Numenera: Shadows of the Past
‘Will this rain ever bloody end?’ said Maxxos, wiping the droplets from his synth visor.
‘Pray it doesn’t,’ said Bion, ’it’s the only reason we’re alive.’
Maxxos had been standing on the battlements with the general for ten minutes in the storm. A hundred banners snapped in the wind outside the stone walls of Shallamas. Three-thousand soldiers bunkered in tents, drying their leathers and sharpening their swords. He wagered the luxurious pavilion of adamant silk was where High General Gerard sat his arse comfortably on cushions, waiting to begin the siege.
’I’d give an eye to see a trebuchet missile squash that tent with the weasel inside.’
Bion laughed at that and the two returned to the garrison tower. Alone in his quarters, Maxxos removed his helm and placed it on the table.
Something was wrong.
He took a moment to scan the room. Despite being promoted to captain-commander, he refused to move into the larger quarters next to the general’s. Here he knew where everything should be, and more importantly, where things didn’t belong.
A glowglobe had rolled off the table and sat hovering on the floor, casting a ring of gold light over the stone. Maxxos unsheathed the broadsword at his hip and listened.
A quiet titter came from under the table.
He threw the furniture off its legs and thrust his sword down. A small reptilian body squirmed beneath the blade, dark ooze spilling out of its pierced venom sac.
‘Another mighty beast slain,’ said a familiar voice at the doorway.
Maxxos looked up at Ay’lin, his wife dark and beautiful as ever.
’You’re mocking me,’ he said.
Even under imminent siege, he could count on Ay’lin’s good spirits. She was the foundation that kept him steady, and he needed her now more than ever. Death is at our gate, he thought, and it outnumbers us three-to-one.
He pressed his metal boot on the dead lizard and lifted his sword, venom dripping off the tip. ‘Its size aside, laaks are deadly. One bite can be fatal, if you’re unwary.’
Ay’lin’s smile implied he wasn’t telling her anything she didn’t already know. So he asked her something he didn’t know.
She glanced away. ‘I left him with Clarisse for a couple of hours.’
Clarisse was the wife of Captain Aubert Ros, a man who Maxxos often found himself at ends with. Ros was a soldier who was loyal when loyalty was safe and turned cloaks the moment his life looked to be in true danger. During the first Draolis conflict, Ros was sent by High General Gerard to replace Maxxos in the Shallamas garrison. At every turn the captain undermined Bion’s command, chipping away his authority. When Maxxos returned as captain-commander and uprooted Gerard’s agents, Bion gave Ros a choice: serve Shallamas or sit in a cell and pray Gerard gave second chances.
He made the wise choice, though it didn’t mean Maxxos trusted him — or the man’s wife.
‘Before you say anything,’ said Ay’lin, ‘the other officers’ wives are with them at the Provani Manor, preparing the house for siege. Denros will be fine.’
Behind her back, one arm tried to keep the traces of a crossbow concealed.
’You’re his mother,’ said Maxxos, ‘your place is with him.’
Anger flashed across her face. ‘My place is by your side, defending my son and this city as I’ve always done.’
Maxxos sighed. The endless night patrols and days of strategic planning had caught up to him.
‘When was the last time you fired a crossbow? Six months, a year?’
Ay’lin opened her mouth to speak but the words caught in her throat. Maxxos stepped past the fallen table and placed his gauntlets on her shoulders.
‘I can’t risk your life,’ he said. ‘If I fall, Denros will need his mother more than ever.’
The crossbow dropped to the floor with a loud thud.
Ay’lin’s arms wrapped around him, and they embraced.
Outside, the rain stopped.
The crisp morning air was a welcoming feeling against Theron’s molten skin. It was as if Venus herself was caressing him. He and Tranavaros had been waiting patiently, enjoying the openness of Qi’s central gardens when the Inquisitor and Me’gan arrived.
They were expected. The zhev was not.
‘What is that thing doing here?’ said Theron.
The hovering automaton looked like a metal kraken with three tentacle limbs. A triad of blazing green eyes dotted its visor, more organic than synth. He’d seen a dozen of them patrolling the highways around the greater districts of Qi, but something seemed different about this one.
