Cannonfire lessened. Became more distant.
The battlefield was quiet, and the only Imperial forces that remained were those too wounded to flee.
Rixken came out of cover to the sound of the mercenaries cheering over the comm network. He wondered if they had ever been in a battle that large before. It wasn’t his first engagement, he had been in a few border skirmishes in the South, but it was the first time he had been on the field with more than a few squads on either side. His anchor had survived more or less unscathed, and his computer had recorded several crippling shots and one kill on his tally.
His first kill.
It didn’t feel like an achievement.
He wondered in how many places across the Empire this would be repeated. Were there provinces already going to war over there being two emperors? Was Orlin attacking anyone else?
Zemril had mentioned Ambril. But that hadn’t been because of him. According to Zem, Orlin had already been invading the lost province when Rixken received the message from the Kevas. Not all of this was over him, then. There would have been war anyway.
That didn’t make him feel any better about it.
And it didn’t tell him how he was going to stop it.
He looked at the decrepit buildings rising overhead, then the strange anchors surrounding him. Jalrian Mk5s, his computer said. The primary anchor of elite Warsisters at the time of the Night of Storms. The name was Timlai and translated to, “Little daughters”. It was somewhat disturbing that all of them were Mk5s, with none of the Mk4s that had been more common back then. Little was known about the Warsisters that had taken over the Emprin peninsula and kept it for two centuries, but apparently they had been very well supplied.
One of the Warsister anchors approached him. It’s railrifle didn’t–quite–point at him, but it was a twitch away.
He direct-hailed the anchor.
The anchor nodded behind its armored collar.
“Will you surrender?” the Warsister commander asked.
“That was the agreement.” Rixken put up his autocannon and commed Daneth. “Tegar KarLagren, please tell your men to stand down.”
“You’re sure, Preparer?” Daneth said.
“There’s no way we’d survive a fight with these people.”
All the Bluesky Kerchax anchors put up their weapons.
Commander Theron nodded again.
“Get your wounded fixed up. We leave in an hour.”
They moved slowly to allow the heavily loaded maintenance tracks to keep up. The Warsisters escorted them South and East through the Clisto Metroplex, until the roads thinned, then vanished into the forest. Rixken dozed for most of it.
He woke when he heard bare stonetop under his anchor’s feet again. He saw they were still on a forest road, but now that road appeared maintained. Ahead he saw the beginnings of civilization, a thriving harex tower. The ancient silver-barked tree, easily forty feet in diameter, soared over four-hundred feet into the sky. All the way up its length were windows carefully cut through the living bark into the hollowed out interior, and it had a circular screened porch built around its base. It was almost certainly wired for electricity, but it still had the traditional erakay crystal lights set next to every window. The natural crystals glowed dimly, barely visible in the daytime gloom of the forest, powered by the unique bioelectrical field of the harex.
Faces of women, men, and children looked out of the windows and watched the long column of anchors and vehicles go by. Olive toned Okendan faces, not pale Irtrallan. Rixken analyzed what he saw, for that tower and every one after it, trying to learn something of a province that had been taken from the Empire two centuries ago and remained silent ever since.
This area was classic forest farmland, a few harex towers intermixed with many more of the dark barked murakos that so many plants thrived on. Looking up he saw people out on the wide canopy branches of the murakos high overhead, tending the symbiotic gardens they grew there. Around on the ground herdsmen, helped by dogs, led cattle and tilakkos to graze on the endless shadowgrass and shrubs.
Gradually the composition changed, fewer murakos and more manmade buildings, on and on until it was all buildings and harex towers, with no more cattle or farm trees. A city proper, with far more light, and a great many more people. Rixken looked down side streets as he passed them and saw hordes of ground cars, bicycles, and pedestrians. Most of them looked much like low-tree Okendans back in the heart of the Empire, though with the darker skin of Southeastern seafolk. Some, however, had much paler complexions, and even white hair. Irtrallan genes.
They had been intermarrying for some time. If it could be called that. The Sisterhood didn’t marry. That he did know.
The city grew, finally opening all the way into bright light and skyscrapers. The column moved through that for a kilometer, watched by a million eyes, before reaching a fenced compound. The Warsisters’ base.
