By Paul Smith.
Storming the Precinct (To Walk the Path 21)
Copyright 2014 Paul Smith
This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to people, places or events is purely coincidental, and bears no malicious intent.
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‘Strength of arms versus righteous heart’
To Walk the Path is the final instalment in my cyber-fantasy series The Star Plague Journals. Anyone who enjoys this chapter and wants to keep up to date on future releases (or who fancies trying some of my other work) should check out my galleries on Shakespir or DeviantART:
Timo looked out over the waves at the city beyond the garden of creaking ships that surrounded them. “It all looks so peaceful.”
Grifarne nodded next to him. “Yeah, shame we’ve got to go and ruffle its feathers.”
He raised an eyebrow at the Skuigr, who grimaced, discomfort obvious in his face. “No one who shouldn’t is going to get hurt. Not unless they get in the way.”
“And I’m a vestal virgin.”
“Well it is Solstice eve…”
Timo shook his head. “We can’t get away from the fact there will be blood. It’s the way these things go. It’s our job to try and ensure the violence doesn’t get out of hand.”
“…Really? I thought it was our job to put down the usurper scum.”
They both turned to smile at Enrico, who had come swaggering into the circle of lantern light at the rail.
“Ever the realist, eh Captain?”
Enrico smiled winningly at the Skuigr. “My salty mistress, she does not allow for niceties.”
“Cosima’s not that bad in the kitchen, surely?!” Timo admonished.
Enrico stuck his tongue out.
Just then twin streamers leapt into the sky from shore. They all turned as one to watch them climb heavenward, bursting into stars above the shoreward surf.
“That gentlemen,” Enrico said, laying an arm about each of their shoulders, “is our cue.”
Timo nodded, looking across at Grifarne. “Time to rally the troops.”
The signal given, anchors were weighed, and the Orphan’s fleet made it’s move from amidst the drifting hulks of the Imperial merchant vessels populating Incarnate’s off shore moorings. As they navigated from their berth curious eyes peered from the nearby decks, those poor souls left aboard ship to stand sentinel for the night come to see what had stirred the quiet of the parking swarm.
Timo stood at the Run’s prow, eyes on the sky, cloak whipping behind him in the wind as he searched the star field for tell tale shadows.
He looked about, raising a hand to the men and women gathered about him, all of them clutching the elliptical boards that had been the fruit of Grifarne’s pilgrimage to Inan. His was already stowed with his ride, who was descending now from the sky overhead on near silent wings.
As they broke from the outer circle of ships Michka dove, swooping in towards them at breakneck speed.
“Watch my ship…?!”
Timo grinned, shooting a look Enrico’s way before diving from the rail, arms spread wide.
A rush of scales.
Leather biting his gloved palms.
The snap of force at his shoulders as the dragon’s momentum took him.
And they were heading skyward, the Drake banking to circle lazily above the parked ships as Timo snapped himself into the harness securely, grinning like a fool into the wind of their passage.
Hold on, Michka suggested, sparing a swift look back to ensure his charge was secure before he dove again, whipping through the forest of masts to cries and shouts from the sailors below. Timo grinned, lofting a hand to the people who’d come out on deck to cast their disbelieving gaze upward at them. As they exited the swarm Michka’s wings snapped outward, slowing their progress as they approached the Run’s stern. Timo gave a whoop of delight as the serfers disgorged from her decks, spreading out to either side and pushing ahead. Cries of delight and challenge lofted from the crowd of warriors riding the boards, which fizzed and crackled as they sped shoreward, each hovering an easy ten feet above the swell below. Timo cast a look at his own board, strapped to the Drake’s flank behind him and grinned. Riding one of the serf boards was unlike anything he’d ever experienced (baring one or two of the rides in Melosian’s water park). There was an intimacy to it that outstripped riding…
I can hear you, you know…
“Riding llamas! I was about to think llamas!”
A likely story… But there was a rumble of mirth behind the dragon’s words as he banked to insert himself into the formation ahead, the board riders swerving left and right to accommodate his prodigious wingspan. A bellow from above drew all eyes and he lofted a hand as Tusonc swept in to join them.
Look to our backs.
Timo turned, craning his neck round to the swarm, where more ships were moving. His eyes played across the drifting hulks, counting. We don’t have that many…?!
