The night after they escaped from the monstrous dog, Ryn slept better than he had in a long time, probably from the exhaustion.
They slept outside, wrapped in thick grey woolspun cloaks that Cid had brought with him from Nonts--one for each of them--along with his other food supplies. They slept on the grassy earth under a roof decorated by myriad stars, having finally made it out of the woods that surrounded Nonts, although they kept close to the tree cover in case they were attacked again and needed to flee into it.
They set a watch, and took turns taking it, and Ryn was glad to have one of the later watches of the night which meant he could get a good chunk of sleep before Elrann invariably shook him groggily awake and whispered “Your turn, farmboy.”
They rode for the better part of each day, stopping only to eat from the provisions that Cid had brought with him--bread, hard cheese, some salt beef, watery wine, and the odd apple. It would take them five or so days ofchocobo riding to get to Sirra, Cid said.
The terrain mostly consisted of flat fields, though it did rise and fall from time to time, making thechocobos work harder to carry them, and here and there it was dotted with little woods and forests, which they made good headway through, re-checking their direction of travel against the traversing sun whenever they emerged back into the open fields.
They looked over their shoulders constantly as they rode, and continued to keep watches at night, but for now no more Imperials came their way, nor monstrous dogs, nor Shadowfingers, despite Vish’s insistence that there were others on the hunt for them. They seemed to have escaped the grasp of the Empire by running away on their chocobos, at least for now. In fact, looking out over the flat green fields only occasionally interrupted by a fence or a farmstead or a forest, with the bright sun lighting up the clear blue sky and their route ahead of them, you could almost be forgiven for forgetting that this country had recently been invaded by the Empire at all.
“But that’s because we’re in the provincial grasslands on the far outskirts of Sirra, pup,” Sagar explained from his mount on the second day when Ryn voiced this thought. Ryn was still bitter that Sagar got to ride with Nuthea, while he was stuck riding his bird with Vish. “When we get to the city--you’ll see--that’s where the fighting will have been. That’s where those airships were headed when they left us behind in Ast.”
In the tiny amount of free time that Ryn got between sleeping, eating and riding, Ryn practiced his flame projection powers and his swordsmanship. Nuthea had told him that he needed to practice his flame projection in order to grow in skill and increase the amount of time he was able to use them before he grew too tired, which she said was linked to something called his ‘mana reserve’, so he took every spare moment that he got to practice forming little flames in his hands, concentrating hard to hold them in existence, then deliberately willing them to extinguish.
“That’s it--you have to practice commanding the element into existence, then shutting it off again,” Nuthea would say, nodding sagely. Ryn was glad of the excuse to spend time with her. “Then, once you’ve mastered that, you can focus on manipulating it--making particular forms and shapes, and sending them in directions that you choose.”
Ryn sometimes ‘practiced his flames’, as he came to think of it, when he was on watch too, but he had to be careful doing that as he didn’t want to give away their presence to any prowling Imperials or Shadowfingers that might be on their trail. Once he accidentally lit a flame too bright and it woke Sagar up, who swore loudly and in turn woke the whole of the rest of the group up. They were a grumpy party on that particular morning.
The other thing Ryn practiced was swordfighting. When they had set out after defeating the dog-monster near Nonts, he had made sure to take the sword from one of the corpses of the Imperial soldiers who had been chasing them. Cid, who had also taken one of the Imperial’s blades and somehow knew swordfighting despite his profession, offered to teach Ryn.
Ryn wondered whether Sagar was actually better with a sword, but Cid seemed to know what he was doing, and Ryn felt would much prefer to be taught by Cid than Sagar. So in the few remaining moments between riding, sleeping, eating and practicing his flames, he practiced with his sword with Cid a little way away from the rest of the group, following the old man’s instructions in swinging, thrusting, blocking and parrying as they traded carefully pre-agreed blows.
Sometimes, when people fell quiet on the long rides during the day, or during his night watches before he started practicing his element-projection, Ryn tried to remember his life before any of this had happened--before the Empire had attacked his hometown. The trouble was, he couldn’t. Of course, some memories stood out, which he held on to like solid rocks in a seething, foggy sea of despair.
