If the sun had begun to peek over the horizon, the fog created by smoke and fire and weapons exhaust had blocked it out almost entirely.
While it severely reduced visibility, Saferon and Ritana found more advantage in the cover. The two had taken a break from the seemingly endless carnage, hiding in what must have been an ancient office building, its innards exposed by a gouging crater in its side.
How many had they killed? Dozens? Hundreds?
One slept while the other kept watch, taking turns in roles to survive the night.
Ritana was bundled up in her own wings, one eye half-open and an ear up to passively listen to the ongoing battle just metres away.
Saferon just finished polishing off the last of the score marks on her shield, while working out the kinks in her sword. She had been carefully maintaining a number of paltry mirages of herself, or false, illusory bomb explosions for the Ma’guul to deal with. Just another advantage the fog of war granted her. It was all about whatever kept their attention away from her and her resting friend.
Her eyes grew wary from never being allowed to blink. Every sinew of her body burned hot from overconduction, a common side effect of using too much energy to cast and not resting properly. Her nerves tingled as if she bathed in needles, another nasty side effect. Even her skin began to take a blue hue, around her fingers and joints, from all the casting, commonly called spellburn.
The seconds she counted between the cacophony of weapons fire became longer and longer, even as the sun began to cut through the fog. Less and less shadows moved about, and the skies cleared of airships and fighters, leaving only the battered Nywanese fleet and its stout defenders.
It wasn’t all over, not by a long shot. The battle simply changed scenes. The frontlines were re-established.
But it would do. Once Saferon was certain the coast was clear, she tapped Ritana lightly, whispering, “Wake up. Time to go.”
While the black-winged woman did not respond right away, she did shortly thereafter open her eyes, stand, stretch and nod to her, “so it is.”
“Try to keep up,” Saferon smirked as she slung the shield and sword onto her back and leaped out of the nearest window, allowing herself to fall nearly all the twenty storeys down.
“Try to keep quiet,” Ritana retorted. Sighing, she followed suit into the fog below, leaving a few shed black feathers behind.
“I can’t figure it out,” Rose pulled her pony tail out and let her brown hair fall to the sides so she could run her hands through it, staring at a gaping hole in the floor of the engine room where electrical panels were removed, “it’s all fine. I checked and double checked it. The break isn’t here!”
“Then where the plug is it, Rose!?” Laura shouted, at the entrance.
“It was fine for a while,” Darrick added, also in the room, “if the circuit wasn’t gonna work, the systems would never have turned on.”
“Okay, so why’s the primary not working?” Laura said.
“I don’t know!” Rose shook her head, “everything seems to be connected properly!”
“Darrick,” said Janeth from the rec room, “run through the processes you did to start the ship up this morning.”
“Well,” he sighed, “Standard startup procedures. I started the lifters, the core warmer, the field, the--”
A moment passed as everyone awaited him.
“I remember seeing a single line of script before I powered up the field. I thought it was a cautionary snag as part of the start-up, but it disappeared so quickly.”
“What did it say?” Janeth raised her level of alertness, “Darrick, tell me what it said.”
“Trying to remember,” he rubbed his temples vigorously.
“I think I remember seeing it too!” Rose added.
“What was it?” Laura asked.
“It was a single sentence, like Darrick said, "barely there long enough to remember anything. Bold yellow letters. Really weird Nywanese dialect, like an old form. Kept saying: Pusher, something, something, something, imminent.”
“Pusher?” Laura scratched her head.
Janeth sighed, “Five words, right?”
“Engine, Port, Starboard, Failure, Imminent,” Janeth leaned against the wall, “there’s our answer. Both of your engines had failed.”
“We just had them installed days ago!” Laura burst out, “Why’d they fail?”
“I suggest inspecting them,” Janeth nodded to Rose and Darrick, “I suspect the two of you should be able to solve the issue.”
“Janeth, let me do the commanding,” Laura glared at the significantly older, significantly more powerful and significantly calmer woman.
“Of course,” she smiled plainly to Laura, “and after all, a suggestion is all I made. Lead on.”
With that, Janeth proceeded to the surface.
“Find out what’s wrong,” Laura pointed at Darrick and Rose, “I want this ship airborne in one Suragaan hour.”
“We still have the lifters,” Darrick assured as Laura left, hearing no more.
“Let’s get to work,” Rose unlatched and pulled at the engine cowling, Darrick helping to tug it from the other side.
