The Running Battle
Blue-white lightning split the night, and the top windows of the Rosehip’s tea room blew out into the night, following by blazing balls of fire. Ringing bells heralded the fire, and Aki heard the clanking as the Ater-Volantis fire fighters rushed Fòrsic water engines towards the orange glow. Lying prone in the darkness several rooftops away, she grimaced. Beside her, Benji gave a low, low whistle. “That’s the biggest one yet!” he whispered.
Aki nodded. The conflict touched off by their precipitous departure from the meeting with Choisant was not going well, for either side. If pressed, however, she could admit that it was the Engineers who were bearing the brunt of it. An inescapable fact of life on the Floating City was that it really was not very big. The population totaled approximately twenty thousand people, give or take, of which Eolas made up ten percent. Not everyone at the University was an Engineer or a Theorist, and so against the might of the Choisant Aki had a mere two score of students. There were others throughout the town who supported them, but not openly, and it was open support they desperately needed.
Lacking that, they also needed places to hide. The mountain of rock upon which the City rested was honeycombed with tunnels, lightening the load and making ideal storage and maintenance passages. The Warren, as it was called, was also the obvious place to hide, and thus it was the first place the Choisant had looked. The tunnels were not endless, and there was no escape from the City when it was in the air. Aki had been forced to spread her forces throughout the city to avoid detection, and was doing all she could to avoid open conflict. She had opted, instead, for a barrage of broadsheets, posted wherever possible and decrying the excesses of the Prime and his cronies. Unable to find them, the Magnus and the Choisant were becoming increasingly frustrated. And their reactions to finding a hiding spot were becoming increasingly severe.
“Thank Alos that we got our people out in time,” Aki whispered back in response to Benji. Lack of open support didn’t mean a lack of information. The same heavy-handedness that kept people afraid also built resentment, and there was no lack of people surreptitiously slipping them information. The trick was deciding what was genuine and what was a potential trap set by the Magnus. Still, there were ten Engineers who had been living in the vacant rooms above the Rosehip tea house. Enough that, when word came of the raid, they’d had to move them or lose more than twenty percent of their forces.
It was Benji’s turn to nod. “Yes, suspiciously well-timed,” he murmured, “especially since we don’t know how they found the Rosehip hide-away in the first place.”
“I am worried about that too,” Aki replied, pensively staring at the burning building. “Perhaps a patron heard them moving around, but we’ll have to move everyone else to be safe.”
“Agreed,” Benji said. Then, he pointed down at a shadowed alley to the corner of the former tea room. “Look!”
Aki followed the line of his finger. There were several dark figures there, dressed in drab clothing. “Too soon to be here to fight the fire,” she murmured, peering at the mouth of the alley. “Do you think these are our fire-starters, hoping to pick off anyone escaping the building?”
Benji grinned fiercely. “I’m sure of it. Let’s take these snake-eaters.”
“Hmmm,” Aki pondered. It could be a risk exposing their positions, but without opposition the Choisant would undoubtedly try and blame the conflagration on them. It would be worth it to capture some operatives, and display them prominently somewhere public. The Choisant relied on fear, show they could be defeated, and they would lose their mystique. “All right,” she said finally. “Signal Maz and her team.” Their biggest advantage lay in their ability as Engineers and the subsequent quality of their equipment. Aki intended to use it as much as possible.
Without moving from his prone position, Benji fished a small crystal from his pocket. The crystal was housed in an open wooden box, with mirrored sides to direct the light forward. Aiming to the left of the alley, he trigged it twice. On the roof across the way, five dark figures rose and leapt down onto the Choisant soldiers below them. Four of the figures moved jerkily, slowing their descent with bursts of Fòrsic energy directed at the walls of the surrounding buildings. The last figure, Maz, glided smoothly ahead of her team in her flying suit. She was first to reach the unsuspecting soldiers, and at the last second twisted in the air to slam boot first into the back of the last man in line, sending him stumbling into his companions, scattering them.
The rest of her team followed swiftly on her heels, dealing stunning blows from Fòrsic staves and batons. The fight quickly devolved into individual battles, the Engineers using surprise and speed to overwhelm and incapacitate the Choisant soldiers. “I hope they remember the plan,” Aki muttered. It would be a shame if any of the soldiers died and missed their humiliating debut as sign posts in the main forum the next morning.
