Hail followed the young man through into the next cabin. A small gathering of young people awaited him. They turned to stare at him, some smiling, others watching with sentinel like neutrality. From the centre, a woman stepped forward. She was reasonably tall and slim, sleek black hair cascaded down her back, hints of auburn shimmering within. It held a vigour and shine that he imagined was even more vibrant in the sunlight. Blue eyes watched him, and her thin lips shifted into a crescent smile. She was the princess his messenger had spoken of – no doubt about it.
"I'm Zhanna Ordina," she said, putting out her hand to shake.
"Nice to meet you," he replied, his own smile forming. "I'm Hail Kamaso – your mercenary."
And so the lies began. Worst of all, I was lying to myself, becoming someone else in the foolish hope I could forget the past…
"We're the Namé Wolves. Welcome to our little group." She pointed out a few faces, and Hail gave some nods back, scant acknowledgements of the people around him. "I'd better explain things, and quickly. We only have six minutes until this train reaches its destination."
"Fire away," Hail said. "I'm all ears."
Zhanna paused for a moment. She was studying him, and he suddenly felt very conscious. His hair was a mess, his face a rugged portrait of self deprivation. He was wearing torn trousers and a plain grey shirt. He realised he looked nothing like a mercenary – and he also realised how stupid he had been. Somehow, she neither questioned him nor surveyed him further.
"You're aware of the Data Communications Network?" she asked.
Hail raised an eyebrow. "Nemesis?"
She nodded. "Yes. The government disguises it as the Network but in actual fact it is a tool of control. It creates the Net which the citizens of Athena live under every day. I presume you know that much." He urged her to continue. "There is a satellite in the skies high above Athena, it is linked to Nemesis and emits a signal. The High Circle built seven control towers – six situated around the city, and one in the heart where the Paragon sits. The control towers capture Nemesis' signal and spread it outwards, creating the Net."
"This is heavy stuff, but there's one thing I don't understand – why do you need a mercenary?"
Zhanna gave him a faint smile. "The Net means the High Circle has ultimate power. They can use Nemesis to track anyone within the city. They can follow their movements and send drones to listen in on every conversation. Enemies of the government disappear, just like that."
"And then reappear in a shallow grave a few weeks later," one of Zhanna's team mates added sardonically.
Hail knew all of this, but he willed them to continue. It seemed the Namé Wolves meant business.
"Today, we're making the first step towards a city of free citizens. This cargo train is bound for the East Gate Signal Tower. We are going to infiltrate the tower, plant some high power explosives, and show the High Circle our threats are not empty." Zhanna's speech slipped into a dull anger of sorts. Hail was quite sure she had personal reasons for this crusade. "There will be guards, soldiers. Perhaps even Watchers. We need a mercenary to help us plant the bomb and get out alive."
Hail stroked at his chin methodically. "You know this plan is a little crazy… It's a tall order, that's for sure."
"But if we do nothing," the princess replied. "Then the High Circle will always control its citizens, and we'll all be puppets in the Paragon's game."
Her ideals are honourable, I can see that much. She's right about the High Circle… they have to pay one way or another.
"I'm in," Hail finally announced. A smile resounded through the Wolves.
"Half the pay now, half after? Does that sound fair?"
He looked at her, wondering just what had caused her fury towards the government. For a moment, Hail remembered his own anger, the pain he had been pulled through. "I don't want any money," he told her.
She was surprised, to say the least. "What kind of mercenary are you!?"
He smiled at her, wandering towards a window to stare out at the blackness. "Far from a normal one, that's for sure."
Senthus cursed as the target dived off the Bridge onto an incoming train. The Watcher's fired, but it was too late. He pivoted to view the Wilder, struggling to break free. "Take her back to the Warren," he said. "I'll deal with her later."
He pulled a cell phone from his pocket, ramming in numbers recklessly while rushing back towards his helicopter.
"Get information on the train that just passed under the Bridge. The moment it surfaces, Net it, and then send in listening drones. We'll find him, be assured of that." He slid the phone closed and climbed into the helicopter, taking a final wistful glance out at the Bridge.
