released them. All sixty-three shifters of the three temples. None of the younglings were affected, thank the stars."
No one said a word at first. Breckin experienced a twinge of instinct, something he knew to respect, that these events, the priestesses’ alarm and Veena’s struggle to give him a message, were linked. He noticed everyone’s eyes had landed on him.
"Of course, I think it needs a full investigation," he declared to them, as though they thought he’d not agree to that obvious necessity.
Joren clued Willa in to the next layer of bizarre. "Breckin had a strange vision of Veena at the same time the screams began on both worlds."
Willa’s face lit up, and she turned hungry eyes onto Breckin. "Veena? My sister, Veena? She’s reached out to you?"
Breckin feared to hand Willa any more pain over her sister’s murder at the hands of a monster who’d plotted to wipe Mathari magic from the universe. Both Willa and he had suffered terribly over Veena’s death. He regretted Veena had become an element of this problem. It would surely take Willa back to sorrow. Might likely take him, as well.
"It was an imagining, a flash vision popped into my head. Veena had tried to take me somewhere but seemed frustrated that she could not. Of all the words she’d said to me, few stick in mind. Veena had told me everyone will soon die."
Breckin watched Willa’s eyes lose their light, and Kade watched her until a tear rolled down her cheek, then he stood from his chair and held her sympathetically.
Breckin was surprised he felt nothing himself in the telling of it, as though he were dead inside and nothing moved him anymore. "How do you think to proceed, Joren?"
The young and brilliant emperor scratched his unshaved chin, must’ve been called from good sleep for this episode. "I’m not sure yet. This one will take some thought."
"I can give you a starting point," Willa offered, sniffled, and parted from her husband’s comfort. The men’s attention went to her as she paced to the door opening at her approach, and she gestured to someone in the waiting room. "Genika, come in."
A moment passed before a pretty red-tressed, green-robed priestess entered the room, a bit coy probably due to Joren’s presence. Breckin knew some Green Robes seldom left the temples for any reason.
"Greetings, Your Excellency," she said in a soft and reverent voice no one very close to Joren used. Not many people outside the emperor’s closest circle saw his more casual side. But the men in this room had shoved mud pies in the then-mere crown prince’s face for fun as boys, and he them. There could be no formalities between the men.
Willa began introductions. "Genika, you know Kade and Ty."
Genika bowed to Kade, and then to Ty. "Good morning, governors. We’ve met before."
"Aye, my lady," Ty replied, and gave her a nod. "We’d met during the selection of Pygrian priestesses for the Cig temple."
Willa proceeded to say, "And this is Director Breckin Draycie, Ty’s cousin."
Breckin nodded a lazy greeting. Her silver infinity necklace, a symbol all the priestesses wore, caught his eye, only to refresh an old ache.
"Take a seat, Genika," Kade suggested. "You’ve been put through the wringer."
Breckin thought the pretty young woman looked a bit tossed. They probably both felt a similar exhaustion for what the night had given them. The priestess Genika sat in the last free chair in the room parked beside his own, and she seemed shaken.
Willa explained, "Genika had a different experience from the rest of us. Tell them what happened, priestess."
Genika focused her pink eyes on the room’s floor. "I was torn from sleep by the most overwhelming negative feelings, feelings of disgust, guilt, and shame, but no pain as the other priestesses had felt. And I’d heard a voice calling out in the most clear and perfect speech, ‘Everyone will soon die’."
"Same message," Joren said aloud. "Two different sources."
"Not really," Breckin dissented. "One source. Doesn’t it all stem from Mathari magic, the gift of transformation the priestesses carry? Through Mathari meditation skills and the entanglement of the universe, the priestesses are involved in soul-connected relationships with other creatures in another universe. Veena and I had been entangled, had experienced a deep level of soul contact with her companion-spirit."
"Why did only the two of you, Breckin and Genika, receive direct messages," Kade asked the room, "while sixty other priestesses on two worlds receive pain and hauntings of death? Why would Genika sense guilt, shame, and disgust?"
Breckin thought them good questions. No one had answers.
Joren’s mind was working. Breckin knew the look.
"Director Draycie," his emperor said to him with unusual and worrisome formality, "I want you to find out what this night means. Why did the priestesses cry out? Why did Genika and you receive messages? Who will soon die?"
Breckin took a deep breath, felt his lungs shudder with a premonition of misery.
"Please, Joren," he muttered, permanently exhausted and beaten by the pain of Veena’s death three long years ago. He’d not healed a bit. "Give it to Kade, Gage, anyone but me. I don’t want to rerun old feelings."
"I want you on it," Joren stated, no acknowledgment of his friend’s declination. But then, his voice carried concern. "It’s time for you to put the past away and come back to reality. This world, Breckin, the present and the future."
"No," the director replied flatly, his eyelids heavy, his soul weary of the inextinguishable pain of losing his mate. Breckin preferred the deadness he felt now to the reawakened pain. "Choose someone else, Joren. I don’t care to know the answers. I’ll tell your investigator all I know of my side, but don’t put this on my shoulders."
The others in the room were silent, watching Joren and Breckin exchange willful dissents, and all looking pale and wishing themselves anywhere but there.
Joren cast a poignant stare Breckin’s way, then, bold-faced, ignored his refusal. "It’s you, Breckin."
"No, Joren. Not this time. I just don’t care."
