The Return Home
Aki’s first thought was rage at Darius’s announcement. How could he not tell me something so important? Then her rational mind took over. Obviously such an important secret as the Don of the Resistance arrival in Ater-Volante would be well kept. She would be surprised if anyone outside of Darius and a few of his hand-picked people knew. It also explained his reticence about the purpose of the sabotage mission; it had delayed the City long enough for the Don to catch up to it from wherever he had been hiding. Aki hoped he had brought more than himself. They needed trained soldiers, and people to lead them. Her next thought came with a wild flare of hope. Could they actually prevail? She had been having her doubts, with the ineffectiveness of the committee and martial law declared on the city, but if they now had an army of Resistance members… It must be why he came, she thought, it has to be. Her thoughts turned to Roshan. Maybe he was here, as well. She missed her friend, it would be wonderful to see that gawky boy again.
All this flashed behind her eyes in moments. As Lothar sputtered his shock, she was first to rise to greet the Prime. To her surprise, however, she was not the first to speak.
“Welcome, Alistair,” came Sephina’s raspy voice. “It is good to see you again.”
The Don strode into the room, his black cloak trailing behind him like a shroud. His face was lean and gaunt, and his hard eyes reminded Aki of the fierce stares of birds of prey. Still, at Sephina’s words his mouth softened enough to permit a small smile.
“Still torturing apprentice Theorists, Sephina?” He asked. Aki’s eyes widened. She had no idea that the Don had studied at Eolas, and he must have, to know Sephina so well. She wasn’t sure anyone had known that he had been a student. The Don’s past was one of the most mysterious things about him.
Sephina chuckled. “It never gets old, seeing them squirm. But those days are behind us all, now,” her tone was firm, the quaver she affected gone.
The Don nodded. “I know,” he said softly. His lips made a firm line as he surveyed the room. The silence stretched out in anticipation of his words. Finally, he spoke.
“I am here to make an end,” his words were clipped, falling like stones into the quiet room. “The time is ripe, and the Prime and his… minions shall be our harvest,” his eyes seemed to pin each and every one of them to their chairs.
Aki shifted, uncomfortable with the intensity. So that’s why he’s here, she thought.
The Don continued. “Darius has informed me that you all share my goal. So now, I ask, will you join me?”
“We are honored…” Lothar began, but Aki cut him off. She wasn’t going to allow that oaf to speak for the Committee.
“We are honored by your presence, sir. May I ask a question?”
Alistair made a magnanimous gesture, “proceed.”
Aki steeled her nerve. “Why now?” she said, “Begging your pardon Sir, of course. But what makes this the right time?”
The Don smiled a toothy smile. It didn’t reach his sharp eyes. “Aki, is it? Your friend Roshan told me all about you.”
“Roshan?” Hearing his name startled the word out of her. “Is he here, did he come with you?”
The Don help up a hand. “One question at a time, my dear.” He turned to the rest of the room and continued speaking. “It is through your efforts that I could be here. Think!” He spread his hands in an expansive gesture. “The flame of rebellion burns bright even here at the floating heart of the nation. The Prime and his people are reeling. How could we not strike now?”
Smiles and grins around the room showed the Committee’s approval for such an idea. Aki could feel herself being swept along with it. It felt like a validation of all that they had done. All that they had worked, and worked hard, for. It felt like justification for all that they had lost. She could picture the tide of rebellion, of Resistance, sweeping forth over the Prime and his forces like some inevitable tide. It all seemed so easy. There must be a catch.
A rail thin woman in a voluminous fur coat spoke up. “Forgive me, Sir Don. I believe that our goals are aligned, but unless you brought a mighty army, I fail to see how we could take the City,” her voice was a grating soprano. Aki’s brows wrinkled in surprise. Elsbeth rarely spoke. She traded in furs and leathers from Hascillis, but in the committee meetings she seemed content to let Lothar, her fellow merchant, blather on. Aki did not have a good read on her, neither her temperament, nor her competence. The question did seem a reasonable one.
If the Don was perturbed at the questioning of his motives, he did not show it. Instead, he continued to smile, and appeared to be in good humor. “You are right to question. A merchant should negotiate with all the facts, no?” The merchant members of the room made gestures of assent.
“I have an answer for you, but I can only tell you in confidence. It must not leave this room,” his grin invited them all to share his secret, and Aki nodded along with everyone else. The man was hard to resist. His manner would have peaked Aki’s curiosity, even if she wasn’t already grateful for the help he was bringing.