“Maz trained her team well,” Benji reassured her. “They will do you proud.” There was a lull, punctuated by distant thwacking noises, occasional shouts, and the hum of a Fòrsic discharge as Maz and her companions made short work of the remaining Choisant. A thud and a clanking, like someone in armor stubbing their toe and recoiling, intruded on their concentration. “What was that?” Benji asked.
Aki turned and signaled to her team of Engineers, arrayed behind her. Three quick hand gestures, go, scout, quiet, and one of the Engineers, a tiny slip of a woman named Ora, went bounding away across the rooftops. Ahead of them, the last of Choisant firestarters turned to flee. The man was brought down by Maz, her gliding suit enabling a flying tackle down the alleyway. “That suit looks like it is working great,” Aki remarked as Maz stunned the last soldier with a Fòrsic discharge placed expertly behind his ear. “That leap must have been fifteen feet.”
“As long as the crystals hold out,” Benji replied. “It locks up otherwise, the clockwork can’t sustain movement without any Fòrsa.”
“That could be rough, depending on how high up you were,” Aki mused. The rest of Maz’s team were hogtying the downed soldiers, gagging and blindfolding them and preparing to leave.
“Yes. Although since the main crystal is in the chest plate, you could potentially swap it out on the fly, as it were. We designed it so that the arms still work even if the rest of the suit is locked up.”
“Good to know,” she said, which was true, considering she and Benji were both wearing the other two suits that he and Maz had produced. She hadn’t used it for anything more strenuous than climbing to this rooftop, however. While Maz and Benji had been using their suits for five-days, Aki had been too busy organizing the Engineers and keeping them just ahead of the Choisant and Magnus Striech to become fully comfortable using her own. This mission had offered an ideal opportunity, a chance to test, and see the suit in the field, without much risk to herself. The suits seemed to perform well. If they could equip all the Engineers thus, they would gain unprecedented power and mobility. The suits could both defend and attack with Fòrsic energy, and while by now most of them had some Fòrsic means of climbing, quick access to and from the rooftops was such an important tactical route that any advantage there had to be followed up on. Unfortunately, the suits burned through all but the purest crystals quite quickly, a problem exacerbated by the increasing amounts of crystals afflicted by Síosar. They couldn’t afford to outfit more than a few suits, although Maz was looking into making them work more efficiently, to be able to utilize less pure crystals.
Ora returned, and rushed over to Aki, a panicked look on her face. Aki frowned, something was wrong.
“Choisant,” Ora whispered hurriedly. “In the streets below. Maybe two score, they’ve got Maz surrounded, but I don’t think she knows yet. I couldn’t get through to her.”
Aki swore quietly. Had the whole thing been a trap, or just suspiciously good timing? It didn’t matter now, they had to get Maz and her troop out. “Are they moving, or are they just waiting?” She asked Ora.
“Waiting,” the young woman replied. “But they can’t wait for much longer, or Maz will notice them.”
“We have to warn her,” she said, “and quietly, or the Choisant will move in and we will be out of time,” she looked out at the streets and the burning Rosehip, thinking quickly. The former teashop was on a square, a crossroads of sorts, with Maz on the other side of them. It was impossible to Maz by rooftops, and the streets below were apparently full of soldiers. The Fòrsic lantern was just a signaling device. They could get Maz’s attention, but they couldn’t tell her anything. If only they could fly… she looked at Benji. “We’ll go,” she said. “The suits can glide us across the square. If we move quickly enough, we can get to Maz and get her people out.”
“No!” He protested. “Too risky for both of us to go,” he stood. “I’ll warn Maz, you stay here and watch my back.”
“Easier for you to watch mine,” she retorted. “Besides, I’m in charge. And we’ll need all three suits to get everyone to safety.”
He stared at her intently, and then angrily shook his head. “You’re too important, without you all this will fall apart.”
She reached up and patted his cheek gently. “You worry too much,” she admonished, and then grinned. “And I can’t resist a chance to tweak Striech’s nose.”
“All right,” Benji gave in. “Take this and signal when they move in,” He handed the lantern to Ora, and then turned back to Aki. “Let’s go!”
