There, in the rec room, they stood. Laura, Rose, Savath and Olsein, in the black garbs of the Occupier soldiers, their hoods drawn back and their plasmar pistols holstered.
Janeth stepped out of her quarters, next to the emergency bridge, dressed in something more casual. Her silvery hair was tied back and knotted; she wore a form-fitting red top that, by the added presence of golden embroidery and absence of pockets or material bolstering, was purely for aesthetic purposes; she wore a belt made of black leather that held her long black denim-like trousers up; those pants were tucked into a pair of long black leather boots.
Finally, she wore a pair of red sunguards. Her daughter was able to discern that those sunguards were equipped with infrared vision, perhaps being the only practical thing she had on in such a dark, sunless world.
Rose doubted that her mother would attempt to blend in, knowing that having the tan of a woman who spent her days in the desert sun for years on end, would be a complete giveaway to the pale-skinned citizens of this ancient underworld. Yet, as if it were possible, Janeth seemed far younger that day than any other day.
Olsein lifted a brow, and one side of a smile.
“I know,” said Janeth with a sigh, “the top is cut too low.”
“Nothing is too low for your majesty,” Olsein lifted the other half of his smile.
“Oh, come now, young man,” Janeth crossed her arms, “in all our tours, this isn’t anything you haven’t seen before.”
“Why all the dressing up?” asked Laura, stepping suggestively in front of Olsein.
“Pillars is different from Nywan,” Janeth replied, “in Nywan, every resource is precious. We never know when the solar towers will finally fail and the city’s domes become like the rest of the planet. Yet down here, in Pillars, water runs freely. The test of time is easier. I imagine things are rather similar to the way they were in the times of the ancients. And from my understanding, a woman can attain far more of what she wants with a kind word and a modestly provocative outfit, than with solely a kind word.”
“Men can do the same thing,” Olsein argued, “with a plasmar.”
“Shame for you a plasmar is not a man’s gun,” Janeth winked at him as she walked by, “so, Rose, Olsein, what was the weather like out there? Decently warm? Still air?”
Rose hummed, “Yeah, I didn’t think much on it but yeah. It was kinda warm out, but not too warm. No real wind, being so far underground.”
“So that much hasn’t changed since the last time I was here,” Janeth smirked, “wait an hour before moving out. Having you follow so closely behind me might...attract the wrong attention in our direction.”
Laura nodded, “Thirty minutes behind. One hour’s overkill.”
“Got that right,” Savath bellowed.
“Very well. But not a minute earlier. Contact me via text on frequency one hundred-one point twenty-seven kilohertz. It will appear on my sunguards. Emergency only.”
“Fine, fine,” Laura nodded, “Diinshtago.”
Janeth tilted her head, quirked her brow and pointed but one foot to Laura, “the pronunciation isn’t perfect, and there is no sun to follow down here. But thank you, Laura. You, as well.”
Laura nodded again.
As Janeth took the stairwell down to the cargo room and subsequent ramp out, Laura gave Olsein the kind of stare that demanded a complete explanation.
Olsein shrugged, his face turning to stone.
“You two had a relationship, didn’t you.”
“None of your business, girl,” Olsein’s face remained stonelike.
“So,” Laura sat down in front of him, “what happened?”
Olsein gave her a long stare and sighed, “Oh, it’s simple, really. I got old. She didn’t.”
The day was young, the sun, high. A warm breeze carried the smell of the rolling seas, just kilometres away. The teal-coloured blades of grass bent and swayed with every gesture of the winds over the plains. In all directions, save one, were endless fields of this teal grass.
Yet Saferon knew that in just one direction was a small town. The town of Bowshine, just a few days’ march outside of Tenjas.
Yet she knew the difference between this world and the real Noregaa. She knew that beyond those fields was a mountain chain, which should have been visible from where she stood. She knew that Bowshine had grown from the little lumber village it once was—and still was in this reality. And a great marble highway stretched into the Bowshine forest, in the stead of the humble cobblestone path that was present.
She knew this was the realm of dream.
More than this, she knew there was a purpose to her being there of all places.