His birth-day celebrations with mother and father. Racing the farm chocobos out in the woods with Jaq and Fargu on seventhdays. Making Carlotia laugh in the classroom at the town school. Reading a favourite storybook sat under a tree. It wasn’t as if all of this had happened very long ago.
But even these memories were growing faint, the light and colour fading from them as time passed. He found he could no longer remember any of their faces clearly.
And they all threatened to be swallowed up by the one single big memory that loomed large in his mind, that his mind didn’t seem to be able to let go of: His mother and father being killed, and his hometown being destroyed. The thoughts of all that, the images of the sword going into his mother’s chest, the burning buildings, the light going out of his father’s eyes, never really left him. They came to him unbidden, again and again, when he was riding, when he was talking to Nuthea and the others, while he was eating, taking a piss or before he fell asleep. Mother. Father. Hometown.
It was like his mind was obsessed with the events and couldn’t let them go, and nor could he move on from them either. It was torture. Once he had recovered from the exhaustion of escaping Nonts, he continued to re-live the whole thing again and again in his sleep. Sometimes he would wake in the night shouting from the memories, as he had done when Cid had revived him from his sword-wound, sometimes with whimpers and moans, which was extremely embarrassing. Rarely, if ever, did he wake up feeling refreshed. His nerves were constantly frayed and his head ached all the time.
There was only one way out:
Find Vorr. Get Vorr. Kill Vorr.
What he would do after that, if he ever managed it, he did not know. There was only ever one other vague notion that occasionally presented itself in his mind:
Stay with Nuthea?
Late on their sixth day of riding, sore and sleepy, they sighted Sirra.
The first things they saw were lights. Where they had been riding for what felt to Ryn’s backside like an age over grasslands and fields that turned black with dusk, all at once little pinpricks of light appeared in the blackness.
A few leagues further and the pinpricks turned out to have been the lights of hearths and candles in the homes of a smaller settlement on the outskirts of the city of Sirra.
“There are lots of these smaller towns on the edges of Sirra,” said Elrann, who knew the city best. “As you get nearer to it they get denser and denser, until you’re properly in the city and everything is paved streets.”
They rode on past the buildings, and some curtains twitched. They got glimpses of people staring out at them for a brief moment.
“Why is nobody outside?” said Ryn from atop his mount with Vish. “Why is nobody coming out to greet us?”
“Why d’you think, pup?” said Sagar. “They’re scared. They’ve been invaded--they’re under occupation. We haven’t seen any soldiers out here, but you can bet when we get to Sirra proper it will be crawling with them.”
Ryn’s cheeks flushed hot. Stupid question.
Despite the fact that with every chocobo-step they took closer to Sirra they got closer to danger, they rode on.
They had discussed the plan in detail two days ago.
“What are we actually going to do when we get to Sirra?” Ryn had asked as they had been riding over the Imfisi plains.
“We’ve been over this,” said Sagar. “We’re going to board a train to Manolia.”
Ryn had never been on a train before but he knew what they were.
“But will the trains really still be running,” said Elrann, “if Morekemia have occupied Imfis?”
“Not for their usual purposes,” said Sagar “but I’d be willing to gamble good money that the Empire will have reappropriated them. If they’ve flown in a load of soldiers here to occupy Imfis with military presence, the Emperor is probably planning to use Imfis as his base of operations in Zokan. If he’s doing that, he’ll need good control of the whole country, especially its borders. In the long run, it would be easier to also move soldiers to and from the borders using the Imfisi train system, rather than having to fly them every time. That means he’ll still be using the trains.”
“But how are we going to get on a train?” Elrann pressed. “Most of us are probably wanted by the Empire now, with bounties on our heads.”
“Just you leave that to me, woman,” said Sagar. “Don’t forget that you’re riding with a legendary pirate captain here.”
Elrann had snorted, and Sagar had either not heard her or pretended not to hear her from his chocobo.
They sold their three chocobos to an innkeeper in one of the smaller settlements on the outskirts of Sirra, for a healthy fifty gold pieces each, after a hearty meal in his common room. If everything went to plan from herein then they wouldn’t need them for the rest of the journey on to Manolia.
