The leaders of the various factions that remain to resist the Imaia have finally decided to meet and discuss an alliance in hopes of escaping their dying world.
They brought Estingai and Svemakuu, children of their former Champion, the legendary Kojatere who faced down the God King himself. Hopefully, the meeting will go smoothy, and they won't need either warrior's skills to defend them...
C. 7 years, 2 months until projected Exodus Date.
C. 5 years, 1 month, 32 days, 28 hours since the Destruction of Yrmuunthal
To find a way off their dying world before time ran out, the leaders of the six remaining factions of the Efruumani Confederacy had gathered in secret to discuss allegiances and solutions.
That meeting was not going well.
The very idea of the meeting itself provided cause for tension, but that had only grown since the faction leaders and their respective aides had arrived. Everyone had removed their masks, as well. That didn’t bother Estingai, but she knew it made Svemakuu and the other Samjati a bit more on edge. The gesture was one of vulnerability and trust, reserved for family and loved ones. This was not a family. Estingai, at least, could blame most of her own nerves on the meeting’s location: a cave far beneath the ground, connected to the surface only by kilometers of dark, twisting tunnels and lava tubes.
Estingai hated caves.
The meeting chamber contained no furnishings, no hooks from which to hang lanterns, and no refreshments. Just the round, metal table with foldable legs they’d brought with them. The commanders and their aides—each standing a step or two behind their respective faction leader—stood around it in the center of the room. They all wore clean and well-maintained clothing, if a bit worn, but Narvyk’s coat was the closest thing any of them had to a uniform. The armor and weapons they carried made them look even more haphazard. Most were family heirlooms, or had been scavenged, or looted off the bodies of Imaia soldiers they’d killed. Estingai and her husband Svemakuu wore ensembles composed of all three.
Estingai almost barked a bitter laugh as she realized that the one thing unifying all of them was their lack of any uniform or visual unity.
That and our desperation.
“We can’t spare any more personnel to send to Darkside, Tepjo,” Narvyk, head of the Ironpeak faction, said. He rubbed his forehead between his antlers, squeezing his golden eyes shut for a moment before continuing; his broad shoulders looked bowed as he did so. “With the Imaia sending people there now and working on those railways of theirs, there’s just too much risk.”
“He’s right,” Kogen said.
The Stormswind commander often made Estingai think of a younger, angrier version of Narvyk. Both men were solid, though even discounting his antlers, Kogen stood half-a-hand taller with wider shoulders and a thicker chest.
Kogen continued, deep voice echoing off the chamber’s walls, “Raids on supplies the Imaia trains to and from those locations, however—”
“We’re not here to talk about lightless raids,” Estingai grumbled half to herself, half to her husband, who stood beside her.
Estingai blinked when she realized Kogen had stopped talking and looked up to find all six commanders, including Raima, the head of Estingai’s own faction, Frozen Phantom, staring at her. She resisted the urge to bite her lip under those gazes. This wasn’t the first time she’d spoken her thoughts louder than she’d meant to.
“Reign in your Fireborn, Raima,” Kogen said, firm tone augmented by his deep voice and the stone walls of their chosen chamber.
Estingai shut her mouth but did not drop her eyes. She even met Kogen’s dark gaze.
“Estingai,” Raima warned.
Estingai shifted her gaze to the wall behind the Stormswind commander. If the soft glow of Auroralight from everyone’s gemcrests and the Auroralanterns had been brighter, Estingai would have been able to see her reflection in it. Instead, the obsidian walls were black mirrors, turning the shimmering lights into suggestions of specters waiting just out of sight.
Estingai clenched her fists.
I hate caves. And tunnels. And lightless underground chambers deep beneath the earth.
Something brushed her gauntleted hand, and Estingai glanced to her right to catch a faint grin from Svemakuu. Estingai barely hid her smile. They wouldn’t hold hands during a meeting like this, but if they stood close enough to one another that their hands touched, so be it.
“What are they even doing here, Raima?” Tepjo grumbled, gesturing toward Estingai and her husband, “I thought this meeting was leadership and only a single aide to reduce the risk of word getting out like it did last time.”
The leader of the Icevein faction was a solid man with a slight paunch and just enough fat under his narrow chin to give him a round, ruddy face.
