This is my third Unreal story. My longest and most complex story to date, it required more character development than I have had to inject into my previous titles, and was in places quite challenging to write. I hope that you will enjoy the results of my efforts. -Noailiat
It’s a cold, blustery night in this part of the ancient Nali homeworld. As we fly with the native birds above the land below, we observe the setting in which we find ourselves. Beneath us, the mountainous landscape of the region spreads out in all directions. As the wind buffets us about, we look down to see a wide valley stretched out below.
There’s a small house in this valley, and beside it a low wall crosses the width of the valley, broken only by a single gateway. Lanterns on the gateposts to either side cast pools of radiance on the grassy ground. To the right, the valley curves on round, but we aren’t concerned with that yet. We are distracted by what we see to the left.
The valley continues on in this direction, lit by occasional torches set on stone columns that taper into the ground. We cast our eyes down the valley to see where it leads, and observe that it opens out into a larger plateau. Here, four more simple stone houses are clustered round a torch in the centre, with rock mesas and palm trees stretching off towards the boundaries of the valley. But what really catches our eye is the great hulk at the southern side that dominates the village. It seems totally out of place here, anachronistic in this seemingly peaceful setting, but none the less what we see is the decaying metal shell of what must once have been a great star ship, embedded in the cliff. Behind it a rocky trench stretches off for at least half a mile, as if it crashed hard some years ago and is since long abandoned.
We follow the valley back upwards again, past the shining torches and the modest habitation half way along its length. We look ahead – and what do we see here? A great rocky mountain, impossibly tall and thin, towering above the cliffs of the surrounding valley. We wheel with the birds across towards it, the wind pushing us along as we go, and close on this astonishing sight.
The mountain sits in a great wide abyss, towering up from lava roiling in the distant depths of this astonishing terrain. A periculous looking narrow causeway stands alone through this void, providing a footpath between metal gates at the head of the valley and what seems to be a roofed wooden platform further round the rock wall of this strange spire. The ledge stops short of this apparent entrance (for we now see a door in the spire wall beneath the roof), and is connected to it by a swaying, wooden plank bridge that we would not much fancy crossing when the wind is this strong.
This is of course the great Sunspire mountain, a sacred place of the Nali that provided a gateway between the villages on the planet’s surface and the Na Pali Haven, a city of the Nali suspended above the clouds by an obelisk charged with the Nali people’s natural telekinetic power. But it has been over six years since the Sky Elevator last carried its Nali passengers between the ground and the sky island, for the sky elevator itself lies buried and forgotten in a lake not so far away from where we now fly. The Sunspire is deserted, and the Na Pali Haven itself lays in ruins, kept afloat by the residual energy of so many years of Nali meditation, but long since destroyed by the diabolical, reptilian Skaarj.
But what’s this we see? The Sunspire cannot be completely deserted, for two Nali stand on an exposed ledge half way up its height. But all is not well here; for one Nali is holding the other captive, the captive suspended over the sheer drop with his four arms held roughly behind his back. The captor is talking to the captive as the captive stares down, the wind whipping around his feet, which are barely inches away from the cliff edge.
“Speak.” The Nali captor says to his captive, who we will come to know as Mishra. The captive continues to look at his feet.
“I have nothing to say.” The captive replies to his captor, a Nali who we will come to know as Huratha.
“Your course of action is self-destructive.” Huratha tells his captive, “Sooner or later you will result in the deaths of us all. If that is the way it is to be, then it would be better that I kicked you off this cliff right now.”
“Go on then. Do it!” Mishra spits at his captor, “At least then I won’t have to spend my days fighting a losing battle against the Skaarj.”
Huratha looks at the red moon hanging in the sky above.
“It needn’t be a losing battle, if we could all just band together and fight the good fight.” He replies. “Now are you with me? Or shall I send you to meet the fire god Ch’tharoth?”
The captive remains looking at his feet for some time, and gives no answer. We wheel around them for some time awaiting a response, but the wind currents are tugging us away from the two Nali on the mountain ledge. Our time will come to find out what happens, but we have joined this story too far into its execution. We must go back to the start, and then we may have a better understanding of this strange chain of events…
A distant rumble of thunder rolls over a small clearing in the rocky terrain not so far away to the north from the places we have seen before. It is the deepest, most silent part of the night here. A small Nali house is nestled within this hollow, the front lit by a stand-alone torch that burns brightly in the dark, also illuminating a rock mesa and a palm tree beside the house. Across the clearing, we can see a small waterfall cascading from a hole in the low cliff and sparkling in the moonlight. Behind the house, a low wooden fence surrounds a small patch of grass, but what attracts our attention now is what we see at the head of the clearing, on the other side of the rock mesa from the house. For it is here that we see a metal wall, with buzzing, square electric lights to either side that light brightly the small ramp up to a strong bunker door. This is another anachronism on the surface of this mysterious planet.
This is the time and place where our story begins, and where we will join with Mishra for the first time. But for now, he is alone.
Mishra awoke that night to the sound of the rain beginning to patter on the roof of his small house. It was a simple home, with a single room containing a fireplace, a bed and a table with two chairs (for those rare occasions when he had a visitor), but it was enough for a Nali like himself.
It was a long time since he had had a visitor, though. Some time ago the Skaarj had arrived in his small part of the planet and set their base into the caves to the north. When their base was fully constructed, they had collapsed the narrow canyon to the south that Mishra used to use to get to the nearby Noth’hanti town, in order, he presumed, to prevent any unwelcome visitors from coming to their base. Mishra had found himself trapped in his own clearing, unable to leave, and barely dared to leave his house by day because of the Skaarj who patrolled the base entrance.
Mishra had discovered that, at night, the Skaarj guards went inside and the base entrance was locked. He used this time to go outside his hut and tend his crops, and then to milk the Nali cow he kept in the compound round the back. It was these routine activities that kept Mishra from going spare, since they retained some semblance of his old life before the Skaarj occupation.
Six years ago, the Skaarj had descended upon the Nali planet for the first time. Mishra had been left alone during the first occupation, but he knew people in Noth’hanti town who had lost friends or family into Skaarj slave labour at their nearest tarydium mining facilities, Rrajigar and Foundry. During that year, though, a Terran ship had crashed on the planet, bringing with it a girl whom the Nali townspeople described as the Avenging Angel. She had led a small group of Nali against the Skaarj, and in time they had been driven from the planet. The Skaarj had returned a year later, but were fought off again by the girl and her Nali followers. Unfortunately, the girl was reputed to have been killed on the bluff of Shokkar, south of the Na Lati coast.
Four years had passed in which the Nali people thought they were free, and they relaxed. But a year ago, the Skaarj returned in force and gained hold on the planet once again. The Nali were once more completely subjugated, and the resistance fighters were driven into hiding. Since then, the Skaarj occupation of the planet had spread rapidly, and any semblance of normal life for many Nali was completely destroyed; then three months ago, it finally caught up with Mishra. Mishra had not been to Noth’hanti town since, and he supposed that most of his friends there considered him dead – that is, if they were still alive themselves.
Mishra rose from his bed and shivered. Using his knife, he prodded the dying embers of the fire he had lit yesterday evening. They glowed a bit brighter, and Mishra felt a slight wave of heat emanate from the fireplace. He rubbed his hands together and lit a candle from the remains of the fire. He placed it on the mantel.
Time to go and tend the crop, then milk the cow. The rain wouldn’t help him keep warm, but it had to be done, so Mishra walked over to the wooden door and pulled it open. It didn’t seem to be raining too hard outside.
The rain started to come down a little harder as Mishra closed the door behind him. The torch outside sputtered a bit, but it was a large flame and was difficult to quench. Feeling wet already, Mishra walked along the front of the house and paused to take shelter under the palm tree by the rock mesa. He looked round the corner of the house. The cow normally walked over to the fence and mooed to greet him when he emerged to milk it, but he couldn’t see the cow in its compound tonight.
Curious, Mishra walked past the end of the house and frowned in the gloom, shivering slightly in the rain and rubbing his arms to warm them up. He couldn’t see the cow anywhere. Then, he caught site of a huddled shape in the far corner of the compound, near the base of the cliff. Concerned, he hopped over the fence and ran over to the shape, crouching down beside it. What he saw made his heart leap to his throat as he took in the image.
The cow, which had never done anything to hurt anyone, was lyring in a sorry heap on the ground, its eyes glazed. Its throat had been slashed open in three parallel lines, and its blood had run off down the wet grass in a muddy coloured trail. Mishra fell to his knees and wept, two hands over his eyes. The cow, stupid as it was, had been his only companion for these last three months – and now it had been taken from him. What was worst, and what Mishra just couldn’t understand, was how something must have had fun killing it. There was truly no end to the Skaarj’s bestiary.
The rain was really sheeting down now. Lightning flashed, temporarily illuminating the dead cow and blood stained grass in full colour, and was shortly followed by a loud thunderclap – a lot closer now. But Mishra remained where he was, no longer aware of the cold and rain. There was a slight “whump” as the torch outside the house finally went out.
Mishra must have remained where he was for some fifteen minutes, but was finally broken out of his reverie by the harsh hiss of the pneumatic base door opening. He heard guttural Skaarj voices growling to each other. Reacting quickly, Mishra hauled his drenched, uncooperative body into a standing position and ran over to the rock mesa, flattening himself against it in the shadow. He looked out between the mesa and his hut, and watched through the rain as a Skaarj in gunner’s uniform strolled across the clearing with a Skaarj in trooper’s uniform. They appeared unconcerned by the weather. The Skaarj stood out of Mishra’s view for a couple of long minutes, deep in their conversation, but eventually walked back towards their base and went inside. The doors hissed to a shut behind them.
Mishra, now truly soaked through, ran for the door to his house and scrambled inside against the rain. Shivering, he thrust some more of his dwindling supply of wood on the fire and stoked it up, feeling a mixture of fear, hate and despair towards the Skaarj.
It was only a matter of time before he died here, either of starvation or of loneliness, he thought. Once he was relatively dry in front of the blaze, he settled into meditation and prayed to Chizra for a miracle.
