Chapter XVI - Civilizations

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Notes: (Nilstilar, 2023-06-06)


XVI - Civilizations

An 2481 de Jena

In their flying crafts,
Starving and lonely,
Led by the wind song,
They found a star below.

In the endless night,
Pilgrims and orphans,
Gifted of untold powers,
They made rising daylight.

In their mill of ideas,
Impatient and haughty,
Forgetful of the past,
They paid the price of blood.

In their wavering ships,
Visionaries and torturers,
Hands reddened with blood,
They gave birth to chimeras.

Kneeling on the ground and raising her arms to the sky, Belenor watched with misty eyes the floating ship of the Karavan, whose strange black matter reflected the bright glow of the day star. Its enormous ventral cannons, still in rotation a short time ago, were now pointed towards the Southern Gates. Even where the wave of insects was breaking. Whatever the Karavan was, wherever it came from, and whatever the link that bound it to the hominity, on this day, the Fyros people would forever remember its providential arrival. For in the face of this monstrous swarm, what else but their prodigious technology could stand as a bulwark? The magic of the Kamis, certainly. But who knows, maybe the Karavan's strike force would be enough? Belenor hoped so. As if to sweep away her fears, a gigantic arc of electricity suddenly materialized between the flying ship and the teeming mass of kitins. The vile squeak that then echoed through the city was demonstrating the violence of the shock. During long seconds, the enemy army was struck down in a chain reaction. In one attack, the Karavan had dealt a terrible blow… But this was without the resistance and tenacity of the monsters. For no sooner had the arc disappeared than the horrible, chitin-smoking magma reformed. As if they were one, the surviving kitins mutated into a huge arm that rose into the sky. With the distance and the smoke, Belenor was unable to make out the scene clearly. But he easily recognized the flying creatures that had set Fyre on fire at the beginning of the invasion, this time gathered in a compact swarm. But the swarm was also swarming with walking monsters. And while the larger ones now seemed to be climbing the walls of Dyros Avenue to gain height, the smaller ones were as for them carried by groups of winged creatures. With the aim of dispersing the column of insects, the ship above them launched several bombardments salvos. Unfortunately, this did not prevent the titanic hand from reaching its target and beginning to plow through its black hull with claws and fangs. To prevent it, a multitude of small machines immediately emerged from the ship and opened fire on the attackers. This was the beginning of a terrible aerial battle between the army of kitins and the Karavan fleet.

Suddenly realizing that his rescuers would not prevail as easily as he had hoped, Belenor felt panic come over him. Then Garius' voice rang out behind him.

"Belenor!"

Stunned, the Fyros staggered to his feet. Garius? No way. He was losing his mind. Yet it was his friend he saw when he turned around: a giant with a shaved head and shoulders as broad as botoga branches. His friend or Varran, obviously. The Decos twin, dressed in a yellow and black spotted varinx skin outfit, characteristic of the Dragon Tears tribe, was coming from Hempios Square, north of Dyros Avenue. Where a number of Fyros seemed to have gathered. Where several small Karavan machines were making rounds around the Imperial Palace. Varran raised his large arms and shouted a second time.

"Belenor! Melkiar and I heard Brandille screaming! Where is he? And Tisse? And Xynala?"

At the same time, Xynala emerged from the mass grave of kitins filled by Brandille's scream. Belenor's heart raced. She was alive. He was so relieved.

"Here Varran," Xynala spat, pulling some greenish material from her blonde hair.
"B… Brandille is ri… right there," Belenor stammered, pointing at the crater, not taking his eyes off the Fyrossa.
"And Tisse?" continued the colossus.

Xynala exchanged a look with Belenor, then both lowered their heads. The homina unhooked from her back the impressive rifle of the deceased, and walked towards Varran, trampling along the way the carcasses of the insects.

"Tisse got run over trying to save me," she said, pointing her gun at the bark grave. I couldn't do anything…

With a dark look, the colossus lowered his head in turn. Then, he clenched his fists. Enough for Belenor to feel the joints of his fingers crack.

"Shit! Right now, we have to flee, and fast. Some of those monsters didn't take the Karavan as a target, and are trying to reach the Imperial Palace! There are a lot of people there! I'll take care of getting Brandille back! You, hurry to the Palace!"

And indeed, a few insects similar to the ones under Xynala's feet, but much larger in size, were moving up the avenue in pursuit of the fugitives who were trying to reach Hempios Square. A soldier mounted on a mektoub was busy attracting the attention of the creatures in order to protect their backs. Without waiting, Varran leapt toward the crater as Xynala and Belenor dashed toward the Palace. Just like fourteen years ago during the quarter-coriolis, Belenor was running up Dyros Avenue. And if the memory of this trial of the Academy Games was not among the best of her childhood, the desire to survive this cataclysm was obviously stronger than his aversion to foot-race.

Focused on their race, the two Fyros raced north. They were soon joined by Varran, carrying Brandille on his left shoulder, whose supple armor and multicolored braids had partly burned. Her buttocks were turned towards the sky and her head hung on the massive back of the colossus. Without losing sight of the debris which littered the avenue, he who was so used to stumbling, Belenor decelerated in order to observe the face of his friend. Eyes closed, Brandille was completely inert. Motionless. Worried about his health, but still feeling the life circulating in his little body, Belenor refocused on his race. He had become aware of the strange bond between him and Brandille as a result of his trip to Fort Kronk. After all, if the Black Kami was his first savior, it was Brandille who, seemingly able to sense his presence from a distance, had led the others to him. From then on, Belenor had wondered about their relationship, and had realized that, as far back as he could remember, a special bond had always united him to his friend. At last, it was only earlier, after her scream, that he had had the confirmation of it. After having felt that Brandille was still alive, whereas her body lay far from his glance, in the small crater.