“Saferon,” said the timeless red-dressed, orange-haired woman as she walked along the cobblestone pathway, as she headed into the ancient, tall-treed forest outside the little town down the hill.
Saferon found herself walking next to her, with a contemplative face she knew all too well.
“What brings you to the realm of dreams?” asked Daeryllia.
“Trouble in the material world, I’m afraid,” Saferon wanted to walk faster, her natural strides being much longer than the patient and calculating steps of the older woman.
“The trouble can not be sufficient enough,” Dae smiled that same old smile, “for you still mustered enough mental strength to bring yourself here, to me.”
Saferon simply walked. Listened.
“You are faint,” Dae continued, “but you are alive. What brought you to this level of infliction?”
“Two things,” Saferon said slowly, knowing Dae preferred a slow, quiet conversation in this world as a break to her own on Noregaa, “one, the Jaegrynn crash-landed. Two, at the point of the crash, he was there.”
Daeryllia stopped suddenly, Saferon taking a few steps more before turning around. The older lady began to show her age, her eyes wandering aimlessly as she thought to herself.
“Him, you say,” she finally whispered, “Oh, how I wish it were not so.”
“You know Jehran Cyan?”
Daeryllia looked to Saferon, “not by the name you know. That is his Behraanese name. His Imperator name. In reality, he is Gher-Caii. Perhaps the oldest, most dangerous man to have lived for hundreds—thousands of years.”
“Thousands?” Saferon would have completely tossed aside or torn asunder, the idea of a person living that long and not having been killed in one of a million ways she could think of.
But the words came from the most skeptical of minds, one of the most tempered and pensive individuals Saferon had ever known.
“One of a handful to live as long,” said Dae, “especially outside of Noregaa. Had he remained here, he might only have been a few hundred years old by now, because of the time variance between our world and the rest of the apparent universe.”
“Even from you, I find this difficult to believe,” said Saferon.
“And so you should, with insufficient evidence,” Dae smiled weakly, “yet I needn’t provide any further evidence to convince you of how dangerous he is.”
“No,” Saferon stared off.
“So,” Dae hummed, resuming her slow, steady pace along the path, taking a quick glance at the sun high in the sky, “Ma’guul. Bentorii. Gher-Caii. It would appear Nywan is in need of a minor miracle in short order.”
“It would,” Saferon hummed.
Dae stopped again, looked directly into the eyes of the younger woman, “Your tone of voice. Your eyes. Your mother in you. Yet you are more—whole--than she.”
Saferon only listened.
“Gher-Caii let you live. I can only imagine it has to do with your mother. Those two have always had...history.”
“If it has to do with my mother, why did he shoot me down? Why did he attack me?”
Dae shook her head, “I know a great many things. But the workings of his mind? I do not know anything of that. I can only see his motives in his actions. At times, the lack thereof. That is all I can discern from him. I can tell you he has a deep, terrifying reason to have let you live—more terrifying still that he let your friends live, and left the Jaegrynn largely intact. Poor bird....”
“Last I remember, he was still very much alive,” Saferon raised a brow.
“I’m sure he let you know,” Dae laughed lightly, her hand over her heart as she did so.
“Why Nywan?” Saferon asked, “Why Suragaa?”
Daeryllia sighed, “more questions without answers. More mysteries without the means to unravel them. Why. Why now. The fact that Gher-Caii himself is on that world implies something on that world is very, very important to him.”
“No,” Daeryllia shook her head, “people are useful to him, but never important.”
Saferon only listened.
“I banished him from Noregaa, you know,” Dae continued, “he tried to conquer it. Do you remember the Occupation days?”
“Perhaps a tale for another time,” Dae sighed, “so—as to a minor miracle for Nywan. If I’m not mistaken, the Ophelian fleet is on its way at maximum leap. They did receive your beacon. Yet that was not enough, was it. You had to return. You had to risk your life, and the life of three others, in a final-flight attempt to stave off the Bentorii swarm. You could not in your good conscience let them die.”
Still no words came from the lips of Saferon.
“It seems as though there is a unifying force in the Bentorii now,” Dae continued, looking to the open jade-coloured skies, “one force that drives them to assail Behraanese and Nywanese alike. Let me see what I can do about that, if only for a time.”
