Chapter 7: Nightlion
by Brubek Coltrane
“It has to be around here somewhere…” Saito said, carrying her sword across her shoulders.
“Should be straight ahead, through that clearing over there. I don’t exactly hear cries of victory, though,” said her tall friend, face masked by a pair of night-goggles and a tan-coloured scarf.
“I know Gasha, I know,” Saito said back. “Let’s not doubt them just yet.”
“Suit yourself,” Gasha said grimly. “I don’t think we’re going to like what we find.”
The pair trod across the moss-covered forest floor, under the cover of the branches of tall trees, which covered the moon’s light and prevented it from illuminating them. They walked in silence as they had done for the past hour or so. The forest reminded Saito of the ones on her old home planet, Rykyu. Faint memories of training to become one of their warriors came back to her, and all the countless hours, days, years it had taken to finally master the sword… And to have it all taken away in a matter of hours…
The thought bitterly turned her mind back to her mission. A clearing of trees soon became visible, and Saito looked at Gasha, whose face was hidden. He removed his scarf and goggles. The dark green eyes on his dark-skinned face looked straight back at her.
“There.” He pointed.
In the distance, by the clearing, she could just make out flashing lights outlining a very strange looking spaceship.
Saito turned her attention once more back to Gasha, and was about to say something, when her eyes narrowed as something caught her eye behind Gasha. They widened as she realized it was a person, then widened even more when she realize that that person was carrying a weapon aimed right at her.
“Gasha! Get down!!” Saito screamed.
She dove to the side as a hail of bullets churned up the ground where she was just standing. Gasha dove onto his stomach, and then, almost instinctively, pulled out a gun from underneath his coat and crawled towards a nearby log with it. The relentless shots of the figure’s rifle barely missing him.
The shots stopped abruptly, as the shooter tried to reload. Saito wasted no time, and got up and ran at him. She got one good look at him before he started shooting again, and Saito dove to the ground to avoid being hit. The image was still fresh in her mind as she heard Gasha and the shooter exchange volleys.
Though it was hard to see, Saito was accustomed to the dark thanks to her many nights spent traversing the great woods spanning the surface of Rykyu had done, as there were many more hours of night than there were hours of day.
The shooter, Saito reminded herself. Remember what he looked like. She tried. He, or whoever it was, had been wearing a dark trench coat, and a red neck scarf. But the distinctive feature about this one, was that he was wearing a necklace of…
Then it hit Saito. She knew exactly who was attacking them.
The volleys stopped, and Saito shot up and ran at the shooter, her sword held firmly in one hand, as she sprinted her way up towards him.
“Send Hashan my regards!” She cried as she brought her sword down on him.
At the last moment, he dodged out of the way. Saito swung her sword back around, and tried to regain her balance. Immediately, he swung at her with the back end of his rifle, hitting Saito straight on the shoulder. She winced, pain flooding over her, as her vision blurred slightly, the pain flooding through her shoulder. The man tried to hit her again, but Saito dodged out of the way, as he missed her and hit the ground. Wasting no time, Saito kicked him over, and he was sent tumbling over, and into a rock. He got back up, and Saito saw that he was grabbing his leg. Limping, he took out his knife, and made one last jab at Saito’s face. She turned her head, as the knife skid across the side of her face, leaving a shallow cut across her cheek. Saito elbowed him in the ribs, hard, sending him reeling over to the ground. Coldly, she drove her sword into his chest. It went straight through, and his eyes grew wide with shock as Saito stared straight back at them without a hint of regret.
Still looking into his scared eyes, Saito recited the words of an ancient poem. “The depths of winter/the wolf stalks his prey by night/red blood on white.”
She looked back into the eyes of the dying figure. He was coughing up blood, life draining from him. Saito had been taught from a very young age that after every battle she fought, she had to pay her respects to the enemy.
She pulled out the sword, and wiped off the blood with her hand before sheathing it. She was a little shaken from the encounter, but felt safe after defeating her enemy. Though she never felt happy or proud of killing anyone.