Rixken noted row upon row of what looked like giant barns. Probably vehicle bays. Also a core of office towers and apartment buildings, and a giant concrete-walled circle at least five stories high and maybe half-a-kilometer in diameter. What was that for?
They entered through a wide gate and found more anchors, tanks and troops waiting for them. Lead by someone in an anchor painted the red of dried blood.
“All stop,” Commander Theron commed. “Preparer Rixken ArdAnkadia, come forward alone. First Mother Mesra Vrayl wishes to meet you.”
It had to be the First Mother in the red anchor. Rixken took his anchor off autopilot and proceeded forward, hands empty. Commander Theron walked beside him.
“Stop,” she said.
Rixken stopped, ten paces away from First Mother’s anchor.
He saw an incoming comm from Zemril appear on his screen. He closed it and sent a text saying, “Stay put.” There was no avoiding this. The Warsisters were most assuredly in control.
He stripped off the pistol Zemril had given him, then climbed down from his anchor, fighting exhaustion. The food back at the trade town had helped, but what he really needed was sleep. Commander Theron remained in her anchor, railrifle aimed just over his head. If he did something to provoke her, he would never even know it before he was dead.
He walked out into the space between his anchor and the First Mother’s, armed with nothing but the sword. The ground under his feet was good reinforced concrete. It looked recently.
The First Mother opened her cockpit and came down to meet him, dressed in crimson pilot’s armor and bearing a huge pistol on her right hip. Halfway to him she stripped off her helmet, revealing short crimson-red hair and a pale, handsome face etched with the faint lines of early middle age. She noted his sword, then fixed him with black-irised eyes.
When she stopped two paces away he finally realized just how tall she was. At least a few centimeters taller than himself, and he was a little above average for a man.
“You are Rixken ArdAnkadia, the new Preparer. I am certain your brother the new Emperor is overjoyed at your appointment.” She gave him a smile that could cut brick.
“You must be Mesra Vrayl, the First Mother of Zdar Army and governor of Emprin? It is an honor to meet you.”
“You acknowledge our ownership of this province?”
“Two hundred years is a long time, and it doesn’t seem to have suffered under your rule.”
Her smile grew a little wider and her ears tipped out in genuine amusement.
“I’m glad you think so. The people who live here weren’t so sure of us when we first came.”
“How much did they protest?”
“Not much. There was a winter to survive.”
“Ah. I can see how the Storms would have done that.”
She stepped closer.
“Will you show me the sword? I’ve seen pictures, but that really isn’t the same.”
Rixken gripped the sword instinctively at the thought that she might take it away, then relaxed. Once again, he was not in control of the situation. She was. But she was being polite, and there was no harm in showing it to her. In the end, it wasn’t his anyway, just a sign from Aihay that he had charge of.
And Aihay had come through for him twice that day already.
He drew the sword slowly, keeping the point down, then offered it to Mesra Vrayl flat in both hands.
She looked it over, reading the words on the blade. Took it by the hilt with her right hand and examined the edge. Tested the balance with a swing and a flourish. Showed him a smile with an large amount of tooth to it.
With a flash the edge was against his neck.
Rixken froze. His face and hands chilled and his blood pounded in his ears.
“Your brother sent me a message while you were on your way here. If I give you to him, dead, and agree to keep my forces within Emprin and grant him passage across the isthmus, he will call off all attacks and sign a peace treaty. What do you think of that? Should I trust him?”
Rixken tried to ignore the edge cutting into his skin. Literally cutting. He twitched and it drew a line of blood on his neck.
Aihay, please don’t let me die by the sword you made for my ancestor.
He made himself breathe, smooth and slow. Mesra watched him with those hard black eyes and continued to smile.
“My brother may be a horrible person, but he’s always kept his political deals as far as I know. He considers it practical wisdom. It becomes very hard to get things done when people stop trusting one’s word.”
Rixken swallowed. Felt a drop of blood run down his neck, hot and wet.
“It’s probably the best option for your people,” he said. “I’m not in a position to offer much.”
Her teeth parted and her ears tipped out again. She was enjoying this moment.
“You hold yourself together well for a male. And you’re honest. But is it because you’re brave, or too stupid to lie?”
She pressed the sword a hair deeper. He felt it as a thin line of pain.
Aihay, help me.
He held his breathing steady.
“I’m not sure I’d know how, even if I wasn’t forbidden from it.”
