It began in the evening, as the sun began to set and cast murky shadows across the alleys and streets of Santariv. Disenchanted Chon’ith took to the streets, as they always did; the stench of sweat mingled with the sense of misery as Acklaran and Risharath watched the angry crowd.
“I do not like being this close to them…” Muttered Risharath. He and Acklaran sat at a small plastic table and sipped gingerly from old mugs, trying not to taste the contents too much. The ‘cafe’ had offered food, but couldn’t even go as far as to name the ‘meat’ in the food. Sometimes throngs of Chon’ith pushed through the tables and into the swarm that screamed abuse at the guards, an act that added to the irritation of both men.
“It will not be for much longer.” Counselled Acklaran. “We have nearly all the information we need.”
“Let us hope so.”
Acklaran had to suppress a surge of fresh consternation. Risharath seemed determined to have the final words in every conversation, and those words were unyieldingly negative. He did what he could to avoid rolling his eyes and maintained a watchful gaze upon the guards. If their shift followed the same pattern as the previous two…
“This is no way for a Chon’ith to live.” Uttered Risharath, staring at the crowds that now started dispersing. “They have nothing.”
“That will change.” Replied Acklaran, as casually as he could.
“By fighting the flames with the fire.” Retorted Risharath. Acklaran fought down a sigh and kept his voice level as he turned his gaze upon the younger man.
“If you doubt our cause, why are you a part of it?”
Risharath appeared taken aback. “I… I believe we need a new way.”
“As do all of us in our group. Do not doubt that, is what I would ask of you.”
“So why do we fall back on the same methods as we have always used?” Asked Risharath.
“Seluban already explained this. We will not be using the same methods. We will adapt our techniques.” Frustration had entered Acklaran’s voice.
“How do we even know how to do that?”
“I trust Seluban. He will find a way.” Acklaran spoke in a manner designed to end the discussion, but Risharath did not appear to take the hint.
“With all due respect, that is empty rhetoric.” Risharath met Acklaran’s eyes. “How we can adapt and change our approaches when we don’t know how?”
“What assurances would you have me offer?” Replied Acklaran irritably. “What can you suggest that might avert our empire’s current, destructive course?”
“I…” Risharath stumbled over his words. “I just know empty rhetoric and hollow platitudes will not save us.”
Acklaran smiled unpleasantly. “Ironic.”
Risharath looked like he wanted to say more, but the unmissable sound of a military communicator’s beep alerted them both to a change. The haggard guards wore expressions of pure relief as the fresh patrol’s vehicle slowly pushed through the crowd. Bottles of various unpleasant fluids smashed against the armoured car, along with various decaying foodstuffs; the stench made Acklaran’s nose twitch, but he kept his eyes trained on what the guards were doing. Focusing on the time taken to change shifts was the key move. The back of the vehicle opened up to allow a new pair of faces out to face the wrath of the broken horde. As with the previous shift, the retiring soldiers hastily bundled themselves into the vehicle, unable to hide their pleasure at escaping the scene.
The vehicle itself trundled away, toward a secure compound near the city gates. A pair of very large steel doors slid open, and the transport disappeared into the high-walled secure area. Acklaran had watched carefully as the journey unfolded, and though there was some distance for the vehicle to cover, the return trip was always quicker than the outbound voyage. The fresh shift takes its time coming out… Hardly a surprise; no one was eager to start a shift in this little corner of misery.
The fresh patrol brandished large automatic rifles and they wasted no time in waving them around, imposing their authority upon the unhappy crowds. Between the guard towers that were permanently manned and armed, and the foot patrols, penetrating the secure military outpost was shaping up to be quite a challenge. Yet without gaining access, there would be no means of acquiring a transport, and no means of escaping the Forge. Would the guards follow the same pattern, and thus present the opportunity they sorely needed?
“We should see what the others have learned.” Acklaran said quietly. Risharath, for once, did not disagree.
Two hours later, the small band had reassembled in their shack, and a hastily drawn map was strewn over the table. Food and drink containers – now largely empty – had given the room a tardy look, but that couldn’t be helped, and was far from Seluban’s mind as he looked over the red crosses that denoted the extremes of patrols.
“They never venture far, be it to keep order, or distribute food. Understandable.” Remarked Acklaran.
“Quite. They always remain under the protective cover of the towers and their cannons. All of them, except this one.” Seluban’s finger planted itself on a portion of the map that featured a semi-circular clearing and a number of branching roads. Seluban took a breath, knowing everyone already knew where this was going. “The Parchment.”
Everyone’s eyes flicked at everyone else’s, nerves and worry being exchanged.
“Small wonder the guards feel slightly more secure there.” Said De’rata. “It gives us a tremendous element of surprise.”
“And the potential to trigger riots on an unprecedented scale.” Risharath replied. Acklaran in particular cast his gaze upon the younger man, who shrugged. “I am not trying to be difficult, merely stating a fact. It might work in our favour. Were we not advised to use the anger of the locals?”
Seluban smiled. “Very true, and a good idea. Any suggestion the guards are using force in the Parchment, or even near it, will ignite the passions of the mob.”
“We shall need to ambush them quickly, and all be in a position to take control of a transport, the moment we can. From there, we will need to quickly take over an aerial vehicle. There is far too much to go wrong here.” De’rata mused.
“I am half-inclined to agree…” Replied Zarthara. “But there are few options available to us. We must draw a transport to us, and do so as discretely as possible. The Parchment is the only such place that gives us our chance.”
Seluban placed his hands on the table and drew everyone’s focus onto him.
“It is our only chance. To remain in the Forge for much longer is to invite discovery and capture. We will strike first thing in the morning, after we have rested. The guards will be at complacent and, if their habits are anything to go by, tired. All of you, get some sleep.”