On a few occasions, she had had to, and each one, she had paid her respects. She never killed for the heck of it. She always only killed if necessary. And though she seemed to be stable from the outside, every life she would take, took a small piece of her away. But killing, she thought, Is the only thing I know how to do.
The forest was silent, now, noticeably so. She didn’t hear any more gunshots. Nothing. She would have expected Gasha to say something by now, but there was nothing.
“Gasha?” She called out.
She called again. The same response.
She was very concerned now, and began to run across the forest floor. Bounding over roots, logs and rocks, and down a small decline, she ran over to the log where she saw Gasha last. There was a bit of blood, not too much to be concerned, and around a dozen or so bullet casings. But the blood trailed off around the corner of the small, rocky hill covered in moss.
She called out again. “Gasha?”
She grew more worried as she followed the red trail. She slowly turned the corner, around the rocks, and looked. She gasped. There was Gasha, but he was lying down, unmoving. Three of Hashan’s men lay dead around him. He had several cuts, some of which looked deep. He was clearly unconscious, but then Saito saw one of the wounds. The scarf covering his head was stained red. Gasha! Saito screamed in her mind. She ran over to him, when she heard the distinct sound of a spacecraft’s engines warming up. They were leaving. She knew Gasha would have wanted her to finish the mission, and leave him behind if need be, he had said it himself. But that was easier said than done.
“Goodbye, Gasha,” was all Saito said.
And with that, she scurried towards the clearing, reached the edge of it. The ship was in clear sight now, the rays of moonbeams shining down on it. But what she saw next took her breath away.
Bodies littered the field, bloodied, and broken. Some beyond recognition. She couldn’t tell whether any of them were still alive. Saito swore under her breath as her heartbeat skyrocketed. Standing outside of the ship, she couldn’t know what had happened; all she knew was the answer to where the advance party had gone.
A sudden noise shook her out of her thoughts–the sound of a metal door opening. Realizing it was the door to the ship, she realized there was nowhere to run in time…except… She sprinted as fast as she could towards the ship to hide behind one of the landing struts as the door opened completely, and a group of people walked out.
Her courage dwindled when she saw that there were only four of them. Four? Only four had managed to take down all these? She urged herself on to get herself to attack them, to die with honor, and join the others, and Gasha. But another part of herself told her to stay. Because just throwing her life away would be a meaningless sacrifice, just another statistic.
That made her afraid. Dying was scary, yes, but dying for no reason–that kept her from sleeping at night.
And so, Saito waited. Fear took over her body as she listened to the voices inside.
A few more words were exchanged between them, though nothing of much importance. Then, they started to walk out of the ship. She closed her eyes, and gripped her swords tightly. Of what little memory she had of her father, this was the most serene. She heard them milling about the field, looking around at her dead comrades. She opened her eyes slightly, and chanced a look around the ship’s edge, towards the group.
Saito watched in silence. There was a massive man with a great red beard and hair. Then there was an olive-skinned girl with dark, chest-length hair, who was walking next to a young-looking man in a green jacket, with messy hair. Then there was a dark-skinned girl with frizzy black hair held back by a blue bandana. Saito almost thought she was an Argonaut.
They started crowding around the face-painted man, and Saito overheard their conversation.
Suddenly, she heard one of them say. “The Argonauts?” Illien said. “What would they want with us…” And they all looked at the crate.
Saito watched this with fascination. Then realized the importance of their statement. Wait… Saito thought. If they didn’t know what they were carrying, that would mean they weren’t part of Hashan’s fleet.
Saito considered this fact. That would mean they had no idea what they were carrying in that crate, and no idea what was going on. Saito was silent. The group had gone back into their ship, and the cargo doors closed.
Saito ran back into the field, and looked to see if anyone was still alive. She ran back to the spot where Gasha had fallen, in the forest, but he was gone. Saito was estranged. She began to run back to the clearing, when a sudden blast knocked her over, sending her flying a few feet.