The mad dash continued so for a few minutes. Two hundred meters behind them, the mektouber was still trying to bait the huge kinchers and protect the fugitives. Unfortunately, the valiant soldier and his mount could not be everywhere, and some of them had already perished under the paws and fangs of the monsters. When he reached a hundred meters from the Hempios square, Belenor glimpsed some imperial soldiers, accompanied by some Karavan agents. Their strange black suits made them perfectly identifiable. Each of them was positioned under the large root arch that marked the end of the avenue, while a flying machine hovered above. That's what Belenor thought, before realizing that the machine was actually moving in their direction.

"Enor?"

Raising his head abruptly towards Varran, the Fyros observed Brandille's large mauve eyes. The arms now leaned on the shoulder of the colossus, the acrobat displayed a particularly serious air. Very different from the laughing pout to which Belenor was accustomed. Something was wrong.

"Brandille?"
"Forgive me, Enor, but I have to leave."
"L… Leave? What are you telling?"
"If you want me back, you have to let me go."
"Whoa! You're not going anywhere li'l guy, Melkiar ordered me to bring you back!" protested Varran as he tightened his powerful arm around Brandille's buttocks.

Baffled, Belenor stared again at the Karavan's machine, whose dull roar was gaining in intensity. It was getting closer to them. Then a flash of clarity came through him. Was that it then? The Fyros swallowed and looked one last time into his friend's big mauve eyes. The idea of being separated from Brandille terrified him.

"You'll come back, for sure?"
"Yes, my Bele nice, I promise. As sure as the wind will ever blow."
"A... All right. Then fly."
"What the hell is going on?! Stop your bullshit, we stay together and keep running!" exclaimed Xynala.

And for any answer, Brandille began to sing, without leaving Belenor of the eyes. Instantly, her singular voice reflected in echo around the Fyros in a strange hypnotic effect.

In their wildest dreams,
Impostors and dictators,
They made your knees bend,
They defeated the Depths.
In the sidereal cage,
Her shaped and him growed,
Of their untold powers,
They engraved my destiny,

No sooner the last verse sung, the acrobat slipped down along Varran's back. Not understanding how he could have escaped him, the colossus braked and tried to seize the little being. But it was without Brandille's athletic abilities who rolled on the ground, did a few somersaults and landed on a high block pulled off from bark. Unable to react, the three Fyros watched the acrobat in silence. And if Xynala and Varran shared the same bewildered look, Belenor smiled: at last, Brandille's face had recovered its jovial pout. Gratifying him with a last wink, her friend raised her arms high in front of the Karavan's machine, now very close, and howled :

And then I cry out, I wake up!
In their clutches, I marvel!
Then I flee, I fly in the wind!
She am alive, he am alive!

Without wasting another second, Brandille leapt over his friends. The black vehicle, which had begun to accelerate, immediately swerved into the air and dashed after the acrobat, who was now gliding at breakneck speed towards an alley adjacent to the avenue. At this point, Belenor was able to watch in detail the Karavan's vehicle, whose shape reminded that of a teardrop. It was a vehicle about fifteen meters long and five meters wide at its most rounded part. And if it was provided with a multitude of strange technological excrescences, of which Belenor did not know the use, the Fyros guessed nevertheless some guns and the system which, probably, allowed the machine to overcome the gravity. On the side of the machine, the open side doors also let glimpse several soldiers in black suits, armed with strange spears and guns. Soldiers ready to intervene. Belenor's heart sank as he realized that the machine was faster than Brandille. Luckily, its size worked against it, and too wide, it had to gain altitude again just as the acrobat disappeared with a roll down the small winding alley. The machine did not give up, however, and ran up the hundred meters of the bark wall at a fast pace before continuing to stalk its prey low over the Backbone.

The three Fyros watched at each other for some long seconds. What had just really happened? Why was the Karavan pursuing Brandille? Undoubtedly, it had to do with her supernatural scream. But more importantly, was it possible that anyone, no matter how cunning, could escape the Karavan's omnipotence? With his eyes closed, Belenor raised his face to the sky and gritted his teeth. He had absolutely to think of something else. As if to help him do so, a shout echoed in the distance behind him. That voice. It was that of General Euriyaseus Icaron.

"Varran, it is really you? Xynala? Help these civilians join the Palace!"

In unison, all turned their heads to the south of the avenue. Fifty meters below, the general was busy fighting two three-meter high kinchers. She was the mektuber they had seen earlier below. Between her and the group of friends, a female homina and two children, visibly on the verge of exhaustion, were running towards the Palace. Without missing a beat, the three fyros rushed towards them. Xynala grabbed the girl, Varran the mother and the boy. Belenor, for his part, slip on his pair of amplifiers and supported the mektouber with his healings. The armor of the venerable Fyrosse, as well as that of his mekboub, was chipped all over. The mount even seemed seriously injured. However, this was not preventing the brave animal from carrying the body of a homin with the help of its powerful trunk. Finally, thanks to the magical support of Belenor, the general managed to finish off one of the two monsters with a well-placed pike. And as the group finally arrived at the entrance to Hempios Square, a strange hissing sound was heard. A flash of light later, the last kincher collapsed in the sawdust, his skull pierced. Not understanding what had just happened, Belenor turned back to the great root arch. In front of him, a Karavan agent was pointing his right arm at the creature's carcass. The light projectile had been emitted by the strange device that equipped his forearm.

