The sequel to Kran’s Fall: Kira’s Struggle
A little over twelve months after the ISV-Kran crash-landed near the grand Sunspire Mountain in a rugged, cliffy part of the ancient Nali planet, the Avenging Angel of the Nali stood looking through a castle window at the expansive plains outside. It was a sunny summer evening on this naturally beautiful world, and outside the castle, hawks wheeled in the sky while the local rabbits hopped around in the grass.
Kira Argmanov was remembering the terrible events that had brought her to this place. For on this day, a year ago by Earth time, she and her fiancé Nikolai Onalopov were to be married. That is, had the gravitational field of the uncharted Nali planet not intervened, causing her to be stranded here and captured by the Skaarj, while her fiancé and best friend were killed in pursuit of her captors. She looked down a little and fingered the handle of the assault rifle that she was dangling from her left hand. A lot had happened in the last year. After her friends and lover had been slaughtered, she had decided to abandon her history with Earth and stay here to help the Nali fight off their cruel oppressors. Getting the Nali to fight had been no easy feat, but she had taught a group of monks the arts of warfare as best she could, and she and her band of brave resistance fighters had left their bluff monastery on a quest to liberate the planet.
Systematically, Kira and her band of fighters had cleared out every Skaarj installation they had come upon. It hadn’t been an easy journey, and Kira had lost many good Nali friends along the way… but she had also made new ones, for as they liberated Nali villages occupied by the Skaarj, their party had gained members who saw the veracity of her cause.
Now she was here. Kira and her band of fighters, having destroyed slew after slew of Skaarj occupation forces, had settled at an abandoned castle in the plains of the Na Lati coast, a world away from the mountainous ranges where the ISV-Kran had crashed all those months ago.
Kira and the others had been living here for about a month. In the months prior to their settlement here, the number of Skaarj they had encountered had slackened off, as if their grip on the planet was weakening. And suddenly, they were gone; The Nali of the villages the travellers passed through told joyously of the departure of the terrible Sky Demons some time previously. They told that the sins of the Nali had been forgiven, and that the gods had recalled their minions. To Kira and her followers, the reality was different. The Skaarj had fled. With their numbers being whittled down, and their Mothership (so they had discovered) abandoned and decaying, the Skaarj had returned to their home world – occupying this planet wasn’t worth the losses any more. And so Kira and her followers had settled in this place, and so far it had been relatively peaceful.
Occasionally, the castle came under attack by the odd band of Mercenaries, cyborg beings from a federation who set out to loot primitive planets of their natural and biological resources. On each of these occasions, Kira and her followers fended off the attacks with accustomed skill and resilience. On one occasion, a rogue band of Krall had arrived at the castle gates, led by a Krall whom Kira recognised as Hrang, her old jailer and tormentor from when she had been a prisoner of the Skaarj at the Bluff Eversmoking monastery. The group of Krall had made a token gesture to take over the castle, but when they had seen the resolve with which Kira and the band of Nali were willing to defend their home, their attack soon faltered. Now, these Krall guarded the castle gates for Kira and her followers, in exchange for food and for accommodation in the castle’s cellars.
So here she was, staring out of the window of her large bedchamber, and remembering the past. But then she checked herself. What lay in the past lay in the past. Life went on, and the future was what lay ahead.
Kira was distracted from her contemplations by a rustle from the curtain that covered the entrance to her bedchamber. She looked round and saw a pair of green eyes peeping round the edge of the drape. Kira smiled.
“Come in, Kuuna.” Kira said to the new arrival. Kuuna was one of Kira’s oldest Nali friends – he had been the brother of Bluff Eversmoking monks Kruun and Kriin. Both were now dead, but Kruun had been the brave Nali who had freed her from Skaarj imprisonment at the expense of his own life. Kira would be forever indebted to Kruun for this act.
Kuuna pushed the curtain aside and entered the chamber.
“You have been very quiet today.” He said to Kira. Kira looked round and smiled.
“I’ve just been remembering the past.” She said.
“Your friends?” Kuuna enquired.
“Yes. They died trying to save me.”
“I know,” Kuuna put an arm round Kira’s shoulder, “but they have gone to a better place. They are with the Gods of the Good Lore now.”
“You’re right. But what happens now? The Skaarj are gone… yet I still don’t feel that I’ve avenged their deaths.”
“Our quest will never truly be over. Should darkness ever return to this planet, we must be here to dispel it. Take a walk with me. You’ll feel better afterwards.”
Kira and her friend left the bedchamber and stepped into a small stone hall outside. From there, a narrow spiral staircase descended clockwise, past another small hall, soon arriving in the large main dining hall of the castle. They crossed the plush blue carpet, passing the large stone table with its twenty-six seats, and proceeded through a large double door into the front atrium of the castle. From there, steps descended into the walled grounds of the fortress, through which Hrang’s band of Krall guards paced up and down on patrol.
They turned right and walked through the grounds. Soon they came to a stream, which ran beneath the outer wall of the fortress and was the castle’s main water supply. Kira knelt down and had a drink from the stream, then washed her face. She did feel a little better after that.
There was a sudden disturbance on top of the outer wall. Kira looked up as one of the Krall guards cried out something in its croaky language and started waving its concussion staff around madly. Another Krall on the wall sprinted along to the location of the first and looked in the direction the first was pointing. The two began talking animatedly. Kuuna was already pegging it across the grounds to the nearest staircase to the top of the wall, so Kira set off in pursuit, startling a grazing Nali rabbit, which hopped into the stream with a splash.
As Kuuna and Kira scrambled up the top step and onto the wall, there was a deafening roar as a space ship of some kind flew low at high speed right over their heads. Kuuna put his hands to the ears, and the Krall uttered curses in their guttural voices. As quickly as it had come, the ship was gone, disappearing over the tops of the foothills to the south.
“What was that?” Kuuna gasped.
Kira was looking at the hilltops where the ship had disappeared.
“I don’t know,” she said, “it wasn’t a design of ship that I recognised.”
“What should we do about it?”
“I think we should check it out. Take a party of three and head in the direction it flew in. See if you can find where it’s landed, who was on it and what its intentions are.”
“I’ll set off tonight.”
Some days later, Kira was pacing round the main dining hall, crossing as she paced through the beams of coloured sunlight which streamed from the stained glass windows on the outer wall of the room, at the far end from the main doors, shining clearly through the floating dust. Three days had passed since Kuuna and three other Nali had set off southwards in search of the landing site of the strange ship, and there had been no sign of his return.
What had happened to Kuuna? Kira entertained a harrowing picture of Kuuna strung up in a darkened cell in a cold alien ship. Had he fallen from a cliff whilst on the run from hostile alien forces? Or maybe he was just taking his time. Whichever way, Kira was anxiously awaiting news of his return. She wanted to know who had landed to the south, and her friend was the only one who could give her the answer.
