The Dark and Cloudless Sky
Mannarius stood in the mechanics’ bay, his arms crossed over his chest as he stared at his ship. Dhruv stood next to him, growing more worried with each minute that passed without his captain saying anything. The Lionstar had been through a great deal of modifications in the past year, and Allanah’s mechanics has not been reserved in their work on his ship.
The hull was darker now, though most of it seemed unchanged. The biggest difference was that there were now ports at the fore-belly of the ship. Allanah took Mannarius and Dhruv inside to show them how their new weapons system worked. With the new control panel that had been installed, the ports would open, and the controller could aim and fire one or both of the laser turrets.
“You’re going to need Dhruv to focus on helping you pilot,” Allanah told them, “so I am assigning weapons specialist Raven Riverwind to your ship. He knows the ins and outs of this system, and his aim is impeccable.”
“We’re taking on one of your people?” Mannarius asked.
“For now, yes,” Allanah replied. “He can return with me on my ship once our mission is over. You’ll be meeting him this evening.”
Mannarius was not the only one to have a new crew member. Most of the ships that had come to Lorata were in need of the advanced weapons systems that she offered. A few only needed improved shielding or a stronger hull. Some had high-speed drives installed. One of them was retrofitted so much that the resulting ship couldn’t even be recognized in comparison to the original. Allanah might not have bothered with that one, except that its captain was an exceptional fighter, and she was very particular about not parting with her ship altogether.
All in all, upgrading all of the ships took nearly three weeks. Allanah had explained that calibrating the crystal systems was one of the biggest delays. In the engine room of the Lionstar, the mechanics had opened a series of panels in order to do some rewiring. Then they’d installed a chamber to hold the gel-like medium that held the crystals in place. The chamber was lined in conduits of gold pathways along which the signals and charges would run.
The central crystal was as clear as could be. Raven had been trained in how to modify the charge so that the crystal glowed with a different color. He also knew how to completely change out the crystal for one of the other three that were kept in a case nearby.
“The main one is for elemental power,” he explained once they met. “If it gets depleted, you have white magic and black magic.”
“What about the other one?” Mannarius asked, pointing to a colorful crystal.
Raven shook his head, his expression looking dissatisfied. “That’s supposed to be celestial magic. It’s been calibrated to work with your ship, but we don’t know how well it will hold its power. Those crystals have always proven to be unstable.”
“You sound like you don’t like to work with them,” the captain noted.
“Not so much,” Raven confirmed, pushing a lock of black hair behind his ear. “We’re better off with the elemental crystal. The K’zzyrch are like dragons in the way that they hate the cold. I was hoping that you’d get a pure ice crystal, but I guess that didn’t work out for you.”
“Wait,” Dhruv said, “if the crystals lose their energy, are you saying that the weapons system won’t work?”
“It will,” Raven told him, “but it’ll be a basic laser blaster. This elemental crystal helps to give it extra power, and we’re going to need as much of that as we can get if we’re going to make the K’zzyrch stop rampaging across the Orion arm.”
“Okay then,” Mannarius said, meeting Raven’s stark gray eyes. “Don’t waste the power in the crystal until we get to Vaharrish the Glorious.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Raven told him.
“Good,” Mannarius replied, “because I want the Lionstar to be their biggest nightmare.”
* ** *** ** *
The Shadow Feather hung in the darkness of space. It had dropped off its final signal-jammer days ago, and its pilot was now waiting for the rendezvous time. Being in the Eta Serpentis system might have made him nervous, had it not been for the particular way that he’d focused his mind. Xingfei refused to let his emotions compromise his success in this mission; he needed to stop the K’zzyrch too badly for him to fail now.
He was patient. He had to be. He’d never been disappointed with the results of having been patient, and he’d become famous among his fellow secret members for his ability to stay focused while he waited. It didn’t matter how long it was; when his allies came in, he would be ready.
The jamming network was working exactly the way that Linnaeus and his scientists had designed it. K’zzyrch ships could fly in and out as normally as they always had. They could detect their own ships and – unless Xingfei changed the settings – those of their allies. What they couldn’t see was the dozen or so ships that laid in waiting, hidden behind various moons and planets.
Xingfei and his friends were in control of all transmissions. They could hear everything the K’zzyrch were transmitting, and could block anything that they wanted to. If something compromised their mission, if it helped the K’zzyrch, or anything else that they wanted to silence, they just had to refuse to pass the signal along. At the same time, they could send down their own transmissions. They could sent altered messages as well as communicate with their allies on the surface.
Down in Sytherrinz, Jalingan had managed to take a second job. Not only did it allow him to spend less time trying to please S’sezelle, but it got him into the communications hub. This was where Rapheus worked, analyzing received signals. Jalingan had been set to work at the deep space signal station, while Rapheus took care of local signals.
“I have a class nine transmission coming in,” Rapheus informed him one evening. It was late, and there were only three other workers in the hub besides himself and Jalingan. They were all K’zzyrch, but they were busy on the other side of the hub, talking amongst themselves and letting the mercenaries do all the work.