A stone hit the bottom of his stomach, but he screwed down his resolve. They’d known the Congregate would not take things lying down. Had prepared for the eventuality. Indeed, as he watched, several of their own fleet broke off to meet the oncoming forces, though his heart quailed at the disparity in numbers involved.
They must have double our strength.
I go to assist.
And Tusonc was swinging about in the sky, tail cracking as he headed back to lend his support to the rearguard.
A thunderous cry broke the night towards shore. Timo tore his eyes back in that direction, swallowed as he saw a white shape mount the sky.
Timo ground his teeth together to stop the chattering of fear that was threatening to grip his jaw. Michka jerked his own snout in the white Drake’s direction. Nothing to worry about little wolf.
Timo nodded, suddenly remembering. Eika…
About them the serfers had grown quiet at the sight of the mad dragon.
We can’t have this…!
Raising his fist, Timo dragged the ice axe Grifarne had taught him to summon into being, grinning despite himself as the weapon’s beautiful shaft filled his palm. Raising the shining blue-white blade towards the stars he howled, a wordless but unmistakeable call to arms. All about him the serfers looked their way, grins spreading like wild fire as they joined the cry, their own weapons lofted heavenwards as they rode in to shore.
NO PEACE FOR THE WICKED.
Timo laughed at the wolf’s interjection, reaching up to stroke the paws clasped about his chest. Soon be your turn my friend.
SILENT AS THE NIGHT.
Timo nodded, preparing to dismount as they approached shore, and the bristling ranks of the League loyalists now visible along the edge of the cliffs. Timo offered a silent prayer in thanks that they were not facing the full might of the Tor as he surveyed the arms arrayed before them, glancing back at the forces closing in on them from behind in a pincer movement straight out of a text book.
Good job we’ve got the upper hand in manoeuvrability.
“This, I fear, is where we part company,” he shouted ahead.
As you say. Michka banked to avoid the first hail of arrows and seferiks, the serfers scattering about them as they swept over the ridge of the cliff. The dragon hawked up, vomiting a string of fire balls at the troop lines below, sending them scattering. At the apex of his arc Timo disengaged his harness, using the last of their momentum to step back up the Drake’s flank to the board waiting for him there. Suspended perpendicular to the world below he slipped it from its housing, placing his right foot firmly on the contact pad and pushing off with his left, axe held out to the side, right hand lofted in farewell to the dragon as Michka opened his sails, the wind snatching him away into the night. Timo leant forwards, the board taking him back down the curve of their ascent towards the Imperials regrouping below.
Oh no you don’t…!
“Dogs to me!” he cried, gripping his axe two handed and squeezing the shaft to spit gobs of ice at the figures below as he zoomed in over their heads, heading for the rising column of the Senate. About him his wing gathered, speeding for their goal as the other sowed chaos in their wake.
The majority of their force was compromised ordinary men and women, though the Wraethi had insisted on martial proficiency of some sort in any who wished to join the assault on the capital. The serf boards were constructed so that anyone might use them, though Timo privately felt you got more out of them with the Sight. That said, many amongst the Blind volunteers had proven surprisingly adept at riding what was essentially a shaped plank through the air. He watched as Corben zipped past, arrows flying from the bow he held out before him towards the figures below. Across the far side of the open plaza Angelina swept through a field of warriors, her knife whipping out to deliver a string of small but painful gashes to the row of archers lining up for the next volley, sending arrows clattering from strings in her wake. The thief had been one of their best students, once she’d gotten over the initial distrust she held anyone in a position of authority.
He felt as well as saw the Fangs arrive, the Daiku snapping into existence in their midst to unleash bolts of blue fire and shining golden arrows at the forces above. Timo gulped as he saw a board explode, its rider cast hurtling into the cobbles below.
This was the cue for the Wraethi who had accompanied his team to wade into the fray. They only had a limited number of the immortals to spare, but given the likelihood of a Myson presence when they assaulted the Precinct their inclusion had been judged essential.
The newly made members of House Koshael sprang towards the ground, their boards veering away overhead like obedient dogs as they fell on the assembled Daiku.
An almighty crash drew all eyes to the right as Michka and Malorae fell from the sky with jaws locked around each other’s throats, their armoured flanks tearing a trench through the ornamental gardens below, tails whipping about to dislodge trellis work and smash walls.
Forcing himself to ignore the Drake’s screams of pain, he focused on the Senate building ahead, setting his mind on the goal within.