Kira paused in her pacing as Hrang, leader of the Krall guards, stepped in through the dining hall doors.
“My guards wanted to inform you,” Hrang announced, “that they have sighted a band of three Nali approaching from the south. They believe it is Kuuna and two of his party.”
“Thanks.” Kira replied, with a nod, and a sense of relief. Kuuna and two of his party had returned. But where was the third?
Hrang left the dining hall. Kira followed him, stepping out into the evening sun and heading for the steps to the wall above the main front gates, which opened out to the west, the coast behind the castle to the east. She looked southwards and saw the three Nali crossing the plain in the distance. She smiled with relief, and then descended the wall steps, instructing one of the Krall guards to make preparations for their return.
It was some time later when Kira finally had a chance to question Kuuna. When he and his party had returned, he had been exhausted, and he had somehow received several bruises, a burn on his chest, and some worryingly familiar slash-marks on his upper left arm. Kira had instructed Kuuna and the other two to wash and take a rest before trying to tell her any details. Kuuna had complied without complaint.
Now, Kira encountered Kuuna in the dining hall, and he looked a lot better than he had on his return. Kira had asked Kuuna if he was ready to talk, and Kuuna had replied yes.
“So… what happened? Who was it?” She asked. Kuuna sat down at a chair.
“It was the Skaarj.” Kuuna replied, “It seems they have returned.”
Kira looked levelly at Kuuna, and sat down herself.
“Why are they here? What is there here for them now?” She asked. Kuuna’s reply was one word.
“They’re here for me?” she asked.
“They want to colonise the planet again,” Kuuna replied, “but they want you, and the rest of us, out of the way first. We encountered them in a Nali town. They almost killed us all, but in the end the three of us got away.”
“I see…” Kira said.
“Surely we must leave this place?” Kuuna said, “If the Skaarj are after your head, we are a sitting target here.”
“No.” Kira replied.
“So what are we going to do?”
“The same thing we did before…” Kira said, “We’ll have to find their ship, and not leave until every one of those creatures is dead. Then, maybe the home planet will get the message that this planet just isn’t worth their colonising.”
Kira arose from her seat.
“We should rest now… we’ll be leaving tomorrow at first light.” Kira said.
So at first light, Kira stood at the main gates of the castle with a selected party of three Nali. Kuuna was one of them, and with him were the two other Nali who had returned from the previous mission. One of these two Nali was Huratha, a strong, dependable Nali townsperson from the harbour town of Na Lati to the east, whose feet normally stayed on the ground. The other was one of the Bluff Eversmoking monks, and an old friend to Kira, who went by the name of Juura. Juura had also lost a brother during the Skaarj occupation of their monastery, and although timid, was committed to the cause the resistance movement had followed.
Over the night some of Kira’s other followers had packed supplies for the band to carry. They now each wore a tough backpack made from the roughly woven fibre of the local Tintsaea plant, and each backpack contained a blanket, a variety of foodstuffs, gourds of water, some bandages, and a supply of the dried, powdered form of the berries of the local healing plant. To complete their equipment, each of them carried a couple of weapons and a supply of ammo.
Kuuna was instructing one of the Krall guards about things that were to be attended to in their absence, but now the discussion seemed to be drawing to a close. Kuuna turned to look at Kira.
“I think we can leave now.” he told Kira.
Kira looked at the other Nali who were to travel with them. Huratha and Juura nodded their agreement.
“Okay, let’s move out.” She announced.
The Krall guard pulled a lever, which opened the main castle gates. In single file, Kira, Kuuna and the others stepped out onto the earth beyond and set off southwards once more towards the foothills as the early sun lit the sky with a tinge of red.
It was a long day, walking across the scrubby plains, and by dusk it saw the four travellers set up camp in an open grassy clearing, with the foothills now not so far away to the south. Kira fell asleep under the gradually appearing stars as the light faded and the campfire crackled at her feet.
It was some time later when Kira was awakened by a rustling nearby. It was fully dark now, but, upon looking slowly up, she could clearly see a small, reptilian creature sniffing around in the light of the dwindling campfire. It looked like a small dinosaur. It was nosing around Huratha’s backpack, perhaps scenting the Nali rabbit meat within. Kira reached out to the left and gently shook the slumbering form of Kuuna. Kuuna stirred and awoke. Kira hushed him before he could say anything.
“There’s a strange creature investigating Huratha’s pack. Do you recognise it?” She whispered to the Nali. Kuuna looked across at the creature.
“No, I do not.” Kuuna whispered back. The creature looked up from the backpack and regarded them with a beady eye.
“Do you think it’s hostile?” Kira asked, being careful not to move too fast.
“Hard to tell,” Kuuna replied, “but it looks like a carnivore.”
Juura began to stir on his blanket.
“No, not now…” Kira whispered apprehensively. The back of Juura’s head was only inches from the small creature’s face.
Juura opened his eyes and rolled over, coming face to face with the small carnivore. His eyes widened with surprise, and with a shocked “Qupada”, Juura sat up in a flash, startling the creature. The creature uttered a scream, and ran away.
Kira breathed a sigh of relief. She had been expecting the reaction to be a lot nastier.
“What was that?” Juura asked, panting.
“We don’t know.” Kira replied. Huratha stirred on his own blanket, uttering something in the Nali language that Kira’s translator didn’t pick up, and began to awake.
“It looked quite a nasty little creature,” Juura said, “I’m glad it ran away.”
Huratha sat up and enquired what was going on. From somewhere more distant there was the sound of the creature screaming again, echoed by another scream some way further off.
“We were just being investigated by a small reptile, but it ran away. I can still hear it calling in the distance.” Kira informed Huratha.
There was another scream, now not so distant. Then, two more screams from slightly different bearings. Then three of the small reptiles burst into the campsite at once, growling. Quickly standing up, Kira reached automatically for the dispersion pistol strapped to her belt and activated it.
The others followed suit, standing up to face the creatures. The creatures descended as a pack on Juura and started biting at his ankles. Juura yelped in pain, reaching for a knife attached to his loincloth, and jumping backwards to avoid the vicious small creatures’ jaws.
Kira raised her dispersion pistol and took a pot shot at one of the three creatures. It cried out in irritation and pain, turning to attack Kira instead. The other two creatures paused in momentary disorientation. Huratha, also armed with a knife, pounced on one of the two creatures and grabbed it around the neck, swiftly slitting its throat.
Kuuna delivered a kick to the other creature that was attacking Juura, while Kira finished off the creature that had turned on herself. Realising that its companions were both dead, the creature kicked by Kuuna screeched and pelted off through the undergrowth back out into the darkened plain.
Helping Juura to bandage his bitten leg, Kuuna asked, “What do you think they were?”
“Some kind of pack hunting creature, I guess.” Kira replied. Huratha scrambled to his feet, wiping the blood of the pack hunter he had slain off his hand on to a nearby plant.
