Raksha protected his people at the Bay of Mada. Over millennia the valley had become a city, and the bay a port for sailing ships. In an earlier time, when ice covered the plains of Umaavadan, the rakshoon took refuge at Mada. The mountains surrounding the valley trapped warm moist air rising from NamaUd and made the Kishkha a time to forget old rivalries, study old texts, and share stories of Raksha’s cleverness. Wartooth had been here before, at the Kishkha of Betrayal.
This fortress, this very room, was Baga’s home. Baga was the first raka to gather quarreling families and clans under a common banner. That fight was against the tianshen and their perverse occupation of Raksha. In that great age of the first empire Baga carved his home in the side of the Mada Mountains and, on a morning like this, he stood in this window and commanded his troops in the defense of his home world.
On that morning, Baga was certain of his victory. He could not know how the tianshen would use their Bugs as weapons. By that evening, the Bugs had destroyed Baga’s army. The Plains of Umaavadan had not changed since Baga’s defeat. The soil was rich for growing grain, and the grass was green for feeding herds of bison. Deep in that soil was the blood of Wartooth’s ancestors. On this day, he would reclaim Mada from the tianshen, and Wartooth would be the only one above Baga’s on Raksha’s tongue.
He wore a replica of Baga’s armor. Commissioned for this day, the armor was a solid plate of protean steel polished to the purest white. A helmet pinned his ears against his head. Even on this cool morning, the armor was hot and made his fur itch. He wondered if armor had caused Baga’s defeat. He wanted to toss it and face his troops in the fur, but this moment needed the symbolism. Rakshoon would die for him today. They should go to that death with hope in their hearts.
Bemar appeared next to him. He was half the size of Wartooth. As a priest of Raksha he wore fine cloths. And his ears were free to twitch.
Wartooth growled. “The speakers are ready?”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“And the ada in charge of the tunnels?”
“They are in the next room, my Lord.”
“Bring them in.”
“Later, my Lord. This is Baga’s chamber, after all.”
His growl was a rumble in his chest.
Bemar bowed his head. “If you insist, my Lord. But you know how the ada behave. They might stumble over the furniture, interfere with the receiver, disconnect it, or worse. I would not be surprised if one of these two fell out the window before you finished.”
Bemar was raka. For him, the ada were slaves and incompetent for anything but the most menial tasks. Wartooth knew otherwise. The ada were competent, but also clumsy and unduly curious. “OK, Bemar. Bring them in when I am finished,” He extended a paw. “The receiver.”
Like the armor, the receiver was old technology. One of Raksha’s many tricks was to make wireless communication difficult. These old receivers were hard-wired to regional and global grids and were more reliable than any but the tianshen’s quantum. He stepped from the shadow into Maana’s morning glow. He spoke with his deepest voice. “All my people. This is the Kishkha of Liberation!”
He waited for his voice to echo through the encampments sprawled in front of him. As it did, a cheer washed over the gathering like a wave breaking from the shore. Then, as they noticed him in the window, the cheers became a chant. “Wartooth! Wartooth! Wartooth!”
In a moment, the chant was thunder. Two million raka, hundreds of dogo, and countless ada roared his name in unison. These were his people, his species, and they had suffered enough. He inhaled deeply. The morning air was moist. Over Bemar’s perfume he smelled trampled grass, fire, and charred meat.
He raised a paw. The chant stopped with the clap of an echo against the mountain’s side.
“You know the tianshen’s story. They defiled their world to come here. Raksha destroyed their star in punishment. Despite the Father’s warning, the tianshen continued to infest our world. They demeaned our traditions and denied Raksha was the Protector. They insisted we were uncivilized and needed their aid.
“Baga knew better. He saw the tianshen use raka like animals. He saw how they turned families and clans against each other to control larger portions of our world. Baga saw the population of raka shrinking and predicted our extinction at their hands. But Raksha is clever.”
“Raksha is clever,” the priest whispered.
Wartooth paused for the crowd’s quiet refrain to reach his ears.
“Baga joined the families and made the raka one clan. He took back our world, and then, on an early winter’s day, he trapped the tianshen here, at Mada. Desperate to save themselves, they overwhelmed Baga’s army with millions of their Bugs. Satisfied in their victory, and certain they would take our world, they gave our people to the Bugs as harvest. They slaughtered us the way we slaughter the bison that graze on Umaavadan’s grasses. But Raksha is clever.”
