Never for an instant had Si Cwan thought he would find himself helpless before Lodec, the senate speaker of Danter. The powerfully built Thallonian stood a head taller than Lodec, and was younger, in far better shape, and one of the most fearsome and deadly fighters ever bred in the history of Thallonian royalty.
So it was that he had been astounded to discover himself in Lodec's palatial estate being held high up, up off his feet, dangling in the air, as the much shorter Lodec held him there. Unable to draw in air, Si Cwan could only gag. His hands clamped around Lodec's arm, trying to twist it free, but he felt corded muscle beneath Lodec's sleeve that had not been there only a few days earlier.
Kalinda let out an infuriated cry and tried to come to his aid, but the other senators intervened and held her back with no effort.
Lodec's smile was affixed upon his face, spreading wider as he drank in Si Cwan's helplessness. "In case you have not yet figured it out, Lord Cwan... we were willing to present ourselves as test cases for the ambrosia. And we are able to give firsthand testimony as to its effectiveness... as I'm sure you now can, as well. Oh... and here is our benefactor now."
A shadow fell upon Si Cwan as he saw a monstrous creature coming toward him. Kalinda had described the being to Cwan as eight feet tall, skin like ebony, face like some sort of vicious jackal's. Evocative of one of the Dogs of War, but far more terrifying. She had not exaggerated in her estimation; he was just as Kalinda had described him, and his eyes burned with fiery scorn as he gazed upon Si Cwan.
Si Cwan fought desperately to break loose, but the inability to breathe hampered him severely. He dangled there from Lodec's grip, helpless as a babe, and the world seemed to be growing dark around him.
"I know, I know," Lodec was saying. "This prospect of 'worship' and such... it seems absurd. But Anubis explained to us their specific desires, and we've discussed it, and we felt, truly: What is the harm? The problem was, we suspected that your pride would make it impossible for you to accept, which was why we had to keep you excluded from many of these meetings... and it turns out we were correct in our assumptions. But I say again: What is the harm of a bit of worship? We tell them what they want to hear. We have prayer meetings and such... and in the meantime they provide us and our allies with this remarkable substance."
Anubis moved closer in toward Si Cwan, an unobstructed path to Si Cwan's face, and his jaws opened wide, and the warm, fetid breath washed over him. And as blackness closed upon Si Cwan, the last thing he heard was Lodec's gently mocking voice inquiring, "Come now, Lord Cwan, honestly... would it harm us... to gather a few laurel leaves?"
And then Si Cwan was jolted back to awareness when he hit the floor. He had no idea what had caused it to happen. All he knew was that one moment he was firmly in Lodec's grasp, and the next he was on the ground, gasping, the world swimming before his blurred vision.
There was a roaring in his ears from the blood deep within, and then it started to fade, only to be replaced by screaming. It was Lodec's voice doing the screaming, which couldn't have suited Si Cwan more.
What Si Cwan could not comprehend, though, was why Lodec's hand was still squeezing his throat. Then his vision began to clear and he instantly understood. Lodec's hand was no longer attached to his arm.
The senate speaker of the Danteri was clutching the stub of his right arm, staring in horror at the blood which was fountaining from the end of it. His face was becoming a paler shade of bronze, and his eyes looked like they were glassing over. The fingers were still clutching spasmodically on Si Cwan's throat, and the Thallonian quickly pried the hand away and tossed it, still quivering, on the ground nearby.
The other senators had a collectively stunned expression on their faces, but Cwan was also struck by what they no longer had: specifically, Kalinda in their grasp. The Thallonian princess was standing several feet away, and she was holding a golden, shimmering, curved cutting tool. The cutting edge was dripping with a thick liquid that was the same color as the blood pouring out of Lodec's stump, and Si Cwan did not require a map to be drawn for him to figure out what had just happened.
Whereas earlier Kalinda had been tentative and even daunted by the prospect of facing down the difficult Danteri senators in Lodec's home grounds, there was now no trace of fear in her at all. The contemplation of difficulty, it seemed, had been far more problematic for her than being faced with the actual difficulty itself. Now that the danger was thrust upon them, she was completely focused on finding a way out of it, and whatever concerns for herself she might have had been shunted aside.
Si Cwan felt a swell of pride in his sister, even as he wondered where in the world she had gotten the cutting implement from.
