Taleb crouched beside a gaping hole in the rock-strewn jungle, at the base of the Barrier Ring mountains of the skyland Rut Nasaal. At his feet, a rocky incline descended througha a in the ground into a tunnel, no taller or wider than a pair of men, snaking away under the jungle floor.
Around him, scattered among the twisted and gnarled trees, fifty of his Dryn Mar brothers and sisters in arms were gathered. The normal jungle creatures had gone silent, enabling Taleb to hear the flutter of the Dryn Mar soldiers' leathery wings and the swooshes of their scaled tails as they shifted around, vying for a glimpse into the darkness of the hole. In the shadows of the canopy, the colors of their scales were muted shades of gray. Here and there, a stray ray of sunlight revealed white, red, green, blue and yellow, a testament to the nature of the terrible masters that had created them.
Normally he would be disgusted with such nervousness in seasoned warriors, but Taleb could not fault them in this case.
It wasn't the darkness he knew, for Dryn' Mar had starsight, and darkness would hamper their vision no more than a starry night would. No, it was the absence of the sky that had them on edge. It was unpleasant enough to be under the dense jungle canopy, where taking to the wing would be difficult. Descending into a space where rock encroached tightly on every side gave a sense of apprehension that even Taleb shared.
"This is it then?" asked a light, silvery voice just behind him.
Taleb glanced over his shoulder to see a Dryn Mar that was lither than most, standing atop a nearby, moss covered boulder. Where the others shuffled about nervously, she stood calm and still, as ever she did. Pulled about her like a cloak, her wings covered most of her slender body, but where her scales were exposed they sparkled like sapphires when the morning light pierced the canopy to kiss her.
"Yes, Moana. This is it."
Taleb stood and turned a circle, facing the squad of fighters he had brought with him for this mission. "This is it!" he shouted to a chorus of cheers. He flashed a sharp-tothed smile at Moana, and then began the descent into the cave.
Upon reaching the bottom he stopped, giving his eyes a moment to adjust from the vibrant colors of the surface to the gray-scale of starsight. Though rough and bumpy, the cavern was a perfect tube that sloped gently downward. Dense patches of thin, feathery roots dangled from the ceiling to the floor, searching for water that wasn't there. While the opening hadn't been large enough to permit more than one Dryn Mar at a time, the cavern itself was wide enough that they could progress two abreast.
Taleb set off, aware of the sound of his fellow Dryn Mar dropping in behind him to form a procession. A ways down the tunnel, as they came around a bend, one wall was riddled with holes that allowed spears of sunlight to prick the darkness. Taleb noted that even when illuminated, the stone all around them was dull and gray.
Sometime later they passed an alcove where a pale, crystal spire jutted up from the cavern floor. Taleb looked it over briefly, and then pressed on without giving it another thought. Had he known the story behind Matka's disappearance*, he might have paused for a moment of thanks. The absence of Matka, an accomplished assassin responsible for crushing many rebellions before they could start, was the very thing making Taleb's actions today possible.
He would never admit it, but Taleb wasn't entirely certain where they were going. The passage had been descending deeper and deeper, and more sharply so, for a while now. While a couple side passages had presented themselves, they were smaller, and his gut told him to stay the course. A moment later his gut feeling was confirmed as he came across a very old, humanoid skeleton. Throwing his fist up to halt the procession, Taleb crouched down and looked it over. Immediately he realized it had no wing bones, leaving no doubt that the skeleton did not belong to a Dryn Mar. Indeed, the Dryn Mar were a creation, a race of warrior slaves created to protect their masters – the Dryn – from the very creatures he believed this skeleton to be.
"Lon," he whispered under his breath as he rose to his feet. He dropped his fist from the air, and they began the march once more. The purpose of their mission was clear now, and he was eager to see it through.
