The day had come and gone without further incident. After the encounter with Madrick and Askar, it had actually become downright boring. Raith knew he shouldn’t complain though. After the crazy months they had seen lately, any downtime was welcome. He just didn’t like the sporadic nature of the drone activity. Recent surveillance had placed them much further west down the ravine than normal and it left him wondering what the contraptions were up to. A deep worry was building within him. After hearing the tale of the enemy’s surveillance of Leonia, he couldn’t help but feel something similar was happening here, now. But what could the drones really do when they couldn’t penetrate the shields?
Raith sighed as he finished powering down the last of the office electronics. They would be heading out on the first of several missions tonight to explore the drone question and now it was time to meet up with the team for dinner before they moved on to finalizing the night’s agenda.
The abrupt buzz of the sat-com on his hip startled him as he reached for the door handle. Who was calling him now? Raith scowled as he retrieved the annoying device. Nakyla’s code flashed on the display.
“Raith speaking,” he answered as he stepped out of the office.
“Hey Raith, I think perhaps you may want to forego our dinner plans and meet us up at Control One. I’ve got a few young friends of yours waiting to speak to you.”
Raith hesitated as he furrowed a brow. Young friends? There were only two possibilities-it was either the orphans or Askar and Madrick, but why either group would go to Control One was beyond him.
“I’m on my way,” he reported.
It was twenty minutes before he arrived at the large command complex that sat near the heart of the city. Every major city department was housed here, including Sarsan’s private office and quarters. Control One sat at the central point of the maze of offices. Every military operation ever conducted was run from the safety of this location.
Raith entered the complex through a less used rear entrance. As he neared the backside of Control One, he heard the pleasant voices of Bud and Kaden as the pair chatted and laughed amongst themselves. At least it sounded as if there were no issues to address. He rounded a corner to find Bud, Kaden, Nakyla, Askar and Madrick standing around a small table.
“Ah, the good Commander has arrived,” Nakyla reported with a smirk.
“Good evening everyone. You do know it is time to eat?”
Bud’s lips spread in a wide grin. “But Raith, it seems you had an interesting visit with these two this morning. They have been hounding us all day, assaulting us with endless questions. It seems you made an invitation that they wish to take you up on.”
Raith’s ears perked at the news.
Madrick cast Bud a mortified glance. “Forgive me…I did not realize my questions…” he sputtered before Nakyla raised a hand.
“Whoa, take it easy. There’s one thing that you’ll have to learn real quick-Bud’s a bit of a jokester when he wants to be. Your questions were no trouble,” she said with a grin shot at Bud.
Madrick stared back at them with wide eyes.
“So Madrick, Askar-you have decided to join us tonight?” Raith asked as he joined them around the table.
Madrick cast a quick glance around at all gathered before turning a determined gaze back at him.
“Yes. I have considered what you said this morning. Today, I have spoken with many, learning about the way your military works, learning about your team. It made me realize that I do not want to be just another refugee wandering the halls without a purpose. I was raised a soldier and that is what I want to be,” he responded.
Raith nodded to him in understanding and approval before turning his gaze to Askar.
“I am ready as well, Commander,” the Cassarian reported.
“And you are prepared to work with us, following my lead?”
Both young men nodded, even though the question was directed at Madrick.
Madrick’s gaze quickly became concerned as he glanced down at the table top. Raith could see the worry in his eyes when he finally looked up again.
“Commander, sir. I must ask if I will be granted a safe haven, protection if necessary, if I am discovered to have participated in this venture.”
Raith felt the weight of everyone’s questioning gaze. He nodded as he sighed quietly.
“If it comes to it, yes. We take care of those who selflessly give their talents and resources for the greater good of all. We would not have survived as long as we have otherwise.”
Madrick nodded his understanding before relaxing and awaiting instruction as the others were.
“Well now, seeing as there are a few more participants for this evening, we will need to rearrange our plans a little. Normally we’ve had a chance to observe everyone’s skills in the field before undertaking such a venture. Madrick, where do you feel your talents best lie?”
“Raith, if I may speak,” Bud started.
Raith gestured for him to continue.
“I witnessed Madrick’s training sessions today, and found him quite competent in the energy vaults. He has a keen eye for weapons, especially the cannons, and, if I may be so bold, I think his skills are right up there with yours.”
“And we all know he is quite clever in hand to hand combat,” Nakyla added with a grin.
Raith considered the brief report. He already knew Askar was a talented scout and tracker. He would do well under Nakyla’s guidance. If heavy weapons were Madrick’s forte, the Rigon would be working with him. He turned his gaze to Madrick.
“Madrick? Your opinion?”
“Yes, in the field, I highly prefer to be the one holding the weapon. I was trained in many areas, but my strengths were more geared toward heavy artillery.”
“Very well. Askar, you will work with Nakyla scouting the areas ahead. Bud, you will be on the scanners. Kaden, you will be our eyes above and Madrick, you will be toting guns with me. Only question now is will you be wielding one of ours or something else?”
