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Sweetly the Dragon Dreams
    by David Farland
Sweetly the Dragon Dreams
Artwork by Julie Dillon

Life finds a way. We dropped planet-killers on Mursadoni, scorching all three continents, and when I returned forty-two years later, the land was covered with green ferns that provided food for clouds of lightning moths.

So I have searched the heavens further. On Remiseas, nine hundred years after its immolation, I found forests and birds and lizards -- all which should have been decimated -- and I discovered new life forms rising from the ashes of the old.

On Danai, the infestation was much worse. A few of the higher life forms were gone, but after six thousand years I found wide variations in the flora and fauna. Included among the survivors is a thriving population of humans led by a hive of skraals. My supply of planet-killers and sunbusters has been exhausted. I will drop flash-heads into the hive with the hope that the resultant nuclear contamination will wipe out the skraals' queen. Further steps will be required to eradicate the biological contaminations. . . .

-- final transmission from the cycor drone ship Death's Head

In the dry days on Danai, the moon lures the damselfly nymphs from the slow-flowing waters. Soft of flesh they come, minute hunters from the marsh, climbing ashen stalks of cattails or perchance some slender green reed.

At the rising of the sun they settle at the base of a frond, letting the light take them and transform them, until their old bones crack and their new form breaks free.

For a moment they will hesitate, poised, their new wings still wet, waxen and thrumming, as they examine their own glory.

Soft new carapaces shine in the sunlight -- glimmering like cinnabar or rubies, or the green of dappled leaves.

That is how young Tallori found them that summer morning as she waded along the shores of the marsh. The rising sun hung like a golden shield upon the shoulders of the world, and the young damselflies just seemed to be waiting for her to pluck them from their perches.

She had caught nearly a hundred in a dozen different hues, and placed them in a reed basket. She was happy to be catching them. One silver penny for every five damselflies Tallori was to be paid. She could make a small fortune in a few weeks.

Tallori was a bright child, but not bright enough. She had not been found worthy of schooling. She was a mere human, and thus far inferior to skraals that ruled Danai.

The damselflies were to be food for the Holy Maiden Seramasia, and Tallori was grateful to be of service, for not only would she make more than she had ever dreamed, she would also be assisting a goddess.

Tallori was large of bone for an eight-year-old girl. Her hair was as bright yellow as the sunlight, and her eyes, set deep beneath her brow, were greener than the sea. She sang a rhyme as she picked the damselflies from the stalks:

"A blue one to ease my lady's cares,
"A red one to make her grow.
"A white one to match her skin so fair,
"A gold one to make her glow!"

That is when she found the monster. Tallori tiptoed over a break in the cattails, a space less than ten yards across, when she noticed how rough the ground felt beneath her feet. The dark water was as brown as her father's beer, and one could not see through it. But sometimes she could feel clams in the mud with her toes, or find small freshwater crabs to eat. But the rough surface made her wonder.

She stopped for a moment to pick a scab from her knee and eat it. That's when she looked down, saw a vast eye, and let out a scream.

"Over here!" Tallori shouted, dragging her father Angar to the edge of the wide river. At the child's insistence, he'd brought a huge ax, and now he stopped, unwilling to wade out and muddy his sandals.

He suspected that this was all some plot on his wife's part to get him to do some work. When Tallori had come with her story about a monster in the bog, Angar's wife had said in a businesslike tone, "Bring back some reeds, and I'll weave some baskets."

So he was skeptical of Tallori's motives in bringing him. He was a fat man with fondness for strong drink. Rather than wade off into the mud, he squatted in some reeds and rubbed his temple, wishing that the sunlight did not aggravate his hangover so much.

"Come quick!" Tallori shouted. "The monster is over here. You can see that it has big teeth!"

Only when Tallori tugged his arm and became frantic did Angar pull off his sandals of woven reeds and dare wade into the mud.

Twenty feet from shore, he saw it there, beneath four inches of tawny water: a huge round eye as large as a platter, reflecting the golden sun. It was set in a serpentine head that looked to be some nine feet long, and four feet tall. The whole of it lay in the water, staring out.

Mankind had been living on Danai for over a hundred thousand years. From time to time, something odd turned up in the bog -- petrified men, or ancient tools.

But this was too good to be true. "I know what this is," Angar said, trying to convince himself of his fortune. "It's a dragon"

A "dragon" was a flying reptile, one of the first biologically advanced beings that mankind met when they had first ventured to the stars. In some ways, the dragons were even superior to the godlike skraals, and had been friends and counselors to the skraals back in the days of Bliss -- before the cycor began their great war and turned the heart of the galaxy into a great void.

The last dragon had been expunged more than six thousand years ago in an attack that had left Danai a wasteland.

Angar inspected the remains. There had been a flood last winter that stripped mud from the banks of the river. It must have uncovered the creature.

"My, look at those teeth," Angar said. The beast had great teeth as long as a man's hand. Each was stained yellow from millennia in the mud, and the cutting edges were serrated. "I'll bet folks would pay nicely for one of those," he mused. "Maybe I could even sell one to the holy maiden. I seem to remember hearing that even now, the goddesses take a peculiar interest in the remains of dragons . . ."

Yet he had to wonder. Three months earlier, a cycor scout ship had come to Danai and rained flash-heads upon the capitol. The supreme mother had been killed, the holy maiden wounded, and though the scout ship was destroyed, it was only a matter of time before the enemy returned with greater weapons. Now the Holy Maiden Seramasia had gone into hiding, preparing to meet the cycor threat.

Yet Angar suspected that he could find the holy maiden: all he had to do was send a message through the boy who was buying damselflies.

That night, deep in a forest called Shadowfest, a twelve-year-old boy named Anduval inched along the limb of a boa tree covered in white spirit fungus. The tree was large so close to the ground, perhaps four feet in diameter. Boa saplings tended to snake along the forest floor, rising and dipping at random, until they sensed a hole in the canopy high above, and then the trunk would twist upward, seeking the heavens. Thus for long stretches the trees sometimes formed a path above the forest floor.

Twenty feet below, a sounder of wild pigs lay asleep half-hidden, having rooted beneath patches of wild fungus and plates of spongy lichens. These were colossus boars that weighed as much as three tons each and stood eight feet at the shoulder. A full-grown boar had a mouth large enough to swallow a man whole; their enormous tusks were as sharp as sabers. The boars were savage hunters, fiercely protective both of their young and the patches of mushrooms in their territory.

An old sow grunted curiously and opened her eyes. Anduval halted, heart pounding. He could not move. With each step, spirit fungus dislodged from the log, and rained down on the wild boars.

He couldn't see exactly how the tree twisted ahead. He was guided only by the light of a jar filled with tiny glow beetles whose green luminescence carried only a few feet. But Anduval had memorized the trail over the years. The glass mushrooms were about ninety feet ahead, where the boa tree dipped down and touched the forest floor.

Anduval wrapped his hand around his jar, obscuring the light, and waited for the sow to return to sleep.

He dared not move. One slip and he would fall to the forest floor. The ground was spongy, covered with layers of leaves and old lichens that had rotted here for forty thousand years. He'd probably survive a fall, but not an attack by the boars.

So he held tight. Stars shone in the night sky overhead, but the boles of the boa trees twisted crazily in a tangle, and their foliage in the canopy blocked out the stars, so that even in daylight the forest floor lay in perpetual gloom.

The only sound was the dripping from above -- sap falling in an ever-present mist, spiders falling lifeless from old age. A huge growler swept overhead, uttering a soft rumble as it sought for flying insects. The air smelled of ten thousand varieties of mold.

After long minutes the even breathing and occasional grunts of pigs assured Anduval that they were dreaming contentedly. Morning was coming, and the pigs would soon awaken. Time was short. Anduval would have to sprint back to the palace when he got his prize.

Breathlessly, he inched along in the dark, feeling his way across the log until he felt bones crack beneath his feet. He pulled out his light. A small lizardlike creature lay dead on the log, having fallen from the canopy, its wings sprawled akimbo. Fungus was growing over the body in colored patches, reclaiming the moisture and minerals.

Ahead, water tinkled down the boles of several trees, forming a pool. At the water's edge, ghostly mushrooms rose up like spears, some to a height of three feet. Anduval raised his light, inched forward, and spotted a mushroom dripping with its own sugary dew. It looked to be newly sprouted, for it was still the color of tinted glass. He pushed his way past older mushrooms, those that had been trampled by pigs or had dried out, and examined this one closely. He reached into a pocket, drew a harvesting scythe, and slashed through the mushroom's stalk. Using a wet cloth to lift the mushroom so that it would never have been touched by human hands, he placed the mushroom into a pouch woven from twisted leaves. It was a good harvest. He suspected that the mushroom weighed a good seven pounds.

He glanced up, searching for a second mushroom, when he heard a startled grunt at his back. A boar scrambled up from the detritus and let out an angry squeal.

Anduval had been found.

He whirled and raced back toward the bole of his boa. A huge black boar rushed from the darkness. Anduval leapt aside. The boar barreled past, went splashing into the shallow pool.

Anduval lifted his light. The boar at his back squealed in outrage, whirled, and gave chase.

Anduval sprinted where the bole angled up gently. The boar charged but it could not see in the dark, and it had to take care not to slip.

It had to be following his light. The bole veered left, then right. Below him, wild pigs squealed in anticipation. Seldom did they get much fresh meat beyond the occasional insect or worm.

The huge boar grunted and redoubled its speed. Anduval could feel its breath at his back. He reached out and held his light far to his right.

The boar veered toward it -- and slid from the damp bole of the tree, just as Anduval had hoped.

Wild pigs squealed in delight at the fresh meat that rained down around them.

In a subterranean palace deep beneath the mountainous trees, Anduval arranged his funguses on a platter.

He had three spears of yellowcap, firm and meaty, set beside a clump of ruffled young brain fungus, all in shades of gray with blue fringes. A dozen "black buttons" took up the center of the platter, while his single clear glass mushroom as long as a baby's arm curved around the platter's rim. Sprinkled over the glass mushrooms were tiny "blue dot" mushrooms no larger than grains of sand.

When he felt certain that the arrangement would be pleasing, he carried it through the arched alcove and into the dining hall of the Holy Maiden Seramasia.

