Extract from Saga of the Stones Volume 1: Zin’ao Rising
by David Jae
All Rights Reserved
Lady Annissa’s first view of Zin’ao City, through the viewport of the transport, was not what she’d expected. A sprawling mass of low, sturdy buildings arranged in a haphazard fashion, dominated by a large, domed structure around which the whole city seemed to revolve. It was the Bastion, a combination of Assembly Hall and Fortress, and the rest of the City had more or less developed around it; a collection of low warehouses and stocky buildings that had weathered turbulent times, including several wars. For her part, she was eager to learn more about the Zin’aoans and their way of life. She shook her head, with a wry smile; she was here on a mission, not a sight-seeing trip. Tearing herself away from the view, she casually glanced around the cabin at the other passengers, who were mostly outsiders like herself. Despite her russet-coloured hair and golden eyes, she had gone to great lengths to avoid drawing any attention. Dressed in simple, yet well-made travelling clothes - a fine cloak over a tailored tunic and trousers - she knew that she looked like a wealthy lady sensibly prepared for a long journey. Hopefully, that was all people would see. Her musings were interrupted by a voice over the transport’s comm system.
‘Attention all passengers, we will be landing shortly. Please remain seated until docking procedures are completed.’
About a minute later, she felt a faint clang run through the hull and the inner door opened with a soft hum. Annissa unbuckled her safety harness, and made her way down the ramp onto the landing strip. She looked around casually, seeing no obvious signs of security - no visible guards, monitoring devices or staff on duty, apart from the technicians and engineers that maintained the vessels. At least her cover would stand up. It was fairly common for wealthy outsiders to come to Zin’ao to hire adventurers, so no-one would pay her too much attention.
Cesa looked up from his work station terminal where he was reviewing maps and charts, when Commander Marcas walked in. Marcas was the Senior Wayfarer in Nalaan Cadre, and Cesa’s immediate superior. Even though Cesa had only joined a month ago, he had already developed a great respect for Marcas’ skills and authority. He came to his feet respectfully, closing down his workstation.
‘I’ve almost finished studying those charts, sir.’ He said, drawing a surprised frown from Marcas.
‘Already? You know the briefing isn’t until this afternoon?’
‘Yes, Sir.’ Cesa replied, with an embarrassed grin. ‘I guess I was eager to get started.’
‘You needn’t apologise about that, Cesa.’ Marcas said, kindly.
‘However, the briefing’s not important now. I’ve received a request for two Wayfarers willing to travel to the UnderCity.’
‘From who?’ Cesa asked, intrigued.
‘An outsider, by the name of Lady Annissa. She wants to recover an artefact that she believes is hidden in the UnderCity. I’m assigning you and Holli for this mission. Get your gear together and be in Hanger 3 in one hour.’ Marcas turned on his heel and marched off, Cesa’s face breaking into a grin as he sprinted across to the workshop door, poking his head inside.
‘Holli! Holli!’ He yelled, realising that he was sounding like an excited child, but not caring that much. Predictably, his partner was hunched over her work bench, welding goggles over her eyes. Her brown hair, streaked with red, was pulled back into a ponytail, and her green eyes were narrowed in concentration. They’d been paired together only a few days, and Cesa was still getting to know her. She was a good fighter and an excellent mechanic. Having been trained extensively in martial arts by her family from a young age, she was actually better at hand-to hand combat than he was, although Cesa felt that she thought too much. Still, he’d kept his feelings to himself for now. They respected each other enough to realise that they complimented one another, even though they clashed occasionally. Holli looked up when she heard his voice, offering him a faint smile.
‘Morning. What’s got you so excited?’ She asked, without looking up from her work.
‘Oh, nothing. We’ve just got a mission, that’s all.’
That got her attention. Holli put down her welding torch, eyes widening in surprise.
‘Are you serious?’ She asked and Cesa nodded.
‘Uh-huh. Some rich lady needs a guide for an expedition to the UnderCity, and Marcas wants us to accompany her. We’re deploying in an hour. How’s it going here?’
Cesa moved around the table, to get a better look at what Holli was working on. Two energy pistols with long, square muzzles lay on the table, portions of exposed circuitry visible under the exterior casing.
‘Good. I’ve nearly finished your new pistols, with the extra features that you asked for. I’ll have them ready in half an hour or so.’
‘Great. You finish up here and I’ll get our gear together. Is there anything special that you need?’
Holli shook her head.
‘My pack’s ready. I’ll just need to get it from my locker.’
‘Thanks, Holli. Meet me in Hanger 3.
