The earth shook, making Ren lose his balance momentarily. He dropped to a crouch to support himself, his hand sinking into the sand of the beach. The tremors were following him, or at least it seemed that way. The truth, he knew, was that the quakes were growing more frequent in all parts of the world. Since the start of the war three months ago, it was as if the Earth felt the pain that war was inflicting upon its people, shivering sympathy with each blast of cannon and each volley of musket fire. How long before it would end he wondered, how long would they have to endure the senselessness.
He was about to get to his feet when he felt the absence of something, he had lost something in the quake. Scanning the ground he found what he was looking for. Reaching down he picked up a solid wooden ring on a light woven thread and tied it back around his neck. He dared not forget it. It was his promise to his people; a symbol of his true loyalty and a sign of his voluntary bondage. He, like others, would give themselves into another nation’s army. He would honour his country’s place as a protectorate of a greater empire, but never would he forget what his people truly stood for. Never would he become so caught up in their imperialism that he would forget his people’s true values.
‘This is not my war,’ he whispered to himself.
He made his way up the winding path that led from the makeshift port, passing into the camp that was located at the top of small hill. A wooden blockade lined with half a dozen cannons, which pointed out to sea, marked the start of the camp. The four Serillian sentries looked at him with expected disdain. He was not like them. The Serillians were tall and thin with long tapering fingers, their skin was the colour of steel, their functional uniforms designed to match their body tone. Ren, at least a head shorter than them, could almost have been mistaken for a human; not a favourable error in the present war. In the forest there would be no doubt what he was. Until then they would have to make do with the dark green reassurance of his uniform to convince them that he was a Fern. The sentries didn’t dare stop him; he was an officer after all, at least in title.
Inside the camp was a torrent of organised chaos. Tents littered the rocky ground, seemingly dotted at random and pitched wherever the space could be found. There was no logic that he could see to the pattern, but he didn’t doubt that there would be one; Serillians were organised, if nothing else. All around him uniformed soldiers went about their business, some pitching more tents, others carrying supplies, a few drinking some brown soup from a blackened pot which hung over a small sickly fire. They all looked at him the same way when he passed. He tried to ignore the aggressive stares. They want you to get angry, he reminded himself, don’t give them the satisfaction.
He reached the alpha’s tent. The bemused guard at the entrance, taking note of the uniform, seemed unsure whether or not he should salute. Instead he gave a single nod and motioned to the opening, indicating that the alpha was free to see him.
‘You’re late,’ said the regal nosed Serillian as he entered the tent. The man, young for his distinguished rank, sat behind a heavy wooden desk examining a section of map parchment with his magnifying glass.
‘Sorry sir,’ said Ren, standing to attention. It felt unnatural for him, but Serillians were sticklers for discipline and etiquette.
‘No excuse?’ The alpha asked looking up from the parchment.
‘The Kalvians have entered the war on the human side sir,’ explained Ren, ‘They sail on some kind of movable islands sir, slow, but our ship had to make several detours.’
‘Bloody rock people, that’s all we need.’ He pulled an envelope from a drawer in his desk and motioned to a wooden chair that waited in front his desk. Relaxing himself a little, Ren sat down.
‘Tell me Ceta Ren,’ began the alpha. It was the first time Ren had heard the title used and couldn’t help but feel awkward. It had taken some time for them to decide on his rank. The lowest level of officer was the best they could come up with for the cousin of a tribal leader. ‘Why are you the first Fern here?’
‘The Fern regiment promised to the empire is in training. Your own leaders decided that officers don’t need training.’
The alpha burst out laughing, before restraining himself, though his face still held a bitter mirth.
‘Offices don’t need training?’ He smirked. ‘These politicians will be the death of me.’
‘They said that leaders are born, not trained,’ added Ren. The alpha shook his head.
‘And they wonder why we’re losing this war? Bloody fools. But leave that aside for now and tell me what do you think of this war Ceta Ren?’
‘I think it’s another waste of life…’ he stared, and then stopped reminding himself he was talking to a Serillian Alpha. It was odd, he thought, that he seemed less ‘Serillian’ than the others.
‘Go on,’ nodded the alpha. Ren watched the man’s now serious face, trying to judge if it was a trap; the army didn’t tolerate dissent of any kind he had been warned, but he decided to take the risk.
‘All this for some uninhabited islands? I know the place has strategic importance and that it gives control to the eastern trade routes,’ he said, watching the alpha’s reaction carefully. ‘But both sides have already lost more than you’ll ever gain by controlling them. And now that the Compact lies in ruins, there will be no stopping the others from carrying out there own little feuds and no way to stop it escalating into a conflict on a world wide scale. My people were neutral, so were the Kalvians, but somehow even we have been dragged into it already. It won’t be long before everyone else is forced to take sides.’
‘I think I see where you’re going,’ said the alpha. ‘Know that you’re not alone in seeing an end to this nonsense. The humans and their allies are pressing us with a passion that we cannot deter. My leaders failed to see the vicious animals that lay below their veneer of civilisation. Had they fought them before they would have known. The fools thought they would simply hand over the islands and be done with it. But until the politicians see sense and negotiate a truce, hold the line and do what you can to keep your men safe.’ He handed the envelope to Ren. ‘Speaking of which, here are your orders. You will be with a company of dragoons lead by Beta Ellian. Be warned, he does not take well to foreigners in the ranks. They are stationed a day’s ride from here watching the upper pass to the Kalvian lands. We cannot allow our enemies to take us by surprise from that pass; we would be driven from these lands and force to fight on out own soil, and don’t think that the Fern lands would be untouched. Most likely that would be their first foot-fall. Now get yourself a musket and horse from the quartermaster and leave right away. ‘
‘Yes sir,’ said Ren, getting to his feet and giving his first ever salute, before leaving the tent.