It bristled at his use of thing.
‘You are in error,’ it said with a calm, male tone. ‘My name is Tria; designated Thirty-Three of the Zhev Peacekeepers. I am not a thing.’
Tranavaros approached the zhev with an outstretched hand, caught in some esoteric song Theron was deaf to. His fingers danced over the automaton’s metallic shell, the zhev fidgeting from the sensation.
He withdrew his hand, as if stung.
‘Its sentience has been awakened,’ said Tranavaros to the Inquisitor. ‘How?’
‘My name is Tria,’ insisted the zhev.
‘I destroyed his sleepers,’ said the Inquisitor.
‘Altering the command matrix of a zhev is against Durkhal law.’
The Inquisitor sniggered. ‘How little you know of the order you serve, Seeker.’
Tranavaros looked back at the zhev. ‘Perhaps one day that’ll change.’
Theron crossed his arms, his patience thinning. Half a month he was trapped in the sky, lifted by hot air across miles — only to sit inside the grey walls of the Durkhall for five days, his tunic smelling of flowers. Thrice he fought off acolytes trying to comb and scent his hair. His Uxphon braid took over an hour to tie; there was no road that led to those nalurus sons touching it. Now here he was, listening and waiting.
‘We boring you, mutant?’ said Me’gan. ’Don’t worry, we’ll be in the air soon enough.’
‘In the air?’ said Theron. ‘I thought the all-powerful Inquisitor could teleport us to Charmonde.’
‘A group this size is too difficult to move,’ said the Inquisitor. ’We’ll take your Highwind.’
Cyphers give me strength, thought Theron.
The airship remained where they’d left it, moored a hundred feet high on one of Qi’s spires. Up here dark clouds blanketed every view, the remnants of an eastern storm. The Highwind lay ahead on the edge of the steel platform, tied by metal cord. Tranavaros unlocked the door.
‘So what’s the plan?’ said Theron. ‘We kill Heston and then what? Who’s to stop someone else sitting their arse on the throne and continuing where he left off?’
The door creaked open and a smirking young Jinx dressed in blacks greeted them; beside him stood Lady Clara, doe-eyed and frowning.
‘They are,’ said Me’gan.
Gerard’s vanguard crashed against Shallamas’s eastern wall in a wave of steel. Maxxos stood atop the battlements with fifty men-at-arms, a hundred archers, and six ballistae.
It wasn’t enough.
Hundreds of soldiers rushed the wall, shields lifted over their heads as they raised a dozen siege ladders. Enemy arrows fell from the sky in sheets. Soldiers stumbled over the battlements in panic, hitting the ground with a sickening crunch. Bodies sank into the mud, carried into the earth by the weight of their armour. Arrows bounced off Maxxos’s heavy synth plate, the captain-commander unharmed as the chaos surrounded him.
Maxxos cursed and shouted orders to the archers. He watched the green boys fumble with their bows, sweat beading down their brows as they notched and returned fire, hailing death on the besiegers.
A soldier on the ladder took an arrow and fell, his screams drowned out by the battle.
A second man leapt onto the battlements, his chainmail spotted with mud and rust. Hard eyes found Maxxos and the enemy’s broadsword moved to separate shoulder from neck. The blade sang against Maxxos’s plate, scratching the synth. The captain-commander raised his metal boot into the soldier’s chest. Bones cracked, the man’s face twisted in pain as he fell back and disappeared over the wall.
One down, he thought.
A young ebon-skinned girl in boiled leather hurried toward Maxxos, her black hair clung to her face with sweat. She reached him and caught her breath.
‘What report have you, Yonda?’ said Maxxos.
‘The eastern gate, sir, it’s under attack.’
He frowned behind his visor. ‘How many?’
Maxxos rushed past Yonda and stopped at the battlements above the gate.
She wasn’t joking. A hunched giant covered in metal tubing and blinking numenera bashed the portcullis with steel-clad fists, big as boulders. The gate’s metal bars groaned in protest.
The giant’s chalk-white skin, cloudy eyes, and harsh metal fusions had a terrible familiarity to them.
Gerard, what have you done?