The answer was not long in coming as the feral-faced creature called Anubis took a step forward. Kalinda swiveled in place, keeping a distance between the two of them, holding the blade level so that any attempt to come in at her quickly would result in the same sort of dismemberment that Lodec had experienced. Lodec, for his part, had sunk to his knees, his screams reduced to faint whimpers. The other senators made a motion toward her, but a quick flick of the instrument in their direction froze them where they stood. "I'd stay where I was if I were you, Senators," Kalinda said in frozen tones, "lest you lose other, more valuable parts."
Anubis likewise ceased any forward motion, but unlike the others, he did not seem particularly intimidated. Indeed, his red eyes burned again, but this time with what seemed a sort of vague amusement. He spoke, his voice low and gravelly, and his long, pointed teeth clicking together slightly. "That is my scythe," he informed her.
"I know," Kalinda said matter-of-factly. Si Cwan truly admired her icy demeanor, for when she had spoken earlier of merely seeing Anubis in passing, she had had such dread in her voice as Cwan had never known. He suspected it was taking all the self-control she possessed to keep herself together in the face of this... this whatever it was. "It was hanging from just behind your hip."
A weapon. He'd had a weapon on him, and Cwan hadn't seen it, else he might have tried to grab it himself. Then again, considering he was being choked at the time, it was probably understandable that he'd missed it considering it was dangling out of immediate sight behind him. But not, obviously, out of Kalinda's sight.
"So you shook free from your captors and grabbed it from me. Very resourceful," said Anubis. He was studying her with such intensity that it seemed as if his gaze were dissecting her. "There is more to you than meets the eye, I suspect."
"And less to you, I'd say," shot back Kalinda. Si Cwan had detected some slight trembling in her hands earlier as she held the scythe, but now it was rock steady.
She abruptly took a step toward Anubis, thrusting the scythe forward. The jackal-headed god did not flinch, but his eyes narrowed in what now seemed annoyance. It appeared that Kalinda's amusement value to him was wearing thin.
"You have potential, child. But not as much as you think." Then Lodec's whimpering from nearby distracted him, and Anubis turned his attention to the injured Danteri with poorly disguised annoyance. "Cease your carrying-on. Pick up the hand. Hold it against your wrist."
Lodec did as he was instructed. He did so very tentatively, however, apparently appalled by the notion of touching his own severed hand. Anubis, seeming for all the world as if he'd forgotten that Kalinda was standing there--or perhaps he simply no longer cared--strode over toward the fallen Lodec and produced a small vial from the belt of his kilt. A thick, viscous green liquid was within, and he upended it so that it poured down upon the separation between hand and arm. Lodec let out another scream then, and this one made the earlier seem a mild squeak in comparison. There was a loud sizzling, like meat being cooked up, and the aroma almost triggered Cwan's gag reflex. He was relieved he was able to squelch it in time; vomiting before one's enemies was never a good idea.
"Stop your yowling," commanded Anubis, and Lodec did the best he could. He sank his teeth into his lower lip and once again confined his pain to whimpering noises. As he did so, however, he was staring fixedly and with amazement at the point where he had pressed his hand against his arm. The tissue appeared to be reknitting, and there was already some movement visible at the ends of his fingers. "You see? You see how we take care of those who treat us properly?" continued Anubis, and Lodec managed a nod. "Good. I do not suggest you forget."
"I will not, High One," stammered Lodec in gratitude.
But Anubis had already forgotten about him, instead turning his attention once more to Kalinda. He cast a brief glance at Si Cwan as if trying to determine whether the Thallonian nobleman was worth further time, and obviously decided he wasn't. "You trade in the ways of the dead, as I do. That gives us some common ground," he growled. "And you did catch me unawares. You tricked me. I do appreciate a good trick, more than any others who live might. But do not, however, think that it gives us so much commonality that I will hesitate to treat you as anything other than an enemy."
"Nor we, you," Si Cwan said, rallying. He moved to Kalinda's side, keeping a wary eye on the other senators. Cowed they might be by current circumstances, but Si Cwan had not forgotten for a moment the inordinate strength that had flowed through Lodec's limbs.
Nearby was a fountain with a statue of a Danteri warrior wielding a sword. Si Cwan did not hesitate. He lashed out with a powerful thrust of his right foot and slammed into the base of the stone sword where it was held by the warrior. The stone cracked under the impact and shattered, and Si Cwan caught the stone sword with one deft grab. It was far weightier than any real blade, of course, but that was all to Cwan's liking. If he swung it, anything of flesh and bone that it came into contact with would instantly be crushed by it. Water gurgled out of the broken-open hole.
