Ava had reached the safety of the rendezvous hours before but there was still no sign of Zan. Chanya and her handmaiden had arrived not long after Ava had gotten there, and Rath with his compliment of troops had reached them in the afternoon. Others arrived throughout the day and each time Ava ran to see who the newcomers were, but each time she was disappointed. Now it was well after dark and Zan had still not come.
Ava had tried connecting with him several times but all she had encountered was darkness. She did not know if it was because the distance between was too great or because something had happened to Zan but with each passing moment, she became more frightened.
With the King missing, Rath was technically in charge but he tried to lessen the blow of Zan's absence by deferring to Nedra and Ava. Everyone agreed that after the day's disastrous events, they should wait until the morning to act.
Ava retired to her room, alone for the first time since her marriage. She attempted once more, before she climbed into bed, to connect with Zan but she received no reply. Reluctantly she got into bed and tried without success to sleep, tossing and turning, but she had a terrible feeling Zan was in trouble and needed her help. She quickly dressed and sneaked out of her quarters and past the guards, leaving the safety of the camp.
A compulsion drew her to the north and she slipped into the forest, heading in that direction. Picking her way silently through the foliage, again Ava tried to connect with Zan, but again she was unsuccessful. As she walked deeper into the trees, her anxiety level grew with each step. She hadn't let herself consider it before, but something must be seriously wrong with Zan. Either he was terribly injured or he was blocking their connection for another reason. Maybe he had been captured and he didn't want her to know what was happening to him. Maybe he was being tortured, maybe they were killing him.
Tears started to roll down her face and she stubbornly wiped them away. Falling apart wouldn't help Zan, Ava chastened herself, she had to be strong. She knew Zan was still alive, she could feel it, and as long as he was alive there was a chance she could save him. But an increased sense of urgency struck her and she hurried onward.
She had been walking for almost an hour, heading deeper and deeper into the woods, when suddenly she noticed that all the sounds of the wildlife had ceased. She stopped and looked around, her eyes darting from place to place in the dark, but focusing on nothing.
Finally in the distance she saw the movement of a solitary figure coming toward her, and she quickly slipped behind some brush to avoid discovery. The figure was unsteady on its feet, lurching from tree to tree, and after a few more steps collapsed heavily onto the leaf-covered ground.
Ava advanced toward the fallen figure as silently as she could and when she had covered half of the distance between them, she suddenly recognized her beloved. She ran to Zan and fell to her knees before him, desperately checking for signs of life and relaxing a little when she had proof that he still lived. But the terrible wound on Zan's head was far beyond her meager healing capabilities and made her frantic to get him back to camp and the healer.
The camp was over an hour away but she didn't dare leave Zan and return for help, she had a feeling he would not survive if she did. But she had to save him. Zan meant everything to her and even though she had foreseen their deaths, she wasn't ready to let go of him yet. She would have to take Zan back to the camp herself.
Ava gathered him in her arms, used her powers to help lift his weight and headed back as quickly as she could. It was slow going, as she carefully picked her way among the foliage, and the distance seemed longer than she remembered. Zan was a heavy burden, even with the small help her powers afforded and her knees threatened to collapse with each step she took, but she refused to let them. She was the only thing that stood between Zan and death, and she would fight until she had used every resource at her disposal.
After what seemed like and eternity, her muscles trembling with the strain, Ava finally reached an area she recognized as the edge of the camp. She called out for help as she continued, and with a few more steps she spied the healer's quarters. Even as she heard the others approaching, she pushed her exhausted body the last few steps, not letting herself collapse until Zan was taken from her arms. Then she fell into the arms of one of the guards, unconscious, exhausted physically and mentally from the over-use of her powers.
Zan awoke to find his mother sitting beside him in the makeshift infirmary. "Where is Ava? Is she safe?" he asked frantically.
"She is safe," his mother replied. "She saved your life. Do you remember?"
Zan shook his head, willing the memories to come. "I was trapped in a corridor leading under the palace wall. It collapsed and I was knocked unconscious. When I came to, I stated digging my way out. Using my powers caused my head to ache horribly and I had to dig out with my bare hands."
He held up his hands noticing that the abrasions were now healed. "I remember going into the woods and walking toward the rendezvous point but I was so tired and each step seemed to take all of my strength," he shook his head. "After that I remember nothing."