All eyes fell to the pensive Rigon. Madrick was silent for several moments before he finally looked up.
“I think…I think I would like to have my own things,” he replied carefully.
Bud, Nakyla and Kaden all shot him a questioning glance. Raith simply nodded.
“So it appears as if we have a quick side mission before the night’s venture gets underway. Your things…how much or little of it is there? Will you need assistance with removing it from the ships?”
Madrick hesitated. “I may need some help, but from the information given this morning, I will not need to go to my ship. My things are in storage.”
Now it was Raith’s turn to be surprised. He distinctly remembered there not being any unusual weapons retrieved from the Rigon ships. Madrick shot him a wiry grin.
“It seems I remember some of the crates may have been mislabeled. We could not chance having our belongings fall into the wrong hands,” he said. “And if it is not a problem, I wish only Askar’s assistance. If my betrayal is discovered, it would be best if as few as possible know the location of what I seek. No offense, Commander, but it would be in everyone’s best interest if you were not directly involved.”
Raith raised a brow. “None taken,” he muttered and lightly shook his head. He should have considered that the Rigons would pull a stunt like this.
“Very well. I suppose this will speed this operation along now that we don’t have to sneak out to those ships. Getting into the store rooms will not draw any attention. Let’s get this done. The sooner we accomplish the task, the sooner we can get out and find those drones.”
Madrick’s eyes were wide as they entered the large military launch chamber. This time of day, the activity was quite light. Only a skeleton crew was on duty while the regulars were at dinner. No one gave them a second glance as they passed through.
“All these ships…what are they for?” Madrick asked.
“Most are simply being stored here, safe from enemy fire. They are not really used for anything expect for spares if one of the military ships is damaged or destroyed. There are three active scouting squadrons, one which Askar should be taking back over soon,” Raith replied.
Askar gave him a confirming nod. The Cassarian had temporarily stepped down from his position while he dealt with the loss of his brother.
Raith noticed Madrick’s gaze fall to the large ship that sat in the center of the cavern.
“I thought you said all Leonian ships were destroyed.”
“I said almost all were destroyed. This one, the Deliverance, was nearly destroyed and is the only known battle cruiser remaining. It’s also the only ship we have here capable of warp jumps. It’s been in repairs now for nearly four years, and we hope to finally have it flying again within a few months.”
Madrick didn’t reply as they continued across the massive cavern. Raith led them to a large corridor lined with tall steel doors. Electronic screens were mounted by each door. He finally paused near the opposite end.
“These four vaults contain the contents of your ships. Askar, show Madrick how to search the inventories and help him retrieve his things. The rest of us will wait outside by the entrance,” Raith announced.
“No problem, Commander. We’ll get this done quickly,” Askar replied.
Raith nodded as the pair went to work. He turned back toward the corridor entrance. Once there, he turned to lean against the wall and observe his team’s mood.
“Well guys, now’s your chance to voice your thoughts on all of this.”
“I for one think you’re just a little crazy for inviting those two along. I mean, one’s a Rigon who’s afraid his father’s going to come after us! And since when are Rigons willing to work with Leonians? And Askar…I worry it is too soon for him to be trusted with a mission of this sort. He seems eager, but how much of that eagerness is just overconfident talk?” Kaden quickly jumped to reply.
Bud waved the Cassarian off.
“I’m a little curious as to what you are thinking, why you didn’t ask our opinions first, but I trust your judgment. You have never steered us wrong before. Plus, that kid’s got some serious skills. Alpha team skills? Well, that is to be seen. I have no opinion on Askar. I worry about his mental status, yes, but he has to be given a chance,” Bud added.
Raith nodded. “We’ll be observing both of them carefully for sure. And no one said they were becoming part of the team. But I am looking forward to seeing how they preform-I already know Askar has potential, and I see potential in Madrick as well. Nakyla?”
The Malkaian was looking at him in her typical critical, analyzing manner. She finally sighed.
“I sense mixed motives here. You see a chance in gaining Rigon favor with this, yes? But there is the chance it will backfire. Madrick seems quite worried about that possibility, but he’s done his research, and I must say he was quiet thorough in the short amount of time he had to work with. I suppose he felt this was worth the risk. I’m quite curious as to what’s in those vaults. Whatever it is, I recognize that look in your eyes. The kid has something you want. I’m guessing weapons.”
Nakyla had always had a talent for reading him. Raith cast a quick glance down the corridor before sighing.
“I know this is risky and I hope I’m not opening a real barrel of trouble here. But yes, there is a real opportunity to make significant progress in mending relations with the Rigons. Also, we could really use their help. They have more military training in their small group than our entire army combined. We are in desperate need of those with such backgrounds. And you are potentially correct, Nakyla. Madrick hinted at having weapons that can take down skidders.”