She closed her eyes and lightly tapped her lips.
“The Jaegrynn,” said Dae at last, “he recorded data on a number of Behraanese frigates and fighters for you, did he not?”
“And—he would have recorded their inbound and outbound radio frequencies, would he not have?”
Saferon nodded more.
“Bentorii, like all Oasiians, were known to react in various ways to broadcasted signals on certain frequencies. Find the one that seems most common between them all and have Jaegrynn flood the frequency. I imagine this is the minor miracle you seek.”
“Not really a miracle,” Saferon hummed, “but that could work. Yes. Yes!”
“I maintain that most miracles are more mundane than people allow themselves to believe,” Dae opened her eyes and smiled, “and now you must go.”
“Thank you, Daeryllia,” Saferon moved to hug her mentor, “I never would have thought of that.”
“You would have,” Dae accepted the hug, then pushed her away, “go. You are needed where you are, and you have found what you sought here.”
With that, Saferon closed her eyes.
“One last thing,” said Dae, though it sounded to her more like it was within her own mind, “Ritana and I had a chance to speak before she made her way to the flowing valleys of Kabaiila. She mentioned a Vinfield.”
“I know,” Saferon she said.
“I have reason to doubt it was Terrance she referred to. Could it be his lost daughter?”
“Find her. Find her before he does. Perhaps there is someone important to him after all.”
The moment she opened her eyes, all the world seemed to be more of the same. A blend of colours and sounds together. Her lungs laboured to inhale and exhale; her heart fluttered and struggled to supply blood to her beaten and broken body.
If Cyan—no—Gher-Caii, had let her live, it was only by a thread.
“Relax, please,” said an assuring male voice, one of a native Nywanese.
Saferon’s eyes eventually allowed her to focus, narrowing in on the face of the familiar merchant, Maxis Dexa. The rest of the room was poorly lit by a few diode bars, propped upon the corners of the room. Sandstone walls; no windows. She knew they must have been underground, perhaps by three or four metres.
“Max,” Saferon said weakly, her throat feeling swollen and restricted, “how long was I out?”
“Just under twenty hours,” said Maxis, “you, my friend, are lucky to be alive!”
Saferon sighed, lifted her heavy head and felt around herself, realizing she was wearing just a gown, the gown typically worn by a medical patient—which perhaps she was.
“Where are my things?” she asked, wanting to feel somewhat violated that the merchant had gotten her out of her clothes and in to this gown while unconscious. But she knew Maxis and she knew he could be trusted. He did, after all, save her life.
“Safe,” Maxis smiled, pointing over to a metal chest at the end of the room, “I salvaged what I could. Much of your affairs were damaged, and I lack the tools I would need to repair them.”
“What about the others?”
“Still unconscious,” Maxis stated, sitting on a crate next to the bed, “yet stable. I believe they will both recover. It would appear I was in the right place at the right time. I saw the cloaked man strangling you, and I shot him.”
“I didn’t think you for the type to shoot another person,” Saferon smirked, sitting up and feeling around for injuries.
“You would be correct not to think so,” said Maxis, “shooting demons, on the other hand....”
Saferon nodded, “might as well be. Thank you, Maxis. For saving our lives.”
“You may thank your vessel,” Maxis smiled, “for had he not been calling for help, I would never have heard a thing. Amazing thing, a talking ship. And a thinking one, at that!”
“Jaegrynn,” Saferon gasped, dropping her legs over the side of the bed, “is he alright?”
“I would not suppose for a machine to have a gender,” Dexa scratched his beard, “but yes, he is fine. You are fortunate I have the tools to repair him. More fortunate indeed that he was able to tell me what to fix, and how.”
“Where is he now?” Saferon tested her feet on the floor to see if they would support her weight.
“In the warehouse, above us,” he said, “recovering. Filling my son’s head with stories of other worlds, I’m sure.”
As she breathed more and more, the throbbing and swelling of her throat dissipated far more rapidly than it should have. She stood on her own two legs and stretched up high, cracking her back and her neck.
“Good genes,” he smiled, “like your mother. I never understood why she could break every bone in her leg one day, and walk upon it the next. Run, even.”