She started to pick herself up, feeling a pain in her arm, which was starting to soak with blood. She looked back and froze. The entire forest behind her was on fire. On fire! Saito thought to herself. The Fracking forest is on fire! Saito saw another patch trees suddenly erupt into flames. Then another, then the whole field on the side of the road opposite the forest exploded into flames. When this happened, she knew it wasn’t some freak weather of the planet, but an attack.
A spacecraft was bombarding the surface of the world with some sort of napalm explosive, though who it was, or why she did not know. She looked behind her, as she ran from the forest and across the road. People were running out from the forest. On fire. They danced wildly as the flames burned their flesh.
Saito looked away, though their screams pierce her ears. She snatched one glance, which was enough to tell her that these men were Hashan’s. This was all some nefarious plan of some sort. The ships in orbit must be Hashan’s. But Saito had no idea why they would attack a planet like this, or how they acquired the resources to do so.
Saito ran as fast as she could. As fast as her legs would carry her. Through the forest, across the road, and along the seemingly endless fields of tall, yellow grass. But this tall yellow grass had a secret. A small cliff dropped off from the fields, and continued on with more fields below it, giving the illusion to anyone staring at the plains as they walked by that it was just one endless field.
Behind this, was her salvation, the ship that had brought her group all here. It would be noticeably less full though, Saito thought. Just when Saito thought she’d made it, she heard the all to familiar sound of a gun clicking behind her.
“Stop right there,” a voice said, trying to sound fierce, but really only showing a slightly less degree of desperation than he was actually feeling.
Saito turned around.
“I said stop right there!” The voice said again.
Saito was frozen, and she caught her first glimpse of her oppressor. A man clad in a dark grey trench coat, holding a rifle right at her head. One of Hashan’s. Saito could tell in a heartbeat.
“What?” Saito said defiantly. “Hashan get too bored of preying on every innocent person he finds? Got to blow up a whole damn planet now?!”
“Silence!” The man said, tightening his grip on the trigger.
Saito could see that he was shaking a little. More firebombs set off behind him, and the sky started to turn black with smoke.
A thunder of bombs went off behind them. And the man, no, Saito could see that this person was now just a scared child. The boy flinched with each sound of the bombs hitting the ground.
He looked at her, his voice broken, and betraying all his signs of fear.
“You!” He cried out. “W-What’s going on… What… What’s happening!”
He pointed his weapon threateningly at Saito.
“I have no idea.” Saito answered, her strong-sounding voice disguising her fear. “Unless it’s Hashan-”
“No!” The boy cried out, he was starting to sniffle now. “It wasn’t Hashan! He wouldn’t kill his own people. I saw Joe, Tommy, Greg… All… All on fire, burning, screaming.”
Saito saw that the boy was losing it. He’d seen all his friends die in horrible ways.
“It was your fault!” He suddenly said. “It was you!”
Saito was taken aback. “Listen, I don’t know anymore than you do! Even if they wanted to, the Argonauts don’t have any ships this powerful! Not after Daedalus.”
“Liar!” The boy screamed, “YOU DID THIS! IT WAS ALL YOU!!”
“Listen to me!” Saito screamed back, the boy’s fear leaping over to her.
The boy was breaking down, was beyond reason.
“WAIT! LISTEN!” Saito screamed.
A shot rang out, and Saito closed her eyes and covered her face. She felt blood splatter over her arms and face. Then she heard the sound of a thunk on the ground. Slowly, she removed the shaking arms from her face, and saw the lifeless body of a terrified boy in a grey trench coat lying on the ground in a heap, blood seeping from his head and pooling around him on the grassy field. More bombs were being set off. Behind the boy’s body, an arm still holding up a gun stood.
Saito rubbed the blood off her face, her hands still quivering.
“G-Gasha?” She stuttered.
Gasha walked over, a white cloth wrapped around his head, stained red.
“H-how did y-you-”
“I have no idea.” Gasha replied. “I woke up, and everyone was…”
“I know.” Saito replied grimly. “A few must have survived though, we can’t be the only ones.”