Other attendants had arrived earlier and set their offerings upon the table. The offerings included a wide variety of funguses, but Anduval felt certain that they would not please his mistress. A pile of dark green "swamp lettuce" looked too stale to be appetizing. A single white sweet globe was overly large, and thus its dark center would be flavorless. Others looked more palatable.

Anduval thought to shove the central platter aside, but he knew that it contained the offering of the kitchen steward, and he did not want to get a beating.

Anduval's offering was last to the table, as he had hoped. His would be the freshest of the fare. But he had to take care to leave soon, for ancient custom dictated that he could never occupy the same room as the maiden or pass within two hundred feet of her.

He set his platter upon the outer edge of the table, hoping that if the holy maiden chanced to circle once, she would be tempted by his offering. The other attendants had all put their platters near the door to the maiden's meditation chamber, hoping to be first to be seen. But there on the far side of the table, his platter stood alone.

He took one last second to turn his platter, just so, to better display his rare and succulent glass mushroom as he prepared to flee.

The scuffling sound of footsteps issued from the maiden's entrance, and he glanced up.

Terror took him. The holy maiden stood beneath a white marble arch, glorious and resplendent, not twenty feet away. At each side, skraal guards flanked her.

The guards were taller than men. At eight feet, their height was imposing enough, but it was the guards' reputation that most frightened him: in their zealousness to protect the maiden, they sometimes got rough. A skraal was far more powerful than a human. The least touch of a skraal could leave a bruise. Should one of the creatures grasp him, their slender fingers would rip through flesh as easily as rice paper, and would shatter bones as if they were made from straw.

Trembling, heart pounding, Anduval dropped to his hands and knees and prostrated himself. "Have pity on me," he cried, "for I am but a foolish child."

He closed his eyes. He had seen the princess up close, which was forbidden, and he relished that instant. She was naked, for skraal nymphs rarely wore clothes.

She had been beautiful. Little had seemed human about her. Though she stood upon two legs, her similarity to humans ended there.

She had no breasts or hair.

Her face had been as white as the petal of a swamp lily, as white as the lining of a cloud, and fleshy around her silver eyes. Her legs and arms were slender. Her abdomen, shaped like an inverted pear, was full and fat.

She had a gracefulness to her, like the elegance of a crane or a roe deer, and in the way of skraal nymphs her oral-dactyls, the finger-like appendages that shoved food into the vertical slit of her mouth, were clearer than crystal.

He could see little evidence of the wounds she'd received in the cycor attack. She had nearly been killed when the drone ship dropped its flash-bombs and then crashed into the capitol, smashing so hard that debris flew up from the far side of the world. Seramasia had been a hundred miles from ground zero, yet the radiation burns had left a part of her exoskeleton pitted.

Anduval's heart pounded, but not from fear. He had seen the holy maiden up close, and he hoped to savor the image.

Then she spoke, her mouth-fingers playing rapidly, and her voice was deep and mellow, like a woodwind. "Have no fear, frail one," she said. "Your presence here pleases me. And though you may be young, I believe that you are wise beyond your years -- perhaps wise beyond all understanding."

Anduval did not trust his ears. Humans were never allowed near skraal nymphs. In all of his life, he had never heard that the maiden spoke to a human, except to Magus Veritarnus, a mysterious man who strode through the palace in black robes with his head hunched in thought.

"Now," she said, "stand before me, and do not avert your eyes. I have questions for you; choose your words well, for I will permit you to continue in my presence only if you speak perfect truth."

Perhaps at no time in his life had Anduval felt more frightened. Tears flooded his eyes, and his stomach clenched alarmingly. Though he had not eaten since yesterday, he felt that he might vomit on the floor. When he managed to stand, his legs quivered, and it was only with great effort that he stilled them.

He looked up, and peered steadily upon the holy maiden. She strode toward him, and her guards became alarmed. Their breeding demanded that they protect her, and like dogs they wished to lead the way, stand between her and Anduval, but she brushed them aside.

"My lady, please," a guard begged. "The danger . . ."

"There is no danger from this one," the Holy Maiden Seramasia declared. "I sense only . . . devotion."

As a skraal maiden, Seramasia had powers of the mind that no human could match. She was not mature, and had not therefore transcended, but she could still see into a man's mind as easily as a child might gawp at tadpoles at the bottom of a clear pool.

Anduval gazed into her eyes. Hers were not like human orbs. She had four of them, two large ones that peered forward, and two small ones upon her temples. The large ones did not have whites. Instead, they were silver, like the eyes of a fish, and deep in the center was a dollop of light blue, as if from summer skies. The eyes upon the side of her head were dark, like bits of onyx.

He saw now that her skin was not really white. It was gelatinous almost and only looked white from a distance, though he could see that it was beginning to harden. Beneath the clear skin, he could make out tiny blue veins. Her muscles, in fact, were opalescent, and her fine bones were as clear as glass.

She smelled sweet and earthy, like vanilla poured over moss.

Anduval had never peered upon anyone with such breathtaking beauty.

There was movement in the fine musculature of her face, a skraal smile as her lips tightened. "How old are you --" the holy maiden asked, "in human years?"

"I am twelve years and three months," Anduval answered softly, filled with awe.

"You are young, even for a human. Do you know how old I am?"

"Two hundred seven years, nine months, three days, and almost nine hours," Anduval answered.

The holy maiden laughed, a clear melodic sound like an oboe. "So perfectly honest. You please me. Your offering pleases me. Did you know that for nearly three months now, I have not eaten from any other platter but yours?"

Anduval fought back the urge to gasp. He'd never known what had become of his offerings. Each morning and evening he delivered his platter, but at the end of her meal, all of the offerings were thrown away. "I am honored," is all that he could manage to say.

"Three months," she said. "Since the attack, your offerings have revived me and healed me."

She peered now at his platter. As a nymph, she could not eat anything but fungus at the early stage of her life. "Your yellowcaps, so bright and crisp. These ones sprouted in the night. You had to have harvested them well before dawn, before any sunlight could beat down through the swamps and touch them. And this glass mushroom -- you had to travel miles into the forest to find it, for the nearest ones grow only at the base of Mount Dimlock, the steward tells me."

Now she whirled and peered into his eyes. "You know my tastes -- my needs -- better than I know them myself. How did you guess that I craved glass mushrooms?"

For a moment, Anduval stood frozen as he tried to unravel his logic.

The libraries of Magus Veritarnus were filled with ancient tomes that detailed the feeding habits of nymphs. It was a vital subject. Some nymphs developed vast powers. Most did not. So scribes had recorded the feeding habits of past nymphs.

Anduval had studied the texts tirelessly, and had gone much further -- charting Seramasia's growth against that of other maidens, studying texts that plumbed the secrets of various fungi -- the content of their vitamins, minerals, phytogens and hormones.

A truly great skraal mother had not risen in more than six thousand years. The world needed one; it needed a mother right out of legend.

Anduval suspected -- as did the skraals -- that there were inadequacies in the nymphs' diets. Many species of fungi had been lost in the ancient cycor attack.

Of course, Seramasia knew all of this. So Anduval tried to explain his choices.

"The air is dry this morning," he said. "I thought you would relish the glass mushroom's moisture. I know that there is some variation, but skraal maidens crave certain foods, according to their age, their closeness to ascension, the heat and humidity. . . . The injury you sustained in the attack, this too amends your needs. As I studied the records, I began to see patterns."

"All of my other attendants are skraals, and are supposed to be intellectually superior to humans. Why could they not see these patterns?"

Anduval did not want to admit it, but sometimes he thought that he was smarter than most skraals, even though tradition held that it was impossible.

"As I pondered what you might want . . . I felt the answer in my bones . . ."

"Then tell me," she asked, "what will I want to eat tomorrow?"

"Your ascension is almost upon you," Anduval said. "Your skin is hardening. Tomorrow . . . or sometime soon, you will begin to crave insects with your fungus. You will need the protein to build your chrysalis. Tomorrow I will bring mallow mold, and I have hired children to collect young damselflies."

The holy maiden considered his words. "You traveled by foot into the dimmest part of the forest this morning, beneath boa trees so vast that the ground never sees light. Were you not afraid of being eaten by a colossus boar?"

Almost Anduval decided to lie, to boast at his courage. But the giant pigs of the deep woods could grow to weigh three tons, and they often protected their feeding grounds, so he admitted, "I was."

"Then why did you do it?"

"I wanted to please you," Anduval admitted.

"More than you cared for your own life?" the holy maiden asked.

He was afraid that she might laugh at him or mock him.

"Yes," he admitted.

"Do you love me?"

At her back, a guard hissed, a creature named Cessari. Anduval knew of him. The holy maiden did not have guards assigned at random. Cessari was her personal attendant and the most dangerous skraal on Danai. Indeed, he held the title of consort, and in the fullness of time he would become the holy maiden's mate.

It was dangerous for Anduval to confess his feelings for the maiden. He was only a boy, and he was told that he was not old enough to love. But he knew what he felt.

"I do love you," Anduval answered, afraid that the consort might crush him for his boldness. "I have loved you from the first time that I saw you at a distance, two years ago."

The holy maiden peered into his eyes and smiled in satisfaction. "I know what you want from me," she said. "You hope that in time I will learn to love you, too."

Among the skraals, she was but a child, like him.

He did not have to confess his feelings. She could divine them.

"You understand," Seramasia said, "that human emotions are but a shadow compared to what I feel. If I were to love you, you would never understand the depth of my passion. If I were to love you, our minds would meld into one, and my love would destroy your ability to reason. There is a purpose behind the law that keeps you at a distance."

"I understand," he said.

She grew thoughtful. "You please me," she said. "It is my hope that in time you will find a human woman to love. I will go into transcendence soon, and when I do, I will be gone for a number of years. Seek for a human woman to love.

"I fear . . . the cycor will return soon. I do not know if we have four years or four hundred, but we must prepare to defend ourselves. Yet I fear that our preparations will be in vain.

"Therefore, make the best of the time we have left.

"As for now, your devotion must be rewarded. You will continue to bring my morning meals until I go dormant, but in the afternoon you will begin an apprenticeship under the magus. You, too, shall become a magus."

