“B squadron repor--bzzt--injuries and–enemy sightings on--bzzt–”
“–multiple explosions at–east and northeast positions of–”
“–the hell is happening out there? Someone get me a–bzzt–”
As he sprinted down the hallway, Fiearius growled and hit the COMM in his ear, which had erupted with panicked voices and broken questions since the moment the explosions began. The COMM was still refusing to fully function, but he heard enough to know what was going on: chaos.
The explosions in the city, Dez’s plan, whatever it was, was no longer his concern. Carthis could handle it. And if they couldn’t — well, he’d handle it later. Leta was safe, Quin and his fleet were still in the air, taking down Society warbirds and Harper had reported that the Dionysian was far from any of the attack points. Of course. She was parked next to Dez’s ship. Even he wouldn’t risk his only way out of here.
For now, Fiearius had a task to focus on. He couldn’t spare the brainpower worrying about what was happening outside this building when what was happening within it was so important. He needed to get to the Councillor and off the damned woman before she was able to make another escape attempt. With her out of the way, what little defenses Ellegy had would crumble into disarray, giving the fleets above just enough leeway to score their victory.
Whatever rebellion Desophyles had planned would have to wait. One thing at a time.
Fiearius sprinted up the next stairwell, leaping groups of steps in single bounds, and charged through the next hallway. Up another set of stairs. How many of these were there? Another hallway to the next stairs, his pace never slowing, his feet pounding against the marble flooring. He had to be getting close now. This tower couldn’t go on forever. Out of the windows in each hall, he could see the city below grow smaller and smaller. Briefly, he thought about how much Leta would hate this, the heights and all. Maybe it was a good thing she wasn’t here with him.
The thought was just leaving his mind when he crested another step into a hallway and felt a sharp, white-hot pain sear through his upper arm. Fiearius staggered back down a few steps, clutching the spot that burned and stung and poured blood between his fingers. Another bullet flew dangerously close to his head and he backed up again, making sure to conceal his whole body from the apparently occupied hallway above him.
Gingerly, he moved his hand to survey the damage. It looked nasty, but the bullet had left what was essentially just a very deep scrape. He’d live. Gritting his teeth, he kneeled on the step and unholstered his gun. If this lady thought a few Society guards were going to keep her safe, she had another thing coming…
Carefully, he crept up the stairs one by one to peer over the surface of the landing at what he was dealing with. The moment his head lifted above the floor, another bullet flew above it.
Okay, so they were good Society guards. Still…
Fiearius backed up against the wall and lifted his head again, only enough to get a look at the hallway. Five agents, each armed with a familiar looking pistol with a librera branded onto the side of it. Society-issued, Fiearius realized with interest. He’d recognize that gun anywhere, he’d carried it around for nearly a decade. And he knew its ammunition carried the CID data of its owner. Data that, upon Fiearius’ death, would transfer his Verdant database directly to the wrist of whichever of these fuckers managed to off him.
Interesting. They seemed to be getting a little less picky about his successor these days.
Unfortunately for these particular agents, none of them were destined to be the next Verdant, Fiearius thought with some grim amusement as he cocked his own pistol, raised himself just enough to get a clear aim and shot the first woman right through the forehead. Kinda sad they thought they had a chance.
When he glanced up again, the remaining agents had taken cover behind the pillars, though he managed to hit an elbow or a knee, he couldn’t quite tell since he had to duck immediately to avoid the retaliation. Dez had brought a few flash grenades with him from the Dionysian. Too bad that piece of shit ran off with them, Fiearius grumbled internally.
He was readying his gun to take another shot (surely he could get them out of cover long enough to take them out) when a loud ringing went off in his ear, sharp and piercing and painful. The goddamn COMM. He hurriedly smacked the thing and Quin’s voice evened out.
“–ship comin’ in on your location,” she was saying.
“Well take it down, I’m busy here,” Fiearius snapped back as someone got brave and nearly landed another bullet in his shoulder. He shuffled further down the steps.
“Damn well tryin’, it ain’t goin’ down!” Quin shouted. “It’s headed lower than the others, I don’t think it–”
Her voice was cut off by a mighty crash up above and whatever she said next, if it even made it to the COMM in his ear, Fiearius ignored entirely. A tremendous wave of dust swept out from the landing and shattered glass flew and tumbled and scattered down the steps. Fiearius braced himself as tiny pieces slid across his skin and then charged up the steps to see the scene for himself.
