Lords of Freedom is an exciting new novel including adventure, realistic action, surprising insights, and a touch of romance. Enjoy a new chapter every week. Prior chapters can be found here.
Lords of Freedom—Chapter 4—Hall of Truth
After stepping through the shimmering stone Juel’s eyes strained to take in his new surroundings. He walked down a slight incline to the edge of an underground lake, followed by the cat. Luminous water dimly lit the cavern revealing a small ship next to a stone pier. With no more guidance from the dream he was not sure what to do next. He could see no way to walk around the lake. His only options were to turn back or use the ship which was easily twenty feet long and well built, complete with a rudder and sail.
He was not interested in turning back. As he stepped onto the ship, it wobbled slightly but the boards under his feet felt solid. Looking at the ship warily the cat hesitated.
“It’s all right,” Juel reassured.
Not long after fearing her so much, he now encouraged her. That sort of irony would have pleased Solomon no end; he’d have smacked his knee with one hand, shaking his head. Then he’d have clapped Juel’s shoulder, as they laughed together. On the pier, the cat paced back and forth, lashing her tail; clearly she was wary.
He grinned. “Come on.”
She hesitated only a moment and crouched low with flattened ears before springing lightly in beside him. The boat rocked just a bit; it was sturdy and streamlined, absorbing and displacing shifts of weight nicely, which promised a smooth, seaworthy sail. The cat, however, hunkered down near the railing. With a smile, Juel moved to the back bench and took hold of the rudder. At once the sails filled and the boat began a lazy clockwise spin.
He reasoned that since there was a body of water with a boat floating conveniently in it, he was meant to cross the water to the far shore. He scanned the shore and thought he saw a very faint glimmer. Since that was the best he had to go on, he started steering a straight course toward that spot on the far shore, while the cat, at full alert, continued crouching near the bow. Even in the low glimmering light, Juel noticed that the water was teaming with fish, scooting about in schools.
They were roughly halfway across the lake when a current in the water rocked the boat and looking over the edge, Juel saw the fish scattering away in panicked droves. The cat growled, gazing through the railing, at a churning ripple in the water, circling them. Juel stood from the bench, snatched up his spear, and moved to the middle of the ship as the sail fell limp.
The ripple vanished momentarily and then a shape emerged from the depths, propelling itself through the air, maw gaping to reveal razor teeth. It was a snake more than half as long as the ship with the breadth of a small tree. Its scales were a glistening black tinged with gold, reminiscent of the mountain snakes only with two small horns above its slit eyes, which were focused on Juel as it arched over the railing.
Before its sharp teeth reached the end of his spear there was a flying blur of black. The cat’s teeth crunched just behind the serpent’s head, and they both crashed onto the deck. In a flash, Juel stepped forward and drove his spear down through the top of the snake’s head, right in front of the cat’s deadly grip.
Eyes wide, Juel grinned. “Let’s always fight on the same side.”
A purring growl was the cat’s reply.
He took a seat on the back bench again and grasped the rudder as the sail filled, triggered by his weight on the bench, it seemed. The boat continued across the lake, bound, he now saw, for another white rock wall. As they drew near, he saw a metal door in this one, along with a pier identical to the one they’d just left. Angling the boat in alongside it, Juel released the rudder, stood from the bench, and stepped out of the boat. As the cat sprang onto the pier beside him, he tied the boat down with a rope on the pier. Then he smiled and walked down the pier and over to the metal door.
When he drew close enough to knock, the door swung open of its own accord. The cat swished past him with a soft yowl and he followed in her wake, into a long corridor filled with more tiny stars. There was a bright light ahead, so Juel headed toward it; the cat bounded on ahead and disappeared into the light. Juel took up a jog himself and soon passed through the light and found himself in a magnificent chamber.
The marble floor was a deep blue cut with golden veins; there were several large ferns in hand-painted pots, and a plush velvet couch nestled in the far corner. A large stained glass window took up the back wall, casting rainbow-colored beams through the room. In the center of the chamber two white marble pillars flanked a dais on which stood two lavish, ornately crafted chairs.
Juel, frozen in place, sucked in a breath. Two beings were seated on the throne as though king and queen, regarding him solemnly. The king had strong chiseled features, dark hair that fell in curls to his neck and brown eyes full of wisdom. The queen’s features were softer but well-defined: high cheekbones a rounded chin, a perfect nose and flawless skin. Her hair was raven black and gathered high, spilling over her shoulders in natural waves. Her eyes, also brown, sparkled with intellect and wit.