It was the first time that Belenor had observed a Karavan agent so closely. Measuring about one meter sixty, the hominoid was dressed in a full-body suit that revealed a feminine form, but did not reveal a single square inch of skin. To this tight clothing was associated a veil hung at the level of the basin and a hood covering the helmet of the individual. A helmet consisting of a large white visor and what appeared to be a breathing mask. Next to the agent, several other ones, some of them with a more masculine build, were silently scanning the celestial battle. The Fyros gazed upon the mysterious beings for a few seconds and then suddenly felt a strange psychic pressure. The shooter had turned towards him and seemed to fix him from now on. Immediately, Belenor turned gaze away and stepped under the arch. As Melkiar and Brandille had once told him, Karavan agents gave off a supernatural aura, both terrifying and fascinating. Now he understood. And without a doubt, the sensation was like to the one he had felt the seldom times his eyes had rested on Emperor Thesop the Fratricide, like that time on the winners' stand after his victory at the Academy Games. Imagining his friend constrained by several of these agents, the Fyros felt panic assail him again. At that moment, all his thoughts were turned to Brandille. Alive, Brandille was. He could feel it. But was his friend free? She had to be… Her promise had to be kept.

-–—o§O§o—–-

Hempios Square was named after the first son of Dyros the Great, who had become the second emperor of the Fyros almost two centuries earlier. An emperor who, following the teachings of the Karavan, had encouraged the state alchemists to continue studying the pyrotechnic properties of certain materials. Thanks to this, the manufacture of firearms was generalized, which allowed the Empire to impose itself in front of the dissident tribes, but also to exist a little more on the international level. Moreover, since this time, the mastery of fire had become a strong characteristic of the Fyros civilization.

Usually crowded with soldiers and citizens employed at the Palace, Hempios Square had been transformed into a gigantic refugee camp, where mixed soldiers, distraught citizens, Karavan agents and vehicles, but also a large number of slain homins, whose bodies had been carefully gathered on the left side of the immense secular building. On the right side, three large air transporters were welcoming homins on board. The same transporters that were sometimes seen on the outskirts of the rare villages inhabited by tribes serving the Karavan, and that allowed the agents to collect the precious resources gathered by their followers. Once the arch was passed, the general Icaron ordered his mektoub to lay on the ground the body of the Fyros that he had carried all along. Then, the homine and the two children rushed to his bedside. The father, to whom Belenor had given magical care, had now recovered. However, he was still unconscious, probably traumatized by the ordeal. The family thanked their saviors a thousand times, and, now safe, General Icaron asked Xynala what had become of Tisse. The latter mechanically repeated the answer she had given to Varran. Sincerely touched, the venerable Fyrosse expressed at length her sorrow and praised the merits of the newly promoted captain. Without understanding that she had just accentuated their disarray, the general finally greeted the young people, then moved towards a group of soldiers that she had just spotted. Dejected, the three friends watched her walk away in silence. Then Varran asked Xynala and Belenor to follow him. He intended to lead them to Melkiar, who was at the place where the victims were gathered.

To reach their friend, the small group had to go along the bark wall that delimited the square and go around the crowd of survivors. All were huddled and extremely quiet. Only the tears of children, the lamentations of those who had lost everything and the distant bombardments of the Karavan disturbed the oppressive deathly silence that now reigned over the historic heart of Fyre. On the way, they passed several dozen carcasses of giant insects, piled up against the bark wall. Belenor took a close look at one of them, and noticed that this creature was quite different from the ones that had broken through the Southern Gates. For if its general aspect reminded in several points the "walking jaws" of the first wave, many other elements differentiated it. First of all, it was much more imposing. Its legs, in particular, were thicker and more vigorous. Then, its skull was provided with two enormous nozzles oozing a strange organic liquid, instead of the pairs of hooks. Its abdomen, no longer arched under its six legs but erected at the back of the thorax, was devoid of sting. Finally, the brown and yellowish color of the carapace had given way to a jet black studded in places with yellow patterns. Notably, a pair of sinister eyes seemed to be drawn on the creature's swollen skull, making it even more menacing. To imagine all these creatures alive, Belenor felt a nausea.

After a few minutes of walking, the group finally reached the area reserved for the victims. Then Belenor's heart sank. There were already hundreds of them, and new ones were arriving on stretchers with every passing minute… While some of the deceased were surrounded by their devastated loved ones, others seemed to be waiting patiently to be found. Around them, many Fyros wandered in this vast field of tears. Haggard, looking for their friends, their parents, their children or their loves. Of course, they were still alive. But in their hearts, they were as good as dead. Without stopping, Varran led Belenor and Xynala towards a large group of people people dressed in clothes identical to his own. Focusing on these homins, Belenor tried not to look at the shrouds he was stepping over. It was then that he recognized Melkiar, kneeling in front of the body of a homina whose black hair reminded of his own. Lying next to her, a tame varinx, two meters and a half long, was licking the face of the deceased. Unlike the other members of his species, this specimen had a black coat tending to blue, adorned with brown spots. One of the Fyros whispered a word in Melkiar's ear, and he stood up and turned back to his friends. Although his hairless face was marked by fatigue and grief, the homin had lost none of his charismatic aura.

