Escape from Del'Carjhal
With the crumbled ruins of the Command Station at their backs, the group made their way east. Nasael eyed Arus from the rear of the pack, opting to keep his suspicions to himself. Arus had many supporters in Del'Carjhal, and Nasael couldn't risk trusting the wrong person with sensitive information. For the time being, he committed to careful observation of the boy; if there were any cracks in his facade, Nasael would split them wide open for the universe to see.
While the rest of the group followed blindly—Arus and Briela were the highest ranking soldiers amongst them for the moment—Nasael was preparing for the inevitable moment when he would confront the lieutenant and expose his hidden agenda. To the others, it would probably seem as though it was Nasael who was betraying the Alliance, but if he could rally a few supporters of his own, perhaps others who may have witnessed Arus' unusual behavior for themselves, then a legitimate case could be built upon which the boy could be prosecuted. First things first; he needed evidence.
"Corporal, you really should buckle that coat," Sergeant Garren told him as they ran. "Your health will be endangered in this sort of weather."
Nasael hadn't even noticed. Merculas Garren had been one of few soldiers in Del'Carjhal that he felt comfortable with—even going so far as to discuss matters of Clu health and physiology with him. To his credit, Merculas had kept the information in strict confidence, earning Nasael's trust. But Garren was vocal about his disproval of Nasael's attitude and what he perceived to be arrogance. He was also close to Arus, and that made Nasael wary. Though it was unlikely that he was wrapped up in Arus' schemes, convincing him of the truth about the lieutenant would no doubt prove difficult.
"I'm fine, Merculas," he said, latching his coat buckles in spite of himself. "I did not—"
A voice interrupted from his communicator, a message amplified by each of the other soldiers' comms broadcasting the same message. "Attention, Del'Carjhal forces. There are only two shuttles left at the spaceport. I repeat, there are only two shuttles remaining. If there are any stragglers, drop what you're doing and get to one of those ships. Keep a sharp eye out for enemies; we have reports that some have made it as far as the Mess Hall—perhaps farther. The next shuttle will be departing in five minutes."
Aly shook her head. "We must get to the ships. We cannot risk capture!"
"We'll make it," Briela said.
Just as they were passing between the Armory and the Communications Array, Arus stopped short and raised his metal fist. Everyone froze in place, Nasael included. However, while his fellow soldiers eyed the surrounding landscape, Nasael kept his attention on Arus. The lieutenant's right hand moved to the hilt of his sword while the other motioned sharply toward the ground, signaling the team to take cover. Whether the implant had picked up enemy soldiers in the vicinity or it was all a part of Arus' ruse, Nasael couldn't say. But to remain cautious, he ducked down behind two firewood storage crates against the Armory and drew his laser pistol. Across from him, Sergeant Baird lay with his belly in the snow, rifle ready and eye to the scope.
It wasn't long before shouts came from the adjacent paths ahead. Nasael peered over the crate just as five individuals emerged around the opposite end of the Armory. Four of them were well-aged adults, two males and two females. The fifth was a boy who looked as though he hadn't yet reached his teenage years, but his face bore the same fiery vigor as his companions. They wore primitive-looking clothing of rags and animal hides yet carried the weapons of an advanced military. Stolen weapons, Nasael decided; it wasn't surprising given the recent pirate raids on Luncia. Still, for an enemy that had access to starship technology, their appearances caught him off-guard. Unless, of course, they weren't pirates.
Nasael suppressed a snort of contempt. Either way, they stand no chance against the Aeden Alliance.
They spotted Arus instantly—for some reason, he hadn't made any attempt to hide himself—and readied their weapons. The man in front of the pack, a sturdy looking man with a thin brown beard, shouted something in a foreign tongue. "Alehian dasni ottcho!" He aimed a large laser-repeater at Arus.
The lieutenant didn't budge. A beam of red shot from his mechanical eye, blasting the weapon from the man's hands. The other four fighters leapt back out of instinct, but were back at their ally's side in seconds, however. All rifles focused on Arus.
"I don't want to fight you," Arus said.
The bearded man twisted his lips. "It is too late for that, invader," he said. His heavy accent made him difficult to understand. "Your commanders are dead, and within the hour your facility will be ours."
"That can't be all you want," Arus replied. "Tell me the reason for this attack. Perhaps I can help you."
Another of the fighters, a woman with dirty blond hair, screamed at him. "You can help us by dying!"