They were all silent, hanging on his word. The Don leaned forward, and the attention, and the light, in the room seemed to bend towards him. He milked the moment. With deliberate slowness, he withdrew from a pocket in his cloak a slender, fluted rod. Though the base color was ivory, Aki could see that the surface was black with carvings, covering the rod from top to bottom. She was impressed with the level of detail of whatever glyph set the Don had inscribed there.
“What is that?” Lothar asked.
Dolt, Aki thought, but refrained from snapping the word aloud. Instead she waited to see what the Don would say. Were she the Don, she would have been annoyed by the questions. She was annoyed by the question. However, the Don seemed to welcome it.
“I’m glad you asked, my friend. This right here,” he twirled the rod for emphasis, “is the key to bringing down the Prime. Now, for a demonstration. One someone please kindly fire a Fòrsic blast at me?”
There were no volunteers. The Don rolled his eyes. “It’s hardly a difficult request,” he waited another beat, then nodded at Darius, who was still standing near the door. Darius took a small crystal from his pocket and pointed it at the Floor. There was a bright flash of light, followed by a whumph, and exclamations of alarm from the rest of the room. All of Aki’s hair stood on end. She blinked to clear her eyes, and saw a small ring etched into the clay floor, burned black by the Fòrsic blast. Everyone looked at Darius. He shrugged.
“To prove it worked,” he said, and the raised his hands and triggered the crystal again, this time pointing it right towards the Don. There was the same blinding white flash, but no whumph. Blinking her eyes again, Aki swung her gaze to the Don. He was standing, untouched. The fluted rod was raised in his hands, outstretched towards Darius. She thought she saw a dim glow in the inscribed carvings, but it faded before she could get a second look. Once all eyes were on him, the Don twirled the rod again, and slipped it back into his pocket.
“Numbers,” he said, “mean nothing. Their Fòrsic equipment will be as nothing. They will fall before me,” his voice dipped low, before rising to end in a ringing shout. “And I promise you, we will be victorious!” The room exploded into cheers.
Rika, Isa, Roshan and the other men from the village reached Alsce just as the sun was setting. Eithne was waiting for them, standing at the edge of the village looking up at the mountains as the group descended towards her. The wind had whipped her hair free from its braid, and the setting sun made it a copper corona around her head. Her pale face was pinched and anxious with worry, but she smiled hugely and clasped Roshan in a tight embrace as the group strode up to her. Rika smiled to see the two of them. Isa wolf-whistled, but Roshan and Eithne ignored her.
“They’re really gone,” Roshan said, his voice flat. Those were the first words he and spoken since Isa’s revelation outside the cave.
Eithne nodded. Roshan buried his head in her shoulder, and she held him.
“They’re going to kill people,” he muttered into her shoulder. “They’re going to kill people with my research.”
Eithne stroked his shoulder. “I know, love. But what are you going to do about it?”
Roshan picked up his head and looked at her, and then back at Rika and Isa. Isa nodded at him. “We’re going after them,” he said.
“For an explanation, at the very least,” Rika said. “If we can stop them from doing something stupid, so much the better.”
Isa looked at Eithne. “Are we all prepared? We have to leave tonight if we want to reach Dak before Ater-Volante takes off again.”
Eithne shrugged. “We are, but there are some complications.”
Rika felt a tendril of worry twist up her spine. They really did have no time to spare. Even with good horses, and on a direct route, Dak was a week away. Ater-Volante would arrive in 6 days. Unless something changed, the Don would make it in time, but they wouldn’t.
“They took the horses,” Isa said. She didn’t sound surprised.
“Everything but a few nags and draft horses,” Eithne said. “Most of the working Fòrsic carts, too.”
“Then we are done before we even started,” Roshan said, his voice filled with despair. Rika nodded in agreement. She had been mulling over this problem on their way down the mountainside, and she did not see a solution. They’d had as much hope as a dinghy in a storm of making it, even with horses, but now they had no hope.
Eithne shook her head and laughed. Both Rika and Roshan gave her a strange look, but Isa grinned. “Are you Fòrsic Theorists or aren’t you?” Isa said. She looked at Eithne, “Did you get it all?”
“As much as the villagers were willing to spare,” Eithne said, with a nod towards their companions, who returned the acknowledgement. She turned and led Roshan towards the lodge. With a glance over her shoulder at Rika and Isa she added, “Follow me.”
“What is it?” Roshan asked, but Eithne only shook her head and said,
“Let me show you.”
