Where is she taking me?
The tall shadowgrass of the Northeastern Forest Lowlands rolled ahead of Rixken as far as he could see in the early morning murk, like a sea of ink under a sky of green leaves. Zemril and he had run through the night ahead of their pursuers, sleeping in shifts while their autopilots kept them moving at a pace just slow of a guaranteed breakdown. Behind them the Iklind Border Outpost was gone, wiped out by a horde of black anchors with heavy weapons. He and Zemril had escaped in the confusion while the black anchors fought the Imperial units in the base, those that had gotten up and running fast enough, at least.
Mikli, the base commander, had spotted them leaving.
“Your highness? Hurry! We’ll hold them here as long as we can!”
Mikli had died screaming the ancient battlecry of Ankad’s personal guard.
Za Kai, Zata Kaiag Rokoru.
For God and his Preparer.
A good commander. Faithful with his little bit. More faithful, in the end, than Rixken would have expected.
Dear Kai, what had the kevas done?
He still wasn’t sure he could do this, but the sword at his side was heavy with purpose. It had been made for his many times great grandfather, Ankad, and entrusted to those of his descendants who would lead the people in right and show them Kai’s heart. Last night Orlin had shown that he was not one of those, as clearly as it was possible to do so, and that left only Rixken. Zemril was right. No one else was going to, or even could, pick that sword up and carry it. It was his job.
But the fact that it was his job didn’t mean that he had the strength for it.
Rixken slammed his head back against the headrest several times and cursed softly with the kind of words that would have made the other soldiers laugh. “Mips” and “Taffit” weren’t strong language.
How many men dead already, Aihay? I can’t lead them. I’ve never lead more than a squad in a mock battle, and this is millions. Billions! I can’t be your Preparer. I can’t!
He remembered the promise Zemril had recited back at the base. It had struck him then, and it remained with him now. He remembered the peace that had settled on him when he took the sword.
Where was it now?
Somewhere trampled under the feet of the army following forty or so kilometers behind them.
I need help, Aihay. I can’t do this alone.
He gripped the hilt of the sword, hanging from his waist, scabbard carefully slid through a gap in the seat cushions on his left side. The promise remained unbroken. He had seen it himself.
Unbroken, if the sword wasn’t a copy, like Orlin had always claimed.
Help me, Aihay. I believe in the Name. I believe in your sacrifice.
The local comm circuit lit up, a green light in the data display hovering in his vision.
“Are you alright in there, yer highness? You haven’t died or anything?”
Her voice had smoothed out once she dropped her act, but there were still hints of street in it. Probably from the capitol undercity, where the city guard didn’t bother to chase after the urchins. He had heard that a lot of Neralenes were drawn from there, gathering the girls out of the mix before they became old enough for prostitution.
“I’m alive,” He said. “I still can’t believe you went with a lunger.”
He swiveled the head of his anchor her way so she could see his main targeting cameras eyeing her machine. The lunger was a support variant of the anchor that did away with the versatility of hands and the ease of human legs in order to put on as much firepower and speed as possible. It was shaped less like a man and more like a tilakko without a head, with a pair of thick bird legs, a long body reminiscent of a helicopter chassis, and gun-mount arms stuck onto the sides like stubby wings. Most pilots found them ungainly and few could use them as well as a standard anchor. No one could maneuver a lunger in cover as well as an anchor. They just weren’t built for it.
“I needed the extra cockpit room for my stuff. Besides, more guns is better.”
“If you say so.”
“Hey, I do know what I’m doing in this thing. I dare you to find something I don’t know how to pilot.”
“Let’s just hope you don’t have to hide behind a tree at some point.”
“Who needs to hide when you have a hi-vee cannon and extra armor?”
“So where are we going?” Rixken asked.
There was a long silence on the line.
“Right now… away.”
“You don’t know.”
“Of course…” Pause. “Okay, I know where we can’t go, and right now that’s pretty much every direction but the one we’re going.”
He wished he could see her face. The way she had gotten them out of the base, without a single person catching them, and both anchors already warmed up, had convinced him of her confidence. But now he got the distinct impression she was winging it.
Rixken pulled up a map and checked their heading. Presently, they were headed toward Ambril, which meant they were going to run into Clisto Bay if they stayed straight for the next hour. Most of the beaches along Clisto Bay had little more than fishing villages, still, thanks to the pirates infesting Akati and the Isle of Talat. There would be plenty of places in the abandoned Clisto metroplex to hide, but that would only buy time. If they made it to Clisto, they would die there.
