“This is your Queen addressing you,” Janeth spoke, in fluent Nywanese, into the radio from within Haren’s airship, “we have a Code one. Code one. All non-combatants proceed to your prearranged evacuation routes to the central district. All military personnel, and all able-bodied militia, report to your positions and prepare for battle. I repeat: prepare for battle. Diinshtago, brothers and sisters!”
Even over the noisy vector fans of Haren’s airship, warning sirens could be heard from the highest towers of the city, well above them.
Among all of this, Laura wasn’t altogether certain if it was all the noise impacting her ears that caused her headache, or if it were the deep compulsive impression that there was something horribly out of place.
“Laura?” Rose gently put her hand on her friend’s shoulder, “you don’t look well.”
“I’m fine,” she feigned, staring blankly at the floor--yet not seeing only a floor. She caught just a glimpse of a view of the airship they were in, but as if seen from the ground.
Her reaction was instant. “Down!” she threw out her hand past Haren’s chair, as if grasping at the control sticks, clearly unable to reach.
Yet as she commanded, the ship made a steep dive—and just in time, as an intense bolt of lightning passed through the space they narrowly exited.
At the same time, both of the control sticks jolted forward out of Haren’s hands.
“What in Kabaiila!?” Janeth cursed, bracing herself in her chair as the ship continued to fall, Laura still intensely reaching out.
Moments later, the young Captain dropped the arm, clearly puzzled by what just happened. She looked at her hand, bewildered by what she felt. It tingled, and was hot to the touch.
Haren then levelled out the vessel, shouting back, “Be wary! They are assaulting us here and now!” He then gave Laura one curious look, and could afford no more.
More bolts of lightning streaked across the sky, slapping the faces of the distant solar towers, as if the Ma’guul were displaying that they did, indeed, have far better weapons than before. They did little damage, since those very towers were made to absorb energy, so a gesture was all it could have been.
Had it struck their vehicle, however, a gesture would not have been all.
“Oh how I hate being a passenger,” Rose crossed her arms, “how far are we from the Skyreign?”
“I read ten kilometers!” Haren shouted back, “Make ready your weapons. I can see them coming!”
Janeth checked all of the others for weapons, then sighed, “As if I’m the only one properly armed. Can we not fly direct to--”
Another bolt of lightning, one that did not miss, tore effortlessly though the starboard-bow fan. Black smoke billowed out of the appendage and the other three engines struggled desperately to compensate, shakily fluttering and rattling. Warning sirens inside the cockpit blared away, and Haren struggled with the sticks to keep the ship from plummeting or spinning out of control.
“I would not think so, Janeth,” Haren shook his head, “I must land the ship, lest the fire spread and truly bring about our ends.”
“Everything will be fine,” Grace insisted, the most level-headed of them all, “we will make it to our ship on foot.”
“That’ll take hours!” Laura protested.
“Make use of those weapons vacant in the rear hold!” Haren exclaimed, “We shall deliver you to your vessel!”
“Land us as close as you can, Haren!” Janeth ordered.
As close as he could, was unfortunately not very close at all. Only moments later, the crippled airship found its way to a low, sandy road, already densely populated by two streams of people and vessels: those non-combatants and reserves rushing to the deeper recesses of the city—and those soldiers and warriors who would fiercely defend those who could not defend themselves.
Upon reaching the road, the emergency lifters boosted the ship just enough to level it out, centimeters from touching down. Haren took the precious few seconds granted to him and put the remaining fans in full reverse, narrowly avoiding a skiff full of panicked refugees. He then landed it just as the burning fan burst into shrapnel, fire joining the smoke and billowing with the wind. Its crackling was silenced utterly by the rolling thunder of the streaks of lightning bombarding the city.
For a fraction of a moment, Laura took a quick glance at the situation—wishing she had her own rifle instead of some clumsy, sand-blasted laser weapon.