"Xynala, Belenor, I have missed you so much. Into my arms, my friends."

The two Fyros blushed slightly and walked over to their comrade, who hugged them without further ado.

"Xynala, why are you carrying Tisse's rifle?" he then whispered without loosening the noose of his arms.

Instinctively, the Fyrossa accentuated the pressure of the embrace. Her voice was knotted by the emotion:

"Tisse sacrificed herself to save me. It all happened so fast, there was nothing I could do…"

A veil of sadness crossed Melkiar's eyes, soon replaced by a comforting glow.

"Since you have'nt be able to do anything, it means that there was nothing to do, Xynala. I know you by heart: if the possibility had been given to you, you would have acted, for sure…"

Melkiar caressed his friend's shoulder and then continued:

"Belenor, where is Brandille?"

Torn by many emotions, Belenor did not hear the question. Between the relief to know his friend alive, the joy to find him, the sadness to know Tisse dead or the concern for Brandille, the Fyros did not know where to turn. A few seconds passed before Melkiar called him again:

"Belenor?"
"Ah, yes, sorry Melkiar... Brandille ran away from a Karavan machine that wanted to catch her. I don't know more, but Varran told me that you heard her scream. It's certainly related…"

Melkiar sighed and loosened his hug, much to the chagrin of Belenor and Xynala. With a broad wave of his hand, the tribal leader pointed to his comrades.

"All these brave soldiers are members of my tribe, and I will introduce them to you later. They know you, I have told them a lot about you. As planned, we were about to meet with Emperor Cerakos II, to discuss the political situation in the western desert. Then the kün-trazen nozzles rumbled. The fire-breathing flying creatures appeared just as the emperor's herald arrived at the bottom of the stairs leading to the Palace."
"Are they the ones who attacked the Palace?" asked Xynala, pointing to the extensive damage to the landmark building.

Then Melkiar pointed to the pile of carcasses Belenor had observed on the way.

"No. When the Southern Gates gave way, a platoon of these creatures fell from the sky. It was probably hiding in the heights. But rather than sweep up the fleeing men already gathered en masse in the square, the monsters tried to rush into the Palace. We managed to hold them off, at the cost of heavy casualties. Then, just as we thought the battle was lost, the Karavan appeared out of nowhere. It was only afterwards that we learned that there had been other battles inside the Palace, where more of these monsters had managed to infiltrate. Fortunately, the imperial family escaped unharmed. According to the Karavan, the swarm, which is still struggling with their massive ship, served as a diversion so that the dark creatures could act. Assuming that the insects in the main wave were low-ranking soldiers, these monsters were undoubtedly elite soldiers. Which also means that these creatures are not mere beasts, but conscious beings capable of developing elaborate strategies."

Looking again at the deceased, Melkiar clenched his fists.

"I must admit that without the help of the Karavan, all would have shared her fate…"

For all answer, Varran swore. Then, without ceasing to grumble, he put his big hand on his friend's shoulder.

"By the way, speaking of the gingo…"

At these words, everyone turned around. Five Karavan agents were indeed heading towards the group of Fyros. One of them, with a masculine build, was wearing a yellow and black suit instead of the ones all of them were ordinarily dressed in. Belenor, who had always associated the Karavan with the color black, froze for a few seconds in front of the agent. Perhaps it was a high ranking officer. The agent in yellow then stepped forward and called out to him. As he heard the muffled, sizzling, monotone voice, impossible to identify the kind or nature, the Fyros felt a strange dizziness. As before, the agent seemed to exert some pressure on his mind.

"Follow me. You too," he said in mateis, pointing at Xynala.

Instantly, Melkiar and Varran stepped between the agents and their two friends. The black varinx, who had until then been lying next to the deceased, stood up and snarled.

"What do you want from them?" Melkiar answered immediately.
"These homins were accompanied by an individual who fled as one of our shuttles approached. They must be questioned. Now follow me."

Belenor exchanged a look with Xynala then swallowed. None of them could do anything if the Karavan decided to interrogate them by force. So they might as well cooperate. And then, maybe this was also an opportunity to understand what linked Brandille to the Karavan.

"Okay, we'll go along with you," he nodded to the general surprise.
"What? He's trying to manipulate you, Belenor, pull yourself together!" exclaimed Melkiar.

Recognizing the enmity his friend was feeling for the Karavan since ever, Belenor put a soothing hand on his shoulder. Melkiar was worried about him! Finally, Brandille had been right: the years of separation had not weakened their friendship. The feelings were well and truly still present.

"No Melkiar, don't worry. I know perfectly well what I'm doing," he said calmly, although inside he wasn't so sure he was in control of his mind.

Silent, Melkiar stared intensely at Belenor for a long time, then returned his gaze to the agent in yellow.

"So be it. But then, only if we can go with them. We also know the Tryker you are looking for. And we will have to be interrogated together."

Again there was silence. Through his impenetrable white visor, the agent seemed to be watching Melkiar, who held his gaze without fail.

"I don't care", he finally decided, before turning around and heading towards the Imperial Palace, followed by his goons.

The four friends left the shroud field to follow the Karavan agents. Before leaving, Melkiar ordered his other companions to burn the body of the homine near whom his friends had found him kneeling. The black varinx, who had followed the group, did not let Melkiar out of his sight. Distrustful, Belenor was observing the predator from the corner of his eye.