“Was my leg broken?” Saferon rubbed her aching knees.
“They both were,” said Maxis, “likely from the crash. Your two friends had concussions, some minor scrapes. Nothing too serious.”
Saferon looked to her hands, still tainted with the bluish hue from her overexertion of her transmutative power. She looked to her heels, which generated part of her lift when flying. They, too, suffered from overexertion. She had no doubt her shoulders, the other focus of her flight spell, were tainted this colour as well.
“I can do nothing for those,” he said, “the body is only meant for certain things. Pushing it beyond those limits must have its price.”
“Maxis,” Saferon looked up to him, completely ignoring his remarks, “where is your wife? Was she not pregnant?”
“She is near the time to deliver. She is in the same medical camp where we lost our General. She is safer there.”
Saferon smiled, as she slowly, stiffly walked over to the metal chest, “have you thought of a name for her?”
“I never did say it was a girl.”
Saferon looked back and tapped her lip, “that’s right, you didn’t.”
“Perhaps Ritana,” he said at last, “after a great general, an angel that once walked this world and watched both sky and shadow.”
“Ritana,” Saferon repeated.
She then stared off, remembering the Imperator shooting her, remembering the name Vinfield. Remembering Ritana’s sharp nails digging into her palm with the last of her strength.
Her fonder memories would have flooded in as well, if she felt she could have the time to reminisce.
“Can’t think of a better name," she finally added.
“It was what we thought as well,” he stated as Saferon thought her own clothes back on, quickly mending the rips and tears on a thought.
“The Bentorii are still out there,” Saferon said at last, thinking one of her swords to her hand and swinging it a few times downward, rolling her shoulder to loosen it up.
“I am afraid not,” he turned his ear up to the ceiling, as if hearing something as she spoke, “they are here, now.”
She heard the solid footsteps on metal grates. The toppling of shelves full of wares, crashing to the ground. The grunts and the blood-curdling cries. She heard all manner of noise and commotion, just metres above them.
“We have to leave,” Saferon summoned a thesium pistol to her other hand, “Where are Edge and Sam?”
“Just outside this room,” Dexa stood suddenly, grabbing a sand-blasted, short-snouted rifle next to the doorway, “They are likely still unconscious. We need to wake them!”
He stepped out into the next room, a makeshift medical one in itself with a stairwell leading to a closed exit to the surface. Only, there, he did not find two unconscious patients, but two very much alert, clothed and armed soldiers, weathered but ready.
“Was wondering when sleeping beauty might wake up,” said Edge, brandishing his machine arm and rotating his hand in its socket. That hand held a small golden coin that he twirled around between his fingers.
“He means to say he’s happy you’re alright,” Sam added with a tight grin, winking the one eye as he brandished a hefty arm of another kind.
“My son must still be with the ship,” said Maxis, his face filling with panic, "My son. My son! Please, you must save my son!”
“Quiet!” Saferon hissed, tilting an ear up to the ceiling, following the slow and steady footsteps, those of one searching for the source of the sound.
All fell silent, following those same footsteps. All slowly drew their weapons and aimed at the closed entrance, quietly tiptoeing behind the cover of beds, crates, practically anything that could take some of the fire away.
The sound then was heard as something, presumably a hand, ran across the entrance itself. Heavy breathing could be heard, the breathing of a man running perpetually on adrenaline and bloodlust.
<Saferon? Saferon, are you awake yet? Do respond, wouldn’t you?> said the Jaegrynn over her wrist comm. The only sound in the room was that pompous ship’s.
Saferon tried in vain to cover the speaker under her coat, swearing silently to herself.
Too late. The rubbing of the hand on the entrance dissipated....
Only to be followed by the swing of a spinning saw blade hacking through the door. Sparks of metal flew down the stairwell and smoke filled the air as the blade screamed and whined.
“Get the boy to safety and come right back!” Saferon shouted in to the comm, “do not reply. Just go!”
Edge and Sam looked coldly at her for a moment, then resumed poising to fire at the entrance.
Moments later, the saw cut cleanly from one end to the other of the entrance, and the brute behind it started bashing against the two halves.
