They hurled themselves towards the light as one of the pirates careened round the corner behind them firing his crossbow. Its kick sent him sprawling against the far wall, while the bolt whooshed past Hanaman's ear and tore through the side of a guard's face, sending a spray of blood all over the walls. Noksalika jumped over his screaming body, while Hanaman jabbed another guard in the face, yelling at the crew outside to saddle up.
The sudden brightness stung Noksalika's eyes but she carried on running, staggering down over the carved portals. She caught glimpses of Hanaman's comrades launching themselves into their saddles and brandishing their weapons, hearing the confused threats of other guards. The bolas-woman was already swinging it uncertainly, waiting for a target; both of the lizardwomen had their shortbows drawn.
She stumbled into the middle of the llamas and was momentarily lost, having to backtrack several paces to Hanaman's mount. The first of the pirates sprang out of the passage – both lizardwomen let fly with arrows, but only after a throwing star buried itself into the eye socket of the tattooed man. He fell spasming off his llama, blood dripping on the sand-coloured dirt.
'Go!' barked Hanaman, his throat sore. Noksalika hauled herself up and clung on in terror. 'Go!'
The ones with only hand weapons rushed to the exit tunnel, fiercely geeing up their steeds. A crossbow bolt came out of nowhere – presumably a guard at another passage entrance – and split the first llama's skull, sending it crashing to the ground and blocking some of the way. More bolts flew down. Another pirate drew up at the edge of the temple passageway, but ducked Taumina and Taupua's arrows. He quickly fired back a shot from a crossbow stolen from the fallen guards, splitting open Taumina's thigh; red flesh splayed open under the dark brown denim and green skin. She simply looked shocked, and let out a long growl sending arrow after arrow up into the passageway.
'Hanaman!' Noksalika yelled in his ear, pointing to the open part of the tunnel. 'Get us out of here!'
A roar came from above and to the left; she gasped as she saw the huge bulk of the Captain appear behind two guards in another passage entrance, kicking one over the edge with a mighty foot and killing the other with an immense punch to the chest. He bellowed, eyes full of mad fury, and hurled what looked like a ceremonial spear through the air. It missed Hanaman's foot by a whisker, making a horrible clang as its metal head jarred against the rock and bounced down the tunnel. Hanaman yelled and kicked his heels, and the llama leapt and ran.
From a dozen there were now seven, three of them wounded. Noksalika couldn't face their eyes. She was the reason they were dead.
'What now Freegeneral?' said a female mantrel bitterly. She was the one with bolas, which meant her name was Uidesca. 'What do you want from us now?'
Her black and red hair framed her face dirtily, brushing her strong shoulders. The other one with black and red hair had died.
Noksalika couldn't look at her. She couldn't look at any of them.
They'd fled the tunnel, the village and region, avoiding locals wherever they could – sooner or later word would get out and spread faster than they could run. Word would spread that the Kingminister was dead, and if the pirates didn't catch them, the people of Goltangi certainly would.
The pirates couldn't be seen until two days later. In an open cavern, they saw dark figures six or seven miles behind, on what looked like small desert horses. It was hard to tell at such a distance, but they all seemed too small to be the Captain.
Dusk, the following day. They'd stopped by some scrub. Noksalika had helped Hanaman cut open a cactus and drain the cream to treat the others' wounds, in the absence of the Ethe. They would have made a fire, but you couldn't burn scrub, so they just sat in a circle.
'All I want,' Hanaman said, looking up at Uidesca, 'is your respect. I don't mind what you do now. Just keep me that.' He sounded firm, but Noksalika could see he was tired, and could see the lines in his face.
'It's very difficult, Freegeneral,' said Taumina, sitting on her pack, redressing her leg. The wound had stopped bleeding but looked hideous. 'It's very difficult.'
'I told you all it'd be risky. I explained the situation.'
'You didn't mention the death-trap part of the mission,' snapped Taupua, standing above her sister. 'You screwed up, right? You do accept that?'
Noksalika noted how the crew had said almost nothing when everything had been fine; now things were bad, their voices were scary, scathing. Taupua and Taumina's beauty had become cold and frightening.
'What do you want me to say?' replied Hanaman. 'The entire world as we know it is in the shit. This woman—' he pointed at Noksalika, '—this woman was my best shot at getting those bastards we think are in charge to listen.'
'Was,' growled the woman Annabelli next to her, arm limp in her lap, ligaments torn open at the elbow.
'Hey, hey,' protested Noksalika, leaning back.