“Don’t know how you’ve kept hold of them this long,” said the innkeeper who bought them in a worn-out, cynical voice. “The Empire’ve been rounding up all the mounts and vehicles for miles around and commandeering them for their army. But I’ll happily take them off your hands.”
Ryn patted the beak of his chocobo, the original one that Vish had stolen which the two of them had been riding for the last three days, as he said goodbye to it in the stables. “Thanks, buddy. You saw us through a lot. Sorry for crashing you in the woods.” The chocobo cawed and nuzzled him in response.
“We need to keep a low profile,” said Cid as they all left the inn. “Keep those cloaks wrapped tight around you until we can find…alternative attire.”
Ryn would have liked to have spent a night at the inn, but Nuthea still insisted that their mission was urgent and that they couldn’t afford to waste even one night. And the next phase of their plan was going to work better under cover of darkness anyway.
Sirra proper began as a cluster of tall, white-stone buildings in the middle distance and soon became tough cobbles under their feet. The cluster became a maze of streets and alleys which they wandered within. The white stone shone in the light from fires inside buildings, streetlamps, the moon.
“So this is a capital city…” said Ryn under his breath. The others didn’t seem so bothered by it. He guessed they had all been in capitals before. He supposed he really was a ‘greenhorn farmboy’, or whatever Elrann called him…
The occasional person paced the pavement, and the odd chocobo-drawn cart passed them on the cobbled road, though not as many as Ryn would have expected. That must be because of the invasion too. Still, it was busier than Nonts. Every now and again the cramped streets would open up into a larger road or a square, with a fountain, or a statue, or a tower at its centre. And usually they would sight a patrol of Imperial soldiers somewhere on it. Whenever this happened, they turned around abruptly and went back down one of the smaller alleys.
“I don’t understand,” Ryn said, “I thought we were looking for Imperials.”
“Yeah, but not out in the open, pup,” Sagar answered him. “We want to find them in one of the sheltered streets, but by the nature of things we’re less likely to come across what we want there. It might take a while.”
“Give it time,” said Cid knowingly.
“Hang on,” said Sagar, “what’s this?”
He moved towards a series of three upright rectangles attached to the side of one of the nearby buildings.
On the first piece of paper was an ink drawing of Sagar himself. The likeness was strong, right down to the eye patch, the ponytail and the cocky smile.
Sagar tore the poster off the wall and inspected it more closely while Ryn looked over his shoulder.
WANTED, DEAD OR ALIVE, it said under the drawing. BOUNTY: 7500 GOLD PIECES.
“Heh,” said Sagar. “And not my first, either!” He rolled up the poster and stuffed it down his shirt. “What? Girls love this kind of thing. How much did you say they put on the princess? 5000? I guess they value me even more highly than her…”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” said Ryn, his eyes wandering to the next poster along. It was the same drawing of Nuthea as he had come across in Nonts, only this was a more recent poster because this time it said WANTED, DEAD OR ALIVE. BOUNTY: 10,000 GOLD PIECES.
“Rrrr,” said Sagar. He tore that one down too, but it didn’t go in his shirt.
It was the next poster along that really pissed him off, though.
“Ryn, you’ll want to have a look at this,” said Nuthea.
Ryn looked, and froze.
An ink drawing of himself, complete with tousled hair, big eyes and boyish features, looked out of the third poster at him.
WANTED, DEAD OR ALIVE. BOUNTY: 10,000 GOLD PIECES. HIGHLY DANGEROUS.
“Well that’s just ridiculous,” mumbled Sagar. “Stupid Imperials got their labeling mixed up.”
“They didn’t,” said Vish. “The boy used his powers in Ast. They know that he’s on the loose, they know he is on this continent, and they know he has flame projection abilities.”
“Well they didn’t need to add that ‘highly dangerous’ bit…” muttered Sagar.
“They clearly view those as more dangerous than wind projection,” Vish continued explaining, “and at least as dangerous as lighting projection.”
Sagar didn’t say anything.