Mishra spent the rest of the night in a state of semi-awareness, suffering from anger, grief and a chilling fever. As dawn started to rise above the house and the rain slowly came to a halt, the shivering Nali ate some dried healing fruit and turned into bed.
Mishra slept fitfully that day as the healing fruit worked to drive the fever from his body. He dreamt of strange and wonderful things: places he had never been to, and events he had never witnessed. In one particularly vivid dream, he saw a Terran girl leading a troop of Nali into battle against a party of Skaarj atop a narrow rocky causeway, the large gates of a monastery behind them. Then, he dreamt about another troop of Nali leading an attack upon an underground Skaarj base. The Nali ran through the caves of the base, firing their weapons into the lines of Skaarj that poured out of doors to the sides. Mishra’s vision filled with red as the lines of Skaarj were decimated, their bodies strewn around the oncoming Nali. As the last Skaarj went down, the leading Nali gestured with his weapon and led the other Nali up a ramp and through a large pair of double doors, more fire erupting just out of sight beyond.
The clarity of Mishra’s vision decayed as he slowly arose from his dream into consciousness. Opening his eyes, he looked around his darkened hut, feeling more like himself than he had at any stage since he discovered the body of his only companion lying in the rain last night. Tentatively, he sat up on his bed. His head didn’t seem to be spinning any more – the healing fruit must have done their job.
Mishra stood up and walked to the door. He could hear a cricket chirping outside, and the quiet sound of the small waterfall on the other side of the clearing. No light appeared to be coming in from the crack under the door, so it was probably dark. Cautiously, he pushed the door open and looked around. It was indeed nighttime outside, and the clearing appeared to be free of Skaarj, as far as Mishra could see in the moonlight.
Mishra looked at the torch and moved into a meditative position. Focusing his thoughts on it, he imagined it bursting into flames. With a quiet “whumph”, the torch obliged, bathing the front of the house in its wavering yellow glow. Mishra hadn’t had much of a chance to get fresh air last night, so he set off at a walk towards the waterfall to clear his head. Reaching the sparkling water, he crouched down and washed his face, drinking some of the life-giving fluid as he did so. The water felt good, cooling down his sore throat. As he washed, Mishra pondered his dreams of the last few hours; they had been possessed of an amazing clarity and realism, but that could have been the influence of the fever. All the same, Mishra wondered if the Terran girl he had seen had indeed been the Avenging Angel.
Mishra was distracted by the sudden hiss of the base’s hydraulic door. He looked round just in time to see a Skaarj gunner come tumbling out in a backwards somersault. The Skaarj was heading straight for him, and Mishra didn’t have time to get fully out of the way. The Skaarj clipped Mishra’s left side, rebounding off to the left, and knocking Mishra sideways into the water with a “splash”. Floundering in the water, Mishra looked up to see a Nali sprint out of the base in hot pursuit of the Skaarj, closely followed by two others. In the confusion, Mishra vaguely recognised the leading Nali as the one from his dream. As the Skaarj regained its footing, the Nali raised a large weapon of some kind and fired a shot at the Skaarj. A blue energy bolt streamed towards the Skaarj, which was thrown backwards up into the air, where it hit the cliff at the far side of the clearing, its own weapon going flying as it did so. The Skaarj landed in a crumpled heap at the base of the cliff, quite obviously dead.
Mishra watched as the Nali and his two followers made a small gesture of prayer, then lowered their weapons. The leading Nali looked round and observed a nervous Mishra thrashing around in the pool, then walked over to him, extending a hand. Mishra took the hand, and the Nali grasped it, helping Mishra to climb out of the pool.
Mishra stood at the edge of the pool and dried himself off roughly while the leading Nali addressed him.
“Greetings, friend,” the Nali said, “I am called Huratha.”
Mishra looked up. “I am glad to meet you.” He replied.
“And what is your name, friend?” the Nali called Huratha asked.
“My name is Mishra.” Mishra replied.
Huratha nodded and looked around the clearing, taking in the collapsed valley to the south. “How long have you been trapped here?” he said.
“About three months, I believe.” Mishra replied.
Huratha raised his eyebrows. “That is a long time to be stuck in one small clearing.”
“I know.” Mishra replied.
“What lies to the beyond the rock fall?” Huratha asked, gesturing with his weapon towards the canyon to the south.
“Noth’hanti town lies about a mile to the south.” Mishra replied.
“Might we find shelter there?” Huratha asked, gesturing towards his two companions behind him.
“I do not know.” Mishra replied, “It has been so long since I have been there. Noth’hanti town used to be a welcoming place. I had many friends there. But since then, I do not know what the Sky Demons may have made of it.”
Huratha nodded. “It has been seen before. The Skaarj have done many terrible things. But if there is a chance of some shelter, I would like to go there.”
“I do not know how deep the rock fall goes.” Mishra replied, “You must navigate that before you can travel to Noth’hanti.”
“The Skaarj will have supplies we can use to clear the rock fall.” Huratha replied, “If we were to succeed in clearing it, would you come with us to the town?”
Mishra nodded. “Certainly. I must find out what has become of the place.”
“Then it is agreed.” Huratha replied, “My friends and I will look for equipment with which to clear the passage.”
Huratha turned to the other two Nali. “Juura, Motanisha, where are the others?” he said.
“They are tending to Lonelias. He was injured by a Skaarj attack.” The one called Motanisha replied.
“I have some healing supplies.” Mishra said hurriedly, “Would they be of help?”
“Thank you, friend, they would be much appreciated.” Huratha replied, nodding.
Mishra returned to his hut, processing everything that had happened so far tonight. Walking over to a roughly woven bag on his mantel, he extracted a couple of the dried healing fruit berries and a small clay pot of the concentrated fruit powder. He did not know whether the injured Nali would be strong enough to eat a whole fruit.
As he emerged, Mishra saw the Nali called Juura filling a clay cup with fresh water from the waterfall. Huratha was waiting outside for him. Motanisha had evidently gone back inside to tend to the injured, because he was nowhere to be seen. Huratha walked over to him.
“I am grateful for your help.” He said, “We did have a few healing supplies, but they were destroyed in a Skaarj attack on our campsite.”
“I am glad to help you.” Mishra replied, “It has been so long since I have had a chance to help my fellow Nali.”
Huratha turned to Juura, who was standing behind him with the filled cup.
“Are you ready?” Huratha asked the Nali.
“Yes, I have the water. We can treat Lonelias now.” Juura replied quietly.
Huratha lead the two Nali to the base door. Motanisha emerged to greet them.
“Lonelias is just in the next cave. He has an injury to his chest and a severe cut to his left leg.” The Nali informed them.
The small party stepped in through the entrance to the Skaarj base. Mishra looked around. He had never been within these walls; last time he had seen these caves, they had been a beautiful natural structure filled with ledges, waterfalls, crevices, stalagmites and stalactites. But that had been three months ago, before the Skaarj had arrived at this small part of the world and infected it with their technology and presence.
What Mishra saw now was the wreckage of a monstrosity that could only have been of Skaarj creation. He was within what had once been the biggest cave of the network. Great metal gantries now crossed the ceiling, linked to metal buttresses and walled structures. Ugly metal bridges crossed the largest crevice at the centre of the cave, and where there had once been a waterfall had been replaced by a large set of pipes. One of these pipes had been recently damaged, and water was pouring out, cascading off a raised ledge and down into the ravine at the centre of the cave. The place was festooned with lights suspended from the gantries and walls, but some of these had been damaged and were flickering madly, whilst one or two of the fixtures on ceiling gantries were dangling by wires. A glass window to what had once been some kind of control room to the right was broken, although the glowing consoles within still seemed to be functional. Dead Skaarj of various classes littered the place, some missing limbs or heads. Some of the machinery in the cave was smashed and smouldering, but various metal doors around the edges of the cave still seemed to be intact.
“What happened here?” Mishra said, somewhat in awe.
“It was a difficult fight.” Huratha replied, “The installation was well defended.”
Motanisha led Mishra, Juura and Huratha towards a flat patch of the ground near the central ravine, where five more Nali were clustered around a prone form on the ground. The gathered onlookers parted to make room as Juura knelt down beside the injured Nali. Mishra handed his healing supplies to Juura, who took them without a word.
“Will Juura be able to help him?” Mishra asked Huratha.
“Juura is good at treating the wounded.” Huratha replied, “I lost a close friend once, his name was Kuuna. He was very badly injured in a battle, and on that occasion Juura was unable to help him before he died. But normally, Nali treated by Juura pull through.”
Mishra nodded. Huratha continued talking.
“Juura was a monk at the monastery where Kira originally founded the resistance movement. He has always had an affinity for treating the sick.”
“Kira? The Avenging Angel?” Mishra asked. Huratha nodded.
“Without Kira we would never have had those four years of freedom. She was a great person. She has since gone to join her loved one among the stars, but her legacy lives on even now. We will continue to fight the Skaarj as long as there are those of us left to do it.”
Juura had applied some of the concentrated fruit powder to the prone Lonelias’ most severe wounds, and now had his head bowed in silent prayer. When he had finished praying, he had two of the onlookers raise the injured Nali’s upper body so that he could feed the Nali some small pieces of one of the dried healing fruit, followed by a few sips of the fresh water. When this was done, Juura stood up and faced Huratha.
“Lonelias should recover in time. He needs rest for now.” Juura said.
Huratha nodded. “Understood,” he replied to the monk, “stay here in case he asks for anything. The rest of us will search for some explosives.”
Juura nodded his understanding and knelt back down beside the injured Nali.
The time passed by as Huratha organised his followers. The remaining Nali were divided into pairs, which split up to search the base for explosive supplies. Soon, Mishra soon found himself stepping through one of the side doors with the Nali Motanisha. Motanisha was armed with a large weapon of some kind that appeared to be a long tube with two prongs at the end, attached to a larger trigger mechanism. He handed Mishra his sidearm, which was a red, rounded tube marked with grey stripes. He demonstrated its basic function, which was to fire a fast blue energy bolt, and referred to it as a “dispersion pistol”.