Awestruck by the godlike figures, he shifted his weight from one foot to the other, feeling intimidated and embarrassed. The cat moved regally forward and sat down before them and bowed her head. The king smiled and said, “We sent the dragon in your dream to summon you; you’ve done very well. You’re wondering why you are here and what we want of you.”
Stunned, Juel stammered, “You can know my thoughts?”
“To a degree, but let us proceed to answer your questions. We desire to grant you great and precious gifts to assist in claiming your royal destiny. You have a great purpose before you that will change the course of history and better the lives of generations. These gifts on their own will not guarantee that. If they are used selfishly, for material gain, or worldly praise, it might shift the tide of history in the other direction.
“To this end, you must be tested, to prove the purity of your heart and your willingness to embark on this sacred quest. If you decline to receive the test, or if you fail, you will be returned to your former life with no memory of the dragon dream or anything that has happened since. State your intent now: do you wish to withdraw from this summons or do you desire to proceed and take the test?”
Juel swallowed hard. Why am I here and who are these great beings? I’m not even sure this is real and if it is real maybe I should retreat. Then a profound thought occurred: What do I have to lose? Worst case I go back to what I was before. Best case my future could be wonderful.
He nodded and sank to one knee. “I’m honored by your summons and would like to proceed with the test.”
Pleased, the two beings clasped hands and exchanged a smile; then the king gestured to the queen and said, “My beloved companion, will administer the test. She is acting in the office of the ancient goddess known as Ma’at, Queen of Truth, Harmony, Morality, and Justice. Her full identity actually exceeds Ma’at but for now we’ll refer to her by that name.”
Rising slowly to her feet Ma’at beckoned to him, moving to the far end of the room near a tall circular table on which was a golden Scale of Justice with two balancing trays. Turning to Juel, she placed a finger on his forehead, traced it down to his heart then across his chest and back up to his forehead. When she pulled her hand back she held a crystal pyramid.
“This represents your mind, heart, and soul, drawn from your very being just now.” She placed it on one of the trays and at once the scale tipped out of balance.
She then drew the feather from her crown saying, “This feather represents Truth.” When she set the feather on the other tray, the scale tipped smoothly back into balance.
“I will ask you seven questions,” she intoned in a melodious voice, “You are to give the shortest answer possible. If what you say is true and your intentions are pure the scale will stay in balance. If not, the scale will tip and you will fail the test.”
Juel nodded gravely and the first question came. “Are you a murderer?”
Right off he hesitated, but only for half a breath, as the night he’d fled Merker came to mind. “No, but I have killed in self-defense.”
“That is not murder,” the queen assured him, as the scale remained in balance.
“Have you violated virtue by force or abused children?” the next question came.
“No,” he replied.
“Are you willing to seek, follow, and speak the truth?”
“Are you willing to honor and protect the freedom of others?”
“Are you willing to honor and protect the property and labor of others?”
“Are you willing to help others achieve their full potential?”
“Are you willing to fight and die for a worthy cause?”
The scale remained in balance and Ma’at smiled. “You have passed this test in the Hall of Truth.”
She then deferred to the king, who said, “I am acting in the office of the ancient god Thoth, King of Knowledge, Measurement, Balance, and Justice.”
Thoth reached for a large mallet. To one side of his chair hung a circular gong Juel hadn’t noticed before. It was also made of gold with inlaid precious stones. Thoth swung the mallet, and a resounding tenor boom echoed around them.
A powerful looking, armor-clad woman entered the chamber. She was tall with long sun bleached hair plaited back from her face. Her wrists were adorned with silver bands and she carried a sword, belted at her waist.
Striding forth, she stopped before Thoth as he said, “I now present you to the one who occupies the office of the ancient lion goddess Sekhmet, queen of Fire, War, Healing, and Protection.”
Sekhmet turned to face Juel. “You are the long-awaited champion?”
Juel quickly inclined his head, “I am … I guess.”
“Know this, future champion: you will be trained and armed by the gods. Further, you will never fight alone.”
Circling Sekhmet affectionately, the cat purred as the woman reached out and stroked her head.
Looking into the cat’s eyes she said, “You have proven yourself to be willing and able to bond with, protect, and assist our new champion. As queen of War and Protection, I now appoint the two of you to be a battle team.”
In that moment, the cat trained her amber eyes on Juel’s, and a voice spoke in his mind: “I am a black tiger and my name is Sheba.”
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