"Don't worry, Belenor, he's harmless," said his friend, stroking the animal's big head. As you know, my tribe has always raised varinx. This one is called Krodaken. He was born three years ago, just after my father died. A good beast.
"I'm sorry to interrupt, but do you know why these people are getting on the Karavan machines?" Xynala asked, pointing to the three transporters they had seen when they arrived in the square.

Now within range to observe the large vehicles, the small group lingered a few moments on the scene. That of a barrage of Karavan agents holding back a compact mass of homins, and allowing access to the ramp to only a few people, most of them richly dressed. Of course, this treatment was not to the liking of the majority, and irritation was beginning to spread through the crowd.

"I imagine that a few wealthy people had negotiated with the Karavan to leave Fyre while the plebs took care of defeating the enemy," Melkiar spat. "While the fate of the majority of the capital's inhabitants remains unknown, this band of navel-gazing cowards is preparing its escape. I can't stand them! Have they forgotten the second of the Four Pillars of the Empire? Honor? The Emperor is currently discussing with the Karavan the next step in the battle. I hope that once we get rid of these monsters, all these cowards will be justly punished."

Finally reaching the foot of the stairs leading to the Imperial Palace, the four friends saw about fifteen other agents. If several were dressed in yellow, others wore a new, unknown armor, more massive and variegated with black and red. When they reached about twenty meters, they all turned simultaneously towards the homins, making the end of this march particularly oppressive. When finally, with a gesture of the hand, the agent in yellow made sign to the Fyros to stop, all obeyed. The agent then joined his fellows, while the four others dressed in black remained with the homins. A quick discussion later, the agent in yellow returned to them accompanied by his acolytes.

"Good. You will be questioned one by one. To facilitate the gathering of information, we will place you in an altered state of consciousness. As long as you cooperate fully, no harm will come to you.
"What? That's not what was agreed!" Varran barked in rough matéis, arms crossed and chest out, naively believing that his gigantism could impress the agents.
"Yes, it was only agreed that we would be interrogated together, not put to sleep, or whatever," Melkiar added in a threatening tone.

Worried about letting the Karavan probe his mind unchecked, Belenor instinctively looked around for a way out. He saw one of the small vehicles which had so far been hovering over the square flying towards them. Did this have anything to do with the interrogation? Were they going to be transported elsewhere? The Fyros swallowed: the thought of being alone and unconscious in one of those strange black machines terrified him. The agent in yellow stepped forward and brandished his right arm forward.

"As I told you earlier, I don't care. I don't care about your pleas. You are in no position to demand anything. Cooperate."

Arms spread wide and palms turned back, Melkiar urged his friends to back off. Realizing that the homins were not going to obey them wisely, several agents unhooked a gray baton-like stick from their belts, the end of which immediately became charged with electricity. Then they moved forward. Simultaneously, the vehicle landed behind the four Fyros with a dull rumble. In the shape of a crescent, it must have been about twenty meters wide. Behind the cloud of sawdust that the descent of the machine had just raised, a door slid upwards, and a small ramp extended to the ground. Two more agents emerged from the dust-cloaked shuttle. The homins were now surrounded.

"Let's obey, Melkiar…. We have no choice," whispered Xynala.
"Are you really going to let them triturate your mind? They are certainly capable of rewriting our thoughts. It's too dangerous."

Cornered, the four friends clutched together back to back. Capitulate or resist, there was no other alternative. True to his convictions, Melkiar stroked the pommel of his sword with his right hand and Krodaken's head with the other. The varinx was showing its fangs. And just as he was about to draw his weapon, the supernatural voice of a Karavan agent thundered in fyrk on Hempios square.

"Envoys and children of Jena, I call your attention. Emperor Cerakos II wishes to address you with a message of the utmost importance."

Although the announcement seemed to come from several of the flying vehicles that crisscrossed the square, all the agents there instantly turned toward to the Imperial Palace. At the top of the stairs, the young Emperor, dressed in his red battle armor and a helmet of impressive horns, stood beside his sister Leanon and his wife, Empress Lydia. The latter was carrying in her arms the infant Dexton, who would one day inherit the title of Emperor. In front of them, an female agent dressed in white raised her arms to the sky. The amplification of his voice transmitted through the aircrafts greatly was heightening the psychic pressure.

"Stop your activities and listen carefully to this speech. For time is running out!"

Around Belenor and her friends, all the Karavan agents now had their helmet visors turned towards the staircase. They no longer seemed to have any interest in the four Fyros. More broadly, the attention of the huge crowd was entirely focused on the imperial family. The Emperor descended three steps and the agent moved to the side. There was now almost total silence in Hempios Square, disturbed only by the distant sound of the fight that still pitted the Karavan's flying ship against the monstrous swarm, and by the detonations that erupted at regular intervals near the great root arch. The voice of the Emperor, also transmitted and amplified by the flying vehicles, then rang out.

"People of Fyre! My brothers, my sisters! The hour is grave, and more even so than you can imagine! For these monsters, which the Karavan names kitins, have invaded not only the capital of our glorious Empire, but also all its cities, as well as those that dot the territories of the Kingdom of Matia, Trykoth and Zoran!"

For Belenor, the announcement was like a bomb. A long wave of shivers ran down his spine. So the entire Atys was affected by this invasion? The number of these creatures was unbelievable. They must have numbered in the tens of millions… The Emperor continued.

"And unfortunately, as powerful as the Karavan is, it is not yet able to stop the Swarming that is currently sweeping across the world! This is why I had to make a particularly difficult decision. That of leaving our homeland, in order to protect our children, but also to allow the Karavan to fight to its full potential, without worrying about endangering human lives!"