Anduval considered. There were technologies that were undreamt of by men, and it was the duty of a magus to master these. It would greatly add to his duties. But he was only a human, and did not have the strength or endurance of a skraal. He did not know how he might manage it.

More importantly, he would arouse the jealousy of the maiden's skraal servants, and that was a dangerous thing to do.

Suddenly Anduval recalled something, a message that he had hoped to deliver to the magus, a message for the holy maiden. Compared to the dangers posed by the cycor, it seemed rather inconsequential.

"Milady," Anduval said with a bow. "I have heard a rumor that might interest you: in the bogs outside the forest, the skull and body of a dragon have been found."

The holy maiden drew a breath in surprise, and her consorts leapt forward eagerly.

"Is the skull intact? Has it been opened?"

Anduval shrugged. "As far as I know, it has not been taken from the bog."

"We must go look upon it," she said, glancing toward Cessari. "This is a great treasure."

"Beware, milady," Cessari said. "This may be a trap, to lure you from the safety of the forest!"

But the holy maiden whirled and peered to the east, as if her mind sought out beyond the miles. "No, I can feel it now, there at the limit of my powers. How sweetly the dragon dreams . . ."

We will have to go under the cover of darkness, Anduval realized, when the creatures of the forest venture out to forage. That way it will help hide her heat signature from cycor ships. She will want to go in secret.

The holy maiden riveted Anduval with a look and said, "Go and tell the magus what you have heard."

Angar was drunk by midday. He went to the pub and told the town about his dragon, and as the tale spread, many an oaf just like himself came and offered to pay for rounds.

By early afternoon, the size of the dragon had grown enormous in the telling, and many a man gaped in disbelief at stories of talon a yard long and a wingspan of a hundred feet.

There were offers to buy teeth. "I'm the best scrimshaw artist in Moonravis," one fisherman boasted. "Lend me the ivory, and I shall double its value!"

But Angar did not like the man's work. It was true that he was the best in town, but with a find like this the ivory should go to the best carvers on Danai.

"I'll bet I could make fine boots and belts from its skin" the cobbler suggested in a wheedling voice, his hands making little groping gestures.

The innkeeper offered, "Five gold rings for a tooth -- and all the beer you can drink for a year"

"Two years" Angar demanded.

"Sold!" the innkeeper shouted instantly, and Angar rued the bargain.

I should have demanded more, he thought.

But the innkeeper forced a mug of his finest into Angar's hand, and in moments Angar was so happy that he was dancing on the bar while the other guests serenaded him with drinking songs.

"You know," a blacksmith shouted in the midst of the song, "that it is not the teeth or hide that is the greatest treasure of a dragon. It is found in the dragon's skull!"

The blacksmith pointed to his own skull and nodded wisely.

Angar's head was reeling by then, but somehow the blacksmith's image, his message, kept whirling about in Angar's mind. It was like a piece of oat straw caught in a dust devil. It spun around and around.

Suddenly Angar fell from the table, and several peasants leapt to be first to help him up.

"Leave me, leave me alone," he begged. "I've got to go get that dragon out of the river."

With superhuman effort, he hauled his massive belly off the floor and began to weave in the general direction of his home. But the patrons of the bar all shouted, "We'll come and help!" and Angar was still sober enough to realize that he would be grateful for twenty strong hands.

So the townsmen went to the edge of the bog, and with picks and shovels and pry bars they dug into the mud and freed the dragon, pulling its half-petrified corpse into the sunlight on the riverbank, where flies buzzed around it curiously for awhile, then rejected its ancient flesh as an unworthy home even for maggots.

The townsfolk gaped in amazement at the dragon's size. Surely it would have had an eighty-foot wingspan. And its talons really were over two feet long.

But the leather did not look to be worth much. Most of it had been devoured by worms and discolored by the tannins in the peat, it seemed.

Meanwhile, the ivory in its teeth was discolored and had gone soft with age, making matters worse.

Angar feared that the innkeeper would rescind his offer of two years' free beer.

One of the townsfolk even laughed at Angar, saying, "I would not like to have to bury that thing!"

As Angar fell into despair, a skraal warrior came to the bog and begged the people not to disturb the dragon's remains.

"The holy maiden will pay well for a skull that is still intact," the warrior offered.

So Angar shooed the townsfolk off his property in the afternoon, and stood guard over the rotting corpse. He settled in the shade of a hazelnut tree and lay in the tall grass for a long while, trying to figure out how to make the most money from his smelly prize, when he fell asleep.

Two full moons were up when he finally roused himself.

The greatest treasure "is found in the dragon's skull!" he kept recalling, the thought whirling about him like dry autumn leaves.

He wondered at that. Angar was not an educated man. Education was for skraals, farming and petty labors for humans. But Angar knew a bit of folk wisdom.

Sometimes, when a large bird died, it would leave piles of small stones as its craw decomposed. There was an old wives' tale he had heard about a farmer who discovered diamonds amid such remains, and further search revealed that a nearby hillside was covered with them.

Perhaps dragons do the same, he considered. Maybe dragons swallow rubies or emeralds, or maybe they just form naturally in a dragon's skull!

Why should the skraals get all of the treasure? he wondered. They get the best we have to offer, and what do we get in return?

With that in mind, he staggered home to find his ax.

"Magus Veritarnus, my name is Anduval. I am to be your apprentice."

The magus shot Anduval a dark look, hesitated for an instant, and said, "I can't waste time on such nonsense." He turned his back.

Anduval had found the magus in his Operations Center. The magus was a tall man with a lean physique and a haggard look. His skin was as midnight-black as Anduval's. He had his long hair braided in cornrows and slung over his neck onto his chest. The magus peered up at a glass wall where squiggly chains made from green, red, yellow and blue were wrapped into cords. The magus had a crystal wand, and when he pointed at one of the rods, he would speak, and the chains would break. The colored blocks would then rearrange according to his command.

"Let's have a look at chromosome 12, gene 111, marker four, shall we?"

The image on the wall shifted, rushing down the coiled chains, until it stopped, and the magus squinted at the image on the wall, ignoring Anduval.

Anduval prompted, "It is the wish of the holy maiden that I be your apprentice."

"Go and tell her to mind her own business," Magus Veritarnus shot back. "We are in a state of emergency."

Anduval offered, "The holy maiden seems to think that I could help."

The magus whirled, looked down. "Time that I spend with you is time taken from more important duties. Do you understand?"

Anduval was an observant child. He understood far more than most adults thought that he should. For weeks now he had been gathering bits of information overheard in palace halls, and in the markets outside of town.

"You are preparing for the cycor attack," Anduval said. "You only have a few years to do it. You're gathering seeds and spores, and hiding them here beneath the fortress. I know, because I know of the children that you've hired to begin the work.

"You hope to weather the attack, as our ancestors did. But you are afraid that it won't work. Six thousand years ago, the cycor hit us with planet killers. But that didn't work, so you're worried that they'll be more thorough this time.

"You're trying to save what you can, the seeds of humanity. But you are doomed to fail, for there are hundreds of millions of people who will die. There isn't room to protect them all, down here in the depths of the palace."

The magus straightened his back, sighed, and peered down at Anduval, as if in defeat.

"You're damned smart for a twelve year old." Anduval hadn't told the magus his age. But then, the magus was rumored to have phenomenal powers of observation. "I wasn't that smart at your age.

"This isn't a palace, you know. It is a bunker, designed to withstand cycor attacks. That is what it was built for."

He studied Anduval as if weighing him; Anduval realized that the magus needed time to make up his own mind.

"I was told to inform you that the body of a dragon has been found."

"Frozen?" the magus asked hopefully. "Preserved in ice?"

"No, it was found in a peat bog. I hear that it has not decomposed. The holy maiden has asked that I lead you and her to it."

The magus stopped for a moment, breathless, riveted by the news. He nodded slightly, eagerly, black pupils shining.

Then a look of defeat entered his eyes once again, and he said softly, "Let us hope that it is whole."

Anduval had to sprint that night to keep pace with the quicker skraals.

Their entourage was small -- the holy maiden, a pair of guards, Anduval, and the Magus Veritarnus ran at the tail of the group, with his black cape flowing behind.

Anduval led the way. The light of two small full moons, the angry twins, shone red and glaring on the fields of dry grass, bathing the night in blood. Anduval ran, and in doing so he tried to hide his humanity. He dared not slow or stop. He could not beg for rest. He wanted to prove that he could move as swift and effortlessly as a skraal.

So he sprinted through the fields, his heart pounding, lungs heaving like bellows, until he was dizzy with fatigue. His feet winnowed the dry grasses, knocking ripe grain from stalks of wheat.

The scent of grass and stinkweeds carried on the warm night air.

The others raced behind him. They did not have far to go outside the great forest, but the stars overhead seemed threatening to Anduval. At any moment, one of them could turn and dive -- a cycor warship that would explode like the sun, washing the planet in fire.

It is only a matter of time, he told himself. They will come, and the world will become void in a flash.

A wind came from the deserts in the east, blowing a thin veil of red dust high into the air. Lightning flickered in the empty heavens, and the skraals became agitated.

The skraals moved swiftly and effortlessly, and Anduval knew that they wished that his small legs would go faster. But the Holy Maiden Seramasia did not condemn him. She jogged at his back, sometimes whispering words of gratitude and encouragement.

Thus they reached the cottage where the farmer Angar lived. The house was made from squares of sod, with poles angled up at the top. Bundles of cattail reeds served as a roof.

The girl Tallori answered Anduval's call at a door made from scraped sheep's hide, her mother being too weary to rise, and the child led the way to the dragon's corpse, racing through the tall cattails.

There, beside the slow-flowing river, they found Angar under the starlight, standing upon the dragon's skull, his ax raised overhead.

Magus Veritarnus saw what he was about to do, and let out a little cry of shock.

Putting all of his bulk and might into it, Angar let his ax fall.

The dragon's skull split easily, the rotting bone breaking with a sound like a melon.

What happened next, Anduval could never clearly describe.

Shimmering lights rose from the dragon's skull, as soft as fog, as bright and sparkling as opals. They gave off no sound, no smell. Instead, they only glittered, rising up like thistle down.