Jalingan steadied himself and looked over at Rapheus. “So do I.” They stared at each other for a long time before he went on. “So they’re coming in from both local and deep space.”
Rapheus nodded. “Just like you said we’ve been waiting for. How much longer till the distant signal becomes local?
Jalingan peered over at the K’zzyrch in their yellow uniforms, making sure they were completely busy before answering his friend. “A few hours.”
“Only a few hours? Are you sure?”
He nodded. “They’ve gotten upgrades. Did we get all of our software running?”
“Of course,” Rapheus told him, knowing that Jalingan didn’t care to call any of the code that came from the resistance for what it was: system viruses and re-written system files that would work together to shut down the power grid on Vaharrish the Glorious. He knew that once the power was restored, certain other systems would not function.
He also knew that in the darkness that would soon be encasing the planet, the final stage of the mission would begin. The thought of it made his heart begin to pound, and he envied Jalingan for his ability to remain calm despite the growing danger that they were in.
“That’s good,” Jalingan told him, keeping his voice low. “It will do its job even without us being on shift.”
“It’s better if we’re not here when it starts,” Rapheus agreed.
Jalingan nodded. “Just make sure you’re ready. Eat, take your stimulants, you know what else.”
“Got it,” Rapheus said as he turned back to his computer,
They might have talked about weapons, had the matter not already been discussed in private. Rapheus had been collecting weapons for ages now, letting everyone think that he was an enthusiast in them – if they knew about his interests at all. He had enough laser crossbows, rockets, and guns for both himself and Jalingan. In a couple more hours, their shift would be over, and Jalingan would follow Rapheus to his room, supposedly to share a few beers. In truth, they would be putting on their battle gear and strapping on their weapons.
“There’s another class nine coming in from local,” he told Jalingan, looking a little puzzled.
“Anything wrong?” Jalingan asked, moving to sit at his friend’s console. The K’zzyrch still weren’t paying them the least bit of attention.
“Nothing,” Rapheus replied, “but it’s coded to your call sign.”
“Really?” Jalingan leaned in with heightened interest. “That’s unusual.” He keyed in his decryption code and waited for the message to come up.
Gold is your protector. Rapheus stared at the words, not daring to read them aloud. Jalingan only shook his head.
“What does that mean?”
Jalingan sighed and deleted the message. “I’ll tell you later. For now, we need to get started on finishing up our shift duties.”
“Sure thing,” Rapheus said as he got up and set to work, letting Jalingan wander off to take care of his own work.
* ** *** ** *
Two hours later, they were walking the halls, carrying a case of ale between them. They got to Rapheus’s room – several levels below Jalingan’s – and locked the door. Jalingan let himself drop into one of the armchairs and let out a long sigh.
“I’m so glad that we made it without S’sezelle seeing us.”
Rapheus opened one of the ale bottles and handed it to him. “I don’t know how you put up with her.”
Jalingan shrugged, took the bottle, and drank down half of it in his first gulp. They had to seem as though they were doing the same sort of relaxing that they always did, just in case anyone came by before the attack got started. “I just focus on the fact that a lot more people are suffering that just me. If being with her means that eventually their suffering stops, I can handle it.”
“Cheers to that,” Rapheus said before taking a drink. “So that message you got earlier…”
“Heh… yeah. It was just a reminder.”
“Oh really? What for?”
“To wear my gold uniform.”
“You always do, though.” Rapheus crossed the room and opened his closet. “Why is that so important now?”
“I didn’t tell you this before,” Jalingan said, “just in case something came up. They’ve figured out a way to fight back against anything with the k’zshyrk venom in it. There’s a formula that they can inject, and it reacts with the venom to kill almost instantly.”
“Are you serious?” Rapheus asked, his eyes widening.
“Yeah. Listen, you never got poisoned, did you?”
“No, of course not. But you –”
Jalingan put a finger over his lips to silence his friend. “We can’t speak of it here, Rapheus. Anyway, I know it’s dangerous for me right now. Once I have my helmet on, they – and you know who I’m talking about – won’t know who’s who. That’s why I have the gold lining; they’ll be watching for it, and they won’t shoot me.”
“You’re pretty sure of yourself,” Rapheus told him. “They’re bringing a poison to destroy the poisoners, and you still came here?”
“I’m the best man for the job,” Jalingan told him. “You know it, too.”
“You know, for the reputation that you have,” Rapheus told him, “you sure are incredible. You have everyone thinking that you’re cold and all business, but you’re out here in the enemy’s dead, risking being killed as one of them, and –”
“Knock it off,” the half-Leomian ordered him. “We need to stay focused.”
Jalingan got up and walked over to the closet, where he pulled off his jacket and shirt, revealing his scars to Rapheus. His friend gave him a saddened look as Jalingan replaced the cotton shirt with one made of tightly-woven Kevlar, the sleeves long so as to protect his arms as well. He tossed a second one Rapheus’s way and pulled his uniform jacket back on.