“If you’re not taking us to Clisto Bay, then which way are we turning? North or South?”
He waited for her response while his anchor continued to lope through the vast, looming forest with nothing else but the occasional flurry as a flock of wild tilakko took off running, all four wings flapping for balance, or a black and gray kamfan leapt out of hiding and bounded away into deeper grasses.
“We can’t go North,” Zem said. “HarTigend is in Orlin’s pocket, so Thirjen would send forces to block us, and HarMakeg is moving on Ambril with a huge force, so anywhere in Pella we might run right into units directly under Orlin’s control. If we turn South right now, we’ll just end up in Meltain, which is full Empire. Not too many military bases there, but ArVatik has plenty of forces in his capitol and a good network, and he’s another Orlin supporter.”
“That makes our best option to run all the way to Clisto, then turn South and dodge through the old cities until we make it to the Emprin lowlands. The Empire has been moving forces there for the past week, but they’ll have the Warsisters to deal with. If we can lose our pursuers in Clisto we should be able to sneak past by staying on the east side of Lake Baergan. South of there is the freeport of Kellfro, where we can get a ship ta anywhere. Right now I’m thinking Kolt would be best. They’ll be sure ta take in the Preparer.”
Hearing her whole thought process calmed him, even if her conclusion didn’t offer much hope. She was right about the city along Clisto Bay. Their pursuers wouldn’t be able to track them on the old roads as long as they stayed out of sight. However, getting past a bunch of Imperial forces filling the Emprin lowlands, that knew they were coming and had scouts deployed…
“You mean might be able to sneak past at Baergan,” He said.
“Would ya prefer me ta say, ‘We’ll be slightly less likely ta die?’”
Her street accent returned as her voice rose in annoyance. He filed that tell away for future reference. In case it might matter for more than an hour.
“It’s more honest.”
“I’ll take it under advisement.”
“To Clisto then.”
All he got in reply was an unladylike grunt.
The buildings of old Clisto started half a kilometer from the shore, abandoned Harex towers glowing faintly from the erakay crystals running up the trunks, kring-cord bridges covered in long moss running between them like giant cobwebs. Stone-surfaced roads covered in grass and leafmould rang different from the forest loam as their anchors stomped across them.
Forest opened to coast and a city of shingle-sided post-and-beam towers and concrete hotels, many in some state of rot or collapse. More stone topped streets, scattered with sand and tufts of grass but visible without two-hundred years of leafmould, wound through the buildings, the widest leading straight to a distant beach and an ocean that glimmered under the piercing light of Lor, only just parting from the horizon.
Zemril took the lead as they approached the beach, then took a right, to the south, along the wide strip road that had once served all the beachfront hotels. Rixken followed close, paying more attention now that they were out in the open.
He saw the huge assault barges pulled up on the sand and felt sweat break out on his skin just before the first shot shattered the pavement in front of him.
“Stop right there!” a man’s voice boomed out.
Rixken skidded to a stop, sand and stone hissing under the feet of his anchor as he worked to stay upright. Zemril slid to a stop as well and swung her guns across the endless hiding places around them.
“We might be able to cut through that alley to the Southwest…” she said.
An anchor stepped halfway out of the alley and leveled an autocannon at Rixken’s anchor from cover. At a glance it looked like a Makeg Mk1 in decent repair, painted in a standard brown and green camo.
All around, more anchors appeared, until the target counter was over thirty.
Then, ahead and behind, two heavy tanks rolled out from behind old hotel towers, blocking the road completely.
A perfect ambush.
“Nat,” Zemril said.
“Just stay still,” Rixken said. “They haven’t shot us yet.” He swiveled his cameras, looking all the way around. There really was no way out.
One of the anchors left cover and moved out into the street. Rixken got a request for a tightbeam comm from it. He patched it into the network he shared with Zemril.
“Your anchor has the Emperor’s Crest on it. Who are you?” A man’s voice asked. It sounded like the same person who had shouted for them to stop, though it was hard to tell.
Rixken opened his mouth but Zemril beat him to it.
“That anchor contains his Majesty Rixken ArdAnkadia, chosen by the Council of Kevas as Kaiag Rokoru and sworn bearer of the Preparer’s Sword. He is now the true successor of Ankad, and leader of all who follow the Teachings.”