“Raksha is clever,” Bemar said again.
“Raksha is clever,” the crowd’s whisper sounded like a breeze from the north.
“Raksha is clever,” he whispered. Then loud and deep. “Raksha turned the Bugs against the tianshen and suddenly the tianshen needed the raka to save them. They promised to make raka warriors as powerful as the Bugs. They altered a few, to create the dogo.”
“Dogo! Dogo! Dogo!”
He let the chant fade. “The tianshen did not know the dogo were Raksha’s plan, so they continued to alter us until we became a race of our own. Able to breed, we made enough dogo to defeat the Bugs. We drove them from our continent and trapped them on Tar Island for the tianshen to deal with them. But the tianshen are traitorous. With the Bugs defeated, they were threatened by the dogo, and turned against their new army.”
Howls of derision rose from the camp. He let it build to a wave before cutting it off with a raised paw. “At the Kishkha of Betrayal, the tianshen tried to slaughter any dogo they could not control. A few of us escaped. There was raka at that betrayal that aided the tianshen. They live in Mada, and they are not your brothers.”
He removed the helmet to better hear the screams of anger from the encampments. He wished he could be there. He stood in this window because that was Raksha’s plan, and he was the Father’s instrument to complete it. Because of his leadership and Raksha’s grace, two million raka had gathered on the sloping hills below him. Three million rakshoon when you counted the ada and dogo.
The angry howling stopped. He dropped the receiver. It dangled out the window on its black cord. In his loudest roar he bellowed, “Today is the Kishkha of Liberation!”
With chants of Wartooth echoing off the mountain, he stepped back from the window for the cool shadows of the room. With a flex of his shoulders, he sent the protean steel chest plate to the floor and purred as he scratched his chest hair in satisfaction.
“Bemar,” he said, and turned to find the raka holding another receiver.
“We have the Protectorate of Wanshi on a direct line, my Lord,” Bemar said.
Wartooth backhanded him across the face. “Mada,” he said.
Bemar took the blow without flinching or back stepping. “Yes, my Lord,” he said. “The Protectorate is tianshen. Forgive my use of their tongue.”
“A tianshen?” Wartooth had not expected that. Jo Ji had been Protectorate of Mada since he was a boy. “What of Jo Ji?”
“I did not ask my Lord.”
“I want to gut him myself,” Wartooth said as he took the receiver from Bemar. “His name?”
“Shohang of Wanshi, my Lord.”
Wartooth hit Bemar with the receiver. The earpiece cracked against Bemar’s single fang. He fell to one knee, covering the fang with his hand.
“Who is on the receiver?”
“Shohang of Mada, my Lord,” Bemar said, inspecting blood on his hand.
Wartooth chuckled twice. “Your last fang is secure, Bemar. I cut your lip.”
“Thank you, my Lord.”
“Tell the ada to be ready. I want to speak with them when I finish with this Shohang.” The name felt heavy against his fangs.
“Yes, my Lord,” Bemar pivoted on his knee, then vanished behind the door.
“Quiet as a Bug,” Wartooth said to the air.
“This is Shohang of Wanshi,” a voice said from the receiver. “Do I speak with the dogo criminal Wartooth?”
Wartooth looked for Bemar to strike again. He punched the window frame instead. Wood splintered from the frame.
“Mada,” Wartooth said.
“Mada,” Wartooth said, as if he was talking to his deaf grandmother.
“I am to discuss terms of Wartooth’s surrender,” Shohang said.
Wartooth hit the window frame again. The wood encasement fell on his feet.
“The city is Mada. The bay is Mada. The water, the soil, the trees, the air you breathe while you occupy that space is Mada,” Wartooth said. “Mada is home to the Father. Mada is sacred. You defile him with your ignorance.”
“I had heard you were a planet worshiper. We have psycho-cyber implants that can cure you of that and other superstitions. Did you know the raka of this city used to sleep with their feet facing the bay?”
Wartooth snapped the receiver. “Bemar! Bring me another receiver,” he yelled.
Bemar materialized with two receivers. “Here, my Lord.”