“You’ll want this if we run into any stray Skaarj.” Motanisha said. Mishra nodded nervously. He didn’t much want to get into a firefight with a Skaarj after spending so many weeks avoiding even meeting one, but Motanisha seemed quite comfortable with the idea. Mishra supposed that all these Nali must be used to fighting by now.
Motanisha led the way down a narrow, dimly lit corridor. Shortly, the corridor opened out into a larger hallway that led off to the left. A door marked with a few symbols in some strange Skaarj alphabet lay opposite, whilst at the far end of the hallway a few large crates were positioned, obscuring another corridor that led on beyond. Mishra started to head towards the signed door, but Motanisha gestured for him to stop with a spare hand.
“We’re not alone in here.” He whispered. Mishra stopped moving and listened carefully. In doing so, he could just about discern the sound of harsh, ragged breathing from somewhere behind the crates.
Motanisha raised his weapon towards the crates and waited, Mishra watching nervously. Just as Mishra thought he might explode with the suspense, there was a sudden movement as a Skaarj trooper armed with a dispersion pistol leapt out between the crates and started taking pot shots at the two Nali. Motanisha fired off a shot with his own weapon. Something hit the Skaarj in the chest a split second later, and it reeled slightly, before coming back up to snipe again. Motanisha fired another shot off – this one missed. He tried again, but his weapon just made an empty clicking noise.
“My rifle’s out of ammo!” Motanisha said urgently, “Finish him off, Mishra!”
Mishra shakily raised his dispersion pistol and fired a shot at the Skaarj. This one went wide, and hit the crate behind the Skaarj. Meanwhile one of the Skaarj’s own shots flew past Mishra’s right ear, almost grazing the side of his face. Mishra jumped to the left and fired another shot at the Skaarj. This one hit the target, and the Skaarj, weakening now, reeled further. Motanisha was still crouched down and rummaging in his pack for more ammo, and Mishra saw that the Skaarj was lining up his pistol to take a shot at his comrade. Seeing this, Mishra fired off a third shot. This one hit the Skaarj in the chest again, and it finally gave up the battle, collapsing to the floor. Mishra, feeling a shaky mixture of relief and satisfaction, sat down hard on the ground himself. Motanisha looked up.
“You’re good for a novice. Thanks, friend.” He said. Standing up, he helped Mishra to his feet. Mishra, reeling after taking his first ever life, said nothing, so the two Nali crossed the hallway in silence to the signed door, which slid open with a “whoosh” as they approached it.
The room they entered was some kind of small storage room. The shelves lining the other three walls of the room were laden with various pieces of well-oiled metal equipment, which glinted in the glow emanating from the single light fixture above their heads. Mishra had no understanding of what most of these devices were, but he did recognise a vicious-looking double-bladed projectile weapon that the Skaarj sometimes carried around.
“I’ve found something.” Motanisha said. Mishra looked around; his companion was carrying a bundle of light brown sticks. Mishra gave him a questioning look.
“Plastic explosives.” Motanisha replied, “They will help us clear the blocked valley, but there are no detonators here. We should report back to Huratha.”
Mishra nodded his understanding.
“Take the Razorjack.” Motanisha told Mishra, gesturing to the Skaarj weapon and two packs of ammunition beside it. Obediently, Mishra took the supplies and followed Motanisha out of the room.
Mishra and Motanisha met Huratha back in the main cave, where Juura was tending to Lonelias, who already seemed to be more aware of his surroundings than he had been a few minutes earlier.
“Did you find anything?” Motanisha asked.
“Nothing. We reached a dead end,” Huratha replied, “but I see that you were more fortunate.”
“Yes, we found some plastic explosives, but no detonators.” Motanisha said.
“It’s a good start.” Huratha replied.
“We encountered a Skaarj. I ran out of ammo, but Mishra finished it off while I was re-loading my rifle. I think he saved us both.”
Huratha raised an eyebrow. “Then I thank you, Mishra,” he said, “it would not have paid to have lost another friend tonight.”
There were voices from across the cave. Two more Nali were approaching the bridge from another side door.”
“Huratha, we found some detonators.” One of the Nali said.
“Good work, Theoda.” Huratha replied, “Motanisha and Mishra here found some explosives. We can get to work clearing the canyon as soon as all of our party have re-assembled here and Lonelias is fit to walk.”
Dawn was breaking as Huratha led Mishra and the other Nali out through the base entrance and back into the clearing that had been Mishra’s prison for so long. Lonelias was on his feet, and was being supported to either side by the Nali Theoda and another Nali called Sharuun. As they emerged, Theoda and Sharuun led Lonelias over to the rock mesa so that he could lean on it and observe the work on the rock fall.
Motanisha and Theoda set to work wiring up the explosives and detonators around the base of the rock fall. Huratha led Mishra over to the waterfall side of the clearing, where he showed Mishra the basic operation of some of the weapons the Nali were carrying. Mishra was shown how to use an ASMD, a weapon that fired a dazzling blue energy beam, a Stinger, a weapon that sprayed shards of blue crystal at its target, the Razorjack, a dangerous device that fired bouncy razor blades, and a Flak Cannon, a weapon that fired spreading chunks of shrapnel. There were others in the small heap Huratha had prepared at their feet, but Huratha and Mishra were shortly interrupted by Motanisha, who had come over to report that the explosives were wired and ready. In his hand, he was carrying a small black device with a red button on top – which Mishra assumed was to control the explosives.
Huratha instructed the other Nali to take cover behind the rock mesa. Mishra and Sharuun helped Lonelias to make his way behind the rock, whilst Huratha discussed the explosives with Motanisha and Theoda. The remaining four Nali assembled behind the rock and waited in silence. Mishra noticed the monk Juura put his hands together in a quick prayer. Shortly, Huratha and the other two Nali joined them.
“Are we ready?” Juura asked. Huratha nodded, and looked at Motanisha.
“On my count of three.” He said. “Three… two… one…”
Motanisha pressed the square red button. In that instant, the clearing shook with a piercing bang that emanated from the direction of the blocked valley. Mishra looked up as several small chunks of rock flew over the top of the mesa and bounced off the far cliff, landing at the assembled Nali’s feet. When the dust had settled a bit, Huratha looked cautiously around the edge of the rock, and then smiled.
“The canyon has been cleared.” He said.
The twin suns continued to rise in the sky as Mishra and the resistance fighters navigated the canyon, a path that Mishra had not seen since the months of his isolation had begun. The canyon twisted and turned between its low cliffs in a serpentine manner that Mishra remembered well, as it sloped down towards the Noth’hanti valley.
After about a mile’s trek, the canyon broadened out and sloped downwards more steeply. The band of Nali descended this slope, weaving between large rocks and palm trees, the cliffs rising higher above them as they went, until they arrived at the dwarfing vista of a broad, dramatic valley that went from left to right. The path they had been following until now became a cobbled road that headed down between small houses towards the centre of the settlement below, where it met a narrow, sparkling river that meandered its way along the valley.
“Noth’hanti town.” Mishra announced to the other Nali. He looked down upon the village and tried to recall how it had been when he had last seen it. The town had been bustling with life in those days; Nali had spent their days trading at the makeshift market stalls that hugged the river at the centre of town, while the bells in the church chimed brightly. He remembered the trading merchants, with whom he had become friends, and his brother Sasha, who had owned the inn by the central square that had looked out upon the two stone bridges that crossed the river before it.
Now, however, Noth’hanti town had a sad, forgotten look to it as Mishra stared out upon its expanse. The central square, which could be seen at the bottom of the hill, looked strangely deserted except for the sheet of canvas and broken planks that were all that remained of one of the market stalls. Many of the small wood and plaster houses had windows boarded up, and the many chimneys, which used to puff out wisps of smoke from hour to hour, were dormant. The only movement to be seen came from a couple of hawks that wheeled and called in the sky above, and from the small waterfall to the south-west that cascaded into a tributary to the river.
Mishra looked out over the sprawling village and towards the church that stood before the waterfall on the far side. The bells in the belfry were still; no musical sounds were coming out of them any more. He scanned the vista from right to left, hoping for some sign of life, but nothing came. The only thing that caught his eye as he finished his sweep was the peak of the impossibly tall Sunspire Mountain, visible in the hazy distance over the cliffs to the southeast.
It seemed that Mishra’s worst fears were confirmed. Mishra felt a distant hate begin to brew in his heart for the bestial Skaarj; Noth’hanti town must long since have been ransacked and left deserted, just like so many of the Nali people’s once peaceful places of worship and living.
Huratha, however, seemed to think it was worth proceeding cautiously none the less. As the band of Nali descended the road to the centre of town, he split the Nali off into pairs so that they could explore the town for supplies and temporary shelter. Looking at the forlorn and abandoned houses, Mishra saw the dead and wilted pot plants and ragged curtains in lead-trimmed windows that had once made Noth’hanti town such a colourful and energetic place to live.
When the Nali reached the central square, Huratha stood before the broken market stall and instructed the pairs of Nali to explore various buildings. Juura and Lonelias were sent to investigate the church. Before any other targets could be assigned, Mishra volunteered that he and his partner, a Nali called Lit’harani, should investigate the inn – since his brother had once lived there. Huratha agreed.
“I understand your wishes.” He said, “I hope that you do not discover anything too upsetting.”
Mishra nodded his thanks, and set off across one of the narrow stone bridges towards the Traveller’s Rest Inn, with Lit’harani in tow.
The front of the inn had the same abandoned look as the rest of the town. The suspended sign was grimy, making the words “Traveller’s Rest Inn” difficult to read. Like in the rest of the town, Mishra saw, the windows to either side of the entrance had been crudely boarded up, and the plants in the once colourful window boxes were dead. Mishra led Lit’harani up the three steps to the inn porch, opened the swinging inn doors (the frosted glass windows that had lit these doors from inside in the inn’s more cheerful days were now broken), and stepped into the gloom within the once lively establishment.