‘Good luck to you boy,’ whispered the alpha returning to his map, ‘you’re going to need it.’
It took Ren less than the allowed day to reach the mountain encampment. He was a good rider and found himself energised away from the salty sea air. His people made poor sailors; they needed firm ground under their feet to be happy. By the time he got to the camp it was getting dark and a series of fires were already cooking the evening meal. He counted the burning lights and estimated about eighty men.
‘Who goes there?’ A voice shouted from the blackness.
‘Ceta Ren,’ he replied, bringing his horse to a halt and dismounting. A torch at ground level ignited in the darkness lighting up the face of a young Serillian.
‘Ceta?’ The man asked, gabbing Ren by the collar and thrusting his musket up to his chin. ‘You’re no Ceta, you human spy!’
‘I’m a Fern,’ argued Ren.
The man laughed.
‘Beta Ellian would never have a Fern serving under him, you fool. You should really do more research.’ With a burst of strength he shoved Ren against a nearby tree, and looked ready to swing a heavy punch at him, when his faced dropped in terror. In the firelight Ren’s face took on the colours and texture of the tree behind him.
‘Oh god, I’m sorry sir, really,’ he pleaded. ‘I thought you were a spy sir.’
Ren stepped away from the tree and nodded. His face, stern and angry, lost its bark-like texture.
‘You were only doing your job,’ he said. The panic in the young man’s face was washed away in a wave of relief. ‘Now take me to see Beta Ellian, I don’t want to get shot by one of your comrades on the way in.’
After a short, silent walk, the soldier led him out of the darkness and into a fresh set of distrusting eyes. But there was something more that he could just sense, a depression in the men that had not been there in the alpha’s camp; the atmospheric stench was unmissable. His first thought was that they had already lost the first battle, but none of the soldiers appeared wounded and no smell of powder hung in the air.
‘What’s going on?’ He asked.
‘Best let the beta explain,’ replied the young solider. The fact that the man knew what he was talking about told Ren that he wasn’t imagining things.
As expected, that beta was stationed in the largest tent in the centre of the camp. Ren promised himself that if he was ever given a command of his own, he’d take a small tent of to one side. Not only would it confuse the Serillians, but it would also make assassination difficult. Pushing his way under the flap he was met by a grim faced Serillian, much older than the alpha.
‘And what the hell do you want?’ Beta Ellian asked. Ren remembered his etiquette and stood to attention.
‘Ceta Ren reporting sir.’
‘You’ve got to be kidding me? No one said anything about a damned Fern in my command.’ Ren held out his orders in response while restraining his urge to lash out. He had been warned to expect this from the officers; the unusual alpha had knocked him off guard. ‘I hear your people don’t like to fight?’
‘We avoid it when necessary sir.’
‘I bet you do. When was the last time you people had real war?’
Ren wasn’t sure if the question was rhetorical or not. ‘The Under Dark war sir,’ he answered. ‘My people believed in maintaining the Compact that was formed during the war.’
‘The Under Dark?’ The beta laughed. ‘That was two hundred years ago. As for the Compact, what’s the point in it when the under races were annihilated?’
Ren refused to rise to the bait. It was an argument he couldn’t win without making the situation worse. ‘Sir, I couldn’t help but notice a problem with the men on the way in,’ he said, trying to change the subject.
‘A problem that you are going to add to. No one’s going to like taking orders from your kind,’ said the Beta angrily rising from behind his desk.
‘What problem would that be sir?’
‘Deserters, each night we lose a few more men,’ he said, skirting round the edge of his table and advancing towards Ren. As he moved, he reached out and picked up a large sparkling diamond from his desk. He held it up to the torch light, sending a prism of gas light splintering around the tent. It was by far the biggest jewel that Ren had ever seen. ‘We found a cavern, not so far from here, full of things like this; I had to pry this one from the wall. It’s too much temptation for lower classes like themselves, discipline counts for nothing against easy coin for a common zeta.’
‘Are you sure that’s where they are going?’ Ren asked. He could easily list the main faults of the Serillians: pride, hubris, aggression, were easily at the top. He would never have put greed on the list. He guessed it was a flaw of every race.
‘Oh I’m sure, and you are going to rectify the problem. Tomorrow you’ll take a couple of men and scout out that cave, bring me back a few deserters. Once we string up some of their former comrades, the rest will think twice before running.’
‘Why not just blow up the entrance? No one will think of going there once it’s been sealed.’
‘Why? Because with the treasure down there, we’ll be one step closer to winning the war.’
And you’ll have enough for an alpha’s commission, thought Ren, but didn’t dare speak.
In the morning the Serillian dragoons lined up beside their horses. Ren had to admit they looked impressive in their shimmering silver uniforms. They stood so perfectly still that they could have been a gallant set of steel sculptures.
‘Another five gone last night,’ reported the drill master.
‘Maybe they don’t like trees,’ shouted someone from within the ranks.
My first test thought Ren. ‘Who said that?’ He demanded, moving towards where the sound had come from. ‘Come, own up or it’ll be worse for all of you.’
‘The boys are just having some fun,’ said the beta, the once perfect ranks broke into sniggers. ‘Leave them be.’
Ren’s face went red with anger and he turned on the beta. But on seeing the Serillian’s face, he knew it was exactly what the man wanted. Let the Fern get angry, get him to strike a higher ranking officer, then he could be sent packing.
‘Yes sir,’ he answered as calmly as he could manage. The surprised look on Beta Ellian’s face was worth the effort.
‘I said it,’ announced a soldier emerging from the ranks. He was tall, even for a Serillian. His face, which could have once been handsome, had had its good looks beaten out of it long ago.
‘Very well,’ said Beta Ellian. ‘It seems you and the ceta here have some issues to be working out, you can join him on his mission today.’ He looked at the single black stripe on the side of the man’s uniform, ‘Zeta?’