Wartooth yanked the cord out of the first and threw it out the window. He took the second.
“Are you familiar with our custom of tribute, Shohang of Mada?”
“Wanshi. And yes, I am. That is your barbaric practice of raping the females after a victory.”
Bemar had vanished. The window frame was splinters at his feet. He hit the stone wall. Hair protected the knuckles of his paw, but he felt the blow. A sliver of stone fell to the floor. He gripped the receiver hard and spoke slowly.
“Mada. Tribute is not rape. Rape is what you have done to my planet and my people. Tribute is a practice taught us by the Father. When a clan defeats another, the females submit to the victors so they can produce strong children. The tribute strengthens both clans. But if the defeated clan does not surrender their females to the tribute, do you know what we do?”
“No,” Shohang said.
“Before Maana sleeps, you will know.”
“You mean the local star? Do you worship that too?”
He squeezed the receiver but did not break it. He looked at it as if it were Shohang’s face and he had him about the neck. “You do not belong on my world. You insult our traditions. You convert us to your ways, you tried to exterminate us with your Bugs, you made us your pet army, and with each attempt a betrayal. Before this winter ends, Raksha will be free of you.
“Does that mean you expect to win today?”
“Your surrender is out of the question then?”
Wartooth roared, yanked the receiver cord from the wall, and threw it out the window. “Bemar…”
“They are here, my Lord, but I do not trust them.”
Wartooth raised a hand, but Bemar did not flinch. Wartooth lowered his hand. “I should not have struck you. Earlier.”
“The tianshen was arrogant, my Lord. I understand your anger.”
Wartooth’s snout flexed as if he had caught a fresh scent. Bemar had endured more of his rages than he should have. “When we capture Mada, I will not be so angry.”
“They have been a stain on Raksha for too long, my Lord.”
Wartooth growled in agreement. “Are we ready?”
“Our troops hold the three mountain passes into the Bay of Mada.” Bemar said. He indicated a paper map on the table behind Wartooth.
“Use their quantum,” Wartooth said. “Shohang needs to see these things if we are going to win.”
“I would rather keep the troop advance hidden, my Lord.”
“I know what you would do, Bemar.” Wartooth hit the stone table with his fist. “What you would do is what all but Baga have done. And when the Bugs return, what would you do then? The Bugs did not eat tianshen Bemar. They ate raka and ada. Use their quantum.”
“Yes, my Lord,” Bemar waved a hand in front of an emitter. A virtual screen appeared. With another gesture, he enlarged it to fill the wall.
“Each of these mountain passes has two dogo commanders leading ten thousand raka and a hundred dogo each. That’s twenty-thousand, two hundred, as you commanded.”
“A number Raksha favors.”
“Yes, and more than the passes can contain. Here,” He tapped on one of the mountain passes. The image zoomed to show a snake of vehicles entering the pass. “They are an easy target…”
“For their living earth,” Wartooth finished. He tapped on the pass again. The image zoomed to a resolution that detailed individual vehicles. Between them, raka soldiers walked at a snail’s pace.
A red beacon flashed in the screen’s corner.
“They have intercepted our signal,” Bemar said.
“I will enjoy pulling your last fang,” Wartooth said. He studied the screen. His nose twitched. “Do it. Show me how powerful you are Shohang of Wanshi.” The word tasted foul, but he was in a foul mood. Good raka would lose their lives today. “Show me the bay.”
Bemar panned the screen. The image moved over the brown and gray mountains to reveal a city of gleaming blue and white towers. He panned again, following the length of the valley, until there was nothing but blue water. With another motion, the image moved past the Bay of Mada and to the dark green waters of the NamaUd.
“Three sailing and two air ships wait to offer air support and an alternate retreat,” Bemar said.
“They will take the sailing ships with their living water, and the air ships with their fire,” Wartooth said.
“If they do not enter the bay, the tianshen will not attack. We tested their tactics in the fall.”
“Now it is winter,” Wartooth growled. “And in winter we hold the Kishkha.”