"Ava tried to contact you several times but she was unable to. And that evening she sensed you needed help and went into the woods to look for you. The healers say you wouldn't have survived much longer. But Ava found you and carried you back to the camp. She was so exhausted that she was unconscious for two days."
"She carried me," he said incredulously. "But she is alright now."
"Yes. The healer has ordered bed rest for her for today but she will be fine."
"How severe are my injuries?" Zan asked.
"The healers said your head injury damaged the part of your brain that gives us our powers but they were able to repair it successfully. You should be at full strength in a matter of days."
"I want to see Ava," Zan said as he started to get out of bed. He felt stiff from head to toe but he was determined to get to his wife. "Where is she?"
"Zan," his mother said coming forward, "let me help you. You are still weak. Ava is in your quarters."
He leaned on his mother and allowed her take part of his weight. "How long have I been unconscious?"
"You were out for three days."
"What has been happening in that time?"
"Rath has been leading covert strikes against the enemy forces. They have been very successful at taking Khivar's men by surprise."
"Is Rath in the camp now?"
"Yes, he has been leading the strikes at night."
"After I have seen Ava I want to have a meeting with you and Rath for a full briefing. Please let him know it will be directly after lunch in my quarters."
Ava was asleep when he entered the room and Zan quietly moved to sit on the edge of the bed. He trusted the healer completely but he wanted to make sure for himself that she was well. He used his powers to check her for injuries and was relieved to find none. But he could feel the stiffness in her muscles and he gently eased it away.
He traced her face with his hand and carefully opened their connection. She was having a nightmare about leaving him in the palace. She felt tremendous guilt and he sent soothing thoughts and his love to her across their bond. He had been so worried about her when Khivar had invaded the palace and he knew he had done the right thing in making her promise to leave him. He was just sorry she was suffering because of his decision.
Zan tightened the bond and brought her out of her dream and into wakefulness.
For a moment Ava looked at him, trying to separate dream from reality, and then she threw her arms around him. "Zan, you are alright."
"Yes," he said as he returned her embrace. "I hear I have you to thank for that."
"I was not ready for you to leave me yet," Ava sighed.
Zan smiled, "I cannot believe you carried me here."
"It was not easy," she admitted, "but I couldn't risk leaving you there."
He spoke across their bond, Have I told you today how much I love you?
, she replied in the same manner.
I love you more than life itself.
He stroked her velvet cheek, I am sorry the promise I forced from you is causing you guilt.
How did you know?
I can feel it through the connection.
Ava continued as she cupped his cheek in her hand, I could see you on the monitors at the palace and I wanted to help you so desperately, but there was nothing I could do and not break my promise to you. I love you so much but how could I just leave you?
I am sorry,
Zan said, but knowing you were safe allowed me to do what I needed to do.
Please don't make me leave you again,
Ava begged him.
I hope it won't come to that,
he said, taking her in his arms. I don't think I could bear it.
After the briefing, Nedra returned to her quarters and found Chanya waiting for her. In the past few days the girl had been of great comfort to her in helping her deal with the loss of her daughter, temporary though it may be.
"Chanya, thank you for your support over these last few days. First we lost Vilondra and then we didn't know if Zan was alive, but you were always hopeful and never gave up the belief that he was alive."
"Somehow I knew he was still with us," Chanya said with a smile.
"You are very loyal to our family and Zan thought you might be of help to me in a project I am working on."
Chanya listened in fascination as Nedra explained the plan to send the Royal Four to a planet in another system that she had never heard of. "I am amazed,” she gasped, when Nedra finished. “I didn't know technology had advanced so far."
"It is a new process that was only developed a few months ago. We are lucky to have it or Vilondra would truly be lost to us."
"I would be interested in seeing the lab," Chanya said.
"I am leaving for the lab this evening and I was hoping you would accompany me," Nedra admitted.
Chanya smiled. "I am honored that you have entrusted me with this, your Highness."
Chanya returned to her room and related everything she had learned to Udac.
"Zan believes that Khivar will surely kill him but I heard Khivar himself tell Zan in the palace that he needed him alive."
"Is it possible Khivar knew of your presence, beloved?" asked Udac.