‘Zeta Crim, sir.’
‘Good good, now, who else?’
‘I’ll volunteer sir,’ said another solider emerging from the ranks. It was the guard that Ren had encountered the night before. ‘Zeta Lint, sir.’
Beta Ellian looked puzzled for a moment, and then shrugged. ‘Very well. The two of you report to Ceta Ren after breakfast. The rest of you,’ he shouted to the ranks, ‘are dismissed.’
The three of them rode quickly toward the caverns with Zeta Lint leading the way. The young Serillian seemed keen to make up for his mistake the night before. Though Ren was Fern, he could have had the man hanged for assaulting an officer. Even Beta Ellian would have had to take a charge like that seriously. The person he was worried about was Crim. The man watched him coldly at all times and seemed to be waiting on Ren giving him an order that he could deliberately disobey. For his part Ren avoided telling him to do anything, but he couldn’t let the situation continue. He didn’t know much about soldiering, but not giving orders was not the way to be a good officer, he was pretty sure of that.
For the first time he realised that he did actually care about his own command. Before he had seen the whole war and the business of soldiering as a pointless endeavour. But now that he had a mission, he felt he had something to prove. If he could show Beta Ellian and the rest of the troops that he was a good commander, maybe his own race would fare better in the future. Had that been that alpha’s plan all along? Send him up to the mountains to the command of a beta that hates Ferns, to give him a challenge and something to prove? If that was his plan it seemed to working. Ren cursed himself for liking the man even more; it was hard not to respect the few leaders that seemed to be good at their jobs.
Lint was the first off his horse at the cavern entrance, the other two dismounting together and tying their horses beside his.
‘What’s that smell?’ Ren asked catching a sickly whiff of something in the air.
‘Blood,’ said Crim, not taking his eyes of the cave entrance. He seemed surprised, but Ren didn’t question him more than that. Preparing their muskets, they walked together towards the entrance. As they approached they could feel the cool air emanating from the within. Taking his first step on the water-carved steps, Ren felt the stickiness. Only then did he realise that the whole place was covered in blood. He turned to others, but he could see from their faces they had already noticed.
‘What’s that there?’ Lint asked, pointing to a long shape at the side of the wall. Ren bent down beside it and picked it up. On spotting the long Serillian fingers that drooped at one end, he threw the severed arm to the ground in disgust.
‘Did you have to fight your way into the caverns before?’ He asked. Lint shook his head.
‘Maybe the deserters had a fight over the treasure,’ Crim suggested, ‘greedy bastards. Maybe we should go back and report this to the officers.’
Ren turned on him.
‘I’m an officer damn you!’ He said.
‘Yeah, right, I forgot,’ answered Crim. Calming himself Ren moved on. This was no place to fight among themselves; he’d have to rely on Lint. But the defiant Serillian’s sentences played over again in his head. The man hadn’t said, ‘sir,’ he should have picked him up on that, but it was too late now.
They moved further into the cavern, not daring to light a torch in case it alerted any deserters within. Turning the first twist in the tunnel, they realised there was no need. As they walked into the first chamber they were amazed at the sparkling blue light emanating from the strange jewels that encrusted the whole wall. Only the series of severed bodies and limbs that littered the path distracted them from their awe.
Down the next passage is where the beta found the diamond,’ whispered Lint, ‘there was nothing else after that.’ Together they moved forward, through another dark passage and into the glow of then next chamber.
This room was even larger than the first, the jewels not just blue, but a spectrum of different colours that replicated natural daylight.
‘What the hell?’ Lint said striding across the room to another tunnel that led further down. ‘This passage wasn’t here before.’ He looked up to the rocky wall. ‘There,’ he said, pointing directly above the tunnel. ‘That’s where the beta took the diamond, think it could be connected?’
The others approached, but with a terrifying scream, Lint’s chest suddenly erupted, a large, black, serrated blade drove through his body from behind, sending a wave of metallic blood spilling onto the floor. His body was lifted effortlessly into the air and thrown casually to one side as the first of the creatures advanced. The others watched in horror as its solid black, mantis-like body came forward at an excited pace, its wild bladed arms, that hung loosely in front of it twitched with erratic anticipation.
‘Run!’ Ren shouted, already making his way toward the first chamber. But Crim stood frozen on the spot staring at the creature as it closed in on him. Not moving he watched with stupefied calm as the serrated arm rose to strike him down.
Ren turned, instinctively raising his musket and firing a haphazard shot. To his surprise, the side of the creature’s head exploded covering Crim in the shower of black liquid.
‘Zeta, move!’ Ren shouted, spotting further movements in the passage way. The Serillian came back to life, firing a wild shot into the dark tunnel before running after Ren at a panicked speed. Together they charged into the blue chamber, a nest of scuttling sounds swarming into their ears from the chamber below.
They emerged from the cavern together, running on foot a couple metres before Ren remembered their horses. He turned back to where they were tied, struggling to undo the knot as a horde of shimmering black shells erupted from the cavern entrance with a huge beetle-like creature leading the way. He jumped onto the horse, spurring it on while dragging the reins of another with him. The horse followed, allowing itself to be dragged along in the panic. The third horse was not so lucky. A smaller inky imp-like creature, much faster than the beetle once out of the cave, pounced on it, digging its fanged mouth into the horse’s flesh and dragging it to the ground. The others swarmed on it as well. Ren rode on as fast as he could cursing himself and wishing he had pulled the other animal with him as well.
He soon reached Crim who had managed to distance himself from the terror. The dead horse was providing a good distraction, and the creatures seemed slower in the sunlight. It bought them some time, but he didn’t doubt that they would be following them once their meal was finished.
‘Get on Zeta,’ he shouted, throwing the reigns to Crim.
