It took a full sixteen days of sailing before the Freedom reached the coordinates that Kabi had given. Sixteen days of sailing through seas that were calmer than anything Lucia had ever encountered before. She prayed that this was not the calm before the storm, that their uneventful journey was not a curse aimed at their intended destination. As the Freedom slowed engines, approaching Kabi's coordinates, Major Ulsa'hi was almost spitting with frustration. Looking at the radar screen, Lucia could see why. There was nothing there. No land mass, no vessels, simply nothing.
“There isn't even an ambush here!” Ulsa’hi shouted.
“Be patient, young one,” said Kabi, slightly patronisingly. “You will see nothing on your radar, since this whole area is covered with digital camouflage. Turn on visual search and proceed forward with care,” he said to the ship's navigator. “Slow ahead—the waters here are loaded with mines. The only route in is the one we're taking.” He was quiet for a moment. “Unless, of course, they've changed it,” he added thoughtfully.
Fantastic, thought Lucia. Not much she could do about it now, though. “Follow Commander Kabi's orders,” she told the navigator.
It was late morning, and the first sun was high in the sky, sparkling off the water. There was nothing to be seen except for the endless expanse of ocean and a thin veil of morning mist that had yet to be burnt off by the sun. The crew waited patiently as the Freedom proceeded at the slowest possible speed until Kabi shouted.
“There,” he said, pointing at a small dot that had appeared on the visual search monitor. “That,” he explained, “is the cloaking mechanism, where the digital camouflage originates from. We should be fairly safe from this point in. Unless there are enemy patrols, but I really don't think there will be.”
“And why not?” asked Major Ulsa'hi, his beetle-like eyebrows frowning in suspicion.
“Because if any vessel does show up, the mines destroy them before they can get anywhere even close to where we are now,” Kabi said equably, not offended by the officer's suspicion. “The only way to the island is by the route that we're currently taking. It's not worth their while to patrol for unwanted visitors. Unwanted visitors should be choking on seawater at the bottom of the ocean by now.”
The major stared at Kabi, a niggling doubt growing in the back of his mind, his military training kicking in. Silently, he pulled a dagger from his belt and, before anyone knew what was happening, had its tip pointed directly at Kabi's throat.
“Then how come,” the major hissed, “you know all of this?”
He was breathing heavily, his dagger arm shaking slightly, although Kabi himself seemed perfectly at ease.
“It seems awfully strange to me that someone such as you should know all the secret defences of this island,” the major went on. “Could it be, is it possible that you, my friend, are in fact an agent of the Supreme Emperor? Explain yourself.”
Kabi rolled his eyes and sighed. “This island is called New Heaven,” he said slowly as though explaining to a small child. “I stayed here for some part of my life, and I personally set up the defence mechanisms around the island.”
“Go on,” said the major, his hand aching to thrust the dagger into the man's throat.
“Look, even if I tell you the details, you won't believe them,” Kabi said, beginning to get irritated. “This is too long a story to tell, and we do not have the luxury of time.”
“Major Ulsa'hi, drop your weapon!”
Ausanne's voice was sharp and authoritative as she entered the bridge and saw what was happening.
“What is the meaning of all this?” she said, approaching Kabi's side.
“Your Highness,” said the major, between gritted teeth and not lowering his knife. “I have reason to believe that this man is an agent of the Supreme Emperor and therefore a traitor to Britannia. He knows too much of this place.”
Ausanne gave Ulsa'hi a long, cold stare. “This man,” she said, in a frozen voice, “is my uncle, and you will treat him with the respect that he deserves. Now lower your weapon before I have you court-martialled and shot!”
The major slowly lowered his dagger, re-sheathing it reluctantly.
“My abject apologies, KabiOnn,” he said, though his tone was far from apologetic. “I beg for your forgiveness.”