The window in the hallway was gone and in its place, part of a ship jutted out into the space. A shiny jet black ship that the building folded out of the way to make room for, although not for long. The crash almost looked intentional. Almost. Except that as Fiearius stood on the precipice of the stairwell, he could see it starting to slip, ever so slowly, downward.
Through the cloud of debris, there was a cough and a hurried scrabbling as someone tried to right themselves. Fiearius aimed his gun in the direction of the noise, fully intending to stop them before they had the chance, but as he saw the figure of the agent start to rise, it wasn’t his finger that pulled the trigger, nor his gun that went bang.
The man sunk back to the ground as another bullet flew across the room and was met with the sounds of sliced flesh and a mortal groan. The ship in the wall lurched. One more gunshot from the ship’s hull echoed through the hallway. Fiearius watched a deep crack weave its way through the marble floor. The whole building moaned its distress as the vessel began to slip out of its hold.
It seemed to happen in slow motion. The black shape that had only just appeared in the wall began to disappear from it. At first, very gradually and then, quite suddenly, it was just gone, leaving in its place a gaping hole through which he could see the sky. The sky and the small agile form of a woman, leaping from her lost ship across the impossible gap of air, reaching out, desperately grasping for the edge of the floor that was left exposed to the elements. And Fiearius watched in amazement as her hands connected. She clambered up into what remained of the hallway and darted across it, throwing her back against the wall and breathing heavily.
Wind whipped through the floor now, viciously tearing at Fiearius’ skin and hair, the high altitude and newly made hole into the great big sky ripping the air from his lungs. But his focus was locked on the woman who was breathing heavily and clinging to the interior wall like her life depended on it. It took a moment of the dust settling, of the shock wearing off, for her to realize she was not alone here. And when their eyes met, recognition hit them both.
“Varisian,” Fiearius breathed as Ophelia’s eyes widened in horror. Finally forcing herself from the wall, she began stalking towards him and Fiearius immediately raised his gun. But she didn’t approach with anger or malice rather–concern?
“If you’re here to fucking set me on fire again–” Fiearius began to threaten, stepping backwards as she continued towards him, unphased by his weapon entirely.
“You can’t be here,” came her cold voice. “You have to go.”
Fiearius was lost. “What–”
“You have to–” she began again, but suddenly, behind her, the door at the end of the hallway swung open. A burst of wind blasted past the angular middle-aged woman standing in its frame. Her face was mostly in shadow, save for the cold stare that cut straight through the hallway towards Fiearius. He didn’t need to see the rest to know who was standing there. And he didn’t need another chance to waste. He shifted his gun away from Ophelia straight to the Councillor and fired.
It probably would have hit too, had Varisian not reached out and shoved his arm off mark half a second before the gunpowder lit.
The Councillor smiled and then laughed. “Varisian?” she called across to them, her voice nearly garbled by the wind and the outside sounds of battle it carried. “Kill him.”
Fiearius met Ophelia’s eyes just briefly and he could have sworn he saw a hint of apology there before she brandished a blade and attacked.
Leta didn’t argue when the Ellegian rebels escorted her and her team towards the neighborhood they had holed up in. She didn’t argue either when they were herded into the back room of a house that could have belonged to any normal Ellegian family. Nor did she argue when the woman who’d brought them all in told her she’d have to wait to speak with their leader.
No, Leta saved her arguing power for the exact moment when she was brought out of holding and into the house’s dining room to face Ezra Norran, the man she had been in contact with for over a month, the man Fiearius had been in contact with for many months and the man who had apparently decided to take his rebellion and flush it all away.
“What the hell are you doing?” she demanded the minute he looked across the room and locked eyes with her.
Ezra was an older man, lines marring his tired face, his greying hair pulled back into a ponytail. Still, despite his age, he looked like the kind of person you didn’t challenge to a fight, specifically because you’d lose.
He regarded Leta curiously, but said nothing so she went on, “Kidnapping Carthian forces? What exactly is that going to accomplish? We’re on your side. We’re here to help you. But you’re blowing up your own city and rounding us up.”