Nakyla’s eyes widened. “Really? Are you sure he was not just spouting things to try and gain your trust or worse yet, make a fool of you? We do not even have weapons that can take down skidders!”
“I have to trust what he claims. Why would he lie? He told me how they stole some of the enemy weapons back on their home world and then made copies of them, even possibly improved on them. I’m quickly learning that the Rigons are much smarter than we give them credit for.”
The group fell silent for several minutes.
“I look forward to seeing what the kid has to offer,” Bud finally muttered quietly to himself.
A clatter from down the hallway drew their attention. Raith quickly spotted Askar and Madrick approaching with a cart stacked with sturdy metal containers. Askar wore an excited and determined gaze. Raith and his team stepped in to meet them.
“I assume you found everything you needed?” Raith asked.
“Very well. Let us make our final preparations.”
Raith was anxious to see what was contained in the two large crates that Madrick had not yet opened. The first two had contained the pieces of the young Rigon’s personal armor, and even that was a sight to behold. It was far heavier than his excursion suit, so heavy that he wondered how Madrick could even move in it. The reveal of Madrick’s suit had led to them finding suitable armor for Askar. Once that tedious task was complete, they had gone over the details of the night’s plan. It had been all Raith could do to keep his thoughts focused. When Madrick finally asked Askar’s assistance to lift the longest of the crates to the table top, Raith had nearly allowed himself to rush over in excitement.
All eyes watched in eager anticipation as Madrick deftly worked the well concealed locking mechanism. Not a sound was heard when he finally began lifting the lid to expose the crate’s contents.
Bud gave a long whistle as they got their first glimpse of the Rigon’s secret weapon.
“What…what the hell is that?” Nakyla finally asked, breaking the stunned silence.
Even Raith was stumped. It almost looked like a smaller version of the cannons mounted to their ship, but its barrel ended in a solid, reddish hued glass lens. He saw no standard trigger mechanism and he soon discovered the smaller crate contained the weapon’s energy pack. Its size required it to be carried on the user’s back. He suddenly understood why Madrick’s armor was so heavy.
“This is my personal gun. It is like your cannons, only with more kick…much more kick. I must warn you though. This weapon is coded to my genetics. If anyone else tries to use it, it will self-destruct, and you do not want that to happen.”
Raith arched a brow. “I see. I suppose that is one way to make sure that only you use it,” he finally replied.
“How does it work?” Bud asked.
Madrick only shrugged. “I know how to use it, not the design behind it. Like any other weapon, you point and shoot. You just have to be prepared for the back blast; I’ve seen shoulders dislocated by these things,” came the reply.
“Huh, I can believe that. Look at the size of that thing!” Kaden exclaimed.
“As much as I would love to see that thing work, I hope we do not find ourselves in a position to need it. Does everyone have the plan down?” Raith asked, changing the topic back to the task at hand. They could not waste too much more time.
“Yes, sir,” came a chorus of replies.
Raith prepared to step away from the table when he felt Bud’s hand fall to his shoulder. Bud’s serious gaze prodded him to make his final announcement.
“Before we head to the ship, there’s one last item I must address. Madrick, there is something out there, a creature of some sort, that we are likely to encounter, especially if there are drones around. Under no circumstances are you to attack it or even approach it. I know it is on our side, but if you threaten it in any way, it will defend itself.”
“You got that right. We can’t be having any mishaps with that cannon strapped to him,” Nakyla muttered as she checked her gear.
Raith shot her a critical glare, which went ignored. He turned back to Madrick.
“A creature? I’m not sure I understand. What is it?”
“Commander, are you talking about THAT creature? The one…from before?” Askar asked with wide eyes.
“Yes,” he replied simply before shaking his head. “We do not know for sure what it is. It normally stays just out of sight, but if you do happen to catch a glimpse of it, you will see only the large cloak that it wears. That and its glowing blue eyes.”
Askar’s awestruck gaze turned to Madrick. “It is a controller of energy.”
All eyes suddenly flew to Askar.
“What?” Madrick asked with wide eyes.
Raith scowled fiercely before shaking his head. “Askar’s been listening to too many superstitious women,” he muttered.
“Sarhea did not influence my analysis; it is my own conclusions,” Askar countered with a hint of indignation.
“Whatever the case, it must be respected. Keep a watch for it if drones present themselves. The creature likes to attack them and is pretty damn good at taking them down.”
“It uses daggers,” Askar added quietly with a hint of reverent awe.
“Daggers? It takes down drones with daggers?”
“Yes, daggers, which it is very skilled in using. Now if there are no further questions, we need to get this gear loaded. We have a lot of ground to cover,” Raith replied as he turned from the table and headed toward the launch bay. Their mysterious friend was an intriguing topic, but he had no desire to waste time by launching into a conversation that he knew would inevitably spiral off into talk of Guardians. It was a topic he had no desire to debate-he did not have the time or patients and they had too much ground to cover tonight.