'She's the reason half of us are dead, and half the living are fucked – and now she's not even important?' Noksalika looked warily at the male mantrel sitting opposite her. His name was Ossbury. He had short, spiky brown hair between his horns, and narrow, angry eyes. A throwing star had made a deep gash in his right side. He returned her look. 'I was thinking of leaving, going native here and leaving you lot to it. But those pirates just want her. So I say we give her to 'em.'
There was a shift by everyone, hinting at the possibility of what he'd said.
'Whoah whoah whoah,' Noksalika said, standing up and edging back a step. Throughout her infamous career of wondrous music and debauched pornography she'd been saving the phrase "Do you know who I am?" for when she really needed it. But now was probably not the right time.
'Look, okay, right, Hanaman didn't know what was going to happen, right? We left the pirates bloody miles behind, there's, like, no way we could've known they were there, yeah?' she pleaded, resorting to reason. We didn't see them anywhere near us back in the real world, back with the Ethe, she thought as they looked hungrily at her. There must be a waterway inland.
'Give a shit,' said Ossbury in a surly voice.
'And, so, um…' Noksalika ignored him nervously, trying to think.
'They're not that far away,' said Taupua in a worryingly rational voice. 'We could just turn back and hand her over, no worries.'
'Look! I've got a deal!' she blurted out. Hanaman joined the others in looking at her; there was an expectant pause, which was all she needed. 'I've got this deal. To change my identity. These guys at the top, in the Committees, they wanted me for some secret stuff, right? So they changed my identity, that's all part of it, and I've got to get to Rhajallington to carry out this mission…' They were all waiting on her words, she could tell even in the half-light. Hanaman's eyebrows had slipped into the subtlest of frowns.
'…So we just need to get over the border, right, back into the Ethe, and everyone's injuries should heal up pretty quickly then. And I can make your safety part of my deal with these guys. So we'll just have to get to Rhajallington, right, and it'll all be okay.'
The air quickly returned to silence, the darkness between them all thickening.
'I still say my idea's easier,' said Taupua. But something in the tone sounded just slightly unconvinced that this idea, handing her back, was the immediate future.
'Sounds like a plan,' said Hanaman standing up, as if to nail the pacifying mood before things turned nasty again. 'Any of you can go when you want. If they want Noksalika and you're not around, they won't go after you. Come with us, get her safely to Rhajallington and you'll be heroes to the Committees. They notice when people do well. But either way.'
More silence greeted him when he finished, but the remaining crew members looked away or at the ground, unwilling to argue any more.
They ate almost the last of the rations, got back in the saddle, and carried on riding in the darkness.
Three more days got them to the border, at a different crossing for safety. There was bar here too.
There were also golems.
The bar was part of a larger security station, which was obviously intended to keep people of the Ethe in rather than shutting foreigners out. Noksalika found it strange coming up behind the blank walls of government sheds and the backs of the giant black golems. Some magic invisible skin prevented civilisation from leaking out everywhere.
She half-expected the golems to jump on her as she crossed – everyone else seemed to be after her. But they just breathed heavily inside their helmets, uninterested.
Hello Tarabonitz, she thought to herself as she and Hanaman rode in. The Ethe lit up in her brain again, a synthetic flood of bright lights and detailed universes. She was encased in armour once more, weighed down by the photos and files and memories of somebody else.
They stopped for a brief drink and some food. It was a sombre one, but with the threat of bloodthirsty settlers off their mind, everyone felt they deserved it. Noksalika was so tired she fell asleep briefly against the bar and had to be hauled up by an equally exhausted Hanaman.
'So this "secret mission" of yours.' They climbed back into the saddle and set off, more relaxed; the road was immediately flatter and easier, smoothed by engineers and the power of the Ethe. 'Nice idea. Certainly bought you some time.'
'What, don't you believe me?' she said, glad he couldn't see her face.
'I believe you've done a deal.'
'Well there you go.'
'Means nothing. What's waiting for you in Rhajallington?'
'You'll find out.'
They travelled well, with speed but without rushing. The various wounds healed, and – despite their ragged connections and various standings – they were all citizens of the Ethe, and provided no-one here wanted them dead, they'd be protected.
The pirates could be seen on the Ethe, quite far behind – there were eight of them. The rest, including the Captain, hadn't emerged from Goltangi.
'Freegeneral,' cooed an old voice on the Ethe. It was Elder Svokia. 'We see you are online again.'
Hanaman's shoulders tightened sharply, nerves jangling. 'Elder Svokia, my manager and superior,' he spat in his head grimly. He tried to keep his breathing calm as anger rose in his gut.
