The Pleiades Mystery

summer

© Sue Vincent

Elio Hudson let out a deep breath as he looked at the idylic scene on the small console monitor. It was a photo he had taken of a field of wildflowers last Spring in southeast Texas, a hundred miles from the Houston Space Center and his other life.

“Hey, you might want to save that for later. Where we’re going has a much broader canvas.” Eledoro Salazar tapped Elio on the shoulder while sitting in the co-pilot’s chair. Although the mission leader and Naval Commander had only met the Spanish computer scientist eleven months ago while they were training for this mission, they had become fast friends.

Hudson removed his restraints and lifted his muscular frame from the pilot’s seat. “Routine systems check complete, Eledoro. Let’s go join the others. Our mission update from Houston is scheduled to come in about five minutes from now.”

“Right you are. Let’s go.”

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The Proposal

path

© Sue Vincent

Fear drenched Simon Clark like the sweat that covered his body. The wooded path made it look like a morning in early Spring, but the reality of the brutal August heat and the hazy smoke of a dozen wildfires across the west belied the scenery.

“I can’t do this. It’s too hard.” He wasn’t muttering to himself, but to his unseen companion.

“You have to, Simon. Too many people are depending on you.” She always sounded like a young woman, but there was something slightly mechanical about her tone.

“I just want to go home.”

“You are home.”

“I don’t mean that. I want to go someplace where I can be safe. Someplace where it’s cool and dry and I can relax.”

“You don’t have time for that right now. You have a job to do.”

“Why does it have to be me? I didn’t ask for the responsiblity.”

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The Gathering Stone

stone

© Sue Vincent

Malcolm Potter was desperate enough to finally make the pilgrimage. He once thought it was all silly nonsense, but things had gone too far. The monster in the White House had made an incredible mess over the past two years, rolling back environmental protections so that his rich buddies could clear cut and strip mine, even in national parks, chipping away at abortion rights, healthcare, protections for all marginalized populations across the board, and having a religious fanatic as his Vice President. The nation was spinning out of control.

He had been a staunch atheist for most of his five decades of life, and couldn’t understand why religions were still tolerated since they were one of the major causes of war, oppression, persecution, and colonialism. Yet, even though his last hope was firmly grounded in superstition and belief in the occult, it was still a hope. Only the stone could restore the correct orientation of the world, and return it to a course that ultimately would lead to utopia.

“Who are you?” Malcolm thought he’d be the only one here, but a woman was standing on the other side of the stone.

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Victorious

summit

© Sue Vincent

Casworon stood at the summit, his booted feet planted on the flagstone, his back, torn crimson cape over tarnished and broken chain mail, pressed against the ancient wall. The battle had been won, but at a terrible cost. The field below was littered with the dead of his foe, Jusveer, King of Zedrov, but so was it with his own dead, except for Arabel. His beloved Queen and wife had been taken during the conflict, by agents of Asluitania who were supposedly neutral.

Now that he had won the right to Jusveer’s lands and retained possession of his own, they would likely hold Arabel to random. No, Asluitania would not be interested in ruling these lands, but they would demand a yearly tribute in gold, oil, and spices. Casworon would have to sign a binding decree to pay annually after his Queen’s return. Plus, even if they had mistreated her, he could seek no vengeance against their ruler, Erembour, the sinister Shadowmaster, such was the nature of agreements with evil.

The Warrior King gazed out over the vastness of the western ocean, pining for his love as the distant barge, just at the horizon, carried her away to dark lands.

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The Wishing Tree

wishing tree

© Sue Vincent

Little Mari, a year younger than five-year-old Zooey Davidson, took her by the hand as they ran toward the wishing tree. In their free hands, they each held a colorful cloth provided by Tala, who looked like she could be Mari’s teenage sister but wasn’t.

“Danilo helped me put my first one up. Now I’ll help you.”

“Did your brother tell you what it is?”

“Of course. It’s a wishing tree.”

“What do you wish for?”

“Anything you want.”

“Can I wish to go home?”

“I don’t know. A lot of the kids don’t want to go home.”

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Dire Beginning

beginnings

© Sue Vincent

The afternoon sunlight, which had been shining dimly through the mist and overhanging trees, flickered and threatened to extinguish, as if a giant was blowing out a candle.

“They came! They heard me and they came!” In spite of their dire circumstances, trapped between an army of demons on one side and a strangely alien Shay accompanied by the resurrected Sakhr on the other, little Zooey was jumping up and down with excitement. Coming in from high above and crossing the sun was an unprecedented legion of vultures. It was impossible to tell the birds apart as the vast flock began its dive toward the demonic forces, but the girl knew that Gyffus was at the lead. She took the single feather he had left behind, held it up and waved.