Out to sea fighting had been joined just as fiercely as the two sides met in the bay beyond Incarnate’s harbour, the Congregate’s ships using their greater numbers to crowd the Orphan vessels in towards shore. The Run alone managed to escape the blockade, only to find itself facing the might of the Baracudae that stood off shore in case of just such an eventuality. Unperturbed, Enrico led his crew against the far larger vessel, using his own ship’s greater manoeuvrability to run rings round the other ship’s defences as archers and the Skuigr peppered the Imperial’s own fire teams with projectiles.
Meanwhile battle had been joined in the skies above as Baelmont rose to meet Tusonc, the Drake’s locking jaws and wits in a fight that lit the clouds and sent stray fireballs raining down on the vessels below. Friend and foe alike fell victim to the deadly rain, which added further to the confusion of the confrontation as the two sides fought for supremacy across decks now littered with leaping flames. Those Imperial vessels that had physically boarded the enemy fought to disengage themselves from the flotilla of Orphan vessels which had now become a serious fire risk. But the rebel captains were having none of it, throwing out their own lines in an effort to keep the enemy ships latched in place. The whole creaking mass began to drift dangerously close to shore, until finally with an almighty crash one of the lead vessels ran aground on the rocks beyond the harbour wall, the collision sending the combatants on her deck to their knees. Presented with this fresh hope, the Orphans fell back, Combe Naria leading the valiant group who covered their retreat as they made for the dubious safety of shore.
Out to sea Enrico and the Run continued to harry those Imperial vessels still at large in the bay, assisted by the crew of the Wench who had also managed to break away from their bonds. But they were sore pushed, as the twin Drakes Raysho and Ichairn had joined the defence, forcing Grifarne and his team of Sighted to concentrate on keeping the dragons from immolating the ships beneath their feet.
Then a terrible blow befell them as Tusonc tumbled bleeding and senseless from the sky, crashing into the waves to disappear below amidst a roiling pool of bubbles.
Timo felt more than heard the scream of pain from the Chaser’s Cock, the sound echoing through the Garden as the black Drake fell from the sky weeping fire and vital fluids. He pulled up short, ignoring the looks of concern from his fellows to halt before the entrance to the Senate, watching as Tusonc’s body hit the water.
A hand touched his arm and he looked up to see Clarissa’s kohl-rimmed eyes gazing at him in understanding. “There’s nothing we can do for him. We must secure to the seal. Otherwise all this is for nothing.”
Timo nodded, turning from the scene out to sea. It was hard to care about something as ephemeral as a seal, even if it was one of the oldest artefacts of their society. Such an important symbol would be needed if they were to make the revolution work with the commons.
“Come on,” he said, nodding to the others as he climbed from his board, snapping it shut with a flick of the wrist that saw the six by two foot ellipse become a replica of itself a twelfth the size. He slid it into the waiting clasp on his back, the others following suit. Clarissa had her sword drawn, he his axe. Two of their half dozen companions were busy checking their bows, the rest unsheathing a variety of blades.
Giving all a brief look of encouragement Timo crept forwards through the massive arch that led into the Senate’s entrance hall beyond, where all was eerie silence…
Their initial foray went well, the halls deserted as they crept through the public sector of the building, heading towards the vast chamber at its heart. Few worked the Solstice unless they absolutely must, meaning the building was all but empty. It was only as they headed for the normally restricted areas that they finally met resistance.
The first set of guards clearly did not know what to make of them, particularly when one of them recognised Clarissa for who she really was. This did not, however, stop the second from raising an alarm before one of the archers put a shaft through his calf, sending him sprawling to the ground.
“Tie them up, there’s a broom closet back there,” Clarissa advised, indicating a curtained alcove to their left. “We need to keep moving now they know we’re here.”
They left the two men trussed amongst the mops, even though the one who’d recognised Clarissa didn’t put up a struggle. They simply couldn’t afford the luxury of trust at this point.
“Take the main stairs up,” he advised before they gagged him, ignoring the dirty looks his partner was shooting him as he starred fervently at Clarissa. “It’s more obvious but it ought to get you to the council chamber before their reinforcements arrive.”
She nodded, gripping his arm in thanks. “What’s your name?”
“I’ll see your help here is remembered, when this is all done.”
They set off at a run, mounting the broad stairs at the passage’s end and then swiftly ducking back as a hail of arrows greeted them from the small posse entrenched before the main council chamber’s doors. Clarissa peered out from behind a column, darting back again as a fresh rain of shafts greeted her.