Kabi waved a hand as though brushing the words away. “There is no need for apologies. You were doing your job, I suppose. Though I would prefer if you could be a little less zealous next time.” He rubbed his neck where the dagger had touched his flesh. “The fact of the matter is that the Supreme Emperor is my brother. We grew up here together, something that not many are aware of. But I can assure you that my brother and I are now no longer in accordance.”
Every face on the bridge turned towards Kabi, mouths open in shock, no one able to speak. What they had just heard was beyond their imagination. Who would have thought it? The gentle and mysterious Kabi the brother of the Supreme Emperor?
Kabi viewed their shock with some satisfaction. Though he did not like having to share his history with others, he did enjoy surprising people to the point that they were speechless. He did not, however, wish to elaborate any further on what he had just said.
“I suggest that, should any of you have any doubts about my fealty to the King, then you should speak to me individually about them,” he said brusquely. “For now, though, I suggest we proceed as planned.”
He turned and strode away from the bridge, needing the fresh air of the deck for a while. His face reflected a momentary sadness as he left.
Lucia was the only one with the nerve to question Kabi. What he had said intrigued her, not that she distrusted him. It did appear, however, that Kabi was just as adept at living a double life as she herself was, and that was curious.
Kabi navigated the Freedom to a remote beach, where he ordered the engines powered down, though the ship's cloaking device would remain in place. Once they were anchored, Major Ulsa'hi disembarked his team and began setting up a temporary command post. Lucia took the opportunity to scout the area for enemy presence, asking Kabi to join her.
Leaving the beach, she spotted a narrow, steep trail leading up to what looked to be the highest point in the immediate vicinity. She began to climb, Kabi following close behind. The track was physically demanding, and there was no breath for conversation as they climbed. Once they reached the top, Lucia scanned her surroundings, seeing nothing that perked her interest. There was no sign of people and nothing suspicious close to their landing site. Only when she was satisfied that her ship and crew were safe did she finally turn to Kabi.
“Why do you oppose your own brother?” she asked bluntly.
Kabi was sitting on a rock, carefully removing a stone from his sandal, and he kept his eyes on what he was doing as he spoke.
“We have opposite ideals,” he said matter-of-factly. “He has killed eleven of our siblings already, simply because they did not agree with him, did not approve of what he was doing.” He shrugged as if this was the most natural thing in the world. “He's a murderous bastard, and I wish desperately to take him down.” He paused, then added: “With my own hands.”
It was only when she stepped forward that Lucia saw the anger burning in Kabi's eyes, fury that belied the calm of his speech. She considered saying more but decided against it, not wanting to provoke Kabi more than she already had.
“There is nothing here,” she said with finality. “Let us return to our ship. We have plans to make.”
Kabi nodded and rose. He was about to step onto the trail downwards when he caught a sparkle in the corner of his vision. Pulling out a pair of binoculars and aiming them at the site, he sucked air in over his teeth and tutted. A small convoy was approaching the landing site from the southeast. Up until now, they had been under cover of the thick foliage surrounding the beach, but now they were fully visible. He passed the binoculars to Lucia, who swore.
“Looks like we have visitors,” he said.
“Around twenty men,” agreed Lucia.
She knew that they wouldn't be able to reach the landing site in time to stop the convoy or to warn the others, but still she began to descend the trail at a run, her sandals skidding and slipping on the loose gravel. Kabi followed, hoping that the crew below would be able to defend themselves.
“Prepare for combat! All hands prepare for combat!” shouted the major.
The convoy had been spotted from the beach only moments after Kabi and Lucia had seen it, and the small band was preparing as best they could for what was to come. Major Ulsa'hi and his men set up defensive positions, installing sonic mines wherever they could; and within five minutes of the incoming forces’ being seen, everyone had taken cover.
All held weapons, and Ausanne was gripping the hilt of her sword, fingers white-knuckled. Adrenaline was already beginning to pump through her veins, and remembering her last run-in with the Imperial Navy, she was anxious to avenge herself.