"Catch them!" Magus Veritarnus shouted, and the holy maiden leapt magnificently, bounding perhaps twenty feet in the air and seventy feet in distance, so that she seemed to fly over Anduval's head.

He raced forward, seeking to catch a light in his cupped hands, but the lights did not move on currents of wind. They seemed to be alive, darting about as if of their own volition.

Angar the drunkard stood, eyes wide with amazement, and Anduval saw lights pass right through him, then circle back around his head.

One of the shimmering lights drew near, and Anduval reached out and caught it in both hands. Strange currents passed through him. He felt his hair stand on end, and a shimmering light rose up. It was as long as a small serpent, but its body was flat and eyeless, much like a tapeworm, and it waggled a tail to propel itself through the air.

Opening his mouth in amazement, Anduval was about to shout a question when the light burst upward and into his brain.

In the way that sometimes happened with Anduval, he dreamt two dreams simultaneously. It was a gift he had, a gift that he had only recently discovered.

Anduval was a dragon, hunting beside the river. His scaly hide was the tan of dying reeds, with stripes of darker green and silver. With such camouflage he could easily hide among the rushes and ambush the hippo-like creatures that waded near.

He looked up, and spotted wings in the sky, another dragon with a soft-blue underbelly, soaring above the clouds.

A thought struck him, an argument so lengthy and complex that a human could take months to unravel and comprehend it; yet Anduval recognized that it was an argument over territorial boundaries and disputes.

The dragon vocalized, sending loud clicks in the air so swiftly that no human could have decoded their meaning.

A second dream struck simultaneously, in which the dragon piloted a starship. The creature was hanging upside down in a cockpit, sending his mind out among the stars -- feeling ahead for meteors and bits of space debris, then weaving a safe path through the void.

The cycor were following his ship doggedly, and he glanced back in anger. He so desired to turn the ship and face the enemy . . .

Anduval found himself lying flat on his back, blinking up at the stars, while the girl Tallori knelt at his side. Magus Veritarnus hunched over him, two fingers pressed against Anduval's neck, checking for a pulse.

"You will be well, child," the magus said. It was the first words that the man had spoken to him all night.

Tallori was weeping. Anduval could not be sure if she wept from fear for him, or in awe of the holy maiden, or simply because the combination of events left her overwrought. Humans that lived outside the palace were simple creatures.

The magus turned aside, as if listening for some inner voice, and then whispered. "It is not for humans like us to touch a dragon's dream. Doing so was unwise. The dragon's memories, its hopes and lore, all are stored in a brain that is nothing like ours.

"The dragons came from a far world, you know. Humans cannot even pronounce the name of their species -- much less speak their tongue. So our ancestors called them dragons, after creatures from legend.

"We cannot even begin to comprehend the math that they understood, their mastery of flight. Perhaps if we had a floccular lobe to our brain, as birds do, we might understand some of the things that are innately known to dragons.

"The skraals can sometimes unravel it." The magus jutted his chin, and Anduval peered off a few yards away. The holy maiden stood now atop the dragon's body, and the lights were circling her, as if greeting an ancient friend, their opalescent hues sometimes bursting into colored sparks.

"The creatures that you see are called piezoelectric life forms. They're symbiotes. They grow and reproduce in the minds of dragons, for the dragons' brains are far different from ours. Our thoughts and memories are stored in twisted strands of DNA -- which is so much less efficient than the crystalline structure of a skraal's brain."

The Holy Maiden Seramasia stood for long minutes, and one by one the dragon dreams entered her. As they did, her eyes filled with tears, and her thorax trembled as if she might shatter.

Anduval worried aloud. "Should we stop her? It looks as if it hurts."

But the magus shook his head. "She does not hurt. Those are tears of joy, tears of revelation. The dragon dreams must find a home quickly, or they will die. So they are lodging within her skull. Like hermit crabs, they need a place where they can survive. A skraal's brain is not like a dragon's. The dreams will not survive there for long, a few years at the most. But our holy maiden is learning things that none of her kind have been able to comprehend on this planet for more than six thousand years.

"We are doomed, you know," the magus turned to Anduval, looked into his eyes. "You're right about my fears. The cycor will make sure that nothing on this planet survives the next attack. They'll hit us with a sun buster, send a missile to the planet's core and let it explode so that we are shattered into fragments."

Anduval was horrified. He knew of border disputes that sometimes happened among human tribes, but that was all that he knew of war. "Why would they do that? I mean, if they wanted to take over, that I could understand. But killing everything -- that seems like such a waste"

"The cycor don't need plants and animals to feed upon," the magus said. "Biological life forms evolve, and highly evolved creatures are a danger to them -- so all life represents a threat."

"For millennia we have hoped that a dragon would come to our world. We're trapped here. Oh, we could build little ships that float through space like rafts upon a lake and try to escape, but the cycor would only find us that much sooner. The dragons alone have the knowledge necessary to build the fast starships that we so desperately need if we are ever to escape.

"But I fear that the last of the dragons have been hunted to extinction. Indeed, this world may be home to the last vestiges of humanity. The center of the galaxy is nothing but a void. The stars have all gone dark, and the planets that whirl around them are destroyed. The home world of the dragons is gone, along with the ancient home of mankind. Perhaps some of our brethren have fled the galaxy, but if so, we may never reunite with them again."

Magus Veritarnus glanced down, the whites of his eyes reflecting the lights of piezoelectric creatures.

For long hours, they waited in silence then, as the moons slid inexorably down to the horizon and beyond the shadowed hills. The stars began to fade, though the sun was not yet up, when the last of the opalescent creatures entered Seramasia.

Anduval could see them there still, deep within her crystal skull, their lights sparking from time to time.

He could not understand completely what was happening. Perhaps such things were beyond the comprehension of mere humans. But Anduval peered up at Magus Veritarnus, and saw a change in the man. He had always walked about with hunched shoulders and a careworn look.

Now he had hope in his eyes.

When the last of the creatures had burrowed into her skull, the holy maiden peered up at her small crowd of onlookers.

"It is done," she said. "I know how to escape, but time is short if we are to build a worldship."

The weight of the world fell upon Anduval's shoulders that night, and as he trudged back through fields misted with morning dew, he understood why the magus always walked with his head bowed.

The palace became a madhouse as the holy maiden began to issue orders to her skraal attendants -- demanding that they begin to gather vast amounts of rare metals from across the world.

Over the coming days the skraal nymph closeted with Magus Veritarnus for unending hours, discussing her plan to create a worldship. Sketches were drawn and sent to far cities, where modules for the great ship were to be produced.

Amid this bustle, Magus Veritarnus seemed to forget that he had been assigned to be a mentor, and Anduval felt as if he was cast aside.

It was not a feeling that he could live with. Anduval had no mother or father that he knew of. He had been raised in a crèche in the palace beneath Shadowfest, one of nine human children.

All of his life, he'd craved to belong, to find some sort of companionship. He'd hoped that by working hard, he could prove himself, and win acceptance from others.

Somehow, as a child, he'd proven himself well enough to become the holy maiden's attendant. But the skraals were not humans. They showed nothing in the way of affection, and the other workers never offered any praise.

Yet Anduval hoped.

So he continued his duties as an attendant, bringing fungus and damselflies for the holy maiden each morning, hoping to prepare her for transcendence.

But with each passing day, he grew more concerned. In his brief vision, he had seen into the mind of a dragon, and the threat of the cycor was a shadow that flooded his mind. The cycor were not human. Properly speaking, they were not even alive. They had no compassion, no emotion, no hope or love in them.

There could be no swaying such creatures from their wanton destruction.

And the end would come swiftly, he knew.

Cycor ships were fast. When a spaceship accelerated, the force of acceleration exerted pressure upon its occupants. Thus, a ship that was constantly accelerating created its own artificial gravity. But it also had certain limits. Accelerate too quickly, and the gravity field would crush its occupants. The safe speed for acceleration over an extended period of time was only a little more than one gravity.

But a cycor ship carried no living creatures within: it could safely accelerate at a speed of one hundred gravities.

Human ships were infinitely slower.

Our only real hope is to hide from the cycor, Anduval reasoned.

But hiding was no longer possible. They had been found.

The holy maiden wished to build a worldship, but it would be destroyed as easily as a planet.

What shall the holy maiden do? Anduval wondered. What can she do?

After two weeks, Anduval was finally able to corner his master. He found the magus bleary eyed and swaying from fatigue as he left the holy maiden's meditation chambers. Anduval had just returned from his nightly run to gather fungus.

"I want to help build the worldship," Anduval begged. "We are in a race against the cycor, and every moment is precious."

"I agree," the magus said, "and someday you shall help to build our ship. But the holy maiden's personal needs are more immediate."

"She has twenty other attendants," Anduval said. "Surely they can bring her food. I can even tell them what to collect."

The magus studied the boy for a long moment, weighing his argument. "You too have been touched by the dragon's dream," he said, "if only for a moment. How much do you understand?"

Anduval bit his lip, struggled to explain. The dragon's dream hadn't come to him in his native tongue. It was like pure intelligence that had flowed through him, only for an instant, and much of what he knew were just stray impressions.

"The scout ship that found us could not have been a long-range vessel," Anduval said. "It had to have come from a mother ship. That means that there is a warship nearby, or possibly a fleet of them."

"Agreed," the magus said. "If a vessel had been stationed in this solar system, the cycor would have destroyed us by now.

"Our nearest stellar neighbor is nearly two light years away. Let us hope that there is not a warship so close."

Anduval bent his head in thought. It would take two years for a message transmission to reach the nearest star, and if a warship was there, it would take two more years for the enemy to reach Danai. "The cycor will be near a planet, won't they?"

"Mining," the magus agreed. "They do not need food, but they may be mining asteroids for minerals or mining the gravity fields of a nearby sun for fuel."

Even the dragons had not understood how the cycor could mine and store gravity.

"Can we build a ship in four years?" Anduval asked.

The magus shrugged. "We must try."

He was not reassuring.

Even if we can build a ship, Anduval wondered, will it be fast enough to outrun the cycor? How far beyond the edge of the galaxy must we go to escape them?