Cesa stepped into the hanger with Holli, to find Marcas waiting with a woman whom must be Lady Annissa. As they crossed the room, she watched them with a cool, steady gaze that left him feeling more than a little unnerved.
‘Reporting for duty, Sir.’ Cesa said, as they came to attention, and Marcas nodded.
‘At ease. Lady Annissa, these are Wayfarers Cesa Vor and Holli Trayn. They’ll be your escorts for this expedition.’
She looked from one to the other, a faint frown crossing her face, before turning to Marcas.
‘Are they prepared for this? They seem a little young for such responsibility.
Marcas’ professional expression did not waiver, as he replied
‘I assure you, Lady Annissa, they’re fully qualified for this mission. If they weren’t, I would not have assigned it to them. Cesa, you’re in command now.’
Marcas turned and marched away as Cesa stepped forward, lowering his head formally.
‘A pleasure to meet you, Lady Annissa.’ He said, but she simply stared back at him coolly.
‘My time is short, Wayfarer Vor. Are you prepared to depart?’ She asked, with that same icy demeanour.
‘Of course. If you’ll follow me...’ Cesa said, feigning a calm that he did not feel. He was not used to being dismissed so blatantly, but he pushed his anger aside. It was his first mission and he wasn’t going to blow it by losing his cool with a client. He led the way across the hanger to where the Valkyrie-class Seeker sat, like a bird of prey waiting to take flight, with its distinctive curved wing fuselage and low slung cockpit. Designed and built by the Zin’ao Factories, the Valkyries were used by the Wayfarers for scouting missions and short range expeditions. Although lightly armed, they had sophisticated sensors and powerful engines that let them evade and outmanoeuvre most enemies. Cesa reached the boarding ramp and gestured towards Lady Annissa.
‘After you, My Lady.’ He said, only just managing to keep sarcasm out of his voice, as Annissa swept past him, primly striding up the ramp. Holli followed, sharing a wry look with Cesa, who shook his head and ducked through the hatch into the cockpit. Annissa was already sitting in the passenger seat, her safety harness fastened without even wrinkling her clothes. Cesa slipped into the co-pilot’s seat next to Holli and fastened his own restraints as she activated her headset, speaking to the flight controller.
‘Valkyre-17 to Zin’ao ATC, requesting clearance for departure.
‘Valkyrie-17, clearance granted for Vector 3.’
‘Acknowledged, ZATC.’ Holli replied, feeding power to the engines, guiding them out of the hanger and taking them skywards with a graceful ease. Unlike some pilots Cesa had flown with, Holli’s take-off was so smooth that he hardly noticed it. They reached cruising altitude and Cesa ran his eye over the scanners, finding nothing to concern him.
‘Airspace is clear, Holli. Can you manage for a few minutes?’
Holli nodded and Cesa turned in his seat to face Lady Annissa.
‘We’ll be arriving at the UnderCity in approximately fifteen minutes, Lady Annissa. I’d appreciate it if you’d brief us on this expedition.’
Annissa arched an eyebrow.
‘I was guaranteed no questions, Wayfarer Vor. Are you going back on that on that arrangement?’ She challenged, but Cesa held his ground.
‘No questions about your motives, Lady Annissa, that was the deal. The UnderCity is a dangerous place. If we’re going there, then I need to know what we’re doing and what we can expect to encounter. What we don’t know is very likely to get us all killed. If it makes you feel any better, we’re en route now and this vessel is secure. But, if you have a problem with that, then this expedition is over.’
Cesa sat back with his arms folded, matching Lady Annissa’s gaze; he wasn’t going to back down from her. She must have sensed this, because she said
‘Very well. I want to recover an artefact that I believe to be hidden within the UnderCity.’
‘We know that already, Lady Annissa. Exactly what is this artefact?’
Annissa hesitated and he pressed on.
‘Listen, everything you say stays between us. Okay? You paid for discretion and that’s what you’re going to get. But, we can’t protect you if you don’t tell us what’s going on.’
She held Cesa’s gaze for a moment, and he again felt that he was being scrutinised in some way he couldn’t determine.
‘Very well. I have reason to believe that there is a SagaStone hidden within the UnderCity.’ She said it so casually that Cesa almost didn’t register the importance, and then he felt his jaw drop. SagaStones were rare artefacts, remnants of an advanced culture that had existed in the distant past. Dubbed the Ancestors, legend held that they were the oldest race on Seiden. If there really was a SagaStone in the UnderCity......it was highly unlikely, but it made for a potentially dangerous situation.
‘Okay. Does anyone else know that you’re here, or about the SagaStone? Anybody who’d want to stop your mission?’
Annissa hesitated for a second.
‘No, Wayfarer Vor. Nobody knows that I am here.’
