Wood and metal littered the sand around the five teenagers. They picked their way through the debris, kicking aside scrap and skirting around anything too big to step over. Their destination was the monstrous form of shapeless carnage that had recently been two sand fortresses. Now they formed one tangled wreckage.
The third ship had turned and was making a hasty retreat back the way it had come from, leaving the small group the only ones in sight still standing. Several bodies were dotted around, some dead but many not. Trey ignored the groans and screams as best as he could. Zak strolled through the mayhem, admiring the destruction like a personal achievement.
“Over here,” Dawn called from around the corner of the crashed ships. “We might be able to salvage something.”
The boys jogged over to her. She stood before a wide hole in one hull that was filled with an assortment of twisted silhouettes. Billy grabbed a lantern from a nearby pile and relit it before entering the ship. The faint light revealed a cluster of sand speeders and carriers that had been smashed together and wedged into one corner of the half collapsed hanger.
Dawn circled the pile as best as she could and inspected the ships for anything that could be used. Under her direction, Zak carried the bigger bits of scrap away while Trey and Liam managed the smaller rubbish. Billy hung the lamp from a jutting out pipe and helped to dig through the wood.
It took the better part of an hour but eventually they had freed a battered carrier from the wreckage and had managed to push it out onto the sand. That had even strained Zak but once it was outside they were able to repair what they could until the last rays of the sun began to fade.
“Will it work?” asked Trey. They’d replaced one broken wheel and retied several strings but it still looked like a miracle that it remained standing under its own weight.
Dawn ran a hand through her hair and clicked her tongue thoughtfully. Her other hand did not stray from its place over the split skin in her throat where she kept a cloth over the wound. “If we can get it moving then it should make it to the forest. That is as long as we don’t push it in any way, shape or form. A steady speed with minimal turning should be fine.”
“It will have to do,” shrugged Trey. “We’ve already lost too much time.”
They climbed into the carrier and after several attempts, Dawn and Liam managed to get the carrier to lurch into motion. It moved at a snail’s pace compared to the carrier they had travelled in previously but they were moving toward Miankkuth once again and Trey was strangely grateful for that.
Liam took the first shift at the helm while the others took some well needed sleep. When daylight returned, Dawn took over and Liam collapsed into a corner to get some rest of his own. Most of the day passed in utter silence. Trey tried playing more of his ‘rock’ music but it did not improve the reflective mood that had descended upon the carrier.
It was not until dusk came around once more that they sighted the first signs of green upon the horizon. The sand gradually gave way to grass and trees and the carrier had to be stopped at the edge of the desert. To the left were the wide cliffs that Trey Billy and Zak had leapt from after their flight from Pastrino. Luckily for them, the cliffs petered out about two miles further up, leaving the land here relatively flat and easy to traverse. They climbed from the vessel with everything they could carry and cautiously entered the forest
They were in a different section of the forest than where they had came from but it mattered little as Billy and Trey had explored much of the forest during childhood adventures. The two directed the others west until they recognised their surroundings.
For an hour they walked in the darkness of the night, guided only by the waxy light of the moon. Deciding it best to camp for the night, Trey led them through closely packed trees to a good place to rest. The distant sound of roaring water drifted on the wind. As they continued the sound became greater and the air became damper. Up ahead a waterfall came into view. It ran down a cliff, into a small pond which led to a gentle stream.
Trey walked up to the waterfall and revealed that the cliff was hollow behind it. Hidden from view by the raging water was a roomy cave. Once inside the water doubled in volume as the cave echoed the noise.
“There’s plenty of room and we can talk as loudly as we want as the sound is covered up by the waterfall,” Trey announced, his voice just audible over the incessant water.
The boys tried to get comfy and without further conversation they attempted to find sleep. The roar of the waterfall was the only thing that they could hear as they slowly drifted off into troubled dreams. Sleep without nightmares seemed a distant memory.
Dawn did not feel like sleeping as she had so much on her mind. She crept out of the cave and gazed into the shimmering water of the pond. She stood motionless, tracing the raw cut across the left side of her throat, lost in thought for several minutes until a sigh at her side snapped her back to reality.