The magus rested a hand on Anduval's shoulder. "Let us hope that the cycor are farther away than that. I will consider your request, but until further notice, you are the head steward. There is nothing more important than the feeding of Seramasia. Even in ancient times, only one in a thousand holy maidens truly transcended. I can find no genetic reason for this, and so it must have to do withnurture . . .

"The holy maiden has begun to talk to me about the requirements of our ship. We will build it in modules -- engines, the hull, life-support. It must be a large ship, large enough to carry every man, woman, and child in the world.

"It will be a complex task . . ." A look of defeat passed across the magus's face. "I confess, I do not understand how it all works. We can only hope that the holy maiden will guide us . . ."

Four days later, Anduval was summoned into the holy maiden's meditation chamber. The room itself was vast, with a sixty foot ceiling, and the deep gray room was perfectly round. Within this space, white silk sheets were wrapped around on the floor, creating something that was not quite a bed, not quite a chair.

The Holy Maiden Seramasia lay cradled in silk. Candles in glass cups provided footlights around the room, but brighter than the candles was the holy maiden's womb.

Her abdomen, that perfect inverted pear, glowed brightly from inside. Anduval could see her ripening eggs through her skin, like clear marbles.

Along the backs of her arms and legs, and all down her spine, mucilage had begun to ooze out -- a clear gel that would harden. Within a few hours, Anduval knew, the mucilage would form into a chrysalis.

Her courtesans crowded near, like bucks in musth, and from time to time they would stoop and nuzzle her abdomen, pushing against it, trying to arouse her.

The sexual tension in the room was electric.

Anduval felt grateful to see the holy maiden, but not like this. There was a soft glow all about her, and she was more beautiful and sensual than ever. He had no desire to watch the skraal males fight over her.

Even to be here was dangerous, lest one of the males inadvertently strike out.

"Come near, little one," the holy maiden urged.

Anduval trembled and drew close, until the big male, Cessari, snorted and charged.

Anduval leapt backward, and Cessari lashed out with one long arm. Anduval ducked beneath the blow. The holy maiden had to reach out and grab the male, restraining him.

"Stay back, little one," Cessari growled. "This one is not for you!"

The holy maiden calmed her consort, patting his head. Cessari crouched beside the holy maiden and placed a hand over her womb, as if claiming it for his own. He glared at Anduval, but dared not resist the will of the maiden.

"You have served me well," the holy maiden told Anduval. "As you can see, I will be going into my long sleep soon. I will eat no more until I wake."

"But it's not time yet!" Anduval objected.

"Many factors help determine the time when a skraal nymph goes into transcendence. I have been under a great deal of stress these past few weeks, and that has tipped the scales.

"I hereby release you from my service," she said. "I will no longer need you to attend me."

She would be gone for years -- somewhere between three and twenty, sleeping in her chrysalis, lost to the world.

This was bad. An ancient adage came to mind. Early to the cocoon, late to bloom. Chances were good that she would sleep for many, many years. The ancient tomes suggested that the long sleep was a coping mechanism, a way for the nymphs to deal with hard times.

Even worse, Anduval had read tome after tome about the holy maidens. A maiden who went into chrysalis phase early would come out stunted -- both physically and mentally. Seramasia would not come out with the great powers that Anduval had hoped for.

Panic took him. "But, milady, you're the only one who understands how to build the worldship!"

Seramasia nodded sadly. "I have left what instructions I can with the magus. Much of the work can proceed without me. While I am gone, you will grow, and you will help to build our ship. I wish you well. I hope that when I waken, it will be to a better world for us all.

"Young man, find love with one of your own kind if you can. The girl with the damselflies, do you still see her?"

Anduval nodded.

"Bring her to the palace. She wishes to fight the cycor. She will need someone to teach her, to watch over her. I want you to care for her as you have for me.

"Reward her parents. I will prepare a payment for them, to ease their loss."

Of course Anduval recognized what she was doing. She hoped to deflect his affection. She hoped that he would fall in love with some human girl.

But Tallori was only a child, and he had no interest in her.

"Go now," the holy maiden said, "and get her. By bringing her to the palace, you may save her life."

Anduval stood for an instant, wondering. The holy maiden could sense things about people. She could read their thoughts and emotions. Was it possible she knew something he didn't, that this little girl might someday grow to be someone that he could love?

Perhaps, he thought. But the holy maiden was not an adult yet. She had not transcended and gained all of her powers, and nothing guaranteed that she would. Not all maidens ever broke free of their chrysalis. Many died in the attempt. Even those who broke free did not always develop great powers. Years of meditation and good food -- both might help ensure that a maiden became a powerful adult. Yet most of the time, maidens awoke with little more psychic power than they'd held before.

So if the holy maiden suspected that Anduval might find love with this girl, it might be nothing more than a hunch.

Ever so gently, Cessari reached down and positioned the maiden's womb so that he could gain entrance, rolling her onto her stomach, and then leaning above her.

The holy maiden let out a little piping call of desire, and Anduval felt the touch of her mind.

It was like being dragged into a whirlwind of desire. The longing for her came upon him so strongly that it drove all other thoughts from his mind. He was only twelve, but at that moment he felt a man's desires and found himself staggering forward.

She wants me, Anduval thought. She wants me as much as I want her.

But then the maiden caught herself, and her desires withdrew, leaving him empty and embarrassed.

"Go," she pleaded. "Get out of here before it is too late."

She was almost mindless with the need to mate. Anduval turned and ran.

That night, the stars were blazing overhead when Anduval walked to Tallori's sod house.

Anduval breathed in the rich scents of the night air as he walked. It was late autumn, and the farmhouses along the path boasted trees ripe with fruit -- tart peaches, sweet pears, and fat plums.

In the night, the deer had come from the shadows of the forest, and now they huddled under the apple trees, sometimes rising up on their back legs as they picked fruit with their mouths.

Anduval saw a herd of four deer under Angar's apple tree, and the small buck that led them showed no fear of Anduval, but simply held his ground, as if claiming the tree for his own.

At the sod house, the rich smell of peat and earth mingled. The hide flap that served as a door allowed easy entry, but Anduval stood outside and clapped, until at last Angar came to the door.

The huge man was drunk and wavering on his feet.

"What do you want?" Angar demanded.

"I've come to pay you for your service to the holy maiden," Anduval said. He produced a pouch and handed it to the drunkard. "The price of a dragon's head."

Angar shook the pouch, and frowned when he did not hear the clinking of coins. "Wha's this?"

"Rubies, emeralds, and diamonds -- " Anduval said, "enough so that you can swim in a lake of beer, if you like."

A maniacal grin spread across the man's face. Excited shouts issued from inside the house. His wife had heard the news.

The young girl, Tallori, appeared at her father's back, peeking out from the shadows.

She isn't really pretty, Anduval thought. Her face was plain and freckled, her hair too bleached by the sun. She was not a promising child.

Does the holy maiden really know something about her? Anduval wondered.

"The Great Lady wishes to bless you, too, Tallori. Your damselflies served her well. What boon would you ask of her?"

The girl looked down to the ground, as if studying the dirt on her bare feet, then glanced back toward her mother. The girl was obviously poor. Her dress was little more than a sack made of the crudest brown cloth. It looked as if the only comb that had ever touched the girl's pale hair was her fingers. Anduval waited for her to ask for money. Peasants were such simple creatures, that wealth was the only reward that they could imagine.

"I want to fight the cycor with you," she said fiercely. "I want to come live in the palace, and help build the worldship. If the holy maiden has any power at all, then she knows this."

If all children spoke with such ferocity, Anduval thought, even lions would fear us.

Immediately, Tallori glanced back into the room where her mother hid. Regret was stamped upon the child's face, as if she had betrayed the family.

"The lady bids you welcome to the palace," Anduval said.

Tallori stared at her mother in the darkened room and asked, "Can I go?"

There were sobs from the mother then, and the peasant woman came and gave her daughter hugs. Angar made a huge show of hugging his daughter, and for a long time Anduval had to wait at the door while her mother got her things and kissed her goodbye time and time again.

Anduval had never had anyone treat him so, and he stood for a long moment out in the shadows, watching the stars twinkle overhead. As he watched, one of them flared for an instant and then winked out.

Somewhere, he knew, a distant star had exploded. The cycor had struck again.

He heard a gasp, and saw Tallori standing outside the doorway with a small bundle of belongings, all tied together with a rag. Her face was tilted upward. She had seen it to.

So they took off, running through the warm night, Tallori struggling to negotiate the path in the darkness with bare feet.

Once again, Anduval felt the weight of the world falling upon his shoulders. He was no skraal nymph, but he could sense the cycor out there in the heavens, hunting him.

Tallori surely felt it too. She looked small and frightened as she hurried under the starlight.

Somewhere along the path, she reached out and grasped his hand for comfort.

Anduval became the big brother that Tallori had never had. He began that night as her mentor and tutor, but she had been raised in a world where the most complex tasks included weaving wool on her mother's loom and churning butter.

In theory, Anduval was an apprentice to the magus, but after only two weeks of instruction the boy's understanding of physics soon dwarfed that of the magus, and Anduval went to work as head of construction for the most complex system of the worldship -- its navigation system.

Anduval tried to make Tallori his assistant, but she often became frustrated and wept when Anduval tried to teach her. She grasped basic math well enough -- simple things like trigonometry and calculus, but Anduval's mind was far more powerful than her own.

His memory was flawless. He recalled everything that he both saw and heard, but his mental prowess went far beyond that. He could multiply any pair of numbers in his head, or divide numbers in his head, or calculate pi to a thousand decimal places.

More importantly, when confronted with a mystery, he could often consider it for a moment, and intuitively recognize the answer.

She tried to keep up with him, and one day as she tried to multiply two six-digit numbers in her head, she began to sob uncontrollably.

Anduval put his arm around her, patted her on the back, and said, "Don't cry, little sister. Don't cry."

They were in Anduval's room, where he was studying a sketch of the celestial navigation system for the worldship. He had been making notes about gravitonic sensors, red-shift resolution equations, and skraal brainwave-computer interfaces.

Even with all of his understanding, he struggled to make sense of the holy maiden's often-crude schematics.