The first thing the scrambling Nywanese soldiers did was that which could have been expected by the noblest of people. They distributed what few shield belts they could to the civilians who couldn’t keep up or weren’t fortunate enough to own or ride a vehicle. They erected small towers, extending themselves up perhaps five meters, and planted their tripod feet into the sand, emitting a shield high and wide for those hurrying to escape, as well as those staying to fight.
“Pile out!” Janeth attempted to pull open the side doors. Neither would budge. The fire slowly spread from the fan to the starboard side door as Rose struggled with the opening mechanism to get it open, also failing to do so.
“It’s jammed!” Rose exclaimed.
“Get back!” Janeth finally shouted, as she lined herself up with the port side door, gave it a solid kick—so solid, in fact, that it blasted the door off its slides and a few meters away.
“I’d hate to be in front of that kick,” Darrick smiled as he stepped out.
Laura gave Janeth a look of puzzle, as either that door was flimsier than it appeared, or she was immensely stronger than she appeared.
Moments after Haren, the last, escaped the burning ship, the flames claimed the port side as well and the heat from it intensified.
Rushing by the crew were several Nywanese soldiers. They were armed with large musket-like cannons that emitted blasting waves of sound that kicked up the sand, quickly covering the burning wreck and smothering the flames.
Just overhead, the telltale screeching sound of fusion-powered turbojets thundered the city. The source, a squadron of five streamlined fighters, recognized immediately as Nywanese interceptors, hurdled off into the distance. Perhaps a dozen more squadrons like this zoomed by, mostly of the same sort of fighter, a few of which consisted of heavier, wider fighters that would dole out and withstand more punishment.
T’pauzi V never put up this much of a fight in any of the time she spent there. Their air force wasn’t nearly this impressive. Laura found herself admiring the sheer level of organization—and then realized that it likely had a lot to do with Janeth Sehra. Who better to lead an already survivalist, military-oriented nation than a masterful tactician who once lead the most impressive aerial and spatial force this time had ever seen?
Who better to counter a Behraan-backed war tribe than a Behraan-originating ruler who had been in so many wars, both on the front and orchestrating, that there was very little the Ma’guul could do to surprise her?
Janeth would be leaving all this behind, a sacrifice of her own accord, that they may find this sacred vessel. But she did not leave Nywan alone. Four nearly equally talented Generals would oversee what would be known in days to come as the Battle of Groaning Giants.
It was strange to Laura. It never occurred to her, until then, that there were no intercoms further guiding the civilians to the pre-arranged safe zone, save the one message Janeth gave out, just moments before their forced landing. A simple siren prevailed to every pair of ears, and the coming sounds of war were in themselves warning enough. The people seemed wiser as a whole, and all instinctively knew the danger as it advanced.
So organized. More so than even Behraanese citizens, or any of Behraan’s former enemies. Even with voices guiding those in peril, and soldiers herding them, they still wouldn’t know the meaning of the word “danger” unless it removed one of their appendages. Perhaps it took two, for some. They really were that daft, in comparison.
But the most striking part of that entire train of thought was not, by any means, the level of self-control and situational awareness every Nywanese soul had; it was the disdain for those she once called her kind. Her Navy. Her fleet.
Underscoring all of this, as if perfectly timed to influence her forever, was the tell-tale thunderous squawking sound...of Behraanese plasmars.
Plasmars near and far could be heard all around her, complimented by the numerous forms of Nywanese weapons firing in return.
Nothing could stop that paradigm shift in her mind. From then on, and forevermore, Behraan was her enemy. And she was quite content with this.
“Those are Type-nine pulse plasmars,” Rose warned, tilting her head to listen more closely, “and I don’t mean to insult anyone when I say they make most Nywanese hand guns look like a joke.”
“Weapons in the hands of the untrained,” Haren retorted, “will not make humor of our veteran warriors. For it is not the hands or the eyes or the weapons that win wars; it is the hearts.”