The two Nali stood for a moment as their eyes adjusted to the darkness. As he grew accustomed to the conditions, Mishra was able to discern vague shapes by the chinks of light that filtered through between the roughly applied window boards, illuminating the dust that floated in the air.
“What happened here?” Lit’harani asked. Mishra observed the wrecked interior. The floor was littered with overturned bar stools, and many of the long wooden tables had been broken in two. The bar itself, which stood on the right, was scattered with pieces of broken pottery and wood from the flagons and kegs of drinks that had once brought so many visitors into the inn. There was a smell of ammonia and stale alcohol now permeating the air.
Mishra closed his eyes and tried to picture the inn as it had been when he had last seen it, over three months ago. The place had been brightly and jauntily lit back then with many colourful lanterns hanging from the ceiling. The Nali of the town would congregate at these long tables of an evening, conversing about their trade in the markets that day, or how the drought had affected their crops.
Then Mishra had an uncomfortable picture of his brother Sasha standing behind the bar, polishing a glass as he chatted cheerfully to the regulars. Where was Sasha now? What had become of him?
“Mishra,” said a voice.
Mishra was jerked out of his reverie. Lit’harani was shaking his arm.
“Yes?” he replied.
“I can hear something.” Lit’harani replied, indicating for Mishra to be quiet.
Mishra slowed his breathing and listened hard. There was nothing.
“I can’t hear anything…” Mishra replied.
“Shh… there it was again.” Lit’harani whispered. Mishra listened hard, and this time he did hear it: a distant, ragged sob. He nodded.
“I think it came from over there.” Lit’harani said, waving his dispersion pistol into the gloom of the far corner beyond the bar.
“The cellar steps are over there.” Mishra replied.
Mishra led the way across the room, picking his way carefully between articles of splintered furniture he came across in the dark. Lit’harani paused, swinging his backpack off his shoulders and rummaging within it. Shortly, he produced a cylindrical object and illuminated it; Mishra recognised it as one of the flashlights the Skaarj were sometimes seen to carry.
With the bright white beam of the flashlight, Mishra and Lit’harani were able to work their way across the room more easily. Shortly, they arrived at the head of the cellar staircase, skirting a dark patch on the dusty floor that looked suspiciously like dried blood. Gesturing for Lit’harani to follow, Mishra took the flashlight and led the way down the stairs.
The staircase turned into a gloomy passage to the right that led the way back under the bar. With Lit’harani following closely, Mishra crept along the earthen floor, one hand on the damp brick wall. There was a pale light ahead; Mishra extinguished the flashlight and came to a halt, putting a hand out behind him to stop his companion.
The two Nali could now discern an uneven, heavy breathing ahead that occasionally gave way to another ragged sob. With the flashlight stowed safely in his belt, Mishra began to creep slowly forward once more, his own dispersion pistol raised in one of his right hands. As they approached the light, they saw that it was emanating from an alcove to the left at the end of the corridor. Mishra halted at the corner, and poked his head around it. Then his eyes widened.
In the dull light of a small torch, a Nali was slumped against the wall, his upper arms chained to the wall with heavy manacles. His lower arms hung limply by his side, and his head was lolling forwards, his eyes gazing at his outstretched legs. Mishra dashed forwards and knelt beside the Nali, seizing one of his lower hands. The Nali raised a dirty, tear-stained face to meet Mishra’s eyes.
“Brother…” the Nali croaked.
Mishra’s heart froze in his chest. He was looking into the eyes of Sasha, his brother whom he had not seen for three whole months, but the bony wreck before him now was a shadow of his former, cheerful self.
“Brother…” Sasha repeated, “I had not thought it were possible… I must be dreaming…”
“No Sasha, it is I.” Mishra replied, blinking back tears of his own.
“You… you had been killed…” Sasha whispered.
“No, Sasha, I had not… please, what happened here?”
“I… I am dying… The Skaarj…”
“The Skaarj did this?” Mishra replied, a chill of hatred making him shiver once more.
“The Skaarj… attacked the village… many were killed…” Sasha panted.
“Why were you chained here?” Mishra asked.
“…wanted information… about the resistance… I had nothing to tell…”
Lit’harani watched in silence as Mishra grasped his brother’s hand more tightly.
“You will not die, Sasha. My friend and I will get you out of here.” Mishra said firmly.
“No, brother...” Sasha gasped, looking into Mishra’s eyes pleadingly. “It is too late for me… you must save yourselves… the Skaarj heard of an attack on one of their bases… but they will be returning soon…”
“Mishra, we must leave here.” Lit’harani said anxiously. Mishra looked round at him as he spoke. “We must warn the others.”
“No…” Mishra replied, “We must rescue my brother.” He looked back round at Sasha to address him, but his brother had dropped his gaze. Mishra looked him up and down.
The ragged breathing had stopped, and Sasha’s hand was limp within his own. Mishra dropped his brother’s hand and looked to the ground, a hand on each side of his head, shaking slightly.
“Mishra…” Lit’harani said uneasily, but he was interrupted by a yell from Mishra.
“The Skaarj! The SKAARJ! I will avenge you, my brother!” he cried, raising his eyes to the roof and his hands into the air. Lit’harani looked frightened.
“Come on…” he said. He grabbed Mishra’s arm and dragged him forcibly away from his brother, back down the damp stone tunnel.
Mishra shook his arm free from Lit’harani’s grasp and blundered after him down the tunnel, his mind seething with grief and hatred, holding back hot tears. As they reached the foot of the steps, Lit’harani put his hand out to stop him.
“Listen…” Lit’harani said again. His face could be dimly discerned looking up the steps in the gloom from the boarded windows above. Struggling back into focus, Mishra listened. There were the sounds of gunfire from outside.
“We must help the others.” Lit’harani said quickly, starting up the stairs. Mishra armed his weapon and followed.
The two Nali scrambled hastily over the broken furniture and flung the inn doors open. The square was a scene of chaos. Across both sides of the river, several of the resistance Nali were fighting it out with four dreadlocked Skaarj armed with long metal claws. Lit’harani and Mishra looked around the frantic scene; in the far corner of the square, Sharuun was crouched in a corner, covering Theoda whilst he rummaged in his backpack for ammunition. Juura and Lonelias were nearby, both firing their weapons, while the two other Nali entered the fray from the far corner of the square. Huratha and Motanisha were nowhere to be seen.
Lit’harani raised his weapon and started shooting at a Skaarj that was closing on Theoda and Sharuun, whilst Mishra looked around for a target. As he glanced down a wide lane to the right, he saw a small Skaarj craft that had landed further along, out of which several trooper Skaarj were pouring. His rage overcoming him, he set off at a sprint towards the crowd of troopers, dispersion pistol raised. Lit’harani glanced towards him as he reached the edge of the square.
“Mishra! What are you doing!” he yelled, and bounded off in pursuit.
Mishra jumped to the ground and started firing shots into the group of Skaarj, which turned together to face him, uttering surprised growls.
“That’s for my brother!” Mishra shouted, as one of the Skaarj reeled from a shot in the gut. Taking that as their cue, the others raised their own dispersion pistols and began to fire in response, just as Lit’harani skidded to a halt by his side.
“Mishra… come on… we can’t fight these Skaarj alone.” He panted, trying to pull Mishra up from the ground whilst ducking under fire from the Skaarj. The Skaarj started to advance, and a shot grazed Mishra on the shoulder as he struggled to resist being pulled back by Lit’harani.
“They deserve it.” Mishra snarled, shaking free of Lit’harani’s grip and firing more shots into the Skaarj. There was a growled order from somewhere behind the troopers, and the ranks of Skaarj parted as a larger Skaarj in shiny officer’s uniform stepped forwards, brandishing an ASMD. The officer raised the gun and fired a single energy bolt, which hit Lit’harani in the chest. Lit’harani was thrown backwards; Mishra tried to look around to see what had happened to him, but was distracted as another dispersion pistol shot whisked past his ear.
There was a call of “No!” from somewhere behind, and flak shells began to fly over Mishra’s head from an unknown source, landing amidst the Skaarj, who floundered and backed off. As the flak shells continued to pour overhead, a firm grasp forced Mishra into a standing position and began to drag him back down the alley.
“Come ON!” said Huratha’s voice urgently from somewhere behind him. Broken out of his attack, Mishra turned round and began to retreat with Huratha back up the lane; Motanisha was supplying the cover fire with a flak cannon from the border of the square. As he ran, Mishra nearly tripped over Lit’harani, who was lying prone on the ground.
“Help him…” Mishra said, reaching out a hand.
“He’s dead. Come on.” Huratha said, pulling Mishra back up the lane. As they reached the square, Motanisha broke off his cover fire and the three Nali hurried to the right, across the bridge, to where the rest of the Nali were gathered amid the dead bodies of the four bladed Skaarj. With a gesture of his hand, Huratha led the Nali down a lane to the right, where they were separated from the river and the Skaarj ship by a cluster of buildings.
Leaving Lit’harani and the inn behind them, the remaining Nali fled down the lane as the sounds of guttural Skaarj voices diminished behind them.
Huratha signalled for the fleeing Nali to pause as they reached a leafy square surrounded by houses, some way to the east of the centre of town. The Skaarj didn’t seem to have followed them in their flight. Huratha took the opportunity to turn to Mishra.
“What is our best route out of this town?” he said abruptly.
“The Daghetta pass to the south-east. It heads toward the Sunspire. It is a dangerous route. The Skaarj would be unlikely to follow us there.” Mishra panted. Huratha nodded.
“Lead the way.” He said.
Mishra led the Nali swiftly between the numerous wood and plaster houses. At one point, they crossed the river, and then were climbing another narrow, cobbled lane beyond the river that led up through older, taller buildings built of stone. At length, they reached the cliffs that bounded the valley, which towered above them. Here, a flight of steps turned into a shaly slope that headed up into a very narrow, rocky canyon. Mishra indicated this canyon with a free hand.
“The Daghetta mountain pass. It is a rarely used route.” He said. Huratha nodded his understanding, and led the way up the steps. As the steps dwindled away into loose shale, the climb became more difficult – Mishra nearly lost his footing at least twice – but eventually they reached the top, and set off through the narrow canyon, leaving Noth’hanti town and the Skaarj behind them.