After that, he found a belt with four different guns already in its holsters, and wrapped it around his waist. Then he took a crossbow out too, along with a bandolier, and laid it over his chest. Then there was his cloak, and finally an assault rifle. It was hardly different from the one he had held while guarding the prime lord, but this time he felt good about holding one.
“So now we wait?” Rapheus asked once he had changed his clothes and armed himself. He’d donned a black uniform, having had no intention of going anywhere in his communicator uniform.
Jalingan nodded. “We wait for the power to go out. Then we leave the building as K’zzyrch soldiers. This place is going to be under fire, so we have to get out of the way.”
* ** *** ** *
Behind the moon, Xingfei waited. He’d gotten no reply to his last message. He hadn’t exactly been expecting one, but that made it no less disappointing when nothing came back to his terminal. He focused instead on waiting. He knew that the message had come in from deep space that the rest of his resistors were on their way. It would only be a matter of time before he saw their ships.
In the meantime, his team watched for the planet to go dark. The lights on Vaharrish the Glorious were like tiny pinpoints, and hard to see given all of the cloud-cover the planet had, but there was enough for them to know. Once darkness fell, and he was certain that their power systems were down, Xingfei had leave to depart from his station behind the moon and begin attacking the ships that flew by. Anything that left the planet, and anything flying in that was friendly to the K’zzyrch, was fair game.
He took down an outgoing Bangoran ship first. Xingfei was only too happy to be making sure that there was even one less Bangoran around to help the K’zzyrch. Then he took his ship into a close orbit around the planet.
“Class N K’zzyrch vessel entering the system,” Xingfei heard over the comm.
He cursed in his native language, then set his comm to go to everyone on his team. “Take it out,” he ordered. “Station yourselves around it and take that thing down!”
He waited for the flurry of confirmations that followed to settle down, then rode out past the moon. He could see the faint glint of the K’zzyrch vessel as well as the sparks of his friends’ weapons. They were fighting a larger ship, but it wouldn’t last too long against all of them. The important thing was that when it when down, it had to crash into one of the moons, or on one of the system’s other planets. If it crashed onto Vaharrish the Glorious, the K’zzyrch would know far too soon that they where under attack. With all comms systems under resistance control, the ship’s SOS messages wouldn’t get to anyone who could help them, and nobody wanted to let that advantage go to waste.
Xingfei started charging his defense systems to their maximum settings even while the ship fired back at his friends. He readied each of his weapons systems, and then took the Shadow Feather into the space just below the enemy vessel. By the time he reached it, they had released fighter pods. He focused on getting under the belly of the ship, taking out smaller pods only if they got in his way. His allies were on the comms with the usual battle chatter, but he stayed quiet, keeping his goal in mind.
Once he was underneath the K’zzyrch vessel, Xingfei pulled his spacecraft sharply upwards, releasing a barrage of laser fire that perforated the underside of the ship.
“Oh good,” he said as she turned again. “Your shields are down. Now it’s time to end this.”
Xingfei turned his controls hard and fast, sending his ship spinning like a corkscrew as he flew. He released a series of rockets as he went, perforating the hull of the enemy vessel. When he passed the fore of the ship, he turned around and rained laser fire down along its back. His allies focused on its portside, pushing it towards a nearby moon.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Xingfei asked when he noticed an attack pod trying to sneak up behind one of his allies. He crept the Shadow Feather up behind it, launched a missile, and watched the remains of the enemy pod ricochet off the hull of the larger ship.
“Thanks for the cover, Xingfei,” the comm came in.
“Quiet as a feather, quick as a shadow,” Xingfei replied. “That’s how I work. Nobody is going down before we’ve even started.”
Once the class N vessel was down, its remains quietly left behind on the dark side of one of the system’s moons, Xingfei and his team went back to their positions in hiding. They passed the next hour or so taking out the few enemy ships that passed through the area and keeping things quiet. The power was restored on the planet, but their sensors showed that communications and other key systems were still not functioning.
“We are on course with the plan,” Xingfei told his friends. “Teh Jzoorasythe and the others should be here soon.”
* ** *** ** *
On the surface of Vaharrish the Glorious, Jalingan walked with Rapheus, both of them cloaked as much in shadows as in the heavy cloth that wrapped around them. They had their helmets on, the black covers pulled down so that they hardly looked different from the rest of the K’zzyrch soldiers and the mercenaries who worked for them.
They were not that much more armed than the others. Everyone was on high alert, filling the halls with soldiers and their paid help. Jalingan and Rapheus had gotten out of the main tower before anyone could get to their rooms to rouse them for emergency duty, and now they were out on the streets of Sytherrinz.
“They don’t look happy that so many systems are down,” Rapheus commented as he glanced around.
“Keep quiet,” Jalingan warned him, his voice a low whisper. “We’re not supposed to know anything besides that fact that we had a power outage.”
“Right,” Rapheus sighed. “Keep quiet, keep moving.”
They walked through the city streets, all the way to the edge of town, where the buildings thinned and gave way to the greenhouses. They walked past row after row of greenhouse, some of them creaking in the shadows.
“Was that supposed to happen?” Rapheus asked as he looked up at one of the buildings that had gone pitch black.