Kivas looked around the seedy tavern, feeling a mix of anger and revulsion at being surrounded by thugs, murderers, harlots, smugglers and con-men; base and violent people, with no ambition beyond making as much money as they could. The tavern was one of the few in Zin’ao City that was frequented by outsiders and travellers, particularly those seeking a little privacy. While that made for rough establishments, the Ruling Council supported them because it kept many of their problems in one place where they could keep an eye on them. For Kivas, it was a convenient place where he could wait without attracting any undue attention. While the patrons had a lack of morals that he occasionally found useful, they were simply tools for him, nothing more. Even though the place was filled with scum and cut-throats who would think nothing of killing and robbing him, he had been left untroubled. Despite his rough clothes and casual appearance, he knew he had been recognised, which was what he wanted. Those who knew who he was wisely kept their distance and those who didn’t picked up on the reactions of their more enlightened fellows, realising that they were better off staying away. He shook his head, taking another swig of his ale, musing that the world was falling apart, greed and petty interest ruling now. Still, it presented interesting opportunities, which a man with drive and vision could exploit. Yes, things could be very different. He was interrupted in his musings by the arrival of a man into the gloom of the tavern. Tall and muscular with a shaven head and a scar across one eye, he needed no reputation to make certain that nobody troubled him. Despite being dressed in the same rough clothes as Kivas, he stood out without any effort. He scanned the room, spotted Kivas and pushed his way through the crowd like an ox, people falling back hurriedly. He sat down, and there was a silent moment, before he extended his hand, which Kivas grasped firmly.
‘Welcome, Annid.’ He said, nodding respectfully to his old comrade.
‘Kivas.’ Annid replied, looking contemptuously around the room. ‘Not much welcome to be had here, though.’
‘True. They’re suspicious of outsiders, to be sure. At least, they like to keep them where they can see them. Still, if you’ve got the coin, that doesn’t seem to bother them too much. It’s such a waste. The Zin’aoans have all this power and they’re just content to be at the beck and call of the other CityStates. With the money and resources that they have at their disposal, they could be a real player in this Age.’
Annid looked pensive for a moment.
‘Do you think that they could be any use to us? They are mercenaries, after all.’
Kivas’ face twisted with scorn, although it was not directed at his comrade.
‘Forget them, alright? They’re just treasure hunters and explorers, nothing more. They’re no use to us. We need people with fire, with the strength to do what’s necessary.’ He stopped, glancing around for a moment, before continuing. ‘Did you find what we needed?’
‘Lady Annissa was seen arriving on the Transport early this afternoon. Looks like your intelligence was right. She must know where it is, after all.’ He said, and Kivas gave a harsh laugh.
‘Intelligence! Such a romantic word for paying spies and low-life informants to gather information for us. What did she do?’
‘She visited one of the smaller Wayfarer Cadres. My guess is that she’s hiring some local experts to accompany her expedition. I assumed that she’s intending to leave fairly quickly, so I took the liberty of setting things in motion. Kesh’s unit is on standby outside Zin’ao airspace in a stealth dreadnought, awaiting your orders. According to our informant, there are no other expeditions scheduled for today, so we’ll know when she departs.’
Kivas smiled; he could always rely on Annid to take the initiative.
‘Excellent. Tell Kesh that he’s cleared to follow her when she leaves. If she finds what she’s looking for, he knows what to do.’
‘I’ll make the preparations. Is there anything else?’
‘Yes. What is the status at Orion?’
‘I received a report yesterday. The repairs and reconfiguration are on schedule. All we need now are the SagaStones.’
‘Excellent. When we’re done here, we’ll return. For now, check in with our agents. Remind them to keep a low profile. We can’t afford to draw any attention to ourselves now. You can never know who’s watching.’
Swiftly he spun in his chair, grabbing the man seated behind them, hauling him out of his seat and slamming him down onto their table with a hand around his throat. Kivas leant in close, staring into eyes that were wide with fear, speaking softly.
‘Spying is a very dangerous occupation, friend, especially when you do it so poorly. You never know when you might hear something that you will regret.’
There was a silken sound, and the man’s eyes rolled back into his head slumping onto the table, with his hand clutched to his throat. Kivas straightened up, slipping the knife back into the sheath on his belt and turned to look at the bartender. He pulled a golden coin bearing an emblem of two overlapping circles from his pocket and tossed it towards him. The bartender caught it, looked at it for a frozen second, and then slipped into his pocket. He knew what it meant and had seen enough not to argue. He’d take care of the body, no questions asked.
Kivas turned to Annid, resting a hand on his shoulder.
‘This is the beginning, my friend. After this, everything changes for the better.’
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