“Besides,” Janeth grinned, brandishing her hefty greatsword, “you speak only of hand guns. There are the numerous melee weapons, the shield belts, the carbonmail armor and the Thesium weapons exclusive to JAFAN.”
“What chance do you stand against pulse rifles with that?” Darrick scoffed at the idea that an antiquated weapon, regardless size or quality, could be of any match against modern weapons that could disintegrate her before she could lift her blade.
In his skepticism, in all of his doubt, there awaited an opportunity to be proven wrong.
But that opportunity did not come. At least, not then and there.
“We must take cover,” Grace warned, as she rubbed her throbbing temples, “and we must do so now.”
The only cover available was a local choke gate, a number of metres away, which was comprised of thin grey sheet carbon, upon slender tubular foundations. Perhaps it was enough to stop a handheld laser, but Rose knew that pulse plasmars would simply eat through it.
Still, it was better than being in line of sight with a laser, or worse, a plasma bolt, which likened to a bolt of lightning—and indeed, that was exactly the desired effect.
It didn’t occur to them for a moment to doubt Grace. She was a cleric, and this was obvious to everyone since she joined the Nywanese. The more freedom-enthusiastic, function-over-fashion, progress-over-policy society allowed for her to be herself more, and not hide her talents or gifts.
She wasn’t the diviner Olsein was, but she was better than nothing.
And they listened. They quickly scurried across the sand, like the Scarabs they were, powering up their weapons and taking defensive positions around the gate. Janeth flicked on her shield bracers, which gave her a mildly golden glow, barely noticeable to most.
The Behraanese had hefty armor suits in the stead of shields, due to the numerous complications involved in the creation of a personal shield generator. Laura knew this. Olsein knew this.
However, Olsein also knew that JAFAN was based out of Noregaa, and Noregaa was the planet that supplied their own applications, combining the best of both magical and scientific worlds to create implements impossible in either system alone. The Nywanese shields were such implements, for they carried both power sources transmitted through Thesium, and runes that held the controlling enchantments to shape the shield properly and to sustain the lifesaving capacity they were designed to uphold.
That was how Janeth managed combat against enemies at range. He could feel the power that emanated from those bracers, a sign that someone very powerful put a great amount of time, effort and quality material into them.
That was how she survived the laser, as it glanced harmlessly off her shield and cut cleanly into a distant skyscraper’s side panel. Sparks showered down upon the sand and steam billowing from the incision.
As with most military lasers, the shot was colorless, the only visual references available being the point where it struck her shield, and the point where it cut into the wall. Even with the life-saving shielding, such power could only be held back so many times before failure.
The flashing point on her field did tell her that she was in line of sight with some distant sniper on the ground, on the other side of the gate. Quickly, she pivoted out of sight, her left hand wielding the hefty sword, and the right arm holding up her bracer as if a shield in the physical sense was mounted upon her arm.
“I’ll need a pair of those,” Rose smirked at her mother, from her own point of cover.
“If I had the stuff, I can make you a pair,” Edge nodded, “course, outside of Noregaa, finding the stuff is as likely as finding a chunk of noregite big enough to build a ship out of.”
Darrick chuckled lowly.
“Stay focused,” Laura hissed silently, peeking out to gain some sort of idea where the enemy was. She spotted four of them, covered only by a heat shimmer, but enough of a heat shimmer to remind her just how much hotter this world was—and the kind of constitution it took to live on Suragaa the way she had learned to.
Looking again, since she was unsure, she then saw only three. No sounds. No lasers. Plenty of other movement, as Nywanese soldiers flowed along the shadows cast by the numerous buildings, colliding with Behraan-armed—but not armored—invaders, firing or swinging weapons of all kinds.
Those three others were clearly farther off, using only the mirage and a low profile to their advantage.
Two other figures were skulking over towards the three. Several flashes were seen, followed by the echo of thunder following each flash. They were green, like the bolts emitted by plasmars. They were low and guttural, the way a standard pulse plasmar squawked.
