Ventus – Day 122 of 135


For a moment Axel Chan was content to just smell the air. He stood on the ship’s ramp with his eyes closed, letting the breeze stroke his hair like the hand of a lover. His ears popped. He was back on Ventus, and he needed no more reminder of why he’d come than this scent of pine and loam.

The navy had given them this cutter in order to let Marya do a reconnaissance of the maelstrom of swan activity building over these mountains. The Archipelagic forces had originally wanted the Voice to lend her recognition codes to a destroyer-class ship, but the AI had insisted that they come in this small craft, without an escort. That way they could attempt to locate Calandria–a part of their plan they had not mentioned to the admiral.

Even a close orbit had not told them what was going on down here–but Calandria’s transponder signal had pinged faintly from the very heart of the energy storm. When they picked up her signal, the three had exchanged uneasy glances in the cockpit. To descend into the vortex could be wildly dangerous–but if anyone on the ground might know what was truly happening, it would be Calandria May.

“Hey, move!” Marya gave Axel a small shove from behind. He sighed, and jogged down the rest of the ramp to finally stand on the soil of Ventus again. Marya came to poise beside him, and after a moment the Voice joined them. The AI’s striking resemblance to Calandria May still disturbed Axel, but the Voice was obviously a different person: she stared around herself with the wide-eyed wonder of someone who had never set foot on a planet before.

“You’ve been here,” he chided. “You dropped us off last summer, remember?”

She shook her head. “I had a different body than. To be this small and vulnerable in this environment… it’s indescribable.”

Both humans smiled at her. Then Marya pointed at the twin mountains rising above them. “Look! There’s buildings way up there, on the side.”

“Gods.” Axel’s mind boggled at the amount of labour it must have taken to put those structures up there. “Maybe that’s where she is.”

He hoped she was nearby, and not on the other side of those mountains. The ocean lay there; Axel had seen it as they came in. He had also seen strange waterfalls that vanished into shafts in the far side of the two peaks, as well as what looked like gigantic pipes shimmering under the surface of the ocean. There were a few towns around here, but no major cities within a day’s travel of this place. He had no idea what Calandria might be doing out here.

He closed his eyes and concentrated. He felt the signal–but it wasn’t coming from the mountains. “She’s in the valley,” he said. “A kilometer or two at most that way. Seems to be moving in this direction, fast.”

“Should we wait, or go out to meet them?” asked Marya.

“Ka,” somebody said.

A shadow whipped past and Axel and Marya ducked. The Voice turned, blinking in astonishment at the large hawk that swept in a circle around the perimeter of the clearing where they’d set down, then returned. It landed on a moss-cushioned log not three meters away, and folded its wings.

“Beautiful,” whispered Marya. “Ka,” said the hawk. “So you found a way off world, Axel.”

“Uhn,” said Axel. A bird was talking to him.

“It’s me, Jordan,” said the hawk. “Can you hear me?”

“Jordan?” He peered at the hawk. “How are you doing this?”

“My servant hitched a ride on this hawk. He’s talking to you for me. I haven’t changed myself into a hawk, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“No, of course not.” Axel sidled closer to the hawk, looking for a speaker or antenna somewhere on it. “You seem to have come up in the world, Jordan.”

“You could say that.” Jordan Mason’s voice held a wry tone Axel had never heard the boy use before. “Hello, Lady May.”

Axel looked over his shoulder. “Oh. That’s not Calandria. I know it looks like her. It’s… rather hard to explain.”

“Not Calandria? Where is she?”

“She’s not with you?”

“No.” The bird fell to calmly grooming its wing, seemingly indifferent to the human voice issuing from its body. “Listen,” said Jordan, “if that’s all of you, you’ve got to get moving. Come meet me and I’ll explain everything.”

“You know what’s going on here?” asked Marya.

“Yes. Are you a friend of Axel’s?”

“Yes. I’ve heard a lot about you, Jordan. I’m very pleased to meet you.”

“Well, we haven’t met yet, and we won’t if you don’t get moving. The soldiers are almost on top of you.”

“What soldiers?”

“The army of Thalience.”

Marya looked at Axel, her eyebrows raised. He shrugged. “We’ll be right there, as soon as we collect Calandria.”