At these words, several protests arose in the crowd. And before his friends could even react, Melkiar made his way to the stairs. The agents, so authoritative a few moments ago, let him do so without saying a word. They seemed to have taken the message of their white-clad fellow at face value. Melkiar climbed five steps and spoke in a loud voice.

"My sharükos, I am Melkiar of the Dragon Tears tribe. I understand the gravity of the threat, but escape is not a credible option! The Empire is populated by millions of Fyros, spread across our territory, from Fort Kronk to the first plateaus of Matia: it is impossible to organize such an exodus, especially since only a handful of them will be able to hear your message!"

Several hundred pairs of eyes immediately fell on Melkiar. The Emperor looked at him in silence for a few seconds and then went down five steps.

"Melkiar the Prodigy. I wish our meeting could have taken place under different circumstances. For alas, you are right: although my message is being broadcast at the moment in each imperial city, we will not be able to save all the citizens of the Empire, and I will forever be responsible for it. But there is still time to save our civilization! The Karavan is currently present in each of the Fyros cities, where it has made several of its transporters available. I am announcing that the children can already board them! Some citizens selected by the Karavan according to their profession can also board! This includes generals of the Army, members of the Academy and the Senate, as well as high ranking officials of the Empire."

Further protests arose from the crowd that was beginning to stir. Belenor rushed in turn on the steps of the staircase, which Melkiar was now climbing two by two. He didn't know what his friend was intend to, but when in doubt, he wanted to be able to stop him.

"Are you serious, sharükos?! Three carriers, filled with orphans and the wealthy? Three carriers, only, attributed to Fyre? How many for Coriolis? Only one?! The western desert is populated by tribes settled in small villages! The Karavan will never go to their aid!"

In Hempios Square, dangerous movements of the crowd were beginning to arise, as many Fyros tried to reach the transporters. The Emperor descended five steps again, closed his eyes for a brief moment, then clenched his fists.

"I know, Melkiar! I know! You think I have no awareness of this all? As we speak, hordes of these kitins are ravaging our beloved country and killing our brothers and sisters. If I could give my life to save each and every one of them, I would, a thousand times! But we are no match for facing this enemy. We must accept the Karavan's conditions.
"The conditions? So it is the Karavan that wants to save certain citizens preferentially?" asked Melkiar without stopping to run. "My sharükos, pull yourself together! They are manipulating you! We must fight!"
"Melkiar, you don't understand then?"
"Yes, I understand perfectly! I…"

And just as the breathless Belenor was about to finally catch up with Melkiar, now only ten steps away from the Emperor, the agent's voice rang out again. Her words slammed on the depth of his skull and almost made him fall.

"Silence! Your Emperor has spoken, and by my voice, Jena commands you to obey him! Children and authorized citizens will join the transporters, because the future of your civilization depends on them above all. As for the others, they will not be abandoned, and valiant envoys of Jena will escort them on their journey on foot to the retreat where the transporters will go. Know that many Karavan agents have already given their lives to save you! This is the will of your Mother, the Goddess Jena, who is willing to make the greatest of sacrifices for her Children! So obey, homins! For if your people are living at this very moment the worst catastrophe in homin history, know that your indiscipline is the sole cause!"

Half stunned by the psychic bomb that had just been emitted, Melkiar stepped back a stair. Facing him, shoulders hunched and head down, the Emperor was now staring at his feet with a devastated look. He had been taken into his confidence. He knew the horrible truth, which the agent would now reveal.

"Fifth Commandment of Jena: 'Into the bowels of Atys thou shalt not descend, that the Holy Light may not leave thy heart, and the Darkness of the Dragon may not devour thy soul.' Now, as they had gone deeper than ever into the Amber Mines of Coriolis, yesterday some fyros miners discovered and attacked a nest of kitins. Today, the entire hominity is paying the price!"

At these words, Belenor's heart heaved and his knees buckled under his weight. Not because of the vocal detonation, but because of the meaning of the speech. For the Coriolis Amber Mines had been bought by Tiralion Nebius six years earlier. His father, driven by the quest for profit, had ordered his Pickaxe Heads to increase the output, despite safety regulations and the lessons of history. Thus, after the terrible fire that had ravaged the Desert in 2435 and caused the death of tens of thousands of Fyros, the Amber Mines found themselves at the heart of a new ecological catastrophe. And this time, his father was the one responsible. His name would forever be associated with this tragedy. Eyes bulging and jaw clenched, Belenor grabbed his face and dug his nails into his skin. It couldn't be. This day was an endless nightmare, from which he would soon wake up. He had to. It could not be otherwise.

"My friend, get up. I know what you're thinking, so don't forget: you're not your father. Do you hear me, Belenor?"

With a blank stare, the Fyros looked up and saw Melkiar, who, hand outstretched, was staring at him with a determined look. Desorientated, Belenor seized it and stood up. The Emperor, who had regained his composure, addressed his people again.