Rose simply let him do the most of the work as she marvelled at him, but still pulled enough of her own weight that he wouldn’t notice something was amiss.
Darrick simply stopped and set his side down, stepped over to Rose and attempted to grab her by the shoulder, as if picking up that she was at least intrigued by him. Perhaps another chance to have some sort of romance, and if not romance then at least something more base than that.
Rose’s first response was far from romantic, however, as her hand found his—and dug into his pressure points inside his palm, allowing her to spin him onto the floor back first, as if he was a lifeless rag doll.
Of course, she relished that he was far from lifeless, as she intentionally fell hard on his stomach, straddling him and pinning him down with one finger holding him at that pressure point.
What Rose was not expecting in the slightest was when he simply slapped her hand aside and rolled over on top of her, as if she never hurt him at all. It even seemed he wasn’t taking her seriously—as if they were play-fighting.
So pressure points seemed ineffective. No matter. She would simply sneak her leg to the side and decimate his hamstrings.
But her leg wouldn’t move. She couldn’t move at all. As his eyes met hers, and as she breathed deeply, she noticed that the rings on his fingers began to glow.
That must have been how he kept her pinned. But knowing this, she grinned and simply lined the tips of her fingers with his chest, breathed as deep as she could, closed her eyes, and then released all of her strength into her knuckles as she punched him from the distance of a few centimetres, more than plenty to send him hurdling to the other side of the engine room.
Wasting no time, she kipped up and whipped her pistol out, shouting, “Take them off!”
“Hey, we were just play--”
“Take them off, Darrick!”
“The rings! Take them off or I’ll blow them off!”
Rose raised the output on her pistol. Her blood boiled, her heart pounded and her eyes were black as night.
“I can’t take them off, Rose.”
“Too bad then--”
“Wait!!” he shouted, his hands in front of his face, “I’ve tried! I can’t get them off! I just—woke up with them!”
By this time, the whole crew was at the door, observing the ruckus.
“I saw him with them on this morning,” Olsein added, stepping through the crowd, “Dae’s ward rings. I don’t know why she gave them to you, but she doesn’t do shit like this by mistake.”
“Put the gun down, Rose,” Laura commanded.
Rose was still riding the edge of a dose of adrenaline lethal enough to kill any other race but hers. One could see the madness writhing through her. Her trigger finger tremored, a sign that what was left of her lucidity struggled to stop herself from disintegrating Darrick.
“I just put my hand on her shoulder,” Darrick said to Laura, frustrated as he glanced the pistol aimed at his face, “I was trying to--”
“Big mistake,” both Janeth and Laura said in concert. The two then looked bewildered at each other. After a pause, the deep panting of Rose’s breath reminded them to keep their heads in the moment.
Finally, Janeth stepped forward, between her daughter’s gun and her target, her hands at eye level where she knew Rose could be sure she wasn’t at any risk. “He’s not a threat,” she said coolly, evenly.
But her voice was audibly different, at least to Laura. It seemed as if a deeper voice spoke in sync with Janeth’s, one much older and far more powerful. How Laura knew that, she couldn’t place it.
All stood still, except for the rage-ridden Rose, whose very body quivered with anger. Olsein could see, deep behind her eyes, a battle between her mind and the abyss of insanity was being fought.
The same battle all of her kind had lost, ages ago.
Before Darrick could even complete the transfer of thought to the act of stepping away, Janeth glanced back at him, her eyes glowing more than enough to light the room. The message was clear enough, and he stayed put.
It was as if a new battle was being fought, one between the light and the dark, in that very room, between those very souls. The temperature of the room began to rise noticeably to all except Darrick, still feeling the chill of a close brush with death.
Not a word was spoken. Rose then shakily lowered her weapon, the light of her self-control shining again through her once-blackened pits of eyes. The shuddering showed no more, and she began to look around, confused. “What happened?” she asked, “a second ago, I was working on the engine. And now I have a--”
It then became clear that she realized what happened, looking at the gun still in her hand, recognizing it as if having experienced this before, as she peeked past her mother to Darrick, “he touched me, didn’t he. He startled me.”
“You’re lucky to be alive, Darrick,” Janeth’s eyes only dimmed a little as her brows scrunched in disapproval, “the last fool who laid a finger on my daughter while she was unaware, did not have the luxury of being shot.”
“Yeah, she kinda flipped out this one time at the academy, too,” Laura added, “She really didn’t like being touched.”