And besides, Kamaso. I have my own reasons for seeing you executed.
Hail paced the train cabin, weaving between crates and boxes, following Zhanna into a small corner. A bespectacled woman was fixing up a small metallic device – the bomb no less.
"So. They call you the princess," Hail remarked as she bent down to claim something from a box.
"Yes… it's just a little joke considering I take charge round here. You'll get used to us, I'm sure." She suddenly hefted a blade from the crate, metal shimmering in the dim lights of the train carriage. It was larger than most, a streak through the middle separating two distinctly separate blades like sharp teeth. "You came unarmed… you're not what I was expecting."
Hail watched her.
"Use this, but promise me you'll be careful. It's… sentimental."
"I promise," he said, accepting the blade from her. It was lighter than it looked; a deadly blade for swift killing he presumed. He couldn't begin to imagine how it was sentimental to Zhanna though…
A glow began to emanate from outside, a porous light that slowly spilled into the carriage. They were nearing the surface. Hail suddenly felt consumed by mixed emotions. He had been underground for days, held a prisoner in the Warren. When he finally saw the sun, he consumed bliss greedily. Daylight was heaven. Oppressive, subdued Athena was paradise. Jet carriers glinted in the sunlight, dancing through the sky in troupes of red and blue, crossing the halo that encircled the world like distant mirages.
Gleaming skyscrapers rose up around him, great giants of glass and steel peering down at the city they called home. Roads criss-crossed in a tangle like a mess of spaghetti. Trains rushed through Athena like bullets shooting towards targets.
The sky was azure. A cobalt blue that swept above everything like the stroke of a large brush, paints rich in colour, warm in tone. Hail smiled, attuned with his surroundings. For a fleeting moment he melted into the outside world, becoming one with Athena. In that moment he saw Zhanna's dream. The city of free citizens. A city no longer enslaved by the High Circle and its Faith.
"It's beautiful," Hail whispered.
Zhanna shook her head rigorously. "Not yet, but it can be."
The girl with glasses stood up, gazing down admirably at her creation. "It's ready to plant."
"Well done, Nina. Without you this wouldn't be happening." The girl called Nina took the compliment jovially, telling Zhanna it was no problem. Hail could see all the Wolves believed in the same thing – the shared utopia they wished so greatly for. He presumed their desire was immense, because they would not be prepared to risk their lives for this cause otherwise.
Zhanna glanced at her watch, the brown leather strap adorned in flowers caught Hail's eye. "Two minutes. Two minutes until it all begins."
Hail lifted the blade, cutting through the air in practise slashes. He was quite used to swordplay – he had spent years training after all. In the end it would come down to him, his blade, and his opponent. There would only be one winner, and he knew they were all treading the line of life and death.
"It's called Fenris," Zhanna suddenly said. A sadness dwelt in her voice, forlorn and agonised.
She nodded slowly. Nina wandered back down the train as they twisted round a sharp corner. Hail put up a hand to garner support from a pile of cargo. "You said it was sentimental...?"
She looked out to the city and nodded. "It is... But..."
The subject was painful so he swiftly changed the topic, hoping she wouldn't become consumed with emotion. He knew what it was like to hold dark memories.
"The Namé Wolves? You come from up north then?"
"Yes... you've heard of the mining town then?"
She gave him a hurried smile. "We're based in Athena for the time being – while we complete our goals at least."
"And the goals? You want all the towers to fall?"
Hail could see a tower nearing. It was a great spire of grey and black, reaching upwards, protruding deviously before them. So this is one of Nemesis' arms... he thought miserably.
"Not just the towers, Hail. I want the High Circle to fall. I want the Paragon to fall. I want to blow this god damned Faith out of the water!"
"I want units based in the streets around the East Gate Tower ready to move in. We'll let them get to the top. Clutching victory from the jaws of defeat is quite an extraordinary feeling..." The Warden, Senthus, smiled to himself. The listening drones had been quite informative. The rebels from Namé had joined forces with Hail, and they were planning a little terrorist attack. "Looks like your little bomb is going to be diffused..."
