Coward’s Forge dominated the Western end of the continent of Vevik. The chain had erupted into being where an oceanic plate was crushing into Vevik’s coastline, pushing up a range of ragged mountains and ever-bubbling volcanoes. Earthquakes periodically shook the entire region, and when tidal flexing was at its worst, the Forge became the single most inhospitable region on Oanerth, save for the freezing polar regions. It was here that failures went to die, where weaklings huddled together in mutual shame for failing Requeteran and the Makers. Their ramshackle dwellings consisted of sprawling shanty towns, crafted from hardy woods and the meagre donations of concrete and steel composites. Food could be grown on the Forge, but the lands were poor and pickings were slender, so once every few weeks the state provided rations. The state also provided heavily armed guards to prevent escape, and to prevent anyone from taking their own life (though suicide was among the worst things a Chon’ith could ever do). Living with the constant reminder of cowardly behaviour and dishonourable conduct was the greatest punishment a Chon’ith could receive. Killing one’s self to avoid that punishment removed whatever tiny shred of honour a Chon’ith still had.
Perched on the edge of an old, worn wooden bench, Seluban, wearing a plain grey shirt and baggy, ill-fitting grey trousers, looked down the alleyway that led to the city of Tre’vik’s main thoroughfare. In the three months since his exile, Seluban had discovered a couple of little eateries, off well-weathered tracks, that provided slightly better food than the other establishments – and certainly better than anything he himself could make. A male Chon’ith did not cook, that was the role of the female of the house, and Seluban had soon discovered how much he greatly missed his mate’s skill with food – and how much he simply missed her. Regular anguish and heartache over knowing his mate and offspring would never again speak to him threatened to pull Seluban down, into a spiral of endless despair, but he refused to succumb to it. Instead he wiped the remaining half of his bread roll across the base of the stew bowl, extracting every last morsel, before offering his thanks to the street vendor, a red-skinned female who had, somewhere down the line, lost her right eye. She smiled.
“Your patronage is appreciated.” She said, in the slightly scratchy voice older Chon’ith developed.
“Your food is appreciated even more Saraqur. I thank you for your generosity.” Seluban handed over coins from his carry pouch, and bade her farewell, departing for the main street. He was assaulted by various smells, that tingled, tempted and terrified his nasal passage in equal measure. Neon signs pointed to various activities, from fighting pits, to animal baiting, to more sordid affairs, and the lights seemed to stretch on and on. Whilst underground, the city was huge, a sprawling unplanned mess, much unlike the beautiful towns elsewhere on Oanerth, and Seluban had to suppress an urge to vomit every time he laid eyes on the sight, and the Chon’ith who lived here. Many were broken, and had turned their backs on the Makers, feeling forsaken. The discipline that was the cornerstone of Chon’ith society was forgotten among the gamblers and concubines of Tre’vik. The walls of the wooden huts and buildings were left unpainted and untreated, emerging into various states of disrepair over the centuries. Moisture from the humidity did nothing any favours and sucked the energy from the place. Seluban walked slowly towards the residence he had been granted, keeping his head down, not keen to drawn into conversation with anyone.
Some Chon’ith came here refusing to accept they had done anything wrong. They tried to live as the Makers had intended, but the fact that they were here was proof enough of their failings, and those who were resigned to their fate resented the holier than thou mentality the pious brought with them. It was not unheard of for brawls to break out, especially in the seedy taverns, where some tried to preach the Words and others violently condemned the faith that had exiled them. To avoid any such confrontation, Seluban avoided speaking to pretty much anyone, for fear he would say the wrong thing and draw the wrong kind of attention to himself. It didn’t help that he was only the third Superior Chief to end up in Tre’vik, and was therefore a ‘celebrity’, for all, the wrong reasons. He kept his hood up, despite the warm humid air, as he made his way home.
Accommodation in Tre’vik was universal for every unwilling resident. The single-storey hut was small but had a partitioning wall to separate the sleeping area from the rest of the room. Toilets were provided but the only seats were the ones carved out of the stone walls. Seluban had been given oil to burn, in order to cook with, and he had bartered for himself a simple square wooden table to sit at. The fire pit was unlit and the pots and pans were piled messily by the water fountain, stained with the results of yesterday’s ill-advised attempt at cooking. With a sigh, Seluban resigned himself to the task of scraping off the dried and congealed remains of egg, pasta and bread-based meals, though with only cold water, it would likely prove a long evening of scrubbing.
