Cicrle of Light
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by Nancy J. Cohen
Category: Romance/Science Fiction
Description: Attorney Sarina Bretton is kidnapped from Earth by Captain Teir Reylock of the Coalition Defense League. As the legendary Great Healer, Sarina is destined to marry Lord Cam'brii, a stiff politician, but falls in love with Reylock instead. Though Teir returns Sarina's passion, he must fulfill his duty as her bodyguard to protect her from the Coalition's enemies, and from his own heart. (with bonus glossary) Futuristic Romance by Nancy J. Cohen, writing as Nancy Cane; originally published by LoveSpell
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 1994
eBookwise Release Date: March 2010
7 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [520 KB]
Reading time: 321-450 min.
Smoke billowed into the air, swirling and blending into a murky gray fog whose tendrils reached into every hidden corner of the city. Mantra remembered the pungent smell even though it had been ten months since he'd fled his home. A lot of good it did him to hide in the countryside. The deadly plague called the Farg had spread its tentacles until it reached him even there. The pestilence touched everyone, regardless of location or station in life. It was a great equalizer, as Mantra had come to learn.
Huddling in the shadows of a doorway, he clutched his cloak tighter around his trembling body. It wasn't the cold that concerned him. Mantra dared not risk being seen. The telltale ugly swellings on his thick tan hide would condemn him on sight. If he were caught, he'd be sent to the pest-house. He wanted to die in his own bed, not in a chamber of horrors.
A paroxysm of coughing struck him, and he stooped, hacking and trying to clear the phlegm from his lungs. When at last he straightened, his face was red, his breath coming in short, painful bursts. In the dim light of the street lamps, he could see the winding cobblestone street disappearing into the mist ahead. Only a few more blocks to go, then he'd be home. With a stab of fear, he wondered if anyone was left to greet him. His mother and father...his sisters...had they all succumbed to the plague? It was selfish of him to return like this, to put them all in danger, but he craved one last glance of his loved ones before he died.
It was difficult to breathe the dry air after the relatively moist freshness of the country, and he had to stop every few paces to catch his breath. He was grateful that the streets were deserted. Public gatherings were forbidden, and all transportation had come to a halt. It was as though the very lifeblood of the city had stopped.
Sewage flowed freely in the streets, and even the wooden structures surrounding him seemed to lean inward with despair. Mantra cringed from the shrieks and lamentations he heard as he passed the homes still inhabited. Nearly everyone was affected by the horrifying visitation, if not themselves, then their dearest relations. The city had become a harbor of death.
Mantra's shoe slipped on a water-slicked stone. He flailed, catching his balance and cursing, but voices ahead made his words choke in his throat. Quickly, he sagged against a wall, his heart thumping. Go away! he cried silently.
It was a searcher and a chirurgeon, hurrying together on their gruesome mission to examine the dead. One of them held aloft a red rod, warning off anyone approaching not to come near. Mantra held his breath as they passed, for all the good it would do. He was already infected, and he shivered, knowing they would soon be coming for him.
When the voices faded. Mantra stepped out and moved forward at a faster pace. His head began to hurt, and dizziness threatened to overwhelm him. He pushed on, determination giving him strength. He nearly sobbed with relief when he rounded the corner of his street.
What he saw made him stop short.
Oh, no. Was that a watchman with a halberd in hand guarding his front door? Mantra slowly approached. A large red circle was painted on the door with the piteous words scrawled across it, HAVE MERCY UPON US!
Terror struck his heart. "What is this?"
"You approach a closed house. Be gone," the watchman said. He was a stout fellow whose facial hair was thick and coarse. From the set of his shoulders, he appeared muscular beneath his robe.
"I must enter," Mantra replied, frantic with concern. "It is my home."
The watchman took a closer look. "By the sun, citizen, are you ill?"
"Aye." Mantra grinned heinously as he thrust up his sleeve to reveal a rash of purplish blotches discoloring his thick hide.