When he was last at Mada, it was for a Kishkha. A Kishkha the tianshen used to capture dogo. But those dogo killed a hundred thousand tianshen before they could unleash their living fire. The ada of Mada helped him escape that day. They showed him a way through the storm drains, into tunnels, and finally into caves under the mountains surrounding the Bay. He lost his way in that escape, and the ada that helped him were long dead. But the ada clans of Mada had a long memory, and they respected him.
“Bring me my ada.”
“My Lord, they are not fit for these chambers.”
“My ada,” he spoke slowly.
Bemar opened the door. Behind it were two ada. They were half the size of Bemar, but their heads were just as big. They wore armor chest plates large enough to conceal their oversized chins. Metal plates around their legs rang against the floor with each step.
“It’s really him,” one of them said.
“Shut up, Hoot,” said the other.
“You shut up, Joot. Do you know who that is?”
“Respect!” Bemar said.
The two ada stood straight and snapped their feet together. Their chest plates rose to hide their faces. Their metal leggings fell off.
“Hoot and Joot,” Wartooth chuckled. “Those names are familiar to me.”
“Yes, yes, yes. He remembers.” Hoot said from behind his chest plate.
A hand shot out from behind Joot’s chest plate to punch Hoot in the arm. “Shut up.”
“Relax. Your clans helped me escape Mada at the Kishkha of Betrayal,” Wartooth said.
“Yes, yes, yes,” Hoot jumped.
“Stop it,” Joot said. He pushed his chest plate down so he could see over it. “Hoot is very happy. Forgive him.”
Wartooth laughed. “Undo that armor. I can’t have my ada stumbling over themselves when I take Mada from the tianshen.”
“I told you,” Hoot said. His chest plate fell forward. Except for a cloth covering his loins, he was naked. His back hair was long and sunset red, his skin a dark orange.
Joot followed Hoot’s lead. An ada’s hair only grew along their spine. Long colorful back hair was a symbol of status and pride. Joot’s back hair was missing.
“Who did that to you?” Wartooth said.
“I am sorry, my Lord. A tianshen cut my hair last cycle.”
“Wartooth. I am no Lord over the ada.”
“Yes, my Lord,” Joot said.
“Wartooth,” Hoot said.
“Wartooth,” Joot said.
Wartooth repositioned the image on the virtual screen to show his army crawling through one of the mountain passes. “The tianshen are about to unleash their living earth on my raka,” he pointed to the screen.
The two ada squinted, then purred in excitement. Hoot pushed his finger through the screen to touch the wall behind it. When his finger came back in one piece, he purred even louder.
“The raka on those roads sacrifice themselves for my victory. Their lives will buy time for my dogo to use the tunnels you have dug in the mountains. Are those tunnels ready?”
“Yes, my Lo…”
“Wartooth,” Hoot interjected.
“Will they make it to the city?” Wartooth said.
“Yes, yes, yes. Big tunnels for dogo,” Hoot said.
“Big enough for a tank,” Joot said.
“Not a tank a…” Hoot started.
Wartooth raised a hand to stop him. On the screen, rocks the size of houses jumped from the edges of the pass. They hung for horrible moments, then fell to crush his army. He adjusted the screen to show all three passes. They filled with dust. With an angry gesture, he tossed the virtual screen out the window. It blinked out of existence. The slaughter of those raka was necessary, but he did not need to watch it.
He turned to the table and the paper map. With one long claw he indicated the city of Mada. “Raksha is clever,” he whispered.
“Raksha is clever,” the others echoed him.
“The dogo await your command,” Bemar said.
Bemar barked into a receiver.
Wartooth imagined his dogo running through the tunnels. Six hundred of them, more than enough to slaughter the entire civilian population of Mada. But only if he outsmarted the tianshen and their orahi. Orahi motivated elements infused with it. The tianshen used it as their ultimate weapon, but it had limitations.
You needed millions of the particles to infuse something as simple as a small flame. Billions for a drop of water, trillions to move the smallest clump of soil. Then you needed a control unit.
Control units came in various packages. The most basic was a training unit that instructed fire on the type of material it should consume. Effective at eliminating specific structures or even living targets, fire was the most feared of the orahi.
A more complex unit could control water. Raksha’s interference with radio waves limited their range. Since taking Mada, the tianshen had ringed the bay with control towers and mined the water with cannisters of orahi. Attacking from NamaUd was impossible. The water of the bay would swallow his ships. No, that was a distraction. Today’s threat was earth and fire.