Ryn could not keep a warm glow of satisfaction from lighting up his mind for a moment.
Just a moment.
“Well this just makes things even harder,” said Elrann. “What are we going to do about this?”
“There’s nothing we can do,” said Cid. “But it’s all the more reason to keep a low profile and find our disguises as soon as we can. Come on, let’s keep looking.”
They found what they were looking for soon after that, down another of the side streets.
“Stop,” hissed Cid all of a sudden, and held up his hand. “There. At last. Do you see them?”
He pointed. In the distance at the end of the enclosed, built-up street was a smaller group of Imperial soldiers out on patrol. Thankfully, they were walking away from Ryn and his companions, or else they would have been spotted, which probably wouldn’t end well—a patrol would surely not take kindly to a group of armed vagabonds wandering the streets of an occupied city at night. As usual, they wore the black plate armour and bucket-like helmets of all Imperial soldiers. Ryn did a quick count of them before the soldiers turned a corner down another street and disappeared from view.
“I counted five,” he said.
“Five is fine,” said Vish. “I can remain as I am. I look like an Imperial Shadowfinger. Because that is, after all, what I am.”
“Was,” said Nuthea.
Vish didn’t reply.
“Whatever,” said Sagar. “We’ll still need your help for this though, much as I hate to say it. Right, listen, here’s what we’ll do: They’ve just turned left down that street over there, so I reckon if we turn and go down there then our path will join up with theirs again and we can give them the jump.”
“Got it,” said Ryn, nodding with the others, happy to defer to the pirate’s wisdom in all matters of ambush, deception and theft.
They crept their way down the street that Sagar had indicated. The pirate whispered to them while they walked: “Now listen: They’re armed, of course, but I only saw swords—and none of them drawn at that. No bows or crossbows. They look completely off guard to me—it doesn’t seem like Sirra has put up much of a resistance to this invasion, or if it did then it’s clearly been crushed. So I don’t think they’ll be expecting us at all. This’ll be like harpooning a skywhale on a clear day. Now, woman, don’t go using those pistols of yours, as they’ll alert others to what we’re doing--”
“Well, obviously, said Elrann, rolling her eyes. “Do you think I was born yesterday, pirate-man? I’ve got almost as much skyship experience as you do. I’ll use my whip.”
“Good,” said Sagar, ignoring her jibes for once. “I’ve got my swords. Scumsucker, you’ve got your poison blade and…whatever else it is you’re carrying. Princess and old timer, you can stay in the back row, but you’ve got your lightning and your healing abilities if things go south—they shouldn’t, though.”
“Hey, what about me?” said Ryn.
The pirate glanced sidelong at him. “What about you, pup?”
“I can fight too.”
“You just try to stay out of the way and to not get hurt.”
Ryn’s irritation boiled over. “But I don’t want to stay at the back.” He heard himself saying it like a petulant child, but he couldn’t help it. “I want to be up front with you, Elrann and Vish. I’ve been practicing my swordsmanship with Cid.”
“Rrrr,” said Sagar under his breath. “Fine, pup. I suppose we could use one more up front, seeing as we’re trying to take down five of them. You’ve got your fire, I suppose, but we only want to use that in an emergency. Ok then; use that sword you took from the soldiers Vish killed back near Nonts. You think you can handle being up front after last time?”
“Yes,” Ryn said defiantly, trying not to pay attention to the memory of being impaled that flashed in his mind. If something went really wrong, Cid could always heal Ryn like last time. Although he wasn’t in a hurry to go through the experience of almost dying again.
“Good, I’m glad that’s settled, said Nuthea. But that’s still only four of you up front, when there are five soldiers. You’re still one short. I don’t want to use my lightning at all if I can help it, as it will attract attention. And you are only going to render them unconscious, aren’t you? You’re not going to kill them.”
“What?!” Said Sagar. He practically squeaked it, so loud that Cid said “Shhh!” and they froze in their tracks for a moment.
They waited to to hear if anyone had taken notice of them, to see if anyone would come running,.
Only the silence of the high-walled alley they were creeping down answered. Ryn exhaled relief.