The watchman's eyes widened, and he stepped back. "You have the Farg!"
"Unlock the door. I wish to join my family."
The watchman hurried to obey. Withdrawing a large key from the folds of his garment, he fumbled with the lock, swung the door open, and stood aside for Mantra to pass. "The faith be with you, citizen," he said, making the sign of the circle as Mantra went by.
"Mantra," his mother screamed as he entered. She flew down the stairs, and Mantra barely heard the door bang shut behind him, or the key turning in the lock a second later. He raced to greet her, flinging his arms around her and sobbing her name.
"Alas, I forget myself," he said, suddenly pulling back. "I am infected by the Farg."
"Mercy!" his mother cried.
Now he saw how haggard she looked as he stood back to examine her. Her hair, once her crowning glory, hung in stringy reddish-brown strands down her back. Her luminous eyes were dull and sad. Even her garment, a softly woven fabric in green to match her eyes, was creased and stained. A wave of guilt swept over him as he thought about how he'd left.
"Who else is ill?" Mantra asked, afraid to hear the answer.
Malika's shoulders slumped. "Your sister Zunis. She has the fever."
"And Father?" His supply station should have kept them all well fed, at least until they were shut in.
Malika looked away. "He took sick all of a sudden. Two days didn't pass before the dead cart came to take him away."
"No!" Mantra howled, rage and grief overwhelming him. He sank to the floor, squeezing his eyes shut to hold back the tears.
"Mantra, promise me you will not die, too," Malika cried, kneeling beside him.
"I'm so sorry. Mother." He gazed at her with sorrowful eyes. "I should not have left as I did. I ran at the first sign of the plague. I was a fool and a coward."
"Hush, my son." Her voice was gentle as she put out a hand to soothe him. "You were not the only one trying to flee. The streets were thronged with carts and beasts of burden, with wagons and goods, with people and baggage. You were lucky to get out before the barriers went up."
"The barriers are useless. The distemper is everywhere." Mantra ran his fingers through his rusty brown hair. "Curse this maug planet. If we lived closer to the sun, we might not be so horribly affected."
Malika straightened. "It is harmful to listen to rumors from offworlders."
"We have to ask the Coalition for help. It is the only way."
"The only way is for the Coalition to leave our planet alone. We joined for the trade only. Any other contact is forbidden." Malika's voice was firm. "This is an old discussion. Come to bed."
Mantra rose slowly, his limbs stiff and sore. He ached in a hundred places. "Joining the Coalition isn't enough. We need to become active members. We need to progress--"
"Progress brings corruption. We will talk no more of this." Malika peered at him closely, and her eyes darkened with anxiety. "You are trembling, and your face is a ghastly hue. How long have you had the distemper?"
"It's been five days since I got sick. The fever was the worst. It was not thought I would survive, but a kindly caretaker gave me a posset-drink, and I recovered." A rattling wheeze choked off his words, and he struggled for breath. His chest constricted as though a painful vise were around him, and he coughed, clearing the obstruction. "But as you can see," Mantra said, gasping, "the infection has spread to my lungs."
His mother's countenance paled. "Upstairs with you," she ordered, lifting her skirt and preceding him.
"Mantra, you have returned at last," his eldest sister Sita greeted him from the second landing. Her voice was cool, her expression disapproving. At least she hadn't suffered from their quarantine, Mantra thought. Sita's eyes were heavily made up in a rich lavender shade to match the silky cloth that draped her slender form. She looked as though she were ready to go out on a social visit. Mantra bet she hadn't lifted one finger to help Malika in the whole time he'd been gone. But then Sita had always considered herself first.
As had I, Mantra thought, feeling the familiar wave of guilt.
He regarded his sister calmly. "Where is Kairi?"
"Here." His next elder sister came flying out of the room she shared with Sita, book in hand. She was about to throw her arms around him when he stepped back, a look of warning on his face.
"Stay away. I have the Farg."