She fired her weapon. Steel flashed in front of the lieutenant as his sword flew from its sheath and rotated, deflecting the laser with uncanny speed and precision. There was a shriek as a second shot was fired—this time from Sergeant Baird. His shot felled the woman, her body tumbling backward in a lifeless heap. Arus raised his fist emphatically, shouting, "Hold your fire!"
That bloody implant, Nasael thought, frowning at him. Is there nothing that can penetrate its defenses?
Oddly, none of the four remaining enemies seemed concerned by their fallen companion's fate. But Baird's shot had revealed the additional Aeden soldiers' presence, and that brought hesitation to their eyes. Each seemed torn; they clearly wanted to fight but had enough sense to recognize that the odds were not in their favor.
Again, Arus spoke. His voice was firm and controlled. "I don't want anyone else to die. Is there no way we can come to a peaceful resolution?"
The man in front—the one with the beard—nearly spat at that suggestion. "Peaceful solution? You who have forced your foreign laws upon us and dictated the development of our societies for years? You beat men out of nothing more than suspicion and imprison any leaders who oppose your presence! You openly support the Lucians and slaughter those who speak out against you! And now you want to speak of peace?"
Nasael frowned. The description certainly didn't sound like Alliance behavior. There had to be more to it, a legitimate cause for Aeden soldiers to condone such acts. If the allegations were true at all.
Arus was skeptical, too. "This doesn't sound like conduct befitting members of the Aeden Alliance."
"Of course you would deny it. All of your people do. You wave the Aeden banner with pride while you burn ours!"
"Sachadaam yakei," the other man said. He stood a head taller than the first with a thick brown scar on his cheek. "Sachadaam yakei!" he said again, making emphatic gestures with his rifle.
"Tens," the shorter man responded. Their language was foreign, but Nasael was willing to bet that the second was urging the first to attack.
"What can be done to end the bloodshed?" Arus asked. "What can the Alliance do?"
"Leave!" the man shouted, pointing to the sky. "Remove your wretched hides from our worlds and never return!"
"But the planetary leaders of Athena requested—"
The man clenched his fist and screamed. "They do not speak for the people of Athena! The Viochiati are the true voice of the people!"
Behind him, the two remaining adults huddled around the boy. They seemed to be fiddling with something Nasael couldn't see. Arus' attention was focused squarely on the bearded stranger. They could be arming another bomb. Sheeth wastes time with this pointless bickering. Someone needs to act before we're all blown to the Abyss.
"I'm sorry," Arus was saying, "but I'm not familiar with the Viochiati."
The man beat a fist against his chest. "We are the brave souls your people so callously refer to as 'pirates.' We sacrifice our lives standing against you, and we will not rest until Athena is cleansed of the scourge that is the Aeden Alliance!"
With his ever-changing flesh tones camouflaging his movements, Nasael slowly positioned his pistol so that the barrel rested atop the wooden crate. Arus continued to try his hand at diplomacy while Nasael locked the scar-faced man in his crosshairs. Sheeth would likely chastise him for disobeying orders, but an angry lieutenant was better than having one's limbs blown halfway across Del'Carjhal. Heroes were sometimes forced to make unpopular decisions, and Nasael was certain that his fellow soldiers would one day be thankful for what he was about to do.
Arus glanced at his radar. The reading had not changed. A total of twenty-one enemies were closing in around the Aeden group. Only four stood in plain view—five, counting the woman—while the others had yet to make their presence known. The signals had first appeared on his sensors as distant blips, but the gap was shrinking, and the Alliance soldiers were running out of breathing room. The implant calculated numerous possible escape routes, but a successful flight did not seem possible without bloodshed. There had to be a way out without sacrificing any more lives. There had to be.
"If I were to provide you an audience with the Aeden Alliance to air your grievances, would you agree to a temporary cease-fire? We could—"
A shot rang out to Arus' right, a piercing streak that sent the taller man sprawling across the snow. Arus glanced to see Nasael hunched behind the supply crate, his arm stretched over its top with pistol in hand. He returned a look of satisfaction before aiming down the weapon's sights once more. "Corporal," Arus growled, "I thought I ordered you to hold you hold your fire!"
The bearded man retrieved his fallen comrade's rifle. "Your Aeden colors show themselves," he said, pointing the barrel at Arus. "We will silence your tongue!"