“Indeed? I already know Imperials lie on a regular basis. Is honesty something only the Preparer is bound to?”
“Honesty is moral for anyone, but the Preparer is forbidden to lie under any circumstance.”
“Interesting.” Her eyes watched the blood running down his neck, then met his gaze again. “I’m told you fought well on the battlefield. Was that your first kill?”
“Have you fought before?”
“Skirmishes on the borders of the Southeastern provinces. I served under HarBergan.”
“Ah. I’ve heard his name. An honorable male, if radio and trader gossip is to be trusted.”
She drew closer, running the blade in along his neck without cutting deeper, changing the angle until it rested right over his jugular. When she stopped her face filled his vision, bare handspans away.
“Tell me, Rixken ArdAnkadia, what should I do with you?”
He looked into those black eyes, searching for a clue about her. This close she loomed over him. The lines in her face were clearer, mostly smile lines around her mouth and eyes, a set of deep frown lines between her brows. Aside from those, the best description of her face was lightly weathered steel formed into a perfect merger of strength and beauty. This was a woman who was absolute mistress of her domain, mother to an entire province.
Her smile quirked up at one corner. She was studying him too.
What do I do, Aihay?
Help me believe.
He opened his mouth.
“You should give me that sword back and help me escape my brother, because my Kai is mighty, and he is with me.” He almost couldn’t believe he’d said something that bold. For a moment he wanted to take it back and go with something else.
Mesra watched him for a moment longer, then threw her head back and laughed.
The sword withdrew from his throat.
“You are brave, Rixken ArdAnkadia. If I was inclined to make another child I would drag you off to bed right now.”
She stepped back and wiped the blade off on her sleeve.
Rixken reached up and felt his throat, overwhelmed with relief that he was no longer about to have his throat slashed. Then he processed her remark and his face heated. He looked at her to see if she was serious.
She returned his gaze, her expression cooling in seconds.
“I will not help you, Preparer, unless you prove yourself.”
“Your brother wants you dead, you and your mercenaries, and offers me peace if I make it happen. That is very tempting. You offer me nothing, but insist I should let you go because your Kai is with you, as if I should respect that. I should just kill you and be done with it, but my people have a way of settling things like this. You will fight my champion in a forfeit match. If she defeats you, then we kill you, if you aren’t already dead, and all your people as well and turn the dead bodies over to your brother.”
Her champion. Whoever that would be… from what he had already seen, there was no way he was going to beat anyone this woman might pick as her best.
“Can I choose a champion?”
Mesra narrowed her eyes.
“No. I am testing you, Preparer, not your mercenaries. You say your God is with you. Let him prove it.”
“And if I do win?”
Her expression now was ice.
“My champion is Commander Theron. You won’t win.”
“If I do.”
A flicker of the former smile crossed her face.
“Then I will treat you like a Warsister and help you escape your monster of a brother. I’ll also let you keep Commander Theron’s anchor and give you your pick of our equipment.” She chuckled, a rough, deep, husky sound. “I’ll even have the gold-hairs throw you a party.”
A fight to the death. Sweet Kai. Among his people, trial by combat hadn’t been a thing in four centuries.
Aihay… What should I do?
Trial by combat was barbaric. But, he had no doubt that Mesra Vrayl would kill him and his people to protect her own. If it was just him… but it was not just him. He was sworn to protect the people following him, and he wouldn’t be doing that if he refused to fight. Further, he was sworn to serve the Empire, and he wouldn’t be doing that if he gave up and let Orlin have him killed. His position demanded that he go forward.
And she had challenged Aihay. Rixken was the Preparer. Even if there was somewhere to run to, he couldn’t run from that.
“My Kai is with me, and I will trust him. I agree to your challenge.”
She nodded and held out the sword to him. He took it and sheathed it.
“Then get ready. You have two hours to prepare.”
Rixken called up the clock and green numbers appeared at the center of his vision. Ten minutes so far. Six-hundred seconds.
It seemed far too short a time.
Were they going to make him wait here forever?
The waiting was part of the challenge, he was sure. Could he be patient, or would he tear himself apart with pre-battle anxiety? Resisting that urge to nervousness was an important ability in a warrior.