Aki looked at Ora. “Keep quiet until the Choisant have moved passed you. Then get out of here. We’ll meet you in the tunnels.” Ora inclined her head in assent, and Aki turned and nodded to Benji and they both launched themselves into the air.
Aki had doubted the suits, but they worked smooth and silently. She’d have to apologize to Maz later, after they saved her. The crystal in the chest-plate was a comforting warmth against her chest as it powered the various mechanism of the suits, extending the ‘wings’ out from the below the arms to lock into the legs, creating a gliding surface that caught the cold night air. The crystals also used Fòrsic energy to slow the rate of descent dramatically, so that they glided out and away from the roof rather than down and away. They flashed across the square, Aki in front and Benji right on her heels, and then they both flared the gliding arms to pull up and skid to a stop in front of Maz and her team as they finished hog-tying the rest of the Choisant soldiers. Maz raised an eyebrow at their approach, and Aki got straight to the point. “Two score more Choisant soldiers,” she whispered hurriedly. “We’re surrounded.”
“Risky of you to come yourself,” was Maz’s only reply.
Aki ground her teeth in frustration; must they all baby her? “Too late for that now,” she said instead, waving the concern aside. “We need to get you out of here.”
“Rooftops?” Maz asked, looking up. The Engineers had escaped several scrapes by taking to their rooftops, using the versatility of their Fòrsic equipment for the mobility to escape the fights where they were at a disadvantage.
Aki nodded, “Quick as we can, before they notice we’ve slipped out of their trap.”
“All right,” Maz agreed. She pointed a member of her team, a brash young Dakian. “Kevi, scout the top,” she commanded.
“Yes, Maz,” the young man said, and took off like a jackrabbit. Kevi had a combination of Forsic gloves and boots, and used them to scramble up the alley wall with alacrity, using window ledges to throw himself upward. He reached the top, but before he could pull himself up there was a wumph and a net flew in from what seemed like nowhere, wrapping around his upper body and sending him tumbling to the cobbled streets below. He impacted with a sickening crunch as Aki looked on in horror.
Behind her, she heard Benji say hurriedly, “I see Ora’s signal. They’re moving in, Boss, what should we do?”
Her mind was blank, shocked into stillness by the suddenness of Kevi’s fall. It took several crucial seconds before the shouts of her companions bought her back fully into wakefulness. She immediately began giving orders.
“Maz, defense formation. Leave the prisoners behind. We don’t want to be trapped in the alleyway, so we will retreat backwards out into the square,” Aki commanded, and then dropped her voice so only Maz and Benji could hear. “There are tunnels under Rosehips, it’s a reason why we had people stationed here, but they are disused. I don’t know where they go, but any place is better than here.”
Benji surveyed the burning building skeptically. “We better hurry, then. That blaze isn’t stopping for anyone.”
Maz was busy directing her troops, “Joe and Sabine, trip lines and traps, slow them down!” The two Engineers, a brown-haired woman from Hascillis and weedy looking man from Alis, hastened to obey. Joe stuck spikes in the masonry of the wall, while Sabine rolled out lines of string and pulled them tight. Tripping the string would trigger a Fòrsic blast from the spikes, and the line would be near invisible in the dark. While they hurried to set up more trip lines, Mei turned to the two remaining of her force, two red-haired Crystalian women, one tall and broad the other short and slender. “Sadhbh, you and Anna are on the defensive. Redirect or block all incoming missiles.”
It was the most sentences Aki had ever heard the quiet woman speak, but she knew that Maz, whatever her reticence, was capable of much more than she seemed. It was why Aki had flown in to rescue her, she needed her to win this war. Besides, she was a friend.
Sadhbh and Anna pulled out defensive equipment, a small round shield for the shorter Anna, and a long, thick staff for Sadhbh. She whirled it in a figure-eight pattern, as Anna activated her shield, and the air began to hum with building energy. Aki smiled to herself. The Choisant were in for a surprise. Most soldiers had very standardized equipment, mostly Fòrsic lances, but Engineers (and Theorists, she supposed) could not resist tinkering. They had built much of their own Fòrsic arms and armor, and she hoped that the alterations they had made would be unexpected enough for them to win free.