The Nali trekked through the canyon for about half an hour, then reached a slightly wider area containing a single palm tree and several boulders. Huratha indicated to the Nali that they should stop and rest here. Welcoming the break, Mishra sat down on a flat rock and gazed at the ground. Shortly, he became aware of Huratha standing over him. Mishra looked up, and then stood up to face the Nali.
“What happened back there, Mishra?” Huratha asked.
“The Skaarj killed my brother. We found him chained in the cellar. He died before us.” Mishra replied.
“I am sorry to hear that.” Huratha said evenly. There was a pause, in which Mishra looked back at the ground, but at length, Huratha added, “And what of Lit’harani?”
“He shouldn’t have tried to stop me.” Mishra replied, looking back into Huratha’s eyes. Huratha’s face was unreadable.
“You thought you could tackle those Skaarj alone?” Huratha said quietly.
“Those Skaarj deserved everything I gave them. Lit’harani was too afraid to fight them.” Mishra replied sullenly.
Huratha said nothing. Instead, he raised a hand, and cuffed Mishra hard about the head. Mishra was thrown to the ground, where he looked back up at the Nali in surprise. Huratha’s eyes were blazing.
“Lit’harani was neither a coward nor a fool.” He said furiously, “He was simply trying to save you from making a very foolish mistake. And now he has paid the ultimate price, as have we all.”
The two Nali remained like that for some time, Mishra looking up, and Huratha standing over him, his face set once again. But at length, he extended a hand and helped Mishra get back up. Turning to the rest of the Nali, he made an announcement.
“We must continue to put distance between ourselves and the Skaarj. Pick up your backpacks and follow us. Mishra and I will lead the way.”
Huratha set off with Mishra behind him, and the rest of the Nali followed. Slowly, the band of Nali began to make their way along the ravine once more.
The ravine began to climb again after the Nali had travelled for a further half hour. Mishra looked up at the top of the cliffs; they still towered far above the travelling Nali, framing in stark contrast the silvery sky. Midday had come and gone as they fled the town, and soon the planet would be entering the early evening time.
A cold breeze swept momentarily along the shadowy ravine, causing Mishra to shiver and trip over a loose rock. Huratha put out an arm to keep him upright from his left.
“Thank you.” Mishra said, regaining his footing. A crunching from behind signified the arrival of Motanisha from further down the line of Nali. Mishra felt a tug on his arm and turned to face him.
“How far does this route go for?” Motanisha asked, “What terrain are we looking at ahead?”
Mishra shook his head. “I am uncertain,” he replied, “I have never travelled the whole length of the Daghetta pass before. But I know it can be navigated; many Nali have done so in the past.”
“Where will it take us?” Motanisha asked.
“I believe that Nali used to travel this route when they made pilgrimage to the Sunspire.” Mishra replied.
“Do you know of anywhere we might be able to rest tonight?” Huratha asked, speaking for the first time in a while.
“Again, I am uncertain.” Mishra replied, “But this route is said to become increasingly dangerous as you traverse it. We may not be able to rest until we get to the far end.”
Huratha looked to Motanisha for suggestions.
“The others are becoming tired,” Motanisha said, “but they are not ready to drop from exhaustion yet. We can travel for some time like this.”
“Very well, we will continue for now.” Huratha said. Motanisha returned to the other Nali, who were following them a short way behind.
Mishra led the way up the ravine as it rounded a gentle curve to the left. Shortly, it widened into a deep chasm. Their path continued to climb as a narrow ledge that followed the cliff to the right, but to the left was an unshielded drop that led deep down into some black void below. Huratha halted, and turned to face the Nali behind them.
“Be careful!” he warned them, “There’s a dangerous drop here.”
Mishra and Huratha began slowly to navigate the perilous ledge, hugging the cliff wall tightly and keeping away from the drop. The ground remained crumbly and shaly here, festooned with loose rocks and stones. Mishra thought that it would be easy to lose one’s footing if one was careless. A cold wind kicked up again, and Mishra found himself blinking back chilled tears in reaction. Overhead, a hawk flew past with a sudden screech that made Mishra jump.
There were a few whispered voices from further down the line as the other Nali began navigating the ledge. Mishra heard Juura mutter something from not far behind about the gods of good lore, probably a quick prayer. Glancing back down the line, Mishra saw Lonelias pause for breath. Theoda took one of his arms as he drew level with him.
“Are you all right, Lonelias?” he said quietly.
“Yes. I’ll be fine.” Lonelias replied.
Shortly, the ledge stopped climbing and began to descend, as the canyon began to curve back onto its original course. Still holding onto the rock face, Mishra slowly descended the slippery ledge, and made the mistake of glancing down into the void. He halted as he experienced a moment of dizziness, but shortly resumed his descent, with Huratha and the others creeping along behind him.
As they rounded a corner to the right, Mishra and Huratha were presented with an alarming sight. The ledge petered out here, but tacked onto it was a rickety rope and plank bridge that stretched across the widening canyon to a ravine that led off at a perpendicular angle opposite. As they approached the swaying construction, Mishra heard gasps from the other Nali that were rounding the corner. Huratha called a halt and spoke quietly to Mishra.
“I’ll go first.” He said, “You follow. When we get to the other side, we’ll stay there and help the others across – in case there’s any trouble.”
Mishra nodded his understanding and stood back as Huratha approached the old construction. Huratha handed his backpack to Mishra, and then stepped lightly onto the first plank. Choosing not to hang around, Huratha hopped nimbly from plank to plank, shortly arriving on the other side, where he gestured for Mishra to follow. Shouldering Huratha’s backpack, Mishra obliged.
Crossing the bridge seemed to take Mishra a lot longer than it had Huratha, but Mishra supposed that this was his mind playing tricks on him as he cautiously navigated the rickety construction, clinging hard onto the hand rope to the left. At last, he felt Huratha’s strong grasp on his upper right arm and he was pulled to safety. The two Nali moved to the sides of the canyon entrance, and gestured for the others to follow.
Motanisha led the way, and was followed one by one by Theoda and Sharuun. Lonelias crossed next, looking slightly green and aided by Juura. As each Nali reached their side of the bridge, Huratha helped them make the last steps to safety. This left just the two Nali whose names Mishra did not know. They chose to cross together, holding tightly onto the hand rope whilst Huratha and Motanisha spoke words of encouragement.
The two Nali managed to cross about half of the way safely, but then there was an ominous creak from the far end of the bridge. The two Nali looked around nervously.
“Come on! Quickly!” Huratha called in consternation. The two Nali began to hurry along the bridge, but before they could reach safety, the rotten ropes at the far end of the bridge parted with a sharp “crack” and the bridge flopped down into the canyon. The two Nali disappeared from sight, causing Huratha to cry out.
“Nitishara! Leonarati!” he yelled. Mishra and Huratha darted to the edge and looked down. The bridge was hanging precariously from its supports by their feet, and further down the ravine, the two Nali were clinging on to the hand rope for dear life.
“Mishra! Get the rope from my pack! Quickly!” Huratha said urgently. Mishra unshouldered Huratha’s pack and opened it, delving inside. Shortly, he found a large coil of rope, which he whipped out, bringing several packs of bullets with it, which scattered over the rocky floor. Hurriedly, Mishra handed the rope to Huratha while Theoda bent down to retrieve the ammunition.
Huratha was uncoiling the rope and dropping it down towards the two Nali below.
“Grab onto it!” he called down to the dangling Nali. Then, to Mishra he said, “Help me with this.”
Mishra and Motanisha leapt forwards and grabbed the tail of the rope. Calls from down in the ravine indicated that the two Nali had also grabbed hold of the rope. Huratha, Mishra and Motanisha tugged hard on the rope and began slowly to pull it up; Sharuun grabbed on from behind and helped.
The other Nali backed off as the four pulling the rope edged backwards. Shortly, a hand appeared over the edge as Nitishara pulled himself up. Once on firm ground, he turned round and stuck out his hand, helping to pull an ashen-faced Leonarati up from the void.
The two rescued Nali collapsed to the floor as Juura stepped quickly forwards with a small clay flask, which he handed to them. Shaking, the two Nali took a swig each and handed the flask back to Juura, then raised themselves to a sitting position.
“Thank you.” Nitishara said, raising his eyes to meet Mishra and Huratha’s. Huratha nodded his understanding and smiled.
The canyon seemed to Mishra to go on forever. The Nali encountered no further terrain as hazardous as the area around the bridge, but the shaly slopes were difficult to climb and the journey was tiring. Huratha showed no sign of wanting to stop, even though the back markers in the line of Nali were starting to struggle.
As they had travelled, the sky had gradually darkened with the onset of nighttime. Mishra had also realised that their path had been slowly climbing towards the top of the cliffs; they were not nearly as imposing now as they had been back by the bridge.
As the Nali climbed a particularly steep and shaly slope, Mishra noticed that he was having difficulty navigating. He paused and looked upwards at the sky, which had now deepened to a rich indigo. It seemed that full darkness had crept up on them without his even noticing.
“It is becoming difficult to travel.” He said to Huratha, who nodded.
“Sit down where you can,” Huratha announced to the others, “we’ll take a break.”
Willingly, the band of Nali perched themselves where they could on the sloping floor. Motanisha and Sharuun unshouldered their backpacks and rummaged inside, eventually each drawing out a long torch, which they lit with a couple of small metal devices that appeared to be of Skaarj creation.
Sitting in the flickering light from the crackling torches, Juura ferreted in his backpack and pulled out a roughly wrapped package. He unwrapped it, revealing a large chunk of cooked meat, which he broke apart and handed round to the other Nali. Seeing Mishra’s querying look as he received his piece, Juura said “Nali rabbit meat. We cooked it a couple of days ago, but it’s still edible.”