The most complex units controlled earth, but moving earth required quadrillions of the orahi particles. The living earth attack would be devastating, but short. They could not use it again. The Protectorate of Mada played his hand. Now it was Wartooth’s turn.
“How long to clear the passes?” He said to Joot.
“They will be clear before Maana sleeps.”
“Not soon enough,” Wartooth roared.
“No, no, no, Wartooth,” Hoot said. “Tunnel for dogo to move fast. Zoomers follow. Send the zoomers while ada clear the passes.”
Wartooth grabbed Hoot by his back hair. Lifted him for inspection. “What do you mean? Send the zoomers.”
“Yes, yes, yes, Wartooth.” Hoot twitched. “Tunnels dug for dogo will fit the zoomers. Tunnels tall for a dogo and wide for a zoomer. Wartooth.”
Wartooth’s nose twitched. He had planned on his dogo being a distraction while his ada cleared the passes for the full assault. But what was this ada saying? They had made the tunnels big enough for a zoomer? “What do you mean by zoomer?”
“Big gun on wheels. Like a tank, but smaller. They go faster though.” Joot said.
“And shoot fire,” Hoot said.
Transport sleds. A mobile gun with skids on each side for troops to stand. Six, maybe eight, on each side, and two more driving. Ten raka and a fast gun entering Mada beats behind his dogo. He had missed it.
“Did you know about this?” He growled at Bemar.
Bemar’s snout was open. “No, my Lord. I did not think the ada capable of such cleverness.”
“Look around you, Bemar. This room was carved by ada.”
“We did it, Wartooth,” Joot said. “We made tunnels for the zoomers. We like to ride the zoomers. Good for fighting underground.”
“They shoot fire,” Hoot said.
Bemar pulled a receiver from the wall. Wartooth jumped to the window to watch. Within beats, the slow march to the passes stopped. Another few beats, and he could see sleds unloaded from larger transports, a few more beats, and the sleds were lining up at the tunnel entrances. He imagined the details. Each sled was a six wheeled vehicle with a gun mounted at the front and a flame thrower at the rear. The sleds were narrow, a single row of wheels, but they had skids on each side for troops to stand. They were perfect for rapid assaults on smooth city streets. Between their gun and flame thrower, they could flatten a building.
Before he could hope, however, he had to imagine how events would transpire. What could go wrong, what had already gone wrong? He learned not so long ago that once you joined a battle, there was no plan.
He imagined this new scenario. Shohang had seen his army stopped by the living earth, but he would not stop his assault. While Wartooth’s ada cleared the passes of wounded, Shohang would order flying drones, loaded with canisters of living fire, to assault his stalled troops. The tianshen would wait until the clearing crews blocked exit from the passes. That would make his raka easy targets. Shohang would not stop until his dead army clogged the passes to Mada for eternity.
But Shohang did not know about the tunnels, or his plan for the dogo. In a few beats that would change. The dogo in the tunnels were his best warriors, and he had organized them into groups of five. That was a hundred and twenty targets.
He imagined them in the city. The ada would help them stay hidden until they were at their targets, then they would attack. The obvious choice was power, communications, and water. But he did not want Mada destroyed. He had chosen buildings and people important to the tianshen. Political leaders, artists, museums, and restaurants.
Since these were soft targets, the raka police force would respond first. Lightly armed, his dogo would dispatch them without effort. To Shohang it would look like a guerilla army had materialized in his city. He would divert orahi laden drones from the slaughter in the passes to hunting dogo in the city. The living fire diverted, the ada would clear the passes, and his raka would attack through the cleared passes. That was the original plan.
But now, thanks to these clever ada, thousands of sleds would overwhelm Mada in a few beats. Shohang would recall his living-fire drones to defend Mada. The remainder of Wartooth’s army, support, and heavy weapons, would march into the city unopposed.
He dropped Hoot, who rolled when he landed. “Take me to a tunnel,” he said.
“Wartooth,” Hoot and Joot said together.
“Your armor, my Lord,” Bemar said.
“It is too hot,” he snapped at the priest.
Bemar held the chest plate for him to slide his arms into it. “It has a cooling function.”