“I recall seeing something like that before, when I was a child.” he said, “I was playing in a clearing just outside Na Lati town with a friend, and a couple of them arrived at the fringes of the clearing and just stood there, watching us. They gave us the creeps, so we headed back home. But I haven’t seen one in many a cycle.”
“So are they native to this planet?” Kira asked.
“I think they probably are.” Huratha replied.
Kuuna had finished bandaging Juura’s leg, and was applying a small amount of the powdered healing fruit to the area around the bandaged wound.
“Juura needs to rest now. He should be able to walk by the morning.” He said.
“Okay, let’s try to get some more sleep. I guess we’ll have another long day ahead of us tomorrow.” Kira said.
Huratha volunteered to stay on guard in case the pack hunters returned. Able then to relax, Kira and the others lay down once more and tried to get to sleep.
At first light, the travellers awoke to find Huratha slumbering at his post. But there had been no evident return of the pack hunting creatures, so they put their possessions in their backpacks and set off across the plains once more.
By midday, Kira’s party had reached the foothills, negotiating their slopes and then the ridges of the steeper hills beyond which formed the lower peaks of a large mountain range. At this point, Kuuna had indicated that they were near their destination.
Kira led the climb up a rocky mountain trail. They had been following the line of a cliff for some time, but now the trail sloped steeply upwards, taking them to the top of the cliff, onto a narrow, flat ridge with a view of a shallow valley beyond. Nestled in the valley was a large Nali village.
“Avenati Town.” Kuuna announced, “This is where my party was attacked by the Skaarj.”
Kira surveyed the view. In the centre of the town, a grass clearing had at its centre a tall statue of a Nali with its arms spread out wide, set high upon a pedestal in the middle of a large water fountain. Around this fountain were clustered a variety of market stalls, although from this distance and elevation, Kira and the others could not tell what the stalls were selling. Nali could be seen going about their business, buying produce at the shops and carrying it away in rough sacks.
Not so far away from their vantage point and more steeply below them, were clustered the modest houses in which the Nali lived. Some had smoke emerging from their chimneys, suggesting warm, open fires within. Directly below them at a base of a sheer cliff was a small paved square with a tree at its centre. In this square stood a small church, and a building with large double doors and a swinging sign which could only be an inn.
“I don’t see any Skaarj.” Juura said.
“No…” Kuuna agreed, “The Skaarj must have left again. There weren’t enough of them to establish any kind of tactical control.”
“I suggest we go to that inn,” Kira said, pointing down at the building below, “Maybe they can answer some of our questions.”
Kuuna lead the others along the ridge, shortly arriving at the top of a sloping trail that traversed the cliff, descending towards the inn square. The four of them walked down the slope, warming up, as they were sheltered from the mountaintop breeze. Soon they arrived in the square, and were able to observe the scene from ground level.
The inn was an old stone building. Round stained glass windows to either side flanked the double doors at its front. Above the door, the roof sloped from low edges up to a point at the top. At the far end of the building, a chimney stood at the centre of the pitch, the smoke rising from it scenting the air with a pleasant smell of burning logs.
The church was little more than a chapel; there must have been others in the village to accommodate all the worshippers. But none the less, it had its own small spire with a belfry beneath it, in which were housed a pair of bells. A couple of houses stood at the third side of the square, while the cliff stood behind them. Small lanes wound off between the buildings, but the main thoroughfare out of the square was a wide road that led off past the inn towards the centre of the settlement.
The travellers opened the doors of the inn, which Kuuna explained was called “The Cow’s Head”, and stepped inside. It took a moment to adjust to the sudden darkness compared to the midday sun outside, but soon Kira was able to discern the tables and stone pillars of the atmospherically lantern-lit establishment they had entered. Between the round stained glass windows that flanked the room, exotic and colourful tapestries were hung on the walls. A warm log fire blazed in the grate at the far end of the chamber, while a bar was located in the far left corner. In the far right hand corner, a steep staircase ascended to an upper level in the roof space of the establishment.
Kira led the Nali to the bar, where the bartender was polishing a glass.
“Can I help you?” the Nali asked, looking up.
“Yes, we were wondering if you could provide us with a room where we could rest tonight.”
“Certainly…” the Nali began.
“And some information.” Kira interrupted.
“What do you want to know?”
Kuuna leaned over the bar and spoke quietly to the bartender.
“What happened to the Skaarj? The ones who visited a couple of days ago. There was a fight.”
“Yes, I remember.” The bartender said with consternation, “I don’t know where they went, they just left.”
“We believe they are searching for us. Once they capture or kill us, they will set about re-taking this planet.”
“Are you sure?” the bartender replied, looking scared.
“Certain.” Kira replied. “We want to know where they are based, so we can take the fight to them and send them away again.”
“I’m afraid I do not know. Maybe the traders at the market will be able to help you. But they will be packing up their stalls now. Stop by in the morning.”
“Thank you.” Kira replied with a smile, “Now how about that room?”
It must have been at around midnight when Kira was awakened from her slumber by a loud banging at the door of the modest room the travellers were sharing in the roof spaces of the inn. Juura was already awake in the darkness, and looking in fear at the door. The others were just starting to stir in their beds. Kira sat up, removing the rough blanket from on top of her. Juura was trembling.
“It is the Skaarj.” He whimpered, “I heard their voices.”
Kira, Kuuna and Huratha reached for their weapons. Juura watched for a few moments more, and then tentatively drew his dispersion pistol. Kira had chosen her assault rifle, while Huratha and Kuuna wielded ASMDs.
“Are you ready for this? Kira asked, keeping her eyes on the door. Kuuna and Huratha nodded. Then, there was a sickening crunch as the door parted with its hinges and fell inwards, crushing Kuuna’s backpack, which lay at the foot of his bed. Framed in the doorway, backed by light from the lanterns in the corridor, was the hulking figure of a Skaarj assassin.
Without saying a word, the Skaarj fired a single shot at Kira, the energy pulses emanating from its claws. Kira dodged aside and the shot missed. The Skaarj entered the room, followed by a pair of troopers with dispersion pistols.
The ensuing melee in the small room was chaos. Kira concentrated her fire on the assassin, but was knocked down by a shot from one of the troopers. Struggling to sit up, she heard Juura cry out in pain. Huratha was calling gruff warnings to Kuuna, although she couldn’t make out what he was saying. Then there was a thump and Huratha was silent. She looked up and shot a rifle slug between the eyes of one of the troopers, whose head came right off, rolling out into the corridor. Then there was a ‘whack’ as the assassin pounded Kira hard in the chest with the broadside of its claws. She was propelled over her small bed, flying until she hit a roof beam. She saw stars and felt a pain in her head, then was enveloped by blackness.