Jalingan shook his head and kept walking. “A side effect of the power outage. That one is so old that it probably couldn’t handle powering down and then back up. They should’ve had better upkeep.”
It was at least an hour past midnight by the time they reached the last greenhouse. Beyond it were the fields, long ago left behind, barren and forgotten. Jalingan stepped into the shadows of the last building and crouched down. He aimed his weapon and took out the street light at the end of the road, leaving them in perfect darkness.
“They should be here soon,” Jalingan whispered.
“Sure, Jal,” Rapheus replied, kneeling down beside him. He let out a sigh, but otherwise kept quiet.
They could faintly hear the clamor going on in the main part of the city, but Jalingan ignored it all the while. He only sat and watched the empty field, looking up at the sky every once in a while. After a few dozen minutes, faint lights appeared high in the atmosphere.
“It’s the burn of atmospheric entry,” Rapheus whispered.
Jalingan nodded, then realized that his friend would not be able to see him doing so. “Yeah,” he said, staring up at it.
“Who’s supposed to come in first?”
“I don’t know exactly. Linnaeus was supposed to designate the entry teams.”
It was not long before the first ship, and several others after it, were fully within the atmosphere. Jalingan could see several K’zzyrch ships approaching them. The sky lit up as they exchanged fire, and darkened again just as quickly.
“They’ve been noticed,” Rapheus said.
“Looks like they’ve managed to take care of that problem,” Jalingan replied. “Quiet, they’re coming in.”
Jalingan pulled a flare from one of the pockets in his bandolier, lit it, and threw it out into that barren field. The incoming ships came down all across the field, opening up to let dozens of members of the best-kept secret in the galaxy pour out.
“There’s Varilax and some of his team,” he told Rapheus. “Some of Allanah’s soldiers, and… well, what do you know…”
“What is it?” Rapheus asked.
“They made it into the first drop.”
“I take it you mean someone in particular?”
“Yeah…” He waited for one of the ships in the crowd to settle and its occupants to emerge. “And it looks like the Lionstar has gotten some decent upgrades again.”
“Your cousin’s ship?”
“Yep,” Jalingan said. He got up and stepped out onto the field, pulling his helmet off as he walked. “Like a mighty roar coming from the sky…”
“The Lion is here to fight!” Mannarius finished for him, although he did not sound altogether pleased to see his cousin.
“I’m glad you made it down,” Jalingan said.
“Well, those K’zzyrch weren’t.” Mannarius retorted. “I thought you said their radar systems would be down.”
“They are,” Jalingan told him. “That’s how you were able to make it so far into their solar system, let alone into their atmosphere. You were seen by regular old scouts out on patrol.”
“So the secret isn’t going to be secret for very long,” Mannarius noted.
“Thankfully we’re in control of their comms systems, so they’re down to line of sight at this point,” Jalingan told him. “It’s a decent advantage, although the lizards have been overly watchful ever since the power went out,”
“I thought you said the power outage wouldn’t seem suspicious.”
“It wasn’t,” Rapheus chimed in, lifting his face-plate so that the Lion could see him. “They’re a paranoid bunch to begin with, and their systems aren’t all that reliable. They probably thought it was the Dark Apostates making a move… up until you showed up.”
“This is Rapheus,” Jalingan explained. “The doctor has had him stationed here for quite a while now.”
“He never mentioned an operative on the planet…” Mannarius said as he gave the Restherian a curious once-over.
“Oh, why would he, Mannarius?” Citlally cut in. “You don’t need to know everything, right? The fewer who know, the better.”
She turned to Rapheus. “I’m Citlally, and –”
“Like you said.” he interrupted, “none of us needs to know everything.”
Citlally gave him a disappointed look, glanced up at her husband, and then to Jalingan. “Allanah wanted to talk to you.”
“Did she come down to the surface?” he asked.
“No… I think she figured you would ask that,” Citlally said. “She asked me to remind you about your uniform, but I can see that you already have that covered.”
“Yeah. It sounds like you were able to make a lot more of that anti-venom, the way all of you are so paranoid about being able to recognize me.”
Citlally shrugged. “By the time we left, they were still trying to.”
“So what did else Allanah want to ask me?” Jalingan went on. “I doubt that Her Highness plans to come down here, or that her entourage will let her.”
“She’s not even royalty,” Citlally sighed.
“Says you,” Jalingan told her. “Are you delivering her message for her?”
Citlally looked around and shook her head. “Just be careful, okay? She’ll have to talk to you about it later. I think she’s going to try to make it down despite her guards wanting her to stay safe.” Then she stepped forward and wrapped her arms around him. “It’s good to see you again.”
Jalingan ignored the way Mannarius rolled his eyes when he saw her hug him, and returned the embrace. Then he shook Endan’s hand. “So you’re carrying weapons now?”
Citlally nodded, hefting her spear. “We know how to use them, if you were wondering.”
“They’ll come in handy,” he replied, “especially if they get close. I’m glad to see you properly armored, too.”