Wartooth’s ears twitched. “Cooling?”
Bemar shook the chest plate.
Reluctantly, he stepped into the armor. Bemar tapped it beneath his breast and frigid air tickled his fur.
“That is fantastic, Bemar. Come with me. We will gut this Shohang together.”
“I must stay, my Lord. All communication runs through these rooms.”
Wartooth nodded his agreement, then looked for the ada. “Where have they gone? Hoot! Joot!”
Hoot skittered into view. “Come, come, come, Wartooth. Joot is getting a zoomer.”
He was quick for something so small. They ran down a flight of stairs, through a hallway, and down several more flights of stairs to end in the fortress’s basement. As promised, Joot waited with a zoomer.
The sled had a red face painted over the gun placement; the large bore barrel was a gaping mouth. The flame thrower at the rear of the sled had a skull with an oversized mouth covering the trigger guard.
“Where did you get this sled?” Wartooth asked.
“Joot’s zoomer,” Hoot said.
“Joot used zoomer since the betrayal,” Joot said.
“Hurry, hurry, hurry,” Hoot said as he took the seat behind the flame thrower.
Wartooth stood on a skid, the sled leaned to the side with his weight. Joot did not wait for hydraulics to level before he sped along the hallway, which ended in a crude hole.
“Who made this hole?”
“Joot always come here,” Joot said.
“Yes, yes, yes. Fortress is Joot clan.”
Wartooth laughed. Air pressed his ears back with the speed of the sled. He sniffed the air as they zoomed through the tunnel. He could not see in these dark places, so he had to rely on his nose to determine his location. The faint light from the hallway dimmed to black, and the scent went from musty to dank. The tunnel rose in places, elevating to a level where the air was warmer and less dense. In other places it dove downward at a such angles he thought the sled would topple end-over-end from the decline.
He was growing concerned at how long they had been in the dark and away from his army when he smelled the salty air of the NamaUd and dim light filled the tunnel. “We are close.”
“Closer than you know,” Joot said.
“Yes, yes, yes. We have been in Mada for many beats,” Hoot said.
“What! Why didn’t you stop! What about my army?”
“Joot has favor from Wartooth,” Joot said as the sled slowed to a crawl.
“Favor? Who am I?”
“Wartooth,” the two ada said in unison.
“Do the ada ask favor of Wartooth or does he demand favor from them.”
The sled stopped. The ada pulled their oversized heads into their necks as only they could. They looked like turtles trying to hide. If a turtle had a head the size of its shell.
“He demands,” Joot said, in a whisper. “Joot knows Wartooth will give him favor.”
Wartooth grabbed for the little ada’s back hair, meaning to throw him against the wall. But he whiffed, then remembered the ada had none.
Joot slid off the sled to put his forehead against the smooth concrete floor of the tunnel. Wartooth calmed himself enough to notice this was not a tunnel, but a storm water drain for the city of Mada.
Hoot jumped from the sled, rolled on the concrete floor, and copied Joot’s posture. “Please, please, please Wartooth hear his favor.”
Wartooth growled. He had left his helmet in the fortress, so he had no way to check on his army. Not that wireless would be effective underground.
“What is it?”
“The tianshen in the building above is the one that cut by back hair,” Joot said in a rush.
Another insult. Another growl.
“Bad, bad, bad tianshen. Would you kill him for us?” Hoot said.
“Let’s go,” Wartooth said. “Which way out?”
“Ladder, ladder, ladder,” Hoot said. His forehead was still on the floor, but both hands pointed above Wartooth.
He looked up. An extendable ladder hung from the ceiling. Out of reach for the ada, even a normal sized raka, but not for him. He pulled it down. Its rattle echoed through the drain.
“Show me,” he said.
Joot sprung up the ladder like he was a frog. Hoot followed, they were quick to the top and the burst of light when they opened the hatch blinded him.
The hatch was small. He squeezed through the round hole with a shake of his shoulders and an uncomfortable twist of his hips. He lost a few hairs, but, at last, he was in Mada. He stood on blue tiles with a black fence between him and a white street. The street was empty of traffic. The city seemed vacated. The breeze blowing off the NamaUd said otherwise.