Yet even understanding that, it was insane. Or, it was a small thing that made sense, in an irrational whole. He was in the middle of the giant concrete circle he had seen coming onto the base, which he now knew was an arena. Inside, it was filled with huge pillars and fake buildings, small ponds and high and low shrubs, littered with dead branches in various places and lit by a giant array of lights mounted atop the walls, a perfect environment for simulating urban and forest combat. And that was just what they did with it. Simulate combat, with death matches, almost every day and night. Who could live like that?
And now one of them was out there waiting to kill him. Commander Aysha Theron. Armored as well as he was or better. Armed with a railrifle where he held an autocannon. Filled with years of violent experience in numerous battles small and large. And, according to the marks on her anchor kindly explained by the green-and-white haired Warsister medic who had bandaged his neck, possessor of over a hundred separate kills in her lifetime.
His heart tried to beat out of control just thinking of it. His own sweat stank in his nose. Soon the giant light overhead would turn from red to green, and that woman would come murder him.
Before he panicked he reached down with one hand and gripped the hilt of the sword at his side, feeling the strange discord as he was pulled between the senses of his anchor and the senses of his own body. Oddly it helped disarm his nerves, the physical sensation of being both small and weak, and at the same time part of something giant and immensely strong that was wrapped around him. He filled his mind with the promise on the sword. Reviewed other promises.
Went over the one Zemril had repeated to him.
“Though you are one, and they thousands, you will overcome.”
Aihay, be my strength. I can’t win this. Please see that they have called your strength into question, and fight for your glory.
Preparers had fallen before. In battle or other places. It happened.
They were mortal, just like any other men.
He tightened his hand further around the hilt, feeling the wire wrapping it. Ran his thumb over the circular pommel, imagined the blade hidden beside him.
The preparers fell, but the promise remained. This battle was not about him. He might die, but Aihay would still be Kai. Somehow, the sword would survive. The Empire would go on, until the Name came.
He would not be afraid.
He released the hilt and let his senses shift all the way into those of the machine, saw once again the forest of pillars surrounding him. Checked his autocannon one more time, then brought it back up to his shoulder.
A klaxon sounded three times. The light went from red to green.
A peace descended on him. He knew he was not alone.
No time to enjoy that, though.
He had an enemy out there.
He left the starting circle and ran for cover, finding it tight up against a nearby pillar. He poked his autocannon around and searched with its optic. Nothing. Just pillars and buildings.
He searched for another pillar, spotted one, and sprinted to it. Searched again, then moved to another, heading around the side in the hope that he might spot her from the side before she found him.
A crunch. He pointed his weapon toward it. It might be her.
Nothing showed in that direction. Nothing at all.
The other option was that it was something she’d thrown.
He flicked to 360-degree view, spotted another pillar a few strides back, and skipped backward and around behind it. Scanned with his autocannon again.
There. A shadow. Just a flicker moving up behind the pillar he had abandoned. He waited for it to move.
Nothing. Was she still there?
He looked around…
Just as Commander Theron’s anchor emerged around a pillar on his right flank.
He spun to face, presenting his thick chest armor, just as she shot.
Thunder tore the air and a penetrator ripped a chunk off his glacis armor. If he hadn’t turned when he did she would have hit his weaker side armor, just under the arm. He himself would have been over right there.
Rixken leapt back and dodged to the left, putting the pillar between them.
He was breathing hard again, but the peace hadn’t left.
He considered what to do.
He couldn’t stay where he was. He could retreat again, but that would expose him. Could he get around her? Probably not. She had figured out where he was without much difficulty.
He could go around and charge. Or just shoot around the pillar.
Do that, then. Which side? Left or right?
Was she still there?
He rolled left around the pillar, leading with his autocannon.
Just as the barrel of her railrifle came around on the same side.
Not even a bump. I want their sound suppressors.
For an instant they faced each other, her railrifle pointed right at him. This was the end.
He slapped the barrel of the railrifle up with his autocannon.
KRACK! It went off over his shoulder.
He turned his roll into a sideways lunge, out from the pillar.
Her momentum carried her two steps further.
He pivoted on his lead foot, all the way through, and brought his autocannon back down.
Opened the firing circuit.
And found himself aiming right at her back.
She shifted to lunge into cover behind the pillar.
Too late. He slammed the barrel of his autocannon against her back.
The computer detected a targeting solution.
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.