"Very impressive," commented Anubis, although he did not sound especially impressed. He was still watching Kalinda warily. "It is a pity. You could have been a most useful ally."
"Oh, I doubt that," replied Si Cwan. He swung the stone sword in a leisurely arc, causing the other senators to step further back. It gave Cwan a good deal of pleasure, seeing them hesitate in that way. If there was one thing he had learned long ago, it was that there was far more to dominating a situation than just having superior physical strength. Not that Cwan was ready to concede that they were superior to him. But they were obviously far less anxious to put self-defense capabilities to the test than he was. "I suspect that Kalinda and I would be far too much in the way of independent thinkers to fall in line with whatever it is you're planning. Which, by the way, would be...?"
Anubis made a sound that Cwan suspected was supposed to be vaguely akin to a laugh. But only vaguely. True laughter was infectious. This was a sound that was infectious in the same way that plague was.
"You seek some deep, hidden 'true plan,'" Anubis observed. He was not moving at all now, not flexing so much as a single muscle in his body. If he hadn't been speaking, he would have looked like a statue carved from ebony. "My clan and I have never been anything less than forthright. We wish to provide ambrosia to bring out a golden age of mankind. My kin offered it to your captain..." He paused, as if endeavoring to pluck a name out of the ether. "Calhoun," he said finally, as if someone had whispered it to him as a prompt. "He was encouraged to refuse us. That was... unwise."
"Unwise. What are you saying?" Si Cwan's eyes narrowed, and he gripped the makeshift sword more tightly.
Suddenly he saw movement with his peripheral vision. Without even taking his gaze from Anubis, he whipped the stone sword around under his arm and slammed it into the pit of one of the senator's stomachs. The man had tried to come up behind him. It had not gone well for him; with one swing, Si Cwan had done the man some serious damage, and he was now on the ground with his arms wrapped around his middle. Si Cwan suspected he might have broken several of the Danteri's ribs. He did not, however, care. His concerns were focused instead on the implicit threat he had just heard. "In what way unwise?" he continued.
"Let us say they have been dealt with," said Anubis.
"Let us say more than that," Si Cwan said dangerously, and started forward.
But Kalinda's sharp "Don't move, Cwan" froze him in midstep. He looked at her, scowling, and she met his gaze with a warning one of her own. Immediately he realized what she was trying to put across to him: that continuing this challenge was not the wisest course of action. Anubis had made no further move toward them, but he was still coiled, ready to spring. And the fact that one senator was down with some broken bones and Lodec was just recovering use of his hand didn't render the other two less dangerous, or the entire situation less fraught with peril. Also, for all they knew, other senators or even soldiers might show up as reinforcements. Matters were being held together at that moment through only the most tenuous of circumstances, and the more they prolonged it, the worse it would go for them.
"Listen carefully," Si Cwan told everyone standing there, keeping enough edge in his voice to sound as threatening as he possibly could. "We agreed to come to Danter for one reason and one reason only: your desire to create a new Thallonian Empire. You wanted my help for that. But since that time, another... option," and he inclined his head toward Anubis, "has clearly presented itself. I would have much preferred that you tell me about it, instead of what you had been doing. The skulking about, the late-night meetings from which I was excluded."
"We..." Lodec was trying to push through the pain he was still obviously feeling. "We thought... you would not understand."
"Perhaps I would not have. But I understand duplicity even less." He looked at them for a long moment, and then said to Lodec, "You have a private field, do you not?"
"Field?" Lodec, still rubbing the rejoining place of his hand, looked blank for a moment. Then the confusion evaporated. "Oh. A landing port."
Slowly Lodec nodded. "Yes. Yes, I do." He was speaking slowly and a bit sheepishly, as if chagrined that he had been screaming in such an out-of-control manner earlier. "It's... one of the perks of being the--"
"I do not care," Cwan interrupted. "You will bring us there. You will give us the fastest shuttle off this rock. And you will allow us to leave unmolested."
"And if they do not?" inquired Anubis. He seemed most intrigued to hear Si Cwan's response.
"Then," said Si Cwan unflappably, waving the stone sword in a decidedly menacing manner, "we shall see if we have a god who bleeds."