Fire was the first scent he caught. Fire meant the attack was underway, or already over, depending on whose fire was burning. He sniffed again. Glass, metal, wood, and plastics, but no flesh. If Shohang had sent his living fire, it had not found a target.
A slug cut fur off his shoulder. The ada dove into the open hatch. He turned and recognized where he was. They were at the base of a curved glass tower that was the center of tianshen government.
Ten raka guarded the entrance. He reached for the blaster that should have been on his belt, but he had discarded it to fit the armor. Another slug whizzed by his ear. The idiot was aiming for his head, but an incompetent shot.
Weaponless, he had no choice but to bluff. He crouched low and roared, “Liberation!”
Three of the raka ran from the entrance, but not toward him. They followed the curve of the tower to disappear behind it. A good start.
“You are raka. You are not tianshen. You are my people. I am your brother. Born by Raksha to protect you. Put down your rifles and join my fight. I promise you tribute when we restore Mada to the Father.”
Four kneeled to present their weapons in surrender. That left three. One of which had the balls to shoot him.
The slug hit him square on the chest. The force knocked him back. He panted for breath that was suddenly gone. He held a paw over what must be a fist-sized hole in his chest. But there was none. The armor had saved him. He howled and ran for the raka shooting at him.
The raka shot again, but his aim was wild. The other two stood with their snouts open.
Wartooth took the face off the raka that shot him with a single swipe of his paw. Another swipe took the head of another. He bit the last one on the neck. A new passion overtook him as blood filled his mouth.
An explosion knocked him off his feet. He rolled over and up to shake the raka free of his jaws. Dust blocked his vision, but he knew where he was. The government tower was a round white and blue-glass structure at the edge of a blue tiled courtyard. A black fence of protean steel bars surrounded the courtyard. There was only one entrance, a narrow gate flanked by two square towers with gun emplacements. One of them must have shot at him. He heard the second gun fire. When its shell hit the courtyard, it exploded with such force that it knocked him off his feet again.
He landed on his chest; his paws covered his ears. When he opened his eyes, he saw a rifle on the ground. He grabbed it and rose to one knee. He couldn’t see through this dust, but the infrared site on the rifle could. The tops of the gun towers were a red ball in the sight. The heat of the guns masking the raka manning them. He fired ten quick rounds into the first guard tower. Rolled, then ran the width of the courtyard, and fired ten more rounds into the second guard tower.
Silence made the ringing in his ears more pronounced. The breeze cleared the dust enough to see the tops of the guard towers. Both guns aimed at him. Thick glass had shielded the gunners from his shots, but bulls-eyes filled both panes from his attempt.
A gun fired from across the courtyard. He fell to his chest and looked for the shooter. One of the raka that had surrendered had risen to one knee and was shooting at the towers. One of the gun emplacements turned to the new attacker.
Wartooth grabbed his rifle and crouched for a run at the tower. If he got close enough, the guns were useless, and those cowards would have to face him in the fur.
He took the first step, then heard a baby’s wale over the ringing in his ears. From the base of the guard towers, two ada ran toward him with their mouths open and howling at the top of their little lungs.
Both were motioning for him to drop to the ground. They had been right all day, so he dropped and covered his ears with his paws. Two explosions shook the courtyard with such force they made his heart jump. A beat later chunks of stuff fell around him, followed by the patter of heavy dust.
He raised his head. The dust was thick, but through it he saw the ada in front of him.
“We do favor,” Joot said.
Wartooth rolled on his back and roared with laughter. “Raksha is clever,” he said as he stood.
The two ada pulled grenades from their belts. They ran toward the government tower, then mid-step, they threw the grenades at the door, skidded to a stop, turned, and ran toward him with their mouths open and making that same awful howl.
Wartooth scooped Joot up with one paw, drug Hoot by his back hair, and dashed for the far end of the courtyard. This explosion was not as powerful as the others, but when he turned, the glass entrance of the tower had become a hole.
He dropped the ada. They rolled away to vanish in the dust and smoke. He grabbed two rifles from the ground as he ran for the buildings new entrance. Before he could reach it, a swarm of black drones flew from the maw. They buzzed like insects as they spread to cover the damaged section. He switched the rifles to automatic and shot at them. The black things moved like a swarm, dancing away from his shots. One of the loyal raka came to his side.