‘Yes sir,’ replied the tall Serillian, clambering up onto the second horse. The words weren’t much, but it was a start. The man, head hung, looked on the verge of apology when they were distracted by the first round of volley-fire that came from the dragoon camp.
‘No time for that,’ said Ren, kicking his horse to a start, ‘ride!’
When they got to the camp, the battle was already under way; the numbers looked even. The Serillians, under a standard that looked like a ship’s wheel, had formed themselves up in to two long lines at the camp’s edge from where they fired on the advancing humans. The small men approached in three shorter lines, their own standard a ram’s head on a light blue background; it matched the colour of their uniforms. Row by row the blue-clad men fired, then advanced, fired then advanced. But it was not the impressive tactic that caught Ren’s eye, nor the gruesome looking standard, but the five huge Kalvians that trudged along behind them. The rocks were twice the size of the humans with no discernible facial features. Had it not been for the molten glow at the top of their heads, they could easily have been mistaken for humanesque looking boulders. None of the stone giants carried muskets; instead they opted for large rock hammers which were sure to be disastrous once they got into range.
His thought had been a premonition and he watched as the five hulking figures, plumes of coloured smoke rising from their heads, detached themselves from the ranks. They made their way around the outskirts of the human line, placing themselves between the human and Serillian fire. It was a disastrous plan. The humans were no longer able to shoot for fear of hitting their own allies, the Serllians having the freedom to fire at will at the advancing hulks.
The rock men were tough targets, most of the musket shots ricocheting of their solid bodies, but every so often a well-aimed shot would pierce through their stone mantel, magmatic blood viscously seeping from the growing wounds.
As the Kalvians reached the humans lines, the Serillians fixed bayonets and met the disastrous charge. Within moments the first of the silver uniforms were sent flying by the huge rock hammers that swung effortlessly thought the lines. The others looked ready to break, but Beta Ellian screamed at the line to hold firm. To Ren’s surprise they did.
Then the first Kalvian fell, moving slower and slower as the lava dripped from the punctures in its rocky exteriors, before collapsing amid the Serillian ranks. Despite the tremendous damage they had done, it didn’t look like they would survive the charge. But as the humans, their own bayonets fixed, charged in behind, it looked as if their sacrifice had not been in vain; the battle was over.
‘We should attack,’ said Crim.
Ren shook his head. ‘We’d just be joining the other bodies down there. Better that we get news back that the pass has fallen. You ride, take the news, I’ll stay behind and try and round up any survivors.’ The other man was about to argue when they heard the scuttling. It started behind the humans, rising up in a crescendo of beastly screams. Those in the battle didn’t hear, but the two men watching to one side did. They stared in dumbfounded terror as the huge shimmering black bodies charged over the hill, screaming at speed into the backs of the unprepared men who fought in the chaotic carnage.
The Mantis creatures seemed the most deadly by far. In a set of swift swooping strikes, human heads were cut cleanly from their bodies, the torsos standing in confusion for a moment before dropping lifelessly to the ground. The human commander fell to such a strike. The other black creatures were no less deadly; the small imps were ferocious and fast. Ren watched as one dived over the heads of several humans and onto a surprised Serillian, whose throat was torn victoriously by the fanged creature. Even the Kalvians were not immune. The large beetle, who alone seemed unique in the dark ranks, charged a Kalvian, smashing into his outer crust and crushing it inwards. The molten blood spilled from the rupture on to the other creature’s head, dissolving it with a hiss of sulphurous steam as it did so.
Ren caught sight of Beta Ellian as he tried to flee, something that looked like a giant cockroach flying onto his back and dragging him to ground. He never saw what happened after that, he didn’t need to know.
‘Go Zeta,’ ordered Ren, loading his musket.
‘No sir,’ replied Crim, ‘It’s not personal this time, but no.’
‘Bloody hell,’ replied the Fern, ‘Come on then.’
They closed into the edge of the battle, finding a fallen trunk. They took position behind it, Ren’s features taking on the forest colours and tones as he did so.
‘This is as good a place as any,’ he said, taking aim with his musket and shooting down a long legged insect that was about to pounce on a fleeing human. The man turned to him.
‘To me!’ Ren shouted as loudly as he could. The man hesitated for a moment seeing Crim stationed beside him, and then decided to take his chances. He jumped behind the log and prepared his own musket. ‘Dragoons to me!’ Ren yelled as loudly as he could, but none of them could hear him over the screams and fighting.
‘The standard,’ said Crim pointing at the fallen flag that lay at the battles edge. Ren didn’t wait, clambering over the trunk and into the chaos.
‘Cover me!’ He ordered as he darted forward, shooting down a nearby imp that looked ready to pounce. Instead of reloading, he grabbed the bayonet from his waist and screwed it into place. With Crim and the human covering him, he soon fought his way to the fallen dragoon standard; the human standard lay next to it. Tossing his musket over his shoulder, he raised them both, one in each hand, and ran for the log where the others sheltered. But a mantis rose up in front on him, lunging instantly at him. Weakly he parried the darting blades that thrust at him with the standards in his hands, but the creature was faster and stronger than he was. He was ready to drop the flags when a hammer smashed into the creature’s head exploding it into a mush as it did so. He looked up at the large rock face; he didn’t know if it looked back. ‘Dragoons, humans, Kalvians to me!’ He shouted again running back to the trunk and stabbing both standards into the ground behind it. Seeing the standards, others ran towards them, drawn to the beacon of order in the dark chaos of battle. The more men they gathered, the more came to them. Soon they had close to forty soldiers. All were injured in some way or another, but between them they were able to keep up a sustained barrage of fire into the inky creatures that, disorganised as they were, were unable to fight their way in past the torrent of bullets. An impish creature jumped from the chaos over the barrage and onto one of Serillians.