"I can't keep up with you!" Tallori blurted, wiping snot from her nose.

"It's not your fault," he said. "The skraals can't keep up with me, either. Even Magus Veritarnus has been humbled. But all of us must learn as fast as we are able.

"It's not your fault that you were raised in a stone-age existence," he explained. "The skraals willed it to be so for many reasons. Technology carries inherent dangers. If we had used ancient telecommunications equipment, it would have unleashed radio waves that would alert the cycor to our presence. Power plants would have left energy signatures that cycor scouts would easily pick up. And even the simplest of electric machines can emit energy fields that adversely affect a skraal.

"Danai is a world in hiding. Now, we must come out of hiding and escape before the cycor attack.

"We must master a hundred thousand years of technological advancement in the next four years. Everyone must do all that they can, or we shall all die in the attempt.

"We can't lean upon the skraals for help. We can't hope that some great leader will save us. The time has come for each of us to be great."

Anduval stood for a moment, looking sober and hopeful.

"I don't know if I can be great," Tallori said. "But I know I can do more than other people believe that a child can do."

Thus as Tallori began to understand the dangers, she often longed to return to blissful ignorance. Just as she wept for her ignorance, she soon learned to weep for her enlightenment. She began to understand why Anduval was such a brooding and driven young man.

He worked for twenty hours a day, napping for a few minutes in the afternoon, sleeping two hours at night, taking only moments to cram a bit of food into his mouth. Then he would get back to work.

He became a shell of a child, and Tallori became more than just his pupil. She began to feed him, care for him.

Anduval was the big brother that she had never had.

She soon found that the entire world was in turmoil. Their world was called upon to evolve, but the going was extremely slow.

Before a ship could be built, Magus Veritarnus had to design and manufacture its various components.

Before the components could be constructed factories had to be erected, tools had to be created, and workers had to be trained how to do their jobs.

The factories in most cases required nuclear power systems to run the various smelting and metal-working tools.

Of course before the power systems could run, the fissionable metals had to be mined.

So the skraal consorts ventured across the land, urging potato farmers to dig for uranium here, begging that sailors manufacture selenium crystals there.

At every step, the lack of technology and training became a stumbling block. It seemed that for every day of progress that was made, Magus Veritarnus discovered three more days of work to be done.

For instance, to build the basic hull of the ship -- the easiest component to fabricate -- the people needed to create selenium crystal beams and plates capable of resisting impact with space debris while traveling near light speed.

The selenium first had to be mined from rock, ground up, and dissolved in an acid bath.

The selenium solution was then placed in tanks and an electric current passed through it. The charged selenium particles would bind to a titanium plate and begin to form crystals. In this way, beams and plates could be "grown."

But once they were grown, the selenium crystals were so tough that even diamond could not cut through them. So in order to be shaped and fastened together, laser cutting torches were needed.

So a single rod for the hull could not be finished until the titanium was also mined, the acids and their containers created, the electrical systems installed in the baths, the laser cutting torches made, and so on.

Confusion reigned, and the people of Danai hit setbacks at every turn. Much of the planning for the construction took nine months to complete. Too many questions had to be answered. What facilities needed to be built, when and how? Who would do the work, and who would manage the workers. How could you train a stone-age woodcutter to build a gamma converter or a crystal AI?

Some work was done in fits and starts while other projects were planned, but farmers who had to dig for ore with picks and shovels proved too slow, missing deadlines. The factories were not completed on time.

After a year the work had hardly begun, and some of the skraals began to worry about human "saboteurs." Cessari called the magus and Anduval to task, insisting that they launch a search for the imaginary saboteurs.

But good work did get completed. Anduval helped devise an early warning system in case of a cycor attack. Graviton-detecting telescopes were built and aimed toward the heavens. The gravity drive on a cycor ship would register as a massive planetoid or black hole racing toward Danai. Simple farmers were trained to man the scopes.

Listening stations were constructed to eavesdrop on cycor ships.

Meanwhile, the magus provided holographic interfaces for himself, Anduval, and dozens of project leaders around the world. The devices were simple silver bands that went over the forehead and wired straight into the optic and aural nerves. Thus, they could relay sights and sounds from one leader to another, so that the magus and Anduval could personally monitor situations and take care of training from afar.

But in the third year, a hurricane hit the hull's manufacturing facilities, and the factory was swept into the sea. A week later, at a separate construction site, a small nuclear power plant went into meltdown, and four hundred square miles of land had to be evacuated -- along with a newly completed re-breather for the life support systems.

Upon learning the news, Cessari himself burst into Anduval's laboratory.

"Now will you search for the saboteurs?" he demanded.

Anduval had only learned the news of the meltdown the day before; he'd spent a sleepless night trying to figure out how to get the work back on schedule.

"No, I will not," Anduval said. "There are no saboteurs. None of our people caused the hurricane, and the meltdown was an accident. The fuel rods are cooled by water from a nearby river, but the floodgates that control the water flow broke. They froze shut, and could not be reopened."

"Where is the man responsible for opening them?" Cessari demanded. "I want to question him myself."

"He died this morning from radiation poisoning," Anduval said. "He stayed far too long at the site, struggling to cool the reactor's core even after it had gone into meltdown."

Cessari raged in the way of his kind, striding back and forth, striking the air with his empty fists. Finally he turned back to Anduval.

"The deadline for completion of the project is coming quickly. You must meet the deadline."

"We all are doing the best that we can," Anduval said, though Tallori knew that even their best was not good enough. "But we will not meet the deadline. Our only hope is that all cycor ships are far, far away."

At this, Cessari rushed up to Anduval. He did not dare strike the young man, but he warned, "You cannot fail our queen. If the cycor attack before we are ready, I shall make sure that you are the first to die."

Anduval bowed his head in acquiescence. "I assure you, under such circumstances, I would have no wish to live. Yet I must also warn you, even skraal law prohibits murder. I will be within my rights to protect myself."

Cessari blurted an obscenity and stalked away.

"What are you going to do?" Tallori asked Anduval when the skraal was gone. "You have to protect yourself. The skraals are faster and stronger than us."

Anduval merely shrugged. "But I am smarter than they are."

Tallori grew from a child to a young woman. She found that she could not comprehend the math that Anduval was mastering, but she found her niche. She planned Anduval's meals, freeing time for him and making sure that he did not fall ill due to fatigue.

When a plant manager looked as if he would miss a deadline, Tallori ran interference for Anduval, bolstering men's spirits with praise and honors, offering bribes when it was prudent, and reminding them that failure meant death when necessary.

Time and time again, she marveled at what her people accomplished. There were little farmers, working their crops by day and mining by night, breaking their hearts in order to meet a deadline that they did not understand, so that their ore could be turned into something that they could not comprehend.

Old women and children worked in factories from dawn to dusk.

The world was full of heroes, she discovered.

In another age, no one would have given her the time of day, but as Anduval's assistant it was rumored that she had the ear of the magus, and all men gave her high regard.

Thus, she became the mother that Anduval never had.
But as she neared her teens and her body began to morph from that of a child into a woman, she wanted more.

Anduval loved a skraal nymph and Tallori began to realize that she was in love with him.

She wondered if Anduval would ever even notice.

So the day came when at the age of twelve she sought out Magus Veritarnus at his laboratory. He'd spent long years collecting seeds, spores, and animal embryos, and then freezing them for storage. As she had anticipated, he was busy when she found him. He was always busy.

The world on Danai had been divided into ecological zones, and the plants and animals from each zone represented species selected from various worlds. The deep forest at Shadowfest was comprised of plants and animals from the skraals' home world. It was an impenetrable jungle where boa trees rose up in vast tangles for thousands of feet, and the ground beneath them was a silent tomb, filled with fungi that digested the fallen leaves and dead animals.

Most of the alien proteins in the creatures and plants within Shadowfest were inedible to humans, though some terrestrial animals -- like the wild pigs -- had begun to evolve the ability to eat them.

Around the skraal forests, humans lived in the plains and wooded hills.

So the magus had to store specimens from both zones. Even a few plants and animals from the dragon's home world still thrived here. Women still planted dragon's breath vines beside their homes. The vines were prized for the mildly narcotic smell that its flowers emitted in high summer. Old folks, bowed by arthritis, loved to take their ease beneath an arbor of dragon's breath.

Tallori had little interest in the magus's efforts to save specimens from this world. She understood that his work was vital. Whether the people of Danai fled on a worldship or simply tried to weather another cycor attack, the magus's work was vital. But everyone's work was vital, from the farmwife who simply tried to feed her husband, to the husband who mined a little each day, to the factory worker, to folks like Anduval -- each was essential to the effort.

But Tallori was too focused upon Anduval's efforts to build a prototype of the celestial navigation system. So she dared to interrupt the magus, hoping for a moment of his time.

"How comes the prototype?" Magus Veritarnus asked as she neared. He stood squinting up at his monitor, repairing the damaged DNA of some embryo before he sent it to the freezers.

"Well," Tallori said, managing only a mildly sarcastic tone. "We are only fourteen months behind schedule. Anduval hopes to have it finished in three months."

"A full-sized starship can be piloted even with a simple prototype. If he gets it working, we will be able to make do."

The magus did not bother to mention that everything else was behind schedule, too. The prototype ship would be small, large enough only to carry a few hundred people.

But it was vital to the efforts. So many of the holy maiden's sketches were . . . mysterious. Knowing what a starship's drive system was supposed to do was one thing, building it so that the nuclear-powered lifters, ion propulsion units, gamma-wave converters, and so on all worked in unison was another.

"You know that we will not make our deadline of four years," Tallori said.

The magus nodded. "Some of the skraals hope that it will be done in five years. Anduval imagines that if all goes right, it will take eight. Personally, I do not believe that we can get it done in twenty."

He said it casually, in the way of one who has accepted that he will die in a vain struggle.

Tallori asked her question. "Anduval is not like other people," she said. "He's smarter. He sleeps very little, in the way that the greatest of geniuses do."

"Anduval is not like other people," the magus admitted.

"The thing is," Tallori said. "I love him. But I feel that I'm too stupid for him. I . . . can't talk to him about math or physics."