Estingai wondered, not for the first time, how Tepjo had claimed leadership of his faction. Most of her friends that served under the man were hardy, hard-working people, while Tepjo seemed the type who would delegate any task given to him he didn’t enjoy or believe would benefit him.
Vila, commander of Last Shadow, and the only faction leader that had worn full, if mismatched, armor, snorted. “Why do you think, Tepjo?”
Vila’s voice dripped with contempt as she continued, “The Knights Reborn—Matsanga, Aiteperit, Kojatere, Suulehep—they’re all gone. Estingai and Svemakuu are the only Knights we have left—the last of that legacy. They are the only ones left who give us anything near the edge they gave us against the Imaia. Our people—all of our people—see them as heroes. They deserve to be here.”
Tepjo’s jaw bunched. He looked about to say something.
“I also have good ideas now and then,” Svemakuu said before the Icevein leader got the chance, “and Estingai’s pretty good in a fight.”
Tepjo and Kogen glared at Svemakuu, as did the aides both had brought along.
He just grinned at them. He did that a lot.
That dimpled grin—and those golden eyes of his—had gotten him out of just as much trouble as they got him into.
It got him me.
After getting him in trouble with her first, of course. She’d nearly killed him.
Estingai had always considered Svemakuu too handsome for his own good, even when he wasn’t grinning. It had grown even worse when he’d started growing facial hair—a neat beard that gave his angular jaw a silver trim. He kept his large, fan-like antlers in good condition, and his skin was just the right shade of light blue that it never seemed to tint the twelve colors of the glowing gemcrest atop his brow. At the moment, his face bore the dark tint of his blacknodes. As an Iceborn, that pair of biogems allowed him to conceal any use of Auroramancy by those at the table should an Imaia piercer pass above looking for signs of them.
Estingai kept the blacknodes of her own gemcrest bright as well. Her Fireborn gemcrest allowed her to sense nearby Auroramancy as a piercer or seeker would, though her armored jacket concealed their light.
“Thank you, Svemakuu,” Raima said, tone neutral as she gave both him and Estingai pointed looks before turning back to the other commanders.
“I brought them along, Tepjo, because if the Imaia does somehow find out about this meeting and send Lightforged to deal with us, Estingai and Svemakuu are the only people we have that have proven they can each take on multiple Lightforged and come out alive.”
Estingai grimaced. They’d done that a few times together, but Estingai hoped she never had to face one of those horrible creatures again.
“If we can get back to the purpose of this meeting?” Narvyk said, “which, as Estingai pointed out, is not to discuss raids but combining our resources to find a way off this dying world before it’s too late. Mylora, do your people have any leads?”
Mylora, leader of Nightstone, looked around the table. She seemed to hesitate for a moment, then sighed. “I have, unfortunately, decided to put a stop to our efforts to find some way to preserve Efruumani with georaural technology. Even if we could find the correct techniques to hold the world locked between Myrskaan and the sun, or find enough biogems and spirits to create the amount of georaurals necessary to do so, we believe we would need to build structures in orbit for them to be of any use. The resources spent testing are too cost—”
Tepjo sniffed, cutting the woman off. “We should put those georaurals to work increasing the output of Icevein’s lowlight farms and gardens. Bonde’s death gave us the perfect cover to lie low and make Atonga think they’ve broken us. They eliminated the driving force behind the extremist elements, and as long as Vila and her people can keep themselves under control, Atonga will forget we exist. We can wait them out and reclaim Efruumani once they’ve left.”
Vila stiffened, glaring at Tepjo, her voice as cold as Darkside’s wastes.
“Unfortunately, the rest of us don’t have the luxury of an alternate reality, Icevein.”
She spat the last word.
Tepjo just shook his head, then looked around at all of them with an insufferable, patronizing grin.
Estingai’s jaw bunched.
“You all seriously believe that Imaia propaganda?”
The leather of Estingai’s gauntlets creaked as she clenched her fists.
“It’s just a tool they used to scare people into their ranks and turn them against us,” Tepjo continued. “Now they just keep it up to—”
Estingai slammed her hands down on the table, cutting off the Icevein commander.