"Oh, no." Kairi's expression turned to horror as she observed him more closely. "You look terrible. Let me help you."
"Keep your distance," Malika cried. "You girls must remain in your room. I will attend him as I do Zunis. Go now, quickly. I'll bring you both a sulfur balm as soon as I'm free."
Sita wrinkled her nose. "Not that awful stuff again."
"It's been an effective preventive, hasn't it?" their mother said. "Now off with you."
Kairi cast Mantra a regretful glance and followed her haughty sister back into their room. Mantra made haste for his own bed. It was as he had left it ten months ago, his possessions untouched, his bed made up as though he had just gone out for an afternoon. A sob of grief tore at his throat. If only he had seen his father one last time.
He made no protest as Malika turned back the coverlet and motioned for him to get into bed.
"Show me how bad it is," she demanded, leaning over him, her eyes soft with concern.
His modesty had long since gone. Mantra stripped, averting his eyes from the expression of horror on his mother's face when she saw the extent of his blisters.
"I'll check on Zunis, and then I will get you some poultices. The poison must be drawn from your body." She listened for a moment to his wheezing. "I will also brew a tea of lalith leaves for the congestion."
Malika bent down, and a tear escaped from the corner of her eye. "Rest, my son. I am glad you have returned." She squeezed his hand, and a brief expression of hopelessness flickered across her face before she turned away.
It was much later when Mantra was awakened by cries from downstairs. Throwing his cloak over his shoulders, he hobbled out of his room. "What is it? What's the matter?" he called.
Sita and Kairi emerged from their room, their frightened faces pale against the vivid blue hues of their nightclothes. "It is Zunis," Sita whispered. "When the fever spikes, she gets delirious."
"How long has she been like this?"
"Three days. The fever shows no sign of breaking."
Mantra frowned. That was a bad omen. "Is Mother tending to her?"
"Aye," Kairi replied in a low tone. "She won't allow us to help."
"I must go to her."
Despite their protests, he went down the stairs, stopping every few steps to catch his breath. The mucus in his chest seemed looser, so he coughed some of it up. A burning pain stabbed his lungs and Mantra winced, holding on to the rail and waiting for the discomfort to pass. Finally the pain subsided into a dull ache and he was able to continue his descent.
"Mantra, please go to bed," his sister Kairi pleaded from above.
"Don't waste your words," Sita said to her. "Mantra never listens. He didn't listen when Father asked him to help out in the food station. Father might still be here now had Mantra been around to share the burden."
Feeling the blood rush to his face, Mantra whirled to face her. "Shut up, Sita."
"Go back where you came from," Sita hissed. "You're just more work for Mother. You're sick. You should never have come here."
Mantra took one glance at the shocked look on Kairi's face and suppressed his retort. Turning on his heel, he shuffled to the library which had been converted into a sickroom. He found his mother huddled over the writhing form of his youngest sister.
Mantra drew in a sharp breath when he saw the livid color of Zunis's face. Her eyes were glassy and wild as she thrashed about, muttering incoherently. Her reddish-brown hair, the same color as their mother's, lay tangled about her face. She looked like a different person from the last time he had seen her, a sweet young maiden about to breach her sixteenth year.
Malika straightened, and he saw she had been applying a wet cloth to Zunis's forehead. Instead of remonstrating with him for coming downstairs, his mother seemed glad of the company. She drew a weary hand across her brow.
"I know not what else to do," Malika said. "Either the fever must break, or it will take her. This goes on too long."
Mantra stared at her helplessly. He didn't know the ingredients of the posset-drink that had helped him, so he couldn't offer any advice. "The room is cold, Mother. Would a fire not help?" He drew his cloak tighter around his body.
"I think not. Zunis must be kept cool."
"But see how her limbs tremble."
"It is the distemper. Did you not find it so?"
"I suppose." He shrugged. "In truth, I was not aware of much when I passed through this stage."
Malika sighed. "I pray it will end soon. I grieve to see her suffering so."