Jalingan could only see so much in the dim light that came from the various ships, but it was enough to tell that Citlally and Endan had been given armor that would protect them from the claws and teeth of the K’zzyrch, and that would make it harder for the lizards’ doctors to find a place to inject their poison. The under-layers were a tightly-woven material that was both strong and flexible, while the outside was more like plated armor.
“Is that… gold?” Jalingan asked when he caught a glint from the edge of her armor.
Citlally nodded. “Just on the edges. Linnaeus and Allanah agreed that anyone who’s ever been injected with the k’zshyrk venom needed it. There are more than just the standard uniforms out there, right? So they said that anybody with gold edging was not to be shot. Not with the anti-venom, and not with anything else.”
“Well, that helps a lot,” Rapheus scoffed.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Jalingan told him. “It’s more to protect people from the anti-venom than anything else.”
“Besides,” Mannarius added, “they want to save the stuff for the lizards,”
“Captain, everyone is ready to move out,” Dhruv said as he stepped out of the shadows. He, too, was well-armored.
Raven Riverwind walked up beside him, also prepared for battle. He carried a laser-powered weapon with a long barrel, but he also had guns strapped to his chest and calves, and well as the four in the holster at his waist. Jalingan could faintly see the glint of daggers on the insides of his boots. Raven looked Jalingan over silently, his expression even, but he gave no reaction. Instead, he knelt down and checked the ground he’d been walking on.
“Good,” Mannarius told his co-pilot. He looked to Jalingan. “The first wave is to move through the city and take down as many of their soldiers as possible. Then we have to get into their capitol building and find their leaders. The second wave will be staying in their ships and fighting air-borne. They will focus on the military base as much as they can. The third wave will provide us with extra ground support.”
Jalingan nodded. “And how will we know when this is over?”
“Either they unconditionally surrender and agree to our terms,” Citlally told him, “Or we take out all of their leaders and establish our own control.”
“High stakes,” Rapheus said.
“That’s what we came here for,” Jalingan told him, pulling his helmet back on. “Either we put a stop to their menace and get to go home, or we die trying.”
Mannarius scoffed and shook his head, but Jalingan ignored him. He waved an arm to beckon the others to follow him. Together, he and Rapheus led the resistors back along the rows of greenhouses, to the main parts of the streets of Sytherrinz. Once they were far enough, Rapheus took his own group and turned towards the city square. Jalingan and his team waited in the shadows for everything to be clear. Within only a few minutes, they could hear gunfire break out.
“That’s our cue to get moving,” Jalingan said.
They hurried through the shadows of the back alleys, avoiding the guards as they headed towards the main tower. Jalingan stopped the group and told Citlally, Endan, Mannarius, and Dhruv to stay back and hide in the shadows.
“I have plans for these guys,” he explained. “The rest of you, the main tower is two blocks south and two blocks east of here. Start your attack on it. Make sure you take out every single guard – and watch out for the knights; they’re a mean bunch.”
“What about you?” Varilax asked.
“I’ll be in not long after you,” Jalingan told him. “You have your anti-venom?”
“I do,” Varilax replied with a nod.
“Good. You’re going to need it. Now get going!”
Once the group had gone, Jalingan turn to his friends and sighed. “I’ve really missed these guys. You have no idea how miserable these past few weeks have been.”
“I’m glad you’re all right,” Citlally told him.
“Yeah, just a little worse for wear.”
“But you got the viruses loaded,” she reminded him, “and nobody has suspected you.”
Jalingan nodded. “I’ve got that going for me, at least. You guys look like you made the flight okay.”
“We had to take out a few ships on our way through the system,” Mannarius told him.
“I bet,” the half-lion replied. “That part was inevitable, but at least none of the ones out in space were able to call for reinforcements.”
“Are the K’zzyrch going to catch on to what’s going on in space and send more ships up?” Mannarius asked.
“I don’t think they could if they wanted to,” Jalingan told him. “They put on a big show, but they’re spread kind of thin right now. All their resources are interstellar or wrapped up in keeping the Dark Apostates satisfied. They were really relying on the satellite detection system that we took out.”
“I see…” Mannarius said.
“Oh… And Dad didn’t mention it before, but we have allies working on making concurrent strikes in other regions of the Orion arm; whatever they could pull together that was strategically sound.”
“That’s good tae hear,” Endan replied.
“This place reminds me of something out of Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Citlally chimed in. “It’s so dystopian… big, over-ambitious, urban decay. And even the side facing their star is shrouded in dark clouds!”
“Nineteen what?” Jalingan asked.
“Never mind,” Citlally told him. “What happened here?”
Jalingan shrugged. “I guess they worked so hard to create an interstellar empire that they let their home-world suffer. From what I could learn, they’d overextended themselves, then called in martial law to make up for it.”
“So these lizards are absolutely nuts?” Mannarius asked.
“Pretty much. They’re like zealots when it comes to dominating over others.”
They went on talking for several more minutes, hunkered down in the shadow of that alleyway. They could hear the city growing loud with the sounds of fighting, K’zzyrch guards yelling as they chased the resistors through the streets, gunfire and lasers sounding off as they were taken down.
