They rested on top of the tower the rest of that day, and spent the night there. Neither was in the mood to push on. Alex used the time to go back over the book, and practiced finding the door. He had a lot of experience delving into his subconscious, but only via extreme physical duress. Now, he tried by only using his mind and his will. Sitting on the towers ledge, overlooking the huge, beautiful forest valley more than five hundred meters below, he attempted to meditate into a trance-like state well into the night until he was too tired to continue. Rodinya was making good use of this rest time, but he felt a little defeated as he crawled onto her wing for the nights sleep. He wasn’t any closer now than before he read the book, and worried that they were all wrong about his supposed abilities. Maybe he wasn’t all that advanced. Maybe everyone’s faith in him was wrong. He couldn’t shake these thoughts. It wasn’t a good recipe for sleep.
He finally came to realization that using meditation may not work for him. He was hampered by the fact that in the past he had found it only through running, and that the muscle memory could only work under those extreme conditions.
Then a small epiphany, a seed of thought, took root. What if he meshed the two together? With a small amount of physical activity, there might be a chance of attaining what had so far eluded him. He hit on the idea of going through his practice ritual with the katana.
The more he thought about this, the more it made sense. While following the ritual patterns of Kenjutsu, he was almost in a trance-like state anyway. While he could do the movements very quickly, he could also do them slowly—as if in a slow dance.
There would be no sleep until he gave this method a chance, so he gently slid off Rodinya’s wing, lightly stepped over to where the baldric and scabbard were stored for the night, and pulled out the red sword.
Expecting the usual electric feeling he got every time he picked up the sword, this time he was hit with a new sensation. A strong jolt of energy maximized his every cognitive sense. During the pre-practice ritual of holding the katana with both hands, the blade perfectly centered in front of him while standing stock-still, the energy grew stronger with every passing second. After standing motionless for several minutes, he began to move. At first it was nothing more than a slight bow. He stood in this manner for no more than a minute, and then, ever so slowly, began the ritual. Within seconds he fell into the familiar trance. While maintaining the slow, rhythmic movement of the Kenjutsu, he suddenly found himself deep within his subconscious mind. A place he had never gone to without pain.
And stood in front of a door.
Other than a wooden doorframe, the weathered door was not connected to any other structure. It stood alone in the middle of a grassy meadow, next to a stand of larch trees. It was a warm, early summer day. A babbling brook passed right by the front of the door. Alex recognized exactly where he was. The door stood next to the log where his mother had given him the family’s red medallion on his tenth birthday. It was the medallion that had fused into his katana the day Rodinya had saved his life
The day his life changed forever.
His physical body continued to go through the practice motions, but now his subconscious mind was wholly in that meadow. He slowly reached out with a trembling, even though his physical body was still using that same hand to hold the red sword. His breathing slowed to almost nothing. His fingertips lightly brushed against the rough-hewn wood. There was no handle, no knob—nothing that would indicate how he was to open it, but it did have a small, reddish metal keyhole whose shape was oddly familiar to him. He inserted the sword’s tip into the keyhole, and gently twisted it to the left. There was a click, and with a slight creak, the door swung open.
The view beyond the door was just a continuation of the meadow. No stars, no galaxies, nothing that would indicate a Path. He stood there confused, and indecisive for several seconds, looking through the door, watching a breeze ripple the tall grass on the other side. Then a moment of insight flooded his understanding. He stepped through the door.
And into another realm of existence.
Beyond was a universe of galaxies; millions of galaxies—billions of stars. Heaven and earth met and merged at this one place, and that place was inside him.
Had always been inside him.
Alex knew instinctively knew that if reached out mentally, pictured a destination, he would be instantly taken to where that pathway led. He now understood how to navigate each path. All he had to do was step through the door, and picture where he wanted to go.
But which Path should he take?
Impulsively, his first thought was to see Lorraine—see her face, bathe in the soft tendrils of her hair. He wanted to reverse time, revisit that last night together, but knew this was ultimately a fool’s errand. It would do neither of them any good. No matter the pain, he had to leave her alone. Alex dolefully stared at the star that led to her. In the entire universe, that one tempting star out shone all the others. It was the hardest decision of his life—knowing he stood at the Path leading to her—wanting that above all else. All he had to do was choose.
He took a step back.
Then another star manifested itself—a much darker one. With a grim resolution, he knew exactly which Path to take: the one to find the traitor—his doppelgänger. He took a step, and it propelled him forward at the speed of thought.
In a flash of starlight, he was aboard a schooner far out to sea. It only took a moment to calculate the ships heading, and see that it was on a southerly course. Alex already knew that the massive Thith invasion fleet was sailing in the equatorial current waiting for the human traitor to arrive.
The betrayal to humanity was almost complete.
As vexed as he was towards Bayne, it was almost a relief, because if the traitor was this far out at sea, he couldn’t stir up any more mischief with the bears, and he would be easy to track. After exploring the schooner for a few minutes, Alex saw a young man wearing a black cloak step out on deck. It was like looking into a mirror. The only distinction Alex saw between them was an angry red scar on Bayne’s left cheek. His hair was slightly longer, but it was the same sandy blond. Though his eyes were the exact shade of deep-emerald green, there was something different about them. Bayne’s eyes were filled with an anger that seemed to be a permanent trait.