Still, Ezra remained silent, as did the other rebels standing around the table watching in some sort of wonder as Leta, finally exploring her rage and frustration, let out a bitter one-note laugh. “I hope to the gods you have some sort of plan here, at least an explanation for why you’re capturing your allies.”
The man blinked his grey eyes curiously. “Allies. That’s an interesting notion, isn’t it? From what I understood, Carthis had decided they wanted nothing to do with us.”
Leta opened her mouth to retort, but the words caught in her throat. It was true, after all. Carthis had denounced the Ellegian rebels and cut them out of the attack plans. But Fiearius hadn’t. Leta hadn’t. And from the messages they’d shared just before they’d abandoned the CORS, Ezra had known that. He’d agreed to continue supporting them. And yet…
“Look, Ms. Adler, don’t get me wrong,” he went on, moving around the table toward her and leaning against it. “I have a lot of respect for you and for Admiral Soliveré and what you’re trying to achieve. And I know, truly,” he held his hand over his heart, “that what you’re here for is the freedom of the Ellegian people. But forgive me if I feel the need to call a spade a spade. This?” He gestured vaguely towards the window, the outside, the burning city under attack. “This is not a rescue mission. This is an invasion.”
Leta wanted desperately to argue. To prove him wrong, to defend their purpose here, but she found she couldn’t. Not without lying. Or at least dramatically stretching the truth.
“Of course, we’ve no real ill intent towards Carthis and certainly not you,” Ezra continued. “The enemy of our enemy is our friend after all. We want the Society dismantled as much as you do and even as we speak, our forces are aiding yours in that fight. We’ll help win this battle. It’s just…what comes afterwards that I worry for.”
“And that’s why you’re kidnapping soldiers,” Leta finished for him, her tone still bitter. “As an insurance policy?”
“More like a bargaining chip,” Ezra corrected and though what he was saying made her angry, she couldn’t quite hate him for it. He spoke so earnestly, as genuine as he always had been in their messages, she couldn’t entirely fault him. “When the smoke clears and our victory is secured, it’s going to be us against a massive military force ready to sweep us out in one fell swoop. I need to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
“But–Ezra, like this?” Leta rubbed her palms against her temples. “You know as well as I they’re going to just see this as an act of aggression. They’ll use it as a reason to attack you. They’ll just spin the entire planet as Society sympathizers.”
Ezra shrugged and said something that left Leta speechless. “Maybe we are.”
“It’s different on Vescent, I know,” he tried to explain, pushing himself from the table. “The Society’s presence was new and imposing, something swooping in to take over an existing system. But on Ellegy? The Society isn’t some outside force taking over our government. It isour government. It’s a fundamental structure of the Ellegian way of life. There’s no one on this planet that doesn’t know someone within it. My own sister is the head of the Ellegian Department of Science and Technology. My father worked for fifty years in the Department of Transportation. My mother, the Department of Health. It’s not us versus them. It’s just us.”
Leta was shaking her head before he’d even finished. “But you’re arebellion, you’re fighting against the Society.”
“We’re fighting the current Society regime,” he corrected. “The one that’s lost sight of what Ellegy should and can be. Now I’ll admit that without the actions of you and even of Carthis in the rest of the Span, what we’ve started here wouldn’t have been possible. But nonetheless, this remains, at its heart, a civil war. And these supposed allies of yours offering ‘help’?” Now it was his turn to shake his head. “Opportunists.”
Leta could not point to any particular sentiment she disagreed with, but the entirety of it still left a foul taste in her mouth. Opportunists or no, Carthis was still the driving force behind this effort and this tiny rebellion hadn’t stood a chance against the Society fleets or even the ground forces without their intervention. And now acting like their help was an inconvenience? Attacking Carthian forces? On top of it all, lying about their allegiance until they had already arrived?
Leta grit her teeth. “We had an agreement, you and I. We were on the same page. We’d fight the Society together with Carthis and negotiate where things landed politically afterwards.”
“I know,” Ezra sighed. “And I’m sorry we neglected to tell you when that changed, I really am. But we couldn’t risk the overall plans falling through.”
There were few things Leta liked less than feeling used, but the uncomfortable feeling edging in on her from all sides was coming in a close second. “And dare I ask what made you change your mind?”
Ezra’s eyes flickered past her and Leta drew a deep breath as she turned around to find Dez standing in the corner of the room, arms crossed over her chest, watching in interest. “Of fucking course.”