Rasmusen, Taleb's mentor and the leader of the Freedom Force, had instructed Taleb to take fifty of their five-hundred members, and locate ships that had been discovered buried in these caverns. Locate, and commandeer. Taleb had complete faith in Rasmusen, and did not normally question orders, but this one seemed too strange. When he asked what he was to do once he commandeered these ships, Rasmusen had simply told him that he would know when the time came. Silently, however, Taleb had wondered how a bunch of ships had come to be located in caverns on an island in the sky – and how commandeering them would help.
Now he knew.
These were not ordinary ships they were after, but airships – and not just airships, but the fabled Fleet of Orn.
That realization shifted the scope of his mission drastically, and suddenly failure become so much more terrifying than the all of the stone overhead ever could. This was it; this was the moment of the rebellion. Rasmusen had sent him, Taleb, to take command of Orn's Fleet and use it to fight against the Dryn. The idea that he would sail the ships of their worst enemy into battle with the creatures that created them to fight that enemy was such a delightful irony that he laughed out loud.
"Taleb?" Moana asked as she stepped up beside him. "Are you well?"
"Better than well, Moana," he replied as they marched. "Much better. Brekkus has delivered to us Orn's Fleet."
He heard her suck in her breath, and then breathe out the word, "Impossible."
Taleb grinned wickedly. "After today, the old fool will regret not joining our cause."
Freedom Force wanted to overthrow - and kill, Taleb noted with satisfaction - the Dryn, so that Dryn Mar could occupy Rut Nasaal as they saw fit. Better Tomorrow, a pitiful rival organization overseen by Brekkus, wanted to flee the skyland, preferably without bloodshed, and find some other place to take up residence. Brekkus had found some long-lost ships, and had come to Rasmusen with a plan: Better Tomorrow flees on the ships while Freedom Force attacks. To hear Brekkus tell it, with the forces of the Dryn divided, both sides had a better chance. Rasmusen had rejected Brekkus offer, and had made a counter offer for Better Tomorrow to fold into the ranks of Freedom Force, which of course Brekkus refused.
While Rasmusen had rejected the offer of assistance, he had not altogether rejected the plan, Taleb realized. The more he thought about it, the more he saw the brilliance of it. Faced with battling a fleet of Lon ships, and an all-out rebellion taking place simultaneously, the Dryn would be forced to come out from the Temple – making them vulnerable. The look on the faces of their enemies when they saw Orn's Fleet coming for them, with Taleb at the helm, was something he was very excited to see.
Just then they rounded a corner, and Taleb gasped at the sight before him.
The corridor opened onto the side of an immense cavern that Taleb suspected occupied all of the bottom tip of the skyland. It was well lit by sunlight pouring through five massive holes in the cavern wall, beyond which was the open sky. Spread throughout the cavern were the eleven airships of Orn's Fleet.
Shaped like teardrops, wide and deep at one end while thin and shallow at the other, the massive ships were like nothing Taleb had ever seen. He saw a fat, hollow cylinder protruding from the front of them, and massive canvas fins that extended from the sides. The canvas was noticeably emblazoned with something, but the ships were back-lit and he could not make it out. Some of them had a center pole with a large half-circle piece of canvas attached, while others had a pole with no canvas.
Taleb continued moving into the chamber, taking it all in. With every gasp of excitement drawn from his soldiers as they followed, Taleb's smile widened. Shortly he would share with them what they had found, but just now he was enjoying the moment of discovery.
"Dryn's blood, you were right!" exclaimed Moana. "I can't believe it!"
"Believe it, dear Sister. Today marks the beginning of the end to our troubles. We will finally be free!"
He turned to his squad, all of which had entered the chamber now and were looking about in awe.
"Brothers and Sisters! I give you… the Fleet of Orn!" He shouted as he spun back to the ships and threw his arms out wide. A loud cheer went up from behind him, and Taleb felt triumphant already. Today would be glorious.
"Taleb! Ha!" a voice exclaimed from somewhere in the cavern, echoing oddly off the walls. "I suspected Rasmusen would send someone, and I hoped it would be you. For once, that snake did not disappoint."