“Okay,” Jalingan said after a while. “It’s time for us to head in.”
“What’s the plan?” Dhruv asked him when he saw that Mannarius would only stare his cousin down.
“I can get us pretty high into the tower,” Jalingan said. “You just have to play along with me.”
“Oh, great,” Mannarius groaned.
“Come on,” Citlally said. “You promised you’d cooperate.”
Mannarius let out a heavy sigh. “I know. Just…” He paused and looked straight at Jalingan. “Don’t get us killed, got it?”
“Of course not,” Jalingan said as he began to search his pockets. Then he switched to his bandolier and pulled out several pairs of cuffs and chains. “Sheathe your weapons.”
“What?!” Mannarius said, nearly forgetting to keep his voice down.
“This is the only way we’re getting to the seventy-ninth floor,” Jalingan told him. “Our friends in there will be able to take care of the first few levels, but we need to get up to where the prime lords sit.”
“Fine,” Mannarius grumbled.
Withing a few minutes, Jalingan had his friends in a line, chained together, Citlally closest to him, followed by Endan, then Mannarius, and finally Dhruv. He showed them a trick to the cuffs, the way that a certain twist of the wrist would release the locking mechanism.
“I altered them ages ago,” Jalingan explained. “Test them out if you like, but once we get moving, don’t open them again until the right time.”
“And when will that be?” Mannarius asked as he practiced breaking free of the cuffs.
Jalingan paused before giving his answer, thinking over his words before he let them flow. “When I take out the first K’zzyrch on the seventy-ninth level.” His voice was stern and even, as though full of hatred. Citlally wondered whether his hate was as much for lizards as it was for what they forced him to do.
“Who gets your first bullet?” Mannarius asked.
“You’ll see.” Jalingan narrowed his eyes and peered around the cover. Then he lowered the face-plate of his helmet and said, “It’s time to go.”
Jalingan led Citlally and the others along the last few back alleys, and took them out of the shadows less than half a block away from the main tower. His stride took on a more stringent pace, like a march rather than his usual casual steps. He seemed like an entirely different person, a proper soldier instead of a carefree young mercenary. Citlally might not have recognized him, had she not already known that it was him underneath that helmet and cloak.
A line of guards looked his way as he approached the tower with his prisoners. Jalingan looked curiously through the windows, then at the guards. “So there’s a mess going on in there, too, is there?”
“We’ve managed to seal them off inside the premises, Sevenmoon.” one of the guards told him. “The knights will make sure that they don’t last long.”
“Well, It’s good to know that this nonsense won’t keep me from getting back to my ale and my bed,” Jalingan replied.
“Prime Lord Izan has been demanding to know your whereabouts.” another guard mentioned.
“I’ve been out hunting rabble,” Jalingan explained.
“The prime lord had not wanted you to leave the building while we’re under attack.”
“Surely he’ll be willing to forgive me,” Jalingan said, “when I present to him this bounty.” He yanked on the chains as though to remind them that he had prisoners.
The guards looked to each other. “Let him through,” one of them said. “If Prime Lord Izan wants this mercenary, he gets him.”
Another guard nodded. “I’m not losing my hide over keeping this smelly mammal out. Get up there quick, Sevenmoon.”
They parted, letting Jalingan take his prisoners through, sealing the line again once Dhruv had passed. Jalingan took them through the main doors of the tower. The lobby was a mess of blood and bodies, most of them K’zzyrch. Citlally gasped when she recognized two of Allanah’s people laying in one of the corners. The half-lion grumbled and yanked on the chains again.
“Keep moving!” he ordered. “We don’t have time.”
Once all of them were in the lift, Jalingan guarding the door after he’d pressed one of the many buttons on the panel, he let out a sigh. “They knew they might die,” he reminded them, his voice cold and stern. “They came anyway, just so that we’d have the numbers we needed. Don’t be surprised if you see more bodies.”
“You really know how to play the role, don’t you?” Mannarius asked him.
Jalingan only glared at his cousin. “You wanted me to do whatever it took, didn’t you? Well, this is what it takes.” He glanced over at one of the screens and steeled himself. “Now shut up and follow me.”
The lift came to a stop. Its doors opened. Jalingan stepped out, his prisoners in tow, and the two lines of high-ranking guards – the silver-uniformed knights – stepped forward, weapons ready.
“At ease,” Jalingan told them. “I bring a gift for our ever-noble prime lord.”
The guards straightened, stepped back, and relaxed their weapons. Another pair of guards opened the doors for him.
“His wrath is yours all the same,” one of them warned him.
Jalingan said nothing to him, but led the group through to the prime lord’s chambers. Two of his bodyguards were with Izan, and he sat in the middle of the room, looking as angry as a K’zzyrch possible could.
“Where have you been?” the prime lord demanded, standing up but staying safely behind his guards.
“I heard that there was trouble,” Jalingan explained, “So I went out to help deal with the problem. It should all be over soon, prime lord.”