Kira came to, feeling a gentle shaking. It was Juura, kneeling nearby, shaking her by the shoulder. One of his left arms did not seem to be functioning, and his right leg seemed similarly impaired.
“Wake up… wake up… he was repeating.
“I’m awake. What happened?”
“I was injured. The Skaarj left. They took Kuuna.”
Kira tried to sit bolt upright, but failed as a lance of pain shot up from her chest.
“Looks like I’ve cracked my ribs again.” She winced.
Juura was trying to drag himself over to the prone Huratha. Kira stopped him, shaking her head.
“I’m in better shape than you. Let me do it.” She told the Nali. Juura nodded and subsided back down, resting on his right arms, which weren’t broken.
Kira crawled over to Huratha, wincing in pain as her cracked ribs announced themselves again. She shook him gently by the shoulder. Huratha groaned, and then pulled himself up a little.
“Are you hurt?” Kira asked.
“Only bruised, I think.” Huratha replied.
“The Skaarj took Kuuna prisoner.” Kira told him.
“Then we have to follow them…” Huratha said, starting to get up.
“Wait.” Kira halted him, holding one of his arms, “Juura was badly hurt. He’s in no state to travel.”
Juura looked round.
“I’m not going to be fit to go on tomorrow. You’ll have to look for Kuuna without me. I’d only slow you down.” He said.
“But…” Huratha began.
“I think he’s right, Huratha, he’ll be safer staying at the inn to recuperate.” Kira replied, “Help me get him on to the bed.”
Huratha stood up. Kira grabbed Juura around the upper shoulders, trying not to put too much pressure on her cracked ribs. Huratha took Juura around the waist and the good leg. Together, they heaved the monk onto the nearest bed.
“Will you be okay?” Kira asked Juura.
“I can tend to my wounds myself. The fruit powder will help me heal.” Juura replied. Kira nodded.
“So what do we do now?” Huratha asked Kira.
“Nothing we can do for the moment. Tomorrow, when the market is trading again, we can ask around, see if any of the traders have any idea where the Skaarj are or which direction they are travelling from. Let’s get some rest for now.”
So once again, Kira and Huratha lay down on their beds and tried to get some rest before the day to come.
Dawn broke over Avenati town. The traders set up their stalls in the market square. The local Nali started going about their daily business. Few mentioned the Skaarj. Not many had been witness to the Skaarj dragging the limp form of a Nali monk down the main streets of the town.
Kira descended the stairs of the inn, and walked over to the bar, where a slightly morose bartender was again polishing glasses.
“Morning.” Kira said.
“Good morning to you.” The bartender replied, but the shadows under his eyes told otherwise.
“Long night?” Kira asked.
“The Skaarj who came here last night caused a lot of damage. I have been repairing tables and sweeping up broken glasses.”
Kira looked down at the wooden bar top.
“I’m sorry.” She said.
“Don’t be. I know of the great gratitude the Nali owe you and your followers. You must do what you must. But I pray that the Skaarj will not visit my tavern again.”
“I hope that if we are successful, that will not be an issue.” Kira said.
“We all do, and we wish you well.” The bartender replied.
“One of my friends was injured in the attack.” Kira told the bartender, “He’ll be staying here to recuperate. Please could you check occasionally to see if he’s okay?”
The bartender nodded.
There was a scuffling noise as Huratha descended the wooden staircase with their backpacks. Kira walked over to him and took one off him. Then, they walked across the stone floor to the exit of the inn. Kira looked over her shoulder and called a last word to the bartender.
The bartender nodded.
It was becoming a bright, sunny morning. Avenati town was already awake, and alive. A passer by greeted Kira and Huratha, who returned the gesture.
“You wouldn’t think that the Skaarj attacked this town only last night.” Huratha said to Kira.
The duo turned up the main street and walked down the centre of it. Some way ahead along the straight, paved road, the market was already bustling. A Nali came by in the other direction, carrying a rough sack stuffed with meats and vegetables. A resident Nali opened a window of one of the small houses that flanked this road to either side. Kira and Huratha walked on, passing a barn from within which could be heard the sounds of Nali cows uttering their mournful call.
Kira and Huratha passed more places of interest. Another chapel, a walled garden within which benches and trees could be glimpsed through an open archway, and a larger, more important looking building that could have been a town hall. Shortly, they reached the market.
At the centre of the market, the Nali statue stood proud on its pedestal surrounded by the raised water pool. Some locals drank from the pool. Kira and her friend meandered through the stalls, seeing racks of meats, cheeses, herbs and root vegetables. One Nali was selling hay. The other was selling knives and other implements, while a further stall sold pot plants. There was a stall for pottery, a stall selling a selection of richly decorated rugs, and then a quieter, slightly out of place stall that was selling flares, bandages and what looked like ammunition for an automag or minigun. Huratha gestured towards the trader at this stall.
“Maybe we should try him. He looks like he gets about a bit.”
The two of them walked over to the store. The storekeeper looked up as they arrived.
“Can I help you?” he said.
“We’re looking for some information.” Kira replied.
“You’re Kira Argmanov, aren’t you? The Avenging Angel? I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Yes…” Kira said, slightly surprised.
“You’re a big name in these parts. What is it you want to know?”
“It’s about the Skaarj.” Kira replied.
“That doesn’t surprise me.” The storekeeper responded, looking at the assault rifle strapped to Kira’s back. He reached under the counter and brought out a box of rifle rounds. “You might find this useful.”
“Thanks.” Kira replied, taking down her backpack and rummaging in it for a silver coin, which she handed to the Nali in exchange for the ammunition.
“One of our friends was captured by the Skaarj last night.” Huratha told the trader, “We are searching for them. We need to know which way they went, so that we can locate their base.”
“I see…” the trader replied.
Kira put the box of ammunition into her backpack and re-shouldered it. There was a slight complaint from her ribs, but the fruit powder had helped a great deal over night.
“Did you see anything last night? Or hear anything about it?” she asked the trader.
“My friend Thasjiis, who lives on the main road out of Avenati at the south end of town, says he saw two Skaarj last night. He was woken up by their voices and saw them through his window. They leaving town by the southeast valley, and they had a Nali prisoner in tow.” The storekeeper replied.
“Where does this valley lead?” Huratha asked.
“It’s mountainous terrain to the southeast of the town.” The storekeeper replied, “The land to the southeast of here is mostly valleys and cliffs, right across to the coast.”
“Where do you think the Skaarj might have landed?” Kira asked the trader. The storekeeper thought for a moment, rubbing his chin with one of his four hands.
“The only place I can think of that is suitably large and flat, is the bluff of Shokkar. It’s the ruins of an old fortress, a holy place to us now. It’s a tall rock plateau that stands surrounded by a lake on the coast. A ship could easily land there.”
“Thank you.” Kira said to the trader, “You’ve been very helpful.”