Silence fell over the squad of Freedom Force warriors at the sound of the voice. Taleb's eyes darted around, searching for a source, but coming up short. He thought he recognized the speaker, but the echoes made it difficult to tell.
"We left you two ships," the voice continued, "the two on the South side. Learning how to fly them takes a bit, but we'll be happy to give you some pointers. After all, we wouldn't want you to miss your party."
"Show yourself!" Taleb shouted.
"It's quite simple really, they fly themselves!" The voice replied, ignoring Taleb's demand and even laughing for a moment. "All you have to do is direct it, and provide some wind or a push to get it going."
Taleb pushed further into the chamber, motioning for his soldiers to follow. He knew who was speaking now, and wherever the old fool was hiding, he would find him. Then he would break his wings, drag him out aboard one of these ships, and push him off the edge of it to plummet to the world below.
"Your decision here today was a foolish one, Brekkus!" Taleb shouted. "The Freedom Force will destroy the Dryn, and then where will you be? Not only did you not stand with us, but here you are, interfering with our plans! What are we –"
Taleb caught movement out of the corner of his eye, and he threw his clenched fist up to halt the procession.
From aboard one of the airships Brekkus had leapt into the air, the sunlight glaring blindingly off scales white as freshly fallen snow. After a moment he dropped down in front of the ship, his wings folding in and around him as he touched the ground. Seeing Brekkus next to the ship gave Taleb a better idea of their size. His squad of fifty soldiers could easily fit on just one of them, and probably still have room for fifty more.
" – to make of that?" Taleb finished as he turned slowly.
"Are we interfering in your plans, Taleb? Hmmm?" Brekkus folded his arms over his chest. "I don't see how that could be. In fact, it's quite impossible for us to be interfering, when I'm the one that came up with the damn plan!"
"But you couldn't pull it off," Taleb called back, "so you came to us! Rasumsen realized he didn't need you to pull it off, and so they became our plans."
Taleb had hoped he was striking a nerve with leader of Better Tomorrow, but he lost confidence in that as Brekkus' laughter filled the cavern. It was not a chuckle, but a belly laugh, and it found its way deeper and deeper under Taleb's skin with each echo.
"Why, if that is so, are we here and ready to set sail to freedom, even as Rasmusen is prepared to rebel? Was that not the plan? Oh, Taleb, you may be skilled, but you are young and foolish.
"Fortunately for you, Better Tomorrow is more generous than your Freedom Force. We could have taken all of the ships, but as I said, we have left you two. Once we are gone, you can forget all about us, never to deal with us again. Even better, with the entire Fleet sailing out instead of just a few ships, the forces guarding the Dryn will be even more drawn to our distraction, providing an easier target for Rasmusen's real forces."
"It was not meant to be a distraction!" Taleb screamed at the top of his lungs, irritated at the way Brekkus had stressed the word 'real." Taleb's voice bounced off the walls of the cavern to repeat the claim over and over, like a taunt. He could feel his moment of glory slipping past and knew he needed to get a handle on this situation, and the sooner the better.
"My orders are clear! Eliminate any opposition. Commandeer the ships." He motioned for the soldiers to fan out into the chamber, and they moved to obey.
"Difficult as it must be, don't be stupid Taleb."
Brekkus clapped his hands twice firmly. Dozens of Dryn' Mar took flight from their hiding places aboard the ships. The cavern came alive with color and filled with the whooshing beat of flapping wings. Taleb's hands balled into strained fists and his whole body trembled, but he made no move to recall his soldiers.
"You are outnumbered," Brekkus said calmly, "and I feel I should point out that it is difficult to participate in a rebellion when you are dead."
Taleb let out an agry scream.
"Not participate! Lead! Every Freedom Force fighter is worth five of yours; you will not stand in our way!"
To be continued...
* See my story Monolith for more on the disappearance of Matka.
v 1.4 12/3/17 Corrected a couple typos, made a couple minor adjustments in formatting to improve flow.