“I count five. Guessing those from the western entrance must have run round to join them.”
Timo nodded. “Either that or your mother’s getting suspicious in her old age.”
“My mother was always suspicious.”
He grinned. “Well, good job you brought the right tools for the job then. I’ll go deal with the bowmen, you be ready to come and help with the rest.” Straightening, he signalled the others, pointing to himself and miming drawing a bow.
“Someone really should have taught you military shorthand,” Clarissa muttered, at the blank looks from the team opposite. “Here.” And she offered a few deft gestures to the assembled. One of the bowmen, Kairlee, nodded her understanding, leaning round to whisper to her companions before giving the okay.
Pulling his hood up, Timo took a step backwards, form already starting to change as he vanished in an implosion of twisting shadows. Next thing Clarissa heard screaming from the doorway up ahead.
That’s our cue.
And she was running down the length of the corridor, towards the chaos that waited there. Surprise had lent him the upper hand, but the odds were starting to tell against Timo even with the two bowmen unconscious on the floor. She and the others weighed in, overwhelming the remaining Torsmen with their greater numbers. She turned to the wolf just as it reached up to tug at the ruff of its neck, body flowing once more into that of a young man with pointed ears sprouting from his hood. He ran a hand over them and they became part of the cloak again, held a hand out to the side and twirled the axe back into existence.
He grinned, looking about at the subdued Tor, most of whom were eyeing him nervously. “Everyone okay?”
He grinned at Kairlee. “Excellent. Time to steal ourselves a seal.”
Stepping forward, he examined the door to the council chamber for a second, hands running across it a few inches above the surface. Took a step back and hefted the axe experimentally. “Good job I brought this.” Winding up, he swung, stepping into the blow as he did so. The axe connected, but not with the wood, embedding itself instead in the transparent ice they could now see encasing the doors. Timo pulled it loose, winding up to swing again. On the fourth attempt chunks of the protective sheet began to fall from above, cracks lengthening up the edifice to dislodge larger and larger pieces. Everyone stepped back, the restrained guards covering their heads with bound hands on the far side of the corridor as ice rained down about them, until finally the whole thing came crashing down in a hissing wave of broken shards. Timo raised an arm instinctively, but the gesture was apparently needless as nothing touched him.
Clarissa spotted the brief shadow of the wolf standing protectively over him and grinned.
Then Timo was waving them forwards into the room beyond, where the tiered rows of the Senate’s main floor climbed away on either side.
Down on the waterfront the Orphans had managed to make it up the rocky beach that ran from the harbour wall out round the curve of the western shore, where the river Maico fed out into the sea. Led by Lyse Soltais and Combe Naria they harried the Imperials pursuing them from their own snared vessels, driving the Torsmen back down off the higher ground. But their run of luck disintegrated under a hail of shafts as bowmen and a squad of Myson opened fire from the walls of the Precinct on the far side of the plaza. Shields went up, and it was only the swift action of the immortals in their company that saved the bulk of the force from the onslaught of the Daiku’s barrage.
“We must make it to the gates!” Lyse shouted at her lieutenant, pointing down the waterfront towards the gaping maw of the Precinct’s main entrance. “Order the Wights to take out the Sighted, but tell them to watch out for the archers. Everyone else is to form up and prepare to fall back.”
He nodded, knowing not to question their loss of the higher ground. At this point cutting off the head was more important than containing the body. They were hoping that securing the majority of those in charge would persuade the bulk of the rank and file to lay down their arms. Negotiable loyalty had, after all, always been a staple of their way of life here round the Arc.
Women and men leapt to it with a will, as Lyse and Naria moved forward with the bulk of their people. The old spy watched as a trio of the newly made immortals began to scale the walls, shaking her head sadly as they were picked off one by one by the bowmen above. Mikael had warned them of the Wraethi-killing arrows the Myson had pulled back out of storage since news of the Efljos’ campaign became public knowledge again.
Immortality does not mean invulnerability! She wanted to shout, pleased at least to see those others who accompanied them showed a little more caution in their approach.
Then a shadow fell across them all, the ramparts above lit spectacularly in a rain of fire.