“It was an ambush… A setup by Hashan. I’m guessing not many.” Gasha said, pausing. “Who the hell is bombing this cursed wreck of a planet anyway?”
“No idea.” Saito said. “But I don’t think it was Hashan.”
“Well, this planet is going to hell, and I don’t plan on coming with it.”
“Agreed.” Saito said, trying to stop her arms from quivering, and recovering a bit of her courage and heart. “Let’s get out of here.”
Gasha walked ahead and to the edge of the cliff, as Saito followed. Below them, the ship. The ship that brought them to this blasted rock in the first place. Saito was regretting ever setting foot on that ship. But step back on it, she would do gladly.
They walked down the crest of the cliff, and slid down it. Firmly at the bottom, they approached the ship, which was silent. The ship was far from the best in the fleet, if you could even call it that. The now ragtag collection of ships that had once tried to topple the corrupt Ninth Order a long time ago, once was a force almost rivaling the Ninth Order itself. Now the Argonauts, as the failed rebellion called itself, was reduced to scavenging fringe sectors just to survive.
The faded printed words Nightlion, followed by a series of identifying numbers, were only a scant reminder of how far the rebellion had fallen. Two V-shaped thrusters attached to a central hull, which was lined with sporadic red painted lines that joined at the back. On either side, the insignia of the rebellion, a ram’s head in blue still showed. It was a fairly big ship, enough for a whole platoon to fit in comfortably on a journey through space. Far fewer than that had left on this mission, though, and even fewer would be coming back.
Gasha knocked three times on the door. To no answer. He knocked again, his patience draining with each knock.
“Anyone home?” He shouted.
All the while, the fields were being painted orange by massive fireballs as they exploded across the plains. Sporadically, portions of the endless plains would erupt, as more and more of the plain was eaten away.
“Gasha, we’ve got to hurry, it’s not like the fire’s going to wait for us to get away!” Saito pressed.
Gasha nodded. “For heaven’s sake! Open the bloody door!”
The sound of gears turning began. Locks unhinging from each other, metal grinding against metal as the airlock groaned open. The sound of air hissing from the circular opening told them that someone was already in there, since they depressurized the ship when they left.
Gasha laid a hand on his pistol. Saito held her rifle in both hands, still shaking slightly. The door flew open.
“Who goes there!” A familiar voice rang out.
Saitō smiled a little. At least he made it out alright. Saito thought. We’ll still be eating the best pasta in the fleet.
“Scipio! You’re alive!” Gasha said. “It’s just us.”
Scipio suspiciously walked out, training a rifle on them. Gasha took off his goggles, and pulled down his scarf.
“Scipio.” Gasha said, arms raised. “It’s me.”
Scipio was silent for a moment, he brushed his black goatee, and pulled back his greasy, curly hair. Then a colorful look came into his eyes, and his classic laugh rang out.
“My friends!” He cried. “So good to be seeing you alive!”
He looked around them for a moment, as if expecting something to be hiding behind them. He raised an eyebrow, a serious expression emerging across his face.
“Just you?” He asked, preparing himself for an answer.
“Just us.” Saito answered sadly.
“Any one else in there?” Gasha asked, his eyes lighting up.
“A few.” Scipio replied. “Though not nearly as many as left.”
A bomb suddenly went off right on top of a cliff overhead, raining sparks down upon them. One of them hit Gasha, who yelled.
“Ahhhhggg… That’s hot.” He said, brushing off a black, charred piece of grass.
“Scipio, what’s going on? We’ve gotta leave, now.” A voice rang out from inside.
“So sorry.” Scipio said sincerely. “I am horrible, leaving you standing out there in the flaming rain.”
He grabbed both their arms and lead them inside. “Come, come! Good to see you again.”
Once he had lugged them inside, he hit a button that closed the airlock door. Saito looked back one more time as the flaming plains disappeared behind a metallic door.
“Don’t think I’ll be coming back anytime soon,” Saito said to herself.
“With you on that one,” Gasha replied.