Alex briefly wondered if Bayne could feel his presence, but his double did nothing to indicate awareness. That gave Alex a sense of empowerment that he hadn’t felt before. Up until now, since the day he had first woken up in that hospital bed in Cambria, he had felt he was caught up in a current of events over which he had no real control. He now fully understood that he was the catalyst around which this whole prophecy revolved. He still didn’t have control over it—still couldn’t walk away; and yet, he couldn’t go charging blindly ahead either. There were strict criteria set down a thousand years ago in a set of books, and it was these criteria that had the real control.
He was just the attendant.
There were so many other places he wanted to go. He wanted to experiment with his newfound ability. But he hadn’t slept in two days and needed some rest. He thought of comfortably snuggling down into his blanket on Rodinya’s wing, and suddenly he was back on top of the crystal tower, still slowly going through his ritual practice.
He put the katana away, and then gently crawled up onto Rodinya’s wing and wrapped up in his blanket, thinking that he hadn’t even disturbed her. Then he heard a sleepy voice say. It was a difficult choice to make, but you did the right thing.
“Have I no privacy, even for my heart?” There was no malicious intent in his question, only regret.
She snuggled her wing around him to ward off the cold, and gently said, I wish it weren’t so, Alex, but no, there is none. Her voice hardened. So, you found the little bastard. Good, now we can keep an eye on him until his day of reckoning—a day that I’m personally looking forward to. Congratulations on allowing the book to teach you so quickly. I really didn’t think it would happen so fast, but I should have known that with you it would be this way. Now in some small way, the death of the Order wasn’t in vain after all. He had no response, and soon her breathing fell into its normal sleep pattern.
Even though the face of the sun was never seen through the cloud cover, daybreak in these huge crystal canyon mountains was a thing of beauty. The crystal that made up the bulk of these mountains split light into a birefringence that created the beautiful phenomenon of double light refraction. This splitting of light, strongest at daybreak, was almost magical, and when the occasional rain shower swept through the valley, the rainbows they produced would split in multiple directions. This was what confronted the two companions when they woke up early the next morning. The magic of the moment was not lost on either of them, and they spent the ethereal moment in silence. It was soon over, and Alex started the daily routine of breaking camp while Rodinya flew off for her morning constitutional.
But this morning was unlike any other morning. He felt an energy and strength of will that he had never felt before, and those were two characteristics that Alex had always had in abundance. Today they were multiplied tenfold. Then a wild idea hit him, and he wondered if he could fly without Rodinya’s help.
Let’s not and say we did, came her response, and he contemplated on just how much she really listened to his personal thoughts. Pretty much all of them, she commented, but I try to only expound on the really stupid ones.
Alex gathered the gear and fixed it to the storage tack. As he mounted the saddle, Rodinya had a few thoughts that she decided to voice. Do you realize that exactly one day ago I was the biggest, smartest, and most dangerous creature on this planet? This morning, however, I find that I can only claim two out of those three attributes. She turned her huge head around and looked him square in the eyes with an expression of such wonderment that he felt extremely self-conscious.
He blushed. “Which two?”
Rodinya leapt off the cliff and they glided ever northward up the rainbow-filled valley. Don’t push it, Hope Boy.
After a moment, Rodinya continued, That red sword of yours seems to be the all-encompassing key to your very being, and now that it’s allowed you to find the door, and beyond, you can probably do this on your own from now on, without its help.
“You really think so? I was going to try to do exactly that during today’s flight.”
I believe you’ll find instantaneous access simply by using your mind, or, rather, your Gift. Then you can explore these paths anytime you want to. A rare gift indeed, and, like all gifts, my friend, it isn’t free. It has been paid for by scores of generations of all your family who came before you, which includes all the members of the Order who faithfully waited for you to receive your book.
She was waxing eloquent this morning, but Alex knew she still hadn’t made her main point
Access to these pathways always comes with a price. You are not the same man you were yesterday, even though you feel very little has changed—in fact, everything has changed.
Alex did not take her observation lightly. “That’s a pretty strong statement. I gather you’ve had some experience throughout the centuries watching the family.”
Yes, I have. But it’s this generation that has perplexed me the most. You already know you’re not the only seventh-generation Yanbeyev male on the planet.”
The bee had started buzzing in Alex’s chest.
You recently implied that I knew more about Bayne than I was saying. You were right. At the time I didn’t want to discuss it, but now you deserve to hear it all. He wasn’t always the man he is now. I’ve kept a close eye on him since, well, frankly, his conception. After he was taken to Drakon Rus he began to lead a tortured child’s life. He was in constant fear of his diabolical father. She stopped talking for a moment as her memories of the boy’s tormented young life came flooding back. Since he was a seventh-generation Yanbeyev male, his abilities were far greater than his father’s, whose only real ability was to stay angry and make everyone around him fear for their lives. When Bayne turned eight, he was made aware of his abilities by his aunt, who at first tried to protect him from his father. Later she guided him to the Path. She had little of the Gift herself, but knew enough to teach a seventh-generation male. She only sought to help the boy, but her noble efforts eventually turned him into what he is now.
