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A note from Faenon

Party for this chapter:

Ryn, Nuthea, Sagar, Elrann, Cid, Vish

“Alright chumps, so here’s the plan,” said Sagar.

They stood in their stolen Imperial armour looking at the large, dirty, blocky building that was Sirra Station from a nearby street. A huge round clock adorned the front of it. Both of the long black hands had almost reached the number twelve, though the longer still had ten more minutes to traverse until it gor there. It was dark. To either side of the station building ran tall, spiked, iron fences.

Five of them had waited here while Sagar had gone inside the station once already to carry out reconnaissance.

“Basically,” Sagar continued, “we can get on a train that will take us right to the border of Manolia. I’ve seen the timetables and there’s an express sleeper train heading there leaving very soon, at midnight. They’re taking troops down there to amass a land invasion force.”

“Why don’t they just invade by airship,” Ryn asked, “like they did here?”

“Because of our lightning projection,” said Nuthea.

“In any case,” said Sagar, “we need to be on that train. So what we’re going to do is go through the front entrance, find the correct train, and board it, as though we’re part of the invasion force that is being transported there.”

That’s your plan?!” said Elrann.

“Yes.”

“So the plan is basically: We walk onto the train?”

“Yes.”

“You’re an idiot.”

Sagar’s mouth twitched. “Rrrr. It’s a fine plan! We’re in Imperial armour, aren’t we? Nobody will know who we are.”

“Stop bickering,” said Nuthea, apparently now familiar enough with both Sagar and Elrann to reprimand them like this. “It’s the best plan we’ve got, and our mission is urgent. Come on; it’s nearly time.” She drew a deep breath. “Let’s go.”

Ryn walked towards the station with the others.

He went through one of the entrance doors, his whole body tense, hyper-aware of his every movement in his Imperial armour disguise.

The helmet, while not heavy, had grown stuffy, and he could feel his own shallow breaths on the front of his face. While it offered him some protection, from head-wounds and discovery, it also obscured his vision to a horizontal slit that disappeared into darkness at either side, so that he had to turn his head if he wanted to see into his periphery.

The inside of Sirra’s Main Station was massive. The high ceiling sloped up into the pointed roof they had seen from the outside, from which hung lanterns on chains, lighting the lobby with a white glow.

At the far end, a series of desks broke up metal barriers at intervals which barred the way to different doors and passages that Sagar had told them led to the different ‘platforms’. Across the stone floor, to and from these barriers, walked soldiers in the same armour as they were wearing, like a self-organising colony of black-shelled worker ants.

Pssst. Ryn,” whispered Cid next to him. “Don’t lose your focus.”

Ryn shook his head briefly and concentrated on walking with the group again. He had allowed himself to be distracted for a moment by the sheer number of Imperial soldiers in the station. It was extremely important that none of them lost sight of each other, as they all looked like Imperial soldiers now and wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between each other if they got separated.

Although Ryn fancied he’d still be able to tell Nuthea a mile off. She walked in front of him now, her head held high, something very slightly out of place about the way she tried to keep her gait graceful and soft-footed despite the clunky armour she was in—despite her disguise, she was still trying to walk like royalty.

Gods, I hope nobody sees through us, Ryn thought, though he didn’t know why he was still addressing his thoughts to the gods. Especially Nuthea. You can take the princess out of the palace, but you can’t take the palace out of the princess.

Of their party, Vish alone wasn’t wearing armour, though his black attire didn’t seem to attract any unwanted attention from the Morekemians. If anything, the soldiers seemed to give Vish a slightly wide berth. Apparently Shadowfingers were people to be avoided, or at least not gotten too close to. That could be to their advantage.

Sagar led them to the clerk’s desk for platform four, which he’d told them he’d found out was the one with the train bound for Manolia. They took their place in a queue for it and shuffled along a few paces every time another soldier got clearance and went through the barrier.

Ryn tried as hard as he could to slow and deepen his rapid, shallow breaths.