The magus had been staring up at his monitor, switching out little blocks of ATGC. Now he peered at her.

"A man can love a woman for something other than her native intelligence. He can love her for her goodness, her kindness. I know that Anduval is fond of you."

"But I can never be his equal," Tallori said.

"Intellectually, no," the magus admitted. "Anduval is a special boy. Evolution does not always take place in tiny steps. Sometimes it comes in giant leaps. Anduval is the next leap."

The magus fell silent for a moment, and Tallori stood her ground, waiting for him to explain. Reluctantly, he said, "Two million years ago, a manlike creature roamed the earth, a creature called Homo habilis. It had a small brain that could comprehend little. It could make a leaf-shaped house and use a few simple tools -- a stone knife, an awl to poke holes in furs, a needle.

"But one day, one of the creatures evolved. The gene that told the brain how large it should be simply formed a double string, and suddenly a new specimen was born, one with twice the brain power. It was called Homo erectus.

"It created a few more tools, better weapons, and over time its genetic superiority was confirmed. The old species died out, while only those with the new larger brains took their place.

"Eventually, a second mutation occurred, and mankind was born -- a creature with dual brains that were connected by a bundle of nerves, so that the two halves of the brain could talk to one another. Each half of a brain was dubbed a 'lobe,' and that is where you come in. You can feel the evidence of those two brains. Often you will feel them arguing, struggling for control. When faced with a moral dilemma, one of your lobes may argue one course of action, while the others lobe demands another.

"But always, it was suspected that evolution would take its next bound forward. As had happened time and again before, a new form of human would be born, one with doubled cranial capacity."

Tallori could not understand everything that the magus said, but she understood that there were genetic reasons why Anduval was smarter than her. "So, Anduval has a larger brain?"

The magus shook his head. "He has four brains, two frontal lobes, and two posterior lobes. Each pair of lobes is connected by its own corpus coliseum, its own bundle of nerves.

"When you hear two voices arguing in your mind, Anduval hears four in his."

The magus now turned and looked her full in the eye. "There are those who would argue, rightly I think, that true intelligence is not merely the ability to recall correctly, but to make intuitive leaps, to use the stored information to unforeseen advantage. That is Anduval's gift."

Tallori was thinking furiously. She was wondering what that might mean for her future.

"Anduval cannot have children with you," the magus said. "You are from common human stock, and he has been greatly modified. If you were to try to have children, they would not be viable. You would either abort the monsters naturally, or they would die soon after birth."

The words hit her like a punch to the gut, taking the air from her lungs. But the magus said softly, "Yet he needs someone to love, and his line must be preserved. If you marry him, I can take your eggs and a few cells from his heart, and create a child, one that will express the best traits in both of you."

Tallori looked up at the magus, and for the first time she understood the significance of his oversized head, the bumps on his temple. "Anduval is your son, isn't he?"

The magus appeared to be at a loss for words. "Close. His full name is Anduval Nine. My birth name was Anduval Eight."

The memory of Seramasia haunted Anduval throughout the years. At night he dreamt of her, sprawled out on her silk sheets, her womb glowing with urgency.

At such times, he was filled with longing, and he rededicated himself to his work.

But a thousand days after the Holy Maiden Seramasia entered her long sleep, Anduval had a special dream.

In it, he was preparing his celestial navigation system for testing on the prototype, and he worried over the artifact, which looked like a glowing ball of crystal shot through with colored wires and bound in platinum, with engravings upon it.

The navigation system was meant to be used by a skraal navigator. But would a skraal be talented enough to pilot the ship?

Originally, all navigators were dragons whose minds were uniquely adapted to flight.

Anduval had boosted the ship's long-range detection capacities in an effort to make it easier on the skraals. Beyond that, he had eliminated the need for physical manipulation of the controls. The skraal's crystal brain structure created a powerful electric field, a psycho-electric cloud that could easily interface with the control mechanisms without need for physical contact.

All that he needed to do was tune the interface to the proper frequency so that it did not damage the delicate neurons and axons in the skraal's brain.

A holographic display would appear in the pilot's mind showing space ahead for the pilot, revealing obstacles that could include anything from clouds of dust or plasma to small planetoids.

As the ship neared such obstacles, lasers would pulverize smaller debris, and the ion shields would route the particles into the fusion drives for use as fuel.

But the pilot would have to weave a path through the larger obstacles. At slow speeds, that would not be hard.

Yet he worried still. A skraal would be able to pilot the ship, but would the pilot be talented enough to outrun a cycor vessel?

Anduval had no way to know. His limited information on cycor vessels was six thousand years out of date.

So in his dream that night, he was pondering how to speed up the system when the Holy Maiden Seramasia suddenly appeared at his side.

She was a holy maiden no more. In the dream, she was filled with glorious light. Gone was the fat and fragile flesh. Now she was all hard lines, her skin turned to blue crystal, and the brilliance radiated from her abdomen, her thorax, even her head.

Tiny baby skraals were crawling on her back, like large scorpions made of glass. Even as he watched, the newly hatched were exiting her womb.

Anduval hardly dared look at her, for it hurt his eyes so. A feeling of rapture overhwelmed him as the holy mother addressed him, her thoughts a storm that beat upon him, her love a gale that blew through him.

"It is beautiful," Seramasia said of his navigation system. "Have no fear, my friend. It will work, and it will save us all."

"Do you know this," Anduval begged, "or is it merely a hope?" He was no longer sure if he dreamt or if Seramasia had indeed transcended and now communed with him through a mind-touch.

"I see the future, frail one. I see all things. I see your love for me, and it is not nearly as great as my love for you." Her voice trailed off, she glanced to the side and down, and the Holy Mother Seramasia suddenly disappeared.

Anduval woke in his room. It had not been an hour since he had gone to sleep. His eyes still felt gritty, and were probably bloodshot.

Every bone in his body ached from fatigue.

For years he had been afraid of failure, but the dream had comforted him. Yet he worried that it was false comfort.

Was it a dream, he wondered, or did Seramasia really appear to me?

It was possible for a powerful holy mother to send dreams to her subjects, to communicate from a thousand miles away.

He raced down from his bedchambers, past the crèches in the human quarters, and took the grand corridor to the royal chambers. He entered through the old dining hall and reached the closed door to the meditation chambers.

There, a trio of skraal courtiers stood guarding the chrysalis. Twisted ropes of bone, yellowing with age, still bound the holy maiden. The chrysalis only vaguely hinted at the shape of the woman sleeping within.

The skraals leapt to readiness.

"Halt" one warned. All three bore disruptor rods -- pale white rods that emitted a killing jolt.

Anduval stood for a moment panting, staring at the egg-shaped chrysalis in disbelief. He'd expected to see it cracked open, the new Holy Queen standing resplendent and glorious.

But it had only been a dream, and now he felt the fool.

"Any movement?" Anduval begged. It was not uncommon for the queen to grow restless inside her chrysalis, to stir for months before it opened, even to cry out to her courtesans and speak briefly.

"She sleeps deeply," a courtesan answered, "and moves not at all."

Of course it was just a dream, Anduval thought.

It was too early for her to emerge from her chrysalis. She would still be deep asleep, comatose.

Even when she does awaken, he thought, Seramasia will not be a vessel of light. She will not be glorious and powerful. She will come out of her chrysalis with a hardened skin, nothing more.

Two days later, an emergency meeting was called in Magus Veritarnus's laboratory. The skraal lords in charge of palace security were there, along with dozens of guards. Tallori stood at Anduval's side.

"The cycor are coming," the magus said. He flipped on the screen of his workstation, which took up one vast wall. It showed an area of space, a bright star like a glowing world, with tens of thousands of lesser stars beyond.

Static played, and suddenly there was a loud squeal that seemed to emit from the star.

"That squeal is a signal burst," the magus said. "A cycor warship sent a message to its command center. They are coming to Danai."

One of the city guards asked, "How long will it take to get here? It looks as if they are far away."

"The drone scout that discovered our world relayed our whereabouts," Anduval explained. "It sent a message burst, similar to the one that you heard. That message traveled at light speed to the star that you see. The warship received the message, and then sent out a report of its own before moving out. That ship will be racing toward us now, at near the speed of light. It will take only a day or two to reach maximum speed."

"So you're saying that we have four years?" one of the city guards asked hopefully.

"I'm saying," Anduval corrected, "that the cycor learned of our position two years ago, and set out immediately. Depending upon their speed of acceleration, they will attack shortly -- within days"

Suddenly, up on the screen, there was a distortion in the star field. A dark blur erupted, as if a planet had formed, and immediately it began to enlarge.

A cycor ship was racing toward them.

"Well," the magus said, "here they come."

Tallori thought frantically. It would take years still to build a worldship. Most of the components for the prototype had been completed, but the hull was a thousand miles away, being towed across the ocean by sailing ships, while the drive system was scattered over the southern half of the continent. It would take weeks to gather the parts, assemble the prototype. And even when it was completed, it would only be able to carry the elite of the planet, three or four hundred people.

But we'll never finish it, she realized.

Heart pounding, she looked to Anduval, and realized that everyone was staring at him, as if searching for an answer. But Anduval had none.

"We must hide," Magus Veritarnus said. "Tell the people everywhere to seek out their assigned shelter -- deep in caves or bunkers, wherever they can! They will need food to last a year, at least."

Anduval studied the approaching doom and then turned and strode away. Tallori followed him back to his personal quarters, her mind racing.

The palace was about to become a madhouse. The simple farmers at the edge of Shadowfest would rush here for safety, hoping to gain entrance. The smarter ones would bring animals and food to eat, whatever they could carry.

But the palace wouldn't be able to hold them all. It might be able to protect a few thousand, but it couldn't hold the hundreds of thousands who would come.

The skraals would be forced to drop the shield walls, block all entrances.

Tallori's heart pounded, and she imagined that it sounded like the drumming of closed fists upon the shield wall doors. She imagined her mother and father, trying to break into the palace, crying out for help.

She found Anduval kneeling on the floor in his Spartan quarters, staring at the wall. There were storage containers built into the wall for his personal effects, a toilet, a sink, and a bed low to the floor. Nothing else. The baths and commissary were down the hall.

She knelt beside him. "What can we do?"