“Propaganda?” she grated. “Are you really that stupid? The oruu are gone. I haven’t seen a single spirit in over a cycle. Not to mark the passing of the hours, not to signal the auroras or holidays, not to dance with the flames of our fires. Darkside is now near-uninhabitable without heating technology and regular supply shipments, even for former natives. The Imaia has lost farmland outside of Mjatafa Mwonga. Do you really think the Imaia has somehow managed all of that as mere propaganda? You—”
Raima did not shout, yet her voice had the effect of a cracked whip.
Estingai snapped her mouth shut but did not break eye contact with the Icevein commander. As she took her hands off the table, she felt the heat of the metal table through her leather gloves. Estingai kept herself from showing her chagrin as she dimmed the pair of violet biogems on the gemcrest at her collarbone. She hadn’t brightened them much, otherwise she might have turned the table to slag or sent a wave of flames across it.
“While Estingai spoke out of turn, her words ring true, Commander Tepjo,” Raima said, looking around the table. “Even if the end of the world was merely Imaia propaganda, the Imaia’s efforts in building their massive city of Mjatafa Mwonga and their methods of fleeing to the stars have stripped Efruumani of much of its resources. Even if we did not have patrols to keep us underground and in the shadows, what hunting and foraging parties we send out bring back less and less every time, and nearly half of our people cannot walk in the sun without needing to cover their bodies and faces. If you cannot agree that the world is in fact ending, or at least agree to work with us knowing that we all hold that as the paramount threat, you might as well leave now and see how well your lowlight farms serve Icevein once Efruumani loses its stability and starts hurtling into the sun.”
Tepjo snorted, folding his arms. “You won’t last long enough to escape Efruumani without the food Icevein’s farms produce.”
Estingai’s jaw bunched as the cavern’s stuffy air grew thick with tension. She primed her greynodes and violetnodes, ready to act at the first sign of violence.
Svemakuu barked a laugh.
Estingai jumped—as did a few of the commanders—then looked at her husband, eyes wide.
What in darkness…?
As Estingai studied Svemakuu, however, she caught a glint of something familiar in his eyes. She relaxed, if only a little.
“Something funny, Svemakuu?” Raima asked.
“Of course,” he said, shooting her a wide grin before he looked to Tepjo, “I’m sorry that I’m the only one here that appreciates your humor, Commander Icevein.”
Svemakuu nodded. “That bit about the end of the world being nothing more than Imaia propaganda and threatening to deny us access to the food Icevein farms produce. That was a joke, wasn’t it?”
Svemakuu paused just long enough for Tepjo to open his mouth, then continued before the man could speak.
“It must have been a joke,” he said, a bit of the mirth leaving his voice, “If it wasn’t, that would mean that the friends I have among your people don’t realize they’re being led by someone who would see them dead through willful ignorance. Surely, it was a joke, otherwise it would mean you believe that all of our people who died in our efforts to steal Imaia spacecraft died for nothing. I’m sure you didn’t mean to imply that. Or that you would withhold valuable supplies from your brothers and sisters in arms just because you refuse to ignore the reality around you. Surely, Commander, you did not mean that.”
Svemakuu’s voice had lost all warmth or humor, his tone as dark as the cavern walls surrounding them. He pinned Tepjo with an icy gaze as utter silence filled the cavern.
Estingai suppressed a shiver at the silence, and a smile at her husband.
All the commanders and aides around the table, save for Raima and Vila, gaped or gazed wide-eyed at Svemakuu. Estingai’s husband was not a violent man. He was, however, a man with little patience for those who would put their own interests above those of the many. People like that brought out a darkness in him that most rarely witnessed.
Everyone in this room had a darkness in them. Constant war, upheaval, and the end of the world would do that to a person. Svemakuu, however, kept his own darkness from influencing what he let people see of himself.
Estingai had feared that would change when the God King had killed his parents cycles ago, yet it had not. Neither had any of the tragedy he’d experienced since.
Somehow, he smiled.
Estingai swore that his grins and laughter were all that kept her doing the same. Svemakuu’s mother had given birth to him, but his parents had chosen to take Estingai in when she’d had no one else.
And now, they’re gone, too. Svemakuu, his brother Koruuksi, and their adopted sister Uuchantuu were all she had left.