Lyse bowed her head in brief prayer at the sight of the burning bodies tumbling from above, even as the majority of her people raised their hands and voices in cheers of thanks as Michka banked out to sea. A few seconds later they were scattering themselves as Malorae painted her own swathe of death through their midst, sending people running for their lives amidst clouds of evaporating snow.
“Fuck this for a game of soldiers,” muttered Naria at her side, hauling herself back to her feet. Lyse waved away her proffered hand, scowling at the burly young man who looked like he too had been about to try and help her up.
“I’m old not decrepit,” she admonished, offering a tight smile to take the sting from her words. “Go find Loushian, tell him to get everyone moving. We’ll use that bitches handiwork to our advantage, provide a nice little fire break for our rear guard to watch.”
The Orphan nodded, vanishing into the crowd as the two elderly women called the people about them to order, assigning those who would watch their back as the rest of their force set off through the snow for the gates and the rendezvous that hopefully awaited them there.
“What are we waiting for?” Clarissa asked, as Timo stood eyeing the seal that stood atop the speaker’s plinth at the centre of the Senate floor. It was the focal point of the entire chamber, whose tiers of ranked seating rose away from the open space on all sides in ever widening circles. The ceiling above was a masterpiece of mortal and immortal art, painted tableau from the Congregate’s history interspersed with panels of relief work so detailed it made his eyes water. A vast circular window caped the whole edifice, letting in the faint light of the ring through the intermittent cloud cover overhead. The chamber itself was lit by coral lantern, three great chandeliers of the stuff suspended from the ceiling above, as well as a multitude of lights scattered throughout the room itself like tiny phosphorescent mushrooms in a cave.
“It’s still under ice,” he said, hand tracing a faint arc about a foot above the plinth’s surface. “Kelsaro’s trick downstairs will have melted the outer sheath, but it must have an internally generated back up.” He shook his head. “We ought to have guessed it would have its own independent shell.”
“Can’t you…” she indicated the axe in his hands, mimed giving the lectern a wallop.
“I’m not entirely certain it would do the job in this instance,” he confessed, eyeing it dubiously. “I think I’m going to have to do this the hard way.”
Clarissa raised her eyebrows, both of them glancing over their shoulders at the sound of approaching feet. The chamber doors slammed, one of the serfers poking his head round the corner to nod before returning to his fellows, who from the sounds of it were busy shifting heavy furniture in front of the doors.
“Guess you’d better get on with it,” Clarissa offered, patting him on the arm. “I’ll go lend the others a hand.”
Nodding, Timo rolled up his sleeves, smiling at the superfluous gesture as he reached out with his ice to sound out the barrier encasing the seal.
Grifarne looked up as a slightly singed Enrico clambered up beside him to his perch half way up the starboard rigging. From the look of him the Captain had just finished helping to douse the third major fire of the evening, one that had threatened to consume the Run’s mast wholesale. They’d had to withdraw from their harrying of the Baracudae completely, leaving the massive warship free to turn its attention (and its siege engines) to their forces on shore, something nobody wanted to see.
“We need to get back in there,” Enrico said, wiping soot and sweat out of his eyes. “Between the Tor, the dragons and the wolves on the wall they’ve got enough to deal with. Even for the mighty Ghost of the Vale.”
The Skuigr nodded as the Baracudae’s trebuchet let loose again. “Agreed. Time to call in the reinforcements.”
Enrico’s eyes gleamed. “I can’t wait to see the expression on that old bastards face when he clocks what’s happening.”
“And since when have you been a great expert on Drake emoting?”
Enrico shrugged, waving one hand airily skyward at the white silhouete that was already banking their way for another pass. “I’m pretty sure pissed off looks the same, whatever species is wearing it. Narrowed eyes and lots of teeth.” He mimed what he was saying, looping an elbow through the rigging to raise both hands claw-like.
Grifarne laughed, turning to check the dragon’s progress. “Best get down on deck, we’re going to need to move smartish once we’ve the breathing space if we’re going to pull this off.”
Saluting, Enrico slid back towards deck, already bellowing orders as he hit the deck. Turning, Grifarne began shouting instructions to his own people, loosing one of the Nym’s hornets as he did so, sparing a glance for it as it danced away over the waves before vanishing beneath their surface.
Whilst Rivan and the Efljos are 'entertaining' the Congregate's aristocracy, the bulk of the Orphan's forces move to secure the Imperial Precinct. Ice axes and aerial shenanigans abound in this, the twenty-first installment of 'To Walk the Path'.