Knowing they must have been seen by now, the Black Knights made no attempt to ambush the landing party. Their steps sounded loudly, their marching orders rang out over the beach. Closer and closer they came, and Ausanne watched, her breath stuck in her throat as they approached.
Then one unlucky Knight stepped on the first of the sonic mines, and the battle began. The Imperial soldiers charged straight into the landing site, sonic mines and bolt blasters taking down man after man, but they seemed not to care. Ausanne cringed at the way the Knights so resolutely marched into death, as though they were controlled by something other than themselves. Those who made it past the mines were ejected into the firing range of Ulsa'hi and his men and were immediately shot at. But wave after wave of men came. It was like the small convoy was endless, and Ulsa'hi's positions were soon overcome by the Black Knights, the men now engaged in close combat.
Ausanne had to shake her head to rid herself of the memory of what had happened that day on the Sanosis. Her ship. Her men. Taking a deep, gulping breath, she grasped her sword even more firmly and stepped out of her cover. She slashed at a Knight, who had been surprised by her appearance, and scored a killing hit. Just as the man was sinking to the ground, a fire whip snaked out of the dark foliage and cut deep into the arm of one of the major's men. When they saw this, the Black Knights began to back up, forming a defensive perimeter around the small landing site.
Following their eyes, Ausanne saw movement in the foliage. Then a tall figure in a long grey robe stepped out, a fire whip in one hand, his other hand curiously busy with something.
“Mageling!” shouted Ulsa'hi in warning to his men.
The word caught Maicee's attention. He'd been so focussed on hand-to-hand combat that he'd barely noticed the fire whip as it slithered past him, but now he looked up to see the man who wielded it. The fire whip twirled in one of the Mageling's hands, his other hand delicately clutching a small fireball that seemed to be buzzing inside his palm like an insect. Magelings, he knew, were not yet fully fledged Magi Lords, but they could be dangerous, nevertheless.
The Mageling flicked his wrist, and the small fireball shot up into the air, flying directly at one of Ulsa'hi's men. It exploded on impact with the man's body, blowing his right arm completely off. The man crouched, screaming in agony as he clutched the stump of what had once been his arm, blood gushing through his fingers.
The Mageling laughed. “Do you like my creations?” he asked insolently. “I call them Fire Flies.”
Not close enough to use her sword, Ausanne grabbed her bolt blaster from her belt and fired a shot at the still-laughing Mageling. He laughed even harder, delicately avoiding the blast whilst simultaneously creating two more Fire Flies out of thin air and hurling them at the young woman.
She had not been expecting him to conjure up more of the Flies so easily and so quickly, and suddenly, shockingly, she found that she was paralysed. Her brain screamed at her to run, but her body simply wouldn't obey.
It was Maicee who moved. Throwing himself in front of the princess, using his body as a shield, the only thing he knew was that he needed to protect his sister. Sharp pain pierced his back, and then, without realising it, he lost consciousness, his mind going blank.
A knock on the door startled the old man out of sleep. Lifting his head from his desk, he rubbed his eyes with aged, bony fingers. Time had not been kind to him.
He straightened up in his chair so that the young man entering wouldn't see his frailty.
“Good morning, My Lord,” said the soldier, saluting.
The old man waved his hand, prompting the man to continue.
“We have lost contact with Mageling Randale.”
The young soldier stared straight ahead, not making eye contact with his lord, who sat back in his chair to think.
“He was supposed to be conducting a small training exercise with his men, correct?”
The young soldier nodded. “He should have returned yesterday evening, but there has been no report. We attempted radio contact but got no response.”
The older man frowned, then nodded. “Very well. Send in a recovery team. I want to know what happened to him.” His clouded eyes brightened, sensing something amiss in the situation. “And put everyone on high alert. There's a possibility that we have an intruder.”
As the young man left, Lord Camuse spun in his seat to gaze on the portrait of the Supreme Emperor that hung on his wall.
“It seems that the last phase of your plan is now engaged,” he muttered. “And I shall not fail you this time, Father.”