Izan scowled. “I need you here! You told me that you understood the expectation that you be here to protect me.”
“Of course,” Jalingan replied with a bow. “I hope that you can forgive my forgetfulness, prime lord. If you could only accept these prisoners as a token of my –”
“Shut up, Sevenmoon!” Prime Lord Izan demanded. “You have a lot more to answer to than your absence. Guards, take the prisoners over there and let me talk to Jal.”
The other to bodyguards obeyed without a word to Izan. One of them took the length of chain from Jalingan’s hands, leading Citlally to the other side of the room, and the other followed close on Dhruv’s heels. Jalingan forced himself not to watch them go, and instead took the seat that Izan had indicated, glad that it put his back to his friends.
“As a mercenary,” the prime lord told him, “your first duty is to your master. You forget that far too easily, Sevenmoon.”
“If only I could be as inherently intelligent as you are, my lord,” Jalingan replied.
“Do not play on formalities now,” Izan told him. “You must be of a certain intelligence in order to protect me. I do not brings fools into my service.”
“Of course…” Jalingan replied, nodding to the prime lord.
“My sister has been pining for you all evening,” Izan went on. “Stay here and… entertain her while I decide what to do with the prisoners you have troubled me with.”
Jalingan nodded again as Izan stood up and walked out of the room. Citlally gave Endan and the others a curious look when the white-scaled K’zzyrch emerged from the next room only a few moments later. S’sezelle gave them a wry grin, then headed straight for Jalingan.
“Oh, Jal!” she cried out as she crossed the distance between them. “I’ve been so lonely without you!”
“Is this some sort of love interest he has?” Mannarius grumbled.
“Shut up!” one of the bodyguards ordered, elbowing him in the chest.
Mannarius grunted, nearly doubling over, and decided to hold his tongue.
S’sezelle climbed onto Jalingan’s lap, straddling him with her legs. “Mmmm, I love it when you get so dressed up.” she pulled off his helmet and threw it off to one side. It rolled until it touched the base of the large statue that stood in the middle of the room. “Just like a warrior.”
Jalingan stared at her evenly while she ran her fingers through his hair. “We could play right here, you know,” she said. “The other bodyguards wouldn’t even care.”
“They wouldn’t be jealous?” Jalingan asked her.
S’sezelle giggled. “They’re far too obedient to be jealous.” She leaned in and nuzzled his neck, giving a longing sigh.
“I am very much obedient,” he reminded her. “So obedient that I brought your brother a gift.”
She glanced over at the prisoners as her hands caressed his chest. “I like your uniform,” she whispered, clearly not interested in the prisoners. “You brought so many guns!”
She giggled again, and moved in to kiss him. Citlally turned away, giving her husband a worried look.
“You like them?” Jalingan asked when S’sezelle finally let up. “Let me show you my crossbow.”
Jalingan reached over next to him and took up his crossbow. He held it, pointed towards her belly, and let her look it over. She fawned over how lovely it was, the way the wood hand been worked, the finery added to the metal parts. He watched her all the while, the way she became absorbed in looking it over.
Then, after he’d heard enough of her fascinations, he said, “This is how it fires.”
Jalingan pulled the trigger on the crossbow, sending an iron bolt into S’sezelle’s belly. He raised the weapon while she screeched in surprise and shot another into her throat. As her hands went up to grasp the bolt, he shoved her away, letting her body tumble onto the floor. He crouched down beside her body, wise to the fact that that Izan’s bodyguards would start shooting at any second.
“Lying in your bed has got to be the most disgusting thing I have ever done,” Jalingan grumbled as he listened to the sounds of fighting at the other end of the room. “Good riddance to you!”
S’sezelle could not speak. She could only gurgle as she laid their on the floor, blood pouring out of her wound as Jalingan stared at her impatiently. He narrowed his eyes and crawled around to the edge of the couch, where he peered around to see that his friends had indeed broken free of their cuffs.
The taller guard – who was lean but muscular and wide-shouldered – had a long-sword through his neck. The other one was on the floor, pinned down by Dhruv and Mannarius, Citlally’s spear pointed at his neck.
“Wow,” Jalingan said, taking them all in. “You have no idea how glad I am to see that you really do know how to use those.”
“Well,” Citlally replied, “we wouldn’t want to let you down or anything.”
“Unhand me, you filth!” the bodyguard demanded. Then he glared at Jalingan. “You’ll be blacklisted for this! Worse! You were supposed to be protecting the prime lord!”
Jalingan scoffed and climbed to his feet. “You think that,” he replied with a shrug, “but this is my last job, anyway. You might say that I’m blacklisting myself.”
The bodyguard went into a stream of profane language, shouting at Jalingan until the half-lion was forced to raise his crossbow and send a bolt into his skull.
“Shhh,” Jalingan whispered, “you’ll alert his lordship.”
“He probably already did,” Citlally noted.
“Yeah,” Jalingan said, looking toward the door that Izan had gone through not long ago. “But that won’t matter for long.”
“We’re taking out their lords?” Mannarius asked.
Jalingan nodded. “This is how we put a stop to their terrorizing of the galaxy.”