“Never seen a Bentorii before,” Edge said shakily.
Saferon didn’t reply. Neither did anyone else. Just the same slamming against the buckling entrance.
Suddenly, the distinct thunder of plasmars could be heard. One of the sources of sound, a green bolt of plasma, penetrated the entrance and left a steaming hole in the ceiling at the far end of the room. More weapons fire and more smashing of wares. Maxis cringed every time something glass-like fell to the ground and shattered.
Not a minute passed by before the shots ceased. Just moments thereafter, a much more familiar sound replaced the silence. One voice, and another. Footsteps, perhaps belonging to half a dozen soldiers. Saferon knew most of them were light-footed, with one having the heavy steps that resembled the brutes from before.
One of them seemed to make its way to the door, barely hanging onto its hinges. They pushed the top half of the door open with the snout of a rifle, and from the other side, the soldier yelled a language not quite Nywanese, and certainly not Behraanese. Yet it sounded more inquisitive than imperative.
Maxis yelled back in the same language, an then whispered back, “It’s the Ma’guul.”
Just another enemy to Saferon, but certainly a more welcome sight than the alternative.
The same soldier yelled again.
“They want us to come up,” said Maxis, “he says they will not kill us.”
“I like being alive,” Edge shrugged.
“I don’t buy it,” Saferon grit her teeth, still being reminded of her recent injuries as her freshly healed bones ached and her mended muscles stretched uneasily, stiff with neglect.
“Nor do I,” said Maxis, “but given our particular disadvantage, who am I to argue?”
Saferon sighed, stood and bit her lower lip before she spoke, “Alright. Tell them you and I are coming up. Edge, Sam, stay here.”
“Don’t have to tell me twice,” Edge lowered his weapon, only slightly.
Sam simply nodded, not wavering.
Saferon and Maxis ascended the shrapnel-covered stairwell, meeting the tall yet slender man in the traditional Ma’guul armours. His face was aged by the sun and the sands. Yet he kept well-shaven, his eyes filled with intellect. Only his sideburns were grey, the rest of his short hair being black.
Five more, shorter and stockier soldiers stood guard around various tossed crates and toppled shelves. The grated floor of the warehouse was filled with score marks from weapons fire, shattered glass and broken items ranging from stone figurines to ship batteries to spare fuses.
Just outside through the windows, another five—six soldiers stood guard, albeit behind pillars and boxes to avoid being an easy kill.
Saferon also made note of several corpses laying about. She looked at one particularly, and realized something entirely different about her pretenses of them.
They were far shorter than she imagined. The one she stared at almost perpetually was lean, stringy even. He wore patched leathers and metals, composites of all kinds. His face seemed blank, his eyes, black pits. His hair was long and tangled, unkempt. His facial features were otherwise fine; he bore no facial hair.
Next to him was that circular saw, its casing shaped in such a way that it was lightweight, balanced, easy to handle and devastating in even the smallest of hands.
He really did closely resemble the Oasiians she had come across in her time.
The soldier, likely the leader of that platoon, asked Saferon a question, rather bluntly and forward.
“He asked who you were,” said Maxis.
“I’m a constable from the Galactic Council,” she said back.
Maxis translated, and then the leader replied with another direct question.
“He does not recognize otherworldly authorities.”
“You recognize Behraan as an authority,” Saferon argued.
“He recognizes them as partners with the Ma’guul.”
“Behraan isn’t too well known for its ’partnerships,’” Saferon warned, “they will sooner destroy a friend than an enemy, for the friend will sooner drop one’s guard.”
“He feels this is not the case.”
“Look all around you!” Saferon exclaimed, pointing to the dead Bentorii, “do you not see the gravity of the situation we are all in? Where is your partner now!?”
“You speak Behraanese, yes?” the Soldier said in Behraanese.
Saferon nodded, switching languages, “Yes. I speak Behraanese.”
“I wish no argument,” he said crudely, his working knowledge of the language rudimentary at best, “I wish peace.”
“Peace?” Saferon shook her head, “you declared war on Nywan. Why?”
“No choice,” the man shrugged, his face filled with despair, “families, no food. No water. Nywan make water. Water, water is life.”