He shook his head slowly, staring at the wall as if at some private horror. "Nothing," he said. "We can hide, but the gravity field emitted by that ship is too large. If they even draw close, they could siphon off our atmosphere or rip the crust of the planet apart. They won't even need to use weapons."

"Can we fight them?" Tallori asked.

Anduval shook his head no.

He turned, and there was infinite pain in his eyes. "I've failed you, Tallori."

A shock of fear pierced her, more powerful than anything she'd ever felt. The skin on her forehead tightened, and the hair rose on the back of her neck.

"I love you, Anduval," Tallori said.

He nodded slightly, as if to say that he knew.

"Will you kiss me?" she asked in a small voice.

Tallori was only twelve and a half, far too young to marry. But she had been in love with him for nearly four years, and she did not want to die without having felt the touch of his lips against hers.

If I'm going to die, she thought, I want to die in his embrace.

Hesitantly Anduval reached out, stroked her face.

He was not the kind to lie to her. If he kissed her, she knew, it would be an admission of what he felt.

He leaned close. Their lips met, and she wrapped her fingers in his long hair. She leaned into him, so that she felt his heart thrilling, and just enjoyed the taste of his lips.

Anduval pulled back and said, "You deserve better than I can give you. You deserve a full lifetime of love"

Tallori shook her head no. "This will have to be enough," she whispered, when the door to his room burst open.

The consort Cessari stood in the doorway, a disruptor in his hand. "You have failed," he said coldly. "You shall be the first to die."

With superhuman speed he attacked, aiming the disruptor rod. Anduval shoved Tallori aside, out of harm's way.

A burst of electricity arced across the room, a bolt of violet lightning. It struck Anduval's silver headband. Sparks flew; Tallori smelled a rush of ozone.

Cessari let out a trumpeting call, a skraal cry of pain, and plummeted to the floor.

The skraal lay convulsing.

Tallori gaped at Anduval in wonder.

He stepped closer to Cessari, and the skraal's muscles all clenched simultaneously. His mouth flew open, his oral-dactyls spasming, and his eyes grew wide. His head turned up and to the side, while his legs and arms curled in. He gasped, struggling with every fiber of his body to breathe.

"I told you that I would protect myself," Anduval said. He removed the silver headband, pulled free the platinum leads that hooked into his nerves, and threw the device down upon the skraal.

Cessari went completely rigid and quit moving, a gray-green effluvia exuded from his anus.

He stopped breathing, stopped moving.

Tallori was confused. She stood for an instant, staring down at the skraal. "What . . . what did you do?"

"I built a skraal brain-wave interface into my headband," Anduval admitted. "It had no power source, but it was designed to accept the electrical impulse given off by a disruptor. When Cessari shot me, the electric charge overpowered the interface, which shattered his brain."

Tallori stared down. The skraal consort was dead, his life fleeing as smoothly as a candle going out.

"He could have hit you," Tallori said. "How did you know he would use a disruptor? All he had to do was crush you like a bug."

"He brought a disruptor when he threatened me earlier," Anduval said reasonably.

He stood for a long moment, peering down at Cessari.

The skraals would be angry. Tallori had never heard of a human killing a skraal. They were faster, stronger, smarter than humans. They were biologically superior.

Anduval had only acted in self-defense.

She wondered what his punishment might be.

Suddenly the floor began to rumble, and in the halls, a warning horn sounded. Tallori looked around, wondering if there was an earthquake, or if this signaled the beginning of an attack.

"They're closing the blast doors," Anduval said, "sealing the palace."

It had not been fifteen minutes since the warning had gone out. The people who lived in the nearby forests hadn't had time to reach the palace. Tallori's mother and father probably hadn't even learned of the danger yet.

Suddenly Anduval's eyes lit up, and he shouted, "There is one thing that we can do!"

He turned and raced down a hallway toward his laboratory, and Tallori struggled to catch up. She found him at his console, where he grabbed the navigation system -- that ball of crystal shot through with wires of gold and silver and veins of turquoise and crimson.

Anduval sprinted to the holy maiden's meditation chamber and found that the doors had been thrown wide open.

The skraal courtesans knelt before her chrysalis, that great mass of yellowing bone.

One of the skraals was pounding upon the chrysalis as if to break it with his fists, while the courtesans all chanted in reedy voices like woodwinds, supplicating in their musical tongue, "Waken, O' Holy Mother! Waken, O' Bearer of Light!"

But all of their pounding, all of their prayers, would not waken Seramasia, he knew. It was too early for her to waken, perhaps months or years too early.

He strode to the base of the chrysalis and held up his own orb, as if to show it to Seramasia. But in fact he only needed to get it near her skull.

"Back away," he shouted to the skraal supplicants. "Get back, all of you!"

Confused, the skraals began to retreat, and Anduval pressed the power switch on his navigation unit, and pleaded.

"Wake up, great lady. Behold the danger. Our enemy approaches."

He held the device near. He knew what it should do. Active sensors down in his laboratory were constantly mapping space for a light year in every direction.

Sun, planets, moons and meteors -- all would be thrown up against the backdrop of space.

And the image would pierce the holy maiden's mind, show her the advancing threat. Even in her deepest sleep, even in her comatose state, Anduval hoped to reach her.

Whether Seramasia could do anything to stop the cycor, he did not know. Most probably, if she became aware of the danger at all, she would only be able to shrink away in horror and despair.

Magus Veritarnus stood at his console, peering up at the star field, and struggled to come to grips with his imminent death.

The cycor ship had grown large. It was less than a tenth of a light year distant, according to the sensors. He could see it clearly, a large dark orb rushing toward them, like a black pearl.

Inside that orb was a black hole, sucking all light and matter into it -- all but the cycor warship, a silver needle that floated ahead of the great pearl.

The cycor ship defied the laws of physics as the magus understood them. It should have been sucked into the black hole.

Ah, he thought, but there you have it. Death is a mystery. Should it not come in a mysterious fashion?

He watched the field growing steadily. The warship was slowing, decelerating at a fifty G's. Yet still it seemed to be rushing upon them.

In a heartbeat, the whole ball shifted barely, as if making a course correction, and a puff of blue smoke issued from the silver needle as if something had exploded.

Instantly the ship disappeared, as if swallowed by the black hole.

For a long moment, the magus merely stood, heart pounding, unable to accept his good fortune.

A malfunction, he thought. That is the only explanation -- a mechanical failure aboard the cycor ship.

The black hole had turned, and now was veering away. It would bypass the Danai entirely, and exit the solar system in a matter of hours.

In the hallways, warning horns were still blaring.

But suddenly a new sound arose, a clarion call like a thousand flutes and oboes, a song sung by skraals only upon transcendence of a holy maiden.

She has left behind her pharate form and ascended to imago, the magus realized.

Magus Veritarnus whirled and rushed to worship at the feet of the new Holy Mother.

Seramasia broke from her chrysalis. She did not do so with a pounding of fists, with kicks or shouts. Rather, a fierce light sprung up, suddenly playing through the corded ropes of bone, sparking in hues of gold and green.

After merely a tenth of a second, the chrysalis burst outward, and within the effluvium crouched Seramasia, blazing with a light so fierce that Anduval was forced to cover his eyes with his arm. Tallori shouted in awe.

Every bit of Seramasia was as clear as crystal. Every bit of her was filled with light whiter than the sun. Not in ten thousand years had such an imago taken form.

"Holy mother!" Tallori cried out, breaking into tears.

The skraals raised their voices in triumph, singing to the goddess, their voices rising like woodwinds in a symphony of praise.

"Fear not," the Holy Mother Seramasia called out. "The cycor threat has been overcome!"

From all through the palace, people came running -- skraal teachers and physicians, the old human women who mopped the floors, the chefs and servants.

The people broke into song, their hearts breaking with relief and joy.

Last of all came the magus, striding through the halls, his black robes flowing out behind him. Amid the shouts of praise and wonder, he clapped Anduval upon the back, and whispered in his ear, "Should we thank the god that saved us, or the man who made the god?"

Anduval glanced at his mentor and smiled in satisfaction. "Our world is full of enough heroes," he said. "Let Seramasia take the praise."

That day, the parts to the prototype of the worldship came together.

The hull that was floating out at sea, towed by a great-masted sailing vessel, and it suddenly broke free of cords and rose slowly into the air. Two thousand miles away, the propulsion systems cracked through the roofs of their warehouse. From all across the world, pieces rose into the sky and raced through the heavens, until at last they rested in the blue skies above Shadowfest.

When the pieces had all fitted themselves together, the ship hovered in the sky, and at sunset Anduval found himself rising up through the dense foliage as easily as dandelion down borne on a summer wind.

A blast of wind greeted his upturned face.

Seramasia floated above him, a great light in the sky, while Tallori and the magus and dozens of technicians and scientists from the palace went rising up, too.

Stores of food floated up as well: great casks of water, sacks of grain, all of the fruits and vegetables of the field, and all things that might appeal to a skraal.

At the edge of the world, a sliver of red sun straddled the horizon, an ember among darkening ash.

Down below, the sounds of the jungle rose up from Shadowfest -- the squeals of colossus boars, the rumbling call of a growler, the shrieks of flying reptiles.

Anduval reached the hovering ship, and entered the threshold, wondering what to do.

He felt a touch in his mind, and heard Seramasia's voice. "Be at peace, my truest friend, and rest, for we have far to go."

Anduval took Tallori's hand when she arrived, and he felt content. Together they walked through the ship's corridors, up to the navigator's console.

The Holy Mother Seramasia was at her seat, resting easily, and as the ship smoothly accelerated out of orbit, she peered up into the field of stars displayed on the console above.

The ship veered, and set a course -- not for the far dark reaches beyond the borders of the galaxy, but toward the void at the galactic center.

"Of course we cannot run," Anduval whispered aloud, for he too had been touched by a dragon's dream, and the dragon dreamt of vengeance.

On the dry days on Danai, the damselflies take their maiden flights, rising into the summer morn in all their glory.

Lightning bolts of blue, bright sparks of molten fire, the small creatures from the marsh take leave of the earth and climb the sky on trembling wings, tiny hunters on the wind at last.

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