Chanya shrugged, "I don't know. Khivar is very powerful and I was using a lot of energy to maintain the illusion.
"I think for now, you should keep this information about the lab to yourself. It could be valuable to you at another time."
Chanya nodded. "The Queen and I are traveling to the lab later. I want you to follow us and learn all that you can."
"Of course," Udac agreed.
Chanya reached for her necklace. "And now I must report tonight's raiding schedule to Khivar."
No matter where Rath turned there were troops in Khivar's livery. He had led his men into a trap and he didn’t think there would be an escape tonight. Rath used his powers until he was exhausted, but still the enemy soldiers kept coming. Picking up a blaster from a fallen man, Rath tried to clear a path through the army surrounding him, but there were too many and soon the weapon clicked empty.
Then Rath fought with his bare hands, using all of his combat training, knowing he had failed his King and Queen. His only consolation was that he would have another chance when he was cloned. Khivar's soldiers took his men easily but Rath fought capture with everything he had left, hoping they would kill him before the information could be taken from his mind, but he was finally subdued. The soldiers did not kill him as he wished but held him until General Nicaron appeared.
"General Varros," Nicaron greeted him with a smile. "What a pleasure it is to finally meet, on this the eve of your death."
"Just get on with it," Rath taunted.
"No," Nicaron declined, "I think I will have a look around in that mind of yours first."
Rath knew he could not possibly hope to hold off Nicaron's mind probe. He launched himself at the nearest soldier, grabbed his blaster and took a shot at Nicaron's head. The shot was wide but Nicaron reacted immediately, sending a searing blast of energy through his chest. Rath looked down at the charred flesh and smiled as he slumped to the ground, satisfied he was taking his secrets with him to the grave.
Udac returned to Chanya's chamber late that evening and found Chanya eager for her news.
"What did you discover?"
Udac sat on the edge of her mistress' bed to tell her tale. "I heard everything you discussed with the Queen about how the cloning worked. I discovered that they are preparing memory retrieval devices and a book written in the royal code as a back up. There is also a message that the Queen recorded herself to be stored on the communication orbs."
"Interesting but hardly useful," Chanya said dismissively. "I convinced Nedra to give me a set of harvesting devices, in case I am in a position to collect the essence from one of the unfortunates. So even if Khivar does betray us I will see Zan is reborn."
Rath's body was returned to the camp by the surviving troops and Zan had his essence collected and sent with Kaldar and Nedra to the lab. He asked his mother to stay and oversee the project but he suspected she knew the real reason; he wanted to make sure she was safe. Kaldar, Rath’s protector, had volunteered to escort the dowager Queen and his master's essence when they had told him of the project.
Zan stood at the head of his friend's makeshift grave. Rath deserved a more formal burial than they could give him but it wasn't possible at the present. He took Ava's hand and spoke in her mind. Ava, I don't know what to do. Rath was the expert in military tactics. I am just an administrator.
Don't sell yourself short,
she answered him. You studied military tactics in school and you have observed Rath in action. You are also an expert in history, perhaps there is something in the past that will guide you.
Zan pulled her into a tight embrace and sighed. You are right. I am just starting to despair.
He kissed her on the top of her head. You bring out the best part of me. What would I do without you?
Zan called a meeting of the troop commanders that evening. "In honor of General Varros we will forgo tonight's raid, but tomorrow we will resume the strikes. I have appointed General Toaks my second in command." He turned to the newly appointed General, "Please continue General."
Chanya listened in the back of the room, unnoticed by its occupants. Khivar had ordered her to get the plans for the next round of strikes and the current location of the camp. He had never asked her for the camp location before and she suspected that the end was near. Khivar had confirmed her suspicious, promising her that within the next few days Ava would be dead.
But with the new cloning technology, Chanya knew death would not necessarily get rid of her permanently. She had to make sure when Ava was killed, her essence was permanently destroyed.
(The King's Council room at the Palace)
Khivar listened to the message from Chanya a second time, with growing interest.
Khivar, I have the information you requested but I want to make an additional bargain with you. I must be present during Ava's death to make sure she is really gone. Promise me this and I will give you what you ask.