‘Hold the line!’ Ren yelled, thrusting his bayonet into a creature and pulling the bleeding soldier to his feet. ‘Hold the line!’
To his surprise, at his command, they held for a further twenty minutes. They barraged the strange enemy with shot, not daring to let them get closer or break the line. When the last one fell with a screaming hiss, a cheer rose from the men, only to be replaced by a sudden distrust of the people they had just fought beside. Ren looked at the soldiers, hoping to catch sight of another officer, but he was the only one remaining.
‘You all did well,’ he called, trying to take charge of the situation. His head tallied the numbers as he did so. Less than forty men remaining, along with two Kalvians. Not a single one remained unwounded. ‘I know you’re not sure about each other, but we’re not out of this mess yet. We have to stick together if we want to survive.’ But the words he dreaded rose up from the ranks.
‘Why the hell should be we listen to you, tree?’ One of the Serillians asked bitterly. The man had a large gash over on eye.
Ren was about to argue, but Crim got there first. ‘Shut the hell up,’ he shouted viciously. ‘He just saved you, all of you. You’d have been food for those monsters, if he hadn’t organised things. So just bloody well listen to the officer and we might get out of this mess yet.’ The other man fell silent and no one dared further protest.
‘Right,’ said Ren, ‘thank you.’
Suddenly he was aware of shadow as a large Kalvian stood over him. A scholarly looking human stood beside the rock, several odd little pouches filled the man’s belt.
‘Excuse me,’ started the human, looking nervous in front of the others. ‘The Kalvians wish to say something.’ Ren nodded fearing what was coming next. They both turned to the Kalvian, an array of colours rising from its head. ‘First of all, he and his men would like to say thank you.’ He turned back to the Kalvian, more plumes rose. ‘He wants to know if you realise what those creature were?’ Ren, unsure where he should speak to, looked at the Kalvian’s faceless head.
‘They came from cavern near here, but I don’t really know.’
The little human nodded and opening his pouches started throwing sprinkles of coloured salts in to the air. The Kalvian responded with its own coloured smoke. ‘He says they are the creatures of the under dark,’ responded the human doubtfully.
‘But I thought we annihilated all of them in the under dark war?’
The human translated in sprinkles and waited on a response. ‘He says, he was there, he remembers quite clearly,’ the scholar said, then added, ‘Kalvians live a rather long time you know.’
‘So then we need to destroy the cavern, seal them in so that they can’t get out? Then we can get word to the armies, maybe we can stop the war, renew the Compact.’
The human translated and further Kalvian emissions followed. ‘He says it’s not that simple. He says, though I’m not sure of my translation on this one, that under dark does not exist underground, but in another place all together. The numerous entrances were sealed by a series of stones.’
‘The diamond, the beta’s diamond. He took it from the cavern, maybe putting it back in place can seal them back in?’
The translator stopped, looking around for a moment. ‘I’m out of black, can someone lend me some gun powder.’ Ren found his own pouch and handed it to the man, who mixed it with other colours and threw it into the air. The Kalvian stood lifeless for a time before a montage of colours rose again. ‘They think it might work, though he says they are soldiers not shamans. But if it did work, it would only be a temporary fix. If the under dark has repopulated, then the seals will all fail in time.’
‘Ok men,’ said Ren, turning on the ranks. ‘I know you’re cut up, I know you’re tired, but what we faced was just a first wave. If we don’t get that diamond back into place, then by night fall those things are going to be swarming all over these mountains. If you leave now, then yes, there is a chance you will make it home and that you will live, but it won’t be long before a new war comes to you. Not neat little solders lining up in tidy lines, but beasts, raiding your home, slaughtering your families, I’m sure you were raised on stories of the Under Dark wars, just as I was. We get this diamond into place we give our people time. A chance to bring back the Compact, renew the old alliance, only then are we going to have a chance against these hordes. But I’m not a “real” officer, I’m not even from the same army as half of you. If you want to return to your own people, I’ll not stand in your way.’
For a moment he waited in dreaded silence. Not a single man moved. ‘Very well then, thank you. Get yourselves bandaged up and rearmed, we leave in an hour.’
Together he went with Crim to the beta’s former tent. It seemed strange to think that the man who had so recently lived there was now dead.
‘Will you look at that,’ said Crim picking up the diamond from the desk. Beta Ellian had not been concerned with thieves; no Serillian would dare rob a beta. ‘We could run away with this and be rich men until the hordes arrived. You really believe that putting this thing back is going to stop them?’
‘The Kalvians said it would.’
‘They said it might, like they said, they’re not shamans.’
‘We have to give it a try, what’s the other choice?’
The other man nodded. Then gathering courage from within himself asked, ‘There is no choice for us, but why are you doing it?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean what do your people get from it? What do you get from it? So what if some humans and Serillians are killed on a distant island?’
‘If the paths to the under dark open, Ferns are going to be affected as much as anyone. The last war showed everyone that we can’t do it on our own; the sooner the Compact is back in place, the more chance we have of defeating these things in the long run.’
‘I see,’ replied the Serillian with a respectful nod.
‘Crim, I need you to do something for me. You’re a good soldier, but you know the cavern, you know more about it that anyone else here. I need you to ride to the alpha, I need you to tell him what’s happening here. I’m sending a human back to his own people as well. It’ll take a long time for the war to stop, you know the politicians, we have to begin now while there is still time.’
The Serillian watched him for a moment while rolling the large diamond in his hands.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘as long as you’re not ordering me, I’ll do it. I hate to be taking orders from a tree.’ They stood in silence for a second, before they both burst out laughing.
The riders left them before they made their way to the caverns. Ren led the way, a soldier from each army standing at his side. The Kalvians had offered to lead the assault but while he was sure they’d be fine in the chambers, they’d be little use in the linking passages.