“Careful with this one,” Dez advised Ezra, stepping out of the shadows. “Any harm comes to her, we can wave goodbye to our Plan A.”
Leta balled her fists at her side and lifted a brow at him. “Plan A?”
“You’ll see,” Dez assured her and then smiled emptily. “Welcome to Plan B though. I can tell you’re not a fan.”
Hardly in the mood to talk to Dez of all people, Leta spun back around on Ezra. “This is who you’re listening to now? Do you have any idea who he is?” She let out a groan and dragged her blood-stained hands down her face, not even wanting the answer. “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even matter who it came from. How could you even entertaina plan that involves blowing up your own city? How many people were hurt in those explosions? And for what? A distraction? How many had to die so you could get the edge on the Carthian troops?”
Beside her, she heard Dez open his mouth to speak, but she held up a finger to him and snapped, “If you even think of saying it was ‘necessary’ I swear I will take you down with my bare hands.” The man regarded her curiously for a moment and then obediently shut his mouth.
“But Ms. Adler, it was,” Ezra argued and she rounded on him with fury in her eyes. “If we hadn’t set off the explosions, we never could have made the extractions we needed and without the extractions, if Plan A fails, even if it succeeds, we’d have nothing to negotiate Carthis’ exit with.”
“So the people out there, your people, as you pointed out, that are dying and suffering, mean nothing? Instead of helping them, you’re blowing them up and hiding away with your political negotiation assets?”
“They don’t mean nothing,” Ezra argued. “But we have a bigger goal–”
“That will mean nothing if your planet is destroyed and dead,” Leta snapped.
“She’s not wrong,” put in Dez, to Leta’s deep shock, though she didn’t say it. “Both contingencies will be more successful with the support of the Ellegian populace.”
“Gods, even he agrees with me,” Leta growled, rolling her eyes and then seeking out the woman who had brought her in. “Where’s my pack?”
The woman looked startled and then searched around the room for someone to assist her, but no one did so she pointed down the hallway. “Eh–it’s in the storage room on the left, but–”
“Great,” Leta cut her off and headed back to the hall just as Ezra stuttered, “W–what are you doing?”
“Taking my stuff, freeing my med team and getting back out there,” Leta called back as she walked straight past the stunned guards into the storage room and sought out her medical bag. Slinging it over her shoulder, she made a pointed glance at the man guarding the holding room where her team was waiting. He nervously cast a glance at Ezra who didn’t seem to know what to do, and then Dez, who nodded. The door swung open and Leta smiled, heading back into the main room.
“And if anyone tries to stop me? Like this guy said,” she jutted her thumb at Dez, “You can wave goodbye to your Plan A.” Whatever that meant. It didn’t matter. There was work to be done and damned if she was just going to sit here as someone’s captive. She made for the door, her team, confused but ready to go, filling in behind her.
“Wait — is she — is she really?” Ezra sputtered in desperation and Leta could have sworn she heard Dez laugh appreciatively before he said, “I did warn you not to pick her up.”
Fiearius ducked beneath the arc of Ophelia’s blade, but left himself completely open for the mean right hook she delivered to his ribs straight after. He recoiled and lashed out for a counterattack that she easily side-stepped to slash at him again.
Fiearius had fought Ophelia before, a few times actually, but this time something was different. The woman’s style could be categorized only as ‘relentless.’ Even back in his days in Internal, she was known for her ability to just keep going and going and going without a pause for breath. ‘Inhuman’ was a word often assigned to her, although only behind her back. Fiearius had often gotten the impression she didn’t like the description.
Relentless and inhuman, however, were not applicable now. Though she was currently swinging a blade furiously in the direction of his abdomen, Fiearius sensed something surprising as he stumbled backwards away from her: hesitation.
There was a subtle hint of distraction in her eyes as she continued towards him, this time slashing at his leg which he slid out of the way and used the momentum of to pummel forward with his fist. And though she was paying attention enough to dodge him, her elbowing counterattack was clearly delayed and not even aimed at a vital organ. She had made a few contacts in this scuffle, but Fiearius was still mostly intact and not out of any skill of his own. He was a scrappy fighter and could hold his own against normal brunt force, but Varisian? She was a creature of grace. And distracted or not, she should have been kicking his ass.