He looked out of the helicopter window, surveying the cityscape below him. Admiration and pride swelled up inside him. He was honoured to be a defender of this glorious place, and the Faith which sustained it.
See how they run, he thought. I'll crush them soon enough.
The train lurched to a halt, and Hail found himself caught in a flurry of movement. As he rushed out into the station amongst the Wolves, images of Vetra faded in and out of his minds eye.
"Find him," she had said. With no indication of her meaning, Hail felt powerless to enact her will. And she was probably in the Warren once again. She had been his rescuer, yet she had been the one captured. He suppressed a clot of guilt.
The doors slid open, and he stepped out, bathed in glorious sunshine. He looked up at the sky and laughed to himself. Zhanna was far ahead, bound for the tower. A crazy thought entered his mind. How were they even planning on entering the place?
His questions was swiftly answered.
One of Zhanna's male team mates procured a grenade like object and threw it straight towards the guards at the entrance of the tower. Thick smoke erupted, billowing out in vile clouds. He watched as the guards fell to the ground, spluttering.
The tower was a statue of the Faith before him, and when he concentrated he swore he could hear the low thrum of signal: Nemesis' emissions of doom and decay. His comrades were suddenly rushing back out of the light, into the tower. Hail defied the darkness just a little longer.
He finally entered, gripping the blade Zhanna had named as Fenris. He expected a vast amount of guards on patrol, but the place was eerily empty. City life passed by outside, while the tower sat in an ancient sleep.
The ascension was a deep blur. He was vaguely aware of what was going on, yet he became detached from the situation. It was all so surreal, he half wondered if this was just a dream. He'd wake up in the cell any moment soon.
Keep telling yourself that, and it might become reality...
Zhanna was only a few steps in front of him. She kept giving him glances full of questions, and perhaps an air of suspicion. He felt almost naked. He had no walls of defence. This was a thin veneer of disguise, an identity which even he was unsure of. Was he just diverting his attention or was this truly part of his goal? He couldn't answer his own questions any more.
He knew when they were nearing the top. Warm air from outside began to fill the stairwell, and then they re-emerged into the sunlight like hares from a burrow. The roof of the tower was a station of computer equipment and wiring. If this was all so valuable, how they had gotten up so easily? He supposed getting onto the cargo train had gained them a good distance towards the tower, yet there had been no guards inside.
Suddenly, he was no longer at ease. A resonance filled his body with anxiety and distress. Memories of being surrounded on the Bridge returned – and that had left Vetra incarcerated. Once again, this had all been too easy. There was something wrong.
"Be careful," Hail announced aloud, gripping his sword. "Something isn't right."
He looked out at the city, frowning. Zhanna turned to him with a stark amount of concern. Sunlight caught on a skyscraper west, and he blinked into the light. The wind suddenly stirred to the east. An unmistakeable disturbance.
"Take cover!" he screamed, diving behind a cluster of computer screens. He watched as Zhanna and four of the others hid behind the podium in the centre. It was then that bullets began to dance on the floor, incoming skyward. He shielded his eyes and looked up. The same helicopter was back. Senthus' helicopter. Two of Zhanna's men lay sprawled on the ground, the first victims of the High Circle's surprise attack.
With disbelief, he could not comprehend that he had fallen into the same trap once again.
Even worse – he had allowed the Namé Wolves to walk into this trap. Would his trail of collateral continue?
Suddenly guards blossomed from the stairwell. Watcher's armed with machine guns. Hail waited until the helicopter stopped its aerial assault, and then rushed out into its shadow, brandishing Fenris. With liquid grace, he slashed at two of the Watcher's as they emerged, knocking them back down the stairs. He heard guffaws of pain below.
Suddenly on the ground, he saw the shadow of a figure approaching from behind. The gun rose into the air. He had no time to react. He braced himself, and then a bang filled the air. When he opened his eyes he realised it had not been him that had taken the bullet. Zhanna was holding a gun up, visibly shaken from her act of killing.
"Thank you," Hail said with a wide smile.