Maicee regained consciousness to feel a sharp pain coursing through his back, searing and stabbing as he breathed. Slowly, he managed to open his eyes but saw only a blank white ceiling above him. He struggled to put things together and make sense of them; it was the familiar smell of medical antiseptic that made things click into place. He shivered a little with cold, though his right hand felt strangely warm. Carefully turning his head to inspect his hand, he found that it was being clasped tightly by a pale Ausanne.
“You're awake!” she cried, noticing his movement.
“It seems so,” he grunted, the effort of speaking making his back burn more against the sheets. Then he remembered what had brought him here. “Were you hurt by the Fire Flies?” he asked with concern.
Ausanne shook her head, tears prickling at the corners of her eyes. “But only because you sacrificed yourself to try and protect me.”
She took a moment to breathe deeply, to control herself and banish the tears.
“Maicee, I owe you an apology,” she said when she was able to speak again. “I've acted like a spoilt child, ignoring you for the past few days because you hurt my feelings. And, well, I was wrong. I don't deserve a friend like you. I'm truly sorry.”
She bent her head, and Maicee turned in his bed, taking a big breath and holding it to ward off the pain as he very slowly pushed himself to a sitting position. In concern, Ausanne moved to help him, and then her face changed. Her mouth and eyes opened wide, her cheeks flushed. She uttered a small gasp and collapsed back onto her chair, still staring at Maicee.
For a second he didn't understand, and then he realised he felt cold, colder than before. The act of struggling to sit up had pushed his sheet down to his waist, revealing his naked chest. And his secret. Hurriedly he grabbed the fabric and pulled it back up to cover himself, but it was too late.
He sighed. “I guess the secret's out now,” was all he said.
Ausanne nodded slowly, still barely believing what she'd just seen.
“Um, maybe it's I, then, who owe you an apology,” Maicee said. He stared down at the plain white sheet in front of him. “I never meant to lie to you, Ausanne. I was sworn to secrecy. There was nothing that I wanted more than to tell you the truth.”
To his surprise, Ausanne started to laugh. She laughed until she was almost crying and until Maicee was close to hysterics too.
“I think we're even now, don't you?” she asked, wiping her eyes. “I ... oh, Maicee, let's just start again. As sworn sisters, okay? And your secret is safe with me for as long as it needs to be. Though I wish you'd tell me why you need to be so mysterious and secretive.”
Maicee didn't have the chance to respond as Kabi entered the room.
“Well, well,” said Kabi, eyeing Maicee with renewed respect. “You never fail to surprise me.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Maicee, confused.
Kabi sat on the edge of his bed. “We won the battle. Because of you.”
Maicee looked askance at him. He really had no memory of what had happened.
“You somehow managed to conjure up a wall of spiked ice between you and those Fire Flies,” confided Kabi. “And not only did that soften the damage of the little bastards, but your spiked wall retaliated and killed the Mageling. From the look on his face as he died, he was just as shocked as you appear to be right now.” He laughed.
“I did not create the wall intentionally,” Maicee said.
Kabi shrugged. “No matter. You created it—that's all that's important. And you saved us. Bettie and her team suffered minor injuries, one of Major Ulsa'hi's men died, and another is severely injured. That is better than I would have expected for a confrontation this size. And perhaps you can aid the injured man when you feel up to it. It's a relatively simple arm reattachment, I think.”
Maicee stirred as if to get up, and Kabi held out a hand to prevent him.
“Rest first. The limb is stored properly, and the man is stable. It will wait.”
Feeling exhausted, Maicee nodded. What he needed now was good, deep sleep.
sighed. Mageling Randale had been his only son and the only one of his children
who had inherited his powers. He was pleased to sacrifice his son for the
Supreme Emperor, of course; but though he felt no real grief, he did have a
tinge of regret that a Mageling as powerful as Randale was gone.