When they got to the front of the line, the armoured grunt behind the desk said “Destination?” without looking up from the papers in front of him.

“Manolia,” said Sagar.

“Unit?” said the grunt.

A pause.

“Er…” said Sagar.

Panic gripped Ryn’s chest. Apparently Sagar hadn’t known this was coming, or thought this far ahead…

The grunt looked up from his desk. Ryn could see the man’s grey eyes through his horizontal helmet-visor, and they narrowed.

“What unit are you with, soldier? It’s a simple question.”

What do we do? What do we do?

“They’re with me,” said Vish all of a sudden. “They’re serving as my retinue for a mission.” The grunt turned his head, then practically jumped out of his seat.

“Oh! My apologies, Shadowfinger Vish, I didn’t see you there! No wonder you didn’t answer,” he said to Sagar. “Please, come right through.” He pulled a lever on his side of the desk and the metal barrier in front of them swung up.

Ryn had to make a concerted effort not to run through. They passed under the barrier and into the walled corridor beyond.

When they had gone a few steps, Ryn whispered “That was lucky,” to Sagar. “Did you know that was going to happen?

Be quiet, pup,” Sagar hissed back. “I had everything under control.”

It’s a good thing we had the bounty hunter with us,” whispered Elrann.

Sagar made no reply.

The corridor opened onto a dark, dusty platform. All along it stood a series of conjoined rectangular steel boxes with multiple glass windows set into them. So this is a train. They followed the stream of soldiers on board.

It was cramped inside the train, and Ryn suddenly became very worried that he was going to lose sight of his companions in the crush of soldiers. A soldier with his helmet off stood just inside the door they entered by, bellowing at the new arrivals as they boarded.

“Keep it moving, soldiers!” he yelled at Ryn and company when they passed him, spittle flying from his mouth, a vein throbbing on the temple of his fat, close-shaven head. “We haven’t got all night! We need to be in Manolia by dawn! Train leaves in five minutes! Eight to a compartment! Get on with it!”

Hang on, eight to a compartment?! But we’re only six! Ryn’s pulse began to pound between his ears as he walked down the narrow walkway that ran the length of the train, passing closed metal doors.

That was still Sagar walking in front of him, he was sure of it, and—he glanced quickly over his shoulder—there was Vish just behind him. But where were the others? Were they still following? And how were they going to make sure they all ended up in the same compartment without two extra random soldiers joining them?

We didn’t properly think through what we were going to do when we actually get to our destination! Sagar had just said something vague about sneaking away from the Imperials when they got to Manolia, just like they were sneaking onto the train. But how was that going to be possible?

Before Ryn could panic any further, suddenly Sagar turned off to the right, through the first open door he had come to. Ryn followed him.

Inside was a small room with two cushioned benches that faced each other from either wall. Between them on the far side of the compartment ran another wall with a window looking out onto the dimness of the station platform.

Following Sagar’s lead, Ryn went and sat on one of the benches next to him. They watched the door carefully. In came Vish, who sat at the end of the opposite bench. That makes three. Then more soldiers entered. Four, five, six…seven! Eight! Ohcrapohcrapohcrap.

The last soldier in shut the door behind him. “Phew!” he exclaimed in a voice Ryn didn’t recognise. He collapsed onto the bench opposite Ryn. “It’s bad enough that they fly us non-stop to Imfis without any breaks and barely any rations, but then they frog march us to the station as soon as we get here! I need some sleep!”

The soldier took off his helmet and rested it on his knee. He had a friendly, grinning face and a mop of thick, brown hair. He was young--maybe in his early twenties. Ryn found that he liked the man immediately, which confused him.

“Ah, quit your whining, Tillbrook,” said the soldier whom he had sat next to. This one took off his helmet too. A somewhat older, more weathered-looking man with greying hair, a hooked nose, and a big scar along one cheek. “This is nothing. In the Umbar campaign I once flew for two days straight without anything to eat, then got dropped directly into combat. At least here we’re getting a run-up.” He looked at Ryn sat on the bench across from him. “Aren’t you going to take your helmet off? We’re off duty now, ya know.”