Stone and mortar loosened around the portcullis, fissures tracing along the wall as the reanimated monstrosity hammered the gate without tire. Maxxos sighed and reached over his shoulder, griping the hilt of his greatsword. He pulled it free of the magnetic grip that kept it bound on his back and stepped to the wall’s ledge.
Yonda shouted to him, ‘No, captain-commander!’
Maxxos leapt, his greatsword in both hands and pointed downward.
He fell upon the giant, his blade piercing metal, flesh, and bone. A small chrome box on the back of the abomination’s neck puffed smoke and groaned, its lights fading. The Merkadian dropped to its knees, lifeless.
Maxxos pulled the sword free and stumbled off the back of the giant, splashing in a pool of dirty rainwater.
‘Thought that was pretty fucking clever, didn’t ya?’ said a fat woman in chainmail holding spear in one hand, shield in the other.
Behind her, a hundred men-at-arms laughed with her.
The tavern reeked of ale and smoke leaf.
Maxxos took a seat on one of the splintered stools at the bar and shook dirt off his stained breeches.
‘What can I do you for?’ said the barkeep.
Through his fringe of unruly hair he saw a dark-skinned girl with big brown eyes.
‘Water,’ he said.
She frowned. ‘You can get water at the fountain down the road for free, you know?’
He turned towards a crowd of drunks singing around one of the corner tables. Beside them, a woman knelt over a bucket and retched up ale and fish.
‘I prefer the scenery here.’
‘Suit yourself,’ she said.
Two men laughed next to him, tankards in hand. One of the pair – a bearded giant of a man, ears encrusted with metal rings and gears – shouted, ‘Then what happened?’
The barkeep set a cup of water down.
‘Well,’ said the other one, ‘I told her "if you kiss it, it won’t look so sad".’
The giant roared with laughter.
‘Hey,’ Maxxos snapped, ’where’s your respect? There’s a woman here.’
The joker turned and smiled at him. ‘Oh, sorry, I didn’t see you there mi’lady. Does our talk offend you?’
Maxxos’s jaw clenched.
‘I think you got her mad, Bern,’ said the giant.
‘Aye,’ Bern grinned. ‘Come sit over here and I’ll make it up to you, sweetling.’
Maxxos’s hand went to the dagger on his hip.
‘Wait a minute,’ said the giant. ’Ain’t he the one on the wanted posters? “Raven”, they call him.’
Bern’s eyes widened. ’Calaval’s cock, you’re right! They’re paying a hundred shins for his head. Imagine what we could do with a hundred shins.’
The giant leapt off his seat. ’Don’t need no imagination to know what I’d do with it.’
Both men lunged.
Maxxos drew his dagger and threw himself forward. Steel flashed and blood splattered on the wooden floor.
Bern groaned, his hand pressed against the bloody mound where his left ear used to be.
‘He fucking cut me!’
‘Cut him back,’ urged the giant.
Maxxos watched the pair with wild eyes, hand tight on his dripping dagger. Bern growled.
The next thing he remembered was standing over two dead bodies, tunic stained red. That’s when the guards stormed in, led by a broad shouldered captain with a strong jaw and heavy gaze.
Maxxos sprang forward, ready to die — ready to reunite with his family.
The captain’s gauntleted hand slammed into his empty stomach, sending him crashing to the ground. He looked down at him, eyes dark and hard as onyx.
‘My name is Ireneus Bion. We’ve been looking for you a long time, Maxxos Raven.’
Maxxos raised his greatsword, his fiery eyes set on the enemy. The woman stepped back, sweat beading down her face.
‘You can’t fight us all,’ she said.
Wrong, he couldn’t kill them all. But he could definitely try.
He threw himself forward. The woman shouted a command and a hundred soldiers lunged with sword and spear.
A blur swept across the field. The woman disappeared in a flash of gore. Screams rang in Maxxos’s ears as the soldiers vanished one by one. Arrows hissed through the air and feathered men in their throats. In minutes the vanguard routed, scattered and shrieking as swift-footed lycan beasts tore at their heels.
A large shadow loomed over him. He turned, frowning.