A long silence followed, and then came another of those frightening laughs from Anubis that made the listener feel as if bugs were crawling beneath his skin and lodging in various important organs. "Lodec," he said after a moment more. "Give him what he wants."
"But High One!" Lodec began to protest, until a single fearsome glance from Anubis silenced him.
Anubis turned back to Si Cwan as if Lodec no longer mattered to him... which was, very likely, the case. "Believe it or not, Thallonian," Anubis said, "you were of interest to me. I sought to test your mettle. I am... unimpressed."
Si Cwan bowed mockingly. "I shall endeavor to live with the disappointment of failing to impress you."
Paying no heed to Si Cwan, Anubis shifted his gaze to Kalinda. "She, on the other hand, has potential. Vast potential. It might be best for you to remain here, young Kalinda."
"I go where Si Cwan goes," she said defiantly.
He shrugged almost imperceptibly. "That is your choice, child. I think it an unfortunate one, but I will not tamper with your free will. None of my brethren will. We are gods, not monsters."
"Despite all appearances to the contrary," Si Cwan said sharply. "And you won't tamper with free will? From what you're saying, you attacked friends of ours simply because they were exercising their free will in deciding not to trust you and your... ilk."
Anubis' teeth flashed. For half a heartbeat, Si Cwan thought he was going to have a fight on his hands, and he wasn't ecstatic about the likelihood of triumphing in it. But Anubis promptly calmed himself; it happened so quickly that very likely Cwan and Anubis were the only ones aware of the flash of temper. "There is free will," he said in a soft voice that sounded much like a growl. "And then there is lack of respect. Blasphemy, if you will. All living creatures have the gift of free will. But we need not tolerate blasphemers. Any more than you, 'Lord' Si Cwan, tolerated insurrection in your days as a noble of the Thallonian Empire."
"You know nothing of me, nor of what I did or did not tolerate."
"A pity," said Anubis, his eyes blazing brighter, "that we will not have the opportunity to learn. Know one thing, however," and he shifted his gaze toward Kalinda, "my scythe must be returned before your vessel will be permitted to leave. It is my property. You may not depart with it."
"Odd," commented Kalinda, "that you don't try to come and take it back yourself." She idly whipped the blade through the air.
"Odd to you. Not to me. But then... we have been known to move in mysterious ways."
And with that comment, Anubis turned his back to them and walked away as if they were no longer of any interest to him. Si Cwan watched him go. He did not move like anything remotely human. Indeed, it almost seemed as if he had no mass whatsoever. For an instant, Si Cwan wondered if perhaps Anubis wasn't there at all. Perhaps he was a hologram of some sort. But he quickly discarded the notion. Si Cwan had spent a good deal of time on the holodeck of the Excalibur, running through various combat scenarios. And no matter how realistic his opponents had seemed, his senses were never deceived. He was able to discern between that which was living and that which was manufactured. If nothing else, they tended to move with machinelike perfection. No matter how sophisticated the computer program, there were still limits as to what it was able to replicate in terms of movement.
Anubis, no matter how bizarre his appearance, was definitely living. A living what, Si Cwan could not begin to say.
The Thallonians were escorted to the landing port by a stonily silent group of senators. Lodec was still waggling his fingers, obviously to make certain that they were fully functional. Every so often he would toss an angry glance in Si Cwan's direction. Cwan resisted the temptation to put his fist through Lodec's face... particularly considering that it wasn't long before that Lodec had been lifting him off his feet as if he were a child. Truth to tell, he wasn't all that anxious to have another run at Lodec; not until he had a clearer idea of just what had happened and how it had come to pass. His only priority at that moment was getting Kalinda out of there.
There were several vessels sitting in the port, and Lodec made a sweeping gesture. "Choose one," he said, his voice even. "If I select one, you may suspect some sort of treachery."
"Don't concern yourself about that, Lodec," replied Si Cwan. "At this point, no matter what you say or do, I will suspect treachery... very likely because you are, in fact, a traitor."
"Why? Because circumstances caused me to break my word to you?" He made a scoffing noise. "A traitor is someone who acts contrary to the best interests of his own people. You are simply put out because I acted contrary to your best interests. That does not concern me in the least."
"Concern yourself over this, then, if you wish." He leaned in toward Lodec, keeping a firm grip on the stone sword. "This is not over."