Liam stood at her side staring at his flickering reflection on the water’s surface. Dawn hadn’t even noticed him approach. He too seemed to have something on his mind that he couldn’t voice.
“I forgive you,” said Dawn softly.
Liam turned towards her. “What’s to forgive?”
“I know you have problems but that’s no excuse to be so rude and cold hearted. An apology, or at least understanding isn’t that much to ask for,” she snapped angrily.
“You know nothing,” stated the young man. “You grew up as a pampered princess. You were given everything you could ever want and had the love and respect of everyone in your tribe. I have nothing.”
“You’re the commander’s brother. You live in a big house and have plenty of money. What is there to be depressed about?” Dawn asked testily. Because of her departure she too now had nothing.
Liam knelt, letting his black nailed hand dip into the cold water. His reflection rippled, becoming distorted and unrecognisable. “My father was the commander before my brother and my mother was the greatest healer the city had ever known. Both were extremely talented and well respected. Then my brother was born and he showed the makings of being as great as his parents. My parents tried for many years to have a second child and fifteen years after Mike was born, my mother became pregnant again.”
“There were complications at my birth and no one could stop my mother from dying. My father was consumed by grief and eventually took his own life. I was blamed for their deaths. I tried to earn the respect of the city but no matter how hard I tried I was useless at everything. People just hated me more and I had no place to fit in. I have been alone all of my life. Only Mike cares for me and as commander he is always busy.” He finished his story with a sad smile.
“At least you can make your own way through life. My life has been planned out like every other Heptalli royal blood in history. Born and trained as a Princess, learning the skills for the future. When my Grandmother, the Elder, dies, my mother will become the new Elder and I will be forced to become the Matriarch of the tribe. I then live to have a single daughter as is written in my blood. Then I become the Elder while my daughter becomes the leader, then I die. The cycle will never end,” she sighed. “It is my destiny.”
“Destiny is not written,” replied Liam. “Life is sand in the fingers of time. A few grains will always fall loose and land where the hand does not want it. Whatever, I’m heading off to bed. Night.”
He left Dawn standing alone, feeling she now knew Liam as a person, not just a face. Still, she could not help feel that his words sounded far too close to what Mellow had been preaching.
* * *
As the morning came they decided to use their last moment of peace well. Knowing full well that later that day they would see the remains of Pastrino, they all decided to prepare as best as they could.
“While we’re here you lot can head downstream and wash. You stink!” informed Dawn briskly.
“What’s wrong with bathing here?” asked Billy.
“I’m here,” replied Dawn. “I need to wash as well. If you dare to even think of peeping you will not leave here alive. You will find you would rather have the Abyss Sprite of Torture stood before you than me. Got it?” she said with a look in her eyes and a tone in her voice that said she really meant it too. Women had an uncanny talent for turning their eyes into poisoned daggers.
“Yes Miss,” said Trey, Billy and Zak together with the same fear in their words. Liam just turned and followed the stream away from the camp. The others quickly followed. After about five minutes they found a suitable place to wash and decided to relax for the last time before they confronted the Forukks again. Pux left on his own to hunt for food, his knowledge of the forest and its creatures far greater than any of the others.
Things seemed peaceful but little did anyone realise that an evil presence had been tracking them through the forest and even now kept its eyes on the current weakest member of the group, all by herself and with no weapons. Assassinating children was too easy for such a greatly talented killer, but orders were orders. Shuriken sat ready between skilled fingers. The girl suspected nothing. The assassin’s movement stopped as a shout erupted from nearby.
“Hey Dawn, you done yet?”
Dawn sighed after just getting relaxed then shouted back, “Just give me a minute.”
It was strike now or lose the chance, thought the assassin. It threw one of the throwing stars and watched it fly towards the girl’s jugular. Before it reached its target a bird swooped by and caught it. Another three shuriken were thrown but three more birds halted their journey. By this time Dawn had gotten out of the pond, dried off and was just finishing tying her robes securely.