The intonation of his voice, the whites of his knuckles, and the gleam in his eyes said that there would be no more negotiation. Arus dove to the ground as the three opened fire. The closest cover was only paces away—the stairwell descending to the bunker beneath the Communications Array. He just needed a slight diversion.
"Return fire!" he commanded. An almost-instant shower of lasers erupted from the Aeden soldiers and provided the distraction he needed to lunge for the stairwell. He toppled head over heels, knocking his head against the concrete more then once before skidding to a stop halfway to the doors. The world spun for a moment or two before his vision focused on a large figure towering over him.
"Are you hurt, Lieutenant?" Garren asked. Aly was hunched beside him. She said nothing but spared Arus a sympathetic glance before peering over the stairwell's stone wall.
Arus rubbed the back of his head. "Corporal Nasael," he began, returning to his feet, "is going to get us all killed."
Garren patted him on the shoulder. "His impulsiveness is dangerous; there's no question of that. But the matter will need to be put aside for now. We will miss the last shuttle if we do not hurry."
With a nod, Arus poked his head over the wall. The bearded man was down, but the other woman and young boy were crouched behind a series of large utility pipes that ran from the ground to the top of the Armory. More laser fire poured from further down the path, but Arus couldn't see the additional enemies. Nasael and Baird returned fire from their spots to his right, and Lieutenant Briela and Private Tempes had taken up positions behind them at the Armory's northwest end.
"How many are there, Lieutenant?" Garren asked.
The path beyond the Armory twisted between the Admissions Office and Visitor's Center. Formations of rock had created a ridge that prevented the two buildings from aligning with one another, forcing the road to descend and turn to the right before rising again on the opposite side. Scans showed a number of enemies stationed along either side of the ridge with more scattered along the adjacent paths, but Arus could see none of them. "There are nineteen total, including the two in front of us," he answered. Activating his comm, he addressed the rest of the Aeden soldiers. "Listen close, everyone. There are a total of nineteen fighters ahead. They've got the route to the Spaceport completely locked down. Our only option is to fall back to the west side of the Armory and try to come around from the south. Wait for my signal."
"I can provide a distraction," Aly volunteered. Tiny ribbons of electricity slithered around her fingers, alluding to her meaning. "We will need the cover."
Arus nodded. "Right. The enemy has taken up positions within the ridge ahead. Try to target—"
Garren cut him off. "Lieutenant, look!"
Across from them, the second woman—a brown haired woman with large eyes and dark hair trimmed closely to her scalp—was strapping two small metal cylinders to the younger boy's chest. Arus' mechanical eye magnified the two, zooming close enough to see several wires connecting the cylinders and running down the his youth's arm to a flat sphere in his palm. The implant's scanners detected several layers of arnium and mettsa—two highly explosive materials—inside the canisters, and that was all it took to make Arus' mouth go dry. "It's a bomb," he murmured. "He's going to blow us all to the Abyss."
Garren's eyes grew. "What can we do? Surely you do not expect us to open fire on a child!"
There was no time to mull options. A soldier—and to a greater extent, a leader—needed to be able to make split-second decisions. Arus lifted the communicator to his mouth and spoke. "All Aeden soldiers cease fire immediately. I repeat, do not return fire; our enemies are accompanied by a boy with explosives strapped to his chest. We cannot risk detonating the device. Aly is going to provide us with an opportunity to retreat. When you see it, proceed along the previously mentioned escape route as planned." He turned to Aly. "They're all yours. Be careful."
Aly only nodded in response. Peering above the stairwell wall, she lifted her hand. An upheaval of dirt and stone and rocks burst from the ground several paces away from where the woman and child were crouched, forcing them to cower against the Armory's wall with arms over their heads. Before the largest clumps of land had returned to the ground, Aly called several blinding bolts of lightning down upon the ridge where the enemy had hidden. Thunder split the air with each streak, and the enemy laser fire came to an abrupt halt.
To their right, Nasael and Baird were already darting toward the west end of the Armory where Briela and Tempes were waiting. Garren, Arus, and Aly raced after them. Once the team regrouped on the other side, Arus took the lead. He wanted to scream at Nasael for his lack of discretion, but he was not the corporal's commanding officer. He wasn't anyone's commanding officer, for that matter.
"What are we going to do, Sir?" Sven asked. He was a small young man, a recent recruit eager to impress but too quick to act. Lack of experience had frequently led him to make poor decisions—much like Nasael. However, unlike the corporal, Tempes simply didn't know any better. And to his credit, he was the first to admit it.