“What are you seeing?” Rose peeked around the corner, and then pulled Laura back, “that’s Olsein and Sam. They just pounced those snipers.”
“That is fortunate,” Haren nodded, as a sizeable troop of Nywanese soldiers slinked along the nearest scraper, clearly waiting on him to say or do something, “and speaking of fortune—we have the last necessary piece of the plan necessary to see you safely to your ship.”
Rose could see the troops better than the others—simply because she could see better overall. She noted these soldiers as far better geared, their armour weathered, hardened. Their composures were comfortable, their weapons many and practical.
Patiently, they waited.
“What’s your plan, General?” Janeth spoke somewhat louder.
“I will take six soldiers before you, and lead oncoming fire away from you. Of course, we will not do so sacrificially. Yet as soldiers we live and fight and die.”
“You’re a General, not a soldier,” Laura disagreed.
“To the Kulu’jai,” Haren flexed his machine arm, raising the output on his rifle in his real arm, “a General of war became so by charging forth alongside their brothers and sisters. I understand, with exception of our Queen, that this is not so in Behraan.”
“That’s because Generals are more valuable,” Laura shook her head, “don’t go out there.”
“Generals who lead from the front may raise the morale of those soldiers they are among,” Haren’s eyes narrowed, “and though you are correct to believe that the innovations of those in command bear greater influence over the many, seeing one’s own leader, running before them and leading the attack, underscores that in the eyes of those guarding Kabaiila, no one soul is of greater value than another.”
Laura had no argument for that. She simply acknowledged the statement with a nod, statement enough from her.
“The other six soldiers will accompany you to the ship,” Haren waved the soldiers over, “or they will die in such effort.”
“I find the second alternative unacceptable,” Janeth shook her head, “so by elimination, they’d best get us there.”
Moments later, Olsein and Sam came through the gate, Rose waving them in subtly while keeping an eye out for anyone they may not have cleaned up.
“Captain,” Sam began, “we saw you go down. Are you alright?”
“Course they’re alright,” Olsein smirked, sweat dripping down his face.
They both had pulse plasmars. Janeth noticed those right away.
She also noticed that they had seen some sand blasting, and were somewhat spent.
Still, it was proof enough.
“They’re not my guns,” Olsein shrugged, “but they’ll do the job. These idiots don’t realize they’re using weapons Sam and I have had extensive training in.”
“Great,” Laura raised a brow, “now don’t go off being a hero. Haren’s already got that covered.”
“When you reach Spaceport Eighty-One and find the Sacred Vessel,” Haren waved his six soldiers, “it will be you who becomes the hero. You, Laura.”
Laura simply nodded again, wiping the sweat off her brow.
With that, he bowed shortly to the crew, eyes still fixed on Laura as he smiled, “Light shine upon you all.”
As he raised his weapon before his platoon, he shouted “Dinshtaago!”
“Dinshtaago!!!” They replied in perfect concert, at the top of their lungs.
The single three-syllable word echoed across the city, carrying the battle cry to every ear of Nywan. And every soldier shouted it together, again and again as one.
Dinshtaago. Laura only heard the term a few times, but knew its meaning well. It roughly translated to “We follow the sun.” There was no other way for her to explain it, not to herself nor to others.
Haren and the first six soldiers rushed out the gate. Like a war-chant, they cried this single, sentimentally-loaded word again and again, clearly attempting to draw attention to themselves. Yet the six ones remaining with the Skyreign crew remained silent, understanding their need to be somewhat stealthy.
“Now,” Janeth darted out shortly thereafter, bolting left towards the street their hovel, home and vessel resided on—if they remained, still.
The crew kept up, with some effort, although Olsein and Sam were true soldiers themselves, and had no issues following her. Rose could have kept up, but decided to remain just behind Laura and Grace, who were somewhat slower on their feet. Edge and Darrick were more comfortable on a ship than on burning sands under a blazing sun, and in order to keep up, had to holster their weapons.