Bemused, Rika followed the two of them towards the lodge and into the great hall, with Isa at her side. Once through the doorway, Roshan stopped dead in his tracks. Rika, craning her neck to see around him, gasped in shock. The floor of the great hall was littered in Fòrsic equipment. Resting on large tarp of white canvas were metal gears and pulleys, broken limbs and axles of Fòrsic wagons, and other mismatched collections of Fòrsic equipment. There were also piles of crystals, and though many of them were cracked and battered, they still shone with the tell-tale fire of Fòrsic energy. The room itself was as bright as day, the walls covered in brightly shining Fòrsic lanterns, accompanied by a roaring fire.
Eithne stepped forward, “If we want transportation, we’ll have to build in ourselves.”
Rika looked at Isa, “Was this your hair-brained scheme?” she asked, an accusing note in her voice.
Isa spread her hands. “It was Eithne’s idea, actually, but I very much approve.”
Rika nodded, then frowned as a thought struck her. “Do we have time?”
“We have no choice, I think,” Roshan said. He rubbed his hands together in anticipation. “Depending on what we throw together, we could even make up time.”
Rika shuddered. As impressive as the pile of Fòrsic equipment was, much if it was broken or ill-used. Anything they made would be similarly… mismatched. And terrifying to ride on at high speed. She sighed. “I assume you already have an idea?” she asked Roshan.
“As a matter of fact…”
She nodded. “Good. Let’s get to work then.”
Isa skittered down the shale slope. The clatter sounded like the first few raindrops of a heavy storm, and Rika was glad there weren’t many people around in the desert to hear them. The five of them, Isa, Eithne, Roshan, Evan, and Rika herself, were sitting at the base of one of the remaining hills leading from the mountains to the plain Dak sat on. It was the last chance to observe the city from relative concealment, as the few remaining miles were flat and open, covered with short, dry scrub growth. The only concealment was a dry gulch that cut through plain. It ran wet and wild during the rainy season, and the spring, as snow melted on the mountaintops, but was rocky and impassible even at the best of times. The scrub on the plane itself wouldn’t hide a hare, let alone a party of five. Under normal circumstances, they could have joined a merchant caravan or some such, heading towards the city. They were in hurry though, and their transportation was anything but conventional.
“What did you see?” Roshan asked Isa as she slid to a stop in front of the rest of the group in a shower of dislodged pebbles.
“Ater-Volante,” she said, breathless. “It’s still there.”
“Praise be to Alos,” Eithne said. “We’re in time.”
“Just a moment,” Rika cautioned her. She turned to Isa. “You’re sure?”
She shrugged. “It’s getting dark, but the landing area is on the side of the Dak closest to us. It’s there.”
Roshan spoke up on Rika’s left, a musing quality to his voice. “I wonder why it’s still there. It’s at least a day overdue.”
“I don’t know,” Isa said. “But I can tell you that Ater-Volante is still grounded outside of Dak. Why don’t you go up and look for yourself?”
Roshan waved her off. “We don’t have time for that. We have to assume that it could lift-off at any moment.”
Rika frowned in thought, “Did you see anything else?”
“Just the usual activity. If there was something wrong with the spar-crystals it would be being worked on underground, wouldn’t it?”
Roshan nodded. “Yes, you’re right,” he smoothed the scruff on his chin as he thought. Between the cave-in and the frantic journey to Dak, they hadn’t had time for any careful grooming. Rika itched to shave it off his face. It looked terrible, in her opinion. Eithne didn’t seem to mind, though. Rika’s mind snapped back to what Roshan was saying.
“We know the Don was heading this way. I bet that he wouldn’t want to cut his timing too fine. If the Resistance had people on Ater-Volante…”
“They do,” Isa interrupted, nodding.
Rika stared at her. “How could you possibly know that? We’re not supposed to know the location of any teams outside our own.”
Isa smiled. “I listen. Besides, it makes sense. I’m sure we have people in every city. Probably multiple groups.”
“Alright, alright,” Roshan said. “We’re wasting time. Even if the spar crystals were disabled, somehow, we still don’t know when, or when they’ll be fixed. The sooner we get on the city, the better.”
“Hear hear,” Evan said. The man had insisted on following them from Alsce. Other villagers had wanted to come, but they couldn’t fit any others. Rika had been glad to have him. The man had an air of quiet competence, and there had been a definite improvement in their meals. Not that they had had a lot of time to stop and cook on the way from Alsce.
“Lets go then,” Isa said. “Is your Fòrsic contraption ready?”