'Oh dear, no need to sound so sarcastic,' she continued coldly. 'Just wanted to say, sorry things didn't work out.'
'Work out for who?!' he growled, memories of blood and betrayal flashing through his brain. But she was gone.
Rhajallington loomed on the horizon, as did the edge of the world. Noksalika remembered taking trips on the massive cruisers, entertaining the thousands they carried from port to port. She remembered leaning out into the endless Channelsea, scanning its murky purple depths and seeing nothing, absolutely nothing. She dreamt it could be that way again, just in a different way, because it was now a different time.
She crossed her fingers in hope.
The city was physically as Noksalika remembered it, old and vast and magnificent. But there seemed less people, as they rode in from the main tunnel into the city centre. The atmosphere was different.
Far to the South, an ominous emptiness lurked where people and land and life once were.
'Eh?' she said, bringing her attention back.
'We're nearly there and you've told us nothing,' whispered Hanaman. The others either didn't hear or pretended not to. 'Have you contacted your face-in-the-wall guy?'
'Yes,' she lied nervously. Piarowef hadn't shown up since the escape from the palace-temple complex, no matter how much Noksalika had pleaded in her own mind to talk to him.
'Well? What did he say?'
'Oh, this and that.'
'You could at least sound convincing,' Hanaman hissed.
'Everything's fine, it's fine. Damn, you worry like an old woman.' Piarowef? she thought. Piarowef you big bag of shit. You wanted me here, I'm here. Now would be a good time to show up.
The llamas wandered with dignity along a touristy avenue, lined above and below with short ornamental trees and tacky shops of crafts and souvenirs. The shops were quieter than they should have been. Travellers and tourists still milled around like sheep, buying crap, pretending everything was fine.
After the deserts of Goltangi, Noksalika should have felt better at being back in the city. But something didn't feel right. Loose crowds walked the streets, under the odd lumbering golem. Many seemed heading towards the historic centre and the docks.
Hanaman turned to flash her a dirty look. 'Seems to me like you don't know what the hell's goi—'
'Miss Suhanrohan?' They all wheeled round on their steeds to see a man in a casual suit some way behind them, casually strolling across the street. 'Miss Suhanrohan, you are expected at the Jade Monument.' He waved, then dropped into another passageway, out of sight.
Noksalika opened her mouth to call out, but it suddenly broadened into a smile. 'See? Told you so,' she whispered smugly into Hanaman's ear.
The Jade Monument was a very insignificant thing – a single carved piece of green stone, which wasn't even jade apparently. But it was the location that was important. The monument stood in a circular plaza in the business district, a long cavern in the heart of the Rhajallington peninsula. The fronts of offices faced them on all sides, some of them darkly modernist, some playfully colourful, all bizarrely jumbled up together.
There were some people around, the usual morning mixture of businessmen and post-rave loners. But certainly no-one ready to meet them. The crew circled the edge of the plaza, passing strangers who questioned neither them nor the llamas.
'There's no-one here,' said Taumina flatly. 'Not yet.' She pulled out her bow carefully, the transparent lids flashing quickly over her eyes.
Noksalika said nothing. On the Ethe she was scanning the buildings and the trendy offices but couldn't find anything, couldn't see anything. Where were the departments? There were university blocks, engineering workshops, agricultural seminar halls, but nothing she wanted.
'No-one who wants to meet openly,' added Ossbury darkly.
Where were the government offices? She started scanning further afield, the area, the whole city. There were security compounds with golems standing idly by, but nothing she wanted. Where were – where were the Committee offices? She saw film studios, animal training centres, music labels and shopping malls, but nothing else, nothing important…
An Ethe connection opened in Hanaman's head.
'Freegeneral, so glad you could join the party,' said Elder Svokia.
'Get dow—!' was all he could manage before the arrows hailed down from above; she was only halfway through her sentence when his instincts kicked in and he simultaneously ducked down and pushed Noksalika back. She lost balance on the back of the saddle, and as an arrow flew past Hanaman's face and buried in the back of the llama's neck. The beast went crazy and started running and kicking, throwing both of them off.
Bystanders in the plaza stopped and turned. Some of them wondered if this was just street theatre, then started screaming.
'Did you think I'd just give you up?' brayed a deep familiar voice. Noksalika scrambled to her feet and saw the Captain emerging from a gothic doorframe behind her. He strode out with coarse boldness, legs like tree trunks and veins swollen under thick skin. But always, always more frightening than his stature was his huge, crazy eyes, owning her with their mad blue stare.