Estingai’s chest grew tight even as Tepjo cleared his throat, breaking the silence, then laughed, returning her thoughts to the matter at hand.
“Ha! You’re right, of course, Iceborn Svemakuu,” the Icevein commander said, forcing a grin. “You’re the only one here with a sense of humor, it seems.” He looked around the table before continuing, “Can’t a man joke about the end of the world?”
“My thoughts exactly,” Svemakuu said, grinning once more.
“Hopefully now we can get down to some more productive discussion,” Tepjo said, clearing his throat again. “Icevein’s lowlight farms and manpower are at your disposal. I can send some of my farmers and horticulturists with seeds and saplings to your bases to find where different plants will grow best. I’m certain you all have a lot of underutilized space. Especially you, Vila, with those enormous caverns you store your stolen ships in.”
“That is very generous of you, Tepjo,” Narvyk said, “and a good start to formalizing and strengthening our alliance. Unfortunately, regardless of the amount of underutilized space we have, not all of our bases have enough water—or at least not enough easily accessible sources of water—to sustain more gardens than we already have.”
“My engineers could help with that,” Vila suggested. “There’s not much raw copper left on this continent, but my people have found quite a bit of leftover tools and finery from the abandoned Atonga ruins and historical sites to use for piping. We’ve even found some piping systems we’ve been able to just transplant to our own base. It’s harder than field irrigation, but we’ve made it work.”
Smiling, Estingai nudged Svemakuu, glancing over at him.
You’re incredible, she mouthed.
I love you, he mouthed back.
The simple words she’d heard so many times before still sent an amazing warmth through Estingai after all this time. Merely touching his gauntleted hand with her own didn’t seem enough anymore.
That’s not what we’re here for.
There would be plenty of time for the two of them to spend alone when they returned to Wolfden.
The corner of Svemakuu’s mouth twitched in a grin as though he knew what she was thinking. He usually did.
“Mylora,” Kogen said, “I don’t believe you’d finished telling us about your research.”
The woman smiled, then frowned. “We should be able to spare some georaurals to help the rest of you, if needed. As I said, we’ve deemed preserving Efruumani no longer viable with our resources. With the Imaia leaving, I suppose we never should have considered it in the first place, though they had been looking to the stars even before—” She paused, biting her lip and glancing around the table for a moment before continuing. “Before Yrmuunthal’s destruction.”
The room’s mood dampened at that.
Everyone had known Efruumani’s two Aathal, the World Trees, were important. Just not how important.
Not until one was gone.
No one had ever imagined that day would come. The trees had resisted the few attempts to harvest their leaves and wood such that most had believed only a god could destroy them. None of them had imagined that one of them would do just that.
Thinking of that event hurt all of them, in part because most had worshiped Kweshrima in one way or another. What hurt more was that no one knew why the goddess had destroyed the Aathal. Some—like Mylora—refused to speak of or even acknowledge Kweshrima’s role in the Aathal’s destruction—and the world’s subsequent decline—if they could help it.
“And your other research, Commander Mylora?” Svemakuu asked, voice warm, “concerning escaping Efruumani through a means other than the stars?”
Mylora gave him a thankful smile. “We’ve been able to confirm that the oruu do—or did—exist in another plane of existence most of the time, only passing through to our own when they decided to appear. That, combined with certain legends of the gods’ origins, leads me to believe it is possible for mortals to cross over to such a plane of existence—this realm of the spirits. Whether we will find a home there, or find a way through there to a new home, however, remains to be discovered. We should only need a small percentage of our georaurals to conduct those tests, however, so the rest are at your disposal.”
“We should use our combined resources to hurt the Imaia,” Vila said. “We can launch an attack on a position far from our bases—something that will make them comb that area for a time while we regroup for another strike. Maybe their railways—something that will make them pull back into their city for a time and let us be.”
Raima sighed, shaking her head. “We all share your motivations, Vila, but we need to keep the Imaia active along those railways. Even with piping for our water sources and Icevein’s farms, we need the supplies they carry. Your engineers and Nightstone’s scientists are resourceful, but we have no foundries or factories capable of producing cleaning supplies, medicines, modern weapons, or any of the other supplies and amenities the Imaia keep stocked in their own bases. Disrupting those supply lines will hurt us as much as it hurts the Imaia.”