This was the assassin’s last chance at an easy target. Six shuriken left the tree and sped towards the girl. Only one bird came this time but it was larger than the others, some kind of eagle. With an almighty beat of its wings the wind knocked the throwing stars off course. The boys came stamping through the trees and into view. The assassin knew that the chance had been missed and quietly left to avoid detection while pondering the birds.
Pux was just returning with a large squirrel slung over his shoulder when from out of the sky a wide-winged eagle swooped down and landed on Billy’s head. From its back jumped a battered looking Yuxova that hopped down upon Billy’s shoulder then onto a low tree branch. Pux joined him and bowed his head. The new Yuxova returned the bow but a mere fraction of what Pux had.
“Glad to see you, Captain,” said the injured warrior. “Things have gone to the Abyss since you left.” He was taller than Pux by a few hairs and had a more muscular build. Leather armour covered his fine clothes and short dark hair topped his head. A broad, well trimmed beard hung from a chiseled chin.
“What do you mean, Captain Kenux?” asked Pux, fearing the answer. Whatever could injure Captain Kenux was something to worry about.
The other Yuxova sneered and spat with angry disgust. “Forukks have been felling trees and burning patches of forest since they reared their ugly faces. We’d been fighting them for days when our flanks were hit by a new force from the north.”
Pux frowned. “North? The Ghibok have no reason to fight us.”
“Not Ghibok,” Kenux all but hissed. “The Fallen have returned.”
“What! I thought they were just a legend.”
“Well this legend is destroying our army. They are already pressing upon the Tree of Ages. First Forukks, then the Fallen. Now to top it off we have an assassin lurking around. If my men and I had turned up a moment later then your human girl would be a pincushion right now.”
Dawn looked shocked at hearing someone had tried to kill her. The boys scanned the trees darkly, hands on their weapons.
Pux turned to Trey. “I must aid my own people; I fear I must leave you now.”
“We understand,” Trey said.
“Farewell, Trey, Zak. Stay safe Miss Dawn. Find happiness Liam,” said Pux. He then turned to Billy. “Bill, you have a bird on your head.”
“Shut up!” growled Billy.
Both Yuxova Captains mounted, Kenux onto the eagle, Pux onto Bo-bo and made ready to leave. The birds took to the air and circled the group a few times as they gained altitude.
The teens cleared the camp and set off southwest through the forest. Any movement or sound caused fear only to reveal small forest animals or branches moving in the wind. Around dusk the end of the trees was in sight and open fields stood before them. Beyond them was a ruined city that bore some resemblances with what Trey, Zak and Billy had once called home.
Fine mist pooled around the buildings’ remnants giving them a ghostlike quality. All seemed still within the city’s walls. The only sign of life was the collection of carrion birds that had swarmed the ruins. Craters had cleared numerous areas of buildings while fire had burned up anything wooden or material. The white walls were plagued with black patches like a cancer. Far off at the city’s centre, Trey could make out the bell tower and beside it, his home. Both looked untouched by the carnage to his relief.
“If only Pux was still here, he could scout out the city and tell us if it’s guarded,” sighed Dawn.
“It is guarded,” stated Trey. “If we try to go through the city we’ll have a fight on our hands.”
“The area around the city will be guarded for miles. To get around them could take days,” said Liam.
“I have an idea,” said Trey quietly, then paused in thought. “The city got its raw iron from mines beneath it and its surrounding area. Several severe accidents occurred and the mines were closed. This was before we were even born.”
“I know what you’re talking about but the mine only has one entrance. We’d only reach a dead end,” muttered Billy.
Zak shook his head. “No. It has a second exit. Before the last accident happened, the miners dug too far and breached the cliffs that separate us from Miankkuth. The last ‘accident’ was actually a cover-up just to close the mine and block the hole. Out of the fifty miners down there, only seven returned from the cover-up. My granddad was one of them,” Zak informed them. “We could find the blocked exit then just unblock it,” he added with a smile as he swung his axe.
“It can’t be any worse than marching through the city,” said Dawn.
“Are we decided?” Trey asked. When everyone confirmed he continued. “Time to head underground then,” he said as he started to head north.