The rest of them looked up and then back again at the wounded golden dragon and her companion, Dani’s shadowy reflection, who seemed no worse for wear after having been impaled on the dragonrider’s sword.

“Sakhr! I killed you!” Dani’s right hand ached as she tightly gripped Witherbrand’s hilt. The blade felt heavy, threatening to pull her arm downward, lowering her guard.

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Descent

feather

© Sue Vincent

The little girl had picked up the carrion bird’s feather, the only remains of her connection to the griffon vulture who had delivered the dire news of the Great Gray God, and tucked it in her pocket. For a few short minutes when their minds met, she had seen through his eyes, had seen the world from six miles up, flown through clouds and smoke, and witnessed the falling of a god to a vast army of demons. Zooey was only five years old, but in the space of a few weeks, she had seen so much of life and death.

“The Quag Lands.”

Dani stopped them at the edge of some unseen boundary. It was mid-morning and they had been walking through a grassy marsh since just after dawn. For the past hour of their journey, the grasses had become darker and the tree branches more twisted. The air was humid and thick with the smell of the dying, not that there weren’t living birds and animals here, but somehow that life didn’t belong solely in their bodies.

“It’s what I saw.” Jake was standing next to the dragonrider. She knew the way into this stinking pit because it was the one area of the Exile she had always been taught to avoid. The seven-year-old also knew by the dubious virtue of his dreams, both waking and sleeping.

“It gets darker ahead. She’s in there, Dani. Shay’s almost dead.”

They all turned as Paris shrieked. She had walked off to the edge of the trail and was gazing into a shallow pool when she saw it. Taylor was the first to reach her.

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Decision

turrents

© Sue Vincent

“No, I don’t want you to try to heal it. I want the imp weak and helpless.”

It had been several days since Dani and Paris found the tiny demon unconscious in a nearby wooded avenue. Thanks to Paris’s book and Dani’s tutoring, Mandy’s knowledge of how to use the local tree bark, roots, and other parts of medicinal plants was steadily growing, and the children felt well enough to resume their journey very soon.

“He’s hardly regained consciousness since you brought him back to camp. What if he dies?”

“Then it dies. It’s a demon. It, and thousands of others just like it, tried to kill us, and they did kill four dragons, or have you forgotten that?” The dragon rider was furious, not so much at Mandy, but at the loss of her four friends, as well as the horrible revelation that Shay had been taken by the demon horde. It added to the plague of the visions and dreams where she saw herself murdering the other teenager and her brothers and sisters.

“I’m just trying to help.” Mandy might have been afraid of Dani if she’d faced her anger when their relationship was new, but now she understood that the dragonrider was in pain, tormented by guilt at what she saw as her failures.

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Massacre

avenue

© Sue Vincent

“It’s Shay! She’s trapped! We’ve got to save her!”

Seven-year-old Jake woke up panicked and hyperventilating in the shadow of a dragon’s grave.

“Jake. Take it easy. It’s okay.” His sister Mandy had him by the shoulders. His eyes looked glazed, like he was still asleep. She hugged him close to her. “It’s okay. We’re all here with you.”

He started to calm down but was still trembling. “Mandy, you’ve got to believe me. I saw Shay. She’s been captured, I don’t know how long ago. We’ve got to find her. They’ll kill her if we don’t.”

Then he felt a hand on his shoulder. “You said you saw Shay in a dream?” It was Dani, the dragonrider. Her voice was calm, but her own experiences told her that dreams carried great and terrible messages.

The little boy pulled away from his sister and looked back. “Yes. She was in some dark place, a forest or a cave maybe. They had her tied up in chains. She looked awful, all cut up, bruised, and bleeding.”

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The Fallen

fallen

© Sue Vincent

Jake saw Dani standing in a gorge between two cliffs holding Witherbrand in her hand. Her blade was covered with blood and she was surrounded by bodies.

“Dani, what happened?”

The seven-year-old looked around but couldn’t see his brother or sisters, that is, until he looked closer at the dead people on the ground.

“Dani?”

She turned and stared at him, but her eyes were so different. Pale, blue orbs gazed at him with malevolence, and she grinned like a predator who had just spied fresh meat.

“What are you doing?”

She wasn’t in a hurry. The teenager strolled almost casually in his direction. Her armor wasn’t what he had given her after his dream. It was red and black, like the demon’s armor, like Sahkr’s.

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