Overhead, the larger Nywanese vessels blotted out the sky, causing the ground to tremble and giving the running crew and escort the advantage of being the least dangerous to invaders. A battleship riddled with cannons of all kinds was certainly a good reason to hide, unless it was one’s own battleship.
That got them by another block, another massive arcology. The clash already taking place on the ground then spread to the air just above them. The thunder rolling from handheld weapons fire and the chanting, was eclipsed completely by the deafening shipfire.
Very shortly, fire rained from the damaged vessels, and smoke grayed out the otherwise beautiful azure skies. The city, at least locally, was under the shadow of war. Day turned to night in just moments.
Ahead, numerous Ma’guul infantry advanced, then in the middle of the street as opposed to along the sides. They were thus far unhindered, having yet to clash with the defending Nywanese soldiers.
Behind those troops were a number of vehicles, one of which sported a massive cannon on a swivelling turret, aimed at the metal-filled sky and firing bolts of lightning upon the underbellies of Nywanese vessels.
Other vehicles, hovering bikes and tanks, clearly Ma’guul in their rugged design, presented a more immediate problem.
“Into the alley now!” Janeth shouted as she made a hairpin turn to the left at full speed, blowing sand up in the direction she was going just fractions of a second before.
The rest of the party, trailing behind, had just enough time to avoid the barrage of destruction following their hasty feet.
The alleyway was close to the hovel, and Laura knew it well, having travelled in and out through it to avoid sunburn in the past three months. She was always too stubborn to use creams or cover up.
The same alley, however, was far too narrow for so many to fit through with any ease.
“They’re right behind us!” Rose shouted, pushing Laura forward, “move it!”
“Drop one!” said one soldier to another. The second, a woman of some stature, pulled a bulbous grenade from her belt and tossed it behind them.
That same soldier dropped behind the group to do so, making sure to have a clear path. However, that same clear path came at the steep cost of her heart, as invisible death scorched cleanly through it. She fell without a sound, dead.
Though in truth, she did make one final, conclusive sound: that of an exploding grenade, and the screams of terrorizing, agonizing death and maiming.
“Two blocks to go!” Janeth turned right, hardly taking advantage of her escorts at all.
Just above, a fighter-- an Alpha-wolf of Ma’guul markings--fell towards the alleyway in several directions. One fraction of a charred wingtip landed almost perfectly into the alleyway just in front of the rushing Queen, giving her no time to stop and avoid the danger.
So she did not stop. Instead, she cut cleanly through it with her Waylander sword. The concussive force of the blade sent the two halves well out of the way along the sides, and the hot sparks bounced off her shielding.
Moments later, moments that seemed like hours, they rushed into the garage—a garage in flames. Yet there, in the central pod and anchored down, stood the lone, untouched Skyreign.
Before they could all pour in, the Ma’guul behind them managed to get another barrage upon them, lasers slicing up two more soldiers mercilessly—something only attainable if they had been firing on their shields for some time.
Those same beams clipped Edge, slicing off a portion of his shoulder, causing him to howl in anguish and crumple upon the ground.
Sam, instinctively, turned back and ran to him, shouting, “Edge!”
“Edge!” Laura said at the same time.
Edge could only answer in moans and shudders, as he clutched his bloody arm. Yet Sam, seeing the severity of his injury, became all of a sudden more enraged than a star on the brink of a supernova.
That anger was released as he cried out, pumping the pursuers with every joule of energy in that plasmar, lighting up the alley well after the last Ma’guul dropped or splattered. Even after firing the last shot, he shouted again as he swung his rifle over his head and chucked it into the blaze.
The remaining soldiers fell back with Sam. One of which, a medic, immediately tended to Edge’s injury. He used a rudimentary cauterizing and healing reagent, which he applied quickly, ignoring his further cries of pain before the sighs of relief. The injection also carried a heavy sedative, putting Edge into a deep slumber.
“Can he be moved?” Laura shouted out.