Mishra munched on his food. It tasted salty and good, but what he really wanted was a drink. To his relief, Nitishara produced a couple of flasks that he and his companion had filled with water at Noth’hanti town, and passed them round. The Nali sat by the torchlight and talked for a while; once or twice, Mishra tried to engage Huratha in conversation, but the Nali leader was decidedly cool with him. Mishra supposed that Huratha was still thinking of Lit’harani.
After about half an hour’s break, Huratha stood up and announced that the Nali should press on. There were a few complaining sounds from the other Nali, but Huratha paid no attention.
“I do not believe we can be far from the end of the mountain pass,” he said to the Nali, “have not you all noticed how the path has been rising?”
There were a few nods of assent from the assembled Nali, who began to stand up. Huratha indicated to Motanisha to come forwards, so that he could lead the way with his torch, and the band of Nali set off once more.
Mishra felt a breeze begin to blow on his face as they climbed the rising canyon. The cliffs were continuing to shrink in height, quite rapidly now. Before long, the canyon widened out, and they found themselves arriving on a small plateau overlooking a valley below. Huratha, who was looking over the edge with Motanisha, indicated for Mishra to come forward.
“Do you know where we are?” he said.
Mishra looked down at the valley. It was a wide chasm that led uphill to the left, lit occasionally by a line of scattered torches that tapered into the ground. At the top of the hill, the chasm curved round to the right past a small house and through a gap in a wall.
Mishra looked down the chasm in the other direction, and saw that not far away it opened out into a wider valley. At the centre of the valley, four more small houses surrounded a single, burning torch. Beyond the houses, Mishra saw something that took him by surprise.
Wedged in a gap in the cliffs, at the top of a slope of crumbled rock, was a huge, decaying metal hulk. It looked like it had long since been deserted, but there were signs of life; a metal entrance had been built into the bottom of the loose rocky slope, as if providing access into a corridor beyond. Two electric lights burned brightly to either side of the entrance; it reminded Mishra strongly of the entrance to the Skaarj facility in the clearing where he had spent his months of confinement.
“I do not recognise this place.” Mishra replied, after some moments contemplating the scene.
“Look…” Motanisha interrupted. He was pointing to the far cliff of the chasm to the left, above which loomed the unmistakeable peak of the Sunspire. Mishra, Huratha and the other Nali raised their eyes to look at it; the mountain was very nearby. Juura stepped forwards.
“I know where we are,” he said, “I have been here before. This is the Spire Village. And that…” (at this, he pointed at the decaying metal hulk) “…is the space ship ISV-Kran.”
There was a pause. At length, Huratha replied, “Kira’s ship?”
Juura nodded. “Yes. But that…” (he pointed to the entrance at the foot of the rocky slope) “…is not an original feature.”
“So the Skaarj have set up a base here, possibly within the ship itself.” Motanisha said.
Mishra felt furious… the Skaarj had defiled the memory of the Avenging Angel, just as they had ruined so many other things that were of importance to the Nali.
“Is nothing sacred?” he muttered.
“Not to the Skaarj,” Huratha replied, giving Mishra a close look.
Mishra remained looking at the ISV-Kran and the Skaarj entrance as Huratha and Motanisha turned to the others to discuss their next move.
“We all need rest. We must find somewhere to shelter.” Motanisha was saying.
“How about the Sunspire itself?” Theoda suggested, “It is reputed to be long since deserted, but it had living quarters.”
“Agreed.” Huratha replied, “The Sunspire seems like a good, defensible place to hide. We can make our move on the Skaarj base tomorrow.”
Mishra frowned as he looked down at the entrance. The doors seemed to be opening. Something was walking out… it looked like a trooper.
Mishra hadn’t forgotten his promise to his brother. Looking round, he saw Motanisha’s backpack lying nearby; there was an ASMD strapped to it. The perfect chance to give a Skaarj a bit of what it deserved.
While the other Nali occupied themselves with their discussion, Mishra leant over and unhooked the ASMD from the bag. Taking it to the cliff edge, he lined up his shot as the Skaarj loped towards the houses in the centre of the valley. Seeing the Skaarj reach the centre of the sight, he squeezed the trigger.
A bright blue energy bolt streaked across the night air and hit the Skaarj hard in the stomach. The Skaarj reeled.
“Mishra! What are you doing!” came Motanisha’s voice from behind. Mishra ignored him, preparing to lead the Skaarj with his second shot as it began to bound back towards the base. He saw it enter the sight, but as he was about to shoot the killing blow, a rough grip seized his shoulder, and the shot went wide as he was whipped round to face a furious Huratha.
“What are you playing at?” the Nali shouted, “Now the Skaarj know exactly where we are!”
Mishra said nothing, but turned back round to look at the entrance. The Skaarj had reached it and was darting in through the open doors. Almost instantly, the sound of a distant claxon reached them from across the valley, and a large searchlight burst into life on the bow of the grounded ship. The Nali watched as the beam coursed across the valley and came to rest right on their position.
“Move!” Huratha yelled. He had whipped the long rope out of his backpack and was tying it to a large rock spike that protruded from the floor. Once he was satisfied with the knot, he dropped the rope off the cliff edge and turned to face the Nali.
“The Skaarj will be making their attack soon. We have to get to the safety of the Sunspire.” He said urgently, gesturing to the rope, which trailed most of the way down the cliff face. The Nali gave him nods of understanding, and waited for the first one to move.
“Go on… Nitishara… Leonarati.” Huratha said quickly. The two Nali stepped forwards, and one after the other, began to climb down the rope. When they had leapt to the ground and rolled aside, Huratha gestured for Lonelias and Juura to follow. After Theoda and Sharuun had made their descent, Huratha instructed Mishra and Motanisha to follow.
As Mishra clambered down the rope, he saw the doors of the base open and a troop of Skaarj begin to emerge, carrying various weapons. Leaping clear of the rope, he saw that Lonelias, Nitishara and Leonarati were readying their own weapons.
Huratha arrived on ground level shortly afterwards. “Quickly… all of you… follow me.”
Lonelias shook his head, and replied, “No… you go on… we’ll hold them off.” He gestured towards Nitishara and Leonarati, who nodded their agreement.
There was no time to argue; Huratha nodded his understanding and gestured for the others to follow, then set off at a sprint up the hill. Mishra followed, accompanied by Motanisha, Juura, Theoda and Sharuun. As the six Nali passed through the gap in the wall at the top of the hill, Mishra heard fire and shouts erupt behind them. The first wave of Skaarj must have reached their defences.
The Nali pelted down a wide slope beyond the entrance. The Sunspire stood in front of them, beyond an ornate wall. At the bottom of the slope, Huratha led the way towards a gateway to the right. Here, a pair of heavy wrought iron gates hung askew off their hinges, the entrance wide open. As Mishra passed through it, he was greeted by the breathtaking sight of the Sunspire before him.
The Sunspire was an impossibly tall and thin, needle-like mountain that stood in the middle of a huge valley. It rose far above them, where it seemed to greet the stars in the sky. The Nali were standing on a small plateau of land; below them, the ground plummeted away into an abyss, where the base of the Sunspire mountain met bright orange lava that heaved and bubbled in the distant depths.
From where the Nali stood, a flimsy plank connected their plateau to a narrow causeway that stood alone, passing through the valley and round beyond the spire. Led by Huratha, the Nali ran down the sloping plateau past lanterns on wooden posts, and crossed the plank one by one onto the unlit causeway. Bathed in the dim light from the two moons, the Nali followed the causeway as it curved past the mountain to the far side of the valley. Here, a creaking plank bridge connected the end of the causeway to a wooden porch structure that had been built onto the side of the mountain. Within this porch, a simple door formed the entry to the sanctuary of the interior.
Not stopping to worry about whether the bridge would hold their weight, the six Nali crossed it together. They were far to far from the chasm now to know what had happened to their three companions, but they were nowhere to be seen on the causeway behind them. Huratha reached the door first and opened it, going swiftly inside. Mishra followed, and plunged with relief into the darkness within.
The last Nali to enter closed the door behind him. There were rustling sounds in the now pitch darkness, and then a “whumph” as Theoda lit a torch he had pulled from his backpack. By the light of his torch, they were revealed to be in a kind of stone entry hall with four pillars at the centre and an exit to each of its four sides. Extinguished lanterns could be discerned hanging from the four central pillars: by the light of his torch, Theoda busied himself lighting them.
As the room became more brightly lit, Mishra looked around. The entrances to either side led to darkened, sloping corridors, but the door directly ahead was closed, and bore a sign that read “Primary Ascension.”
Mishra was distracted from his investigation as he met the eyes of Huratha, who was looking straight at him, his green eyes glinting in the flickering light. When he spoke, his voice was cold.
“What have you done?” he said.
Mishra and Huratha regarded each other across the stone hall for some time, as the other Nali looked on nervously. Mishra glared at Huratha resentfully; if Huratha had not distracted him from his second shot, he would have killed the Skaarj, and none of this would have happened – and yet Huratha seemed to be blaming him for the deaths of the three Nali. At length, Mishra opened his mouth to reply, but he was interrupted as Theoda shoved a second lighted torch into his hand.
“I think you had better help us light some lanterns, don’t you, Mishra?” Theoda said quietly.
Making no reply, but dropping his gaze from Huratha’s, Mishra set off towards the passage on the right.
Mishra made his way up through the lower levels of the Sunspire, lighting lanterns on the way, exploring its winding passages and lifts, and turning back when he reached dead ends. He passed through a library, a set of sleeping chambers, a feast hall and the kitchens, until he emerged in a room that the signs proclaimed was the “Great Hall”.
The great hall was actually quite a small affair. A reading podium surrounded by mouldy tapestries dominated one side of the chamber. Ahead, a doorway led to the bottom of a lift shaft. As Mishra approached the shaft, he heard the lift whooshing down from a level above, and boarded it by the flickering torchlight as he arrived. Mishra continued straight on through the chamber at the top and up another lift. This one delivered him to a room where two more lift shafts ascended to the right, but Mishra chose instead to take the corridor that left the room directly opposite.