Raith did his best to keep his festering frustration contained as they navigated the last few steps down to the ravine floor. The sector they had decided to scout tonight had been previously observed during the day and he had been assured that there was a good path down. He needed to have a serious chat with the soldier who made such an assumption. The path had been narrow and littered with rocky debris and crumbling gaps. Perhaps it would not have been so treacherous if they had not been wearing such heavy armor. Raith had no idea how Madrick managed to navigate the trail in the darkness with the weight he was carrying.
The Rigon decided to jump down from the last three feet and landed with a solid thud. Raith cringed as the heavy cannon slapped hard against the man’s suit. The last thing they needed was for it to accidently go off. He finally gave up trying to navigate around the last few obstacles and followed Madrick’s lead. They would definitely have to find a different route back up.
“Wow Madrick, I was worried there for a minute,” Nakyla whispered as they joined her and Askar behind a cluster of large bounders.
Madrick shot her a confused glance. “It was not that difficult. There were much more dangerous trails for us to navigate back on my world. This one was nothing.”
“None the less, I was told this was a good trail. I’ll have to make sure to scout them myself next time,” Raith muttered as he cast a quick glance up and down the ravine’s length.
This particular section was quite narrow and the sheer walls made several seemingly sharp bends in both directions from their position. He did not see how a drone could maneuver through the region, so was counting on them having to fly overhead where they would easily be picked up by Kaden’s scanners.
“Kaden, how does it look up there,” he called quietly into the radio mounted in his helmet.
There was nothing but static. “Kaden?”
Bud immediately set to work analyzing the data being recorded by the equipment pack on his back. It was not long before the Kalatian shrugged and shot him a confused glance.
“The screens are clear as far as I can tell and the equipment is working. I sent him a message just to be sure,” Bud reported quietly.
It was not long before the crackle of static registered in his earpiece.
Raith allowed a low growl as he seethed in frustration. Could nothing go as planned? Without Kaden’s high ground viewpoint, they would be mostly blind. He was rapidly beginning to consider calling the whole mission off.
A strange sensation suddenly washed over him, causing a chill to race down his spine. But the feeling did not bring worry; it brought about an odd sense of peace. Raith’s ears perked and listened for any unusual sounds. The creature was here, somewhere, and he felt it watching over them. He felt his nerves calming.
“Send Kaden another message confirming the communication errors, but tell him not to boost the signal too much. His purpose is to stay undetectable. Too much output and those drones will be able to see him.”
Bud nodded and set to his task. Raith felt Nakyla’s curious gaze as he cast a careful glance around at the ravine walls. The enhanced display provided by his helmet allowed him to see in the near darkness, but he saw no signs of movement to confirm the creature’s presence. He only sensed its presence.
“Everything good, Raith?” she asked quietly.
“Yeah. I think it will be.” He paused and cast one last glance at his surroundings. “As soon as we get some kind of confirmation from Kaden, we’ll get started. Remember, we are looking for any clues as to why the drone activity has been so much higher in this area. Stick to the shadows and cover of rocks if at all possible.”
“Commander, it seems we have some signal issues. I’ve got the power boosted to the maximum safe level, but it seems the ravine in that area is causing some interference. The radar is clear for the moment, so it’s safe for you guys to continue. Kaden out,” came the quiet voice through his earpiece
Raith nodded as he gave the team the signal to begin.
It seemed as though several hours had passed before they finally came upon a section of ravine that opened into a wider, bowl shaped gap. Tall spires of rock jutted up from the floor and reached nearly half way to where the surface above began to close back in to a narrower rift. Raith had never seen such a formation. He paused the team beside a cluster of rocks just outside the unusual formation.
“Kaden, everything still look good up there?”
“…clear…” came the broken reply.
Raith shot Bud a fierce scowl. Their communications had been working fine up until now.
“Everything looks clear down here as well,” Bud finally whispered.
Raith cast a weary glance out at their surroundings. He didn’t like this one bit. The formation ahead was the perfect place to get caught off guard, and there was no good escape route from the area. The ravine also appeared to widen further to the west.
“Everything ok, Commander?” Askar asked quietly.
Raith shook his head. “I’m not sure. The scanners may say the area’s clear, but don’t let your guard down. Madrick, be ready with that cannon.”
Madrick nodded as he placed his strong hand on the sling that held the weapon over his shoulder. Raith gave Nakyla a quick sideways nod, motioning her to scout ahead. She nodded her understanding and slipped past them and into the shadows. He watched in tense anticipation as the Malkaian slipped silently from one rock cluster to the next until she’d checked the entire perimeter and briefly into the narrower section beyond. She gave the all clear signal.
Raith motioned the rest to follow as he quietly moved forward. He pulled his own gun off his shoulder and readied it for use. The peace he’d sensed earlier was gone and he hoped it didn’t mean the creature had moved on. If there were drones anywhere nearby, it would know long before they did.