Or it would have, until Seluban heard the creak of the door someone tried to quietly open it.
He span around, eyes burning with annoyance that someone would violate his privacy. Those same eyes widened as not one but two Chon’ith, one green-skinned like himself (and similar in height) and one yellow-skinned Chon’ith entered. Their clothes were tatty, marked with bright yellow and green stains and frayed across the sleeves, as well as singed in several places. The two Chon’ith themselves mirrored their clothing – the green one’s eyes were bulbous from substance abuse, and the left tusk was broken. Seluban wasn’t sure, but as the intruder stepped to his right, he could have sworn was favouring his left leg. The yellow Chon’ith was taller but not especially slim, and a deep scar ran over his forehead. Both brandished blades, six inches by Seluban’s reckoning. They toyed with them as they walked in, and Seluban suspected they believed they could toy with him.
“You ‘Eluban?” The green one slurred. He spoke slowly, as though his mouth was damaged somehow.
“What if I am?” He answered coolly.
“You were a Superior Chief?” The green one asked.
“Now you’re here.” The green answered simply, grinning like he’d won a prize.
“And this is important to you because…?” Seluban made a prompting gesture, already bored of the ‘conversation’.
“‘is brother died when you abandoned your post.” The yellow one answered. His, voice was more level, but there was a hint of the same troubled speech. Drugs had taken their toll on both the other men.
“I am sorry for your loss, but war brings death. He met his fate in the manner all Chon’ith dream of.”
“‘e should be alive and he’s dead coz of you!” The green one waved his blade angrily. Inwardly Seluban sighed, but outwardly he just glared at the pair.
“I cannot change the past, and if you two think this course of action will somehow affect anything, you will not have a future. I urge you to reconsider.”
The green Chon’ith sneered. “‘Ere’s two of us.” He gripped the wooden handle of his blade tighter.
“Yes, but soon there will neither of you.”
The green Chon’ith snarled and charged forward. It was a rash, clumsy motion, slashing from left to right but without any co-ordination. Seluban simply side-stepped and smashed an elbow into the back of the other man’s head, just as the yellow Chon’ith tried to slice his knife across Seluban’s throat. Seluban’s twisted motion had brought his spare right hand up to parry and deflect, sending the yellow Chon’ith’s hand down. He grabbed his opponent’s arm and swung him around, bringing him into hard contact with the small stone worktop by the window. Without pausing, Seluban pressed the attack, grabbing the yellow Chon’ith by the back of the neck and smashing his face into the work surface, then flinging him onto his back. The green Chon’ith had recovered, but not enough, and despite another ill-footed swipe of his blade, it was no match for Seluban’s focused, clear mind. He planted a kick at the left shin of the other man, and delivered a ferocious right hook across his jaw. As the man went down, he stamped upon their stomach. The yellow Chon’ith had regained his own footing, albeit unsteadily, with blood dripping from a gash on his forehead, and Seluban allowed him to stagger in his general direction. A few misdirected lunges were easily dodged, and Seluban grabbed the knife hand, squeezing, twisting, and sending the blade back, allowing momentum to plunge the knife between the ribs. It wasn’t a fatal wound (at least not immediately), but the other Chon’ith went down with a cry of pain.
“I should kill you, but that would be an honour you do not deserve.” Seluban stood over him, eyes ablaze. “Leave me alone, and tell anyone else who might wish to… settle matters, they would be wise to do so as well.”
The hour was late but the heat and humidity had not abated as Seluban sat down on the corner of the old, dirty grey mattress. Exhaustion was a constant state of being in an environment that was designed to sap a Chon’ith. He refused to give in to the pit of shame and misery that lingered on the edge of every thought, but after the attempt on his life, it was harder than usual. Word would hopefully have spread of his warning, but part of him had been tempted to succumb, and part of him still was.