‘Keep them at distance,’ he had told the men, ‘the Kalvians can deal with any that get close.’ He had entrusted the diamond with one of the rock men. The slot where the diamond would have to be placed was high above the entrance, even a Serillian would struggle to reach it without help.
They made their way through to the blue chamber without trouble. Ren with a group of twenty of the least injured led the way. The Kalvian with the diamond would come after, the others would be there to reinforce them, or hold a defensive line should they need to fall back quickly.
‘What’s that?’ The human beside him asked, hearing a scuttling from the depths.
‘What do you think it is?’ The Serillian said on his other side. The human’s face became a mask of anger and he looked ready to lash out.
‘Stay with it, both you,’ scolded Ren, ‘we know they’re down there, we know it’s not going to be easy.’ They both nodded grudgingly, before mumbling apologies to each other.
Once the Kalvian with the diamond was in the blue chamber, they started moving forward again leading the men carefully into the second bright chamber. This time it was not empty, a mantis and an imp waited inside, together picking at what remained of Lint’s corpse. The Imp looked up at them wickedly and the mantis gave out a terrifying scream. It wasn’t going to be the quick stealth operation Ren had been hoping for.
‘Form line!’ he yelled at the top of his voice, lunching a shot at the imp. It only grazed its arm, but a second shot from the human brought it down. Not wanting to be outdone the Serillian fired a well aimed shot into the body of the mantis, not enough to kill it, but the soldiers lining up beside him were able to finish the job.
The twenty of them stood watching the passage, the room filled with complete, deadly silence. Then the scuttling sound rose from the depths.
‘Get the Kalvian in here,’ yelled Ren, the sound got even louder. ‘Get everyone in here, we’re going to need them.’ As his sentence finished a beetle, much larger than the first that had killed the Kalvian, pushed its way with a scream out of the opening.
‘Make ready!’ Ren commanded, taking aim with his own weapon. ‘Fire!’ The volley rang out echoing through the cave, the acrid smoke rising up in their faces. The Beetle was down, its body filled with a dozen dribbling little holes where the shot had torn through it. ‘Reload!’ The black creatures behind were already shoving the corpse out of the passage way. ‘Make Ready!’ The Kalvian was in the room, standing behind Ren with a heavy hammer in one hand, diamond in the other. The wounded poured into the room behind it, forming a second line of muskets behind the first. It didn’t leave them a fallback, but with the sounds coming from the tunnel they were going to need all the fire power they had.
When the beetle was shoved free, black creatures, a whole new array of mixed insects and fiends, poured into the chamber. Ren looked down the passage, there seemed to be no end to the creatures inside.
‘First rank fire!’ He ordered. The shots blazed out, taking down a series of bodies that collapsed to the ground. More took their place. ‘Second rank, make ready!’ The first row ducked down to reload their weapons, allowing the wounded to take a shot, ‘Fire!’ Again the volley tore through the creatures only for more to take their place. It wasn’t going to work, they had to get closer. ‘Reload! First rank, make ready, Fire!’
He remembered the way the humans had been fighting. ‘Second line advance!’ He called. The humans who knew what they were doing moved forward and took positions, the Serillians getting the idea followed after. ‘Make ready!’ The muskets rose. ‘Fire! First line advance.’ Soon they were moving closer and closer towards the passageway, managing to hold the creatures in place as they did so. But he could see the men were wounded and tired. How long could they keep firing, how long before their powder ran out? He’d have to take the risk. He waved to the Kalvian who, diamond in hand, charged with heavy steps towards the passage way. ‘Hold your fire!’ shouted Ren, fearing that Kalvian would be hit.
The heavy stone ran forward, making it all the way to the passage entrance, smashing the creatures that got in the way with its bulbous hammer. It was just reaching up to place the diamond into the hole, when a large insect with sharp tusks charged out of the tunnel, ramming into the Kalvians chest, shattering the front of its body. The volcanic blood spilled from the dead Kalvian into the passageway, burning the tusked insect along with any other of the creatures that came close.
Ren didn’t wait, he charged forward into the passageway. His men followed him, picking off the few insects that made it past the burning lava unscathed. He vaulted onto the Kalvian’s lifeless body and running up its back, grabbed the diamond from its hands and shoved it into place.
At first there was nothing, a stillness, as it seemed even the creatures of the under dark waited to see what would happen. Then the earth shook, not a small tremor like they had felt in the past few months, but a full earthquake. The tunnel where the creatures were coming from was the first to collapse, rocks tumbling down from the walls smashing the crisp insectoid bodies below.
‘Run!’ Ren shouted, grabbing one of the wounded soldiers and dragging him towards the exit. The soldiers didn’t need to be told twice, each jostling as quickly as they could towards the blue chamber.
Ren followed on last down the passage, the walls already cracking as he made his way through it. A large boulder fell from the ceiling as he entered the blue chamber, just missing him by a few perilous centimetres. He kept running and soon the light of day was in sight. With a last rush of effort, he pushed his way out of the cavern into the fresh warm air, the tunnels collapsing in behind him as he went.
He lay flat on the ground for a moment. His lungs were choked with smoke, his body wounded from the falling shards, but at least the earth had stopped shaking, or at least he thought it had. Lying against the ground, he could feel a small rumbling coming from somewhere. Then he realised, not another earthquake, but horses.
‘Form line!’ He shouted instinctively and pushed himself painfully to his feet. The men looked perplexed though none thought to disobey, even the single remaining Kalvian and his translator, moved in with the others as the riders came into view. There were many of them. Lines of silver uniformed dragoons formed the bulk of the force with light and heavy cavalry riding on each side. There had to be more than five hundred of them in total. The first line pulled up in front of his own little line of soldiers. He expected the Serillians in his lines to return to their own people, but they never moved.