“My Lord Wartooth,” he said. “Those drones act like mines. They are attracted to motion and sound and will explode the moment they touch anything.”
“Who are you?” Wartooth snorted at his new companion.
“I am Baga.”
“A good name. How do we get past these flying mines?”
“We cannot. If we approach, they will fly out, attach themselves to us, and explode. If we try to distract them…”
Hoot appeared near the entrance. He took a piece of shattered blue tile and threw it at the flying things. One of them flew out to meet the tile and exploded. The others buzzed louder. They formed a string of black and flew at Hoot.
Wartooth shot the lead drone. It exploded.
“Do not, my Lord,” Baga yelled, then pushed against his chest.
The string of drones changed direction to fly at him.
With Baga’s urging, he back walked to the opposite side of the courtyard. The mines filled the space where he had been standing. They swarmed like a dust devil in the spot. Hoot stood motionless. Joot had vanished.
A few beats passed with no one moving, then the rumble of tank treads against concrete echoed from behind the tower. If his tanks were on the city streets, then Mada must be his. He raised his rifles and shot into the air.
Too late, the swarm of mines darted toward him. One of them struck Baga on the back. He exploded in a spray of blood that soaked Wartooth’s fur. Chunks of his decimated body struck other drones. They exploded to create a crimson cloud that hung like fog.
Hoot opened his mouth and howled that infant-like caterwaul that signaled danger. The drones turned like a cloud of insects toward the open maw of the ada.
In the same moment, Bemar’s voice rang from the tank’s loudspeaker. “The great dogo Commander and favored of Raksha claims this city in the name of the Father.”
“The great dogo Commander and favored of Raksha claims this city in the name of the Father,” Bemar repeated.
Bemar’s voice silenced Hoot.
“The great dogo Commander and favored of Raksha claims this city in the name of the Father.”
The mines turned like a snake and a beat later spent themselves against the tank’s ablative armor. When the fireballs cleared, and with smoke hanging over the tank, Joot crawled out of the top hatch. He said something. Wartooth could not hear it over the ringing in his ears.
Hoot pulled at his leg fur. Joot pointed at the tower. Wartooth ran into the black hole at its base. The Foyer, the magnetic lifts, and the hallways, were empty. Wartooth kicked the wooden door from its frame and entered the Protectorate’s office with both rifles lowered and ready to fire.
A gray haired raka stood in front of a great stone desk. “Wartooth,” he said.
“Jo Ji,” Wartooth said. “Where is Shohang?”
“He is gone,” With one paw, Jo Ji lifted a glass orb from the stone desk. Inside the orb, a ball of orange magma rolled against the glass as if it were trying to escape.
Wartooth grunted and lowered his rifles. Bullets were no use against that. “You would kill us both with their living fire?”
“No. I am your servant, my Lord.”
“Then put down the flame and we will claim Mada as brothers.”
“I cannot. He controls me.”
“Controls you? How?”
With one paw, Jo Ji pointed to his head. His nose twitched as if he were about to sneeze.
Wartooth checked the air. Fear and sweat from Jo Ji, and another faint scent that could be the tianshen’s perfume lingering in the air. He checked again. No, the scent had a direction. The corner of the room. Behind the desk.
“I have not heard of this Jo Ji. How could a simple tianshen control a stubborn old raka like you?”
“They changed us.”
“Their implants?” He checked the air again. Yes. A strong scent in the corner. Shohang was there. But could he kill the tianshen before Jo Ji broke the orb.
“I, I…” Jo Ji raised the orb as if to throw it. His nose spasmed.
“Never mind. I need not know how. I know that you were a brother Jo Ji. You would not kill us in their fire.”
“But he will. He will burn this entire building, this entire city to stop you.”
Wartooth pointed his rifles at the corner where the scent was strongest. Jo Ji took the orb in both hands, raised it above his head. Wartooth shot the corner of the room. The bullets tore through a partition disguised to look like the wall behind it. Shohang’s scream was short. He fell forward, the side of his head missing.
Jo Ji collapsed to the floor, holding the orb of orahi infused fire against his chest as if it were a newborn baby.
“Enough of this,” Wartooth said, then emptied his rifles into Shohang’s body.