"You are hereby ordered from the throne of ConsulateRhonta to care, Director Breckin Draycie. You’ll heed this throne until the day you die, Son of Rhonta."
The room was dead silent. If a pin had dropped, it would have echoed. Breckin didn’t think he’d ever heard Joren so stiff and unmovable.
Well, not since Joren had ordered Kade to Cig. Breckin had thought then there’d be a friendly fist fight. Now Kade was the governor of Cig with a Mathari priestess for a wife, the antithesis of anyone’s expectations of the once-restless cop. Who held a clue Kade had it in him to settle down?
Before that, Joren had ordered Ty to haul a priestess around the world in search of a genocidal maniac. Now Ty held a governor’s desk and that shape-shifting priestess is his wife.
Joren thought himself so highly placed he could rearrange the lives of his friends to his needs. Breckin had always been glad Veena and he had kept their love affair quiet for a while.
"Get the job done, Breckin," were Joren’s last cold words. The right side of the video screen went black before the broadcast of Ty’s face took over the abandoned space.
Breckin stared at the wall, loathing every minute of this day so far. "Damn him. Damn Joren, and his will, and his place. I’ve no drive to give in to him this time."
Ty set his chair back to the floor from its leaning position to say, "Let it not go unsaid that Joren’s correct. You’re right in the middle of it, Breckin. You’re the logical one to figure this out. You’ll see something no one else does."
Breckin replayed in his head the sound of his emperor’s voice ordering him to take up the trail of clues. Then his eyes went back to his cousin. "No, I’m done with the priestesses."
The director turned to catch both Willa and this new Green Robe gawking at him as though he’d set fire to a nursery center. He thought to apologize, but he just didn’t give a damn whom he offended. He doubted the words would remove the quiet shock in their pink eyes, anyway.
Breckin watched Kade rise to his feet, whisper to his wife, and the two green-robed priestesses cast Breckin an ominous eye, then Cig’s governor escorted them from the room. Kade returned, dropped heavily into his seat. All three men took turns eying one another, and Breckin knew one of them was about to issue his best argument to change his mind.
Kade picked up a dart from a set sitting on his desk, and he fired it to some target. Breckin followed its flight to hit a picture of Mathar, the maniac who’d hunted the priestesses down until the Consulate had given him a prison cell too small to do a u-turn. The target picture had been penetrated by darts enough to cut a hole in the former master of Cig’s forehead.
Genocide, regicide, interstellar kidnapping, murder, torture. Charges in three different world courts. Mathar’s trials were scheduled back-to-back, and the man would most likely die before he’d endured them all, ironic for a man who’d convinced a world he was immortal. Ironic that the priestesses Mathar had thought to murder had been branded with his name. Kade hated Mathar as much as Breckin did, had watched his wife Willa lose her only sister Veena as Mathar’s last victim.
"I regret I didn’t give Mathar the beating he deserves," Breckin deadpanned, then turned to Kade. "I still could."
"You know we can’t let you do that," Kade replied, tapping another dart on the desktop, readying for another strike.
"Yes, you could."
Kade turned his green stare onto him.
"Don’t you think I’d like to, Breckin, let you slip into his holding cell and beat him into oblivion? Hadenrod, I’ve thought of doing it myself. It’s too fast, minutes for him to suffer for the decades of torture he’d personally dished out, and all the despots before him for a long millennium on our mother planet. I’d love to see him dead in my hands for every tear he’s caused Willa."
Breckin glanced over to a silent Ty, who’d not held such personal attachments to Mathar as both Kade and Breckin held. Ty finally said, "Dismissing the pure truth that Mathar deserves every agony he gets, it is our jobs to see him tried and our failure if he doesn’t make it to court. Right now, the man’s in a detention coma that makes minutes feel like hours, hours feel like days, and weeks feel like forever. He’s awake inside his head and alone with his demons. Injuries couldn’t make him more wretched."
Kade launched the next dart into the former Master of Cig’s heart this time. "A year’s pay bets he’s a part of it, somehow. Everything always goes back to Mathar. I’ve instructed Willa to go over every note, every writing on the worm, search through the man’s property again and the temple archives, see if we can find any reference to what went on, a warning, an explanation, an account of it happening before."
The sliver of vindication that had fluttered at the fantasy of doing Mathar harm died inside Breckin, receded back into the hard shell around his heart. If he had every possible future from which to choose, opening the door to anything that had to do with either Mathar or Veena would be his last choice.
The director realized he slumped in his chair again, so he straightened once more, more to force his mind to his job. "What about this Genika-person? What’s her story?"
Kade turned to his computer, tapped into his comp keyboard, then went to the screen. "Genika Tallay is the daughter of a successful Pygrian trader, admitted into the temple to study at age seven, the usual entry age into Mathari studies. She’s currently studying medicine, serving at both the temple and the university."
"Anything unusual in her file? Has she studied the shape-shifting art?" Breckin was only mildly interested in any hint of what might’ve made this particular priestess the only other person to receive a message.
Kade’s eyes scanned the record, and his brow crashed as though he’d encountered a foreign language. "That’s the last answer I’d expected. Genika’s a trained shape-shifter who can’t shift."
Ty appeared baffled in consideration of the information. "I’ve never heard of a priestess who’d absorbed the training to shift but couldn’t perform the trick."
"Neither have I," Kade replied, visibly uneasy with a grimace, rolling his next dart in his fingers.
"What’s wrong with her?"
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