Giving in was not who he was, but if even here, in the land of the broken and discarded, he would not find solace, could he ever move on? Chon’ith did not cry, it was physically impossible, but if it had been possible, he was on the verge.
There was a knock upon the door to his cabin. Slowly Seluban rose and left the bed chamber, fully prepared to bluntly dismiss the visitor. The admonishment died before it left his lips as he opened the door.
“Acklaran!” His steely exterior was briefly broken.
“Good evening Seluban.” Acklaran withdrew the hood from his head and smiled tamely. “It is good to see you.”
“Hmpf. Come in.” Seluban stepped to one side to bid his former exec entry.
Acklaran surveyed his former commander’s quarters with a critical eye, but did not say anything. Seluban gestured to sit on the bench, and Acklaran obliged.
“To what do I owe this visit?” Asked Seluban as he filled two cups with water and brought them over, sitting beside the younger Chon’ith.
“I hear you had… an altercation today.” Began Acklaran. Seluban snorted.
“Two revenge-seeking fools. They are aware I am not to be trifled with.”
“Anyone who is not a fool would already know that. Sadly, there are many fools here.”
Seluban nodded. “And we are among them for just being here. I had hoped you would somehow be spared my friend.”
“I have spent the past few months trying to find you. We have a lot to talk about.” Acklaran took a sip from his water. “Whilst we are both reviled, I am… fortunate, to have a slightly better reputation among the Chon’ith here. Word of the war with the humans has reached me. We are in trouble Seluban.”
Seluban nodded again. “I am not surprised. If we do not learn, we will lose.”
“It seems we are not the only ones who think so. There are many here in Tre’vik who question the conventional interpretations of the Words. They desire to change our peoples’ direction.”
Seluban’s eyes narrowed. If Acklaran was alluding to…
“Acklaran, even here the Council has ears. You know what they do to those who preach sedition.”
“If nothing changes, there will be no Council. There will not be an Oanerth, at least, not as we know it.” Acklaran met his friend’s eyes. “You are respected here, for doing what had to be done to survive. You would bring a powerful voice to the Resistance.”
This time Seluban shook his head. “And the price of failure? I agree that we cannot carry on as we have before, but to incite open rebellion during war… I don’t know Acklaran, would we not hasten our demise?”
Confusion coloured Acklaran’s eyes. “You were the one who inspired me to look beyond the most rigid interpretations of the Words. You took a stand, knowing the cost of that stand. Why do you hesitate now?”
Pushing himself up, Seluban faced the door. “Because I have wondered for each and every day since arriving here, whether I have made the right choice.” He turned, trying and failing to keep the resentment from his voice. “I took a stand. What has it got me?” He spread his arms out, indicating the shambolic living space. “Has it affected the thinking of our leaders? You said it yourself, the war is not going well. Assuming – and it’s a huge assumption – that any revolt succeeded, would this help us, in this moment?”
“I cannot say. No, it would probably not help us.” Acklaran sighed. “Seluban, the people I want you to meet are… committed. They have plans, ones they will put into motion with or without you. In either case, the chance of success is slender, but at least with you, there is hope.”
“What exactly does this Resistance have planned?” Asked Seluban, half-curious, despite himself.
“They will not tell me. I have been on the fringes of their organisation, gradually gaining trust, but I am still some way from being truly accepted. Recruiting you to their cause would go a long way to gaining influence.”
Pausing to think, Seluban turned away again. He eyed up the flecks of blood on the worktop, the pool of the crimson substance upon the floor.
“Would the Resistance be amiable to a less direct approach?” He asked quietly.
“I do not know. Their leadership is fanatical, at least, if their average membership is anything to go by.” Acklaran offered up a lop-sided grin as Seluban faced him. “They have few weapons, and very few men, but they do not lack for courage, ironic for the Coward’s Forge.”
A strand of thought was weaving its way through Seluban’s mind. “If we are to be successful in saving our world, we will need more than courage. Oh, we shall to be brave, there is no question of that. We also need careful planning. We need to pick and choose our battles Acklaran. We need to fight smart.”
It was Acklaran’s turn to nod. “Agreed, but as I say, these are fanatics. What did you have in mind?”
“I think… I think the Resistance needs to be the first example of a reshaped philosophy.”