Mantra stared at his sister, wishing he could will her to get well. She looked so frail as she lay there. He remembered her laughter, her happy innocence, and he thought how everyone's innocence had been destroyed by this onslaught of pestilence.
Returning to the hall. Mantra trudged up the stairs, knowing he would be more useful if he could recover his own strength. Kairi awaited him in front of his bedroom door.
"How is she?" Kairi whispered. He noticed she carried a book. Kairi was always reading, and he'd found he could talk to her about the things that interested him far more easily than with anyone else in the family. He supposed it was because Kairi drank up new ideas the way some people drank water.
"Alas, Zunis is not doing well. I fear for her survival." They commiserated a moment in silence. "Mother is worn out and needs a rest herself."
"I know. She nursed Father, and now poor Zunis. I wish she would let me help."
"Can you talk?" Mantra asked, suddenly eager for a sympathetic ear. "I promise to keep my distance."
At Kairi's nod of assent, he placed a chair for her in his doorway, and sat on his bed. Regarding his sister, he decided he liked the way she had braided her hair. It hung down her back nearly to her waist, while wispy bangs shaded her brow. Her face was a petite version of his mother's.
"I can't talk to Mother about these things," he began. "She doesn't understand. I heard a lot of talk when I was away...talk about the Coalition, and about the legend. It is said the time is right."
Kairi leaned forward. "How so?"
"The blazing star appeared in the sky as it was foretold, a full moon cycle before the onslaught of the pestilence. You saw it, do you remember? Its dull, languid color and heavy, solemn motion were supposed to predict a horrible judgment. So it has come to pass. The plague is slow but severe, terrible and frightful. And it's not happening just here on Tendraa. It is all over the galaxy, on planets not only similar to ours but different as well. Don't you see?" His eyes burned with zeal. "Death and confusion will reign throughout the heavens. And then the Great Healer will appear."
Kairi gasped. "But it's just a legend."
"More than that," Mantra contradicted. "All that was predicted has come to pass: the Farg, the arguing factions within the Coalition, even the Morgots."
"The Morgots!" Her eyes widened with fear. "They are not in this sector, are they?" Mantra had told her about the warrior race from a distant solar system who had been attacking planets neutralized by the plague.
"The last I heard from Ravi, they were in the Quk system," Mantra said grimly.
"How long ago was that?"
"Six months past."
Their cousin Ravi was a renegade. He'd stowed away on a freighter to escape from Tendraa, then joined the Coalition Defense League. His prowess at flight school had earned him the prestigious position of first mate to Captain Teir Reylock. Mantra had secretly kept in touch with him, eager to hear the forbidden news from other worlds. But the spread of the pestilence had disrupted their communications.
"The Morgots could be anywhere by now," Kairi whispered.
"That is true. Ravi said the Coalition had their hands full just trying to deal with the plague. Their resources are limited. Even the ruling High Council is looking to the Great Healer for salvation."
"I wish I had such faith." Kairi's eyes filled with despair.
"Open your heart, Kairi. The prophecy will be fulfilled."
"But who is this savior? When will the Great Healer be revealed?"
"I don't know, sister." A paroxysm of coughing struck him, and as Mantra struggled for a painful breath, he gasped, "I only pray it will be soon."
"You want me to do what?" Captain Teir Reylock said, scowling. He stood facing his superior officer across the man's desk. Leaning forward, Teir clenched his fists. No way was he going on this worthless mission, he thought.
Admiral-in-Chief Daras Gog glared back at him, aware of Teir's doubts. If it weren't for Captain Reylock's excellent reputation, Gog would rake him over the hot fires of Alpha Gomaran Two for his insolence. But Reylock was the chief troubleshooter for the Coalition Defense League, and this mission demanded Gog recruit the best. He could overlook military protocol if Reylock listened and obeyed.
"You heard me," Admiral Gog said quietly, fixing a steely gaze on the captain. "You are to deliver the Earthwoman to the High Council for her marriage to Lord Cam'brii."