"My brothers, my sisters! If it is too late to rewrite the past, it is still early enough to chart our future! I will not abandon you, and I will myself lead the refugee column to the Karavan's retreat!"
"To do this, you'll use the evacuation tunnels from the Palace," the agent continued in her sizzling, monotone voice. "The same tunnels that cross the Dragon's Backbone towards the northwest. Once you reach the northern desert, you'll head for the rainbow, which you then can glimpse fifty kilometers north. It will be your beacon. The valiant Emperor Cerakos II will lead this expedition, accompanied by powerful soldiers of the Karavan. Only when you arrive there will you be transported to…"

And the sky exploded. A deafening explosion accompanied by a wave of heat swept through the whole of Fyre. Belenor, who almost lost his balance again, held on tightly to Melkiar's arm. In the sky over Fyre, the monumental Karavan flying ship, now smoking and aflame, was slowly falling towards the Southern Gates. Victorious, the thousands of surviving kitins did not rest for a second and swooped down on the Palace. Immediately, the Karavan machines levitating over the square spread out in a circle facing the bark wall that bounded it, and dropped thick pylons that planted themselves firmly in the ground. Once the maneuver was complete, the strange devices began to whistle loudly, and a few seconds later, a gigantic diaphanous, bluish dome materialized around and above the square. The crescent-shaped vehicle next to Varran and Xynala took off immediately, and the agents surrounding them sped off in different directions, as did each of those around the Palace. The supernatural voice of the agent dressed in white thundered again.

"Children of Jena, time is against us, this protection will not last forever! I urge you to obey your Emperor! The survival of your civilization depends on it! Let the children and selected citizens embark immediately, and let the others join the evacuation tunnels of the Palace!"

All over the square, a huge commotion broke out. The Emperor, who had just been joined by his wife and sister, hugged each of them. Then, he caressed the downy hair of his son. Unfortunately, the farewell couldn't last forever, and barely an embrace later, the two Fyrossas were descending the stairs in a hurry. Everyone knew that Empress Lydia, but especially Leanon, the youngest daughter of the late Emperor Krospas, did not join the transporters out of fear of the kitins, but out of duty. For if anything should happen to Cerakos II, the imperial line would be preserved. As many Fyros were starting to climb the steps towards the Palace, Melkiar walked up to the Emperor. The two homins were only one year apart.

"My sharükos, forgive me, but I cannot obey you. I have joined Fyre to discuss with you the future of the tribes of the western desert. There are many who await my return. It is unthinkable that I abandon them."
"I know, Melkiar, I know. I do not intend to stop you, and I hope that you will be accompanied by many volunteers. I just want you to know that I am not running away from Fyre for the sake of it, but out of responsibility. The Karavan is very clear about our chances of survival if we decide to attack these creatures head on. I am the thirteenth sharükos, and I carry the weight of our entire History on my shoulders. If there is a small chance to save our civilization, I must take it. So don't judge me too harshly, I beg you."

At the same time, the first kitins collided with the energy barrier, causing the air inside the dome to vibrate, while further south, the flaming Karavan ship finally crashed, causing a long, powerful tremor that reverberated all the way to the Palace. Melkiar turned around for a few seconds and looked at the damage from his promontory. These monsters were formidable, he had to admit. And especially in such quantities. Clenching his fists, he dropped to one knee and bowed his head.

"I understand, sharükos, I didn't mean any disrespect. Since you allow me to do so, I will not follow you, and will try to gather the survivors. You!" he then said in matéis to the attention of the white-clad agent, who was busy tapping on the forearm of her suit. "I need to know how long this 'rainbow' you mentioned will remain visible. And where the refugees will be transported."
"The refugees will be transported to the Prime Roots via this rainbow, and I don't know how long the latter will remain functional," she said without taking her eyes off her forearm. "Know that your plan is foolish, Melkiar. If you do not flee, you will die. You will die from the kitins, or from the Stellar Fire. And do you know that the Karavan has already taken an interest in you? Your characteristics are beyond comprehension, you are an exceptional homin. Your life is precious and your loss would would cause great wrong to Jena. Are you sure you want to go so far west again, and gamble your life against the life of those who are nothing?"

Melkiar stood up, bowed to the Emperor, and turned around. The first refugees, some of them terrified and dressed in rags, were already arriving at their level. Melkiar embraced with a glance the homins present before answering, in a furious pant:

"Those who are nothing? Definitely, we do not speak the same language, nor do we see the world in the same way. These homins, whom you despise and some of whom will die under your bombs, you must know that they have for them their strength in numbers, and that they have nothing to lose but the few chains that still hinder them. And once they have broken free from the yoke of the Karavan and the Kamis, the world will be in reach of their hands."

A small flashing craft stopped about twenty meters above the agent, and slowly the latter rose into the air. Without taking her eyes off Melkiar, she then uttered these last words:

"May the Mother of Hominity forgive your blasphemy and arrogance, homin, and may she give you the strength to carry out your quest. Find the survivors, and take refuge from the kitins and the bombing. For no matter how my words have been interpreted, know that Jena holds each of you in her heart. From the most magnificents of her heirs to the weakest of her offspring. Your success will thus be celebrated, as much as your failure will be mourned. Farewell."