He placed the report he'd been reading about the battle on his desk, stretched back into his soft leather chair, old bones creaking, and rubbed his chin. A ten-foot ice wall with spikes. That sounded an awful lot like the work of an Archangel to him. But, on the other hand, it did not sound an awful lot like the work of KabiOnn. Hmmm. Was it possible that the Emperor's trap had caught the wrong fly?
Pulling a map from his desk drawer, he pored over it, thinking. The enemy had been last sighted on a remote part of the island. The report said that they had taken prisoners. He assumed that the prisoners were to be used for information purposes, or why take another mouth to feed? And the enemy, whoever they were, would attempt to extort the location of the spaceship from their prisoners.
He laughed. Whoever they were, they were likely to find themselves in the lion's den if they made it this far. And then a sinister idea struck him, making him cackle even more loudly.
“We've intercepted a transmission,” said Ulsa'hi, passing the transcript to Kabi.
Kabi looked down at the paper.
“Lord Camuse ... spaceship ... launch ... two days. I ... noon ... Jambur Hill.”
“The message was very garbled,” apologised Ulsa'hi, seeing Kabi's face.
KabiOnn nodded and pulled up a map on the large bridge screen. “We don't have much time,” he said. “Here is Jambur Hill.” He pointed to a spot distant from where they currently were. “It will take a day and a half to land here.” He indicated a small bay. “And then a further day and a half to cross the jungle to reach the launch site, assuming we don't meet resistance.”
Lucia had been listening and was studying the map over Kabi's shoulder. “Why don't we land here?” she asked, pointing out another bay. “It's closer. Your way will take a good three days.”
Kabi shook his head. “That is what they'll be expecting us to do. I dare say there'll be an ambush laid out. Trust me, it'll be safer to take the longer route. I have my ways to ensure we'll get there in half the time.” He grinned mysteriously.
Major Ulsa'hi rolled his eyes, but he had come to somewhat trust Kabi. The man was certainly an excellent fighter. “I'll prepare my men,” he said, leaving the bridge.
“I'll brief Bettie to take over command here. I'm coming with you,” Lucia said.
“It's going to be dangerous, very dangerous,” Kabi warned her, knowing that the information would make little difference to her.
The captain just shrugged. “So?”
He smiled at her. “Have it your way.” Then he had a thought. “By the way,” he added, “don't think that I haven't noticed the secret whisperings. I'm more than aware that Falorni, Ausanne, and you, at the least, know Maicee's secret now. I assume it was noticed during emergency medical care. Keeping the secret from the crew is obviously infeasible, but I should like you to remind everyone that Maicee's gender is not news for other ears. His life could be at risk.”
Lucia nodded firmly. “I'll make sure that message gets out,” she said. “And I'll be back to talk to you about our plans for this trip before we set off. We need to discuss things further.”
Kabi nodded, admiring the curves of the beautiful captain as she walked away from him and wondering what prompted her to jump headfirst into danger at every opportunity.
It was dark when the Freedom silently slid into the small bay. Quietly, Lucia, Kabi, Major Ulsa'hi, and two of his men dropped over the side of the ship into warm, waist-high water. Half-swimming, half-walking, the small band made their way to the soft sand of the beach.
From the bow of the Freedom, Maicee sadly watched them go. He had badly wanted to join them, knowing that wherever they were going, some of his eternal questions would be answered. Kabi had assured him that whatever the others learned, he too would learn. But still, it wouldn't be the same as experiencing it himself. Leaning on the rail, he watched until the group was nothing more than a few flitting movements in the darkness, and he cursed his injuries that had stopped him from taking part in this mission.
From the beach, the group moved through thickening undergrowth until eventually they were in the deep, humid confines of the jungle. Each man had a small lantern specifically designed to throw light no more than a step or so ahead. Even so, Lucia found the darkness suffocating; and the strange, cawing cries of the jungle at night left fear in her heart, though she hid it well. Keeping as close to each other as they could, they made their way through the foetid foliage, trekking for miles as the night slowly faded.