Lieutenant Briela came up beside them. "I think we should cut through the Auditorium. We can pass through the alley on the east side to reach Processing. If we can get through there without incident, the Spaceport will be right in front of us."
Arus agreed. "It's our best option at this point." He glanced at his radar and frowned. "They're already moving to intercept us."
"We have the advantage," Baird noted. "Arus can track them. We don't know that they can track us."
Briela glanced behind. "We don't know they can't, either."
The implant mapped out a number of options, but Briela's suggested route was the most direct path to their destination. Thus far, the enemy had not spread to that section of Del'Carjhal, but they were expanding rapidly. If the Aeden group managed stay ahead of the wave, they might have a shot of getting off of Vaank alive. If there was still a shuttle waiting for them.
Intermittent laser fire pursued them all the way to the Auditorium. Per Arus' orders, not a shot was returned, but Nasael glared at him every time they paused along to take momentary cover. He almost seemed to want a firefight, but he refrained from taking matters into his own hands. Arus maintained his focus outwardly, but inside, he was seething. No, he wasn't officially Nasael's commander, but Arus and Briela were the two senior officers of the group, and that meant their orders were law until they could regroup with the rest of the Alliance.
Apparently, he wasn't as focused as he thought. As the group passed the Mess Hall—most of which had been reduced to rubble—Sergeant Baird put a hand on Arus' shoulder and spoke low. "Let it go for now. There will be a time for dealing with him, but this isn't it."
Arus replied with only a nod. In his other ear, he could almost hear Master Eaisan warning him to keep his anger in check.
The Auditorium loomed ahead. Scans indicated that the northern group of pursuers had broken away and were moving in the direction of the Command Station. Too late, he thought. The data core is safe with us. To the south, however, an even larger group of enemies was expanding in their direction. Again, the implant's abilities sent chills down his back; he knew there were one-hundred and three non-Aeden signals without counting. Not all of them were moving toward the Auditorium, but they were close enough in proximity that ten could easily alert fifty more.
The mage and knight towered over the group as they approached the Auditorium's entrance. Both statues, carved of a stone unfamiliar to Arus, stood on either side of the doors veiled by a thin coat of snow. They had been gifts from Luncia's most renowned sculptor. The rest of the structure was just as elegant. Every corner and edge was molded with smooth lines and subtle flourishes. Large windows lined each wall with ornately cut designs set in every stone frame. A ring of images out of luncian lore circled the domed roof. Amidst the rest of the military structures in Del'Carjhal, the Auditorium stood out like a svodesian in a group of thanai.
"Everyone inside," Briela commanded. Arus entered first—his cybernetic eye gave him an advantage in the dim light—while she brought up the rear. "Stay together," she whispered. "Stay low and keep quiet. The carpet should muffle our steps. Head for the security exit behind the stage."
While the others needed a few moments to allow their eyes to adjust, Arus was able to see every row of chairs all the way up to the stage. Heavy red curtains blocked the majority of the light from the windows. From the inside of the Auditorium, one would never know of the destruction that had taken place throughout Del'Carjhal. It was clean and quiet with everything was its rightful place. The seat of each chair was folded, the curtain was lowered, and the rug was spotless.
"Anything on the radar, Lieutenant?" Garren asked. "I can barely see."
Arus shook his head. "No, but they're coming up behind us. We have to keep moving."
Private Tempes spoke up. His voice cracked when he did. "Can't we just hide out in here until this whole thing blows over?"
Baird stifled a laugh. "If we wait here, we will be the ones getting blown over."
As they approached the stage, Arus became aware of a distant sound, a rumble to the south that grew to an intense roar at an alarming speed. When three foreign starfighter signals blinked on the implant's sensors, his breath caught. "Maker's mercy!" he exclaimed. "Bombers! Everyone take—"
It was too late. An explosion of fire and shrapnel burst through the Auditorium's dome. Arus threw himself between the nearest two rows of chairs and covered his head as debris rained down, crushing entire sections of seats and pelting Arus with chunks of rock and metal. Windows burst. Screams were muted. And a large portion of the wall behind the stage came tumbling down in a smoky plume of dust and flames.
Then it was over.
"Are you hurt?" Aly was kneeling beside him.