They quickly made it through the bowl formation and paused inside the continuing path. Raith spotted Nakyla examining the rock wall not far from him.
“What is it?” he asked quietly.
Nakyla’s amber eyes were critical as she cast him a quick glance before kneeling to examine loose gravel and dirt at the base of the wall.
“Something’s been moving through here, and quite recently. I can only assume it was drones. See the odd flare up roughly twenty feet? That is not natural. It almost appears as if they purposely widened it.”
Raith scowled fiercely at the report and he had to agree with her as he examined the sight for himself.
“What are they doing?”
“I don’t know, but I’m getting a bad feeling about this. I’ve not scouted far from our position, but where I have gone, there is more evidence that someone has been messing with the ravine walls, especially the north wall,” came the Malkaian’s somber reply.
Raith cast one last glance further down the ravine to the west. They were about to enter a new sector that had not been scouted as thoroughly during the daylight. No, he didn’t like this at all.
“Sorry guys, but I think we’re going to have to cut this venture short. I don’t…this area needs to be examined closer during the day. I just don’t feel comfortable moving forward from here-something’s not quite right.”
The hesitant gazes from nearly everyone told him they felt the same. Madrick was the only one who looked mildly disappointed.
“Don’t worry, Madrick. The mission will continue, just not tonight. The first key to keeping everyone safe is knowing when to stop and reevaluate the situation. Bud, contact Kaden and tell him to come get us.”
A cold chill washed over him as a slight breeze flowed by them, heading east. Raith instantly became alert, his ears twitching and swiveling in search of anything unusual. Nakyla was just as tense beside him as her hard glare scanned the shadows beyond. The quiet echo of rocks being moved, almost as if being blown aside, reached his ears. His eyes widened.
“Get back!” he hissed as his weapon came flying up. “Bud!”
“I don’t see anythi…wait…what the hell? Raith, I thought I picked up something, then it just disappeared!”
“Heat signature or energy signature?”
“….Commander! …signature…drone!” came Kaden’s frantic, broken voice.
“Where! Where is it!” Raith called as he tried to corral everyone back the way they’d come while also facing some unseen danger.
Before anyone could respond, the familiar hum of a drone’s engine began echoing through the ravine before them. He caught sight of the metallic hull right before brilliant white light erupted around them.
“Take cover!” he yelled as the heat of an energy blast struck the ravine wall just overhead, sending a shower of rock shards raining down on their heads.
He felt the frantic scramble of bodies behind him as everyone rushed back out into the wider bowl formation. Raith lifted his weapon just in time to see the dark shape barreling towards them. He had only one chance. He quickly aimed and pulled the trigger.
Blinding hot white light erupted all around him, the force of it throwing him back and out into the wider area. He hit the ground hard and flat on his back, the air rushing from his lungs.
“Commander!” he heard a muffled voice call out before strong hands grabbed his arm and drug him back.
Raith was dazed as he was shoved up against stone. The strong hands shook him before he finally caught a glimpse of Madrick’s frantic gaze.
“Commander, are you alright? Ahh! Duck!”
Instinct took over as he ducked down behind the large cluster of boulders just before another energy blast slammed into them. He felt the heat and heard the rock shards hit the ravine walls around him. Raith shook his head as his senses finally returned. Where was his gun? He cast a frantic glance over to where Madrick cradled his cannon roughly fifteen feet from him. He did not see anyone else. The hum of the drone’s engine echoed around the small space, but there was another sound…it’s engine sputtered and the grating ring of metal on metal joined the other sounds.
“Bud! Nakyla! Askar!” he called out.
“Raith! Stay where you are! We’re fine at the moment, but that thing is damaged and smashing into everything it sees!” came Bud’s voice as another blast sent sharp rock shards raining down upon them.
“Madrick, can you get a shot?” he called over to the Rigon.
“I’m trying, sir, but every time I try to line up on it, it fires at us!”
“Someone distract that thing so Madrick can get a shot!” Raith called out over the hum of the drone’s engine.
Light filtered down through the formation’s ceiling as the familiar roar of his ship’s engines arrived overhead.
“Raith! I can’t get a lock on it!” came Kaden’s frantic voice through his earpiece.
Raith cast a frantic glance back to where he’d been standing and quickly spotted his lost weapon. It was much too far away for him to safely retrieve. He tried to raise enough to take in the scene, but as soon as his ears cleared the stone, he felt the charge of another blast.
“Stay down, Raith!” Bud yelled out as another blast slammed into the ravine wall overhead.
“Raith! The drone’s wing is damaged. It cannot lift off or maneuver well at all. Our voices echoing around this cavity seem to be keeping it confused. We need to keep it that way-your position can’t take many more hits!” Nakyla called out just before another explosion crashed into the wall somewhere behind him.
“Commander! I’m picking up a heat signature approaching from the west! I think it’s our drone hunting friend!” came Kaden’s voice over radio.