“It’s a perambulator,” Roshan said, a trifle grumpily. “And yes, I just put a new set of crystals in.”
Isa had yet to get the name right, despite helping to build the thing. Rika knew it was her way of tweaking Roshan’s nose. In the gentlest way possible of course, but a little bit of normalcy was important. And he did tend to have a swelled head about his latest creation. Rika had to admit that it was impressive. If, like she had suspected, terrifying to ride on. Roshan, with Isa’s engineer expertise and Rika’s advice, had created something truly unique. The body was shaped like nothing so much as an enormous cat. They had used iron and leather together to create a sleek looking feline form, but one large enough and broad enough for them to ride two abreast. It was the inside that was the impressive part. An intricate system of gears and pulleys made up the interior, especially the legs, which ended in broad metal ‘pads’, covered in leather for traction. There were crystals to manage the shock absorption of the limbs, and the whole thing was powered and steered by a cluster of glyphs and crystals near the front. The emphasis on the mechanical nature of the construct meant that it could be powered quite efficiently. A necessity since the crystals available to them had been mediocre at best.
Isa had covered the back with the skin of a mountain tiger Eithne had found in the lodge. The head of the skin covering the front, so that it looked like a cat in truth. It wasn’t as smooth as one though, it ran with jerking, bounding movements. Even though Rika had grown up on the ships of Hascillis, the motion made her quite sick. But by Alos it was fast. They had to have set a new, nauseating record in their crossing of the mountains to Dak. It looked now like they had made it in time.
They climbed onto the Perambulator’s back, and Roshan activated the crystals. The whole contraption hummed with energy, its insides clicking and clunking as the gears turned. “We can follow the stream bed,” Roshan called back to them over the noise. “No one will see us approach.”
Great, Rika thought, we can be wet AND sick when we arrive. She looked around at her companions. Eithne’s pale face was tinged very green, and Rika absolutely sympathized. Evan’s mouth was firm, and he looked determined, if resigned. Isa had a wild look in her eyes, and a war whoop on her lips.
“Let’s go!” Isa cried, and Roshan lurched the Perambulator into motion. It bounded down onto the plain, leaping from rock to rock. The wind roared in their ears and Rika bared her teeth in a grin at the thrill of it, even as her gorge rose in the back of her throat. There was no denying it, it was exhilarating.
They leaped down in the gulch, landed with splash in the streambed. Water and muck flew everywhere, covering all of them in ice cold water. Rika shivered. The snow melt had started, but it wasn’t peak season yet, otherwise they would have been swept away by the tumult. As it was, the current pushed and pulled at them, and Roshan was forced to leap forward. They landed on a rock, and then another, and another. Bouncing from stone to stone, and sometimes on the sides of the ravine, they made their way down the stream bed with a dismaying rapidity. Rika had to shush Isa, she wouldn’t stop whooping with each mighty leap.
The sun had finished setting by the time they leapt out of the ravine, coming to a clanking halt just outside the disc of Ater-Volante. While on the ground, it was ringed by an imposing stone wall, nearly ten feet high. There was only one gate, guarding the road towards Dak. The rest of it was designed to keep people from smuggling themselves onto the city.
Below them, they heard the roar and rumble of rock scraping on rock. “IT’S LEAVING!” Roshan yelled.
“GO!” Isa shouted.
Rika gulped. Even in the dark, they could see the center hill of the city starting to rise. Roshan slammed a new crystal into a slot on the front of the Perambulator. It was their last, one of the few crystals they had that wasn’t battered or cracked. They burst into motion. The Perambulator ran at a dead sprint. Rika could feel the legs pumping beneath them, the impacts rattling her teeth, her bones. Beside her, Isa’s lips had curled back in a rictus grin. The wind stung Rika’s eyes, and she could barely see. She wondered how Roshan could possibly guide them. Everything around them was darkness, dust, and motion. Then, with the constructs mightiest leap, they sprang to the top of the wall in a single bound. Immediately they jumped again, reaching up, up towards the Ater-Volante as the city rose skyward. Isa was shouting, Eithne was praying, and Rika kept her teeth clenched. The roar of the city’s rising drowned out all sound, and Rika shut her eyes.
They landed with a heavy thump. One of the Perambulator’s legs shattered, dumping them off onto the cobbles in a sprawling heap. Picking herself free, Rika looked around. They were in one of the warehouse districts lining the outer edge of the city. It was deserted, the wind whistling through the alleyways. Beside her, Roshan pulled himself up.
“Well,” he said. “We made it.”
Chapter 27 can be found here.