“What?” Sagar said again, more quietly this time, as they resumed walking. “You can’t be serious, princess…”
“But I am,” said Nuthea. “No unnecessary deaths. The One would not approve. We only kill in self-defence, if we really have to.”
“That’s completely stupid,” said Sagar. “I’ve had enough of this One stuff…there’s no way we’re only knocking them out. We’ve got a much better chance of stealing their armour if we kill them first.”
“Captain Sagar, may I remind you that you are my escort on this mission? I am the one you are taking to Manolia.”
“So, if you don’t carry out my wishes, it may affect the amount and nature of your reward when you successfully deliver me back to my people.”
A muscle in Sagar’s jaw twitched. “Rrrrrrrrrrr.” That was a big one, thought Ryn. “Fine. We can aim to knock them out. But it’s not a precise art. If I accidentally kill one or two of them in the process, I can’t be held responsible.”
“That’s all I ask,” said Nuthea, tilting her head back with a flutter of her eyelids. “That you try.”
“What’s the best way to knock someone out?” Ryn asked, testing the weight of the Imperial sword in its scabbard and suddenly feeling even more out of his depth. His mouth had gone dry.
Sagar looked at him.
“What? I’ve never done it before.”
“Do you really need to ask, pup?” said Sagar. “You just hit them really hard in the head with the hilt of your sword or something. If we get this right, we’ll be pouncing on them from behind, so you should have plenty of time to aim. They shouldn’t see us coming. Easy pickings.”
“What about their helmets?
“If you hit them hard enough, you should be able to knock them out through their helmets. Or if you really want to you can get that off them first, but I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Ryn’s palms were clammy. He gripped the sword tighter. “Alright. But like Nuthea said, there’s still only four of us going in close, and five of them.”
“Oh, just leave that to me,” said Vish all of a sudden. “I can take out two of them at once. At least,” he added. Was he smirking underneath his face covering?
By now they had arrived at the end of the street, where it met the one they hoped the patrol they had spotted was now walking down at a right angle.
“Wait here,” said Sagar. “Get low.”
Ryn crouched with the others with their backs against the nearest building, keeping themselves from view to wait for the patrol to go past. The stone of the building was cold against his back even through his cloak. There wasn’t much light to see by here. He could hear Nuthea shivering slightly next to him. On his other side, Vish’s silhouette crouched perfectly still, like a cat waiting to pounce.
Sagar crept to the corner of the building and very slowly peeked his head round it with his good eye.
No sooner had he put his head round, than he drew it straight back again.
“Perfect,” he whispered with a wolfish grin. “They’re coming this way, just like we hoped. They didn’t see me. We wait here until they’ve gone past, then jump them from behind. Got it?”
Ryn nodded his silent assent with the others. They shuffled along the wall a little deeper into their own street to make sure they were as concealed as possible, keeping to the many available shadows.
“What if they turn down here?” whispered Elrann.
“It would be a pretty stupid patrol route if they did,” Sagar whispered back, “since it would only take them right back to where they were a little while ago. But if they turn down here, we jump them from the front. If that happens, it won’t be so easy just to ‘knock them out’, I can tell you that. Draw your weapons and wait for my signal.”
The secret scrape of three swords being slid quietly from their sheaths. Elrann rummaged in her overall and uncoiled her whip.
Just the dimness of the street.
Ryn suddenly became very interested in one particular cobblestone, and tried not to pay attention to his imaginations of the fight about to take place.
The soldiers’ faint footsteps came into earshot from around the corner, then slowly grew louder, along with their conversation.
“…has to be the easiest invasion the Empire have ever carried out.”
“I know. But we were starting from a pretty strong place to begin with. Imfis is a vassal state after all, and they don’t have anything in the way of an army.”
“Yeah, but I mean, even so, these people barely put up any resistance at all. Just a few boys and men with death wishes. The rest of them basically rolled over and died.”
The soldiers came into view now, all five of them in black plate armour, and…
…turned down the street that Ryn and his companions were waiting in.
The soldiers took a couple of steps into the street. They hadn’t seen their crouching ambushers yet.