Rixken wouldn’t have phrased it so boldly. There would be no dodging around just how much Orlin wanted him dead now.
The man swore, harshly and repeatedly.
“So that’s why he gave us a Kill-On-Sight order,” he said after a moment. “It makes sense.”
“Who am I talking to?” Rixken asked.
“This is Tegar Daneth KarLagren, commander of the Bluesky Kerchaxes.”
Lagren, a Jedremi name. But Kar… that was an academic prefix. Unusual. He tried to remember who owned the Kerchaxes, but it slipped his mind. He thought he remembered they had been important once, but their name had faded before his time.
“Who ordered you to kill me?”
“HarMakeg. But… nat. HarMakeg gets all his orders from Orlin, your brother.”
Even though he had expected it, Rixken’s heart ached at the confirmation that his brother had ordered his death. Some part of him had still been hoping that HarMakeg or another Warlord had just been overzealous.
At least he wouldn’t die in confusion.
“I’m sorry about this, your highness. We’ll make it quick.”
The way Daneth said it didn’t leave Rixken with much hope. His voice had more of resignation to it than doubt. Rixken thought of telling him not to, but stopped. What could he say? There was a huge company of anchors only a few minutes away that would carry out the man’s orders anyway if he himself didn’t. And then Orlin would have the whole company hunted down and destroyed.
But, was this really how it ended?
He had believed… or thought he did. But there was no escaping this.
Strange that the fear should be absent here, surrounded by his death. Or perhaps not. He had accepted it before. How hard could it be to accept it again?
“Yer highness… Rixken.” Zemril said on a private line. “I’m sorry. I messed this up all the way.”
“My brother outmaneuvered us. Thank you for doing your duty and bringing me the sword. I’m sorry it ended this way for you.”
He pulled himself out of the sensory mesh of his anchor enough to grip the hilt of the sword. He was the Preparer. Or at least he had sworn to carry the duty.
Help me to show who you are, Aihay, even if this is the end.
He sank back into the nerve mesh with his anchor and straightened up, facing Tegar KarLagren’s anchor head on, but keeping his autocannon flat across the glacis with the barrel up.
HarRukora. That was the name. Right.
“May the mercy of the Name be on you and HarRukora’s Kerchaxes, Daneth KarLagren. I’m ready.”
Rixken waited. No shots came.
The line from Daneth crackled.
“Can there really be mercy for men who have sold themselves to evil, Preparer?”
The man’s voice was rough, hoarse with unshed tears.
Rixken almost replied with the rote answer. It was written. Of course there could be. But something stopped him. He couldn’t say what.
How should he answer that question?
He felt the hilt of the sword still in his hand, smooth wire that suddenly felt hot instead of cold.
An idea bloomed in his mind. An insane idea that did bring a shiver of fear. But what else was he going to do? He was dead either way.
He let go of the sword, unbuckled his safety harness, and unhooked his nerve connection. Then unlocked the glacis plate and watched it tip forward.
“Yer highness! What are you doing?”
He ignored Zemril as he climbed up out of the cockpit, onto the shoulder of his anchor, and then stood on the shallow rounded top of the head.
Eyes locked on Daneth’s anchor, he drew the sword and held it point up, so that the gold words set in the fuller caught the morning sun and blazed.
“The promise is unbroken!” he cried. Then waited, sword high.
Again, no shot came.
Silence stretched on.
Rixken imagined the mercenaries surrounding him laughing at the mad youth in front of them and debating how many pieces to blow him into, then congratulating themselves on sparing the Empire from someone even crazier than Orlin.
The anchor in front of him lowered its autocannon. Then went down to one knee.
All the other anchors followed.
“Your Majesty, forgive us for our impertinence,” Daneth’s voice boomed across the empty road. “Darr HarRukora’s Bluesky Kerchaxes are at your service.”
This chapter is part of the in-progress serial web novel The Unbroken Blade, intended to be book one in The Shattered Empire trilogy, and features a mix of sci-fi and thematic elements reminiscent of near-future military fiction such as Gasaraki or Isaac Hooke’s Atlas series and sci-fi combat classics such as Mechwarrior/Battletech and Gundam. The story is rich with battle and conflicts of honor and conscience arising around a civil war on the forested world of Dankar, far from our own, but is primarily focused on how the main characters deal with the challenges they face, not their machines or their world. Follow this blog to receive each chapter as soon as it is released. Like and share to give me a shot of encouragement. Full chapter updates on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.