The helicopter let off an awful screech, swerving in the air and heading back towards them. Two more Watcher's emerged. Hail sidestepped to the left, slashing out in a wide arc that caught them unawares. The moment they fell, he focused his attention back on the airborne threat.
Hail realised that even now, Nemesis was their enemy. No doubt their movements had been triangulated the moment they had emerged from the underground. The Warden had been watching their every step, and Hail had complied with his expectations.
A rage filled him, like wildfire spreading through his body. Every pore burned with his new found resolve, spewing sweat. The High Circle had come at him with such ferocity, yet it was others that were getting hurt. Enough was enough.
"Come down here and make this a fair game!" Hail screamed at the helicopter. It neared, hovering over the roof, and he stood their like a dumb target.
Senthus watched him from the open window, a smile of sorts playing on his face. Here he was, the angel of Athena. He seemed to look west for a moment. Hail followed his gaze. The great marble white dome of the High Circle's headquarters glinted in the sun. The heart of Imperial Athena. Shoals of jet carriers swarmed from that building, as they did every other day. Inside that building sat the Paragon, the conduit of the Faith. How very appropriate that Senthus now looked to that icon in his time of justice.
"I've had enough of your games for one day," Senthus said. "While you stand there I could kill you at the press of a button."
"But you won't," Hail replied. "I know what you Warden types are like."
"Oh," Senthus said, before smiling bitterly. He laughed aloud, outstripping the helicopter in volume. "If only you knew, Kamaso..."
Hail's heart quivered. "And what's that supposed to mean?"
"I'm entwined with your past more than you can imagine. I'd like to see a conclusion to your story at least."
"My story?" Hail slackened his grip on the blade, watching the Warden carefully. Was he bluffing? Or had he been a part of the tragic events that had led up to Hail's imprisonment? "Cut the crap and end this, or are your threats hollow!?"
Senthus suddenly turned his gaze towards the central podium. Zhanna was watching, and being nearest to the edge she had the most time to react. The Warden pressed something and Hail dived out of the way as a pencil missile twirled out of the helicopter. Zhanna dove outwards but her team mates didn't stand a chance. Hail caught the glance of one girl, the inventor of the bomb. Then the missile struck, a small radius blast concentrated with deadly intent. For a moment he expected the bomb to detonate and kill them all, but then he saw Zhanna was clutching it, holding it to her chest like a baby.
"You think my threats are hollow now?" Senthus asked. The helicopter continued to hover above the roof. A tension filled the very air between them, and the conflict stirred up baleful emotions inside him. Somehow, the Warden knew more than Hail had expected.
"No. Tell me what you seem so desperate for me to hear," Senthus remained still, concentrating on keeping his vehicle aloft. "Tell me!"
Zhanna was suddenly beside him, all tears. "What is it, Hail? What's going on?"
He ignored her, teeth gritted, green eyes aflame. "I gave you an instruction!"
Senthus shook his head. Hail absently noted a distant sound – were re-enforcements on the horizon? "How can you stand there and demand things of me? It wasn't so long ago that I was in charge of you."
Zhanna backed away, cradling the bomb. The sudden, swift severing of her team mates lives had left her distraught. And now she heard Senthus' words, exposing Hail's true identity. "You're not a mercenary are you...?"
Hail looked to her, and his gaze lingered for a moment. This situation was just a nightmare. Atop a signal tower, he stood with a young woman he had known for no more than half an hour, facing down a High Circle helicopter intent on killing him. The reality was just as he had told himself; and all the more insane for it.
He turned back to Senthus. "Give me an answer."
For a moment, Hail saw the Warden do nothing. And then suddenly the helicopter swept round and landed on the roof beside them. The blades slowed, and Senthus emerged, stepping out into the sun. He was armed.
"We all want answers," the Warden said. He gestured out towards the city. "Where will the Faith take us on our journeys through life?"
"You know something," Hail growled. The sword wavered at his side. "Stop the bull shit, speak clearly!"
"I suppose you should know the truth before you die. Maybe then, you can go and see your family on the Sunless Plain."
He saw red. A deft movement forward, and then he was slashing towards Senthus ferociously. The Warden darted away, and he tripped, falling over helplessly. Footsteps came near, and he looked up, startled. Zhanna stood in the foreground, dazedly watching the unravelling events.