Rose’s only reply was a long, drawn-out sigh. She holstered her gun, looking to her mother as she spoke evenly, “thanks for stopping me. I’d better talk to him about this. Alone.”
“I’m not gonna kill you,” Rose cut him off, her eyes then darting around to the rest of the crew, “but I will kill anyone who feels like gossiping behind my back about this, so don’t.”
After a brief moment, Janeth nodded in agreement and turned to the rest, “you heard her. We should all leave.”
“I still want this ship up and running--”
“And you’ll get one,” Rose waved Laura off.
Thinking to reprimand her for talking back to a superior, Laura saw it not being worthwhile to bother her friend any longer, and quietly took her leave with the rest.
“I thought we were play-fighting,” Darrick said quietly, still somewhat reserved around her, “I thought we were just having a little fun.”
“Darrick, you could have warned me,” she said plainly, “I nearly killed you! I probably would have if my mother didn’t show up!”
“I didn’t know you’d—” he stopped.
“You can say it.”
Bentorii. The Oasiic word for “insane,” and the word used by everyone else to describe the aimless—or otherwise aimless—nomads who raided everything they came across on a whim.
Rose understood the word very well, and repeated, “Bentorii. Yes, that sums it up real nice.”
“I didn’t mean--”
“Yes you did. And you’re right. I did lose my mind. I lost control. I know, from what people have told me, that I’ve done the same thing a few times. Usually someone’s dead when that happens.”
“But--what sets you off?”
“Well, I know if men touch me and I’m not aware of what they’re doing, I tend to lose it. Slowly—so that they think I’m into whatever they’re doing. And then at some point I snap and—when I come around, I’m covered in blood, or worse.”
Darrick looked at her strangely, “but you’re so calm all the time.”
“That’s because I’ve learned to control myself,” she replied, “my—anger isn’t something I’m proud of. So I try to improve myself, all the time.”
“So that’s why you never let anyone get close,” he said thoughtfully.
Slowly, she nodded, “that’s why. I didn’t want to hurt anyone, and I knew what I could do if someone even just put their hand on my shoulder. Like you did.”
“So why didn’t you pull the trigger then?” he asked, “Why did you tell me to take off the rings?”
“Rings?” Rose’s eyes darted to both his ruby rings, “nice rings. What about them?”
“You ordered me to take them off.”
“Well you’re very brave since you didn’t.”
“I can’t, though. I tried to tell you that.”
“I probably didn’t listen though, did I.”
“You turned up the power setting on your gun, actually. I think you heard me.”
Nodding and humming for a moment, she noticed his carbonmail shirt had a hole the size of her own fist in it, exposing his stomach, “I hit you?”
“You really did. Funny, I--” he reached down to touch the area he was sure she bruised, only to find no pain and no wound, “there was a big welt there from it, and it’s gone.”
“Darrick,” she shook her head, “if I hit you right there, I’d have broken a few ribs minimum.”
“I thought you did, too,” he checked his ribs, all in place, “did Grace patch me up while no one was looking?”
“Maybe there’s something to those rings after all,” she smirked, just for a moment, then re-assumed her worried status, “sorry for trying to kill you. I really didn’t mean it.”
“You meant well, I’m sure,” he feinted a weak laugh.
“So,” Rose looked at her feet, a smile sneaking across her face, “where were we?”
Darrick took a long moment to word his response very, very carefully.
One moment too long. Olsein burst into the room, brandishing a hefty rifle, “hope you still got that killing instinct in you.”
Rose looked at him, just part of that spark coming back into her eyes.
“They found us!” he switched the intricate rifle to its kill position, it buzzing to life.
A familiar weapon that was. A crank for rewinding it when it ran out of energy. A secondary nozzle above the discharge barrel, carrying a magnetic pellet and, by the look of it, some good length of cable in a spool behind it. Yet a sturdy, skeletal design and no obvious power input. Beige in colour, with a slight greenish hue to its lighted components.
“I didn’t know you had Marioch carbines,” Rose grinned slyly.
“You never asked,” Olsein grinned, then looked to Darrick, “work on getting power back to the ship. The rest of us will hold them off as long as we can!”
“Got it,” he moved immediately to the electrical panel under the floor.
“Rose, give that toy gun of yours to him,” he glanced at the pistol in her holster on his way out.
“Catch,” Rose tossed her gun his way, Darrick fumbling before grasping it properly. She gave him a quick smile and followed Olsein, “You have one of those for me, right?”
“You know it, girl.”