Down the alleyway, they heard the steady thuds of many footsteps. “They come,” Maz said ominously.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Aki grumbled, and waved the other Engineers to keep stepping backwards, maintaining a loose defensive formation and backing them away from the oncoming footsteps. They had just emerged out into the square, when the sounds of boot-steps suddenly halted. A magnified version of Magnus Striech’s voice filled the air. “Engineers of Eolas! Your resistance is commendable, but unnecessary. Surrender now, and you will be spared.”
Silence followed the pronouncement, but behind Aki Benji put his hands to face and blew a raspberry. The rest of the Engineers laughed, and Aki shouted “Come on and get us, you old dirty bastard!”
“Very well,” Striech’s voice said. His voice was hard. “On your own head be it.”
Flashes of light came from the streets leading into the square, and Aki could see rows of Choisant soldiers moving towards them, Fòrsic lances leveled. The lances spat light, and blasts of Fòrsic energy shot toward them. Sadhbh whirled her staff in another figure-eight pattern, ending with the staff held up in the air. A dome of light surrounded the Engineers, and the blasts of energy spattered off it. Off in the alleyway, explosions marked the first row of troops finding the tripwires. The group continued to move back towards the entryway to the building, backlit by the flames licking down to the lower stories. Anna used her shield to bolster Sadhbh’s dome, reflecting back Fòrsic blasts towards the narrow streets. Here and there a soldier went down, but the rain of fire was unceasing.
They were almost to the door when the crystals in Sadhbh’s staff failed. She gave a scream of pain as the length of wood erupted into flames. She dropped the staff, and ducked behind the group and Anna’s single shield. “Benji, GET THE DOOR!” Aki yelled, as she and Maz stepped forward. Without some sort of barrier, the blasts from the lances would overwhelm them all. The suits, however, had some shielding, and they protected the rest of the group with their bodies. They were in a tight clump on the steps to Rosehips now. Aki and Maz flanked Anna with their hands out, generating a pale dome that shivered and contracted as the Fòrsic blasts impacted it. Behind them, Sadhbh nursed her burned hands, while Joe and Sabine hurled more Fòrsic stakes towards the soldiers, and soon the air was filled with dust and flying debris. A wooden crunch from behind them told Aki that Benji had broken open the door. The three Engineers behind her went pouring up the steps into the building, and Benji came back down to bolster their defenses.
Anna’s shield broke in half with a ringing snap, and a piece flew back and knocked her back and down. Maz turned and, with a mighty effort, picked her up and threw her bodily through the doorway. There were just the three of them now. The crystals on Aki’s chest were burning hot, and all three of them had to pause occasionally and insert more crystals into the chest-plates of the suits as they used them up. They backed up the steps towards the doorway. The soldiers were close now. She saw Striech’s ‘valet’, Fal Katu the assassin, leading the way through the dust of the square. “Back, back, back!” She yelled, as he lowered an evil-looking staff, the crystalline tip beginning to glow. Maz was first through the entranceway, but as Aki turned to follow, the assassin’s weapon fired. A beam of pure Fòrsic energy shot toward them, and Benji threw himself in front of her. The beam sizzled as it scorched his suit, and the flesh beneath, and both of them were thrown back into the building, hitting the far wall with a crash. Aki grunted as her wind left her. Benji was a limp, dead weigh on her chest, and she could only raise one of her arms.
Ahead of them, Fal Katu appeared in the doorway. “A valiant effort,” he said, his Volantian accent polished and urbane. “Pity it was not good enough.”
“Alos curse you,” Aki grated.
Fal Katu only shrugged. “You have lost. I could wait for the building to burn down around your ears, but,” he lowered the staff, “I prefer to finish it now.”
As the tip of the staff started to glow, Aki raised her shaking hand to point first at the Assassin, and then higher, at the doorframe. His eyes widened, “Wha…” he began, and then she triggered all of the remaining crystals in her suit. A white-hot blast shot forth from her hand into the doorframe. It held for a long moment and then collapsed, burying Fal Katu under a pile of burning wood and bricks. Aki slumped backward, her eyes closing. Her last conscious feeling before she lapsed into unconsciousness was Maz’s strong hands pulling Benji free of her, and then carrying her gently down the flame-lit hallway.
Chapter 18 can be found here.