Instinct compelled Arus to flex his fingers and test all joints to be sure nothing was broken, but the implant made that ritual unnecessary. "I'm fine," he said, rising to all fours. "Is everyone . . . "
The sentence trailed away. Scans only displayed five signals in his immediate vicinity—six, including his own. That left one person missing. His sensors had been disrupted in the past, so an error was possible. But if the readings were clear, someone had been lost in the attack. Jumping up, Arus called, "Is anyone hurt?"
Daylight poured into the Auditorium. Three walls still stood, but the fallen fourth created a small mountain over the stage and some of the forward seats. Large slabs of what had once served as the structure's dome were littered about, having landed across as many as three to four rows of chairs in some places. Smoke and dust filled Arus' nostrils with every breath, and several fires burned.
"Lieutenant!" Sergeant Garren called, "over here!" He was waving frantically from the opposite side. "Linard is trapped!"
Arus rushed over with Aly close behind. "Is he alive?" he asked, climbing into the next row. "Don't move him!"
"I'm fine," Baird said, trying to fake a smile. "Just get this thing off me."
A jagged chunk of the dome had pinned him to the ground from the waist down. Both of his legs were broken—the implant displayed that clearly—but his vital organs had escaped harm. Between Garren's arms and the strength of Arus' steel arm, the two of them managed role the stone aside.
"How will we move him?" Aly asked.
"I'll manage," Baird told her. "Don't worry about me, I'm fine. Where are the others? Are they safe?"
Nasael stood a few rows ahead with his arms folded across his chest and head bowed. There was another hunk of debris beside him, a portion of the ceiling nearly three times the size of the one that had injured Baird. A number of seats had been crushed beneath it; Arus could see that much from his position. But where were Briela and Tempes?
"Nasael!" Arus shouted as he approached. "Are you hurt? Where are Lieutenant—" He cut himself off when he found Briela crouched in the row beside the body of Private Tempes. He'd been crushed beneath the fallen segment of the Auditorium's dome. Most of his upper torso was pinned, including his head and neck. His body was limp, and his vital signs were non-existent. Sven Tempes was dead.
"It's terrible to see them go this young," Briela murmured. "He had so much excitement in him. He had a lot to learn, but he was eager to learn it."
Arus clenched his fists. He said nothing, but he felt his insides twisted into a knot. Master Eaisan would've told him that part of a soldier's duty was to lay down his life in service to the people he had sworn to protect. Arus knew that, and he had no qualms about putting his own life on the line. But it wasn't so easy to see others do it. I came here to help save lives. Not watch them end.
Nasael finally spoke. "I think we need to get moving. I assume you have come to the same conclusion about our enemy's intentions. We can't afford to let it happen."
“What do you mean?”
Nasael didn’t have an eyebrow to lift, but his forehead creased on one side. “Do you not see it? It seems blatantly clear to me. I assumed that thing on your face would have deduced—”
“Out with it, Corporal,” Arus commanded, folding his arms.
Nasael looked at him directly. “Why didn’t all five of them open fire on you back at the Armory? For that matter, if they wanted us dead, they could’ve feigned cooperation only to detonate that child’s bomb once our guard was down. They do not mean to kill us. Not all of us, at least. It is far more likely that they intend to capture as many of us as they can.”
“It’s possible that we simply got out of there before they had a chance to blow us to the Abyss,” Arus said. “It didn’t appear to me as though the child’s explosives were properly prepared.”
“All the more reason for them to feign cooperation,” Nasael countered. “To buy time.”
“Sven is dead!” Arus shouted, pointing at the private’s corpse. “What more evidence do you need?”
Nasael’s nostrils flared. “Even a mid-level missile from the weakest Aeden starfighter would have obliterated this building. The fact that Tempes is the only one to perish suggests—“
Briela leapt to her feet. “Enough! Both of you, that’s enough!”
“We must push forward,” Garren said. He carried Sergeant Baird across his shoulders. “Whether their intentions are to capture or to kill, our goal remains the same.”
Arus turned away with a frustrated growl and shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t react well to seeing people die.”
Nasael’s eyes bore through the back of his head. “Then you are in the wrong line of work, Lieutenant.”