Kira and Huratha headed off through the market, towards a road that the storekeeper indicated lead to the southeast gate of the town. They passed by more of the simple native houses and a couple more chapels as they walked down the cobbled street. A bird wheeling high in the sky above called out to the world.
“Do you think the trader was right?” Huratha asked Kira as they approached the southeast gate of Avenati town.
“I say we take him on faith… unless you have any other ideas.” Kira replied. Huratha shook his head.
The bird continued to wheel and call, as Kira and Huratha passed under the archway, leaving Avenati town behind them.
The jailer, a hulking Skaarj Trooper, whacked Kuuna hard across the chest with the side of his dispersion pistol. Kuuna flew back against the wall, winded. The chains that kept him fastened to the wall of the dungeon clanked as he fell. Kuuna looked up at the Skaarj, his eyes smouldering with a dim hatred.
“I have nothing to say to you.” He replied.
The jailer knelt down, his own, red eyes glaring back down into those of Kuuna.
“You will talk. You pathetic Nali always do.”
Reaching up as best he could with his manacled limbs, Kuuna ripped the universal translator the Skaarj had provided from its thread around his neck and flung the device at the feet of his Skaarj captor. After a brief silence in which only eye contact was exchanged, the Skaarj picked up the translator, uttering a growl in its native language that Kuuna could not comprehend, then climbed the stairs that ascended to the surface. Kuuna was once again left alone in the dungeon.
Kuuna had regained consciousness as he and the Skaarj raiding party that had captured him crossed a lake in a small jet launch. They had arrived at the dock of a large bluff that stood high in the middle of the water, and climbed a ledge that ascended the cliff. Atop the bluff, Kuuna recognised the ship that had flown low over the Na Lati castle. It was seated in the middle of the ruins of some kind of old fortress, a building that must once have stood proud atop this plateau. He had been dragged by his captors towards a flight of steps that descended underground by one of the outer walls, and deposited in this dungeon.
After some time had passed, the Skaarj jailer had arrived equipped with a translator unit, which he had tied around Kuuna’s neck. The Skaarj had started asking questions – where Kuuna’s organisation was based, how many of them there formed this organisation – and Kuuna had answered none of them. The jailer had become increasingly frustrated, and had now evidently left before he could become sufficiently angered as to kill Kuuna before his questions had been answered.
The Skaarj jailer ascended into the cold, moist air atop the plateau, and shivered. This was a miserable planet. But it was tactically important and, as he, Vrathi’Naar, understood it, the empire wanted to re-take the planet. What Vrathi’Naar did not understand, was how the Skaarj occupation had fallen at the hands of a couple of Terrans and a few miserable Nali in the first place – it seemed utterly incongruous.
A Skaarj in the blue-gold officer’s uniform emerged from the landing craft and walked over to Vrathi’Naar. The officer uttered an instruction in the Skaarj language.
“The prisoner will not talk.” Vrathi’Naar replied.
K’tha’Rath, first talon of the Ssa’Rath, an old and warlike order of the Skaarj that was much respected amongst their peers, replied:
“Proceed to level two interrogation.”
“Understood.” Vrathi’Naar acknowledged the instruction.
K’tha’Rath walked back towards the landing ship. So far, the plan seemed to be working. Skaarj high command was aware of the threat posed by the Nali resistance movement headed by the Terran classified as Kira Argmanov. It was absurd that a race so superior as the Skaarj should be defeated by so few individuals, but it had happened regardless, and K’tha’Rath was under strict instructions not to let it happen again.
Nor did he intend to let it. The raiding party had reported the presence of a party of four individuals led by the Terran in the town known to the natives as Avenati. One member of the party had been apprehended and was now in Skaarj custody. K’tha’Rath considered it a sure thing, based on the known behavioural patterns of the Terran and its followers, that the remainder of the party would attempt to rescue their comrade. And when this happened, the Skaarj would be ready, and the fools would be placed at an insurmountable disadvantage.
But before the creatures concerned could be eliminated, it was necessary to establish the location of the organisation’s home base. Then, the Skaarj could lead an armed assault on their location, and crush the resistance once and for all. When this was done, the Skaarj would be able to colonise this planet again. And this time, the occupation would not tumble.
K’tha’Rath re-entered the ship, plans forming in his mind.
Kuuna tried for the thirtieth time to break one of his manacles free from the wall. And, for the thirtieth time, it was solid. He sagged in his chains while he tried to figure out a way to escape.
Kuuna surveyed the dungeon. There was nothing to see that could be useful. It was just a square room, with sets of manacles placed around the walls, and the staircase to the surface on the far side of the room.
There was a noise of footsteps as the jailer arrived again, descending the steps ahead. This time, he was armed with a two-pronged rod attached to an insulated handle and power pack – a device Kuuna didn’t much like the look of.
Jailer Vrathi’Naar pushed a button on the device and a display lit up, showing a message written in the angular Skaarj alphabet. Suddenly, he thrust the prod into Kuuna’s chest. A terrible, burning pain erupted where the prod contacted Kuuna’s body, as hundreds of volts coursed through his flesh. While Kuuna quivered from the shock, the Skaarj attached the translator round the Nali’s neck once more.
“Now… let’s see if you are ready to answer some questions.” The Skaarj growled.
Beyond the southeast gate of Avenati town, a high-sided, rocky canyon sloped gently uphill, twisting and turning as it went. Every so often the grassy floor was interrupted by a tree or rock mesa. As Kira and Huratha rounded a crest, they arrived at a plateau where the canyon forked two ways. A signpost stood here; to the east, it pointed down a long, descending canyon, at the distant far end of which the sun could be seen glinting off the ocean. For this direction, the sign read “Shahari Bay”. While to the south, continued the twisting canyon they had followed so far. For this route, the sign read “Lake Shokkar”.
“I guess we continue south.” Kira suggested on reading this. The travellers took the right fork, continuing along the meandering canyon.
The canyon led gently uphill for another half mile or so. At the top of its sloping path, it widened out to reveal an open plateau. Shallow cliffs rose to either side. At the far side of the plateau, a small cluster of simple Nali habitations centralised around a well-trodden clearing with a pump at its centre. Between the travellers and this settlement stood a large, wide chasm. On the right, a great waterfall cascaded down the cliff from above, water emanating from some underground watercourse flowing from somewhere to the west. On the left, the chasm continued on between the cliffs, presumably heading off towards the sea.
Kira and Huratha walked towards the gulf and looked down. Kira grabbed one of Huratha’s arms and gasped. Beneath them, water from the waterfall coursed over sharp rapids in a raging torrent as it tried to escape from the narrow bottom of the chasm. While the chasm was wide at the top, and the far side was a sheer vertical rock face, this side of the chasm was rocky and uneven, sloping down to meet the narrow water channel at the bottom.