Two archers followed behind his frame with bows and crossbows. In a cold flash, Noksalika saw these weren't the Captain's ramshackle mantrel pirates – these were men, masked and dressed in grey-black, silent and trained.
The Captain snorted as he broke into a run towards her.
Waterways. Faster than land.
Any bystanders who could have helped had turned and run; Hanaman had no weapon, Taumina was lying dead with an arrow in the heart, and Ossbury with a bolt in the face. Taupua fired a shot at the Captain but barely grazed his shoulder; Annabelli was lying screaming on her side with two arrows in her gut. Noksalika gaped at the minotaur charging right at her.
Uidesca hurled the bolas with a yell, and the Captain had a moment to register surprise before the binding wrapped around his left leg and the metals balls crunched just below the knee. His huge body came crashing to the flagstones as he let out a monstrous roar of pain.
'Run!' Uidesca shouted, backing away. 'I've got—'
An arrow sliced through the back of her head, sending her tumbling to the ground, body twitching.
Noksalika launched herself upright, saw Hanaman snatching the bow and quiver of arrows from Taumina's body and joined him bolting towards an alley that cut downwards at right angles from the plaza. Llamas ran around bleating and wounded, shielding them in chaos; from the corner of her eye she saw Taupua on foot ducking and weaving her way towards the alley too, loosing arrows up at the office windows around them.
Suddenly blood sprayed up at her and Hanaman cried out, tumbling to the floor with a crossbow bolt buried in his thigh muscles. She turned and grabbed at his arms, trying to drag him upwards for the last few paces to the alley, but then shrieked in agony as an arrow tore into the side of her belly. She fell down alongside him gasping – she'd never felt pain like this, never, never this wretched scalding like she was being fucked in the guts by a poker wrapped in barbed wire. She saw Taupua's green face above, stern and silent, as the lizardwoman fired several arrows behind them quickly.
'That's at least three,' she whispered, grabbing Noksalika under the arm. Somehow Hanaman was standing again and took her other side, and she was being dragged just towards the alleyway. 'There's not many of them, they just took us by surprise.'
And with that, a throwing star lodged in the side of her face, spraying a line of more dark blood. Noksalika was suddenly lopsided as the body of the lizardwoman lost her grip slightly, then another two found their way into her neck and chin, jagged points sticking out mercilessly. An arrow ricocheted off the stones beside them.
Somehow she found the strength in her legs and her burning torso muscles to push herself to her feet. Clasping each other, she and Hanaman staggered over the edge into the alley and hurried as fast they could while bleeding and wounded. They emerged in ornate gardens amongst more old business-like buildings – hedges, flowers, benches and little lawns with cut edges were arranged very primly and neatly.
'Hanaman,' she gasped loudly, staggering around, looking up at the old buildings of yellow stone. 'Hanaman, in cities, there's, like, places where the Committees meet, right?'
'What do you – what?' puffed Hanaman, limping.
'You know, I'm really sorry about your mission,' the sickly old voice of Elder Svokia said to him on the Ethe. 'But you have to understand, Hanaman…'
Noksalika sucked in air heavily and let out a growl, which became a long whine. 'Like, where do they meet, right? There's got to be somewhere, where they meet to have coffee and talk bullshit and h-have meetings, right? Somewhere in cities? Right?'
'I don't know!' he shouted, looking around for cover and scanning other entrances to the gardens.
'…We couldn't let you go ahead with your plan,' continued Svokia. 'I mean, it was a ridiculous plan, but our best minds thought it had a good chance of actually succeeding. So you know why we couldn't let it happen?'
'Arrrrgh! Piarowef? Piarowef are you there?!' Noksalika pulled at her ragged hair and lurched from side to side, clearly delirious from the pain – but crazed from something else, too. Hanaman took cover by crawling under a bench and lying flat.
'Piarowef!' she screamed up into the air. 'Piarowef you bastard, you lied to me!'
'Fucking get down will you!' snapped Hanaman at her. A bolt flashed through the air near her face and she dropped by a rose bush on the opposite side of the lawn. Hanaman quickly leaned up and loosed an arrow in a fluid movement, resulting in a scream.
'Goltangi has iron, Freegeneral!' said Svokia almost boastfully. 'Thousands and thousands of cubic miles of iron. Oh the Committees like to go on about the "natural" way of the Ethe, but their people are getting fucked left right and centre by those alien barbarians in the South because they have no iron left to fight with.'