A tall familiar figure dismounted and walked forward calmly in front of the line of muskets. It was the regal nosed alpha, Crim stood beside him and for the first time that day, Ren relaxed a little.
‘Seems we came to late,’ mused the Alpha, examining the collapsed cavern behind Ren. ‘Beta Ellian sent riders telling us that he needed some reinforcement, we ran into your own man on the way.’ He motioned to Crim. ‘Man speaks well of you, you’ll be glad to hear.’
‘Thank you sir,’ said Ren suddenly remembering to stand to attention.
‘I’ve already sent word back about this new under dark problem. If it’s true, the war will soon be over and the Compact renewed, though the politicians will take a while; they always do. For the time being I’ve sent word to the humans offering a armistice until we can investigate. Which means your human soldiers are free to return home, after cleaning up and getting some food of course. You’ve done a good job. Hopefully your company here is an example of what is to come. Now fall out Beta Ren, go and get a rest.’
Her hand moved, skimming across the surface of his skin and circling his nipples. She stroked the hair on his chest in a clawing movement before spreading her fingers wide and moving down to his naval. His body reacted and he was surprised to find that he could manage another erection. He did think he had ever managed a third time before.
Greg looked at her. Her pretty, petite body was perfect. Her dark hair hung down onto her lightly tanned skin. Even the freckles on her body seemed to accentuate her features.
He knew it was a fantasy. What man paid and didn’t know? But for a time at least, he wanted to believe that she was really his. He wanted to imagine that a girl like this would really be possible for a man like him.
“You’re thinking too much,” said Tiffany looking straight into his eyes and for a moment all his doubts were forgotten. She really was his. It only lasted a moment, but he started to wonder. Could there be more to this than a cash transaction? Was she just that good or could there really be something between them?
His thoughts had interrupted his body’s intentions. There would be no third time tonight. Instead he pulled her close, so that she was lying with her head on his chest with his arm around her. This was what he really needed more than anything else. This was what was missing from his life. The sex was just physical, he needed contact. Contact with someone real.
The next day at the office he couldn’t stop thinking about her. Her perfume seemed to linger on his finger tips and he could almost taste her lips as he breathed. As he thought of them entwined together he began to get aroused. He stayed sitting in his chair and pretended to be doing something with his tablet and hoped that no one would notice. But rather than feeling embarrassed, as he knew he should be, he instead felt an excitement that he hadn’t in years.
There had been that on and off thing with the office girl that had come to nothing. Then his morning obsession with the girl on the hyper-rail that he always tried to sit near. But something about Tiffany was more than that. There was real contact. A physical and emotional connection.
The sight of his ageing face reflected on his tablet screen brought doubts.
“Don’t make a fool of yourself,” he said to himself. “You’re just asking for disappointment.” But even then the possibility lingered and he found himself checking up on his bank account to see if he could afford another trip the same evening. He couldn’t, at least not without sacrificing some of his savings. He would just have to adjust his spending to make up for it.
She looked surprised to see him, but not displeased. She welcomed him into her bed and they made love. It wasn’t sex it was making love, he was sure of that now.
“I wish I could take you away from here,” he whispered as they lay together afterwards.
“Take me where?”
“Anywhere you like,” he said. Then realised on his bank balance that wouldn’t be possible. But it was just a fantasy she was playing along with, or was it?
“Tiffany, can I ask you something?” asked Greg
“Of course you can,” she said, stroking his hair.
“Do you have feelings?”
“You mean, do I have feelings for you?” she asked. She hadn’t backed away, that was a good sign at least.
“Well sort of, but I just mean in general. Can you really feel anything or are you just programmed to react to certain inputs?” It was the first time he had seen her look upset and he felt a gnawing in his stomach. Had he blown it, was that it? “I’m sorry,” he said, “its just…”
“You want to know the truth?” asked Tiffany.
“Yes, if you want to tell me,” he answered.
“The truth is I don’t really know. I think I feel, is that enough? What about you can you feel?” she asked. Her question surprised him.
“Of course,”he said
“But how do you know?” she asked.
“Well I just….”
“I mean how do you know that you are not just a biological computer programmed to respond to certain inputs.”
He paused, uncertain how to answer. “You’re right,” he said, combing back her hair with his hand “I’ve never thought of it like that. I’m sorry I didn’t mean to… you know.”
“It’s okay. I’m used to people asking. I just thought that you would know.” She looked away.
“How I felt about you. How I thought you felt about me.” Had she said what he thought she was saying? Did she mean that she loved him?
“Tiffany, I want to take you away from this place. I want you to come home with me.”
She looked back at him, but there was fear in her eyes now and she shook her head. “It doesn’t work like that. You know I’m not like you. They paid for me here. I’m their property. They wouldn’t allow it.”
“I’ll talk to them, maybe I could come to some arrangement with them,” he said. As he spoke he was already getting dressed. “It’ll be okay, I promise.”
Greg found another pretty young woman managing the reception area. He guessed that she was also an android, but didn’t want to offend one way or the other.
“Could I speak to the manager please,” he asked.
“Is there maybe something I could help you with Sir?” she asked giving him a suggestive look.
“I mean..” he started, “I want… I would like to know, it is possible to buy one of the girls.” The words sounded strange, but at least he had said it.
“Sir, you can have any girl you like, or maybe two? Each girl costs 70 Euros per evening, plus an additional fee if…..”
“No I mean I want to buy her. Fully buy her. So I can take her home with me.”
The girl looked confused. “I think you are right, let me get the manager for you.”
The manager, he was sure, was a “real” person. She was tall, even beautiful in her own way, but age had begun to creep into her life and it was clear she was fighting a losing battle.
“I’ve heard you wanted to buy one of our girls outright,” she said, looking down her nose at him.