There had been a wooden plank bridge across the gulf. Where they were standing, a pair of strong wooden pegs was buried in the rocky ground. A similar pair was placed opposite them on the far side of the canyon. Beneath them, two ropes trailed down the rocky incline, with the occasional broken wooden plank still attached.
“How are we going to get across there now?” Kira said, observing the wrecked crossing.
Huratha looked down the chasm, scanning from left to right.
“Look…” he said, pointing suddenly to the base of the waterfall. Kira followed the line of his finger, and saw what her companion had observed. A small wooden jetty protruded from the base of the rushing cascade, with a lantern suspended from a post at its denouement. Looking at the rocky slope beneath them, it was now possible to discern a precarious-looking footpath that descended their side of the chasm.
“Do you think we can traverse that?” Huratha asked dubiously.
“It doesn’t look like we have much choice.” Kira replied, “Maybe there’s another way through from down there.”
The pair walked to the far end of the cliff edge from the waterfall, where the rudimentary path began. Kira went first, with Huratha covering her back in case she slipped.
The ground was shaly and awkward. Small rocks threatened to slip out from under Kira’s feet, while at times the path became very steep or very narrow. Huratha kept a hand on her left arm all the while, while he held on to the cliff with his right hands to keep them both steady. At one point Kira’s feet slipped from under her, but Huratha caught her by the waist with his fourth arm before she could fall.
Eventually, the two of them reached the bottom of the tricky slope, where a ledge followed round to meet the jetty as it passed through the waterfall. The roar of the cascade was deafening, but over the sound they could faintly hear the “chink, chink” of stone on metal. They looked at each other, shrugged, and then walked through the waterfall into a cave beyond.
As they entered the cave, the roar of the waterfall took on a lower, more reverberating, but quieter tone, and Kira and Huratha were once more able to hear sounds besides that of rushing water.
Within the cave, a Nali was using a stone hammer to bash a piece of metal on an anvil into the shape of a sword blade. Concentrating on his work, he didn’t notice the new arrivals at first. But then, he saw them out of the corner of his eye and looked up.
“Haboujii!” the blacksmith uttered, a little surprised. Kira’s universal translator interpreted this as “Hello.”
“Hi.” Kira said. There was a pause, during which the blacksmith just looked at them, as if searching for words.
“Forgive me.” The blacksmith said at length, “I don’t normally get many visitors down here. At least, they don’t normally arrive by that route.” He gestured at the waterfall.
“The bridge was down.” Huratha replied.
“Yes.” the blacksmith said, understanding now. “The Skaarj cut it down when they came through our village last night.”
“They came through this valley?” Kira asked.
“Most definitely. Gave us all the frights of our lives. We all thought the Skaarj were gone. It’s normally very quiet up here. There’s been a lot of talk about it in the village this morning.”
“I’ll bet there was.” Kira said.
“So what brings you to the village?” the blacksmith enquired.
“We’re looking for the Skaarj landing site.” Kira replied, “I’m glad to hear that we’re on the right track.”
The blacksmith nodded. “I’ll guess it’s best not to ask why?”
“We’re on a mission. Did the Skaarj have a captive?” Kira asked.
“Yes, a single Nali.” The blacksmith replied.
“He was one of our party. We were looking for the Skaarj landing site – we were told that they might landed on the bluff of Shokkar. We mean to send them back to where they belong. And, now, to rescue our friend.”
“You must be the avenging angel.” The blacksmith said.
“Some have called me that.” Kira replied, a little embarrassed.
The blacksmith smiled. “My name is Kuri.” He said, “I was born in Avenati Town, which I guess you’ve just come from.”
“Yes, that’s the one.” Kira nodded.
“Well, I suppose you’ll want to be on your way…” Kuri said, “follow me.”
The blacksmith picked up a lantern from atop a stack of barrels nearby and led Kira and Huratha through the cave. He made a left turn, taking the travellers up a long, curving tunnel that climbed towards the surface, eventually emerging behind the Nali houses across the chasm from where Kira and Huratha had started out.
“Lake Shokkar is about two hours’ trek southwards from here.” Kuri told the travellers, “You’ll know when you get there. There’s a small harbour town on this side of the lake that goes by the name of Nalipal. There’s an inn there, you’ll be able to get a rest if you so choose.”
“Thanks, Kuri,” Kira said, “we appreciate the help.”
“My pleasure. It’s not every day you get to help your avenging angel. Good luck on your quest.” Kuri said. He tipped the travellers a wave, and headed back off down his tunnel.
The walk from Kuri’s village took Kira and Huratha down a picturesque canyon that led southeast from the plateau. Kira and Huratha stopped for lunch in a clearing about half a mile down this valley.
Sitting on a rock, the travellers pulled their preserved Nali rabbit meat out of their backpacks. It was still good, although they had been on the go for two and a half days now.
“How are we going to proceed from here?” Huratha asked, munching away at a piece of his rabbit meat.
“Let’s see if we can pick up some more supplies in the town. I think we may need them.” Kira replied, “Then let’s try to get straight across to the bluff – Kuuna’s life may be in danger and I don’t want to linger longer than we have to.”
Kira and Huratha returned to their meal, and finished it in silence. Disposing of the bones behind their rock, they stood up and set off once more down the canyon.
Before too long, the travellers were marching down onto a dusty road that led into the small town of Nalipal, where a few old stone buildings sat nestled in a cove. As they had descended the valley, Kira and Huratha had had a good view of the settlement, which appeared to be centralised around a dock with a pier, while small lanes wove out between the houses.
“That must be Lake Shokkar.” Huratha had said, pointing to the body of water beyond, distantly in the centre of which a high rock plateau stood proudly above the surrounding land and sea to the East.
This road seemed to be the main route into the town, and the travellers soon arrived at the hub of the settlement. Ahead, a few small boats were tied up on the pier. There was an inn here in the centre of town, as Kuri had suggested there would be, and another large building became evident to be a closed-roofed market.
The market was full of stalls, and bustled with life much like the market at Avenati had done. But here the produce was slightly different; several of the stalls were selling stacks of glistening fish, piled high in wicker baskets.
Kira and Huratha stepped into the market, split up, and mingled with the traders and customers, looking for traders who might be selling ammunition or weapons. They met up at the far side of the building, near a rear exit that led out onto an old, cobbled alley.
“Any luck?” Kira asked Huratha.
“None,” He replied, “no weapons on sale in this market.”
“Batai d’va…” a voice said. Kira and Huratha looked round. The voice had come from a Nali who was manning a nearby stall selling pottery.
“You were looking for weapons?” the trader said.
“Yes…” Kira replied. She and Huratha walked over to the stall.
“Come with me.” The trader replied.
The trader led Kira and Huratha out through the rear entrance of the market. They followed him as he walked up the cobbled lane, away from the water, climbing a slope. They rounded a corner and arrived at a cobbled square with a flowerbed and benches in the middle. Here, a small church stood on the right. The Nali led them across the square, to a small, stone house on the far side. He opened the doors, beckoning for them to follow him as he entered the building.