By first light, a clearing was in sight, and Kabi bade Ulsa'hi and his men to rest for fifteen minutes. He, however, began scouring the surrounding foliage for something. Lucia followed him, noticing how his sharp eyes scanned the ground.
“What are you searching for?” she asked in a whisper.
“An entrance to a tunnel,” he said shortly, intent on what he was doing.
He searched the bushes thoroughly until a glittering reflection, white in the new sun, caught his eye.
“There,” he said.
By the time Ulsa'hi had gathered up his weary men, Kabi had already opened the tunnel and descended down, a large burning torch in his hand slicing through the darkness.
“These are ancient stairs,” he called up in warning. “Watch for the loose stones.”
The air inside the tunnel was heavy and musty, and the temperature was a good ten degrees colder than outside. Wrapping her cloak tightly around herself, Lucia quickened her step and caught up with Kabi. She said nothing as they walked the length of the tunnel, footsteps clicking quietly in the echoing space.
Soon, in the light of Kabi's torch, an archway appeared. He led them through it, out into a large stone chamber decorated with ancient graffiti. Smiling in delight, Lucia lit a torch of her own and swung it around the room, examining the rough, colourful drawings.
“It is not real art,” said Kabi, noticing her reaction. “It is nothing but the vandalism of children.”
Unlike Lucia, he could read the words and decipher the images on the walls and knew that they were nothing more than a collection of obscenities. But seeing Lucia's eyes wide with wonder, he decided not to explain to her what exactly she was looking at, instead smiling and chuckling to himself as he watched her reactions.
“There must have been so much creativity in this era,” she said as they began walking again, trailed by Ulsa'hi and his two men. “But why did they build all of this underground?”
Kabi paused for a second and looked at her. It had been a long time since he'd had feelings for a woman. At least the kind of feelings that he thought were growing towards Lucia. He did not want to disappoint her, but neither could he answer all her questions. Seeing the trust in her eyes, however, he nodded shortly and continued walking.
“I am bound by oath,” he said after a few seconds. “I am forbidden to tell you all that I know. I can satisfy no more than a small part of your curiosity.”
“I understand,” Lucia said softly, feeling the grit and gravel under her sandals as the trail became rockier.
“Many centuries ago,” Kabi began, “when humans first arrived on Archeonis, they were being pursued. These chambers, this city—for that is what it became—were built underground to avoid detection from the sky above. Knowledge of this place perished, along with those who once lived here.”
Lucia was burning with questions but, wary of Kabi's warning about the oath he had taken, refrained from asking too many. Confused, however, she couldn't help but ask: “Are you saying that there were enemies in the sky? Enemies from space?” That made little sense to her.
“More than you will ever know,” Kabi said seriously. “And sending a ship into space now will certainly bring them back again. Our pursuers believed that we could never survive the harshness of this planet, so after a time they left us to our deaths. But not only did we not perish, we multiplied.”
Feeling that he had said enough, maybe even too much, Kabi pulled an old document from his pocket. He studied it for a moment, then nodded, stopping.
“This is a map of the ancient city,” he explained to Lucia.
She took it from his hands to examine it, surprised at how vast the underground system was.
“Major Ulsa'hi, we shall rest here,” Kabi said, turning back to the men following. “We shall have three hours of rest before we proceed. We shall still make it to Jambur Hill on time.”
Lucia watched enviously as Kabi stretched his body full-length on the rocky ground, closed his eyes, and appeared to fall instantly into a deep sleep. She pulled her cloak around herself and, propped up next to a wall, tried to sleep too. But it was pointless. She could not help but be curious about this place, not to mention worried about what was to come. Sleep evaded her. Images of the graffiti that she had seen echoed around her head. One phrase in particular, etched in a deep purple, ran around and around: Our Lost Home. This place, for some, had been a sanctuary. And for some reason, the sanctuary of Archeonis was about to be breached. What was the Supreme Emperor thinking?