“It’s like they wanted to be occupied,” said the one who had been speaking most recently. “It’s like...What the--?”
He had spotted them.
“NOW!” yelled Sagar.
Ryn sprang forwards and made for the nearest soldier. He gripped the hilt of his sword tight and drew it back, blade up, then slammed the pommel into the soldier’s helmet before he could react. It resounded like a clear bell.
“Ouch!” The soldier raised his hands to his helmet, but remained standing.
“Crap,” said Ryn.
The soldier drew his sword, then lunged.
Ryn managed to jump back out of the way. His pulse had begun to pound violently between his ears. Not again.
A black shape crashed into the soldier, sweeping his legs out from underneath him, then slammed another sword-pommel down onto the soldier’s helmet, much harder than Ryn had managed. The soldier lay still on his back. Vish leapt away as quickly as he had arrived.
Someone was shouting in surprise.
Ryn turned. Two other soldiers lay unconscious at Sagar’s feet. Vish dispatched another one, swiftly sliding his sword into the visor of the man’s helmet, who went down with a muffled scream and clutched at his face.
Nuthea’s not going to be happy about that.
Elrann had her whip coiled around the arm of the final soldier. Whatever she had been trying to do hadn’t worked, and he had managed to draw his sword. The two of them stood frozen for a moment, sizing each other up, connected by Elrann’s whip.
The soldier swept his helmeted head from side to side, taking them all in.
He drew in a breath, like he was about to shout for help.
Ryn, Vish and Sagar all rushed him.
Ryn got to him first, and this time he hit the soldier so hard with the pommel of his sword on the front of his helmet that the man went down at once. Apparently Ryn had warmed up now, and lost his battle shyness.
All the soldiers were down now.
“Quickly,” said Sagar. “We got unlucky. That was noisier than it should have been. We’ve got to strip them of their armour quickly, before anyone notices what’s happened.”
They got to work straight away, looking around anxiously as they did to see if anyone had spotted them. Nobody seemed to have, yet—at least they heard no cries of alarm and saw nobody else in the street for the moment.
Ryn followed Sagar and Cid’s instructions and knelt down next to the soldier he had just knocked out, unfastened the man’s chestplate and leg-guards, and stripped him of his gauntlets. He then set about putting all of these pieces of armour on himself, over the top of his clothes. Lastly he slid off the soldier’s helmet. He almost gasped when underneath he found the smooth face of a young man with a shaved head, not much older than himself. Ryn hoped that he had not done the boy any lasting damage.
He slipped the helmet on over his head. At first the metal was cold against his cheeks, but it fit snugly. The black bucket-like Imperial soldiers’ helmets all had a horizontal slit to see out of, which now became Ryn’s window on the world.
“You did not need to kill that one, Shadowfinger Vish,” Nuthea chided when the bountyhunter took the helmet off his soldier, revealing a bloody mess that used to be a face which made Ryn flinch and look away.
“I made a judgment, girl,” Vish said to her. “We needed to be quick, so I acted as efficiently as I could in the situation and dispatched the soldier in the quickest way available to me.”
“Hmph,” said Nuthea.
She had managed to wriggle into a breastplate, which from her grimace appeared to be quite uncomfortable, and she looked absolutely ridiculous with the hem of her once-white, torn, blood-stained dress poking out of the bottom of it.
“You’re going to need some trousers, princess,” said Sagar, barely stifling a laugh even in their highly dangerous situation.
Cid pulled some off a soldier and gave them to her. Once the trousers and the rest of her armour were on, and her dress tucked in, she looked much more like an Imperial, apart from the facts of her chestplate sticking out a bit more than normal, her feminine face and her long golden hair. But she bunched that up as best she could and shoved it inside a helmet, her lip curling in revulsion as she lowered that over her head.
“Urgh, it smells in here,” said Nuthea.
The illusion was more or less complete. Still, hopefully nobody would look too closely at her...
Elrann was having similar difficulties. “Where am I meant to put all of this?” she complained as she took things one by one out of the pockets and insides of her engineer’s overalls and placed them on the ground. Her two pistols. Her whip. A spanner. A wrench. A screwdriver. She seemed to have all manner of things stuffed down there--almost as many items as Cid kept in his healer’s satchel, which he was simply able to sling over a shoulder as usual over the top of his armour.