Saferon understood the aspect of scarcity on a world that ripped water apart the moment it contacted open air above ground.
“Enemies,” he gestured to the corpse next to her, still gazing mindlessly at the wall, “the same, yes?”
“Yes,” Saferon stared again at the body, still clutching the saw, “the same.”
“Same enemy,” the man made a faint smile, holstering his gun and offering a hand, “makes us friends?”
The other soldiers gave him a strange look, but then decided to look the other way, out into the smoke-filled skies.
Saferon found it hard to believe that an enemy, whom had besieged them for days on end, could honestly put his differences aside in the face of a greater threat.
Finally, she swung her weapon over her shoulder with one arm and stretched out her other to meet his, as she smiled, “friends. Your name?”
“Guillius,” he said with a smile back, “and you, you are Saferon. We know of you. You fight with honour.”
“Guillius,” Maxis whispered, “rules the Ma’guul. To them, his word is law. Congratulations, Saferon. You have just ended the war.”
“Danger,” Guillius kindly removed his hand and pointed to the corpses, “they are many. Fast. Of mind and no mind. Like demons.”
“Not demons,” said Edge as he ascended the stairs, “men and women under some kind of spell. Normal people, turned into killers somehow.”
“Spell?” Saferon cocked a brow, “that doesn’t sound very engineer-like of you.”
“Fits my Khrynthoss-ness just fine,” he shrugged, “but you know, after everything I heard about, I kind of expected them to be—well—taller.”
“Demons come in all sizes,” Guillius said.
“Gonna take a look at this guy,” said Edge as he knelt next to the dead man, ignoring the numerous plasmar wounds, extending his mechanical arm and popping out what seemed to be a scanner from his index finger. He closed his eyes and ran the scanner along the body, from head to toe, then toe to head.
Suddenly, his hand halted precisely and unwaveringly over a single spot over the back of the man’s head, hidden under the hair.
“I’m no medic,” he said aloud, looking back to Guillius, Maxis, Saferon and then Sam as well, “but this isn’t normal.”
Saferon knelt next to Edge, “Explain.”
“This lump on the back of his skull? There’s a nerve bundle underneath it.”
“So,” Edge rolled his eyes, “again, I’m no medic. But it’s reacting somehow to background radio frequencies—oh crap. Crap. Crap, Saferon, crap!”
Saferon knew what he was thinking. But she let it be his.
“They’re just a bunch of raiders scattered everywhere. But they must be responding to frequencies all the time,” he continued, “this bundle explains it. This guy’s dead but the bundle’s still receiving.”
“What does this mean?” asked Guillius
“It means these guys either were puppets, or are puppets,” Edge stood, “it means someone’s emitting a signal. Probably just one ship out there somewhere. It means that everything we know about these guys is completely off.”
“It means this was a coordinated attack,” Saferon added, standing next to him.
“Coordinated?” Sam shook his head, “They attacked Behraan. They’re attacking the Ma’guul. And the Nywanese. How is that coordinated? It’s chaotic.”
“Someone has something to gain by weakening or destroying everything around them,” said Saferon.
Distant cannons firing between vessels was the only sound in the room for a moment.
“I have to figure out the frequency they’re being controlled on,” said Edge, “but I’ve got no idea where to start and I get the feeling I won’t get a lot of time.”
“We’d have to find common frequencies they use,” said Saferon, “find the sources and jam them or destroy them.”
“Jam them? How?” asked Edge.
“Ejjar,” Saferon crossed her arms, “I fly a fighter. Every Galactic Council fighter is equipped with a frequency jammer. I just dial it in and, proverbially, cut the cord.”
“That may be a problem,” Maxis said with a heavy sigh, “for your ship told me himself that his communications array was damaged. Not only would you be unable to jam them, but you would not be able to tell the others of the frequency, either. Much less, find the right frequency.”
“We can’t ask Nywan to cycle frequencies either,” said Sam, “they need to keep in touch to stay coordinated. Our best bet is to try to repair the array.”
“We help,” said Guillius, “we protect. You fix. Yes?”
“Yes,” said Saferon as she looked to Edge and his machine arm, “we fix.”