"I'm sure the memories still haunt you. It was only two weeks ago that you found your family dead, right?"
Hail scrabbled at the floor. He didn't reply, locked in a torpid cyclone of memory. He found himself standing up again, and then he was moving backwards, Zhanna beside him.
"You realise your family were heretics? They distrusted the Faith. They spoke out against it quite frequently."
Hail shook his head. "And that's why the Paragon... gave the order."
Senthus nodded. "Partly."
"And how do you know all of this?" he asked, stupefied.
"Because I was there."
The statement was a knife to the heart, twisted and then stabbed inwards again with a vehement brutality. The whole world turned on its side and Hail Kamaso felt set to tumble off the roof of the tower and cascade down into the city below.
"The Paragon gave the order. The Kamaso family would die swiftly and silently – and that was three future threats to the High Circle eradicated."
"Eradicated...?" Hail asked lifelessly. "They were nothing, is that what you mean?"
Zhanna whimpered, yet Senthus' smile twisted cruelly.
"The Faith is my guiding light. If the Paragon gives me an order, I would rather die than back down." Senthus' eyes showed his words to be awash in truth.
"You're that fanatical..." Hail droned. "Radical enough to commit murder." He let a sob wrack his body. It all came back in a tidal wave of pain. The blood up the walls, up the stairs. The bodies. Paige, his sister, lying on the landing. His parents beside one another, bathing in their own crimson blood. He turned away from Zhanna, away from the killer of his family, and retched violently.
"There is nothing fanatical about it. Athena stands here because of the High Circle and the Paragon. As part of the Warden Corps I carry out their decisions to protect the Capital of the Imperium. It's people like her," he motioned to Zhanna, "and you. And your family. You all wish to destroy this place. You wish to cause chaos and carnage and ruin the lives of the peaceful populace." Senthus gazed out at the city, pride visibly filling his countenance. "I will not allow that to happen!"
As the Warden procured his gun and advanced towards them, Hail trembled. Zhanna was moving, doing something, yet he was barely aware. He wanted to strike at Senthus. He wanted to stab him and make him feel the pain his family had gone through. He wanted revenge so dearly, yet his fear held him to the spot.
"Take my hand, Hail," Zhanna said, a hollow echo that he obeyed without even realising he had done so. "The Faith is nothing but a lie!" she screamed, aiming her torrent at Senthus. "One day you'll see that. One day you'll understand this isn't a way to live."
Hail watched as his surroundings swept away. Zhanna threw something, and then they were flying through the air, away from the signal tower, and down towards the ground. Heat brushed against his skin as an explosion erupted from the top of the tower, flames licking savagely at the air.
They swung back, forth, all directions. He saw a wire that Zhanna clung to, but its tether was thrown off the roof with the explosion. She kicked at a wall and the rope twisted round a jutting pole.
One moment he was clasping her hand.
The next he was slipping away.
He saw his family, reaching towards him, smiling. They were bright like the sun. And then Senthus was standing over him, his gun aimed malevolently. The face of evil. Hail cried out.
And then he fell. Zhanna screamed, and he tumbled down through the air, Fenris falling below him. Times winged chariot sounded behind, and his past finally caught up, closing in to catch him.
A single tear fell to the ground. When it hit the floor, it shattered like crystal.
To Be Continued...
A/N: Chapter 2 is over! I felt the quality slipped a little from half way onwards, but that was probably due to tiredness – I hope it wasn't too noticeable. The next chapter will deal with the direct aftermath, and may be a little shorter than the last two. We'll discover more about both Hail's and Zhanna's pasts, and it will be a much calmer chapter as opposed to the first two action packed instalments. A key new character will be introduced, connected to one from the first chapter. I'd appreciate reviews as usual. See you soon! ~ Luke
© Luke Frayling, 2010
Warning: I retain full and exclusive legal rights to this story, its plot-line, and the characters within it. Unauthorized publication or duplication of this piece is prohibited. Actions of the previous nature will be prosecuted.