Not wanting to appear out of the ordinary, Ryn lifted his hands to remove his helmet, but then Sagar elbowed him in the side.

Oh yeah, that’s right. Three of us have bounties on our heads. Ryn’s cheeks blushed hot and all of a sudden he was very glad that he was wearing a helmet.

“We prefer to keep them on,” Sagar said.

The older soldier frowned at him. “What in the hells for?”

Uh-oh.

“Because they’re with me,” said Vish, from further along the bench the soldiers were sitting on.

The soldiers each turned to look at who had spoken, then jolted with surprise.

“A Shadowfinger!” said the younger one.

“I thought you were all chasing a bounty in Northern Imfis,” said the older.

“We were,” said Vish, “but I completed on it, and now I’ve been redeployed to Manolia on a classified mission. These five are serving as my retinue, but they must keep their helmets on at all times. No questions asked.”

The soldiers looked at each other for a moment, then the older one shrugged. “Suit yourselves, then.”

Ryn’s shoulders relaxed a little. It seemed that Vish carried enough authority that this wasn’t going to be queried any further.

Just then a high pitched whistle sounded and the train began to strain forwards slowly. The platform outside began to scroll past through the windows. Outside, the pistons turning the wheels of the train began to pound out an increasingly fast rhythm.

In moments they were out of the station, moving through the buildings of Sirra which glinted in moon- and lantern-light, and before long they were again traversing the darkness of the Imfisi plains that Sirra sat within. Only now they weren’t just walking across them; now they were traveling much faster than before.

“Well,” said the younger soldier, “I’m completely beat. Do you guys mind if we get some sleep?”

“Good idea,” said Vish for the rest of them.

The two unhelmeted soldiers stood and pulled down another bench Ryn hadn’t realised was built into the wall above the one they had been sitting on. It folded out of the wall and hung suspended from it by two chains at either end. He, Sagar and whoever else was sitting on his side--Nuthea? Elrann?--did the same with the bunk on their side of the carriage.

With the two bunks folded down, you could just about fit two people lying down one after the other onto each of the four benches now available in the carriage.

“We’ll take the top,” said Tilbrook deferentiality to Vish, and he and the older soldier climbed up.

Ryn took one of the spaces on the bottom bunk on his side. He had no idea who was lying down on the other end of it, but they each lay so that their helmeted heads would be next to each other in the middle of the bench.

“Night all,” said Tilbrook.

And then there was just the darkness, and the gentle rattle and chug of the train as it traveled through the Imfisi plains.

Chukkachukachukkachuckkachukkachukka.

Ryn stared up at the grubby underside of the bunk above him as his eyes adjusted to the darkness.

Well, this was some predicament they had got themselves into. Aboard an Imperial-commandeered train bound for Manolia, stuck in a carriage with two genuine Imperial soldiers, which meant they couldn’t even talk openly to each other. Maybe they should kill the soldiers while they slept? No, that was a horrible idea. That was thinking like Sagar. Even if they were working for the Empire, these two soldiers didn’t seem to be murderous monsters like Vorr. They seemed like they were just trying to get by and do a job to earn a living. They were just following orders. Nuthea was right; it wouldn’t be right to kill them in cold blood. Though he wouldn’t put it past Sagar for the idea to cross his mind, too… Hopefully the pirate wouldn’t do anything stupid. He hadn’t so far, at least, and from the snoring noises coming from the opposite top bunk the two soldiers seemed to be fast asleep.

What was Ryn even doing here? Mother. Father. Hometown. Find Vorr. Kill Vorr. Stay with Nuthea. He wasn’t even certain that General Vorr would be coming this way--it was just his best guess. He shut his eyes. In the darkness and the encasement of his helmet, familiar images started to crowd in on him, invading his mind’s eye. His mother being pierced by a sword. His father’s eyes going out of focus. The Imperial General laughing in his face. How was he going to get to sleep like this, without the cool of the open air and the reassuring chatter of his traveling companions to lull him into unconsciousness?