'There's nowhere,' Noksalika sniffed tearfully, lying back in the dirt of the flowerbed. 'They promised me a place … they said they wanted me…'
'Who's "they"?' said Hanaman, fitting another arrow speedily, trying to close the connection with Svokia, trying to shut her out.
'…they wanted me for a, a position…' Noksalika continued, ignoring him. 'A real position … a real, important position … they arranged everything … they f-f-fucking wanted me and they fucking lied…'
'We can fight these things, we can survive this invasion,' Svokia went on, voice swollen with pride. 'But not if we share that iron with those bureaucratic Committee pricks. We're already taking steps. So I suppose you don't actually have to die,' she reflected. 'But then, a deal is a deal…'
Hanaman leaned up and flinched as a throwing star flashed past him, bouncing off the bench's iron foot. He saw an archer, masked in grey-black, creeping into the gardens. His shot managed to pierce the archer's skull, felling him without a sound as Noksalika continued to gabble despairingly.
'…they said there was somewhere, somewhere in the big city, but there's nowhere, they don't have their coffee anywhere, they don't have their meetings anywhere, they just live on the Ethe and do all their shit on the Ethe and run our lives from the Ethe…'
He ignored her, desperately summoning the will not to yell out at the pain in his leg. She trailed off, muttering to herself, finally falling quiet as she lost the will to speak.
They waited, panting, both bleeding.
'Don't suppose,' Noksalika puffed through the pain, looking over at him, 'you're a doctor?'
Hanaman turned to peer back at her through the plants, shaking his head, smiling.
'Or … some kind of … wizard?'
He smiled to himself. 'Don't worry, I'll patch you up.'
There was quiet; nothing moved. The sweet smell of roses entered Noksalika's lungs as her nostrils gulped for air.
'Do you think that's it?' Hanaman said.
She shrugged painfully. 'Dunno.'
He chuckled to himself, shaking his head, and crawled out from under the bench. 'Aw look at you, that's barely a scratch!'
'Fuck you,' she giggled, blood all over her hands.
'Seriously,' he said, stepping uncertainly over the grass towards her, 'back in my day, when I was doing real missions I—'
Hanaman's head exploded as a metal ball struck it from the side, bits of horn and skull and blood and brain flying everywhere as his body was carried forward an entire yard through the air before crumpling on the neatly-cut grass.
'Noooo!' shrieked Noksalika with as much breath as she had left. She reached up and heaved her torso forwards to see Hanaman's body lying dead on the ground, dead dead dead, because no-one could be alive with that much of their head missing, dead dead dead.
'Miss me, darling?' grinned the Captain crazily, limping heavily through the shrubs away to the right. His broken leg oozed thick, congealing blood all over his foot and the ground behind him. In his left hand, he held the other silver ball of the bolas with the leather binding still attached. His ice-blue eyes were livid with pain and fury.
Her heart dropped out from under her, and she rolled over in blind panic, scratching with her nails at the soil and kicking with her feet to push herself away, away from him. The pain in her side made her groan through gritted teeth, but she couldn't move fast enough, she couldn't move fast enough, and a mighty hand gripped her shoulder and spun her round. She stared up at that huge familiar head with the broken horn and wild bull eyes and gaping nostrils.
The Captain's massive chest rose and fell with heavy breathing. He smiled down at her with big, chunky teeth, and snarled.
'Say goodnight, princess,' he said, and slammed a fist the size of her head into her face.
She woke in a dark space in extraordinary pain. She could barely see anything, and spent several minutes blinking to make sure her eyes were open. But when she tried to move her face she couldn't – her jaw muscles strained painfully on bits of torn flesh and shattered pieces of bone. She sniffed, and felt air in the place where her nose and upper jaw should have been. Her face felt sticky.
She was alone in a dark space, tied up, hands behind her back. Her side still hurt like hell, even when she breathed. A rank odour polluted the dry, musty air. She'd pissed herself while unconscious.
Somehow she pushed herself into a kneeling position. Now she could see. Around her were boxes, crates and packages, the edges lit up by a very dim glow. She turned her head and saw a porthole. Outside, all she saw was empty, murky purple depths.
A small shape appeared behind the glass.
More shapes appeared with it, tiny little shapes. She couldn't see them very well, everything was so dark. But they looked like silver arrowheads, darting about in the space behind the porthole. They moved carefully, together, tapping up against the glass and circling in sync with each other.
She felt her eyes burn with wetness, and she started crying, wincing at the pain and the horrible fleshy sounds of her snivelling.
'Help me,' she cried, rasping as best she could with the remains of her face. 'Help me.'
But they couldn't hear.