“Axel, there’s no time!” The hawk unfolded its wings and leapt into the air. “Follow me!” It flapped north.

Axel put his hand on Marya’s shoulder. “You two go with the bird. I’ll collect Cal and follow along.”

“How will you find us?”

“I’ve got a fix on the Voice’s transponder. Don’t worry, I won’t be long.” The hawk was perched on a branch, watching impatiently. Axel watched Marya and the Voice stalk through the underbrush in its direction; then he inhaled a cold breath of mountain air and turned the other direction. The hawk cawed at him. He ignored it.

She was nearby. He had to know she was okay. Once he had her he would collect Mason and head back to the ship. With luck they could be offplanet within the hour, and with further luck Calandria and Jordan Mason would be able to tell the fleet enough to halt the planned bombardment.

He thudded over the tangle of roots and fallen pine needles, attention focussed on the signal he could sense ahead of him. It was closing on his position. She must have sensed him as well. He grinned, starting to relax.

Abruptly the trees opened out to define a well-tended trail that slotted east to west through the forest. He looked to his left, saw nothing, and turned to his right–

–Two horses came at full gallop over a ridge not twenty meters away. The lead rider shouted something and lowered a weapon across his arm.

Axel jumped back. There was a loud bang and splinters flew from the tree over his head.

The signal was very close now. For the first time it occurred to him that Calandria might be a prisoner. He cursed and unholstered his laser pistol.

The horse had stopped. “Show yourself!” shouted the rider in a thick accent Axel couldn’t identify. He snuck a look around the tree; three more horses were approaching.

“Don’t shoot!” he yelled. “I’m just an innocent traveller.”

“Then you’ve got nothing to fear if you come out here.”

“Yeah, right,” muttered Axel.

Something moved swiftly in the corner of his eye. He whirled, in time to glimpse a giant cat-like form in mid-leap. Axel fired without thinking, and then it knocked the wind out of him and they tumbled over and over.

The furred thing fell away. Axel got to his hands and knees, shaking his head. He’d lost his pistol, but the golden cat-thing lay curled around itself, a black burn in its chest and bright blood pumping out of the center of the charred patch. It moaned, twitched, and lay still.

Where was the pistol? When he spotted it he scrabbled in that direction. He stretched out his hand to grab it–and the point of a sword came between him and it.

“Stand,” said the man behind the sword. He wore the bruised-blue and russet livery of a soldier of Iapysia. He looked like he meant business. Four other soldiers had dismounted behind him.

The others looked behind themselves as several more of the cat-like creatures padded over, then stood up on their back legs. They were all gold-colored, except one which was a striking white.

This one’s eyes widened and it hissed when it saw the situation. It ran forward with surprisingly human grace, and opened its arms.

“Axel!” it shouted as it wrapped its arms around him.

Someone screamed. Axel struggled to pull free of the cat-thing, and after a moment he did–or rather it let go of him and he fell. He levered himself onto his elbows, then froze.

One of the horses was down. A very large bear reared over it, bawling loudly. One of the soldiers was down too, with his hands up to fend off the hawk that was stabbing at his face.

Two foxes raced out of the forest and leaped at the remaining soldiers. Way back there, something else big was crashing in their direction.

“Fight, you cowards!” shouted the white cat. It moved with astonishing speed, knocking one of the foxes out the air mid-pounce. Then it spun on one foot and jumped backwards, disappearing behind Axel.

“Axel, run!” shouted the hawk. It ducked in close then burst in a flurry of feathers as one of the soldiers shot it point-blank. Something iridescent, half-visible, twirled up from the falling bird, then flashed into flame and drifted down as another of the soldiers emptied his musket into the chest of the bear. It staggered back snarling. Then a third man fired, and it fell dead.

Axel turned to run–and found himself eye to eye with the white cat. It held out something. His pistol. “Take it!” it hissed.

He hesitated for a second, then grabbed the pistol and ran. Animals big and small crashed past him, all converging on the soldiers and their cat-like companions.

Axel had no idea what he’d just seen. He didn’t want to know. All he wanted to do at this moment was run and keep running until he’d forgotten it all.

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