It had never been a secret that Nasael was not particularly fond of Arus, but that disdain was becoming a hindrance to their progress. Still, it was something that would have to wait. By the implant’s calculations, they had about a minute and a half before enemy fighters reached their position. On top of that, the group from the north was closing in on the Spaceport. If they weren’t on a shuttle in two minutes—
Arus’ heart stopped. Scans showed no shuttles docked at the Spaceport. There were three utility ships and two assault transports left, but all starfighters and shuttles had abandoned Del’Carjhal.
They’d been left behind.
“What is it, Lieutenant?” Garren asked. “You look as though you’ve just seen Kuldaan himself.”
An assault transport, then. It was their only chance of escape. Assault ships couldn’t travel nearly as far as shuttles—even the closest fueling depot would be a stretch—but it would get them off of Vaank, and that was Arus’ immediate concern. “Slight complication,” he said, turning toward the mound of rubble. “The shuttles are gone. We’ll need to commandeer an assault transport to get ourselves out of here, and we need to do it quickly. We have about two minutes before the enemy reaches the Spaceport.”
Nasael opened his mouth to respond, but by the Maker’s grace, chose to close it again. Without another word, he strode past Arus and started climbing over the debris. Aly followed, as did Garren. He carried Sergeant Baird as though he were nothing—a bundle of feathers, perhaps. Rocks rolled beneath his feet as he started to climb, but he soon found solid footing and ascended to the top.
Briela motioned toward Nasael. “What if he’s right?”
“He may be,” Arus admitted. “But it doesn’t much matter at this point. We need to escape from Del’Carjhal regardless.”
She thumbed the knife at her belt. “But what if . . . What if they’ve already taken prisoners? What if, while we’re standing here, they are out there dragging our friends away to be imprisoned or tortured?”
“It will do us no good to be captured alongside them,” Arus assured her. “If they have taken any of our people hostage, they will surely try to use those lives as leverage against us. When they do, the Alliance will strike.”
Briela murmured something that sounded like a prayer.
The group came out in the alley behind the Auditorium and used the Processing building’s rear door to slip in undetected. New arrivals first passed through Processing to check-in and obtain post assignments. There was nothing of vital importance inside—only a few computer terminals and storage closets full of uniforms and basic hygienic supplies. The main entrance, however, was just across from the Spaceport. The group gathered at either side of the door with Arus and Briela in the lead.
“Head for Docking Terminal 3,” Arus instructed. “The closest assault ship is there. No matter what happens, keep going. Do not look back until you’re on that ship. Does everyone understand?” The others nodded in agreement, and Arus threw the doors open.
The Spaceport was the largest structure on the base. It consisted of five circular Docking Terminals connected by enclosed bridges. Large glass windows ran around the perimeter of each except where separated by doors or boarding tunnels. The landing pads were barren; most ships and transports were already en route for the rendezvous coordinates. Their absence left a wide expanse between the main path and the Spaceport.
“We’re going to get obliterated out there,” Nasael said as they reached the perimeter fence. “There’s no cover anywhere.”
“Then start running, Corporal,” Briela replied, pushing the gate open. “This is our only chance to escape.”
Shouts rose from the path to the north. A large mob of fighters—pirates or Viochiati or whatever they were—appeared, men and women dressed in similar animal hides and shouting unintelligible phrases as they rushed south. They were nothing if not relentless, that much was certain. Arus threw the gate open and stepped aside. “Go! Run!”
Garren carried Baird through first. The others were right at his heels with Arus bringing up the rear. The expanse of the airfield seemed to stretch on indefinitely, though it really wasn’t much larger than the firing range. Still, with that much ground to cover and the enemy gaining, the chances of reaching their destination unharmed seemed miniscule. We’re not going to make it to the terminals.
They were nearing the middle of the field when every signal on the implant’s radar vanished at once. Arus almost stopped short at that—his feet carried him forward more out of instinct than conscious will. It felt as though a part of his vision had gone dark—like an extra sense that no longer existed. No longer could he see where the enemies were, no longer did he know how much time he and the others had, no longer would he be able to analyze laser trajectories or predict enemy movements. And though he preferred to keep the implant deactivated when its additional functions were unnecessary, it had become a reliable and often life-saving tool during times of conflict.
Suddenly they were there; enemy fighters pouring through the gate behind the Alliance soldiers. Arus screamed a warning to the others, urging them to push harder. A streak of red zipped past him and hit Lieutenant Briela between the shoulders, sending her tumbling to the ground. Arus dropped beside her and returned fire with the implant’s weapon, ignoring his own orders to reach the Spaceport at all costs. More lasers shrieked amidst foreign battle cries.