"Just like that?" Teir snorted. "The woman hasn't any notion of the legend. How am I supposed to get her to come? Should I tell her she's been identified as the wondrous Great Healer who will save the universe from destruction and despair?" He laughed, a harsh sound in the stillness of the office. "To her it will mean nothing."
"You'll manage." The admiral stood behind his desk and began pacing, his hands clasped behind his back. He was shorter than Teir, but with his military bearing and decorated uniform, he was nonetheless impressive.
"By the Suns, Earth isn't even a member of the Coalition," Teir said, his blue eyes stormy. He tucked his hands into his flight jacket pockets. "Considering how many years their civilization has existed, that doesn't say a whole lot for the planet."
Admiral Gog stopped and raised his eyebrows. "It is to your advantage that Earth is still in the primitive stages of development. Your small reconnaissance vessel can enter its orbit undetected."
"Reconnaissance vessel?" Teir said, his voice ominously low. "What about my own ship?"
"Your spacecraft is too large. The vessel you will be assigned is small and swift. It is better for eluding radar."
"The hell it is. I take my own ship or I don't go." Teir thrust his jaw out stubbornly.
"Captain Reylock," the Admiral thundered, losing patience. "Do you have any idea of the significance of this mission?"
Teir's gaze was defiant. "I don't believe in the legend of the Great Healer. You want me to do the job, I'll do it, but in my own way."
"By the moons of Agus Six, you'll obey orders! Do you want the plague that is devastating our galaxy to reach your home planet? Do you want the Morgots to enslave the few people who will survive?" He narrowed his eyes. "Worlds are falling one after the other, first to the plague, then to those accursed aggressors. The Great Healer is our only hope of stopping them both."
"An ignorant Earthwoman? Come on."
"All the signs point to her as being The One."
Teir saw the fervor burning in the admiral's eyes and wondered how this obviously intelligent man could believe in such mythological garbage.
"If anyone's going to save the galaxy, it's ourselves," Teir growled. "The diplomats in the High Council argue like a pack of borks. We're facing two major threats, and the ROF still calls for a vote to dissolve the Coalition. No wonder the Morgots are moving in. Dissension makes us ripe for takeover."
"That's why Sarina Bretton-the Earthwoman-is the key," the admiral told him. "With the recent problems facing the Coalition, membership in the Return to Origins Faction has swelled, and the High Council is hard pressed to focus its attention on external matters. If the Revelation occurs as predicted, the ROF's push for all species to return to their respective home worlds will be nullified. Coalition unity will be strengthened. That's why it's so important for us to retrieve the Earthwoman."
His eyes took on a heightened glow. "So far, the prophecy appears to be coming true. As it was foreseen, the harmony of the galaxy is disrupted by internal strife. Pestilence has struck us down. Hostile invaders are conquering our worlds. It's really happening, do you not see?"
"No, I don't." The only thing Teir saw was a religious fervor spreading throughout the galaxy, a sort of spiritual defense against odds stacked too high against them all. "But I realize the High Council won't try to solve its own problems until the legend is proved false," he concluded. "So I'll bring the woman."
"Good." It didn't really matter to Gog what Reylock believed as long as he did the job. "And you'll take the reconnaissance vessel."
Teir opened his mouth to protest, but at a quelling look from the admiral, he thought better of it. "Aye, sir." Snapping a crisp salute, Teir turned and left.
K'darr, chief of the Morgots, paced the bridge of the battlecruiser, Krog. The flagship of the Morgot fleet, the Krog had been named by K'darr himself. The word stood for demon in the language of his people. With his horned ears, ridged brow, and fiercely black coat of fine fur, K'darr appeared as the very Evil One himself, an image he liked. He wanted his enemies to quake at the sight of him.
"The Assimilation is going well, Your Eminence," said Grand Marshal Zen-Bos. He wasn't as tall as his leader, but since K'darr was over six foot seven inches in height, that wasn't unusual. Still, it made him feel awkward having to look up at K'darr, and Grand Marshal Zen-Bos didn't like feeling awkward about anything.