The Merkadian giant struggled to its feet, its face full of rage.
It grimaced. A steel blade sprouted from its chest, curved like a scythe’s. Blood and black liquid gushed free as the giant fell forward in two halves, its tubes and circuits severed. En’ir stepped forward, eyes burning molten gold.
His sister, Aegan, met up beside him, mounted atop her giant razorcat with bow in hand.
‘Fashionably late as always,’ said Maxxos.
‘You looked to be having fun,’ said Aegan. ‘We didn’t want to spoil it.’
After seven days in the air, everyone ran out of things to say. Well, almost everyone.
’Who’s been to Naresh?’ said Jinx. ‘The women there do this thing called the arashka wheel.’
Me’gan’s eyes rolled. ‘Nareshi women are as filthy as the fungi they eat.’
‘Oh,’ Jinx chuckled, ’don’t get me started on the mushrooms.’
The cabin was a single room twenty feet in diameter – there was no escaping this conversation. Theron crossed his arms and leaned back against the bronze wall that divided him from the open sky. Padded seats lined the space, enough to fit six people happily, assuming they enjoyed the company.
Outside the window beside him, the zhev drifted gleefully in the evening sky. It droned to itself in a language of beeps and hums. Tranavaros and the Inquisitor sat in silence, both locked in a trance. They had spoken less than Theron since the start of the trip. Every so often one would get up and inspect the device they called in nano-speak the ‘navigation console’. Across from him sat Clara. He noticed her at odd times staring at him, brown-green eyes burning with curiosity.
She was hardly subtle about it.
’You’re staring,’ he said.
Her back straightened. ‘Apologies.’
He couldn’t blame her. How many people north of the Steadfast encountered mutants as monstrous as him? It would be hard for anyone to look past metallic grey skin, purple eyes, and an arm that could eat you.
’Don’t worry about it.’
’It’s just,’ she said, caught in thought. ’I’ve been taught mutants are a bane to humanity. That their corruption is marked by abnormality.’ She looked at him with a warm gaze. ‘And yet you’re a Hero of Navarene; a man who helped save thousands of lives.’
He frowned and leaned forward. ’I’m also on my way to kill your father. Best not think of me as one of those princes in the songs.’
Clara folded her hands in her lap. Whatever she wanted to say, she kept to herself.
She was smarter than she looked.
‘You sure know how to talk sweet to women.’ Jinx smirked.
‘And you do?’ said Me’gan.
Theron ignored them and looked to Tranavaros, wondering what gears ticked behind those pale eyes. The seeker-priest had paid no mind to his surroundings, as if his mind were somewhere else, focused on some melody only he heard.
‘I don’t care to talk to them,’ he heard Jinx say. ‘I prefer to get straight to the f–’
A ballista bolt pierced through the cabin floor, followed by a terrible groan of steel. Consoles flashed red, deafening alarms rang, the noise drowning out the others’ cries. The windows shattered, spraying glass as air and wind roared around them.
Another bolt hissed past the cabin, creating a loud bang that tore through the tumult.
The balloon, thought Theron. They’ve shot the balloon.
The Highwind groaned and tilted, slamming Theron shoulder first into the wall. The airship murmured under its own weight, plummeting through the sky. Air whistled through the open windows. Metal groaned and the cabin walls buckled. Theron scrapped against the wall’s surface, hoping to find perch against the wind’s pull.
Across from him, the cabin door erupted open. The zhev’s three tentacles intruded, securing Clara, Jinx, and Tranavaros safely in its grip. Black smoke surrounded the Inquisitor, who vanished within the cloud. Theron clenched his teeth and dug his fingers into the wall, metal sparking against his flesh. He was wrestling with the open sky, and it was winning.
A halo of crimson flame sprouted above Tranavaros’s head. The seeker summoned a hand of fire, the blazing shape hurrying to take hold of him. Its flames licked him; alarmingly cool on his skin as it had always been. It gripped his snake arm.
But it was too late.
The cabin wall tore away, with Theron on it. Tranavaros shouted something, but his words caught in the wind. Theron fell through the sky, a vast landscape of lush green forest rising up to meet him.
His last thought was how peaceful it looked.