Raith’s eyes widened as he cast a frantic glance over to where Madrick still waited for his opportunity to take a shot. The cannon was primed and ready.
“Remember-don’t hit the creature!” he called.
Madrick nodded as they both braced against their rocky cover as another shower of sharp shards was scattered in their direction.
“Nakyla, do we have an opening!”
“Not yet! It’s currently searching for you two! Stay down!”
Raith growled in helpless frustration as his mind frantically screamed for a solution. A feral snarl suddenly rose and joined the echo of sounds bouncing around the rocky formation.
“Sir! It’s the creature! It’s attacking…Sir it’s in trouble!” came Askar’s alarmed voice from somewhere to his left.
All caution was lost as he shoved himself up just in time to see the cloaked form being thrown violently from the back of the drone and into the western face of the rock wall. It tumbled down to the floor in a heap as the faltering drone backed toward the east to give itself room to fire on it.
“Madrick!” Raith yelled as he scrambled over the rocks. There was no way he would reach his lost weapon in time!
“I’m on it, Commander!” he heard the Rigon call out.
Madrick would only have once chance. Raith’s gaze remained locked on the heap of brown cloth that lay motionless not far from his weapon. If he could only distract the mechanical beast…
Blinding light exploded throughout the cavity, causing him to throw his hands up before him to shield his face. For a split second, he had no idea what had just happened. Had the drone fired on them? An explosion of sparks soon rained down upon him as the smoldering drone fell heavily to the ravine floor. The shock of the impact nearly knocked him from his feet. He cast a quick glance back to see Madrick kneeling with the cannon to his shoulder. Wisps of hazy smoke still rose off the weapon’s strange glass tip.
Raith’s gaze flew back to the creature. It was carefully lifting itself up off the floor. He could sense its disorientation, could see the pain in its slow movements. He quickly began to step towards it.
The concern was short lived. The cloaked form suddenly sprang to its feet and fell growling into a defensive stance with daggers drawn. Raith froze in his tracks as he watched it scurry to the side and over to the downed drone. When it got there, it hesitated. He could only watch as it examined the remains and it seemed quite perplexed.
“What’s it doing?” Madrick asked as he and the others quickly arrived at his side.
“Raith! Guys! What’s going on down there?” Kaden called over the radio.
“The drone’s down and everyone’s ok, relatively speaking,” Raith reported and winced as pain flared through his right shoulder and back. “Keep a close watch on that west end and see if you can find us a good way out of here.”
A static laden acknowledgement was heard before the roar of the ship’s engines overhead began to fade.
“That cannon of yours seemed to do the trick, Madrick,” Raith whispered as they watched the creature examine the destroyed hull. “That thing usually rams its daggers in for good measure.”
Glowing blue eyes shown out from under the hood as the creature’s gaze locked onto their small group. It seemed to be analyzing them. Raith took a hesitant step forward before cringing at a sharp pain that flared in his knee. His excursion suit could not protect him from everything. He felt Bud’s hand on his shoulder.
“I’ll live,” he whispered.
“Guys, what’s happening?” came Askar’s hesitant voice.
Raith looked back to the creature to see it lowering its daggers. The weapons were pulled back into the darkness of the cloak. When its hands reappeared, he caught sight of a familiar blue sphere of energy building on its palms. His eyes widened.
“What the hell is that?” Nakyla hissed beside him.
Raith didn’t reply as he took a careful step toward the creature. He felt a presence around him, beckoning him forward; it felt very much like the presence he’d felt that day in the storage room. The glowing blue sphere was reached out toward him and soon was left hovering before the cloaked form. A hint of red flame began to burn on its hand as it reached over and touched a glowing finger to the sphere, adding a hint of red to the offering. Familiar violet haze now formed on its other hand and with a quick breath, the offering was sent forward.
Raith carefully removed his suit’s glove and reached a hand out to receive the gift.
“Raith!” Nakyla hissed again. “What the hell are you doing!”
“It’s alright,” he whispered calmly without taking his eyes off the creature.
He felt the beckoning again and carefully took another step forward. When he felt a hesitance, he stopped. The creature sent out another breath which pushed the offering just over his open palm. He gently raised his hand up to it as he did before, and just like before, it quickly was absorbed into his hand. He closed his eyes as the energy rushed up his arm and into his core. It felt different this time; it brought peace but also revived him. It had been an offering of healing. The throbbing pain in his knee, shoulder and back already felt better.
“Thank you,” he whispered and began to back up until he’d rejoined his team.
Another offering formed on the creature’s hand.
“Do I even want to know what just happened?” Nakyla whispered coldly beside him.
“It offered a gift so I took it,” he replied simply. Now was not the time to explain.
Askar abruptly dropped his weapon on the ground and slowly stepped forward. Bud began to reach out to stop him.
“Leave him. He’ll be alright,” Raith whispered.
Bud shot him a questioning glance but stepped back into place.