“Then we will strike somewhere else,” Last Shadow’s commander insisted. “We need to make them bleed after what they did to Bonde and the others, even if he had grown too extreme in his methods.”
“No, Vila,” Raima said, “we need to focus on survival, not vengeance, if we’re to have any chance at hope.”
She paused, looking around the table. “I actually believe Tepjo and Kogen had the right idea. Somewhat, at least. We need to lie low and make the Imaia forget about us, using the spies Kogen and I managed to place inside the Mjatafa Mwonga to feed us information for quiet, targeted raids that have as little impact on the Imaia as possible with the greatest reward for us. Ideally, we would make them less intense each time, so the Imaia think we are losing manpower or support.”
“And how do we get off the planet after that?” Narvyk asked. “Finding some way onto Myrskaan Station is our best chance, and it will be difficult enough to get all of our people to the station even if we find a way there. Not with the tech and ships we have now.”
Estingai’s jaw tightened. It wasn’t good enough. She wanted more than anything to escape this world—to fly through the stars, free to look for a new home—yet doing so at the cost of leaving others behind to die with Efruumani would drain all sweetness from such a victory. A glance at Svemakuu told her he felt the same way. His mouth was a thin line, eyes down and narrowed.
“We could steal more of their vehicles,” Mylora suggested. “If we got our hands on some of their troop transports, my scientists and Vila’s engineers should be able to use parts and technology from the vehicles we’ve stolen to make something that can get us out of the atmosphere and to Myrskaan Station. Stealing some of those new hand-held rail guns would also help. There’s a reason the Imaia carefully monitored and controlled the use of firearms through history.”
“It’s not big enough.”
Estingai and everyone else looked to Svemakuu. Estingai’s husband still wore a contemplative expression.
“Would you mind elaborating on that, Iceborn?” Narvyk asked.
Svemakuu nodded. “A troop transport isn’t big enough. Getting only some of us off Efruumani is not an option.”
He looked around the table, meeting the eyes of each commander with a hard expression on his handsome features. “If we move forward with the end goal of only getting a handful of our people off Efruumani, that means we will have to choose who survives and who lives, which could break every single one of our factions, much less any unity between us we’ve worked for. It also makes us no better than the Imaia. Worse, actually, since they’re leaving us behind because they see us as monsters. If we surrendered to them, they’d likely kill us or imprison us in one of those lightless facilities, but they wouldn’t leave us behind.”
“I expect you have a solution in mind, Svemakuu?” Raima asked.
“I do,” Svemakuu said. “First, we are no longer six factions of a resistance. We can no longer think of ourselves that way if we are truly united, which is the only way this will work. We shouldn’t use our separate names any longer. No more Icevein or Frozen Phantom or Last Shadow, save maybe to refer to the different primary bases.”
“Then what do we call ourselves?” Mylora asked.
“The Remnant,” Svemakuu said, letting the word hang in the air for a moment before he continued. “We are all that remains of those who fight the Imaia. Kweshrima may have doomed Efruumani, but the Imaia began conquering it and stripping it of its resources and beauty long before then in the name of fighting their supposed enemy.”
“I can agree to that,” Kogen said after a moment of silence. “I assume you think it would be best to redistribute our people through our various bases?”
Svemakuu nodded. “Some won’t like moving, but it won’t be any worse than any upheaval we’ve already experienced.”
“And once we do that?” Vila asked.
Estingai narrowed her eyes at the hint of skepticism in the woman’s tone.
“Then we get the Imaia to attack us with one of their capital ships.”
All eyes around the table grew wide. Estingai had to resist shaking her head. Svemakuu always had incredible ideas. They just didn’t always come out of his mouth the right way. She nudged him harder than she had before, causing him to blink.
“Right,” he said, a grin sliding onto his face. “While I agree we should eventually try to lie low and make the Imaia forget about us, we first need to give them a reason to send one of their capital ships out of Mjatafa Mwonga. Whether it’s dealing with us, or some other reason our spies can feed to the Imaia’s high command.”
“And what then?” Vila asked. “We steal it?”
Svemakuu shook his head, grin growing wider. “We blow it out of the sky.”
That caused even more confusion than his first statement. Estingai was almost certain he’d done that on purpose.