The little fool Chanya was turning out to be quite a bloodthirsty creature, Khivar thought to himself. Yes, he would allow her to be present at Ava's death, it would be a simple matter.
He sent his affirmative reply and immediately received the data he requested. He gave the information to Nicaron who plotted it onto the map as Khivar revealed his plan. "They are all staying in camp tonight to mourn Rath, but tomorrow evening most of Zan's men will leave camp for the strikes against our troops. Leave small groups of men at the locations Zan's troops will attack, but the main body of our forces will take the camp. I want all of them alive," he warned. "Brief your men that no 'accidents' will be accepted. If anyone is killed, it will be their death warrant as well."
Sodan returned from his reconnaissance to find the camp in shambles and all of the occupants gone. He searched frantically for any trace of his King and master but it was futile. He suspected Khivar had captured them, and he turned in the direction of the capitol and the palace, knowing it was where Khivar would take them. It was a two-day journey on foot and he started out at a rapid but steady pace, hoping he would be able to reach them before it was too late.
Two days later, Zan was still amazed at how easily the camp had fallen. He had heard several orders for everyone to be taken alive but he didn’t know the fate of anyone other than himself and Ava, who was imprisoned with him in one of the palace's unused gaols. He suspected his troops had been led into another trap and mourned their loss. Sodan had been sent to gather information on the enemy troops and Zan feared he was dead as well. His one consolation was that his mother was safe.
In the time he and Ava had been in the cell, they had seen no one except a single guard who brought them food, and Zan suspected Khivar was only keeping them alive until he brought the Council under control. Afterward they would be of no use to him. Zan knew that Khivar would have to kill him as the only remaining Tageonant heir, but perhaps he could persuade him to spare Ava.
Their tissue harvesting devices had been taken from them and it seemed as if their back-up plan was doomed to fail. He would do anything in his power to save his beloved wife, even if it meant sacrificing everything, even his life, and perhaps if she lived, she could devise a way to bring them all back.
He looked lovingly at Ava's sleeping form, tracing the planes of her face with his eyes. He regretted ever bringing her into his world. If he hadn't she would be safe at her father's house and not facing a death sentence, but he had gained so much in having her by his side. She had given him support and love, and he knew without her he never would have found the strength to get this far. She made him want to be a better man.
Zan walked to the wall and looked out the small window above his head. As usual his eyes were drawn to the place in the heavens where the red sun had been. None of the star's remains were visible but it was almost as if he could sense its lingering presence. The sun had been in its last years of life, and even though it had not directly threatened their system, Zan's grandfather had considered its erratic behavior to be too dangerous to risk. They had used precisely aimed probes to create chemical reactions to quickly consume the remaining elements, and the sun had been extinguished safely, years early.
Zan had not even been born when the awesome energy that had once been a sun had dissipated into the surrounding space, but for some reason he had always been haunted by its passing. It was a constant reminder of the fragility of life, the transient nature of all things, that even something burning so bright could just burn out.
Zan felt a shiver of dread run through him that chilled him to the core of his soul. He knew with certainty he and Ava would not survive, but he made a wish on the star that was no longer there; if they could not be together in life, then let them be together after death.
Khivar strode down the hall with General Nicaron and Major Grester. The day he had waited for was finally here and in just a few moments he would secure the throne. He smiled as he entered the cell that held the boy King and his child bride. Very soon he would have everything he wanted.
"Zan," Khivar said commandingly, "you will bow before me as your new King."
"I will never bow before a traitor," Zan growled.
"You should not anger me," Khivar said quietly, "you do not know the extent of my wrath."
Zan quickly glanced at Ava. "I will bow to you if you give me your oath that you will spare Ava."
"No Zan," Ava said, taking his face in her hands and forcing him to look at her. "Do not debase yourself for my sake. I would rather die at your side."
"I could not give you my oath anyway," Khivar admitted. "I have already struck a bargain with the traitor in your midst for the life of the Queen. Both of your lives are forfeit. After all," he said glancing at Ava, "I could not take the chance that the young Queen is carrying your heir."
"Who is our betrayer?" Zan demanded.
Khivar laughed. "The serpent in your bosom is one of your most trusted, most beloved. She traded her soul for your life Zan, and the Queen's death, but she was a fool to believe I would honor the bargain."