Arus glanced at Briela’s lifeless body. I’m so sorry, Lieutenant. The amulet beneath his shirt seemed heavier than usual. I could bring this to an end right now. I could’ve ended it long ago. But revealing the existence of the Lifestone? Is it worth it to endanger so many for the sake of a few?
Aly made the decision for him. She strode past and threw her hands forward with a shout. “Leaniel!” A blue glow expanded from her fingers and stretched across the airfield, a magical barrier that absorbed all laser blasts that made contact. It grew into a full wall, momentarily shielding the Aeden group from harm.
“What are you doing?!” Arus demanded, rising beside her. “Get to the Spaceport!”
Her response was like the calm before a storm. “Keese, Tempes, and now Briela. They are but three out of many who have perished at the hands of these murderers, and each has died needlessly. If I’m going to join them, I want my death to mean something. I can provide the cover you need to escape. Run, Lieutenant! Take the others and get out of here!”
“You’re coming with us,” Arus told her. “I won’t leave anyone here to die. Besides, I have an oath to keep.”
Aly looked over her shoulder at him, forehead creased. “You what?”
From the skies came a screech, a howling scream that chilled Arus’ blood. The sound brought the enemy laser fire to a momentary standstill as heads turned toward the clouds. The distraction was short-lived; a voice went up from the opposing gunmen, a singular shout in foreign tongue. The entire mob then surged forward like an ocean wave barreling toward land. There were children amongst them, Arus realized, some of whom carried rifles while others were strapped with what he could only assume were more bombs.
“We are out of options!” Aly exclaimed. Flames burst from her palms as she clasped them together in preparation for attack.
“No!” Arus shouted, grabbing her arms. “The children! You might hit—“
The screech cut across the airfield again. A bird—a magnificent creature with blue and red and purple feathers—came down between the approaching fighters and the Alliance soldiers. It was both fearsome and beautiful, as big as a starfighter with talons like short swords. It threw its head forward and screamed at the primitive invaders, prompting some to open fire upon the beast. The animal flinched with each shot landed, but it held its ground.
“It's now or never,” Arus said, pulling Aly away. “Come on!”
The creature looked back as they dashed toward the Spaceport but made no attempt to pursue. Instead, it reached down, grabbed one of the foreign fighters in its beak, and tossed him halfway across Del’Carjhal with a mere flick of its head. A woman drove a knife into its wing and received a talon through her middle in return. Another body was sent flying to Del’Carjhal’s south. Then another.
“Lieutenant, we must go!”
Arus hadn’t even realized that he was no longer running. He found himself at the base of the stairway that led up to Docking Terminal A. Garren had already disappeared inside with Baird, and Nasael and Aly were standing at the doorway. Arus took one look back toward the airfield and immediately wished he had not.
What he saw was something he hoped he wouldn't have to witness, something that would surely haunt his dreams for years to come. A girl, no more than eight years old, dashed behind the creature when its attention was diverted. As with many of the other youths, an explosive devise was crudely strapped to her torso. Her face was hard as stone; it was as though she had spent thirty years preparing for what she was about to do. There was no sign of hesitation in her actions and no evidence that she was being coerced into sacrificing herself. She was just another warrior doing what she believed to be her duty.
Arus screamed something—exactly what, he had no idea—as she dove beneath the winged beast. The explosion that followed spiked high above the airfield and swallowed the animal in a wall of flame. The opposing fighters disappeared; whether they'd been caught in the detonation or were merely obscured by it was unclear.
Nasael appeared at Arus' side carrying an air of satisfaction. "Serves them right," he muttered. "They brought this upon themselves. Now they can experience the pain our people have suffered today."
It took every ounce of willpower Arus had to refrain from punching Nasael's yellow teeth into the roof of his mouth. His artificial arm could have done it with ease. "The lives of those people are no less important than our own, Corporal." The sentence came out as something akin to a snarl. "Death is not an occasion for celebration. It is an occasion for mourning."
Nasael shrugged. "So you say." He ascended the stairs, adding, "Not many people mourn the deaths of enemies. I suppose you're just a saint among men, hmm?" The insincere tone of his voice was hinting at something, Arus knew, but it would have to be addressed later.
Figures became visible as the smoke thinned. A large number of foreign fighters remained—the majority, in fact. Some were tending the wounded while others cheered the burning fire. Those cheers were silenced when the creature spread its wings and rose through the flames with another scream. Its appearance even startled Arus.