"I hope not," replied Lodec with a very unpleasant smile. "I would dearly love to have a rematch with you, Si Cwan... preferably without your little sister to step in and save you."
Reflexively Si Cwan started to take a step forward, but Kalinda put a firm hand on his arm that stopped him. He forced a nod in acknowledging that departure would serve them far better than continued conflict. He chose a runabout at random and then had Lodec start it up. The reason for his caution was obvious: Lodec might have some sort of fail-safe built in that would cause the thing to blow to bits if anyone other than Lodec endeavored to depart with it.
Lodec then stepped out of the runabout, but turned and called, "Lord Cwan! I believe you have something that the great Anubis requested be returned to him."
"Oh yes. So he did." Standing in the entrance to the runabout, Si Cwan extended a hand to Kalinda. She hesitated briefly, but then handed the scythe over to her brother. He held it a moment, feeling the heft and balance. "An impressive implement," he said... and then with a quick, smooth motion he sent it hurtling at Lodec.
The Danteri senator let out a shriek but was rooted to the spot as the blade whipped through the air at an angle. It landed exactly where Si Cwan intended it to, thudding into the ground directly between Lodec's legs. Lodec looked down at the still quivering handle, the blade buried in the ground.
Si Cwan grinned broadly, and then turned and saw the disapproving scowl on Kalinda's face. Without a word he pushed the button that caused the door to iris closed. "That was unnecessary," she said as Si Cwan went straight over to the guidance consoles.
"I found it to be very necessary."
The runabout lifted off and seconds later the small craft was angling skyward. Si Cwan was watching the sensor readouts carefully, concerned that Danteri vessels would be launched in pursuit with the intention of blowing them out of the sky. Kalinda obviously shared the concerns as she asked, "Are we being followed?"
"Not so far," said Cwan. He shook his head. "This is going to be embarrassing."
"Embarrassing?" Kalinda said in bewilderment. "How would it be...?" And then she realized and, despite the seriousness of their situation, she couldn't help but smile. "Ahhh... Captain Shelby."
He nodded. "She's going to laugh in my face. She tried to warn me. She cautioned me against accepting the Danteri offer. It was my own ego running rampant."
"She said that?"
"No, I said that. That is, I say that."
"Oh, Cwan." She went over to him and rested a hand on his shoulder. "You did what you thought was right. All the reasons you gave her were good ones. We are who we are. We are Thallonians, the last members of our line. All during our time on the Excalibur, you've put yourself forward as 'Ambassador,' but really, that's just been a polite fiction. The truth is, you haven't been representing anyone or anything except yourself and your own interests. The Danteri offer was simply too good to pass up."
Slowly he nodded. "And would you mind saying all that to Captain Shelby?"
"Out of the question. She'd laugh in my face."
The response prompted a genuine chuckle from Si Cwan, but it died in his throat as the warning lights suddenly snapped on and a shrill alarm sounded within the runabout.
"We have a problem," grated Si Cwan.
"What is it?!" Even as she asked, Kalinda was clambering into a seat and strapping herself in. But the response was forthcoming before Si Cwan could respond as the runabout shuddered violently. "Did we hit something?"
"No, something hit us," he shot back. "Their ground cannons, most like. We've been targeted. Apparently Lodec desired to give us a parting gift."
"I don't think Anubis is going to like that."
The runabout trembled once more under another violent impact. "His likes and dislikes will be somewhat moot if we're smashed to bits."
"Does this vessel have shields?"
"The standard astro-nav shields to deflect debris and particles. Nothing meant to withstand the direct pounding of surface-to-air weaponry." His fingers flew over the controls and the runabout banked sharply.
"What are you doing?!"
"If we can't survive direct hits, then the best thing to do is be where they're not shooting until we're out of range."
Under Si Cwan's deft handling, the runabout darted to the right and left. Ground blasts erupted in the air around it, the shock waves battering the ship mercilessly even when the cannons missed. The higher into the atmosphere they went, the thinner the air became and the less of a problem the near-hits were. But Si Cwan wasn't thrilled with the way the runabout was maneuvering. He suspected that some of the guidance systems had been damaged by the assault. He didn't tell Kalinda that, however, seeing no point in worrying her.
Reaching escape velocity, they pulled free of the gravity of Danter, and Si Cwan and Kalinda shot each other a look of relief just before one final, stray shot slammed into them squarely, sending all their nav systems completely off line and the runabout whirling helplessly into the depths of space.