"The name, Khivar," Zan commanded.
"Chanya," he said simply. "It seems she was in love with you the whole time, but when you cast her aside for Ava she accepted my offer of an alliance."
Shocked, Zan turned to look at Ava and spoke in her mind. Chanya knows of the cloning project. She will tell Khivar and we are all truly lost.
Khivar laughed at the stricken look on their faces.
Zan pulled Ava into an embrace, gently touching his head to hers and speaking across their bond. Ava my love, I am sorry I have led you to this end.
Ava wrapped her arms around him and poured her love into their bond. Zan I don't have any regrets. I only wish our time together had been longer.
Khivar motioned to Nicaron and Grester and they raised their hands to fire.
I love you Ava, with everything I am, my heart and soul. We have been one, soul mates since we met, and the bond between us has only grown stronger, deeper. I believe we will be together in the next life, whatever and where ever it may be. The bonds that unite us cannot be severed, we will always be together.
Zan my love, if needed, my soul will search the stars for yours. Our love is destined, eternal, and nothing can keep us apart.
They were so engrossed in one another that neither saw the blasts of energy that ended their lives.
Chanya paced from one end of the room to the other, awaiting Khivar's return. He had been at the Council all morning negotiating the governmental transition and she was eager for him to return and keep his promise to her.
"My child," Udac soothed, "be still. It will all be accomplished presently."
At that moment Khivar strode into the room with a satisfied smile. "Lady Chanya it is done."
"Ava is dead?"
"Yes. Now allow me to escort you to Zan."
They walked down the musty stairs hewn from stone, into the gaol, and Chanya's apprehension grew with every step. Khivar stopped at the door to one of the cells, pushed it open and roughly shoved Chanya inside. "Here is your beloved," he mocked.
Chanya looked at the two bodies embracing each other even in death, with a sense of unreality. For a moment she could not believe Zan was really dead, but as the knowledge penetrated her stunned mind she felt a rage like she had never before experienced. A scream of fury rose up from within her and she charged Khivar, who easily slapped her aside. She fell roughly to the ground beside Zan, and tears of frustration streamed down her cheeks. "You killed him."
"Of course. I could not allow the one remaining Tageonant heir to live."
"I will kill you for this!" Chanya screamed.
Khivar laughed. "That I very much doubt, but," he paused to draw a dagger from its sheath, "you may join your King in death, if you wish. Perhaps you will be buried with them in the public ceremony tomorrow." He threw the dagger on the floor beside her and arrogantly strode from the room, the sound of his laughter echoing down the corridor.
Chanya collapsed into tears and Udac ran to her side and gathered her mistress in her arms. "My poor Chanya" she said, gently rocking the sobbing form.
Chanya reached out to trace Zan's brow with her hand, she had been so close yet so far. She glanced at Ava's limp form and an idea started to take shape in her mind. She sat up and wiped the tears from her face. "Udac I will be with Zan." She took the tissue harvesting devices from a concealed pouch in her gown and used one on Zan.
"What is your plan?" Udac asked.
"You must kill me and use this device to collect my brain tissue,” Chanya said. “Then you will take them to the lab. Tell the Queen it is Zan and Ava's samples and she will send me to the planet as Zan's wife."
"But the memory retrieval devices," Udac reminded her. "When Zan regains his memory, he might discover you are not Ava."
"Then you must destroy them and erase the message on the orbs," Chanya said. "Then if Zan ever does remember, we will already be inseparably bonded."
"You will not remember your true self either, Chanya," Udac reminded her.
"I know," Chanya said stoically. "Everyone including myself will think I am Ava."
"But beloved," Udac protested, "I cannot kill you. I am your protector."
Chanya reached for the dagger on the ground. "Then I will do it myself." She raised the dagger and quickly plunged it into her heart.
Udac held Chanya's body gently as if she would wake her from sleep and used the harvesting device to collect her essence. She took the necklace from around Chanya's neck to dispose of, so no one would suspect her of collusion with Khivar. Then she smoothed the long, golden hair out of her mistress' face and laid her next to the man she loved.
Sodan arrived at a camouflaged entrance to the palace just after dark. He raised a hand to activate the locking device but the door cracked open and he quickly threw himself aside to avoid discovery.