"We're leaving you behind, Sheeth," Nasael called from the doorway. "Good luck."
With fists clenched, Arus finally tore his attention away from the airfield and raced up the stairs. The terminal was eerily silent, but nothing more could be expected. With a fresh surge of adrenaline, Arus chased Aly and Nasael to Docking Terminal C. Garren was standing beside one of the eastern boarding gates. He frantically waved to them.
"Come!" he shouted. "Sergeant Baird is already aboard! We must go!"
Arus could not help himself. As Aly and Nasael entered the boarding tunnel, he stopped to take one last look through the window. The bird—if it could be called that—stood in the center of the airfield staring right back at him. Most of its feathers had been burned away. Its legs were charred and black, and several of its talons were either broken or missing. Opposition forces continued to attack it with both knives and rifles, but it stared back at Arus as though it felt nothing. What is it? Arus wondered. Why are you staring at me?
As if responding to Arus' question, the animal raised its head to the sky and squawked. A shimmering light enveloped its body, forcing back the fighters on the ground. The beast's silhouette began to transform within the shroud of light. Its dark outline altered and shrank, reducing to less than a quarter of its previous size. The creature was gone when the light subsided, and in its place stood a lone Aeden soldier.
Arus couldn't believe what he was seeing. "Chief Morsul?!"
She stood proudly in the middle of a large ring of foreign gunmen. The left side of her face was charred and bloodied, and crimson coated her burned hands. Blood was already seeping through her uniform near her middle, and a long red stain marred the left leg of her pants. There was no pain in her face, but the damage had clearly been done. She nodded once in Arus' direction as laser fire erupted from the circle of enemies. Then she was down, and the circle closed.
"No!" Arus shouted, slamming his fist against the window. A million thoughts and ideas swirled in his head, but there was no time for any of them. Garren was shouting something at him from the gate, and time was short. With great reluctance, Arus turned and followed the sergeant into the boarding tunnel.
Aly was already at the helm when Arus sealed the entry hatch. "Status report, Sergeant Mino."
"I can fly her, Sir. I'm not exactly accustomed to this interface, but it is manageable. A navigations officer would be beneficial, however." She motioned to the chair beside her.
Ideally, Arus would have looked to Sergeant Baird for assistance in that area. He had a great mind for strategy and would be an asset in the likely event of a space battle. But Garren had taken him to the passenger berths below deck to tend to his injuries. Nasael, however, was leaning against the cabin wall with his arms crossed. "Corporal, help her out."
"Would my master like some ale while his servants toil for him?"
The events of the day had been taxing, and Nasael's deplorable behavior was more than Arus could stomach. In the blink of an eye, his steel hand was around Nasael's throat, and he forced the soldier against the wall. "I'm not going to tolerate any more insolence! I was standing in plain sight of the enemy today trying to make peace while you killed a man who didn't even know you were there! Your blatant disregard for my orders prevented any sort of dialogue from being opened between the two sides and the ensuing events cost the lives of Sven Tempes, Tanti Briela, Laine Morsul, and who knows how many others! So before you start complaining about a commanding officer's instructions, you'd be well advised to consider your rank, Corporal!"
Nasael's scarlet eyes glared back at him. "If I hadn't acted, we'd all be dead."
His arrogance was infuriating. "That's not your call to make!" Arus shouted. "Part of being a soldier is learning to trust in your commanding officer's decisions!"
Garren's voice came from behind. "And part of being a commanding officer is learning to work with insubordinate individuals." There was sympathy in his tone, solemn as it was. He put a hand on Arus' shoulder. "Linard is secure. We're ready to go."
For a moment, Arus could see himself from a third-person perspective as though he'd pulled away from his own body. And he didn't like what he saw. "I'm sorry," he whispered, releasing Nasael. "Aly, please get us out of here."
Nasael smiled inwardly as he took his seat at the navigations terminal. His attempts to goad Arus into revealing his true nature had not yet been successful, but there was progress. Soon enough, the lieutenant would lash out with his magical talents, and his cover would be blown. Great care would need to be taken; Nasael could be squashed like a cockroach if he was caught off guard. But, if handled correctly, the chain of events now set in motion could lead to the resolution of Del'Carjhal's tragedy and put a noose around Arus Sheeth's neck.