Askar paused as Raith had done, and just as before, the gift was sent out. Askar copied what he’d done and the offering was quickly absorbed. He heard Askar let out a heavy sigh.
“Wow,” Askar whisper in awe before returning to the group. “I hope Lyle felt that before he died,” he whispered to Raith.
“I’m sure he did.”
Another offering was held out.
“Guys, it’s offering us a gift, and I’ll be the first to say, it is well worth it,” Raith whispered.
“Both of you are completely nuts! You have no idea what that thing is doing to you!” Nakyla spat quietly.
Madrick suddenly slug his cannon over his shoulder so that it rested harmlessly across his back and slowly stepped forward. Raith’s eyes widened and worry flared within him; the creature did not seem to like their weapons. He thought about stopping the young Rigon but hesitated when the creature abruptly stepped forward. Madrick hesitated and wisely remained still as the cloaked figure moved within arm’s reach of him. It slowly made a cautious circle around him, the blue violet orb still hovering above its hands. It seemed intrigued by the large cannon slung across his back. It eyed the weapon for nearly a minute before moving back before Madrick.
Madrick slowly removed a glove and lifted his hand when the creature held out the offering. Then, instead of drifting the orb over to him, the creature practically placed the offering in his open hand. It then lowered its head and backed away. The Rigon exhaled heavily as the energy was absorbed.
Raith couldn’t help but feel a pang of jealousy as another gift formed in the creature’s hand. From the corner of his eye, he could see Nakyla shaking her head and Bud backed up several steps.
“Come on guys,” Raith whispered.
“Maybe another time,” Bud replied quietly.
The cloaked form seemed to understand the hesitance. The last offering erupted into blue-violet flames that danced from its fingers. The hand lifted and was placed over its right shoulder. Raith suddenly remembered the creature being thrown against the ravine wall; it had been injured. It hesitated for a moment longer as it glanced at the destroyed drone before it turned and disappeared into the shadows.
Madrick remained standing where he was.
“Madrick,” Raith called.
The Rigon slowly turned his head. His hand was still stretched out before him.
“Are you alright?” Bud asked.
“I…I’m not sure…what just happened,” he slowly replied.
“I don’t know, but it felt amazing,” Askar whispered.
“Hey you guys! Are all your radios and radars broken or what?” came Kaden’s voice from above.
Raith glanced up to see the Cassarian’s worried gaze peering over the edge. Yes, their radios were malfunctioning, but the with the creature’s arrival, Bud had not been monitoring his equipment.
“Kaden, did you find us a way back up?” Raith called.
“There’s a decent path about a quarter mile from here. Right now, the coast is clear, but I think it would be unwise to hang around any longer. This area needs a lot more scouting before we dig into it any further. That was much too close for comfort!”
“We’ll meet you there shortly. Continue to keep an eye out. There is definitely something wrong with our equipment.”
Kaden’s face disappeared.
“Kaden’s right. That was enough excitement for one night,” Raith muttered as he turned back to the east.
They traveled in silence for several minutes before Raith felt Madrick’s presence coming up behind him. The Rigon had barely said a word since the encounter.
“How you doing over there,” he asked as he walked.
“I feel…strange,” came the quiet reply.
Raith finally cast a quick glance over to see a critical, pensive look on Madrick’s face.
“I felt the energy flow through me. It brought peace and eased my pains. I’m inclined to believe what Askar said earlier. The creature is a Light Bringer.”
“Light bringer?” Raith hesitated briefly at the unfamiliar phrase.
“Yes. Rigons have a legend that tells how the universe’s essence is controlled and protected by a collective force known as the Keepers. They would allow the essence to be given to the select few worthy and capable of handling its power, and they were the ones entrusted to do the Keepers’ bidding amongst the stars. These beings are known as Light Bringers. It is said they have unusual and powerful abilities.”
Raith was surprised by the brief explanation. “I had no idea that Rigons held such beliefs. Taloans have similar legends, only the Keepers are called Guardians and the Light Bringers are called the Children of the light, or as some oldsters would argue, Dalmarians.”
“I’ve heard that word, or one like it before. It was a long time ago and I do not remember the context, but it had been spoken in reverent tones.” A scowl formed on Madrick’s face as he paused. “It is hard to fathom that stories I heard as a child could actually be true.”
Raith sighed quietly as they continued to follow the others before them. “I know the feeling,” he muttered. “Madrick, I need to ask that you keep this quiet. Knowledge of this creature rests with a very small group at the moment. The last thing we need is for a panic to get started or the overly superstitious to rise up and start looking for this thing. I can already imagine the riots that would break out as an already jumpy population begin to see things that are not there.”
“I know the trouble you speak of. I’ve seen it happen even within the Rigon population once, right after the machines started attacking us. Rigons were imagining they saw the things in our caverns, and soon panic was running rampant through the tunnels-many got hurt.”