Belenor, who had only been distractedly listening to the exchanges between the Emperor, Melkiar, and the agent, was staring at his feet, unable to think of anything but his father. Shortly before, while praying to the Kamis in the face of the swarm that was pouring in from the Southern Gates, he had had an affectionate thought for him. This had not happened for a long time. Now he kept suppressing a nausea with great difficulty. The Emperor greeted Melkiar, said a few last words to him, and then climbed the steps that separated him from the Palace. Long minutes passed so, during which Melkiar, posted in the middle of the stairs and joined by Xynala, Varran and the members of his tribe, tried to convince other homins and homines to follow him. To his surprise, many agreed, whether they were soldiers or simple civilians. They crossed paths with General Euriyaseus Icaron again, who, obviously not having agreed to join the choice seat reserved for her in one of the transporters, promised to do everything in her power to protect the Emperor and secure the place of retreat until their return. Still lost in his thoughts, Belenor watched the events unfold before his eyes, apathetic. He did not even react when Varran insulted his father at length, and even dared, in the state in which his anger had plunged him, to question once again his responsibility for Garius' death. Xynala and Melkiar immediately blamed Varran, but once again, Belenor did not react. It was not until much later, when the bulk of the refugees had finally reached the Palace and the energy dome was beginning to weaken slightly, that a familiar voice finally managed to get his attention.

"Young master, is that you?"

Eyes vacant, the Fyros took a long look at Penala. His nurse looked exhausted. Exhausted but alive. Throwing herself into the arms of the young homin, the old lady burst into tears. Then, Belenor suddenly emerged from her torpor, and in turn burst into tears. Melkiar and Xynala, who knew their friend well, exchanged a relieved look: Belenor was an emotional person, someone whose frank expression of feelings was a sure sign of good mental health. To see him crying like that was therefore reassuring.

"I am so relieved, Master Belenor. So relieved. Your… Your mother is waiting for you near the transporters," she said, reflexively dusting off her armor. "I've never seen her so worried, don't keep her waiting. We checked on the records the agents hold, and you are indeed on the list."

On the list? Yes, that was probably true, since he was now a member of the teaching staff at the Academy. This meant that he could join his mother and flee to the safety of the Karavan's promised refuge. But he could also, on the contrary, accompany Penala, to watch over her until she reached that rainbow. And then there were his friends, of course. Xynala and Varran stared at Belenor for a long time, then Melkiar addressed him.

"Belenor. If you wish to join your mother, I understand perfectly. I wish I could have spent more time with mine…"

Then, Belenor understood that the black-haired woman in front of whom he had found his friend kneeling, in the field of shrouds, was none other than Melkiar's mother. Too focused on his fears, the Fyros had been deeply lacking in empathy, and had not even been interested in the identity of the deceased. One by one, Belenor stared at Penala, Melkiar, Xynala, Tisse's gun and Varran, in whom he recognized Garius. And then suddenly, Brandille's face appeared to him. His dear friend, who had promised to return. His dear friend, from whom he would be forever separated if he fled from Fyre.

-–—o§O§o—–-

Leaning against the bark wall of the narrow tunnel, Belenor sipped his broth in silence. Although he had left her in good hands, leaving Penala had definitely been painful for him. But abandoning Brandille was inconceivable. Moreover, it was not impossible that the Fyros would soon find his nurse, his mother, or even the lecture halls of the Academy. Maybe this swarm would be contained by the Karavan without Fyre being completely destroyed, maybe the Kamis would miraculously reappear, or in the worst case, maybe they would all meet up somewhere else. Far from home, of course, but reunited and alive. This besides was more or less the plan: to make a grand tour of the Desert, gather the survivors, then join this mysterious "rainbow" whose position the white-clad agent had roughly indicated, and which should take them far from the kitins, in the Prime Roots, while the creatures were eliminated by the Karavan's Stellar Ffire. That said, after ten days of trudging through the tunnels that lined the depths of Fyre, in constant fear of being spotted by a kitin patrol or dying in a rockslide, the Fyros was already missing the comforts of his family's mansion. Which, moreover, was perhaps at this hour already reduced to dust… Remembering the time when the massacres were only fiction, he imagined himself rereading The Sacred War, comfortably installed in the second living room. This living room which he particularly liked, and in which his father also adored to bask… Belenor fixed a few moments the reflection which reflected him the broth and was taken of a new nausea. Physically, he looked so much like him… With his stomach in knots and unable to eat anything else, the Fyros offered his bowl to Messen Dyn, who had been rescued in the ruins of his small temple two days earlier. The old Kamist monk smiled at his young follower, accepted the precious food, and put down the parchment he was writing on.

Yes, write. He had to write. He had to get his mind off of things. Turning his attention to Melkiar, who was busy reassuring two orphans he had rescued that morning, he reminded himself once again of their meeting.

"Someone will have to tell my story. Someone will have to make me the hero they need. I like to surround myself with talent, Belenor Nebius. And one day, I'll need someone like you.

With a sudden rush of emotion, the Fyros felt the tears welling up. Yes, it was time for him to grow up. It was time for him to move on: if his first book was about the exploits of a fictional character, although inspired by strange dreams he suspected had been sent to him by the Kamis, the second would tell the story of a real hero. Yes, it was decided, he would soon begin the biography of Melkiar, and would definitively turn the page on the Black Mask and of The Sacred War. At twenty-seven, he was past the age of chasing his dreams, and now he had to focus on reality. Where his friends were waiting for him.

At the same time, several hundred kilometers to the southeast, in the depths of the Jungle, Pü Fu-Tao was expressing his pain by slaughtering isolated kitins, without taking into account the advice that the mysterious inner voice kept giving him. On his deathbed, Grandmother Bä-Bä had summoned him to lead the Sacred War, and to help him do so, to find a Fyros and a Matissa. But for the young Black Mask, now alone in the world, the Sacred War was like a punishment. So, just like Belenor, he too wanted to turn the page on this history.

A barely sketched history, of which the Black Kami seemed to be a key character.

A story that would end up catching up with them, and make their destinies cross.

  Belenor Nebius, narrator

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