“I believe I may be able to help you.” The Nali said, “I collected these supplies from a Skaarj scout ship that crashed in the valley during the occupation.”
He opened a large chest, indicating that Kira and Huratha should join him. As they did, they saw that the chest contained a variety of supplies – the largest item was a well-oiled Eightball gun, and nearby were stored two cans of rockets. The chest also contained a Skaarj Razorjack, and an ASMD core.
“Nice one. We’ll take the lot.” Kira said.
“Are you going to attack the Skaarj on the bluff?” the trader asked.
“Yes, that’s our plan.” Kira replied.
“I thought it must be you.” The trader said, nodding approvingly.
“What do we owe you?” Kira asked.
“Nothing. Just take the supplies. Good luck to you.” The trader replied.
Shortly, Kira and Huratha emerged from the Nali’s home, armed with the extra supplies. Between them, they now carried two dispersion pistols, an ASMD and an assault rifle, plus the two new weapons they carried. Kira handed the Eightball gun to Huratha, who added it to the ASMD and dispersion pistol strapped to his belt, while Kira added the Razorjack to her own rifle and dispersion pistol.
The duo walked back down the cobbled lane, following it past the market, until it brought them out on the quay. They walked towards the pier, where a couple of Nali were tending to their boats.
Leading Huratha on to the pier, Kira approached the nearest Nali boatperson. She unshouldered her pack for long enough to fish out a gold coin, then re-shouldered her pack, clearing her throat to get the Nali’s attention.
“Yes?” the Nali said.
“We need to borrow your boat.” Kira replied.
The boatperson looked a little surprised, beginning “I…”
Kira handed the coin to the Nali, who continued to look a little confused.
“Thank you…” the Nali replied, “but what do you need my boat for?”
Kira looked out across the lake. “We were thinking of taking a ride out to the bluff of Shokkar.” She told the Nali.
“Oh… I see…” the Nali said, observing the weapons strapped to Kira and Huratha’s belts. “Well, take it… I’ll hope to see it again soon.”
The Nali clambered out of the small rowing boat, gesturing for Kira and Huratha to step into it.
“Have a good trip.”
Sitting down in the boat with Huratha and tipping the Nali a quick smile, Kira untied the mooring rope and cast the boat off into the water. Huratha took the oars and began to row the small craft across the water to the bluff of Shokkar.
Vrathi’Naar stood at the edge of the plateau of the bluff of Shokkar, with his commander, K’tha’Rath, standing beside him. Vrathi’Naar was watching a small craft crossing the lake through a pair of electronic binoculars.
“They are coming.” Vrathi’Naar told the officer.
K’tha’Rath nodded. “Have you made any progress on the interrogation?”
Vrathi’Naar shook his head. “None. For a Nali, the captive has proved most resilient.”
K’tha’Rath thought for a moment. This did not fit with his plan. But, at length, he spoke.
“It is unimportant. We will eliminate the Terran and its follower. Then, if the prisoner will still not talk, we will eliminate him also. Without their leadership, the resistance movement will be weakened. It is then only a matter of time before we locate and destroy their base.”
“Return to the prisoner. There may still be time to extract some answers before the intruders arrive.”
K’tha’Rath returned to the landing ship.
The crossing from the Nalipal harbour took about an hour. When Huratha began to tire, Kira took over the oars. By the time they reached the bluff, Huratha was rowing again.
The boat coasted to a halt against a rough stone pier at the base of the cliff. Kira grabbed a soggy rope that dangled from a post on the jetty, and tied it to the bow of their borrowed vessel. Kira clambered out onto the jetty – the rock was slippery with seaweed – and helped Huratha to climb out of the boat.
From this jetty, a stone ledge climbed the side of the cliff. Kira and Huratha walked up the ledge, hands on weapons. At the top, they emerged onto the flat, grassy plateau that was the surface of the bluff.
Ahead at the centre of the grassy expanse, the ship that they had seen fly over the Na Lati castle was settled on landing props. It wasn’t really that large, with space for perhaps one level of low ceilinged corridors and rooms, and a larger engineering and storage level below. Facing them at its front, a ramp led up through an open hatch to the upper level of the craft. To the left of the travellers stood part of the old outer wall of whatever had once stood on this bluff, and some way further along beside this wall, a flight of stairs led down to some underground area.
There were no Skaarj to be seen.
“No-one at home?” Huratha asked.
From the descending staircase was the sound of a sudden electric discharge, followed by the exhausted cry of a tortured Nali in pain.
“Kuuna!” Kira said. At the same moment, a Skaarj assassin descended the ramp from the ship and sighted the intruders. Kira recognised it as the Skaarj that had led the attack on the in Avenati town.
Kira looked rapidly from side to side between the stairs and the ship, and then said to Huratha, “You get Kuuna. I’ll hold the Skaarj off for as long as I can.”
Huratha nodded, then ran over to the descending staircase. Kira freed her assault rifle from her belt, and aimed it at the poised Skaarj.
Huratha hurried down the descending staircase as the sound of gunfire erupted from above. Rounding a corner, he arrived in a dank, underground dungeon chamber where a large Skaarj trooper was crouched over a chained Nali.
The Nali looked up. Huratha saw that it was Kuuna.
“Huratha!” Kuuna gasped in relief.
The Skaarj jailer looked around at Huratha and growled. Casting aside the implement he had been using to torture Kuuna, he grabbed his dispersion pistol and began to fire.
Huratha rolled aside as the energy volleys began to fly past him, impacting with the stone wall behind him and causing flakes of the old bricks to fly off. Reaching for his belt and thinking quickly, he picked his ASMD in favour of his Eightball gun, remembering the confined space.
As Huratha energised his ASMD, one of the jailer’s volleys hit him on a shoulder. Huratha grunted in pain, the shock causing his hand to let go of his ASMD. The weapon clattered to the floor. In an instant, the Skaarj jailer pounced on Huratha, lifting him up and hurling him across the room. Huratha landed in the corner, beside the jailer’s implement, dazed.
Kuuna spotted his friend in trouble. He looked at the Skaarj and called out.
“I’ll talk! Just don’t hurt him any more.”
The jailer whipped around to look at Kuuna, and started to advance towards him.
In his corner, Huratha shook his head to clear the stars from his vision, and grabbed the nearest implement that came to hand. Picking up the jailer’s torture device, he twisted dials and pushed buttons until the display lit up.
As the jailer knelt down to grab Kuuna by the chest, Huratha picked himself up and advanced on the Skaarj. While the Skaarj was still distracted, Huratha plunged the prongs of the device into the back of its neck. The Skaarj shook as the volts coursed through its nervous system, then fell to the floor with a grunt.