After winding through a series of passageways, Mishra arrived at a chamber where three skeletons lay on the floor. Having lit the lantern overhead, Mishra knelt down to examine the skeletons more closely. Each one had two arms. Mishra noticed that one of the skeletons had a shiny ring around one of its fingers.
A breath of wind coming from a doorway to the right attracted Mishra’s attention. Standing up, he walked over to the doorway and saw beyond it a short corridor that led outside to a rock ledge of some kind. Mishra stepped outside and was hit immediately by a strong crosswind, almost losing his footing. Once he had adjusted to it, he took in his surroundings.
He was on a wide ledge that climbed up to the left, hugging the side of the narrow mountain in an anticlockwise direction. Far below to the right, he could see the ornate wall and gateposts that led out towards the village. Squinting, he realised that two of the remaining Nali were standing down there, trying to fix the broken gates. Mishra started to walk up the gentle slope. Lanterns were placed intermittently on wooden posts out here, so he lit them with his torch as he went.
After a while, the ledge levelled out, and here the breeze reached its strongest. His torch flared and died in the wind, so he discarded it and stood in silence, looking out over the cliff tops below.
Mishra stood like that for some time. At length, he turned to the right as he heard crunching footsteps approaching over the sound of the gale. It was Huratha. Huratha’s eyes still had that same cold stare that Mishra had seen back down in the entrance hall.
“So… three more good Nali have been lost to your recklessness.” Huratha said at length.
“You should not have interfered. I would have killed that Skaarj.” Mishra replied.
“You don’t understand, do you, Mishra?” Huratha said vehemently, “There are many other lives at stake when you travel as a group. You have to consider the safety of everybody!”
“I fight the Skaarj on my own terms.” Mishra replied quietly, glaring at Huratha.
“You selfish fool!” Huratha cried, raising his dispersion pistol, “What right do you think you have to risk others’ lives for the sake of your own petty vengeance crusade?”
Huratha brought the weapon swinging down against the left hand side of Mishra’s face. Mishra reeled to the right, his face exploding with pain. As he tried to shake the stars from his eyes, he felt his arms being grabbed and pulled roughly behind his back, and he was swung round to face the edge. He heard Huratha’s voice from somewhere by his right ear.
“Tell me! Why should so many innocent Nali die for your cause?”
Mishra felt himself being pushed forwards. He looked downwards, and saw that he was overhanging the cliff. He felt dizzy as he saw the lava roiling in the distant depths of the abyss, and shivered as the wind whipped around his feet, which were perched dangerously by the drop.
“Speak!” Huratha shouted.
Mishra looked at his feet, his face set. Huratha still didn’t seem to understand.
“I have nothing to say.” Mishra replied.
“Your course of action is self-destructive.” Huratha said, his voice shaking, “Sooner or later you will result in the deaths of us all. If that is the way it is to be, then it would be better that I kicked you off this cliff right now!”
Mishra felt his own rage welling up inside him. He turned his head to face Huratha. “Go on then. Do it!” he spat, “At least then I won’t have to spend my days fighting a losing battle against the Skaarj.”
Huratha looked up at the sky and shook his head.
“It needn’t be a losing battle, if we could all just band together and fight the good fight!” He replied. “Now are you with me? Or shall I send you to meet the fire god Ch’tharoth?”
Mishra did not reply. He turned his head to look back down at the lava. The image of Sasha dying still haunted him. He remembered the promise he had made… I will avenge you, my brother! …he remembered his hate of the Skaarj.
But then, he remembered how Huratha and his band of Nali had rescued him from his imprisonment in the clearing. He remembered how they had put their trust in him from the start. Somewhere above them, a hawk uttered a screeching call.
Mishra felt his anger begin to subside… but he was still torn. He felt Huratha shake him.
“Tell me, Mishra!” he said.
Mishra shook his head, staring down into the depths of the abyss, tears beginning to form in his eyes… but in that moment, watching the lava seething below, he realised that Huratha was right. He wanted to say sorry, to make up for the lives that had been lost. He drew breath to speak, but before the words could pass his lips, there was a whistling noise from somewhere to the right and he was pulled abruptly back from the edge. He fell to the floor as Huratha released him with a sudden cry.
Mishra looked up to the right and scrambled onto his knees. A sleek Skaarj shuttle was fast approaching from the direction of the Spire Village, headed right for their position. A Skaarj trooper poked its upper body out of the cockpit window and began firing an ASMD at the two Nali; Huratha darted aside as a large plasma ball from the weapon’s secondary attack threatened to take off his arm.
“Get help!” Huratha shouted to Mishra as he raised his dispersion pistol to return fire. Mishra, unarmed, scrambled to his feet and started to backpedal towards the entrance at the top end of the ledge, while Huratha continued to fire on the shuttle. As Mishra scrambled along in reverse, he saw the Skaarj ship draw parallel to the ledge. Suddenly, the Skaarj that had been firing on them leapt out of the cockpit, landing nimbly on the ledge in front of the two Nali. Swinging its heavyset arm, it struck out at the side of Huratha’s face in a vicious sideways clip. Powerless to help, Mishra watched as Huratha slumped to the ground. The Skaarj turned to face Mishra and raised its weapon. The door was still to far away… he couldn’t reach it in time. With a growl, the Skaarj squeezed the trigger.
The energy bolt that hit Mishra in the chest winded him completely. His feet left the ground as he was thrown backwards into the air, powerless to protect himself. With a great “crack”, his head hit the stone frame of the entrance. Mishra saw stars, and then nothing but gathering darkness.
“Mishra!” called a distant voice.
Mishra groaned and rose reluctantly into consciousness. His head was pounding.
Mishra slowly opened his eyes. He was lying sprawled on the ledge. It was still dark. Motanisha was sprinting up the slope towards him.
“Mishra… what happened?” Motanisha panted, drawing level with Mishra and kneeling down beside him.
“Where’s Huratha?” Mishra said.
“I don’t know…” Motanisha replied, grabbing one of Mishra’s arms and helping him to kneel up.
“The Skaarj…” Mishra muttered.
“The Skaarj?” Motanisha replied.
“The Skaarj were here… attacked us… must have taken him.”
“They took Huratha?” Motanisha asked, alarmed.
“Yes… they took Huratha.” Mishra replied, “Motanisha, we have to help him!”
Motanisha nodded quickly, helping Mishra into a standing position “Agreed. We must find the others…”
Motanisha entered the doorway at a run, with Mishra in hot pursuit.
It was a short while later that saw the remaining five Nali advancing down the valley towards the Spire Village, armed to the teeth, with Motanisha in the lead.
“So… how exactly are we going to do this?” Sharuun asked.
“The same way we have always done it before.” Motanisha replied, “But Mishra,” he continued, pausing and turning to face said Nali, “I want you to work with us this time. We have to fight as a team.”
Mishra nodded humbly and replied, “Don’t worry. I understand that now.”
The Nali made the rest of the journey in silence. They followed Motanisha down the slope that led to the main village. Shifting Huratha’s backpack on his shoulders, Mishra looked up at the hulking, decaying form of the ISV-Kran as it loomed above the four huts in the centre of the valley.
Motanisha weaved between the huts and walked towards the entrance at the base of the steep rocky slope. The rotting ship was dark above them, but Mishra had no doubt that there was still plenty of life within.
Motanisha walked up to the metal door and ran his fingers over it. It didn’t open, and Mishra noticed that a small red light was glowing above a control panel to the left of the entrance.
“Locked.” Motanisha said. He backed off, looking up at the ship above.
“Can we blast it open?” Mishra suggested.
“I don’t think so,” Motanisha replied, “but if we can once get the Skaarj to open it, we can stop it from closing again.”
At this, he picked up a solid-looking rock and tossed it from hand to hand.
“How are we going to do that?” Theoda asked.
“Let’s see if we can’t get their attention…” Motanisha replied. “Here, take this.”
Motanisha handed the rock to Theoda. Theoda nodded, and took the rock over to the entrance, where he stood at the ready beside it.
Motanisha lifted his weapon. It was not a weapon Mishra recognised; it was a heavy-duty metal construction with six barrels, and a magazine of what looked like small rockets attached to the loading mechanism.
“Stand back.” Motanisha instructed the other Nali. Mishra backed off and watched as Motanisha pointed the weapon up at the hull of the ISV-Kran and squeezed the trigger. Immediately, the mechanism began loading rockets into the rotating barrel of the weapon one by one. After four rockets had loaded, he held down a second button on the side of the handle, and then released both.
A tight circle of four rockets streaked up towards the hull of the ship with a high-pitched screeching “whoosh”. Mishra watched as they hit a ropey patch of the hull, which shook, but did not collapse. Immediately, the searchlight on the front of the vessel sparked into life and honed down on their position.
“Excellent… it’s working.” Motanisha said with a smile of satisfaction.
As soon as the light landed on their position, the claxons went off again. They were a lot louder now than they had seemed from the far side of the valley only a couple of hours previously. But before long, the light on the control panel blinked green and the door hissed open.
Framed by the light from within, two Skaarj armed with Razorjacks stood in the doorway. On sighting the four Nali before them, they somersaulted out of the entrance and began firing their weapons. Meanwhile Theoda, unseen by the Skaarj, darted behind them and blocked the closing doors with the large rock. Unable to seal, the doors began to open and close repeatedly in their attempt to shut themselves.
Mishra ducked and weaved with the other Nali as the serrated projectiles whisked past his face. He was carrying an ASMD, which he fired at the two Skaarj at regular intervals, but none of his shots found their target.
A lucky flak shell from Sharuun sent one of the Skaarj rolling back, its weapon raised in the air. Motanisha followed up by lobbing grenades from his powerful weapon towards the Skaarj as it tried to scramble to its feet.
Finally, one of Mishra’s energy jolts hit the second Skaarj square on in the chest. It landed on its back on the ground, where Juura and Theoda closed on it with their dispersion pistols.
Their sustained attack appeared to have worked, as both Skaarj lay crumpled and blooded on the grassy floor. Motanisha took a moment to wipe his brow, and then turned to face the oscillating door. Raising his weapon, he fired a single rocket at the control panel. With several sparks and additional minor explosions, the panel was destroyed, and the door came to rest in its open position as the blackened remains of the panel smouldered to its left.