I had the misfortune to witness the terror to which the boy was routinely subjected. In spite of her anger toward the man Bayne had become, there was a note of sympathy in her voice as she recounted the event. When he was about eight years old I went to Drakon Rus looking for a new apprentice for the Order. It was bitterly cold that day, and when I approached the main gate I saw a freezing, half-naked, bruised and battered little boy thrown out in the cold. She paused for a moment, at the pain of that memory, and her anger towards the man that tortured boy had become. When I landed the boy was close to hypothermia, so I used my fire to warm an area of the terrace. I took him under my wing to protect him from the elements. Soldiers armed with crossbows surrounded me and the Tsar came out and threatened to kill me if I ever showed up at Drakon Rus again. Luckily his aunt rushed out and spirited the freezing boy inside while his father was preoccupied with threatening me. I didn’t go back to Drakon Rus until after Tsar Yakov’s death.
Alex pulled his hood over his head as the temperature had perceptibly dropped in the last few seconds. It was as if this story had affected the weather itself. “Is this aunt still alive?” he asked, wondering about the Yanbeyeva women he would soon meet in the mountain colony.
Rodinya dropped almost a thousand meters to find some warmer air, but was disappointed by the results. It was still freezing. No, she died. Bayne killed her. You see, Alex, Drakon Rus is not Cambria, not at all. While Cambria has a semblance of democracy. Drakon Rus is a strict dynasty, and the Yanbeyev family has ruled there since the very beginning. Bayne’s father was a tyrannical and despised ruler. When Bayne turned eighteen, years of his aunt’s efforts had already led him to access the Path. That’s when he became what he is today. She died for her mistake. He is his father’s son, conceived through violence, and raised with malice. The only real lesson he learned was that of hate and vengeance—a lesson he wants payment for now.
“Do you feel that I, too, will go through a similar change?”
What? No, Alex! How could you even think that? You were raised with love and understanding. Bayne was raised with contempt and fear. Let me continue, because this is the part you really need to know; like you, he is a seventh generation male, and very powerful. One day he confronted his father and demanded the right of succession. Even on his deathbed the old tyrant rejected him, calling Bayne a bastard with no rights.
This final condemnation pushed him over the edge, and Bayne lost all control. He unleashed the brutality of his abilities. Hate had finally found its favorite son. Only his father and his aunt were in the room with him, and they both died in a pool of blood. I don’t believe Bayne meant to kill his aunt, but like her brother, she paid the price, Alex—the price. She stressed the last word.
Alex nodded, though she didn’t see. She continued, working up to her main point, The Drakon Rus had no love for their dead ruler, but the son was seen to be much worse, so they sent him into permanent exile—to Cambria, ostensibly to deliver the newly arrived Earth woman. Once they arrived, he was told to never return to Drakon Rus. After this total rejection by the colony he felt was his to rule, the growth of his hate was surpassed only by the growth of his abilities.
You see, Alex, your family has carefully cultivated their Gift for scores of generations on Earth, but, to the rest of humanity, your Gift is an enigma that lies somewhere between science and superstition. As we both well know, superstition is the fear of the misunderstood, and, for some reason, your species has a habit of destroying that which it fears and misunderstands.
The average human only uses a fraction of their brain’s capacity. Your family, both on Earth and less so here on Aqueous, has evolved that cerebral usage to higher percent. You, Alex, are the pinnacle of your family’s evolutionary process on Earth, and have more access than any human ever. She cast a hard look over her shoulder, and locked eyes with her passenger. But, unlike you, Bayne is a product of this planet. He has the advantage of learning his abilities at a much earlier age. You, however, are still a work in progress.
It seemed that Rodinya was warning him that Bayne could have equivalent abilities to his own, making him very dangerous, and maybe even have the upper hand.
“You told me I was the most dangerous being on the planet. If Bayne has equal abilities, doesn’t that make him even more dangerous?”
Her answer was as quick as it was concise. No, Alex. Hate blinds and skews his decision making. She bolstered him, you, on the other hand, have a genuine desire to build, not destroy, then reminded him, and besides, you have the only red sword on the planet, and this cannot be overstated.
They flew along without speaking for a few minutes. Alex finally broke the silence. “So, after Bayne killed his father and aunt, who became the ruler of Drakon Rus?”
For a moment, Rodinya said nothing, and then she let out a dragon-sized chuckle and did a barrel roll. Oh that! Yes, well, you’re in for a treat, my friend, because the family member who took over, and has, to be sure, been a good ruler ever since, is none other than Bayne’s little half-sister Anya, who is now your betrothed.
“His half-sister! That’s my arranged marriage?”
She’s not so little anymore. Also, there’s just a wee bit more information you might need to know.
“I imagine there’s a lot more than a wee bit, but what are you talking about?” The bee in his chest was now doing its own barrel rolls.
They call her the Warrior Queen, and, like you, she rides a dragon.