A lone figure emerged from the passageway and looked around as if to ascertain the correct direction.
The figure changed form before him and he immediately recognized her. She was Lady Chanya's handmaid, Udac.
He stepped forward to make his presence known. "Udac."
She whirled toward him and he knocked aside her outstretched hand just before she fired. He held her tightly but saw recognition cross her features and released his grip as she spoke. "Sodan, I thought you were dead."
He smiled, "I thought the same of you. What are you doing here?"
"When the camp was taken we were all brought here. Khivar has killed the King and Queen and my mistress." She held up the harvesting devices. "But before she died, my mistress was able to collect the essence of the King and Queen."
"Then there is still hope for the future,” Sodan said softly. “We must get this to the lab as quickly as possible."
The next day, Duke Khivar Roistar presided at the state funeral for the King and Queen. They were buried in the Tageonant crypt alongside Vilondra. Khivar stayed at the grave of his beloved all afternoon mourning her loss, and that evening in a large, spectacular ceremony he was crowned King.
The next evening, Udac and Sodan arrived at the lab and the final preparations were made to send the transport to Earth. Udac completed her mistress' final wish by permanently disabling the memory retrieval devices and erasing the message on the orbs.
Sodan and Kaldar had eagerly volunteered to be sent with their fallen masters. Both were experts in hand-to-hand and weapons combat and Sodan was also a pilot. Two other shape shifters had also been chosen for the mission; Letras, Zan's former tutor and an expert in history, philosophy and military tactics, and Cuerena a scientist and Granolith specialist.
The Granolith and the two sets of pods, the real ones and the decoys, were carefully loaded onto the transport along with the communication orbs, memory retrieval devices, healing stones and the book written in the royal code. Queen Nedra gave the travelers final instructions and said her last good-byes to her children.
Udac wanted to volunteer to go as well, but she was afraid that her request would raise too many questions, so she remained silent. Instead she used her powers to fuse the inner workings of Chanya's transmitter necklace, removed the pendant from around her neck and turned with it to Sodan. "Here is a symbol of our planet, wear it proudly and bring them back to us."
Khivar was woken early by General Nicaron. "Your Majesty, the air command has reported sighting an uncleared transport leaving the atmosphere."
"Why didn't they shoot it down?" Khivar asked groggily.
"It was too far out of range," Nicaron explained. "It launched from an area we had thought deserted."
Khivar's attention focused immediately. "Were they able to trace its origin?"
"Yes and there are troops on the way even as we speak."
Nicaron struck Jensto once again, knocking him to the floor.
"Please," Jensto begged as he huddled on the opulent carpet, "I cannot tell you what I don't know."
Khivar spoke up, "General this is getting us nowhere. Use your powers to pry the information out of his mind."
Jensto tried to crawl away from Nicaron, but at a gesture from their commander, soldiers grabbed him on either side and held him tightly. Nicaron placed his hand on the scientist's head, and after a moment a surprised look crossed his features. He turned to Khivar, "Your Majesty, it seems that the scientist here is a specialist in cloning and has recently discovered a new technique that allows for the transfer of memories into a clone."
Khivar stood up. "Vilondra, we can bring her back."
"I am sorry your Majesty but she has been dead too long for the transfer to work. It must be done within a couple of days apparently. But the good scientist here, working with Zan, Ava and Nedra have already done it for us."
"They have cloned Vilondra?"
"Yes and General Varros, Zan and Ava. Apparently they had a back-up plan in case things went against them. They were cloned and sent to a planet they thought would be out of our reach, to prepare to take back Antar."
"How clever of them," Khivar sneered. "Which planet?"
"I have never heard of it,” Nicaron shrugged. “It is called Erth."
"Erth?" Khivar asked. "Where is this planet?"
Nicaron indicated the scientist huddling on the floor. "He does not know, but Sir, there is a more urgent issue. The Granolith."
"What about it," Khivar asked dismissively.
"It was sent to Erth with Zan."
A transport loaded with two hundred of Khivar's most loyal followers, led by General Nicaron, prepared for departure. Their orders were to eliminate Zan, Rath and Ava by any means possible, and bring Vilondra back to Antar.
And a secret directive was given to General Nicaron - retrieve the Granolith.
The End of Book 11