They moved along in silence for several more minutes before Madrick spoke up again.
“I will not mention the creature to anyone. It is a secretive being, dwelling in the safety of the shadows. It deserves to be left in peace until such time it decided on its own to make its presence known. I’m still baffled as to why it got so close to us today. It seemed very curious about my cannon.”
Raith eyed the young man curiously. Madrick spoke with wisdom beyond his years. “It has helped us before, but that was the first time I’ve not seen it attack a drone that we brought down. That weapon of yours seems to have done something ours can’t.”
Madrick fell silent once more as they tried to catch up with the others. “I had a strange impression earlier when the creature was so close. I think it is female,” he said abruptly.
Raith hesitated and shot the Rigon a critical stare. Female? A sudden memory came flooding back. When Finnick had been in the boxes and the creature lifted them off of him, he’d called it her. He’d been so worried about the boy that he’d not really paid attention what he’d said…until now.
“Are you sure? Did you get a better look at it when it got so close?”
“Not really. It was more in its mannerisms and its stature. A male would not have been so careful and delicate after such a battle. The rush of the moment does not lead us to gentleness. And what I saw of its hands…the shape of its hands beneath the glow was small and delicate, much as the creature itself. The cloak cannot hide that fact.”
Raith scowled in thought. He’d not paid much attention to its hands, but he had noticed its smaller size. And the children…it made more sense that a female would be drawn to the sounds of children.
“What would drive a female to take such risks,” Raith mumbled aloud.
“What drives Nakyla to do this?”
“Somehow, I don’t think that is a fair comparison. This creature confuses me; tonight, it showed that despite being a fierce warrior, it is also gentle and caring. It did not have to give us those gifts of what I can only describe as healing. I get the impression that it’s taking its anger out on the drones.”
“If it is female, perhaps it had offspring it lost because of the drones.”
The thought stopped him cold. The idea made too much sense, the way it had been drawn to the orphans, the emotion he felt from it at Lyle’s death, the way it took such care to offer them healing tonight…He felt his heart begin to ache for it.
“I hope that’s not the case. I don’t think there are many of its kind here, if there are any others at all. I…I would hate to think that it could be facing such pain alone,” he replied and forced himself to keep walking despite the conflicted emotions that threatened to overwhelm him.
Raith could feel Madrick’s curiosity leveled on him as he walked. He finally sighed and cast a weary glance back at the young man.
“You are not the man I thought you would be,” Madrick said quietly.
Raith did not know how to respond as he tried to focus on keeping up with the rest of his team.
“How do you mean?” he finally asked as Madrick moved in beside him.
“Well, sir, you are indeed the warrior everyone claims you to be. Not one had a single negative remark to say about you or your skills today. But I have a sense that the warrior is not who you truly are.”
Raith nearly stumbled when the words caught him off guard. He shot the man a questioning gaze. Madrick just kept walking along as if nothing had changed.
“My father is a warrior. His only focus is on battle and strategy. He has time for little else. He would not care how those around him felt about their situations or go out of his way to right the wrongs done to others, by others. I do not think he would care whether the elderly and young got their fair share of rations. Your motto is strength in unity; ours was survival of the fittest. My father definitely would not concern himself over the feelings of a mysterious creature. No, you are not a typical warrior, but this is why you have and deserve the status you hold and why warriors like my father will never move beyond their current circumstances.”
Words escaped him as he trudged along. He had not been expecting what Madrick had to say.
“It has been a true honor to be included in this mission tonight, an honor to see the man of city legends in action,” he continued and turned to give him a respectful nod of the head.
Raith was stunned and deeply touched by the Rigon’s words. It had been a long time since such encouraging words had been spoken directly to him by someone other than Sarsan or his teammates, and to hear it from a Rigon that he barely knew was nothing short of a miracle.
“You are a good man, Madrick, a true asset to your species. Thank you for your words. I have also found it a privilege to have you with us tonight, and not just because you saved our lives. I did not know what to expect going into this, but after having the chance to get to know you, to hear just how similar our species really are, I feel this will lead to great things for all citizens of Refuge City. I look forward to seeing more from you. There will always be a place for you, and any of your brethren who feel as you do, among our ranks. Perhaps one day, fate will see you a permanent fixture on this team.”
Madrick simply grinned at him in silence.
“Hey Commander! You two going to drag your feet forever back there?” came Nakyla’s demanding voice.
Raith sighed as he picked up the pace.
“Leave it to women to kill the peace,” he muttered as Madrick chuckled and followed suit.
7 June 2014 at 15:01:18 MDT
Madrick and Askar tag along with the Alpha Team on a scouting mission. Madrick proves his value and new bonds are formed.
This chapter's a little longer, but I'm really quite proud of it. Let me know what you guys think!
And finally got around to updating the chapter image to something not so generic...and Raith looks stupid-can't figure out exactly why, but I gave up trying to fix him x.x
CotL and characters © ME