“Good work. We’re in.” Motanisha said. With that, he led the other four Nali through the entrance and into the Skaarj base.
Beyond the entrance was a simple, metal corridor that led for some way into the rock face. Lights placed at regular intervals along the ceiling provided bright illumination along its length. Before long, the corridor led them to an octagonal chamber with a large platform lift at its centre. A long, brightly lit lift shaft headed vertically upwards through the ceiling.
“It is as I thought,” Motanisha said, “the Skaarj have built their base within the ISV-Kran itself. Huratha must be in there somewhere.”
Motanisha ushered the other four Nali onto the lift. Mishra followed the others, and gripped the railing tightly. Once they were all on the lift, Motanisha stepped on with them and punched a red button on a lift track to the left. With a grinding of gears, the lift began slowly to ascend into the shaft above.
Half a minute later, the lift hissed to a halt in a large, darkened room. Mishra looked around. They were surrounded by crates, which stretched out in stacks to either side, separated by narrow aisles. Above, mesh floors separated them from further levels stacked full of crates.
“We must be in the deepest cargo holds.” Theoda said.
The main lights in the room were off. Mishra could still see them in the gloom; large white fluorescents were mounted to the ceiling where the panels of mesh were joined to a framework of metal supports. The only light in the hold came from a string of additional fluorescents that had been mounted clumsily to the mesh ceiling, with loops of cable dangling between them. These lights led off along a wider thoroughfare between the crates ahead, towards a door at the far side of the storage bay.
“Come on…” Motanisha said, “but be careful. This is too quiet.”
The Nali set off between the crates, with Motanisha and Mishra in the lead. Motanisha exchanged his weapon for a flak cannon in the confined space. Sharuun switched his own flak cannon for an ASMD, and raised it.
The growl of a Skaarj echoed round the hold, loud in the gloom. The Nali halted, looking around for their potential assailant, but there was no sign of it. Slowly, they began to creep forward again.
Motanisha uttered a curse as a Skaarj trooper leapt down suddenly from a stack of crates and started firing its dispersion pistol at the Nali. Motanisha and Mishra returned fire with their ASMDs, as they were at the front line of Nali. Before long, the Skaarj was slumped on the ground. Motanisha bent down and studied a device that the Skaarj had dropped.
“Here, take this.” Motanisha said, handing the device to Mishra, “It is a universal translator. It may come in useful.”
Mishra nodded and clipped it to a side pocket of his backpack. He felt a buzz in his nerves, and he felt the device interfacing with his brain. The sensation subsided, and Mishra suddenly felt more attuned to his surroundings. He became aware of the creaking of metal somewhere distant in the hull of the ship, and of a strong humming sound coming from beyond the door ahead.
Motanisha gestured with his weapon for the Nali to follow him, and they closed the distance towards the metal doors more rapidly. Mishra saw them drawing closer… and then, they were there.
Motanisha was poking around on a control panel to the left by the light of the loosely suspended fluorescents. Shortly, his hand closed on a lever, and he yanked it downwards until it was flush with the wall. The doors hissed into life and cranked slowly open. The Nali shielded their eyes from the glare that emanated from the brightly lit room beyond.
They had entered a huge, round chamber. There were no Skaarj in sight, but the chamber was dominated by a huge piece of Skaarj machinery that stood at the centre. A wide, slanted control panel surrounded the base of a glowing green energy core that rose up until it met the domed ceiling. This core was protected by a heavy duty metal and mesh shield. The domed ceiling itself supported several incredibly bright lighting gantries that were producing the glare that they had observed as the doors had opened.
Mishra ran his eyes over the signs on the machinery in their strange, Skaarj writing. As he read, the translator echoed their meanings into his head. Then he understood its purpose.
“Motanisha…” he said, “this is the main generator. If we blow up the core, we may be able to destroy the whole facility.”
Motanisha shook his head. “There’s no safe way we can do that. We have to find Huratha, and get out of here.”
The Nali continued to look around. A further pair of heavy metal doors was sealed over an entrance to the far side of the chamber. Six smaller entrances to either side of the room were sealed with force fields. Mishra walked over to the central control panel, while the other Nali split off to examine the other entrances.
“Over here!” Sharuun called. He was standing by one of the force fields. Mishra glanced across at the entrance. It was barring entry to a small cell, inside which was the unmistakeable prone form of a Nali, breathing shallowly. Motanisha ran over to the entrance.
“It’s Huratha. We have to get him out of there!” he shouted. Mishra looked around at the controls in front of him, trying to find one that would control power to the force fields.
Motanisha was hammering at the force field with the butt of his ASMD. The field was fluctuating and fizzing with each hit, but showed no signs of giving way. Before he could break the field open, the large doors at the far side of the chamber hissed open and several Skaarj came bounding in, firing dispersion pistols at the Nali.
The Nali broke apart, arming their weapons and returning fire. Mishra returned to scouring the controls, and quickly pressed a large red button. A segmented bunker door slammed down over the entrance the Skaarj had come through, cutting them off from any further attack. This done, Mishra raised his ASMD and joined the battle.
One of the four Skaarj was down, but another was closing on Juura, who was firing back with his sidearm. Mishra fired a shot at the Skaarj, driving it back and allowing Juura to get out of the way. Motanisha rolled as one of the Skaarj pounced on him, coming back with a shot from his ASMD. Theoda and Sharuun were concentrating their fire on the remaining Skaarj, which went down to a well-placed flak shell from Sharuun.
“Cover me!” Motanisha shouted as he darted behind Mishra, a Skaarj giving chase from the far side of the room. Mishra fought back with his ASMD as Motanisha switched to his flak cannon.
Theoda was sniping at the other Skaarj, which was still pursuing Juura. Motanisha rose up with his flak cannon and finished off the Skaarj that was closing on he and Mishra, and then ducked as Mishra raised his weapon to help Theoda and Juura pick off the remaining Skaarj.
All the attacking Skaarj were now down, but a regular pounding on the bunker door across the room told that more were on the way.
“There is little time!” he said, “We have to get Huratha out, now!”
Motanisha nodded, scrambling to his feet. “Clear the way!” he yelled, raising his weapon towards a control panel beside the force field. The other Nali obeyed, darting out of the line of fire.
Motanisha fired a flak shell. With a flash, the panel was destroyed, and the force field collapsed. Theoda and Sharuun dropped their weapons and darted into the cell, then grabbed Huratha by the upper arms and began to drag him out into the open. Huratha, in the mean time, showed no sign of regaining consciousness.
A “crash” from the bunker door indicated that the Skaarj were breaking through.
“Get him out of here!” Motanisha shouted to the others. Juura grabbed Huratha’s feet, and then the three of them began to carry Huratha back out into the cargo hold.
Motanisha handed his flak cannon to Mishra, and then dashed over to retrieve the one that Sharuun had discarded. Shortly, he rejoined Mishra by the console.
“Are you ready for this?” Motanisha asked. Mishra nodded, and raised the weapon.
Mishra and Motanisha split to either side of the generator and focused their weapons on the bunker door, just as it parted company with its frame and five Skaarj came bursting into the room, firing a mixture of Stinger shards and white energy bolts. The two Nali began firing flak shells into the crowd of Skaarj. Mishra felt searing pain as one of the crystal shards tore through the flesh of his weapon arm, but fought back the sensation as he continue to fill the oncoming Skaarj with shrapnel.
Skaarj were falling quickly, outgunned by the two Nali. As the fifth Skaarj fell back, the two Nali regrouped behind the generator control panel.
“We’ve bought enough time... let’s get out of here.” Motanisha panted quickly. Mishra turned to the control panel and pulled a large lever to the upward position. The shields on the huge generator core began to retract back down into the console.
“You go. I’m staying.” Mishra replied.
“Mishra… don’t be crazy…” Motanisha replied, pulling on Mishra’s arm. Mishra shook it off.
“Just go, before more of the Skaarj get here!” Mishra replied. “I’ll give you as long as I can.”
Motanisha turned to run towards the cargo hold. Mishra turned and called to him as he began to retreat.
Motanisha turned to look at Mishra. Fully retracted, the generator shields hissed to a halt.
“Tell Huratha I’m sorry.” Mishra said with a smile.
Motanisha nodded and crossed his heart, then ran. Mishra walked towards the exit to the cargo hold, then stopped and turned around, aiming his flak cannon at the generator core.
In the distance, he heard the platform lift begin to descend.
We are flying with the birds once again, as the wind buffets us about above the Spire Village. All is quiet, except for the rumble of the wind and the calls of the other birds. But a movement catches our eye, and we swoop down to investigate.
Three Nali are emerging at a run from an entrance in the rocky slope at the base of the decaying ship. They are carrying one of their comrades between them. As they emerge, they are closely followed by another Nali armed with a large weapon.
“Where’s Mishra?” one of the leading two Nali shouts. The Nali with the gun doesn’t reply; he simply runs past his comrades and gestures for them to follow.
At full pelt, the Nali with the gun takes shelter beyond one of the four houses at the centre of the clearing. Kneeling down, he helps the others to prop their fallen comrade against the wall of the house. Then, he flattens himself against the wall of the house and raises his head, as if listening for something.
We look up at the hulking ship from which they have just emerged, and for an instant, nothing happens. But then, we hear a muffled explosion. Before we know it, the shell of the space ship is suddenly torn apart by a dazzling ball of green fire. Fragments of metal fly off in all directions, like a delicate vase being shattered from the inside. As the glare subsides, nothing remains of the ship but the huge trench now unveiled where the vessel must have crashed all those years ago.
It’s a funny thing, destiny. No more than a day ago, the Nali called Mishra embarked upon a journey that would eventually lead him to this conclusion. He cannot have known what awaited him in the wreck of the ISV-Kran, nor the mistakes he was going to make on the way. But let us now hope that in death, he has confronted his demons, and that his sacrifice will help him find atonement as he passes on to whatever lies before him.
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.