“Here,” said Cid, pointing at one of the fallen soldiers. “Look. This one has a leather utility belt with some pouches on it. He must be some sort of Imperial engineer himself. You can use it.”
“Ah, thanks pops,” said Elrann, bending down to take the belt from the soldier and inspecting the contents of its pockets. “Hey, there’s some good tools in here! I could use some of these! And some of mine need replacing.” She set about filling the belt with her stuff and the items from the soldier that she wanted.
“Come on, woman,” hissed Sagar, “we haven’t got all night.”
Once she was done and had strapped the belt around her waist she stood up, and they all surveyed each other, six ragamuffin travelers now disguised as Imperial soldiers. With the helmets on, they just about passed as them.
Ryn twisted his torso from side to side, testing out the feel of the armour. His head rocked back in surprise. “It’s so light,” he said.
“Flimsy too,” confirmed Cid. “It’s made of alphite—very plentiful in the Morekemian mountains. Alphite is light, cheap and easy to pierce. The Empire don’t exactly kit their soldiers out with the finest equipment, or even train them that well. The Emperor takes more of a ‘quantity over quality’ approach to warfare--”
“Enough yammering,” said Sagar, who had rolled up his pirates’ coat and stashed it in his pack. “We don’t have time for economics lectures now. We need to get going.”
“What do we do with them?” said Ryn, nodding towards the floored soldiers, five of them knocked out, one dead at Vish’s hand.
“Drag them into a dark corner,” said Sagar, “and hope they wake up later rather than sooner.” He gave Nuthea a passive-aggressive glance.
Together they dragged the soldiers’ limp bodies further into the alley and hid them in a particularly shadowed corner behind a wooden bench. One of the still-alive soldiers started to murmur something, but Sagar hit him again, and the murmuring stopped. As far as they could tell, nobody had seen or heard them.
“When these guys wake up again, they’ll raise the alarm…” said Sagar, sounding regretful that they hadn’t killed more of the soldiers.
“By that time we will be gone,” said Nuthea. “It’s worth it for a clear conscience.”
Sagar tutted. “Come on, then,” he said. “We better get out of here before they do wake up.”
The six of them moved off as quickly as they could, not running, as that could attract attention, but walking briskly through the darkness of the sleeping city, trying to look like a group of Imperial soldiers out on patrol. They headed north, as that was where Sirra’s main train station was found, finding their way bit by bit from landmarks and key streets that those of them who had been here before remembered.
Elrann knew the city best, having lived here the longest, but Sagar, Cid and even Nuthea all seemed to know or remember parts of it too. Ryn guessed that just left him and Vish. But for all he knew, the Shadowfinger had been here before as well, he just wasn’t letting on—not that he ever let on about all that much anyway. Ryn supposed he was the least well-traveled of their whole group. Naïve greenhorn pussywillow farmboy, ran Sagar’s and Elrann’s words in his mind.
“Stop!” said Sagar when they finally sighted the station, still quite a long way off, as they approached it from the south-west along one of the smaller streets that ran like veins to this focal hub.
Sirra Main Station was a big, rectangular building with a series of pointed roofs and a massive clock-face built into the wall above its many-doored main entrance. It was built out of the same white-grey stone as many of the other old or important buildings in Sirra, but Ryn could see that it was extremely grubby in the light from the streetlamps that lit this sector of the city. And there were soldiers streaming in and out of it.
There were more soldiers going in than out, but there was still a steady stream going in both directions—though thankfully the ones leaving the station were all heading off down a different street from the one their party was approaching by, the main road that led due south away from the station.
“Well this makes things harder,” said Elrann. “How are we going to sneak onto a train with all these bucketheads around?”
“Why are there so many of them?” asked Ryn.
“I don’t know, pup,” said Sagar. “But I’m going to find out. You guys wait here and make sure nobody sees you. I’ll be back in a bit.”
And before anyone could protest, he walked off towards the station.