"Continue," K'darr barked. He stood with his hands inside the folds of his voluminous black robe, his one vanity being its trim of solid gold. He knew the robe made him look even more forbidding with his stiff posture and perpetual dark scowl.
Zen-Bos wished he could look into his leader's obsidian eyes without feeling a tremor of fear. But he'd heard too many stories about what happened to those who displeased his master not to feel a quivering in his gut. Still, he forced himself to meet K'darr's harsh gaze with a strong, determined one of his own.
"Two-thirds of the sentient planets are converted, Your Eminence. The satellite monitors are in place for the rest."
K'darr glared at him. "Then what are we waiting for? Set course for the Tendraan system."
What are we waiting for? The marshal swallowed. He'd thought K'darr was here for an inspection tour. His transport ship had arrived barely an hour ago. "Sir?" he queried apprehensively. A trickle of sweat itched beneath his light coat of golden fur, and he resisted the impulse to scratch it.
K'darr's mouth tightened. "I'll be coming along. Planet Tendraa is rich in flavium. If we secure the mineral's source, our new superweapon can go into production."
Zen-Bos nodded. He'd heard about the tectonic missile under development at the heavily fortified research center on Morgot. If the weapon could be implemented, their superiority over the Coalition alliance would be assured.
"A brilliant conception, Your Eminence. You may use my quarters for the duration of your stay."
K'darr's opaque eyes brightened. "I've already had my things moved in. You must come and view my plants."
The marshal shuddered. "I'll look forward to seeing them," was his careful reply.
He'd heard about K'darr's plants. The leader's collection traveled with him wherever he went. It consisted of the most exotic specimens from the planets they'd conquered--souvenirs, in their own way.
K'darr's favorites were said to be the vicious man-eating thrum from Antiguas Two, and the thorny swinging fodus vine from Souk. Zen-Bos remembered the report of the last warrior who had viewed the leader's collection. He'd annoyed K'darr by disobeying a direct order, and when he didn't show up for duty the next morning, a lieutenant had gone to check on him. K'darr had grinned and pointed to the pieces of fur and skin scattered about the thrum plant.
Zen-Bos gave the order for the change in course toward the Tendraan system. "Will there be anything else you require, Your Eminence?" he asked in a deferential tone.
K'darr nodded. "There is one more thing."
Zen-Bos held his breath. "Sir?"
K'darr drew Zen-Bos into a corner and lowered his voice. "The legend of the Great Healer--" Zen-Bos's face paled "--I understand the time has come for the Revelation."
Zen-Bos swallowed hard. "I have heard rumors to that effect, Your Eminence."
"They are more than rumors," K'darr roared. Everyone on the bridge turned to look at him but just as quickly averted their eyes. "Intelligence reports that the Coalition has identified the one they call the Great Healer," he continued evenly. "It is an Earthling female known as Sarina Bretton. If there is any truth in the legend, she could pose a threat to the fleet. Teir Reylock has been assigned the duty of retrieving her."
"Reylock!" Zen-Bos had heard of the man's reputation. He itched for the opportunity to confront the meddlesome troublemaker. Eagerly, he watched his superior's face.
"I want you to contact Cerrus Bdan," K'darr ordered. "The smuggler has an old score to settle with Captain Reylock. He should enjoy this challenge. Tell Bdan we'll pay him well if he delivers the Earthwoman to us. He can take care of Reylock himself."
A slow grin spread over Zen-Bos's face. It made sense to let someone else do the dirty work for them. This way, no one would suspect the Morgots were involved. "I will send the message at once, Your Eminence."
"Good." K'darr swung around, his robe swishing at his feet. "No one must interfere with our Supreme Plan," he muttered on his way to the turbolift. "No one." His eyes blackened into two chunks of coal, and anyone in his path moved swiftly out of the way.