“Quick… get me out of here.” Kuuna said. Huratha grabbed the dispersion pistol from his belt, and used it to shatter the chains that held Kuuna to the wall. With the chains freed, he helped Kuuna to his feet and handed him his dispersion pistol. Reclaiming his ASMD from the floor, he tugged Kuuna back up the steps.
“We have to help Kira.” He said.
As Huratha emerged from the steps, still holding Kuuna up, he saw Kira under fire from two Skaarj troopers that had emerged from the ship. The carcass of the Skaarj assassin that had attacked them before lay near the ship’s access ramp. He let go of Kuuna, allowing him to sag to the floor, and retrieved his Eightball gun. Locking on to one of the Skaarj, he let a couple of rockets fly.
“I’ve got your back, Kira!” he called to his ducking and rolling leader.
Kira was panting for breath. She had taken a hit from one of the troopers’ dispersion volleys, leaving a scorch mark on her chest. She ducked yet another volley, firing her rifle again, and this time the bullet met its target, as one of the troopers’ heads flew off, bouncing off the ship’s hull. Meanwhile, the rockets of Huratha had finished off the other trooper.
There was a brief lull during which Kira was able to catch her breath. But it wasn’t for long, because shortly there was a roar from within the ship and four more Skaarj, two with stingers and two with dispersion pistols, came bounding down the ship access ramp, closely followed by a heavy-built officer armed with a flak cannon.
“Eliminate them!” the officer called, raising its weapon into the air as a gesture of war.
The four Skaarj infantry split two ways, while the officer observed from the access ramp, shouting orders in the Skaarj language.
One of the Skaarj with dispersion pistols fired shots at Kira from a distance while its companion loaded its stinger and started bounding towards Kira. Kira rolled aside just as the Skaarj let fly with a volley of five shards. A dispersion round clipped her on the side of the waist, causing her to lose her focus and regroup.
The other two Skaarj converged on Huratha and Kuuna. Huratha fired a rocket at the oncoming attackers but then pulled out his ASMD as the Skaarj drew closer. Covering Kuuna as he did so, he fired energy beams at one of the Skaarj, driving it back. Kuuna lifted himself up on one arm and started taking pot shots at the other Skaarj with his dispersion pistol. The first Skaarj, hit by several of Huratha’s shots, went down. Huratha turned his attention to the other.
Kira, rolling back on the ground, drawing dangerously close to the cliff edge, plunged her rifle into the gut of her close-range attacker and let it fly. The Skaarj, virtually separated at the middle from the force, flew back, knocking her other attacker aside, landing lifeless on the ground. The other Skaarj discarded its weapon and leapt upon her, trying to knock her off the cliff. Just in time, Kira pistoned out her legs, meeting the Skaarj in the stomach. The Skaarj was knocked off its course and flew over her and off the cliff, its arms flailing.
K’tha’Rath, who had watched the course of the battle from the access ramp with growing disbelief, cursed in frustration as the last of his soldiers fell to the ground, mortally wounded; but not before it had whacked the ASMD-toting Nali in the torso with the barrel of its dispersion pistol. The Nali crumpled to the ground next to the prisoner, its hands clutching the injured area. K’tha’Rath whipped round to the Terran, the only one of the intruders who still seemed to be moving. Said Terran was panting on the ground, a hand to its chest.
K’tha’Rath ran over to Kira, his eyes blazing, and delivered a savage kick to her side. Kira rolled over. Reaching down in fury, he wrenched the rifle from Kira’s hands and threw it over the cliff edge.
“Now you will die. You have caused the death of too many of the noble Ssa’Rath clan. Soon you will realise that blood ties run deep!”
K’tha’Rath grabbed Kira by the clothing and pulled her up so that her eyes were just centimetres away from his own. The Terran’s face showed fear at first, but soon the fear dissolved behind a black mask of anger.
“And so does justice!” Kira yelled. Reaching for her belt, she grabbed the Razorjack she held there and plunged its two prongs into the side of the Skaarj’s head. The Skaarj grunted and released its grip on her, whipping a hand to its face as blood began to gout outwards. Exhausted, Kira crumpled to the ground as the Skaarj fell and started to convulse. The deed was done.
In the dungeon, an insensible Vrathi’Naar began to stir.
Huratha helped Kira to her feet. She stood up, allowing the Nali to support her weight. At length, they were joined by Kuuna, who stood beside them.
“Is that the last of them?” Huratha asked.
“I think so…” Kira replied. Recovering a little, she took her hand off Huratha’s arm and looked at the landing ship. The others followed her gaze.
“What’s to be done with the ship?” Kuuna asked.
“We can program it… to fly out to sea… to crash itself, or something.” Kira replied.
“Do you think the Skaarj will return?”
“I don’t think so. Not this time.”
The three of them stood in silence, regarding the ship, contemplating the things they had done this day.
Vrathi’Naar rose. There was no sound from above. Climbing the steps and emerging onto the plateau, he saw the Terran and the two Nali standing together, looking at the ship. The carcasses of the other Skaarj lay scattered around them.
In that instant, the blood wrath came upon him. He bounded towards the turned backs of the three intruders, extending a prosthetic claw. With a roar, he plunged the claw into the exposed back of the accursed Terran. The Terran stiffened with a pained gasp, and then fell to its knees as Vrathi’Naar withdrew the dripping weapon.
“No!” one of the Nali called. The two of them turned on Vrathi’Naar, firing their weapons at him. Vrathi’Naar reeled under the combined firepower, eventually falling to the ground in death. As Vrathi’Naar fell, as he died, the last thing he saw was a sea of red…
Huratha and Kuuna turned to their stricken companion. She knelt on her knees, her eyes wide with shock.
“Kira!” Huratha said.
Kira’s eyes drooped. Huratha tried to catch her as she fell to the ground, but he failed, his hand coming away bloody.
“Kira!” Huratha repeated. “Kira!”
Lying on the rough grass of the bluff of Shokkar, Kira Argmanov drew her last breath.
A familiar voice. A loved voice.
Kira looked up. There was the silhouette of a man, framed by bright light.
“You have done well. But it is time now. Time for you to join me.”
“Come to me, my love.”
Kira walked forwards and took the proffered hand. The reassuring voice of her lover spoke to her again.
“Many will live better lives for what you have done today. You have given more than any soul could be expected to give. Now it is your deserved time to rest.”
Kira smiled and allowed herself to be led. Holding the hand of her loved one, the avenging angel of the Nali stepped into the light.
All text herein is © 1998-2004 Michael Wilberforce. All characters, events, place names and creatures, barring those previously appearing in the work of and priorly © to Epic Games, Digital Extremes and associated authors, are also © 1998-2004 Michael Wilberforce unless otherwise stated. The text herein may NOT be reproduced for any form of distribution without the prior written consent of the author.