So why was she holding back? Why had she wanted him to leave? What was with that look she’d given him? were all questions he might have wondered had he not been too busy trying not to fall down the stairs she’d managed to back him up against.
He tried in vain to raise his arm enough to get even a decent shot with his gun, but Ophelia’s blade came down on his wrist, forcing his hand back. Fleetingly, as he used her momentary preoccupation to slide away from the stairwell’s edge, he caught glimpse of the Councillor at the other end of the hall. She leaned against the doorframe, her dress whipping around her ankles from the wind, watching with her chin propped in her hand and a smile curling her lips.
She was fucking enjoying this, he realized, narrowly avoiding having his shoulder sliced open.
That fucking asshole.
Fueled by a sudden spurt of rage, Fiearius looked back at Ophelia, coming at him again with her weapon and felt that familiar thought rise into his head: fuck it. She may have been faster, but he was still bigger. He tensed himself and ran straight at her.
The collision hurt even more than he had anticipated as her blade cut through his shirt and into the flesh of his side, but it had worked. He planted his feet firmly in the ground as Ophelia staggered backwards, no match for his full force. He gripped his gun and raised it again, but not at her. Fuck her, she wasn’t what he was here for. He spun around and aimed at the woman in the doorway whose expression flickered from amusement to, infuriatingly, curiosity. It wouldn’t last long, he thought to himself. Time to end this.
His finger pulled the trigger just as another force plowed into him from the side. The bullet shattered the top of a pillar in a cloud of plaster.
Smaller she may have been, but unprepared as he was for Ophelia leaping on him, Fiearius lost his footing in an instant and the two of them tumbled to the marble floor. She seized his wrist and twisted until the pistol fell from his grip then kneed him in the ribs. She wanted to wrestle? Fine.
Fiearius ripped his arm from her grasp and pushed, flipping her off of him and onto her back where he pinned her down and returned the favor, forcing her blade from her hand to clatter onto the ground. She struggled with her hands for a moment, desperate to release herself, but without the advantage of weight or gravity, she was stuck. That is, until she realized he’d accidentally left a key opening available for her to kick.
As Fiearius recoiled, resisting the urge to howl in pain, he thought he heard something that only made this worse. Laughter? Seriously? It was bad enough that he was rolling around on the floor with this goddamn woman trying to kill him, but this Councillor had the audacity to think it was funny? He’d felt some sympathy for the Ascendian official. A little respect even for the Synechdan, managing to stay hidden in plain sight for so long. But this one? This was the first Councillor since Vescent he’d wanted to murder so fucking badly.
Which was probably why, after fending off Ophelia for another few seconds, when he was finally granted just a split second of reprieve after getting in a punch to her collarbone, instead of going for another attack as he should have, he stretched his arm out in a desperate reach for his gun. Just shoot her, that’s all he wanted to do. Shoot that damn Councillor and finish this.
But his fingertips never touched the gun. It was the wrong move. It put him off balance, it gave Ophelia the edge, and when she put her palms on his chest and shoved, he didn’t have the chance to resist. Within instants, he was on his back again, pinned to the floor by her knee with her gun pressed against his forehead.
Neither of them moved. Fiearius stared up at her, breathing heavily. She stared back, unreadable as ever, her face stone. The laughing, thank the gods, had stopped, but now the sound of clicking heels on the floor met his ears. They stopped a few feet away and a barking voice snapped, “I gave you an order, Varisian. Kill him.”
Ophelia still didn’t move. Her shoulders were rising and falling hard, her nostrils flaring with each breath. She continued to meet his gaze, unwavering.
“Kill him!” shouted the Councillor again and this time, he saw Varisian ever so slightly flinch. Then, she took a deep breath and moved her gun from his head to his heart. She mouthed, “I’m sorry.” And fired.
Before he could move, before he could think, fire blasted cleanly through him, more painful than anything he’d felt before. And then — numbness spread through his limbs. Warm, wet blood started to seep over his skin and, dimly, he registered that he was probably in shock — he made a choking sound, he had to press his hand against the wound — his lungs were starting to feel heavy, full –
But then his thoughts became nothing. A curtain fell over his mind; he only saw noise. Ophelia, the Councillor, Ellegy, melted away, his head slumped back onto the ground. He exhaled one shaky last breath and then breathed no more.