He thought he would try to talk to Sagar on the bench next to him for a little while. Even that might be better than just lying here in the dark with his memories. Might.

“Sagar?” Ryn whispered as quietly as he could so that only the pirate, whose head lay a little way from his own, could hear.

Nothing. Then: “No,” whispered back a noble, feminine voice after a moment, “it’s me.” Nuthea.

Ryn could barely believe his luck.

He better say something else to her.

“Are you alright?”

“Yes, quite alright! Stop talking and let me go to sleep!”

That stung.

For a moment there was only the chukkachukkachukka of the train again.

“Ryn?” This time she had spoken first.

“...yes?”

“I’m sorry; I didn’t mean that. The truth is...the truth is I’m not alright. I’m...I’m scared.” Wow. A rare admission of vulnerability from the lightning-slinging, lecture-delivering princess.

“What are you scared of?” asked Ryn eventually. Stupid question. What wasn’t there to be scared of right now?

“I’m...I’m scared that we won’t make it to Manolia,” Nuthea whispered. “I’m scared that we’ll be discovered. I’m scared that the Empire will find all the Jewels and overrun the world.”

That’s quite a lot to be scared of, fair enough… Ryn thought. But instead he said, “I know. Me too. I’m scared of all those things too, and I’m scared that I’ll never be able to find Vorr again, or that I’ll find him, but I won’t be able to beat him when I find him.”

“You can beat him,” said Nuthea. “You’re doing really well in your training.” I shouldn’t need to hear her say that, thought Ryn, but I sure like that she did. “If you continue on as you are doing you are only going to grow more powerful in the use of your gift and your swordsmanship. But, Ryn…” She paused. “Ryn, by the time you do find him, and I’m sure you will be able to find him again, you might not want revenge on him any more…”

Ryn’s brow furrowed inside his helmet. Why would she say something like that? He thought of Vorr again, of the man with the thick-set jaw and the flaming red hair, laughing in his face. At the very thought of him, Ryn’s hands grew hotter and the tips of his fingers tingled.

“There’s no way I’m going to stop wanting revenge on him,” Ryn whispered to himself as much as Nuthea. “He murdered my parents and destroyed my hometown. Why would I ever not want to take revenge on him?”

Nuthea took a while to speak again. Eventually, she whispered, “It is not the Way of the One. The Way of the One is to forgive.”

Ah, there she goes with her One stuff again. Ryn wasn’t in the mood for this right now. But he didn’t want to be harsh with Nuthea, especially if she was feeling scared at the moment. “Alright,” he said, “well, I’ll think about it.”

“Thank you.”

“But Nuthea?”

“Yes?”

“Look, it’s okay to be scared. It makes sense. Like I said, I’m scared too. But you’ve got a lot of people around you right now to take care of you. Me. Sagar. Elrann. Cid. And I guess Vish too. We’ll take care of you and make sure you get to Manolia, alright?” I’ll take care of you, he added in his head, but he didn’t quite find the courage to whisper it.

“Thank you, Ryn,” said Nuthea. “I am glad of that.”

Ryn smiled inside his helmet.

“Hey lovebirds!” someone whispered from the bunk above them.

Ryn spasmed and nearly fell off the bench. He hadn’t realised anyone else could hear them.

“Stop talking so we can get some sleep!” Elrann whispered again.

“Yeah!” whispered someone else from above. No, not Sagar too! “You’re lucky those two bucketheads are sleeping like babies, or you might have given us away! Quit yammering and go to sleep!”

“Sorry…” Ryn whispered back sheepishly.

They ceased talking. Ryn’s blush had come back to his cheeks, and he was even more grateful no one could see it. As it slowly faded and the tingling in his fingers died away, he thought of his conversation with Nuthea, listened to the chukkachukkachukka of the train, rocked with its gentle movements, and eventually felt himself slipping into sleep.

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About the author

Faenon

Bio: 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

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