“He’s very brave,” said Nuthea.
Ryn bit his cheek.
Elrann snorted. “Very stupid, if you ask me.”
They kept watching Sagar as he strode towards the station. Soon they lost him amidst the stream and he was just another helmeted, black-armoured soldier walking among the crowds. They waited in the street, staying out of sight, eyes fixed on the stream, nobody saying anything else.
After about ten minutes, from the clock on the front of the station, Ryn knew they were all thinking the same thing. What if he’s been caught? What if he’s not coming back? Ryn also wondered, What if he’s decided to turn us all over to the Empire for gold?
But that wouldn’t make sense. Sagar had a price on his own head as well, and he seemed too enamoured by the prospect of the rewards Nuthea had offered him for transporting her, and possibly by Nuthea herself…
Mother. Father. Hometown. Find Vorr. Kill Vorr. Stay with Nuthea.
There it was, firm in Ryn’s mind as he watched the station intently, keenly aware of Nuthea’s presence next to him. He wasn’t sure if any of his goals were attainable. But damn him if he wasn’t going to try to attain them anyway, he decided.
If the others were all wondering if Sagar was going to come back, nobody voiced their concern, and the minutes went by, marked by the slow movement of the big black hand of Sirra Station’s clock, that crept up higher and higher towards the midnight hour. Apparently everyone was too tense to say anything. They just stood there, watching the soldiers streaming in and out of the station, poised and alert like taut bowstrings.
Then, at last, one of the soldiers emerging from the station entrance turned right out of the main stream and started to walk towards their position.
But was this him? With the soldier’s helmet still on, they couldn’t know for sure.
Ryn’s hand went to the hilt of the Imperial sword that now hung at his side.
“Relax!” called the soldier as soon as he was in earshot, but close enough not to be heard by anyone else. “It’s me! Don’t look so nervous!”
Ryn exhaled. Sagar drew closer. “I was right,” he said from inside his helmet. “They’re using Sirra as their transport hub to move troops around. This isn’t just an occupation of Imfis—this is a full-scale invasion of Dokan.”
“By the One…” said Nuthea.
“Well, shit,” said Elrann.
Neither Cid nor Vish said anything.
Ryn’s head was too foggy from grief and disorientation for him to register much of the significance of this. So what if the Empire were invading the whole of Dokan? He just wanted to kill General Vorr.
“I didn’t even have to ask anyone anything,” Sagar went on. “I just picked it up from walking round and listening. They’ve requisitioned the trains and they’re running them round the clock to send troops to the various Imfisi borders to prepare to invade the neighbouring nations.”
Ryn heard Nuthea take in a sharp breath.
“Then they’re also bringing some troops back into here to keep their grip on Imfis and perform various different tasks here as their base. It’s a major operation--”
“That’s all well and good,” interrupted Nuthea, “but what are we going to do now we’re here?”
“Calm it down, princess, I was getting to that. There’s a train that leaves tonight, soon, at midnight. All we need to do is sneak onto it, but with the amount that’s going on in there, that will be a piece of piss.”
“Where is it going?” asked Ryn.
“Manolia, of course,” said Sagar. “Or as close to the border as it will be able to get.”
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Hi, I’m Faenon, from Oxford, UK.
I’ve been writing for a long time and I’ve even been lucky enough to complete a paid creative writing course and get some short stories published (PM me if you are interested in reading them as it involves telling you my real name).
I’ve written four novels so far but haven’t been able to get any of them house-published--though I came close to getting an agent with one.
So although I’m going to keep trying, I’m also getting fed up with the traditional publishing industry.
That’s where the internet comes in!
I’m going to be posting my novels online one by one, anonymously, in the order I wrote them. And then I'll start posting my latest project as I write it.
If you enjoy my novels, please support me on patreon to get chapters ahead of time and access to early drafts, and then I can devote more time to writing!
(I have a wife, a kid, and a non-writing job.)
One more note. I've studied Theology and Philosophy to postgraduate level, and you may see these things turning up in my stories sometimes. You have been warned.
To support my writing and get access to early chapters go to https://www.patreon.com/faenon