“Okay then,” Mannarius replied, looking to his co-pilot. Dhruv nodded to him in understanding.
They had only a few minutes to take different positions around the room before the prime lord returned. Jalingan was feeling a growing sense of unease; he reminded himself that he was in the middle of the biggest mission of his life, that has was finally going to succeed at doing what he’d longed to do for so many years.
When the door opened again, Jalingan was sitting in the prime lord’s favorite chair, having made himself comfortable. He had pulled his cloak close around him, his hood down, the crossbow across his lap. He looked up when the hinge creaked and saw Prime Lord Izan looking across the room, scowling.
“What, you accursed mercenary, has happened?” Izan demanded.
“I got tired of your sister’s… mewling,” Jalingan told him. Then he glanced over his shoulder. “Oh, and you really should hire better bodyguards. I seem to be the best one that you have.”
“You dare to speak of betrayal so flagrantly?” Prime Lord Izan asked.
“See,” Jalingan replied, “I’m not the one who is responsible for the deaths of – well, I could not possibly count how many – but all of those lifeforms out there. You don’t care whether they are male, female, child – even the unborn.”
“I care for nothing more than the glory of my world,” Izan told him. “And all those who impede it are destined to die!”
Izan lunged forward, screeching out a horrible sound. Jalingan shot a bolt from his crossbow, but it merely grazed past the prime lord’s shoulder. The scratch only served to anger him further; he raced towards Jalingan undeterred. The half-lion’s hand went to the pistol at his belt, but he had only drawn it halfway when Izan’s body collapsed onto the floor.
“I got him,” a voice said.
It took Jalingan a moment to catch his breath enough to be able to speak, for his eyes to focus on who it was. “Dhruv?” he gasped. “You… you…”
“Yeah,” Dhruv replied, getting to his feet. “He won’t be getting back up.”
Then Jalingan realized that Izan had a needle in his back. “Is that…”
“The anti-venom,” Dhruv confirmed, nodding.
“I didn’t know they were going to train you how to use it.”
“Heh… they didn’t decide until after you’d left.” Dhruv looked over his shoulder, then ducked down behind the statue.
Jalingan looked up at the door; he could hear the footsteps, too. He gestured for the others to hide, then turned to face the front doors of Prime Lord Izan’s home. His cloak fell closed around him, hiding the vast arsenal that he was wearing. He felt as though he was ready for whoever came through the door; they wouldn’t know what they’d just done.
A terrible darkness seemed to fill the room as soon as the doors opened. He could feel his heart beating faster, as though propelled by a sense of dread that he couldn’t shake. As six robed figures filled the room, walking slowly and deliberately, he began to regret having been so bold.
Each and every one of them was taller than him, their faces hidden by the shadows of their black hoods. Their thick robes were all that Jalingan could see of them, and they gave no hint as to who or what laid hidden underneath. They formed a sort of circle around him, and he knew then that he had no escape.
“Jal Sevenmoon,” one of them intoned.
Jalingan turned to face the one who had spoken. The figure did not so much as remove its hood. All he could tell was that it was a K’zzyrch voice. An old one, at that.
“Vaharrish the Glorious is under attack,” the voice went on. “Prime Lord Izan is dead.”
Jalingan had no idea what to say. He just stood there, looking at the figures, trying to understand who they were.
“It is just as well,” another one said. “He did us no real honor.”
That was when Jalingan narrowed his eyes. “You’re… you’re the Dark Apostates, aren’t you?”
“Izan thought you a fool,” the first one noted, “but you know more than you let on.”
“By decree of the highest power in all of Vaharrish the Glorious,” another figure said, “you, Jal Sevenmoon, are to be jailed and kept for questioning.”
“Wait, why –”
“Take the others, too,” one of the Apostates ordered.
Before Jalingan could get another word in, a pair of hands grabbed his arms and twisted them behind his back. When he tried to look at the robed figure over his shoulder, he was held tighter and forced to face forward. All he could do was watch while the figures searched the room, pulling Dhruv from behind the statue, then Endan from under a table. Another of them managed to find Mannarius, who struggled until his shoulder was twisted.
“The female is in the kitchen,” the man holding Jalingan told the two who had no captive. “Her life means nothing to us.”
The other two nodded and stepped into the next room. Jalingan could hear Izan’s mate begging for her life, even trying to reason with the Apostates. Then there was a terrified scream, and at last quiet. The robed figures came back into the main room.
“It is done,” one of them said.
“Then let us go,” the one holding Jalingan intoned. He forced his captive to walk out of the door.
In the hallway, Jalingan could see that every one of the knights had been killed. Their bodies laid in heaps on the ground, right where they’d been posted to stand guard for the prime lord. He dared not ask why they’d met their demise, nor under whose hand.
Jalingan and the others were taken into the lift, riding it down as far as it would go. Not a single one of them dared to breathe a word about Citlally; nobody wanted to clue the Apostates in to the fact that they had missed her. As it was, she might have been their only hope in being released from their jails cells before the capital city was destroyed.