“That’s right, Tiffany. I would like to buy Tiffany.” The woman paused for a moment, and seemed to be factoring every asset of Greg into some calculation.
“You do realise that she is a robot, don’t you?”
“I am aware of the fact, yes,” he said and she let out a long sigh.
“I know our models seem real, but they are nothing more that machines. Please don’t get caught up in the fantasy sir, it’s not good for anyone.”
“Look, I understand. But is she for sale.”
“Sir,” she said, raising her voice a little, “this is a brothel, people come for some entertainment. Would you go into a bar and ask to take the band home? Or go to a zoo and try and buy the penguins?”
“The way I see it, it’s quite different from that,” he said.
“Let me guess, she gave you some story about feeling emotions and how humans just act on biological responses, am I right?”
He didn’t need to answer. The dawn of uncertainty on his face said it all.
“Not to worry sir, it happens more than you think. Now I suggest you go enjoy yourself for a while and put these thoughts aside for now.” She didn’t wait for his response.
He walked home rather than taking the hyper-rail. It would take a long time, but he didn’t mind, he needed time to think.
He had been so certain about her. She had seemed too real. It was like she was an actress that had got out of character for him. He knew which was the stage figure and which was the one behind the make-up. Was that all part of the programming as well? It just seemed different. Maybe the manager herself didn’t know, maybe she was afraid to admit that they were more than just machines. After all it would make her little more than a slave trader if the opposite were true.
No, Tiffany was for real and he was going to get her back. But Tiffany, how could he get her out of there? Could he break in one morning and whisk her away to some far away place where the brothel couldn’t find her? The second part maybe, but not the first. He was no master thief. He couldn’t even pick a lock.
Maybe he could offer money. Maybe that was the solution, offer so much that they couldn’t say no. He took out his tablet and searched for pricing. Even not counting the android licence that he didn’t have, it would still cost about more than double of what he had in the bank.
A flashing sign to one side caught his eye:
Quick loans in a flash
He had an idea. He could use the cash he had to take out a loan and that would maybe give him enough, to make an offer on Tiffany. Once she was free then they could run. They wouldn’t have to go far. Maybe another city, or cross the border into one of the other European states. Austria! He’d always wanted to go to there. And he was sure he could find a job. It didn’t have to pay great, it just had to pay enough.
The lenders made him think twice about his plan. Two brothers, both built like army commandos ran the place. They seemed to have no need for hired muscle. They had enough of their own to go round. Greg thought about them coming after him. If they were to catch him it wouldn’t be a pretty business, he didn’t doubt. Still he negotiated a deal, telling them that his brother had been caught sick abroad and needed some emergency cash for medical treatment and a fare to get him home. He played up his desperation, his nervousness helped.
After confirming his job and salary, the brothers agreed to the financing for a half his earnings from each pay check over the next year. He had to confirm the electronic billing that would automatically remove it from his salary. It would result in more than 300 % of what he was borrowing. Greg pretended to make a fuss and tried to make a show of negotiating a better deal. In the end he would accept whatever they offered. The brothers didn’t bother with any threats about non-payment. It was implied along the way.
With cash in hand he returned to the brothel. This time he would not be swayed. This time he wasn’t leaving without her.
When he entered the place the manager was already at the desk. There was no sign of the younger girl and Greg wondered if she had found a customer.
“So you’ve decided to have some fun then Sir?” she said with a condescending smile.
“No,” he said, trying to muster up a commanding voice. “I want to buy her.”
“Sir, I’ve told you, she’s just a robot. Besides we can’t sell anyone, we don’t have a license for that kind of thing. I doubt you have a licence to buy one either. Do you think women of this country are going to stand by and let anyone own one? A brothel in the dark side of town is one thing. Having one move into the neighbourhood is quite another.”
He didn’t argue. He was already prepared. He took out half the cash he had borrowed and placed it on the table without saying a word. The manager stared at the money and Greg was glad they’d paid it in middle sized bills. It made it look more than it really was.
She hesitated. It was good sign.“There would be… administrative fees.”said the manager.
He placed another wad onto the pile. “It’s all I have,” he said. Keeping the other notes stashed in his pockets. It would be a long journey, there would be no direct route to Vienna for them and his bank account would be far too traceable.
“You sure you want to do this?” she asked. “There’s no refunds a week later.”
“I am absolutely sure,” said Greg.
The woman shook her head in way that said, if you want to be an idiot, it’s not my problem. “Go get her then”, she said.
Greg ran to the room where he knew he would find Tiffany. When she opened the door her eyes opened wide with delight.
“You came back!” she said. “I thought it would be months before I saw you again.”
He got down on one knee in front of her. “Tiffany,” he said, “I spoke to the manager and she’s agreed to let you come with me. It won’t be an easy road, we’ll have to travel far, but will you come with me? Will you be my wife?”
There was a hesitation and for a second he was sure she was going to say no.
“Of course I’ll come with you,” she said, bending down to kiss him. “I’ll go anywhere you want to take me.”
It was two days later when the delivery van arrived at the brothel. They carted two large boxes into the reception where the manager was waiting for them.
“Another two Tiffany models for you,” said one of the delivery men. “What happened to the other three you ordered last month?”
“Two of them ran off with the clients,” the manager said with a smile.
“Another two, that’s a total of what, eleven in six months?” he asked. “Maybe you should report it as a fault. It must cost you a fortune to keep replacing them.”
“Not at all boys,” she said. “It’s been quite lucrative actually. You’d be amazed at what you men would pay for love. Care for a free trail? On the house of course.” She waved the two of them into the bed rooms as she cut open one of the boxes to look at the perfect petite body.
“Don’t you feel bad, letting them run off with some sex toy and letting them think it’s love?” asked the driver, as he reached the door that led into the bedrooms.
“Whatever makes people happy boys,” she said, “whatever makes them happy.”