“I believe what my husband means,” Estingai said, “is that if we try to steal one of the Imaia’s larger ships, they will know that we have it and that it will motivate them to reclaim it. If we instead destroy it—though ideally without too much damage—they will believe we did so for supplies and weapons rather than for the craft itself and might believe salvaging the wreckage not worth the effort.”
“Exactly!” Svemakuu said, grinning around the table. “And this way, we wouldn’t need to commandeer the Imaia’s space station. Was that not clear?”
This time Estingai sighed.
“Vila, do you have any caverns large enough to rebuild a capital ship?” Raima asked.
She thought for a moment, then shook her head.
“We have one that might work,” Tepjo said, “We’ve used it as a gathering area, a hospital, and as some extra farming space, since it has no connections to the outside.”
Tepjo looked around the table, “If we could have some Shapers to widen it and make it accessible to the outside, it might work. With some georaural reinforcements from Nightstone, of course. Once we open it up enough to fit a cruiser in, however, we won’t be able to hide it in that cavern again.”
“What if critical components are damaged when we take it out?” Mylora said. “We won’t be able to replicate reactors or power cells of that size, and those on the ships we’ve stolen won’t be powerful enough to fuel the ship.”
“Our spies can help with that,” Raima said. “It will be dangerous, but if we need to replace any parts we can’t fabricate ourselves—”
Estingai blinked, stiffening as she tuned out Raima.
For a moment, she’d thought she’d sensed…
Estingai rolled her shoulders, then moved her head from side to side to cover a glance around the room as she brightened her blacknodes.
Nothing. She couldn’t sense Svemakuu, but she should have felt anything coming from outside the immediate area of his shroud.
That could mean she’d been mistaken. Or it could mean whoever she’d sensed had dimmed their biogems and was still there, invisible to Estingai’s senses.
She flared her blacknodes in a burst of power. She held it only for a few seconds, but that should have allowed her senses to reach out even farther, possibly all the way to the surface or down one of the long tunnels.
Estingai bit her lip, considering brightening her opalnodes to allow her to flare her blacknodes in one massive burst—something only full Auroraborn like she and Svemakuu could do, as opalnodes were ultimately useless on their own.
She decided against it, instead brightening her clearnodes to enhance her other senses. She blinked as all her sensory input increased twelvefold and took a moment to adjust.
“If we wait until just before a supply shipment goes out to one of their Darkside bases, or their people at the end of the railway, and create a roadblock,” Svemakuu was saying; his voice sounded as though he was speaking directly into her ear, “something that they can’t easily clear away in a day or two, we could have our spies encourage the decision to send out supplies on one of their older capital ships with a minimal crew…”
Estingai tuned the conversation out again, focusing on other sounds. There weren’t many, save for the occasional shifting, creaking, and clinking of fabric and armor. The stark chamber’s cool temperature and dim lighting made it easier for her to adjust. Her vision sharpened, gaining more contrast, and she became more aware of the slight chill against her face and the sensation and weight of her clothing and armor against her skin. Her mouth was dry and tasted like the dried meat ration she’d eaten before the meeting. She tuned out the slight body odor from those around her—including herself—and the spike of arousal that always came with brightening one’s clearnodes.
Closing her eyes would have allowed Estingai the greatest focus on the sounds around her, but she didn’t want to look uninterested or alarm anyone without cause.
Even if I did sense someone, these tunnels twist and turn and intersect for miles, and Svemakuu’s shroud will keep us concealed.
The soft clink of an armored footstep near the back of the room made Estingai tense.
The lights went out.
Estingai whirled around, priming all twelve pairs of biogems, and donning her mask—more of a helmet, really, styled after the visage of an icehawk—almost without realizing she’d done so, seeing only by her enhanced senses and the dim light of the others’ gemcrests reflected off the glassy walls. Despite her Samjati blue skin, she didn’t possess the golden eyes and natural night vision like Svemakuu and the others with stronger Samjati blood.
What she saw turned her veins to ice.
A tall, imposing figure outlined by points of Auroralight shining in all twelve colors approached from the darkness with a steady, purposeful stride. It wore armor of polished iron that Estingai knew all too well, the metal reflecting the light of the infused biogems set into it.