“Not yet,” Grace replied, knowing all about injuries like that “he may be in danger of re-opening the wound, and he has already lost much blood.”
“We will protect him until we can move him!” the medic shouted back, “go now, before the garage collapses! Protect the Queen!”
“Fine,” Laura sighed, “take care of him. Sam, coming?”
Sam turned for a second, then faced the alleyway again, pulling out his side-arm, “I’m staying with Edge. I’m not leaving him here.”
“He’s got help, damn it!” Olsein shouted, “come on!”
“Leave me or shoot me!” Sam’s eyes were full of the fire he lit out of Ma’guul corpses, “Get to the ship and get out of here!”
Janeth looked to Laura, for it was not her decision.
Laura knew better still. It was not her decision. It truly was his.
And as she begun to become accustomed to simple replies, she nodded.
“Light shine,” Grace said with a quick kiss, her way of professing her love when doing so blatantly was not appropriate. She then followed the remainder of the crew as they rushed to the ship, ducking to avoid and falling, fiery debris.
No time was wasted, not a second. More gunfire was heard from the door they came from, as they assumed their positions aboard the Skyreign. Laura, however, did not.
She manned a turret.
“Rose, you’re the Engineer now,” she shouted over, “Janeth, do you mind grabbing a turret?”
“I’ll cover the stern,” Janeth ran back.
Darrick dropped into the pilot’s seat, quickly shunting power into every system available. Lifters. Sails. Shields, Atmosphere, Sensors. Weapons. Weapons. By Kabaiila, more weapons.
The most power went to the new ion engines, which snapped the ship around, as he retracted the anchors.
He compared the newfound manoeuvrability to a feather.
Olsein grabbed a turret, himself, on the port side, grunting, “guess I’m gun hopping. Laura, can you mount the starboard?”
“Yeah,” she changed directions and hopped into the starboard turret instead, “why?”
“Plenty of firepower down the centre already,” he grinned as he pointed the nose of the vessel to the garage door.
“Get plugged!!” Darrick shouted. His thumb clamped down on the ordnance button on his left control stick, letting fly a single torpedo and giving the Ma’guul troops on the other side a nasty surprise of shrapnel and fire. It also opened up a hole more than large enough for the Skyreign to fit through.
“Go,” Laura shouted quietly, then much louder, “go, GO!”
“Don’t need to tell me twice!” he goosed the throttle, sending the ship out through the ball of fire, and into the war torn skies.
Just moments after, as if in a fateful response to the Skyreign’s departure, a barrage of missiles plummeted into the entire area. The warehouse, hovel and surrounding area were quickly reduced to black, billowing smoke. The Skyreign barely escaped the plume of flame, and shuddered from the shockwave.
Janeth, at the stern, witnessed the entirety of the explosion, knowing that while it wasn’t centred upon the hovel, it was very doubtful anyone in the vicinity could have survived the blast.
Grace ran to the stern, stopping at the rails. Her legs wobbled underneath her, not from the rocking of the ship but from utter despair. “No,” she gasped, her voice more shaky than her legs, “no, no no....”
She knew what she saw. She could not believe it. Not for a second. But as her mind chewed over the implications of that crater, where once stood a house and a ship, she, too, grabbed a stern turret. “If they come,” Grace said, shaking in sadness and in rage, “I will be the first to fire! I will rend them asunder!!”
Janeth knew what the broken cleric was going through, and said quietly, “very well.”
<Everything’s running fine down here!> Rose shouted through the intercom, <but they won’t be forever if we stick around. Get us out of here!>
“Due east,” Darrick agreed as he levelled the ship out, diverted more power from the lifters to the engines, turned ever so slightly to the east, and left the battlefield, Nywan, and several sonic booms, behind.
Once again, they were alone.
Once again, they were together.
And Grace thought, quietly to herself, that two new spirits were with them, whose bodies could carry them no longer.
For that, she shed two tears. One, for sadness. One, for joy.